Despite the show having been around for over two years, I’m still somewhat shocked at how popular Adventure Time has become. I admit I enjoyed it immensely when I first saw it, and even more so since then, but I also thought it was far too weird to gain any real traction, which was my mistake because I didn’t realize that my sense of humor wasn’t THAT unique after all. It’s fascinating to watch, because when you start thinking about what makes Adventure Time work it makes you think about the context of where it falls into the world of cartoons from the last twenty years.
To start, it’s important to keep in mind that there was a shift in the nineties that gave cartoons, if not a sense of sophistication, then at the very least they became tolerable to parents who would normally want to blow their brains out while watching them with their kids. There was also a noticeable push for these shows to have a more precise artistic vision, such as The Powerpuff Girls, which inverted many of the tropes and staples of superhero shows, or Samurai Jack, which had a degree of scope and sophistication that had rarely been seen up to that point.
Eventually, when Cartoon Network created its Adult Swim block of programming it signaled a significant change in the cultural landscape, in that the demand for more adult oriented cartoons could no longer be ignored. Adult Swim productions introduced a subversive energy and absurdist sensibilities which would eventually go on to define the tone of a lot more cartoons, and is an immensely popular strategy to this day. I know that I’m rambling a bit, but I don’t get to to write about cartoons all that much (you can only imagine how much I could write on Megas XLR alone) but what’s interesting, though, is that in the last several years we’ve been circling back to shows created for kids but with the added bonus of both all ages accessibility and absurdist sensibilities, and Adventure Time is the perfect embodiment of that trend.
On the off chance you don’t know what Adventure Time is (maybe you’ve been in a trance for the last few years?), it’s a TV show about a twelve year old human boy named Finn and his twenty-eight year old best friend/brother?/dog Jake, as they travel around the magical land of Ooh, which just so happens to be a Candyland-esque post-apocalyptic version of Earth after the so-called “Mushroom War”. So as you can see, the show itself reads like a sort of wholesome acid trip right from the get-go, and that’s even before you add in characters like Princess Bubblegum (the benevolent/possibly insane ruler of the Candy Kingdom), Marceline (the vampire queen indy rocker), and the manic-depressive Ice King.
Creator Pendleton Ward and the show’s staff gave the world Adventure Time inhabits a highly fleshed out feel along with the sort of madcap absurdist energy that so many people try to do, but flounder with as they ultimately end up getting in over their heads. So it’s really not surprising that the show has come to resonate with people the way that it has, and seeing how it’s grown over the years- beginning from a time when the internet became an Adventure Time gif generator for a while, until the show produced a mass of cosplayers who now populate conventions at almost unprecedented levels- is a pretty impressive sight. (It looks like we might be seeing a similar situation begin with Gravity Falls, which is really good and you should all watch it.) All in all Adventure Time is a truly wonderful weird gem of a show that exists in that delicate middle ground between great all-ages entertainment and truly absurd subversive comedy. In comparison, the Adventure Time comic book reads very much the same way.
The series is written by Ryan North, who before this was primarily known for the webcomic Dinosaur Comics, which despite being incredibly funny did lead to the question of how he would work within the narrative structure of a twenty-plus page issue with a multiple-issue story arc when coming from operating a long running gag strip. It turns out that this question didn’t even need to be asked, because his plotting is top notch. By displaying a great handle on the characters, North proves he’s a guy who really loves this world and wants to add to it in his own way. The first four-issue arc is particularly impressive, as it picks up a few dangling plot threads from the show regarding the fate of the Lich from season 2 (despite the randomness of most episodes, Adventure Time has a firm continuity and a penchant for building on its own mythology) and from there Finn and Jake spring into action. The first arc is very impressive simply due to its scope, as the stakes are to save the land of Ooh from being devoured by an evil sack and being thrown into the sun. Cartoons and comics have the dual strength of being mediums where you can do whatever you please as long as you have the imagination and skill to do it, and that’s on full display here. The other two issues so far released are less epic in scope and more out- and-out humor related, but still uses the Adventure Time world for everything that it’s worth and keeps going in new and interesting places.
North writes these characters in a way that they both sound exactly like they do in the show while also playing perfectly with Norths’ own voice as a writer. The humor jumps off the page and, interestingly enough, events in this book seem poised to ultimately affect the TV show, particularly regarding the events of the fourth issue. I’m sure that the easiest way to interpret this is that it’s a design decision overseen by Pendleton Ward and that plot point was always in the works, but it says something that it happened within these pages and not the show itself. Despite all that, this isn’t a book that needs stories that “matter” in terms of continuity, because as long as it’s fun and embodies the show’s spirit, that’s all you really need. So the fact that North goes above and beyond that should be applauded.
What should also be applauded is the art by Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. I remember reading an interview with a fairly prominent artist who had done some work on a property adaptation of a popular cartoon and they called the work a “thankless job” because they had ostensibly aped the show’s style and weren’t allowed to really stretch their own creative wings. In some ways I understand what that artist was talking about, but in terms of Adventure Time one of the biggest appeals of the show in my opinion is the eccentric nature of the animation, and some of that definitely gets lost in the art. However, they do bring a distinct level of craftsmanship to the pages, and since comics is a sequential format they can use panels to highlight some aspects of Adventure Times’ world that sometimes get rushed past in the cartoon, which heightens the reading experience. The way they convey the elasticity of Jakes powers alone is visually impressive and the way that they play with panel layout and scenery makes the action appear to stretch beyond the pages. In particular I enjoyed their work in issue five, which not only showed a wide level of diversity in showing off Adventure Times’ world but also allowed the creative team to introduce brand new concepts that were wholly their own. So no, what Paroline and Lamb are doing should never be seen as thankless work. Not when they’re creating some of the most innovative visuals to be seen in a monthly book. They really deserve to get all of the fist bumps as thanks.
If there is one problem to be had with the series it’s a small one; Adventure Time has always had a reputation of being a very chaotic show while still making a point of being emotionally honest with its characters. This comic hasn’t really done that yet. It understands its’ characters and has tons of great moments, but it hasn’t really found its emotional core yet. Small problem, I know, and the series is still young so I’m sure it will get there, but it was something that jumped out at me. Nonetheless though, this is probably the best bang for your buck out of any comic on the rack right now. Not only is it the best all-ages book being published right now (Partly because Princeless is on a hiatus, Snarked and Reed Gunther are ending, and Sergio Aragone’s Funnies up and disappeared on us), it’s simply a wonderful celebration of comics.
Even without the main story this would still be a book with quality talent such as Lucy Kinsey, Zac Gorman, Michael Deforge, Aaron Reiner, Chris Eliopolous, Paul Pope, Chris (and his eight year old Daughter Gerogia) Roberson, and Anthony Clark providing back ups, thus introducing their work to a whole set of people that would have never heard of them otherwise, and that’s not even including the vast number of people doing variant covers. Comics need this sort of emphasis on creativity and accessibility for upcoming artists in the mainstream scene, and it’s fitting that Adventure Time is the one doing it.
Now if we could just get a Regular Show comic going, that would just be terrific.
TL;DR: Adventure Time perfectly embodies the spirit of the cartoon while at the same time giving you the best bang for your buck of any alleges humor book on the stands.
Adventure Time is written by Ryan North with art by Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. Published by BOOM! Studios, issues one through six are available both physically and digitally with issue seven being released on August 29th. Look for them at your local comic book shop.