Reading Too Much Into Adventure Time! with Finn and Jake, Part One

Once again, lacking anything else to post for a Wednesday Whatever I go to the well of hastily adapted panel notes. This time, have my panel on Adventure Time! from Connecticon 2013. As always, this is built around discrete chunks tied to slides, so please forgive the lack of flow. This is the first half of the panel; I will hold the second half, dealing with character relationships and postmodern elements, for another Wednesday.

Adventure Time! as nonsense literature: Literary nonsense is a genre with roots in two sources: First, traditional nursery rhymes, which employed made-up rhymes, little games (such as paddycake and ring-around-the-rosie) and lots of animal and food themes to entertain children. Second, in the middle ages scholars, intellectuals, and poets employed intellectual absurdities and paradoxes for humor in political satire, parodies, and comedies. Edward Lear popularized combining the two with his limericks, stories, and songs (most famously “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which combines animal themes and made-up words like “runcible spoon” familiar from nursery rhymes with a parody of courtly love). Lewis Carroll then codified the genre with the Alice books, the Sylvie and Bruno books, and poems like “The Hunting of the Snark.”

Nonsense literature is generally rigorously logical, but with skewed premises—characters have very simple, straightforward emotions, and their behavior is instead logically driven from a weird basis. For example, Bubblegum Princess is uninterested in romance, and instead all her actions follow as a logical consequence of the absurd premise of being a ruler who is also a mad scientist who is also living candy. Nonsense literature tends to play with things that have a lot of arbitrary rules in real life, such as games, food (which is always surrounded by complex etiquette and rules about what you can eat at different times of day or what foods go together (ice cream and asparagus for breakfast, for example, is arbitrarily not acceptable even though either food on its own is acceptable at other times of day)), and laws, stripped of their normal context and emotional content. That’s all over the place in Adventure Time—early elements have things like the bizarre trials for breaking a Royal Promise, people made of candy, hot dogs, berries, and so on, and lots of references to video games and D&D. There are also entire episodes devoted to games being taken bizarrely seriously, such as the game of Let’s Pretend during the knife storm or the complex holographic Magic-the-Gathering-type game Finn and Jake play that Jake takes far too seriously.

The Nostalgia Factor: There’s a moderately well-known video about this from the PBS Idea Channel on YouTube. As it points out, a lot of the cartoons popular among adults evoke a sense of nostalgia—a fuzzy notion that childhood is nicer and simpler and happier, a wish to return to it. MLP, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and Gumball are all examples. Adventure Time evokes this nostalgia in a lot of ways: the heroic adventures, post-apocalyptic setting, and sword-wielding blend of fantasy and science fiction were common in products of the 1980s and early 1990s such as Thundercats, He-Man, and Krull. Nonsense literature is often usually children’s literature, so that element evokes memories of childhood, too. And the music frequently employs chiptunes, which are based on the sounds of video game consoles of the 1980s and 1990s. Many individual episodes work for this—for example, in Season One’s “Dungeon” they split up to explore a dungeon, and encounter challenges which would be perfect for the other one, parodying shows like Superfriends where the characters would always face challenges perfectly suited for their particular skills (for example, there was always a water-based problem for Aquaman). However, this video misses the mark by suggesting that its appeal is because the characters are nostalgic themselves, with things like the wreckage of human civilization everywhere and the hints at past relationships and “better days” between Marcelline and other characters like Ice King and Bubblegum Princess. That’s unlikely as a source of the show’s popularity because it was already hugely popular long before those elements became clear in late first/early second season. The bigger factor is that unlike most shows nostalgic for childhood, it doesn’t shy away from showing how much being a kid can suck. Finn frequently is ordered to do things without knowing why, has information hidden from him by adults, gets confused over relationships and life questions and his identity—his life is not all happiness and silliness! It is thus far more accurate to childhood than most such shows, and thereby evokes nostalgia all the more strongly.

Meme depot into cult show: As long-time readers of this blog know, I have argued before that there are basically two kinds of shows popular among geeks right now. Meme depots are shows that have a lot of absurd gags that are easily repeatable out of context, so we can easily spread them as memes on Facebook and Tumblr. Most of these are cartoons—Family Guy was probably the original cartoon to actively do this, but it’s been done better by shows like Regular Show. A cult show, on the other hand, has a plan (or pretends to have a plan) and much of the fun comes from the audience learning about the world and gathering clues to try to figure out the plan. This is old hat in anime and limited-run British series like The Prisoner, but in American television didn’t catch on until shows like X-Files and Babylon 5 in the 1990s, before it took off massively with Lost. As mentioned, it’s always been everywhere in anime, but entered Western animation in the 2000s with shows like Justice League and Avatar the Last Airbender. What’s interesting about Adventure Time is that it started as a meme depot—it was all about silly gags and gif-able memes—but has been steadily becoming more of a cult show, slowly revealing that there is a backstory worth caring about with things like Marceline and Ice King’s relationship, dropping recurring hints at future developments with things like the snail that became the snail-lich, and so on.

Worldbuilding: This brings us to worldbuilding. The Simon and Marcy episodes are a good source for this. We know there was a Great Mushroom War, referring to the mushroom cloud from nukes, and that the current planet has a huge chunk taken out of it. We don’t know what caused the Mushroom War, but it’s not that relevant to the present of the show–whatever cultures’ differences created the conflict are long gone. The “Finn the Human/Jake the Dog” two-parter shows us an alternate history that implies that these weapons weren’t all straightforward nukes, since the one bomb is implied to have necromantic elements that probably created the Lich in the normal continuity.

How did humans get a necromantic bomb? The fact that both Marceline and the Ice King’s crown predate the Mushroom War means that magic has always been around in this world, although maybe it wasn’t as out in the open prior to the war. Things like Hell, vampires, and magical artifacts existed, so why not necromantic nukes? “Simon and Marcy” even gives hints to the origins of the candy people: The zombie-like mutated humans in the abandoned city resemble the candy people faintly, and the friendly blob creature is pretty obviously Princess Bubblegum or an ancestor. The episode as a whole is actually something of a reference to the novel “I Am Legend,” with Simon as the main character and Marcy as the dog. As in that book, the apparent monsters are actually humanity’s successors that will be founding a new civilization in the future, and the apparent hero is going to be their legendary monster.

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