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How Can We Make Adult Animation Truly Adult?

The potted history of animation’s shifting demographics should be familiar. Once, animated films were aimed at general audiences. Over time, animation began catering primarily to children. Then, more recently, animation intended for older audiences once again began to make itself known.

But the closer we look, the more intricacies we find. From Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir being discussed on the BBC’s current affairs program Newsnight, to the premiere of the late-night animated sitcom, there are countless example of adult animation bubbling up, sometimes disappearing again, other times leaving a mark.

Adult television animation developed in different ways around the world. In America, cartoons from The Simpsons to Adult Swim show that it is the ribald ethos of Ralph Bakshi and Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted festival which ultimately won out. The Japanese industry, meanwhile, found vast quantities of source material in the country’s multifaceted comics scene.

Sometimes it takes only a single agency to have a major impact. In Britain, adult television animation is associated primarily with Channel 4, which adopted the festival model. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties it screened countless animated shorts, mixing original commissions with work gathered from around the world.

If I were to pick a single work in which multiple streams of adult cartoons converge to great success, I would pick Some Protection, a 1987 short made by Marjut Rimminen for Channel 4. This film is based around an unscripted monologue from an incarcerated teenager named Josie O’Dwyer; the other characters with speaking roles are portrayed by actors, making the film a mixture of fact and fiction. The case of Josie O’Dwyer is abstracted into something broader, her story becoming potentially representative of any number of people with similar experiences.

Some Protection is mostly literalistic but makes use of expressionist elements. When the central character is isolated, she is placed naked against a plain white background. To show her bewildering new surroundings, there is a point of view shot swinging from one leering face to another. The film also uses symbolism in the same way as political cartoons: the outside world is portrayed as a colorful funfair, but when the protagonist escapes into it, she is immediately grabbed by the tentacle of a policeman-octopus. The imagery is not subtle, but it serves its purpose in carrying the narrative forward through a scene which would have been unwieldy if portrayed in a more literal manner.

Political cartoon, biography, social commentary, expressionism, drama, documentary – all of these elements combine in Some Protection, showing just what can be achieved once the many strains of adult animation begin to merge.

If animation was greatly affected by television, then the coming of the Internet shook things up even more. The effects of the online revolution are twofold: firstly, sites such as YouTube provide unprecedented access to animation old and new. Secondly, it has increased communication between animation viewers by providing new ways for fans to gather and share recommendations.

The Internet emerged as the ideal home for what can be termed the geek demographic, with TV Tropes being a prime example of a website put together by and for self-proclaimed geeks. The site prides itself on covering as broad a range of fiction as possible, emerging as a sometimes fascinating form of populist, open-access media scholarship. In theory, this would make it the perfect place to cover lost gems of animation, but in practice it has many blind spots. There is little discussion about Svankmajer or Norstein, while juvenile mediocrities such as Disney’s Gargoyles are treated as masterpieces on a par with the television dramas of Dennis Potter and David Simon.

TV Tropes has a page devoted to what it calls the Animation Age Ghetto, which gives a reasonable if scattershot overview of the subject. The page’s “examples” section, however, consists in large part of people filibustering about how their favorite superhero cartoons never caught on. The main reason that most of these cartoons never attracted adult audiences, of course, is that they are simply not for adults.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with having guilty pleasures. The humorist Stephen Fry summed things up well: a fan of Doctor Who, he commented that “every now and again we all like a chicken nugget.” As he continued, however,

If you are an adult you want something surprising, savory, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong. You want to try those things, because that’s what being adult means.

The ever-enthusiastic geek demographic certainly does not see animation as being merely for children. But it suffers from an inverted snobbery, with more inventive or experimental animation dismissed as “pretentious” or “arthouse”, and from a view of the medium that is built largely on nostalgia for beloved childhood cartoons. Even dedicated animation enthusiasts can overlook much of the best work which is out there: perhaps it is in human nature for audiences to stick to the films which they think they might enjoy rather than try anything new.

When commercial television first arrived in Britain in 1954 it was opposed by Lord Reith, then director-general of the publicly-funded BBC. Reith was a firm believer that television should provide quality programming which was beneficial to the public, commercial considerations and popular taste be damned. Now, with producers of online animation competing to create the crudest and most lowbrow fare, the approaches taken by festivals or outlets such as Channel 4 look rather Reithian by comparison.

Works such as Some Protection show us what adult television animation can achieve when supported by a body that is willing to back inventive and challenging creations. Just think what the broad canvas of Internet animation could achieve with a similar agency, be it a prominent funding body or a broader-minded fandom.

(Images in this post from Marjut Rimminen‘s “Some Protection”)

  • WeeksAndWeeks

    Interesting post.

    I agree with you that for a lot of what you call “geeks”, breaking the glass ceiling above animation’s head means that their beloved TV cartoons should be “respected” – similar to how a lot of superhero fans were enraged when The Dark Knight was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination.

    However, there is a danger in going too far in the other direction – as exemplified by the deadly serious wave of so-called ‘indie’ comics over the last decade, a wave that only now shows signs of breaking, Those cartoonists seemed vaguely ashamed to even be working in the same medium as, say, Harvey Kurtzman, much less Kirby or Ditko. I would rather not have to sit through the same spasm of needless embarrassment with animation – I feel that it can ‘grow up’ without abandoning what made its early works great.

    Relevant link:

    • Adam Wells

      Excellent response, to a great article.

      For me it feels a shame that people need to judge/make work that is either serious, or not. Without wanting to get too philosophical, for me, the world is made up of both these, I dont see why you have to be entirely po faced, (like some of the comics you referenced) , or simply frivolous.

      Take the film brazil, its full of blazin absurdist humor, but is also, simultaneously a deeply serious movie.

      • Neil Emmett

        On the subject of humorous vs. serious cartoons, I should mention that, in an earlier draft of this article, I commented that the more “geekish” (for lack of a better word) segments of the animation community often make an unspoken assumption that comedic cartoons are necessarily inferior to “serious” animation – “serious” in this case referring to superheroes and other action-adventure cartoons. I would have pointed out that The Simpsons, South Park and Calvin and Hobbes actually have a good deal more to say about the world than many of their more straight-faced peers.

        I decided to remove that section as it was going off at a tangent. In retrospect I now look like I’m advocating a rather po-faced vision of animation, which wasn’t my intention.

    • Riu Tinubu

      It’s a shame but what you’re afraid of is very well happening today. I’ve experienced tutors use ‘Too Disney’ as a pejorative put down term to animation while studying it, they consider themselves fans of ‘independent animation’, which normally amounts to ‘high concept:low craft’ etc and really dislike any type of mainstream animation despite the technical skill that goes into it.

      So it’s all a tad awkward.

  • Ewan Horne Green

    The big difference is between large productions and small ones. If the average novels needed dozens of people to be employed for months on end, they would also be more middle-of-the-road. Maybe the answer is to have a closer link between graphic novel creators and animators, such as in France, or Japan. It’s easier for people to consume comics on mass, then you can justify a big budget for your ‘adult’ story, because you’ll have thousands of readers. That’s the story of Miyazaki’s first original feature. He’s done quite well for himself since.

  • James

    Im waiting for someone to make an animated suspense film that s TRULY suspenseful, or scary, or romantic….

    • Watch any of Satoshi Kon’s films.

    • Ewan Horne Green

      Perfect Blue? There are a great many. Do you mean an American animated suspense film?

  • the Japanese have been making adult animation for years…stuff like Akira, Ghost in the Shell is thinking animation…we have adult animation and its fart jokes and killing

    • Jonnymation

      Totally agree with this comment. 100% correct.

    • mikel

      Unfortunately most of their adult fare is T&A. Not that some boobs or butts here and there is a bad thing, but Japanese animation is so in-your-face chauvinistic it’s creepy.

      • M Rahman

        most of that adult fare can be denoted as hentai

        anime is still pretty varied among multiple age groups, but if there’s T&A it’s because there’s a large demographic of teens & otakus
        they’re also big consumers of the shows’ merchandise

        A similar question would be why do the majority of Western cartoons cater and/or pander toward kids?

  • Mike

    What bugs me is the use of the term “adult” to describe works that exclusively feature crude humor, graphic violence and sex and are obviously made for the teenage/college crowd. There are people over 25 who enjoy animation too!

    Still waiting for a wave of adult animation that is truly adult…

    • SarahJesness

      Agreed. I still think the mainstream US animation industry very much stuck in the “Animation Age Ghetto” because the adult animation we do get isn’t very adult. It’s mostly aimed at immature 18-34 year old manchildren who never get tired of fart jokes. To use a mainstream example, I’d love to see an adult show like “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. That show was very mature, hell, I’d say it was more mature than a lot of works aimed at adults, even dramatic ones.

      It bothers me because animation can do so, so much, and only allowing big-budget works to be used in children’s works and the aforementioned manchildren shows feels like such a waste of potential.

  • Anne

    “Adult” animation to me means essentially creating characters and narratives that by design appeal to an adult audience. They can appeal to younger audiences as well, but must have some complexity that appeals to an older audience.

    I’ve been watching the Simpsons on and off since I was 8, and even though I always thought it was a funny cartoon, there are a lot of jokes that appeal to me more as an adult because now I understand them better. I also think part of the success of Pixar and Disney films hinges on the broad audience appeal that provides something that parents and older siblings will also enjoy. Kids can surprise you with their level of insight or thoughtfulness, or they can laugh at how one hyena called another hyena a cactus butt. They can rise to understanding; the content need not be brought down to appeal to a base level of development.

  • Emanuel Alfredsson

    TV Tropes is the encyclopaedia for us who sees through all the snobby pretentious bull that showbiz tries to hide under pretty words. Keeps the media on the ground, so to speak.

    • Nicholas John Pozega

      I see it as a self-serving vacuum of useless trivia run by teenage nerds and armchair experts. If it’s had any significant impact on media or culture outside of nerd groups, I haven’t seen it.

      • hotdogface

        Its main effect seems to be causing people to misuse and overuse the word “trope.”

      • Emanuel Alfredsson

        Well, it has significance when it comes to globally explore trends and putting comparisons when the old media ain’t noticing it. Sorta like Wikipedia, but explicitly for the sociological and behavioural aspect of showbiz. It’s middle-brow, yes, but showbiz is mostly middle-brow, so it’s pretty fair.

  • SarahJesness

    I think the difference between the adult animation examples you listed and the not-so-adult ones is their place in the media. Gargoyles is mainstream, lots of people have seen it. Family Guy, The Simpsons, everything Disney, those are mainstream. The other pieces of animation you listed are not mainstream, they likely won’t be seen by people who are not animation fans or who are not artsy types. A big budget animated show or movie put out by a big, well-known company is going to impact a bigger audience and would probably have more of an impact on animation as a whole.

    If we want more adult animation, we have to make adult animation mainstream. And I’m not talking about Family Guy or South Park types of adult animation. Sure, those shows are aimed at adult audiences, but they are not very mature so most people would say “adult” with quotation marks. We’re still very much stuck in the “Animation Age Ghetto” because, while animation is not seen as a kids-only thing any more, it’s still not seen as something that can be adult and mature either.

    To me, truly adult animation is something that features a greater level of maturity and complexity. Think about some of the best, most popular, most critically-acclaimed live-action TV shows going on right now. The ones people love because of drama, intensity, complex characters and great stories. That’s where I want adult animation to be.

  • SarahJesness

    I do agree that there probably is a demand for a mature, adult animated film. The problem is that there is something of a cycle. So far there has been no American adult, mature animated film that hit it big in the theatrical mainstream. (or, does Roger Rabbit count? That could still be seen as partially a kid’s film so it’s hard to say. I mean, I watched it a lot when I was a kid…) As a result, it’s seen as a risk. The studios think you’re asking them to do something that has never been done before, so there really is no way to tell whether or not it can succeed.

    I think all it will take is one big successful adult animated film to move things along.

  • Jonnymation

    Not sure how I feel about this article… Can you get more “adult” than the opening 20 minutes of UP?

  • Irony Man

    I love it when geeks go “Wahhhh!!! Disney should do anime!!!” Then when Disney actually does incorporate anime influences (Atlantis, Treasure Planet), they go “Wahhhh!!! Disney’s ripping off anime!!!”

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Sure does.

    • M Rahman

      ???regardless those films are classics & showcase that even Disney can evolve from the usual fairy tales

      the “anime influence” complaints are undoubtedly more prevalent amongst today’s tv shows & are almost always stylistic grievances & never on actual substance indicative of anime

      Individuals who make unjust nitpicks of predominantly western looking & themed cartoons tend be one of the most intolerant & ignorant

  • Animator606432

    Anybody remember when Dreamworks did a LOT of this style of animation? I mean Road to El Dordo was in the realm of Adult animation, and The first two Shrek had a lot of jokes that went over my head as a kid.

  • Axolotl

    Anything that takes the piss out of storytelling cliches is a good thing in my book.

  • Terrence Briggs

    Think of an “adult” live-action film or TV show: A story that only an adult would be allowed to see or appreciate. Now think of the last animated film or show (from the United States) that would fit the same profile. Then ask: Why isn’t anyone animating a story that compares to that adult film or TV show?

    • SarahJesness

      Agreed on that.

      I wonder if part of it is having a reason for animation. Most adult live-action TV shows take place in real world settings. (same goes for a lot of the movies) If you’re just doing a drama about a hospital worker, or a trophy wife who cheats on her husband, or a drug dealer, or whatever people watch these days, well, those are shows that don’t require a lot of special effects or crazy visuals. Animation already has a stigma of immaturity attached to it, so it’s even harder to justify the extra cost of animation unless your show needs to do a lot of crazy stuff.

      • Neil Emmett

        On that note, one of the reasons I picked Some Protection as a case study is that it makes full use of the medium of animation, despite the fact that the basic narrative – which contains no fantasy elements – could easily have been filmed in live action.

        • I noticed that. The question is whether people appreciate abstraction as much as they do the poles of representative art and fantastic art.

  • Tom T

    Good news (sort of)! The comic is apparently going to be getting a reprint; at least that’s what IDW Publishing announced at SDCC recently.

  • M Rahman

    Spawn had an animated series…

  • Mesterius

    I’m offended by this post. For one thing, much of “Gargoyles” IS a masterpiece in my eyes. Calling it a “juvenile mediocrity” feels incredibly naive, not least considering the maturity of the writing.

    Of course, Svankmajer and Norstein are indeed masters. And their films can hardly be compared to an animated series like Gargoyles (or to take another example, Batman: TAS). But why should that stop us from being able to call both these types of animation masterworks? I think they’re both worthy of such a description.