Let’s be realistic: there aren’t many prodigies in writing. You might always hear about kid musicians or science geniuses whose absurd talents seem primed to turn us all into jealous monsters, but writing and storytelling is a skill that requires extra experience to truly master. Many of the best writers of books, comics, movies and TV actually got fairly late starts, having pursued other avenues before turning to creative work. So, if you’re feeling bad that your masterpiece hasn’t been finished yet, you don’t need to worry.
BUT! If you need to feel envious of writers much younger than you, here’s a list of 15 notable pop culture properties created by people under the age of 20. To be fair, while some on the older end of this age range were able to create their hits more or less independently, the younger creators featured here typically had to either wait until adulthood before their masterpieces could actually get produced or they had to rely on the talents of adults to bring their wild ideas to life. The varying quality and success rate of these properties is often based on how well said adults can really translate the childhood mindset. Let’s see how they did.
The oldest creator on this list, it’s still astonishing that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the age of 19 and published it at 20. The novel, one of the finest in the English language, is the first major work of science fiction and has been adapted into countless films, plays and other works. Its themes of scientific advancement, parental responsibility and the nature of monstrousness still resonate two centuries later.
Before you beat yourself up wondering why YOU haven’t written the world’s greatest horror story already, note that Shelley grew up surrounded by writers. Her father William Godwin was a political philosopher. Though Mary Wollstonecraft died a month after giving birth to Shelley, her feminist writing was no less influential. Mary Shelley married the poet Percy Shelley and came up with the idea for Frankenstein spending the summer with writers Lord Byron and John William Polidori.
Christopher Paolini first came up with the idea for the fantasy novel Eragon when he was 14. After graduating high school at 15, he spent two years writing the book and his parents self-published the book in 2002 when he was 18. Spending a year on the road promoting the book, writer Carl Hiaasen’s son fell in love with it, and Knopf republished it in 2003.
Critics noted the impressiveness of Paolini’s achievement at his young age but were less positive about the content of the book itself, finding it a bit too derivative of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. It was popular with younger readers, however, and Paolini followed it up with three sequels. A movie adaptation came and bombed in 2006; no film sequels were produced.
13. KINNIKUMAN/ULTIMATE MUSCLE
Yoshinori Nakai and Takashi Shimada, credited together under the pen-name Yudetamago, have been friends since the fourth grade and started writing manga together in high school. Shimada was 18 and Nakai 17 when their debut manga Kinnikuman, an action-comedy about an idiot alien prince, launched in Shonen Jump in 1978. Kinnikuman was picked up for an ongoing series in the magazine the following year.
Despite the toyline coming to America under the M.U.S.C.L.E. brand and an anime spin-off airing on the FoxBox under the name Ultimate Muscle, Kinnikuman never took off in America the same way that Dragon Ball or even Fist of the North Star did. In Japan, however, it’s a phenomenon that’s still publishing new chapters to this day. Yudetamago have written three spin-off series and there have been four anime adaptations.
12. ME-MOW FROM ADVENTURE TIME
Inserting original characters into fan-art of shows they love is an activity that many young geeks partake in, but few of them get to have their creations actually appear in those shows. However, Adventure Time fan Gunnar Gilmore, who was only 14 years old, is a rare exception. His mom sent his drawing of Jake fighting a cat assassin named Me-Mow to Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time. Ward loved it, saying “it’s so cute and was drawn by a tiny kid.”
Me-Mow was the main antagonist of the season 3 episode “Jake vs. Me-Mow.” The episode included Gunnar’s original drawing as the title card. The episode involves Me-Mow trying to make Jake kill Wildberry Princess under threat of poisoning if he disobeys. Me-Mow showed up again in the season 7 episode “Angel Face,” now retired from assassin work and trying to be a bounty hunter.
11. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT OF SUPERBAD
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg started writing what is arguably their best screenplay in 1995 when they were both just 13 years old. Obviously Superbad went through some rewrites before it got finished and released in 2007, when it made $121 million at the American box office. The final film ended up being shaped by Rogen and Goldberg’s own experiences graduating from high school, and all of Judd Apatow productions rely heavily on improv.
Still, the film’s willingness, particularly in the McLovin subplot, to go places so ingeniously stupid only a teenager could think them up is a big part of why it works. In 2016, Rogen stated, “I couldn’t write Superbad today, and I wouldn’t want to write it today. I don’t care that much about what 18-year-olds are doing to dedicate that amount of time and energy into it.”
10. THE FIRST DRAFT OF SUPERMAN: RED SON
Much of Mark Millar’s work springs from ideas he first developed as a young comics fan. Wanted, for instance, was based on his brother telling him the reason there weren’t superheroes in the real world was that supervillains killed them all. Superman: Red Son, however, he didn’t just think up as a kid, he actually wrote a draft and pitched it to DC when he was 13!
DC rejected the Communist Superman idea, but Millar kept at it. Thirteen years later, Millar was an adult, the USSR had fallen, and DC bought the pitch. The three issue miniseries took time to rewrite and perfect, but when it was finally finished in 2003, it was a big hit and one of Millar’s most acclaimed works. So, if you can’t get your masterpiece made as a teenager, keep working on your ideas and maybe they’ll eventually be ready for the big time.
9. JIM SHOOTER’S LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES STORIES
Pitching to DC Comics at the age of 13 is one thing, but them accepting those pitches and hiring you to write for them is something else entirely. Somehow, this is what happened with Jim Shooter. In 1965 he sent some Legion of Super-Heroes stories to DC. Mort Weisenger, the editor of the Superman books at the time, loved them and immediately commissioned Shooter to write more comics.
The young Shooter created several new characters for the Legion, including Karate Kid, Ferro Lad and Princess Projectra. His fanboy perspective led to stories such as the first Flash vs. Superman race in Superman #199. After graduating high school, Shooter had a choice between continuing writing at DC, attending NYU, or working for Marvel. He went to Marvel, where he’d later serve as editor.
8. BUSTER AND BABS GO HAWAIIAN
In October 1990, Renee Carter, Sarah Creef and Amy Crosby, three 8th graders from Waynesboro, Virginia, drew a 121 page storyboard for an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures titled “Buster and Babs Go Hawaiian.” They sent it to FOX, which sent it along to Steven Spielberg, who sent it on to Warner Bros Animation head Jean MacCurdy. MacCurdy invited the three girls to the studio, where their little fan-script got developed into an actual episode.
Unsolicited scripts are usually scrapped, but through sheer luck, this one charmed everyone at every stage of the corporate ladder, and this fan-written episode was made for real, airing in the show’s second season. The story spread over the news, and even inspired The Simpsons‘ episode “The Front,” in which Bart and Lisa ghostwrite an award-winning Itchy and Scratchy cartoon.
Created by Aaron Valentino, the nine year old son of writer Jim Valentino and the youngest ever creator of a Marvel character, Taserface first appeared in issue #1 of the 1990 Guardians of the Galaxy run. The comics iteration was part of a primitive species that accidentally acquired Tony Stark’s technology and worshipped Stark as a god. He’s gone by other names, including the Nameless One (when his species shamed him) and Overkill (when he became a cyborg).
James Gunn, director of the Guardians films, has called Taserface “the dumbest character of all time.” Still, he decided it was worth including Taserface as the Ravager captain in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, a role which had to be pretty stupid anyway. Many jokes were made at the expense of his silly name.
6. THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL IN 3D
Robert Rodriguez is capable of making a good kids’ movie. The first two Spy Kids films? Good movies. Making a movie based on his seven year old son Racer’s story ideas, however, didn’t turn out so well. The story follows two superheroes adventuring through Planet Drool, a world created by a boy’s dreams. It’s hyperactive nonsense, and the potential for eye candy was squandered by the poor quality of the 3D work.
The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D was savaged by critics, with a mere 20% Rotten Tomatoes score, and bombed at the American box office. Its biggest claim to greater pop culture fame was launching the career of future Twilight star Taylor Lautner. In recent years, though, it’s developed a partially-nostalgic partially-ironic meme fandom similar to Space Jam or Bee Movie.
If you haven’t seen the surrealist Japanese horror-comedy House (Hausu), seek it out ASAP. It’s completely bonkers in the most entertaining way, being a film in which happy-go-lucky schoolgirls get turned into watermelons, eaten by pianos, and fight a demonic cat, all presented with the best-worst special effects possible. It’s part of the Criterion Collection, so you know it’s Art with a capital “A.”
So, how did this film come to be? Blame Jaws and the director’s seven year old daughter. Toho wanted Nobuhiko Obayashi, an experimental filmmaker at the time best known for directing commercials, to make them a cheap horror film to cash in on Jaws‘ success. Obayashi felt that the only way to make a truly original horror film was to tap into a child’s fears, so he had his daughter Chigumi concoct a story about her fears of being killed by furniture.
4. DEXTER AND COMPUTRESS GET MANDARK
Aside from the low-budget oddity of Space Ghost: Coast 2 Coast and a few compilation shows, Dexter’s Laboratory was Cartoon Network’s first original production. The network’s youth and lack of expectations allowed it the freedom to take risks, including hosting a contest to allow viewers to write an episode of Dexter‘s second season. The contest winner was “Dexter and Computress Get Mandark” by six year old Tyler Samuel Lee.
Tyler narrated the whole episode and did all the voices, with his mom occasionally piping in to try to get him and the story back on track when he loses focus. The animators had a lot of fun turning this kid’s fanfiction into a cartoon, drawing the backgrounds all in crayons and using extra choppy animation for the characters.
3. WORLD’S FUNNEST
These stop-motion shorts, inspired by DC Comics and animated by Aardman Animation of Wallace and Gromit fame, are different from the other entries on this list in as much as they’re not the product of one or two young creators. There can’t be a story credit since there’s not really a story. Instead, these brief comedic skits are based on lighthearted interviews with a bunch of kids, with DC characters like Batman, Superman, The Joker and Catwoman animated over the recordings.
This is a similar approach of interview-based animated comedy to what was used with adults for Aardman’s Oscar-winning Creature Comforts short. These shorts were cute and just one of the many examples of creative animation to be found on Cartoon Network’s sorely missed DC Nation programming block.
2. AXE COP
“One day, at the scene of a fire, the cop found the perfect fireman axe. That was the day he became Axe Cop.” And so begins the adventures of the world’s toughest bad-guy decapitator in the webcomic created in 2009 by then-five year old Malachai Nicolle and illustrated by his 29 year old half-brother Ethan. The anything goes wackiness of Axe Cop captures the joy of childhood playtime, and the stories have grown in complexity as Malachai ages.
Axe Cop became a cult phenomenon, attracting celebrity fans from Simon Pegg to Snoop Dogg. Dark Horse has published collected editions of the webcomic. It was also adapted into an animated series on FOX’s short-lived “Animation Domination HD” block in 2013, starring Nick Offerman as the voice of the title character.
1. MONSTER TRUCKS
Monster Trucks is a cautionary tale. If you’re running a movie studio, maybe don’t bet $125 million dollars on a four year old’s idea. Paramount president Adam Goldman thought the idea he developed in 2013 with his son about a monster living in a truck would be an instant blockbuster that would prop up the studio’s new animation department. But there was trouble behind the scenes on the live-action/animation hybrid film: the film had disastrous test screenings because the original monster design was too horrifying.
The film got delayed from summer 2015 to January 2017 to reanimate the main character. By then, Goldman had left Paramount and nobody at the studio gave a damn about their old boss’ misguided passion project. Paramount took a $115 million write-off on the movie before it was even released. But at least it inspired some pretty dank memes!
Can you think of any other pop culture creators under the age of 20? Let us know in the comments!
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