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‘The Venture Bros.’ Gave Us a Cartoon Renaissance That’s Slipping Away

Strange, silly, dark and deep — the Adult Swim show changed the game for animation

The Venture Bros., an animated comedy that dates back to a 2003 pilot and spanned an impossibly rich universe of characters in its seven seasons on the air, has been canceled by Adult Swim, the night-hours alter ego of the Cartoon Network. In the way of these things, hardcore fans have bewailed the decision — series creator Christopher McCulloch, aka Jackson Publick, said he and co-writer Doc Hammer were halfway into scripting Season Eight — and are now begging for Netflix or some other white knight to save the show. This kind of campaign is hardly new. Neither is the abrupt and seemingly capricious way in which many TV sagas end.

But when it debuted in the mid-aughts, Venture Bros. was unmistakably new, and, more impressive still, it never proved to be a passing novelty. From the beginning, it broke with (and satirized) cartoon tradition in two ways. Adult Swim had initially made its brand on the repurposing of material from the Hanna-Barbera archive. Space Ghost became the Dadaist talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast; Birdman and the Galaxy Trio transformed into the zany legal procedural Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law; Sealab 2020 was edited into the dysfunctional workplace sitcom Sealab 2021. The Venture Bros. also played on Hanna-Barbera nostalgia, particularly tropes of the Jonny Quest series, but the concept was far more ambitious than any amusing remix: The ensemble and settings formed an homage, yet they remained entirely original, as did the art.

And whereas the other shows were aggressively anti-contextual (a channel-surfing stoner could easily drop into any irreverent episode), Venture Bros. was almost forbiddingly dense with backstory and parallel plot threads. It requires a geek-level attention.

It also lampooned the very geekery that made such a premise feasible and sustainable:

As silly as it could be, though, Venture Bros. was remarkable for its solid and serious extrapolation of the mechanics and stakes in a world crawling with superheroes and villains, robots, aliens, magic, assassins and ghosts. The bad guys have an evil yet bureaucratic guild that determines whom they are allowed to menace, while the henchmen die real, bloody deaths. Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, father of the Venture boys, is embittered and traumatized by his childhood “adventures” (read: constant kidnappings by costumed weirdos), fails in trying to be the suavely brilliant scientist his father was and is revealed to casually clone his boys back to life whenever they suffer a grisly, preventable demise in the family’s dangerous exploits. Their mountainous bodyguard, Brock Samson — voiced by the inimitable Patrick Warburton — is a caricature of the raging, hyper-violent action hero, ready to snap at any moment, even while he aims to locate some inner peace or tenderness.

It is, at each turn, a cartoon with consequences, or, even better, a cartoon that sends up the idea that cartoons can reset reality every episode.

As such (and as previously argued by MEL contributor John Maher in his cartoon-focused publication The Dot and Line), Venture Bros. is the rightful godfather of weighty, continuity-driven animated sitcoms like BoJack Horseman and Rick & Morty. It delved into depression, loss, failure and fragile masculinity alongside destructive cycles of vengeance and tortured romance. And it did so by peeling back the neon lasers and rote fisticuffs of your Saturday-morning kiddie fare to expose a fraught, sometimes ugly core of unresolved pain.

What better preempt of a cinematic age that insisted on the gravitas of Marvel and DC icons? Years before we were told to emotionally invest ourselves in the sacrifices of Iron Man, or the moral conundrums of a billionaire vigilante who dresses up like a bat, Venture Bros. was pointing out that the bygone Hanna-Barbera protagonists were, on second glance, brutal colonizers complicit in the military-industrial complex.

But the archetypes were so lived-in, so fleshed out and so left-field funny that the show could never be accused of lecturing you like a three-hour installment of the Avengers does. At a time when studios are striving to connect the dots between intellectual properties in order to build sprawling, interdependent franchises, Venture Bros. stands as the best example of how to fashion a coherent whole: with great patience, meticulous detail and an interest in its players besides getting them from point A to B.

In all likelihood, the time and expense that went into Venture Bros. are what sunk its chances to return to Adult Swim once more. Meanwhile, as a global pandemic stalls live-action production, animated comedy for grown-ups is an expanding business. With that trend, and the need to swiftly produce more content, comes an unfortunate flatness of style — a default to the average. What a shame it would be if the finale of Venture Bros. marked a conclusion to the renaissance it anticipated, cartoons full of idiosyncratic depths, brought to the screen with an illustrative talent capable of both beauty and grotesquerie.

Either way, it is assured the status of cult classic for this range, and for the vision that demanded true artistry. We can rest easy, at least, that it may inspire future creators to attempt something as radical. Just hope that it finds a home.