Look up “adult animation” and you’ll find the likes of South Park, Family Guy and Rick and Morty mentioned. For a long time in the West there’s been the notion that animation is primarily for children, and “adult” animation is what happens when you throw a load of sex jokes in resulting in something more akin to an adult sitcom that simply happens to be animated than a serious story. That isn’t to disparage these shows, which occupy their own niche, but up until recently the only way to tell an “adult” story was through live action.
The last few years have seen this trend challenged from two angles. The first is children’s cartoons that increasingly have consistent storylines and deal with darker or mature themes: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power looks at gaslighting and parental abuse while Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel The Legend of Korra cover everything from genocide to PTSD. The second is adult animations which, whilst still looking like zany sitcoms have much deeper drama happening too: BoJack Horseman may be labelled as a sitcom, but it’s often viewed as a character drama where topics like alcoholism, usually made the butt of a joke, are explored in more depth.
It’s no coincidence that this trend has coincided with the rise of streaming services. It’s much easier to have a stronger, coherent arc when the whole season is available on demand and when your audience aren’t going to miss entire episodes. And now we’re seeing the rise of a new kind of show – one that is the type of straightforward, serious story you’d expect in live action, only told through animation. Netflix’s Castlevania, whilst labelled as an anime and based on a video game series made in Japan, is an entirely western creation, a gothic story of vampires, sex and carnage, and Netflix has a few shows in a similar vein. But the turning point might just be Amazon Prime’s Invincible.
Based on a comic series by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, Invincible tells the story of Mark Grayson, son of Omni-Man (think Superman, but as a middle-aged dad), who discovers his powers and sets about becoming a superhero. It has all the hallmarks of a traditional superhero coming-of-age story until realistic consequences for superheroics start emerging. In an early episode, Mark does everything in his power to save just one civilian during an alien invasion, only for her to die in hospital.
Without delving too deep into spoiler territory, Invincible deals with heavy subject matter. Abusive families, the psychological toll of being unable to save people, the nature of what it is to be human, the difficulties of tackling systemic injustice. Yes, there’s blood and guts, and characters swear, but these aren’t exaggerated for the sake of making the series “edgy”.
All of this benefits even more from being animated. Animation is a valid storytelling method, and in some cases superior for telling certain stories. Just look at Disney’s recent slew of live-action adaptations – does anyone really prefer them to the originals? The artistic freedom that animation gives creators can make for exceptionally powerful moments that simply aren’t possible in live action without heavy reliance on CGI, which can really be hit-and-miss in terms of believability.
Invincible may be a turning point in how we in the west view adult animation because it’s mature without being crude, and it’s popular. Whether it’s because of The Walking Dead fans eager to see more of Kirkman’s work or the allure of its star-studded cast (including Steve Yeun, Sandra Oh and J.K. Simmons, to name but a few), Invincible has already been renewed for a second and third season and has had an overwhelmingly positive reception from fans and critics alike. Now that it’s been proven that this kind of show that is essentially an animated drama is a viable genre, it’s possible that our attitudes may change, at least in terms of superhero and fantasy shows. Sure, there are live action comic TV adaptations that are great shows. But for every Umbrella Academy there’s a cringeworthy Titans. If we can get more shows like Invincible that can only be a good thing.