Why I never stopped watching cartoons

When I’ve participated in con panels or had to introduce myself in geek circles, I’ve never been able to label myself a professional geek. My degree is in broadcasting studies, and I’ve written scripts for am-dram theatre and radio comedy, but beyond that my involvement in geek culture has generally been at an amateur level. So instead, I introduce myself as an adult who never stopped watching cartoons.

There was never a reason to stop. After watching classic British cartoons like ‘Bagpuss’ and ‘Postman Pat’ as a young’un, and moving on to action-adventure stuff like ‘Transformers’, He-Man and She-Ra, and imported stuff like ‘Ulysses 31’ and ‘Mysterious Cities Of Gold’, right at the age when most kids were moving on to young-adult stuff, we got Sky TV at home. With that came ‘The Simpsons’, which most kids in my school didn’t watch because having Sky TV in 1990 meant you were posh and I went to school in a fairly poor area. So there was still a cartoon I could watch that was (mostly) age-appropriate. Looking back, I probably did stick with kids’ cartoons longer than other kids my age, but we lived in an isolated area outside of the village where I went to school, so I couldn’t spend weekends with other kids unless I cycled the three-mile journey myself, and who wants to ride bikes uphill for three miles when there are cartoons to watch?

No, they don’t make ’em like that anymore. Which is probably for the best.

‘The Simpsons’ was my life for a solid three years. It referenced other shows and films, was funny in ways that kids’ cartoons weren’t, and American TV always felt cooler than most British shows that were on at the time.

When Sky TV started introducing dedicated kids’ channels, again there was a lot of imported American stuff. Nickelodeon brought us ‘The Ren and Stimpy Show’, soon followed by ‘Rocko’s Modern Life’, which got away with so much crudeness I still can’t believe anyone thought they were for kids. They were a natural gateway to ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ and ‘Daria’, which suited my teen melancholia and disaffection perfectly, and by the time ‘South Park’ hit the UK, I was a thoroughly depressed, cynical drama student in sixth form looking for anything that felt like an unabashed two-finger salute at anyone who told me to grow up.

Yes, they made beaver jokes on Nickelodeon.

When I got to university in 1999, I discovered ‘Ninja Scroll’, playing late at night on the Sci-Fi channel, and then, through a documentary about sex in animation, I found Anime. I’d already been watching ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Sailor Moon’, my guilty Saturday morning pleasures, but here were cartoons that were not the least bit kid-friendly. ‘Akira’, ‘Ghost In The Shell’, and ‘Urotsukidoji’ were all available in my university’s media library; I watched them several times over. Through online friends in the states, I found ‘Fruits Basket’ and ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’. While other students on my course were writing their dissertations on serious British drama shows and bias in news media, I wrote 15,000 words on why it was okay for adults to watch kids’ TV (seriously – I still have a copy of that thesis, which earned me a first class honours degree). I wrote about depictions of romance in ‘Sailor Moon’ and how hungover adults had started watching Saturday morning cartoons for both nostalgia and to avoid over-taxing their tired student brains. Eventually, when I graduated in 2002, I was a firmly established Anime Fan, and there had never been a point when I felt I had outgrown cartoons. Instead, cartoons had grown up with me.

As a young adult with virtually no social life, I had time and money to spend on imported DVDs, and eventually rented DVDs when Netflix was still a disc rental service. I binge-watched stuff like ‘Blue Gender’ and ‘Steins:Gate’, going into graphic detail about ‘Elfen Lied’ whenever anyone tried to tell me that cartoons were for kids. I’d already realised by that point that most people around me didn’t get it, but I also had stopped caring.

Proper grown-up television.

Animation was fun. I still watched plenty of live-action stuff – I was obsessed with ‘Red Dwarf’ throughout my teenage years and again when it was revived for season seven, and my first experience of meeting fellow fans was at a Buffy/Firefly con in 2004. I wrote fanfiction for live-action shows and built an extensive collection of horror and fantasy films on DVD. But cartoons never went away.

I’m not sure at what point anime took over as my format of choice. At some point I started to get fed up of long-running live action stuff. Maybe around the mid-2000s, with stuff like ’24’ and ‘Heroes’, when it became impossible to dip into a show or pick up a show mid-season – you had to watch until the bitter end, and things never stopped after one season. With the anime I had seen, things tended to reach a sensible finale and then stop (I hadn’t been made aware of the soap opera stylings of stuff like ‘One Piece’ or ‘Naruto’). I could binge-watch a whole anime and it felt like reading a novel. Plus, anime opened up a whole host of genres that just didn’t transfer into English language media – there’s no English version of a sports anime, and very little charming slice-of-life stuff that doesn’t descend into heavy drama.

There are no British shows that even compare to things like ‘Shirokuma Cafe’, my go-to anime when I just want a sweet pick-me-up when life gets too heavy. I can’t recall an English language show about the power of friendship and how things can work out if we all try our best. British cynicism and stiff-upper-lip spirit just don’t allow it. I can’t imagine any British or American writers coming up with something like ‘JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’.

Sometimes all I want in life is to watch a polar bear serve coffee to a penguin.

Cartoons give me what live-action shows never can – real escapism. Live-action sci-fi will always have drama, unlike ‘Space Dandy’ where I can simply zip off to another planet when I’ve had my fill. Young adult dramas get bogged down in stuff like drugs and sex, when I’d much rather cheer on the swim team as they prove that friendship is more important than anything else.

You can keep your Game of Thrones and your Grey’s Anatomy (I seriously just had to google ‘popular TV shows to name something that wasn’t GoT). I’ll be in my armchair binge-watching ‘Osomatsu-san’ yet again. Try telling me that one’s just for kids.

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