NOTE: I drafted this on my computer while I had power at a local café, but I’m posting it from home on my cell phone. As a result, some of my formatting may have gotten messed up. If so, I apologize: I’ll fix it as soon as I have power and Internet at home.
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of cartoons. Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Inspector Gadget…the list goes on. Thanks to Netflix, I’ve started re-watching many of these shows, but I find that it is hard to re-capture my childhood appreciation. Most did not age well (or maybe I haven’t), but it is somewhat saddening to see stories I loved as a kid come off as puerile now. Interestingly, the books I read as a child do not suffer from the same problem. Why are the shows I watched at eight or nine unwatchable now, but the books I read at the same age still enjoyable? Have I just become some sort of egg-headed curmudgeon (obviously I have, but is that the cause?), or is there something different about these stories that affects their longevity?
Since Hurricane Irene knocked out our power for the last couple of days, I’ve had nothing to do but think about this while twiddling my thumbs by candlelight. And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: what sets timeless middle-grade fiction apart from the cartoons from the ’80s and early ’90s is the evolution of character and moral ambiguity.
The Quest Structure and Character Evolution in Middle Grade Fiction
Much of the middle-grade fantasy I read as a child (Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time Quintet, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising) relied on the standard portal/quest structure. The youthful hero/ine has to leave home, find something, and return.
Their physical quest mirrors an evolution of their characters. As they progress through the various stages of their adventure, the characters are naturally changed by their experiences. Edmund Pevensie, in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, starts as a resentful, selfish child. His exposure to the White Witch’s evil changes him, as do his attempts to earn his siblings’ (and Aslan’s) forgiveness. At the end of the book, bratty little Edmund Pevensie ultimately becomes “Edmund the Just.”
In Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, Taran learns that adventure is not the rollicking good time he supposes, and that heroes must make difficult choices.
In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg develops self-confidence and self-value through realizing that although she lacks her siblings’ more obvious gifts, her capacity for love ensures a central place within her family.
While adult readers might deride the portal/quest fantasy structure as trite, its ability to harmonize the characters’ emotional journey with their physical adventure continues to make it resonate. The key to that resonance, particularly for young readers, is how compelling the characters are. If the characters are uninteresting, no kid will ever enjoy the book. If those characters do not change, then young readers will rapidly outgrow the story (if they ever get into it at all).
Character Evolution in Cartoons
This kind of character evolution is distinctly absent from cartoons of the ’80s. At the time, cartoons were often made to sell toys, and by their very nature were more open-ended: the writers had to keep the story going until the show got cancelled. This presents its own storytelling challenges, and as a consequence, each episode tended to be a self-contained story arc, while the series as a whole had only the loosest overall structure. Typically a shows’ latter seasons – when the creators saw their series nearing the end of its viability – would often feature multi-episode or season-spanning plots which the creators hoped would finish a story. Yet despite this “innovation” in storytelling, each episode still needed to be self-contained, and characters never evolved greatly from one episode to the next. The Donatello we meet in the first episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the same Donatello ten seasons later: his experiences over the ten years of show continuity have not introduced any changes into the character’s personality or values.
When we look at more modern cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender, we see an entirely different structure at work. First and foremost, the story is no longer open-ended. The show’s creators set out to tell a story in three parts. There was never an intention to keep the show going through ten years of storytelling. Avatar The Last Airbender is similar to much middle-grade fiction in that it retains a quest structure at its macro-level and focuses on an over-arching conflict between our heroes and a “Dark Lord” villain. However, as in all cartoons, each episode remains a self-contained adventure within the confines of the broader story.
I believe that this innovation is enormously significant in terms of televised animated storytelling. Thanks to its structure, Avatar The Last Airbender is able to introduce character arcs that parallel the story’s plot arc. Over the story’s three seasons, we can watch Aang mature and take on his responsibilities as the Avatar, Sokka grow into the capable warrior he dreams of being, and Katara master water-bending and come to terms with her feelings for Aang. Each of the principal characters gradually grows and changes over the course of the show’s three seasons, which ultimately makes the series’ conclusion all the more satisfying.
Villainy in Middle-Grade Fiction and Cartoons
Another key difference lies in how “classic” cartoons portray their villains. The portal/quest fantasy has often been mocked for its stereotypically irredeemable “Dark Lord” (for a hilarious send-up, I strongly recommend Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel). And both middle-grade novels and cartoons feature this trope.
The Dark Lord’s goals tend to be suitably grandiose: take over the world/universe/whatever. But while the Dark Lord is portrayed as irredeemable and morally abhorrent, our heroes rarely face him until the final battle. Instead, their direct opposition usually comes from the Dark Lord’s lackeys, who are more complex characters serving the Dark Lord for their own (less inscrutable) reasons. Their goals are more localized: gain temporal power, get the respect they think they deserve, etc.
Whether it is Alexander’s Queen Archen, Cooper’s Walker, or Lewis’ Edmund Pevensie, the Dark Lord’s helpers are shown to actively make choices that align themselves with evil. Unlike the Dark Lord, their evil is never a given: they choose it for themselves. But in “classic” cartoons, the Dark Lords’ lackeys are just as irredeemably evil as their master. Whether we are talking about the Thundercats’ Slythe, the Decepticon Starscream, or Cobra’s The Baroness, the front-line villains have no depth; their motivations are rarely explored.
Moral Ambiguity in Today’s Cartoons
Fast forward twenty years, and you find an entirely new generation of cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender and the Cartoon Network’s reboot of Thundercats. Today, the irredeemable evil of the villain and the unquenchable goodness of the “good guys” is far more flexible.
Consider the rebooted Thundercats: in the first episode, we learn that the Thundercats have been repressing the dogs and lizardmen for generations. While our hero, Lion-O might oppose this level of repression, “the good guys” are generally depicted as racists. Or consider Avatar The Last Airbender. In the first episode, we learn that the Fire Nation has waged a century-long war of subjugation against the other nations, slaughtering an entire race (the Airbenders) in an unprecedented genocide. Within the first season, though, we learn that both this genocide and the war-torn century are a result of the Avatar (theoretically our hero) running from his responsibilities.
None of the “classic” cartoons from the ’80s would ever have explored a theme as morally ambiguous as Aang’s rejection of responsibility. Instead, each of these shows had to end with a moralistic “lesson” portrayed through the dénoument: remember those “knowing is half the battle” sequences at the end of GI Joe episodes? Such an externally-imposed mandate makes morally ambiguous storytelling difficult, if not impossible.
But middle-grade fiction has always had this type of moral ambiguity. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie betrays his siblings to the White Witch in exchange for promises of power and Turkish Delight. More recently, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is a thief and kidnapper who performs morally abhorrent acts with (it turns out) noble intentions. Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm wrestle with the right-and-wrong of trapping all magical Everafters in a small rural town, and their friend is the Big Bad Wolf – a villain struggling with his past crimes. Susan Cooper’s Walker shows us that the “good guys” might not always do good, and that they too can betray – or seemingly betray – their friends. None of this even touches upon Rowling’s Harry Potter books, with the moral ambiguity of Snape, Dumbledore, and Tom Riddle.
Avatar The Last Airbender probably offers us the most powerful example of how contemporary cartoons can treat villainy: when the series opens, Prince Zuko is the heroes’ primary opposition, and we watch him hunt the Avatar with intense zeal. However, by the end of the first season we understand that Zuko struggles through his relationship with his father (Fire Lord Ozai, the “Dark Lord” of the series) and with his own moral compass, personified by his Uncle Iroh. While Zuko represents the primary threat against the heroes, he is forced him into chasing the Avatar, and though we may not agree with his motives we at least understand them. His portrayal as an almost-sympathetic character makes his evolution that much more satisfying, as over the course of the three seasons we watch him gradually change from being the Dark Lord’s lackey to being one of the story’s principal heroes.
What are the Implications for Children’s Storytelling?
I think Avatar The Last Airbender, with its moral ambiguity and even-handed character arcs makes for innovative children’s storytelling, irrespective of medium. Avatar The Last Airbender’s treatment of Prince Zuko would be the equivalent of Queen Archen or the Horned King switching sides, and I have not seen much middle-grade fantasy take moral ambiguity to such lengths (though Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy – which may or may not be considered middle-grade – comes very close, and Joseph Delaney tries for it in The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch). The creators of the Thundercats reboot openly discuss wanting to make a darker, more cinematic story than the original cartoon (although Cartoon Network’s Friday at 8:30pm timeslot for the show might suggest they are aiming for an older audience). Personally, I think all of this represents an opportunity for writers of middle-grade and cartoons.
The success of Avatar The Last Airbender proves that the middle-grade audience enjoys complex storytelling, with extended character arcs and moral ambiguity. While some might say that shows like that are “too much for kids,” I could not disagree more: by blending childish adventure with more serious storytelling, they are doing what children’s literature has always done: helping kids develop a vocabulary with which to internalize and articulate a morally complex world.
In a real sense, I think this represents the gradual accrual of wisdom. If – thanks to more morally ambiguous middle-grade fiction or morally-challenging cartoons – kids are able to recognize, understand, and internalize a more complex world, then I think this can only be good. Doesn’t it suggest that kids are growing wiser sooner? And from a more crassly commercial standpoint, it also opens up “children’s” stories for an audience entirely outside of its intended demographic.
Who says grown-ups can’t enjoy good kids’ stories, anyway?