Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.

2009-01-23

Friday Fun: Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble

I recently had the pleasure as serving on the jury for the Independent Games Festival, and out of all the games I played, the one that I spent the most time with by far was Keith Nemitz's Indie breakthrough Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. It's a single-player RPG based in a 1920's high school, disguised as a board game. You choose a girl to play from a set of characters, then attempt to build a girl gang through threats, intimidation, taunting, and leveling up. Your gang then attempts missions such as uncovering suspicious school accidents, finding the school's hidden still, electing a horse mayor, and other shenanigans.

Each of the 12 playable girls have different starting stats for popularity, rebellion, glamour, and savvy, and they play mini-games such as Taunt, Fib, Expose, and Flirt... not the most positive activities, but remember, these are DANGEROUS girls, and they're in trouble. It's like when Kit Kittredge turned 14 and started smoking in the conservatory and piercing her hat with safety pins.

Most of the minigames use the four card suits as tokens or icons, giving the whole experience a parlour-game feel that fits in beautifully with the 20's setting. The story sucks you in and the constant promise of leveling up one of your gang or learning new taunts teasing Bully Girl in the gymnasium makes you forget the underlying unusualness of playing a solitaire RPG that's pretending to be a board game on a computer.

There's a free demo available, plus a gameplay video on youtube, and firsthour.net has a walkthrough of, well, the first hour of the game. Check it out and enjoy!

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2008-12-12

Friday Fun with Pancake Mountain

What could be better than a Pancake Mountain? How about a tv show, ostensibly and mostly for kids, featuring live performances by some kickass bands, an amblyopic host called Captain Perfect, with the nonexistent "board" of the show as his enemies? What if that show was called Pancake Mountain? Well, it is, and it beat the also-awesome Yo Gabba Gabba to the party for kids shows that don't suck by several years on public access TV in Washington DC.

The show was created by producer Scott Stuckey (yes, of those Stuckeys) and features Captain Perfect and a goat puppet named Rufus Leaking who attends band press briefings and music festivals, plus cartoons, music videos, and footage from several Pancake Mountain Dance Parties, which are basically concerts for kids where no "kid's music" is actually allowed. Pancake Mountain has featured acts like Thievery Corporation, Arcade Fire, Steel Pulse, M.I.A., The Melvins, and even legends like Billy Idol, Henry Rollins, The B-52s, and George Clinton. Rufus is a hilarious interviewer, rude without being crass, and the amount of awesome kids get exposed to in just one episode of Pancake Mountain handily offsets a Wiggles Marathon's worth of suck.

Pancake Mountain episodes are available on DVD and would be great in the youth video -- or the non-youth video --- collection, because the show only airs in a few cities and full episodes aren't around much online. Plus, these discs are a slam dunk for the emerging hipster parent demographic who has already torn through Here come the ABCs and Here come the 123s and have been given hope that children's tv doesn't have to stink all the time.

Because the show airs on cable access, you can also consider trying to get Pancake Mountain to be broadcast in your community, especially if you're colocated or affiliated with your cable access channel. At my library, we've been able to bring Pancake Mountain to the good children of Ann Arbor, Mondays at 6PM, and we hope to get Rufus out someday to stage a PM Dance Party of our own.

Check out Pancake Mountain, but realize that you may never look at kid's TV the same way again. In a good way!

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2008-10-09

Friday Fun: Think before you post!


It's a modern conundrum. The web never forgets, especially when you post drunk. Or email drunk. Or leave unfortunate comments drunk, or tired, or on youtube. The fire-and-remember habit of information posted to the web or emailed to colleagues can make for some embarrassing mornings after one clicks that send or submit button when one really shouldn't have. But no matter what the problem, software is the solution! Right? Obviously, especially this week, which saw the release of two new tools to help combat the menace of post-posting regret.

First, the geniuses at Google Labs have unleashed Mail Goggles. Why they didn't call this breakthrough new service 'Mail Googles' or 'Google Goggles' is unclear at this time. By default, when you try to send gmail late at night on the weekends, Mail Goggles will require you to answer 6 math questions before you can actually send the message. The hope is that when you see how slowly you subtract, you'll realize that it's really not the right moment to tell your coworkers, relatives, or supervisors exactly what you think of them. If you are also frequently intoxicated on weeknights, Google's got you covered; you can adjust your Mail Goggles settings to best reflect when you're most likely to send email you later regret. While there's no doubt that this new service ushers in a entirely new era of judgmental software, it does make sense, given their history, that Google released this service just about as far away from April 1st as they possibly could.

But it doesn't end there. Recently, webcomic genius Randall Munroe, creator of the simple but sublime and ultranerdy XKCD posted this comic suggesting a virus that would force youtube commenters to hear their comments read back to them aloud before they could be successfully posted. Youtube comment threads can be repulsive pits of unintended hilarity at best, and horrifying indictments of the direction of our society at their worst, and obviously someone at Youtube thinks so too, as the feature that XKCD proposed last week was rolled out this week. While this breakthrough new feature falls clearly short of Randall's vision of compulsory readability, the addition of the Audio Preview button to the Youtube comment form not only establishes Webcomics as the primary driving force in web application development, but also quietly advocates for heightened readability of youtube comments, which can only make the world a better place. Or, in the immortal words of Canadia420's comment on the infamous Leave Britney Alone video:

"Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahahah ahahahahahahahahhahahahahahaha hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahahhahahahahahahahahah ahahahahahahahah!!!!! You lack intelligence."

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2008-08-17

The Wonderful World of Webcomic Tshirts that are least Tangentially related to Libraries


Giving away the content and making a living on schwag and cons is the economic engine of webcomics, and in the pursuit of a decent living, webcomic creators are spitting out some really cool products. I have a real weakness for webcomic tshirts, and ever since the smash hit success of Jeph Jacques' "She Blinded Me With Library Science" tshirt, throwing library people a bone has become a sure-fire way to move some merch. My latest delight is the-not-to-be-underestimated Kate Beaton's "Reading: This Shit is Crazy!" tshirt, which I'm proud to say I managed to wear to the office. Beaton's focus is on history webcomics, and there's a lot to love there (like Napoleon eating cookies) without even checking out the "This Shit is Crazy" section. Tellingly, her store features not only the Reading shirt, but also a 'Glasses make you sexy' shirt that is obviously somewhat librarian-oriented (plus a totally kickass print of a Tesla comic).

Fellow wedge of the Topatoco empire and librarian favorite Cat and Girl features The Map of Compromise from a recent story arc, but her real gem is the $8 sticker collection, which includes some very appealing stickers such as "If you can read this, you're Literate", "My other car is a pynchon novel", and the sublime work of genius that is "If television's a babysitter, then the Internet's a Drunk Librarian that won't shut up". While it's no longer available, Cat and Girl's "Technically you would only need one Time Traveler Convention" shirt that Heidi Dolomore was wearing back at Midwinter is quite possibly the best convention shirt of all time; it even spawned a (somewhat) real time traveler convention at MIT.

While British Superstar John Allison's Scary Go Round shop no longer sells their 'Google is ruining everything' tshirt, his passionate hamster yelling 'Books Rule' is still available. Most of Scary Go Round's best shirts don't really have anything to do with the comic, and while it's not remotely library-specific, don't miss the Major Teacup shirt while you're there.

Finally, while a library connection is even more tenuous, what pop culture librarian's wardrobe would be complete without one of Scott Kurtz's "Joss Whedon is my Master Now" tshirts?

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2008-07-20

The Real Life League of Real Superhero Stories

It took 70 years, but it seems that pop culture has finally finished digesting the Superhero and begun to regurgitate the idea in the form of stories about how weird the idea is. With this past week's progressive sample release of Dr. Horrible, the Whedon's Supervillian Mad Scientist Musical Laundromat Love Story, the release of Hancock featuring Will Smith as a drunk, disillusioned superhero, and the momentous unveiling of the first trailer for the hotly anticipated film version of breakthrough graphic novel Watchmen, stories that essentially ask "what if superheroes were, like REAL or something?" are bigger than ever.

Watchmen, which follows cataclysmic events in the life of a second generation of superheroes, some of whom inherited their characters from their parents, is very heavy stuff; in addition to giving graphic novels a much needed shot of legitimacy that has yet to wear off, it singlehandedly broke open the world of superheroes by actually exploring how the world might react if people actually dressed up in spandex and fought crime. Now, some people actually do dress up in spandex and fight crime, but we'll get to that later. The idea of Superheroes in a real world, or at least acting something like regular people without all the stilted superfriends-speak and unironic catchprases, keeps coming up again and again, from my favorite show Venture Brothers (which owes much to Ben Edlund's Tick) about the weak, self-absorbed but super-scientist grown son of a seemingly superhuman titan of achievement, to Disney's surprisingly unawful tween-targeted Sky High, about the freshman year (at a floating superhero high school that might as well be called 'Superwarts') of the son of the world's mightiest superheroes, who also happen to be high-powered real estate agents; and of course, The Incredibles, which could somewhat fairly be described as Watchmen recast as a sitcom. All these projects break one of the cardinal laws of Superheroes: no attachments other than a single love interest, and for darn sure NO OFFSPRING. Just crossing the family dynamic with the superhero tropes provides so much wonderful friction that it's certain there are superhero family dramas (and superhero family sitcoms) in development. Seriously, how long can it be before someone decides to remake The Greatest American Hero?

However, as the Incredibles explored a bit, there is enormous potential in the ridiculousness in the world of Superheroes, or, as Warren Ellis and boingboing have redubbed them as a result of DC and Marvel attempting to enforce their recently-renewed 1979 'Superhero' trademark, Underwear Perverts. One of the most inspiring films in this area is the underappreciated Mystery Men, based loosely on a spinoff of misunderstood genius Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot Comics. There's a scene in Mystery Men where the main characters are auditioning potential new members of the team; and the parade of goofballs and their elevator pitches about their superpowers (The Waffler carries Truth Syrup, which is Low Fat) looks to me like a really fun idea for a library program. Have a panel of superhero judges to see superhero auditions, or give kids time to make their own costumes and form their own super squad and shoot a commercial for their services, with awards for awesomeness, ridiculousness, and outlandishness. With the right group, that could be an absolute blast. Maybe you could even get a real costumed hero to come inspire the audience.

Because there are real-life superheroes, of course. You may well have heard of Angle Grinder Man, who freed the booted cars of London, or heard Terrifica on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, a woman who protects the drunk girls of the bars of NYC (and has an arch-nemesis, Fantastico). Mexico has Superbarrio, protector of the weak and organizer of labor rallies, and here in Michigan we have FoxFire (not a web browser), who helps those in need as part of a shadowy organization known only as the "Nameless Few". Some of these people are bringing attention to their cause, others are tongue-in-cheek but not entirely kidding, some are sweetly earnest, and others are downright serious. If you can stand a bit of a web time warp (and a well-intentioned but not very comprehensive resource), you may wish to check out the World Superhero Registry to see if a caped crusader is available in your area.

Regardless of intent, the superhero is here to stay, and these ideas have left their Marvel & DC cradles and made the leap into the real world. They're even spilling out of their rightful place on the Graphic Novel shelf and storming Dewey's fortress of Solitude. In addition to numerous scholarly works about superheroes, a new book coming this october explores the plausibility of Becoming Batman and what it would realistically take to reach Batman's level of martial arts and technological prowess. Next up is a book about parenting twins, and how to activate their wonder twin powers.

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2008-05-26

Mr. Nostalgia and Little Miss Back Again


OF COURSE you remember Mr. Men. And Little Miss. Tiny, square paperbacks on a rack in the grocery store's impulse zone. You had to have one every single time you went to that grocery store, too. And maybe your mom started taking you to Price Chopper instead because they didn't have a Mr. Men rack for you to whine about, so you never got that copy of Mr. Muddle until years later, when chasing your other lost childhood dreams on eBay, when you thought to look for Mr. Muddle, but eBay only had cookie cutters, because of course the damn things are still in print after all these years! So you remember Mr. Men.

The 43 Mr. Men books and the 30 Little Miss books haven't actually been continuously in print since they were first published starting in 1971, but they have come back several times in support of various television treatments over the years. The second to last time this happened was in the late 90's, when a pretty lousy Mr. Men and Little Miss show was produced by French children's animation studio Dargaud-Marina, shown on Britain's Milkshake! kid's show block, and then localized for the US and brought into local syndication in the US in 1997. That show wasn't very widely aired in the US, but it was enough to bring the books back into print, just in time for the new parents of the oughts who loved the books as kids in the 70's to see them on impulse racks and buy them for their own kids, finally achieving closure on those old price chopper wounds.

It appears that the closure market has been enough to keep the books in print for the past 10 years. In the meantime, Adam Hargreaves, the son of original author Roger Hargreaves, has kept the series going a bit, creating 6 new Mr. Men and 7 Little Misses, many of them odd promotional tie-ins, such as Mr. and Little Miss Birthday, created for the 35-year anniversary of the first Mr. Men book, which Adam was also responsible for as a little kid when he asked his dad what a tickle looked like.

And now, another new cartoon based in the Mr. Men and Little Miss universe has arrived, and this time, it's really great. The Mr. Men show is produced by Renegade Animation, producers of the quite wonderful and underappreciated Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, which attempted to introduce the completely awesome japanese girl rock band PUFFY to US audiences with some success. Renegade also developed the very strange live action / animation hybrid telefilm Re-animated, which spun off the not-exactly-beloved Out of Jimmy's Head. Renegade does a lot of work in Flash, which allows them to cut out overseas tweening studios and produce whole shows in house. Their New Mr. Men show is vibrant, stylish, well-written and fun, and while they may be playing just a little fast and loose with the canon, they've added some fun new ideas into the show. For example, each character now comes complete with a catchphrase ready to infiltrate elementary school conversations; Mr. Bump's expletive of choice is 'Poopity-poop!', and Mr. Rude's catchprase is "You want X? I'll give you X! *loud fart*." The new show also features an awesome title song, which is reminiscent of the awesome theme song from Lauren Child's wonderful Charlie & Lola, written by Søren Munk and Tom Dyson of Northwood.

The new show's sketch comedy format and clever expansion of the already-strong property make for a very funny cartoon, and the show's official blog shows why; the team is taking the property and the funny very seriously, and it's clear that they are engaged in putting out a great product. They're also soliciting ideas from fans in the comments of their blog, and with the perennial appeal of these characters, a Mr. Men and Little Miss character design contest could be a pretty cool library craft program for kids and a hearty does of nostalgia for gen X parents.

As Mr. Nervous says, I think this is the end.

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2008-04-28

The Frederatorian Armada

Remember when Hanna-Barbera was brought back from near death in the 90's? Like Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio in The Abyss? Fred Siebert was Hanna-Barbera's Virgil Brigman. He slapped the life back into the studio by creating the What-A-Cartoon! showcase for new shorts, reorganizing the personnel and modernizing their process, resulting in scads of great shorts that spun off several great shows for Cartoon Network including Cow & Chicken, Powerpuff Girls, and Dexter's Lab.

With the Hanna-Barbera brand saved, Fred then founded Frederator Studios in 1997, and their first project was Oh Yeah! Cartoons for Nickelodeon, another showcase of shorts featuring many of the same animators and directors who had produced work for What-A-Cartoon. Oh Yeah! has spun off 3 series for Nick so far, most notably the wonderfully awesome My Life as a Teenage Robot (created by Rob Renzetti who storyboarded some of the best episodes of Dexter's Lab) and Megahit work of genius The Fairly Oddparents, created by Butch Hartman. Farily Oddparents is Nick's second most-popular show, only surpassed by the mighty Bob l'éponge; it's a powerful mix of wish fulfillment, brilliantly mutated character tropes, mind-blowing voice performances, and a self-aware formula that never seems to get stale, with a seventh season of episodes just beginning to air. The loud characters and slapstick potty moments (Supertoilet!) successfully scare off most adults, but Cosmo and Wanda just kick so much ass on so many levels that you musn't dare write off FOP as pablum.

While Fred excels at pulling together fresh teams for these showcase incubator series, and the newest Frederator project, Random Cartoons, is another installment in Fred's trademark genre. Frederator has also produced the Nicktoons Film Festival, an open call for shorts from animators of all stripes. The best shorts are aired on TV and the possibility of being the next Frederator star looms large for the participants. Fred is serious about crowdsourcing and his methods have brought TV some of the most innovative and hilarious cartoons of the past 15 years.

However, Fred (who was also MTV's first creative director, producer of the early MTV and Nick animated IDs, and savior of Nickelodeon with the Nick at Nite concept) is no one-trick-pony; Frederator's online offerings rival their TV projects, and Frederator gets it right so much more throughly than almost anyone else in the TV business it's a little shocking. For instance, check out one of Frederator's 65 blogs, including Fred's official blog or the Fairly Odd Blog. While it's still unique for a studio to essentially insist that each project has a corresponding blog, the best parts of the Frederator online presence are their web-native projects.

Channel Frederator takes Fred's trademark approach -- welcome all comers -- and ports it online into a channel full of new cartoon shorts that anyone can submit to and a podcast of the best stuff. There's also annual Channel Frederator Awards (voting is now open for the best of 2007) and one truly standout original series of shorts: The Meth Minute 39, by Dan Meth. The Meth Minute can best be described as the Wario Ware of cartoons; short, hilarious, usually inappropriate, steeped in pop references, and with many sets of recurring characters. The latest episode of the Meth Minute features Ultra and the Lazer Hearts, who exist to hang jokes upon the truly outrageous carcass of Jem and the Holograms. One of Meth's most-forwarded shorts is the undeniably NSFW Dog Video Dating, and the first episode, meme-tribute Internet People, became a bit of a meme of its own. Even the Meth Minute 39 is in on Fred's crowdsourcing mission, currently running a contest to find the best viewer-created short using meth minute characters, with a cash prize.

In addition to the awesomeness of Channel Frederator is ReFrederator, a simply amazing daily podcast that features a different vintage cartoon each day, along with some incredibly knowledgable posts. The work the ReFrederator folks are doing is nothing short of miraculous; acquiring, digitizing, and archiving priceless but usually commercially worthless cartoons in a modern format that's simply one of the very best podcasts on the whole dang intertubes.

However, the absolutely best thing that Fred has done recently has been to discover a guy named Pendleton Ward and give him the chance to make Adventure Time. Go watch Adventure Time right now, and be forewarned that the next time you see something really awesome, you just might find yourself using 'ALGEBRAIC!' as an expletive of awesomeness.

Frederator Studios is doing totally RHOMBUS work all over the place; but Channel Frederator is merely the anchor of Fred's newest corporation, nextnewnetworks, which takes Fred's proven old/new media flexibility and mastery and stretches the definition of a video network in a very forward-looking direction, towards nichier audiences and snappier, shorter, more frequent programming. See Ultra Kawaii (so cute it hurts), Threadbanger (for DIY Fashionistas), Vette Dogs (for corvette owners) or Total MMO (for Massively Mutliplayer Online gamers). Fred will rule the world someday, perched atop his shiny red armada of networks and viewer-created content flying in close formation. Submit now and you can say you were a Frederatorian before it was compulsory!

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2008-03-24

All Kids Back in the Pool

Last time, I couldn't shut up about Adult Swim's awesome adult-oriented cartoons, but Cartoon Network has also done some really great stuff that is actually intended for kids over the years, creating some truly wonderful series that appeal to kids and adults alike, almost single-handedly pulling children's animation up out of the bottom the barrel where it had languished for the 80's and the early 90's. Shirt Tales, I'm looking at you.

Once Turner had established Cartoon Network with existing content, they began seeking out new animators to produce pilots for potential new series to be full funded and owned by Turner and Cartoon Network. Most of these pilots were shown under the What A Cartoon show, and the life these new talents brought back to the rotting husk of Hanna-Barbera became the driving force of a new generation of properties. A seminal episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast featured short clips from several of the first new Cartoon Network Projects and had villains from Space Ghost's past vote on which show would be picked up for production. The three shows were Genndy Tartakofsky's Dexter's Laboratory, Van Partible's Johnny Bravo, and cartoon supergenius Craig McCracken's The Powerpuff Girls. All of these shows were eventually put into production and became staples of CN's lineup, but Wunderkind Craig McCracken's Powerpuff Girls became the breakout hit, combining hip newness and formulaic familiarity with truly outstanding writing, in-jokes worthy of the muppet show, outstanding voice acting and some brilliant new characters.

Powerpuff girls peaked in the early noughts with a pretty good theatrical film, but their iconic characters and relatively positive female leads still carry a strong following, especially among the adults who were won over by Jim Venable's (who has a new CD) shockingly modern breakbeat-laden score and Nemesis Mojo Jojo's utterly hilarious and spot-on sendups of the worst expositional speeches of the Superfriend's worst enemies. One of the best episodes of Powerpuff Girls is Meet the Beat-Alls, a Beatles tribute epsiode that likely flew right over the head of anyone born after 1990 but includes some simply brilliant gags, including a girlfriend for Mojo Jojo named Moko Jono, who is a 'performance criminal'. Yes, there is a joke about the number 9.

Dexter's Lab also had an awesome run; not as marketable or cuddly as the Powerpuff Girls, it resonated perfectly with geeks and dorks and nailed the odd-couple dynamics with dweeby honor-student scientist dexter and his ebullient pony-loving sister DeeDee. Tributes to Mecha Anime, Pete's Dragon, Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, and countless other relics of 80's culture instantly endeared the show to Gen Xers until a shark-jumping production staff shakeup brought the show to a swift end. One of Dexter's Lab's hidden treasures is found only in some episodes: The Justice Friends, a set of shorts, directed by Craig McCracken, that bring together three of our nation's greatest superheroes (Major Glory, Rock God Valhallen, and the Infraggable Crunk) into a small apartment to face the challenges of everyday life. It's pure genius and also saw the best appearances of recurring McCracken in-joke characters Puppet Pal Mitch and Puppet Pal Clem. Dexter is available on DVD, and the early seasons would be an awesome addition to any DVD collection. One of my favorite episodes is 'Omelette Du Fromage', where Dexter uses a hypnotic learning device and a french language record to study for a test. The record skips, and Dexter wakes up with 'Omelette Du Fromage' as the only thing he is able to say, which of course (SPOILER) leads him to international stardom.

Another pilot from What A Cartoon! that didn't exactly get picked up is Larry and Steve, an early project from Seth MacFarlane that features a dumb guy who sounds almost exactly like Peter Griffin and a cultured talking dog who is just a brown, skinny Brian Griffin. Even though Turner passed on Larry and Steve, MacFarlane was later contacted by Fox and asked to develop Larry and Steve into a pilot that would follow the Simpsons, ultimately becoming Family Guy.

One of the other pilots from What A Cartoon that got picked up years later and is still a bit of an odd surviving standout in Cartoon Network's lineup is John R. Dilworth's Courage the Cowardly Dog, a creepy, edgy, and very unsettling show about an excitable dog, his loving owner Muriel, and her crabby husband Eustace, who live in Nowhere, where lots of weird stuff happens, usually putting Muriel in danger and requiring much yelling and dancing around from Courage. One of the very best things about Courage the Cowardly Dog is a short video with a new theme song by Nerd Rock Supergroup They Might Be Giants. It's stuck in my head; now it's your turn!

After the first wave of new shows were gaining popularity and establishing Cartoon Network as a source of awesome new cartoons for kids, a second wave of shows came down the pipe, the most popular and enduring of which was Ed, Edd and Eddy, a simple show about the interactions of a group of weird kids on a cul-de-sac. With an amazing and in many cases unheard-of voice cast, every archetype of neighborhood kids represented, and a somewhat nostalgic view of what kids do for fun that still resonates with today's elementary schoolers, the Eds pursue scam after scam in hopes of obtaining enough quarters to buy each of them a cheek-stretching jawbreaker. Danny Antonucci is one kick-ass guy (skip to :40), and his rat-finky, rubbery, wiggly ensemble of characters generated a boatload of awesome episodes, ending without really getting stale. Also of note is the show's unique scoring, using a small band of trumpet, trombone, sax, clarinet, bass, drums, and a guy whistling to give the episodes a cohesive, immediately recognizable sound that's definitely outside the musical vocabulary of most elementary school viewers.

In addition to these shows that are no longer being produced, Cartoon Network has three current shows that are very popular with both kids and cartoon geeks of all ages and have introduced characters that will be beloved for decades to come.

First, after Craig McCracken finished PowerPuff Girls, he and his wife and Powerpuff Girls Producer Lauren Faust created Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, one of my very favorite shows that again combines laugh-a-minute comedy for elementary schoolers liberally peppered with shout-outs and in-jokes for the over-20 crowd. With more outstanding voice acting and one of TV's most convincing and coolest female characters in Frankie Foster, the show tackles some relatively meaty themes about friendship, growing up, marketing, rules and authority without the kids even really knowing what's going on. It's a joy to watch and each new episode is eagerly anticipated by millions of kids. Two seasons are on DVD and there is some really WANT-worthy merch out there... if you're willing to set foot into Hot Topic.

Another great show that just wrapped up but is still in heavy rotation is Joe Murray's Camp Lazlo, about a group of relentlessly positive campers (and their relentlessly negative spoils) at a summer camp that never seems to end (they even had a halloween episode once). Murray was previously responsible for the underappreciated work of genius Rocko's Modern Life (which featured a theme song by the B-52's), about a Wallaby that worked at a Comic Book shop, and many of the character tropes from Rocko make an appearance at Camp Kidney (home of the Bean Scouts of Jelly Cabin) on the shores of Leaky Lake, again nostalgically hearkening back to childhoods that don't really exist anymore, complete with the girl's camp across the lake (Acorn Flats, home of the Squirrel Scouts) and the constant threat of a Bean Scout earning enough badges to graduate to Tomato Scout, which requires an immediate trip off to boot camp. Camp Lazlo isn't on DVD yet, but it's expected soon and is actually a good thing to show kids who will be going to camp because A. it includes the basics like swimming, counselors, off-limits marshmallow shacks and the infirmary, B. it exposes them to personality types they'll be likely to meet at camp, and C. because any real camp will shine in comparison to Camp Kidney.

Finally, there's a new show on Cartoon Network that kicks so much ass it's just amazing it was ever greenlighted. It's called Chowder, and it's about an apprentice to a chef in a weird world where everything revolves around and is named after food. The brainchild of C.H. Greenblatt, who previously storyboarded for Spongebob and Billy and Mandy (and was the voice of Fred Fredburger!), Chowder brings an awesome, schoolhouse-rock reminiscent look and a completely alien set of social norms together and just riffs on the results. Again filled with plenty of in-jokes for grownups (the chef, Mung, adds a huge clock necklace to a soup, explaining that it adds Flava), a real highlight of the show are the voices for Chowder, Gorgonzola, and Panini, done by some truly talented kids that inject so much life and authenticity into the show it's impossible not to smile just listening to them deliver their lines and screams and bellows. Chowder is still in its first season, so no DVD yet, but new episodes air thursday nights, and if you've got cable at your library, a Chowder-watching party with some weird snacks would be a pretty cool event for a school night.

Most of the creators of these show have blogs (although the Foster's blog is apparently abandoned), and if you look at the comments, you'll find scads of Gen X and older cartoon geeks just gushing about what these talented folks are doing. Just because it's on Cartoon Network doesn't mean it's only for kids!

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2008-02-24

All Kids out of the Pool

I am a Cartoon Network addict. I didn't used to have an excuse. But then, back in 2001, Cartoon Network launched [adult swim], a block of programming intended for viewers aged 18-34, originally only aired on Sunday nights. Adult Swim has been phenomenally successful, totally dominating its target demographic, revolutionizing programming for this audience, shattering basic cable records, and just generally being awesome. It's since grown to fill every night from 11 PM - 6 AM. Now, my cartoon addiction is hip and grown-up instead of dorky and neotenous. Right? Hello?

Adult Swim knows how to package programming to draw in viewers and keep them coming back; in fact, the programming block has become a sort of resuscitation chamber for good shows previously killed by mishandling or fickle programming executives. Matt Groening's Futurama, Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy, and Brendon Small's Home Movies were all canceled and then picked up as reruns by Adult Swim. Adult Swim's nightly positioning kept the audiences alive and buying DVDs, and before you knew it, Family Guy was back on Fox, Futurama had new episodes in production for Comedy Central, and Adult Swim themselves had funded production of new episodes of Home Movies. All are on DVD, most notably the new Futurama DVD Bender's Big Score, a movie composed of the first new episodes of Futurama since Fox canceled the series in 2003.

Adult Swim's format includes both 15 and 30 minute shows bracketed by simple text card bumpers that give a voice to the block's creators. The bumps show ratings from previous weeks, make fun of dumb posts on the adult swim forums, and drop hints about upcoming programs, having a conversation with viewers and engaging them in the production of the block and the further consumption of the content. These guys know how to talk to an audience that every advertiser wants to reach.

Adult Swim's original programming, much of it produced by Turner's Williams Street production shop, has also become a force to be reckoned with in its highly sought after demographic, producing shows that have pushed the boundaries of sharp writing, cheap production, poor taste, and gratuitous violence. DVD sales for Adult Swim shows have been strong and the sets are loaded with extras; adding some of this stuff to your collection can be an awesome draw for audiences that might otherwise find little of interest on the shelf.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force could be thought of as Adult Swim's flagship show; its cheap, grotesque animation, vivid characters, and brilliant writing set the tone for many of Adult Swim's subsequent programs. In a good way. ATHF Season 5 is airing now, and all 5 seasons are out on DVD plus the 2007 Feature Film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, which cost $750,000 to make and netted over $5,000,000 in the box office.

Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law represents characters from throughout the Hanna-Barbera stable of properties when they get into legal trouble, such as when mob boss Fred Flintstone needed to beat a racketeering charge, or when Secret Squirrel got picked up for indecent exposure. Not nearly as gross or over-the-top as ATHF, Harvey Birdman has 3 volumes on DVD and is a worthy successor to early Williams Street breakthrough animated talk show Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast, which was one of Turner's first experiments in producing cartoons for ostensible grownups. Harvey Birdman ended in 2007, but new episodes of Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast are now airing on Gametap, Turner's videogame download service. Harvey Birdman also has a Phoenix Wright-inspired courtroom videogame for PS2 and Wii.

Venture Brothers is my favorite Adult Swim show; loosely inspired by Jonny Quest but also by every action cartoon or superhero trope from the 70's and 80's, Venture Brothers has some of the best writing, characters, voice acting, and animation of Adult Swim's original shows, and it's one of very few AS offerings that has an ongoing story. Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD and Season 3 airs this summer.

Robot Chicken is the brainchild of Seth Green, who provides the voice of Chris Griffin on Family Guy, was Oz the Werewolf on Buffy, and played Scott Evil in the Austin Powers series. Seth writes and does tons of voices for Robot Chicken, which is essentially a micro-sketch comedy full of tv parodies performed by stop-motion action figures. There are 2 seasons on DVD, and the third season is currently airing.

Aaron McGruder's Boondocks was also brought to TV by Adult Swim. Like the comic strip, the show is not without its controversy, but the writing is awesome, the voices are fantastic, and every episode just kicks ass. There's one season on DVD now and new episodes still airing.

In addition to Adult Swim's comedy lineup, they also air quite a bit of Anime and are a major player in the economics of Japanese shows getting dubbed into English. Anime that has aired on Adult Swim is guaranteed to have a formidable audience and is much higher profile than the Anime that airs on other networks or is only available on video. The utterly brilliant and incomprehensible FLCL got its US start on Adult Swim, and the huge popularity of the Fullmetal Alchemist juggernaut was driven primarily by its AS exposure. AS was also the first US broadcast of the seminal Cowboy Bebop, and they continue to air the simply amazing Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Cartoon Network also co-funded the production of a second season of giant robot enigma Big O, providing more episodes to a global audience. Most of all, Anime and Manga legend Rumiko Takahashi's Inuyasha, one of the biggest Anime shows in the US and Japan, airs solely on Adult Swim. Finally, two comedic anime, rarely translated for english audiences, have aired on AS: the utterly alien and unmissable Super Milk Chan, and the simpson-like but far more crass Crayon Shin-chan, which has 26 new episodes being translated. All of these shows now have a substantial US audience thanks to Adult Swim, and if they're not already in your DVD anime collection, they should be!

Phew, I knew I shouldn't have started talking about this. There is just too much good stuff on Adult Swim. Next time, I'll blabber about all the great shows on Cartoon Network that are supposed to be for kids!

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