Boys and Toys Franchising Make For Better Superhero Cartoons?

I’m not going to say anything new. In fact, there is nothing within the conversation between Kevin Smith and Paul Dini that is even remotely new. Paul Dini is the producer and writer of Batman: The Animated Series, and Tiny Toon Adventures as well as a script contributor to Animaniacs, Freakazoid, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited among other cartoon programs that many of us grew up with (myself included) and shaped our formative geek interests for all the years to come.

So for him to basically state that superhero cartoon executives have been cancelling story-driven programs with three-dimensional characters of both genders for the sake of merchandising toys to young boys is just… it’s not surprising.  But it is infuriating.

According to an excerpt of the transcript between Smith and Dini on Lauren Davis’ i09 article Paul Dini: Superhero cartoon execs don’t want largely female audiences, instead of taking advantage of an opportunity created by particular cartoon programs that attract not only young boys and girls, but adult audiences, and diversifying their merchandise these executives apparently are “uncomfortable” with taking a chance on something so “uncertain” and want to fall back on their mainstays of boys and toys and more simplistic programs.

The sad thing is, logically it makes sense from a market and industry perspective. The industry, in this case the superhero industry encompassing comics, toys, television shows and commercial products, cares less about story and inclusivity and more about steady, tried, tested and true income-making. From the perspective of this particular mindset, diversifying or attempting to add new products to something that already “works” would be tantamount to taking risks or placing bets on a chance that may not pan out. It is so much easier to appeal to a common denominator, to older and more entrenched social stereotypes and biases, than it is to attempt to make something new or innovative and hope that you can find, or develop, a large enough audience to keep making you the same amount of income that is expected of you.

This narrow perspective has been around for a very long time and while it definitely has a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, with an added “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel” that seems to serve businesses well, there are two matters to consider. First of all, this isn’t good business sense. The fact of the matter is that there is a substantial audience of boys and girls out there that want good stories and characters to relate to. By ignoring this audience, not only do these executives and the companies they manage lose out on potential pay-offs, but eventually the work they produce will become one-dimensional and stagnant: to the point where they will be so interchangeable with other shows that no one will bother watching them, never mind purchase any products they have to offer. Of course, I could be both underestimating and overestimating the situation. There are always collectors and an individual can be trained over time to accept a great deal of limiting circumstances.


And this leads to my second point.  The industry is a business and despite the wonder of creation and art that many of us appreciate, it will always see it as a commodity: one that either has the potential to make money, or doesn’t. It is the culture of the audience, of the customers, our culture, that is the issue. Many of the programs that Dini helped create and worked on originated in the nineties all the way into the mid-early aughts. Perhaps it is just nostalgia on my part, but an attitude with regards to gender and how it was depicted in the programming of that time slowly began to change into whatever it is now. I’m sure there are many theories about this, and I know that even the 90s were not perfect with regards to how they represented gender equality. You can even argue that this determining factor in how many toys can be sold to boys existed even then and perhaps had something of a role in the end of the cartoons that existed back in the day. To be honest, I don’t really know.

But I will say is this, the possibility that executives of superhero cartoons cancel or pass up on shows because it is easier to fall back on long-held and largely unexamined prejudices, that boys given vapid programming are easier to sell a certain set of toys to, that girls don’t or can’t buy the same toys as boys, that you can’t make something more creative to make them into life-long fans and buy your products is just plain laziness, and it is a complacency that has been in our cultural attitudes for some time. The fact that this is a factor that determines our creativity, its expression and what we teach our children is not only laziness, it is even more plainly ridiculous.

There is always this debate as to whether or not the media influences us, or if we influence it. This is an issue that obviously applies to more than just the cartoon superhero industry (certainly the comics and film industries have their own tendencies to override creativity and innovation for a sense of surer profit) but I would like to think that we as geeks, nerds, or what have-you can somehow influence the media to give us the quality that we want for ourselves and our children. I obviously don’t know the how of it, but I think what it all comes down to is the very thing that is lacking, or even discouraged by certain forces in this world.

It’s called imagination. And not attempting to reinvent the wheel, in this case, could grind the former into dust. You can do better than this. We can do better.

This whole article is just stating the obvious. I just wish I didn’t have to do that. For more on Kevin Smith’s and Paul Dini’s discussion, listen to the entire podcast at SModcast Fat Man On Batman #052: Paul Dini: Shadow of the Shadow of the Bat.



The Funnies: They Just Keep Coming Back … and They Never Stop

A cartoon is not a frivolous thing. It can look like a silly drawing or a caricature of life. Upon first glance, it seems to only exist on either a screen or a piece of paper. Sometimes, it even says witty things or does something stupid or endearing that can make us laugh.

Cartoons have been around for so long–on television, in movies, in the newspaper funny-pages and even on T-shirts–that we take them for granted. We don’t always take them seriously.

But consider. A cartoon is an archetype. It is an idea given form. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to even state that it is a Platonic Form: living glyphs essentialized to the point of becoming as close to pure concepts as is humanly possible … which of course is a misnomer.

Because cartoons aren’t human at all.

Some of them are wise-talking humanoid animals. Others are parodies of human beings that somehow possess their own sense of agency. There are even some that are inanimate objects given life. Often, the really old cartoons exist in very self-contained two-dimensional pocket-dimensions: in a mythological cycle of trickery, mayhem, and fun-loving nose-thumbing at fate.

And the really old cartoons can’t be destroyed. They can’t be smashed by falling anvils or mallets. They can’t be burned by fire or exploded by dynamite: at least, not for very long. They are used to dealing–and receiving–massive amounts of physical damage, and then coming back for more. And we’re not even talking about the ones that have a supernatural way of avoiding the damages of their enemies altogether just to–through some twisted fluke of fate–make them fall into their own traps.

They are like living rubber or silly-putty that just keeps bouncing back. A human being isn’t like that. When human beings fall, they break.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that cartoons are beings that are psychopaths or sociopaths by human standards: in worlds and cyclic realities where neither human physical and psychological standards even apply. They come from the same heightened mythic state as faeries, and gods; as legends and archetypes: in a place where slap-stick is not only futility and invincibility, but where the ridiculousness is the superhuman and the sublime. Some people might call this state a perpetual hell, or a utopia. But mostly, it just is and they just are.

In the end, you can’t destroy a cartoon because you can’t destroy an idea. Because even if you break the projector, or the television, or snap the DVD, or rip up the papers they are still there–pure ideas–in your head, mocking you, holding an oversized mallet in one hand as they stand in the darkest corner of your mind, knowing more than they do, doing more than they know, just waiting for that punchline: where you finally have to laugh at yourself.