A recent NPR report listed Adventure Time as an animated program that is worth adult attention, despite the fact that it is aimed at kids. Even with the widespread attention the show has received, it is still evident that most people in our culture see “cartoons” as something belonging to children. Critically acclaimed shows like Adventure Time are often seen as anomalies or exceptions to the rule. I personally find it funny that a show that is clearly billed as TV-PG on the ratings scale and deals with a post-apocalyptic Earth could ever be seen as a mere “kids’ show,” but I digress.
These five programs will hopefully prove just as potent in showing the power animation has to appeal to an adult audience without resorting to the crude, banal humor of shows like Family Guy or American Dad.
1. Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2012)
Unlike the critically panned 2011 film starring Ryan Reynolds, this series, produced by DC Animated Universe alumnus Bruce Timm, makes a believable and likable hero out of Hal Jordan (voiced by Josh Keaton). The show mostly focuses on Hal Jordan’s continued training as the newest recruit of the Green Lantern corps, and the many adventures and terrifying enemies he faces along the way. The CGI looks absolutely stunning, adding a great deal of stylized realism and visual weight to its depictions of deep space.
2. Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010)
This show can be seen as Marvel’s answer to the DC Comics series “Justice League Unlimited.” At first glance, it almost seems like an anthology series, but the overarching story line touches on a wide variety of Marvel Universe lore—everything from Wolverine’s time as a WWII soldier to the birth of Ultron and even Marvel’s Civil War. The character designs make for fluid animation and are reminiscent of the energetic drawings of comic artists John Buscema and Jack “King” Kirby, whose visual representations of these characters originally defined them as part of our popular culture.
3. The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008)
I confess that I almost did not give this series a chance. It premiered in 2008, and my nostalgia for 1990s cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series and Gargoyles was still fairly strong at that time. I had my doubts that a new Spider-Man show would stand up to the complex season-spanning plot structure of the 1994 series that aired on FOX, and my inner fanboy was still reeling from the travesty that was the 2003 CGI MTV series starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Helmed by Gargoyles head writer Greg Weisman, this series turned out to be one of the most faithful animated adaptations of the Webbed Wonder yet. Peter Parker’s development as a character was well-balanced with his adventures as Spider-Man, and we even got to see a new, fully fleshed out version of Gwen Stacy take a prominent role in the series’ 26 episodes.
4. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010)
This reboot of an ‘80s classic has garnered high acclaim from old and new fans alike. Its messages about the power of friendship, along with well-developed characters and surprisingly well-thought out storyline, have been sufficient to garner attention from fans of all ages, as well as managing to cross the gender divide.
5. Avatar: The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra (2005/2012)
Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender was seen by many as a spiritual successor to the Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack, as well as a tribute to the influence Japanese animation has had in the U.S.
This series and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, most certainly stand on their own as important and well-made original works without coming across as derivative of the anime that may have inspired their visual aesthetics. Human conflict drives the continuing story, which is embellished by the beautiful animation and intense action sequences.