The Cartoon Network's flagship show, Adventure Time has quickly gained a loyal fan base since its premiere in early 2010. Produced by Frederator Studios and created by Pendleton Ward, the feel-good, silly but smart show about Jake the Dog and Finn the Human’s fun-filled exploits in the candy-colored, post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo is that rare cartoon offering that appeals equally to both kids and adults. The Adventure Time licensed comic, published by Boom! Studios’ kids' comics imprint, Kaboom!, has also been hugely successful. Since the comic’s release in early February of this year, the first two issues have already sold out of multiple print runs.
Adventure Time has become a bona fide phenomenon at Cartoon Network, with an avid fan base that cosplays and circulates show-based memes. A giant Finn balloon presided over the last few San Diego Comic-Cons and a daily parade took place at last year's show. Ward's comic con appearances generally draw turn-away crowds and back issues of the comic have been going for 10 times cover price on eBay.
Big sales for so-called transmedia properties (comics based on popular television shows and movies) are nothing new. Publishers haven't mastered rocket science by noticing that a comic book based on a successful film or television franchise will attract that same audience in comic book format; and they know that when that audience comes to the comics medium, they'll bring higher sales figures with them.
But what is new—and news—about Adventure Time and other Cartoon Network shows, such as Super Jail and Secret Mountain Fort Awesome, is how heavily influenced they are by aesthetics initially established by independent comics artists. And Ward, along with fellow Cartoon Network show creators JG Quintel (Regular Show) and Ben Jones (The Problem Solverz), have not only demonstrated their own distinctive styles as show runners but also their strengths as curators by rounding up show crews chock full of impressive cartoonists that any comics editor would be proud to name check.
Ward’s approach to the production of the Adventure Time licensed comic is, in many ways, characteristic of Cartoon Network’s approach to some of its most critically acclaimed and highest rated shows. “Pen’s been really open to our getting creative with the comic, which is a rare thing in licensed comics,” notes Boom! lead Adventure Time editor Shannon Watters. “This has allowed us to take the project to interesting places that we’ve never really been able to go with any of our other licensed books.”
Issue #4, set for release this Wednesday, May 16, marks the end of a four issue story arc that in which Finn, Jake, and friends have to fight their way out of a black hole-like bag from another dimension that threatens the very fabric of their Ooo existence. Written by web comics creator , Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics), all of the Adventure Time comic books (and upcoming planned spinoffs) boast limited edition variant print covers and back up stories written and drawn by some of the most acclaimed cartoonists working today, including Jeffrey Brown (Clumsy, Top Shelf) Paul Pope (Heavy Liquid, DC Comics), Tom Neely (Henry and Glen Forever, Microcosm Publishing), Jen Wang (Koko Be Good, First Second Books) and Colleen Coover (X-Men First Class, Marvel Comics). The regular comics are no less star-studded, featuring the work of critically acclaimed cartoonists such as Jon Vermilyea (a frequent contributor to Viceand Fantagraphics’ MOME anthology series) and Michael DeForge (Spotting Dear, Koyama Press), both of whom have worked behind the scenes on Adventure Time and other Cartoon Network shows as well—and they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the huge pool of independent comics talent that’s been working in animation recently.
Ward defines himself as an entertainer as opposed to an artist. He says he likes, “making stuff that’s commercially viable. I think that’s more interesting than art because it affects a broader number of people. Art’s specific and emotional.”
At the same time, he staffs his show with seasoned and skillful cartoonists whose solo comics are very specific in terms of look and feel and are just as apt to generate an emotional response as they are a funny one. Like the work of Lead Character Designer, Andy Ristaino, who, in addition to regularly contributing to heavyweight art comics collections such as Meathaus and Popgun, has been publishing comics for Slave Labor Graphics since the early aughts. Or Thomas Herpich, a character designer for the show, who has also had work published in Meathaus, along with appearances in cartoonist and editor Kazu Kibushi’s much-lauded Flight comics anthologies. Adventure Time’s storyboarding and writing departments are also staffed with similarly notable and distinctive comics artists, such as Jesse Moynihan (Forming), another Meathaus contributor who has also contributed to MOME, and popular web cartoonists Rebecca Sugar and Ian Jones-Quartey.
When asked by Publisher’s Weekly if he attends comics conventions to staff Adventure Time with indie comics artists, Ward replies that he’s just hanging out. “I just like comics,” he says, “I like reading comics. I go to comic cons just to buy minis for myself because I like to read them.” If he happens to find a mini-comic by an artist whose work he likes, he might send them a storyboard test or he might just as well send them an encouraging email telling them how much he liked their comic.
Regular Show creator JG Quintel, on the other hand, specifically heads straight to the independent creator tables at comics conventions to hunt for cartoonists who are, as he puts it, “the total package.” Another one of Cartoon Network’s flagship shows, Regular Show, airs after Adventure Time on Monday nights at 8:00 PM EST and was recently renewed for a fourth season in late 2011. Regular Show centers around the working life of a couple of slacker best buddies named Mordecai, a blue jay (voiced by Quintel) and Rigby, a raccoon, who are employed as groundskeepers at a park run by their short-tempered gumball machine boss, Benson. The show premiered shortly after Adventure Time in 2010 and is similarly inclined towards hiring independent comic book artists. Quintel says that, “a lot of independent comics (are) written and drawn by the same person. It’s not done with a company kind of aspect where one person writes, one person draws, and one person inks. I look at independent comics because the style (matches) the show. A lot of mainstream comics, like Spider-man or whatever, don’t really fit what we’re looking for.”
But while the cartoonists working on Adventure Time are, as a whole, artistically distinctive in an almost wildly beautiful but technically impeccable fashion, the cartoonists employed by Regular Show are notably sharp, clear and on point in both line work and wit. The show employs several Eisner and Ignatz Award nominees and winners, including Sarah Oleksyk (a 2012 Eisner Nominee for Best Graphic Album/New and Best Writer/Artist) and Minty Lewis (the 2007 Ignatz Award Winner for Most Outstanding Mini-Comic). In addition to a stint as a storyboarder for the show, Lewis also voices the recurring character of Eileen the Mole. With the addition of Oleyksyk to the crew in late 2011, Quintel proudly proclaims that the show is now currently half staffed by women. Other female cartoonists of note who are currently working on the show include Hilary Florido, who received honorable mentions for her work in the 2009 and 2010 editions of Best American Comics and Hellen Jo, whose work has appeared in The Believer Magazine and Vice.
The Problem Solverz, another recent Cartoon Network show that has been on hiatus since late 2011, also staffed an extensive roster of indie cartoonists. Created by Ben Jones, a founding member of the highly influential Paper Rad art collective, The Problem Solverz was a visually arresting cartoon heavy on in-the-know meta humor that centered around three friends who solve—and sometimes create—problems for themselves and their environs. In addition to painting backgrounds for Adventure Time, Jon Vermilyea was a character designer for the show. Three members of its crew – Creator and Executive Producer Ben Jones, Lead Designer John Pham, and Technical Director Martin Cendreda—have all contributed comics to what’s widely regarded as the gold standard of art comics anthologies, Kramer’s Ergot (edited by Sammy Harkham for Buenaventura Press and Picture Box). Jones, an artist who's influenced fine art, web design, music video and comics, has since left Cartoon Network and is now gearing up to work on a new late night animation series produced by an independent production outfit called Friends Night. He is rumored to be taking some of his Problem Solverz crew with him. The show will air as part of Animation Domination High Definition (ADHD), the Fox Network's new Saturday night cartoon block at 11:30 PM.
That Cartoon Network was willing to take a commercial chance on Jones, who’s been filling his time in between television shows by doing a well-received installation for an art exhibit curated by Mike D of The Beastie Boys at Los Angeles’ MOCA Geffen Contemporary, is indicative of a spirit of artistic innovation at the network. And reportedly more shows from indie creators are being pitched. Some credit savvy executives such as Curtis Lelash, who has executive produced several episodes of both Adventure Time and Regular Show and was recently promoted to Cartoon Network’s Director of Comedy, with greenlighting the more experimental fare often seen in independently made comics.
With critical successes like Adventure Time and Regular Show going strong in the ratings, the indie comics esthetic shows no sign of slowing down at the network, and has clearly become one of its signature styles—a development that can only be good for both comics and cartoons.
[Shannon O’Leary has edited, curated, promoted and distributed the works of many of the artists covered in this piece in her capacity as an editor (Pet Noir, 2007 and The Big Feminist BUT, Publisher and Date TBA) and in her role as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Sparkplug Comic Books (2007 – 2010)]