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.


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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