Let’s put into perspective how far we’ve come and why!
1930’s-60’s: first theatrical cartoons, an entire new medium and industry created from the ground up. They evolve from simple, plotless musical sequences to a plethora of comedy, adventure and educational shorts. Many in the business were adults who grew up with no equivalent in existence but comic strips – it’s hard to even fathom that now, isn’t it? There was almost total freedom, and cartoons were made for all ages, often controversially political.
1940’s-1970’s: television slowly kills theatrical cartoons, Hannah-Barbera and imitators develop cheap techniques for mass production, flooding the world with shows like Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear as an alligator, Scooby Doo, Yogi Bear as an Octopus, Space Ghost and Yogi Bear as a Different Bear. Our nation was coming out of World War II and more xenophobic than ever; cartoons were kept wholesome and rooted in American, Christian, Nuclear Family ideals. Superheroes weren’t even allowed to throw punches. A lot of these shows are only enjoyed now as unintentionally-funny “camp,” unlike the theatrical cartoons before them.
1980’s: Filmation’s He-Man pioneered the first cartoons that were also action-figure tie ins, changing the industry forever. Cartoon/toy team-ups raced to capitalize on the new opportunity with massive successes like G.I.Joe, Transformers, Care Bears, My Little Pony, Ghostbusters and Turtles, which lasted into the early 90’s. These shows were still under heavy content restriction, and most people who worked on the admitted they were just paid to write “elaborate commercials” that didn’t need to be too intelligent.
Early 1990’s: a new generation of animators and writers rebel hard against the squeaky-clean content they grew up with; sarcasm, rudeness and “edge” becomes the real moneymaker. Spielberg studios and Nicktoons bring slapstick back to kid’s television, dramatic and “gritty” superhero cartoons multiply like rabbits, the Simpsons is the most successful prime time cartoon in decades, and MTV causes major controversy with Beavis and Butthead and other “adult” toons. There is still significant pressure from watchdog groups to avoid violent or “demonic” themes. Cartoons are still seen as almost solely for children.
Later 1990’s: Cartoon Network becomes the industry giant and begins producing new, original shows by the boatload. Dexter, Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo, The Powerpuff Girls, Courage…a few last even into the 2000’s. Radical ‘tude becomes a subject of pure mockery rather fast. South Park is the new big controversy in animation. The popularity of anime explodes, previously popular with only an obscure niche of geeks. I remember having never heard the word “anime” as recently as 1993 or 94.
2000’s: A mixed bag, the tail end of both Nicktoons and Cartoon Cartoons. Many ambitious efforts only last a season. Spongebob is the decade’s Mickey Mouse. Adult Swim starts catering a new wave of (mostly short, cheap, and tasteless) cartoons directly to teens and sub-adult stoners, shattering many of the TV industry’s preconceptions and raking in money from an untapped demographic.
Anime becomes so much more economical to import that original children’s series start dropping like flies, and the Saturday Morning cartoon block at last ceases to be profitable enough to justify its existence.
A giant asshole eventually pulls the plug on still-fairly-new CN series like Flapjack and Chowder to experiment with live action, and between the internet and video games, cartoons are struggling to make a profit.
2010’s: Adventure Time debuts on Cartoon Network after its 2007 pilot became a viral internet sensation. It makes so much money, so quickly that Cartoon Network fires the guy who made them produce game shows, makes the unspeakable move to bank on more than one Nielsen demographic per show and kicks off a race between networks to pick up bold ideas from unknown, freshly graduated cartoonists who would have been thrown out of a pitch meeting not that long ago. [Figure 1: an illuminati demon presents a child with deer teeth]
We’re now four years into a sort of new animation renaissance, where independent artists have a bigger shot than ever before, networks want radically weird and different ideas to experiment with, fandoms make their voices heard, and the internet is giving people a platform even when big corporations don’t.
The people making cartoons right now are people who put up with about fifty years worth of more corporate-driven bullshit and God does it show.