Crappy 80's Cartoons Had One Redeeming Value

By Mary H. K. Choi | June 12, 2012 | 6:00 am

Crappy 80s Cartoons Had One Redeeming Value

Kids today lead charmed lives. It’s not an uncommon sentiment—Lord knows it’s been uttered by every grumpy grown-up since Abraham first lied to Isaac about Iditarodding uphill to school both ways—but have you seen their cartoons? It’s insane! If you thought the probiotic juice boxes and invisible braces were irritating, go gawk at the lineup on Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block and the updated Hasbro cartoons on the Hub.

It’s damn near unfair how good they are. I hope hoverboards don’t get invented until the little ingrates have bum hips.

For evidence, head to Netflix. In April it began streaming a mix of old-school Hasbro shows (G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Transformers) and their current-day iterations. Want to feel old? Watch Transformers: Generation 1 (the ’80s version), and then check out the new Transformers Prime. The latter’s episodes are a masterful balancing act, managing to satisfy older fans of the franchise without resorting to the cliché-riddled story lines of the original show.

“You remember the feelings and want to re-create them,” says Lauren Faust, creator of the Hub’s rebooted My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and DC Nation’s Super Best Friends Forever shorts. “But instead of being influenced directly by the shows of our childhood, we’re influenced by our memory of them.”

It’s a blessing that our rose-colored glasses are so comfortable, otherwise it’d be too easy to write off ’80s cartoons. See, the episodic-animation boom of the decade inverted the Star Wars “make the movie, then move the product” merchandising model. Instead, the playthings came first, and the shows just shilled. As a result, the half-hour toy infomercials masquerading as cartoons were empirically awful. No matter—we made up for it during playtime. “Everybody would create huge stories with each other,” says Brad Neely, creator of the Adult Swim cartoon China, IL. “It was, ‘I’m going to be Tunnel Rat, and you can be Duke, and I’m into Lady Jaye, so you can’t date Lady Jaye.’”

It turns out that ’80s cartoons were excellent for make-believe. Armed with the toys, we churned out ur-fanfic that spackled over the holes left by the shows’ crappy dialog and lazy mythology. “My Little Pony from the ’80s was boring,” Faust says. “It was my favorite toy, but the cartoon wasn’t the stories I told when I was playing with the toys. I viewed my show very much as a do-over.” It was such a do-over, in fact, that when the warmer and wittier version began in 2010, it attracted legions of dedicated adult male fans. (And yes, they call themselves “bronies.”)

Faust’s Super Best Friends Forever is similarly great—what’s not to like about Batgirl, Supergirl, and Wonder Girl being teenage pals? Like fellow DC/Warner Bros. titles Young Justice and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, it’s inclusive enough for n00bs and kids yet still rewarding for comics fans and present-day fanboys. (Neil Patrick Harris did a guest voice on Batman—I dare you to find a voice on Voltron‘s IMDB page that’s even half as enjoyable.)

But maybe all this is doing the kids a disservice. The toons are totally engaging, but they’re consumption-only transactions—no action-figuring needed. That breeds complacency and ultimately makes veal of kids’ imaginations. So do your part: Encourage them to make up their own stories like we had to with the ramshackle, old-timey versions. Even better, turn the sound off and force them to create the dialog. While doing push-ups. And eat their snacks in front of them. Just call it a luxury tax.