Lately there has been a lot of negativity about American animation aimed at an adult audience. People have dismissed it as being ugly, immature and generally inferior to cartoons aimed at children. These generalizations make some sense as criticisms of South Park, Family Guy, Sausage Party and a lot of the cheaper Adult Swim series. A few years ago they might have seemed fair, with acknowledgement of noteworthy exceptions to the rule. However, it's strange that critics are being so vocal in 2019 when there's a greater variety of high-quality adult animation options than ever before.
Let's start by looking at a common criticism of American adult animation that could have been taken as a statement of fact a few years ago: adult cartoons, regardless of quality, lean towards comedy, whereas action or drama storylines are reserved for children's animation. For the longest time, adult action/drama cartoons were scarce on American TV. There were a few cult hits and flops in the '90s, including Aeon Flux, The Maxx, Spawn, Invasion America, and then pretty much nothing during the '00s and most of the '10s.
However, the dual successes of Netflix's Castlevania and Adult Swim's revival of Samurai Jack in 2017 sparked something, because this year we actually have more adult action/drama cartoons than you can count on one hand. Netflix premiered Seis Manos, from the team behind Castlevania, and the sci-fi anthology series Love, Death and Robots. Adult Swim reteamed with Genndy Tartakovsky on Primal and aired Rooster Teeth's gen:LOCK on Toonami. Amazon Prime released Undone, the rare non-action drama cartoon. DC Universe brought back Young Justice and skewed more adult in Outsiders. And while its Harley Quinn series is more of a comedy, it's still worth noting among adult-oriented action cartoons.
Aside from the rough CG character animation in gen:LOCK, all of these shows are well-animated, some exceptionally so. The different episodes of Love, Death and Robots vary in maturity (some are truly thoughtful, others fall victim to the stereotype of forced edginess), but every episode is gorgeously animated. Undone's rotoscoping creates a dreamscape that might be the closest American animation has come to the works of Satoshi Kon. Primal tells its story in visuals so well it doesn't require a single line of dialogue. The stereotype of adult cartoons as ugly is being heavily challenged by these series.
One area where adult animation does still seriously need to catch up to children's programming is in its representation of women's perspectives. There has been progress on that front recently, but there are still obstacles. Lisa Hanawalt made headlines this year as the creator of Tuca and Bertie, only for the visually inventive, critically acclaimed show to be canceled by Netflix after just one season.
No one explained the reasons for the cancellation and theories abound (Low viewership? Sexism? Getting back at the animators for unionizing?). One response that seems a bit unfair, however, is fans' claims that Big Mouth, which Netflix renewed for three seasons a few days after Tuca's cancellation, was somehow to blame.
Big Mouth has become the de facto punching bag for complaints about adult animation: it is incredibly crude, and it is extremely ugly (arguably it has to be in order to get away with its subject matter). However, it's also one of the rare adult cartoons with a female co-creator, Jennifer Flackett, and unlike South Park or Family Guy, it's a show that tries hard to be socially conscious (and one where the writers apologize when they fall short).
There has been some positive news for women in adult animation. Undone, co-created by Katy Purdy, received a second season renewal from Amazon. A new season of Natasha Allegri's Bee and Puppycat, often cited as an exception by adult animation haters due to its relative cleanness and stylistic commonalities with kids' shows like Adventure Time, is wrapping production and should be ready any day now. Shion Takeuchi's Inside Job received a greenlight from Netflix. Independent animator Vivziepop has lit up YouTube with her pilots Hazbin Hotel and Helluva Boss, which have earned some warranted criticism for their immature, edgy humor but are at least clear labors of love from an animation standpoint.
On top of all this new programming, old standbys are as reliable as ever. While The Simpsons has been a shadow of its former self for two decades now, Bob's Burgers has thankfully filled its niche for irreverent yet good-natured family humor, and is still as lovable as ever 10 seasons in. Rick and Morty is often unfairly dismissed by adult animation haters, but in truth it's a thoughtful, creative, well-animated, and at times even emotionally affecting series; even if Season 4 thus far hasn't had any true stand-out episodes yet, it's still a good time.
Also, the final season of Bojack Horseman has been better than ever. Bojack's one of the most genuinely mature yet hilarious shows of any kind today, and might have paved the way more than anything else for the popularization of serious themes in adult animation.
Yes, Family Guy still goes for immature and lazy jokes too often, South Park's attempts at social commentary fail at least as often as they succeed and it's always a toss-up whether a new Adult Swim show will be ridiculously hilarious or just plain ridiculous. With more good adult animation than ever before, however, shouldn't people be celebrating the positive trend rather than wallowing in the negative?
To some degree, it seems like the continued dismissal of adult cartoons is the result of a defensiveness from fans of kids' cartoons. In previous generations, fans of animation in general might have shared this defensiveness, but in 2019 it's almost universally accepted among everyone under the age of 60 that cartoons aren't just for kids. What isn't quite as universally accepted is adults who watch kids' cartoons. When fans lash out at cartoons that are socially accepted as "for adults," it might be a reaction to this social stigma.
Many kids' cartoons are genuinely great and worth watching as an adult, from SpongeBob SquarePants to Steven Universe. What is a bit worrying, however, is when adult fans of media aimed at children become dismissive of adult-oriented works because they're feeling defensive. It's the same problem we saw in some of the dismissals of Martin Scorsese's work following Scorsese's own dismissal of the MCU. And an even uglier instance of this happened when a bunch of Young Adult authors piled on a college student for suggesting an adult book replace a YA book on her school's curriculum.
There's even more exciting adult animation set to premiere in the coming years. In 2020, you can expect to see J.G. Quintel's Close Enough, Justin Roiland's Solar Opposites, Star Trek: Lower Decks, an animated adaptation of Invincible, and the long-anticipated return of The Boondocks. Netflix is going all-in on anime-inspired programming from the likes of Kevin Smith and Zack Snyder while also signing deals with Gravity Falls' Alex Hirsch and Bob's Burgers Loren Bouchard for new adult animated comedies. Hulu has four adult-oriented Marvel series with plans for an eventual crossover as The Offenders in the works.
Hopefully future Adult Swim shows can reach the heights of Rick and Morty and Crunchyroll will eventually begin to roll out its original programming for a variety of audiences, perhaps alongside the launch of HBOMax. We may very well be in an adult animation Renaissance, despite all the dismissive hot takes claiming otherwise.