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Does the Obsessive 'Adventure Time' Fandom Overlook the Depths of Pendleton Ward's Cartoon Network Hit?

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 17, 2013 at 9:17AM

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.
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CN Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time."

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.

READ MORE: Why 'Adventure Time' Is More Groundbreaking Than You May Realize

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. 

"Adventure Time" creator Pendleton Ward.

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."

Ward himself has relished the opportunity to explore the odd, inexplicable qualities that put "Adventure Time" on the map. "As the show became more successful, I could pull it into weirder directions, which I think has made the show more popular," he said on the panel. Of course, dedicated viewers see more than that -- they see a mythology, one that stretches across thousands of years and many generations of events that led the Land of Ooo to its fantastical state. Ward says they're making it up as they go, but that doesn't devalue the mythological dimensions of the plot. "The way I explain it so it's not disappointing that the world isn't already figured out is that we're playing Dungeons & Dragons as we're writing it," he said. "We're with those characters and figuring things out alongside them."

Sugar added that it was all part of the same package. "I feel like the mythology really informs the fun part," she said. "It's so much more exciting to me when something has depth that you don't know is going to be there. If something is fun and strange and there are reasons for that, it's the most interesting it can be. They're not really competing with each other." By not conceiving of an overall game plan, she added, "Adventure Time" can keep exploring new crevices of its world indefinitely. "It's like a galaxy," she said. "It's always expanding." 

Those colossal expectations haven't kept Ward out of the spotlight, but he's started to look overwhelmed by it. The man who voices the show's loudmouthed, ditzy blob Lumpy Space Princess isn't exactly shy, though he resists pressure to discuss the show in terms of the fine-tuned details that so many regular viewers like to explore. To that end, he has largely receded from public view, doing very few interviews -- he did none at NYCC -- and even remaining fairly coy on his Twitter account. 

There's a sense that the hype surrounding "Adventure Time" may have a detrimental effect on its inventiveness: Not unlike the obsessiveness surrounding "The Wire" (like Grantland's "rigorous bracketological inquiry" into the best character last year) that led show creator David Simon to lament the lack of serious attention for its weighty themes, the "Adventure Time" mania obscures the complex impulses driving the quality of the series.

Of course, "Adventure Time" is asking for it. The popular ingredients have made its team of writers and artists extremely attractive to other networks and opened doors for them to advance their careers elsewhere. Sugar recently left the staff to launch her own program, "Steven Universe," which premieres next month. Another contributor, Natasha Allegri, has launched a Kickstarter campaign for her new Cartoon Hangover effort "Bee and PuppyCat." Contributing writer, storyboard artist and voice actor Kent Osborne told Indiewire that he received numerous offers from other networks, leading Cartoon Network to secure his commitment to "Adventure Time" by renewing his contract.

Complicating those temptations, "Adventure Time" is now a full-scale franchise. Earlier this year saw the release of an "Adventure Time" video game that Ward wrote himself, and the network oversees countless comic book series in addition to the production of mobile apps and costumes, which collectively feed the perception of "Simpsons"-level popularity in the works. For the 31-year-old Ward, it's got to be a lot to take in at once. "I think he's burnt out," said Osborne, who moonlights as an actor in micro-budget indies like Joe Swanberg's "Uncle Kent," in a conversation with Indiewire after the Comic Con panel. "It's hard. It takes a toll on you."

For Osborne, however, Ward requires his space to make "Adventure Time" the sui generis entity that makes it stand out. "A lot of cartoons don't work for me because they're based on ideas of what people think cartoons should be," he said, adding that most of the offers he received for other shows didn't interest him in the least. Sugar agreed, pointing out the restrictive categories that have held back the format outside of the looser arenas like late night animation on Adult Swim and its ilk. "Animation is not a genre," she said. "I hate when it's treated like a genre. It exists outside of anything you'd want it to be."

Still swept up in promoting "Adventure Time" even as she revs her engine for "Steven Universe," the 26-year-old Sugar laid out the appeal of the program outside of its evident commerciality. "People working on the show are poets," she said. "Penn lets them express themselves with super-interesting results. I think he's really a poet, also. That's what people mistake for trippiness." She let that distinction settle before pressing on. "He's expressing thoughts about very modern feelings that people have," she added. "These feelings are frivolous, and that's confusing. Good poetry is like that. Penn is letting that happen. That's why he's such an enigma -- he's an amazing artist."

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Adventure Time, Cartoon Network, New York Comic Con, Pendleton Ward, Kent Osborne, Rebecca Sugar