I grew up on a steady diet of Darkwing Duck, and my son is doing the same.
I’m 31 years old, which places my formative Saturday morning cartoon years in the early- to mid-1990s. Think Doug, X-Men, Rugrats, Animaniacs, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Tick, Bonkers and the aforementioned Batman knockoff with a costumed duck. Until recently, I didn’t grasp the influences these childhood distractions had on the adult I became: I write for a living these days, mostly about pop culture, superheroes, zaniness and TV in general, and it turns out those passions surfaced a lot earlier than I realized.
After my eldest kiddo grew out of the typical toddler fare, like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Little Einsteins, it was time to start expanding his watch list. It was an adventure for both of us. Once I hit my pre-teens, I traded in cartoons for a steady drip of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, so it’d been nearly two decades since I’d seen a cartoon geared toward kids. As the father of an almost-six-year-old who likes cartoons almost as much as he does hitting a baseball (okay, let’s be honest, probably a little more), the past year has given me a chance to revisit the genre, while also sampling the animated fare of the current decade. I’ve come to realize there’s something truly timeless about getting smashed under giant sledgehammers and chowing down on cartoon chili dogs.
I snagged some bargain-bin DVDs of a few of my favorite shows from my own childhood, notably Darkwing Duck, and all three of the old Sonic the Hedgehog animated shows. (I probably have the only kindergartner who walks around humming the Sonic Underground soundtrack, but I digress.) My perception of these shows has changed quite a bit, but watching them again through the eyes of a kid? They’re as magical as ever.
All children see are superheroes, pratfalls, sight gags and bright colors. In retrospect, though, it’s clear that Saturday morning cartoons have gone through a fundamental change. Shows like Darkwing Duck and Bonkers straddled the awkward evolutionary line between old-school physical comedy (Bugs Bunny) and the modern-day subversion of genre tropes you find in pretty much everything these days. Darkwing Duck did an entire episode that was a straight-up homage to Twin Peaks, something pretty much no kid would ever pick up on. Watching that as an adult? My jaw hit the floor. Heck, even Bonkers was telling a veiled story about racism and fear of the “Other” decades before Zootopia tackled the subject. These were some of the first animated shows to take kids seriously enough to tell them stories with substance and nuance, and trust that they could follow the narrative when it got more complicated than Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner.
Of course, some of the shows you may have loved as a kid haven’t aged as well as you might hope. The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! is a frantic mess, awkwardly butchering aspects from the classic games with a threadbare story holding it together. Captain Planet may have a fantastic message about caring for the Earth, but it’s buried under a paint-by-numbers superhero story that was clunky even in the stilted era of the Super Friends. And the weirdness factor that made Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (remember that one?) fun as a pre-teen falls apart when you realize the show is basically just a string of set pieces featuring evil tomatoes bouncing down the street. Not every animated show was built to last.
After all, nostalgia can only get you so far. Like it or not, they’re not cranking out any new episodes of Animaniacs or The Tick (who knew?!)—and even for burgeoning TV-watchers in primary school, the peer pressure looms hard. Instead of chatting about the latest Stranger Things or The Walking Dead, it’s all about the new Teen Titans Go! or Pixar movie. Eventually, we had to expand our selections to include TV series that are still on the air. (I mean, I want my kid to have eclectic taste, but I don’t want him to be the weird kid who only watches vintage cartoons. We live in the South, not Williamsburg.)
After a bit of vetting, we set the DVR to record what would soon become stalwarts around our house: Phineas and Ferb, Star Wars: Rebels, Sonic Boom and the aforementioned Teen Titans Go!. Fresh from watching 1990s cartoons, it was easy to spot their influence on the cartoons of today. Phineas and Ferb is basically a warm, clever, metatextual blanket wrapped into a cartoon. The Disney XD series picks up the creative torch from its forebears, using its “Kids Do Wacky Things” formula to maximum effect: The simple story of a group of friends trying to have fun during their summer vacation has featured everything from a Rollerball homage to a universe-hopping thriller from episode to episode.
The criminally under-watched Sonic Boom is a worthy addition to the speedy hedgehog’s small-screen legacy, basically functioning as a spoof-heavy, kid-friendly sitcom (with the added bonus of frequent attacks from Doctor Eggman). Star Wars: Rebels is the perfect gateway drug into a galaxy far, far away—and it’s refreshing to watch someone dive into that world for the first time. Watching Teen Titans Go! as an adult is a strange experience. It’s just so… dumb. But, in the great way that Ren & Stimpy was dumb when I was a kid. Except now I’m the old fogey who doesn’t really find it all that funny, while my son cackles at the fart jokes. Oh, the ravages of time.
Young audiences may not be aware of the history and the influences that make these shows tick, but they’re still digesting them and starting to look for the hallmarks at the ages of five and six. From sitcoms to space operas to gross-out comedies, kids are introduced to the formats and genres that define much of American pop culture earlier and earlier. Kids are now able to develop—and experiment with—their tastes before they hit elementary school: Think of it as a crash course, or pre-K, for cultural education. The animated landscape has become so varied that it’s easier than ever for kids to find something they truly love and connect with, whether it’s a 20-year-old cartoon or something brand new.
Along with all the great things you learn about caring for another human being, fatherhood has also served as a reminder of the childhood adage that you are what you eat—namely, that the books we read and the TV shows we watch shape who we become. Taste is equal parts nature and nurture: I see a lot of myself in my son, especially when he chases me around the house with the Darkwing Duck toy gas gun I had to scour eBay to find for his birthday. But as he starts to find his own way, it’s fascinating to see his taste being made before my eyes. Let’s just hope he can learn from my experience and avoid his own version of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.