Not too long ago, "Adventure Time" was a quirky program on Cartoon Network with a steady cult following. Now in its fifth season, the animated effort based on a 2008 short by creator Pendleton Ward -- in which adolescent Finn and his talking dog pal Jake going on fantastical trips through the bizarrely colorful post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo -- has started to look like one of the biggest television phenomenons of the decade. At New York Comic Con last weekend, dozens of attendees outfitted like characters from the show could be spotted throughout the massive Javitz Center. Ward and his colleagues received a rock star welcome at their panel. But does the bulk of the enthusiastically obsessive "Adventure Time" fandom miss the depths of the show, ones that likely have nothing to do with its ascension to blockbuster heights?
"Adventure Time" first garnered attention when Ward, formerly an animator on "The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack," released a 2008 short that went viral. Though Finn was named Penn at the time, much of the show's central appeal was evident in the wonderfully bizarre mixture of irreverent references, songs and videogame-like showdowns, all of which suggested a stoner's meandering perception of Saturday Morning cartoon aesthetics. Even so, it was wholly consistent work of singular vision. Since then, the breakout hit has developed into something considerably more advanced: With each 10-minute episode, Ward has built out and complicated the Land of Ooo, deepening the back stories of its characters and directly confronting aspects of its dangerous ingredients without losing that constant goofiness.
No matter how silly it gets, however, "Adventure Time" is teeming with thoughtful nuances, bold innuendo and bonafide genre-based storytelling. The blend of advanced subtext, bafflingly surreal tangents and nonsensical asides makes it hard to pin down the show's precise appeal -- but you can't dispute the outlandish comic timing, lovable characters and insanely catchy songs, all of which help explain the devoted fan base, even if the very people involved in making "Adventure Time" a reality still haven't quite figured it out.
"I am completely confused about what's going on in the Land of Ooo until a fan explains it to me," said John DiMaggio, who provides Jake with his chilled out delivery on the show, during an NYCC panel on Saturday. Even if one turns to the sprawling fan-made "Adventure Time" wiki for assistance, it's a tough universe to sort through: Ooo is a magical and mysterious place populated by mutant princesses, Korean unicorns, zombie businessmen, portals to other dimensions and many, many other seemingly random events and characters that have been fused into a beguiling whole without ever appearing fully complete.
One look at show creator Ward helps to explaining the prevalent weirdness: A portly, bearded man who speaks in an ultra-relaxed monotone, Ward looks like he's perpetually trapped in the tunnels of his own whimsical inspiration, and we're all the better for it. The show's practically a manifestation of his imagination run wild. As he explained on the NYCC panel last weekend, Ward played a lot of RPG games as a kid, while devouring graphic novels and video games, but he also admired the goofy-poignant combo of "The Simpsons." Like that show, "Adventure Time" has garnered acclaim not only from a significant fan following but from the industry, as demonstrated by the growing list of guest voices: Ron Perlman, Wallace Shawn, Donald Glover and Steve Little have all contributed to various episodes. As the horrific dimension-hopping evil schemer known as the Lich, Perlman was at the center of a two-parter from last season that marked one of several occasions where "Adventure Time" turned into a dark, gripping and almost nightmarish experience before returning to its prevailing sweetness.
Nevertheless, a cursory glance at "Adventure Time" fandom suggests that appreciation for the show tends to fixate on the simpler ingredients above all, and much of the talent involved has embraced that. At the panel, longtime "Adventure Time" writer Rebecca Sugar (whose credits include most of the show's favorite melodies) whipped out her ukulele while DiMaggio led the crowd in a singalong to "Bacon Pancakes," the celebratory tune his character belts out as an ode to his favorite breakfast item.
Ward said that the writing process is about as basic as the appeal of that song. "We just write to make ourselves laugh," he told the Comic Con crowd. "That's all we can do." Pushed to talk more about how he conceived of his main human character, however, he elaborated slightly by bringing up his childhood frustrations with the one-note aspects of Leonardo on the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" show. On the whole, he found the character too eager to please. "I wanted to make sure Finn wasn't a sissy," Ward said. "When you're writing a hero, they start doing that: 'Why isn't everyone happy?' You gotta pull it back and add a little wrath."
If anything, Finn's wrath has steadily crystalized as the show's plot moves along. In the current season, he has endured his first breakup, with the seemingly bipolar Flame Princess, and struggled to move on. One particularly remarkable episode during this arc, entitled "Demon Train," found Jake and Finn coming upon a moving transport filled with endless villains for the duo to battle. Adding to its metaphoric implications, it exclusively chugged along in circles. Finn's addiction to keeping the battle going rather than fleeing the vehicle -- while Jake stuck by his side despite urging his buddy to move on -- resulted in a zany but touching ode to friendship, as well as one of the many occasions when the show has probed the subjective qualities of heartbreak.
Of course, if you're an eight-year-old, maybe you just like the fun parts. "I've never worked on a show with such a diverse audience that likes it," DiMaggio said on the panel. He cited a conversation during an early season with Tom Kenny, the voice of the quasi-villainous Ice King (who's actually a former researcher named Simon Petrikoff driven insane by the mystical crown glued to his head, but we're getting away from ourselves). DiMaggio told Kenny that he, like so many people who have stumbled upon "Adventure Time" in recent years, simply didn't get it. Kenny put it simply: "It's this generation's 'Yellow Submarine.'"
Next: "We're playing Dungeons & Dragons when we write the show."