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."