Mr. Fantastic is a sociopath who hides his super-powered brethren in a giant-sized Arctic laboratory. The Scooby Gang is a collection of addled misfits with a talking dog that barks wisdom like "You are the hand chosen by the master!" And David Bowie's shapeshifting powers have helped make him the world's greatest supervillain.
This is the universe of The Venture Brothers, the series on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block whose second season appears on DVD today. It's not the breakout hit of the AS lineup. That would be Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the farce that inspired one of the most accidentally successful promotional campaigns in history for a slightly-less successful movie, which opened on Friday. And it's not the first Cartoon Network series to mangles the characters and conventions of classic cartoons or comics and paste them back together Burroughs-style. Over the weekend, Space Ghost Coast to Coast (which is on "permanent hiatus") turned 13 years old.
The Venture Brothers is a different beast. It flaunts all of the elements of the series on the adult/hipster animated landscape: irony, satire, uncomfortable pauses, outright parody. But as creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer frequently explain, the show is about failure. It's about the vision that inspired the science fiction wave of the 1950s and 1960s, the optimism of the space race, and the baby boomers' beloved, indulged idea that they could achieve anything they wanted.
These were ideas that satirized themselves. Awarding its 1966 "Man of the Year" award to the "Young Generation," Time magazine's editors saluted the boomers as the folks "who will land on the moon, cure cancer and the common cold, lay out blight-proof, smog-free cities, enrich the underdeveloped world, and, no doubt, write finis to poverty and war." Forty years later the boomers have disappointed no one as much as they've disappointed themselves, buckling in to watch movies about how great their parents were as they pop pills and build their Dennis Hopper-endorsed "Dream Books."
This explains why Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, the failed boy genius and father of the series' eponymous brothers Hank and Dean, is such a screw-up. As we learn in flashbacks across the series 27 episodes (so far), Venture pere was a Jonny Quest figure himself who solved mysteries under the wing of his brilliant father, his friend Hector, and their bodyguard Swifty. The 1960s were an era of superhero teams, super-science, space stations, and helpful robots. And as Rusty grows up, all of that peters out. He drops out of college (after palling around with two other super-scientists and a Doctor Doom analogue named Baron Underbheit), loses portions of the family business, and enters middle-age trading off his family's successes and reluctantly fathering his two boys. When Venture's lab is broken into by The Monarch, his butterfly-fetishizing archfoe can't find anything worth defiling or smashing. "What can I do to this guy that life hasn't already?" he sulks. "I almost feel sorry for him."
Hank and Dean don't know all of this. They believe their father is a genius and the adventures they stumble into are legendary. They think nothing odd of the fact that he wears a one-piece "speed suit" and they dress, respectively, like the Scooby Gang's Freddy and like Buddy Holly. They don't seem to notice that the villains they battle are poseurs or trust-fund kids who usually belong to a hamstrung, bureaucratic supervillain union called the Guild of Calamitous Intent. They're blissfully unaware that nothing important has been invented for a long, long time. But when they inevitably screw something up or get targeted by one of their wannabe archenemies, their heroic, nigh-invulnerable bodyguard Brock Samson steps in to save them with palpable boredom and a heavy sigh.
Not that the series is some relentless Bergman downer. Far from it - the world Publick and Hammer have sketched out mashes together every trope from the classic age of sci-fi and boys' fantasy. The multiplicity of supervillains and influences isn't too surprising, since Publick (whose real name is Christopher McCulloch) cut his teeth working for The Tick creator Ben Edlund on the comic, animated, and live-action versions of that superhero parody. It's the other pop culture lifts that surprise. Depeche Mode's David Gahan shows up at a super-science yard sale. David Bowie, as mentioned above, is the superpowered figurehead of the Guild of Calamitous Intent.
Nods like that distinguish the Venture Brothers and make Hammer and Publick's ambitions a little clearer. The cartoonists aren't simply slapping a show together. They're synthesizing everything they like about pop culture into one narrative, one over-arching science fiction vision. What Robert Anton Wilson did with conspiracy theories, Hammer and Publick do with science fiction, mystery-solving kids, and new wave rock.
Reason spoke with Publick over the phone from his home in New York.
Reason: Why create a sci-fi/adventure/action series about failure?
Jackson Publick: The basic idea of The Venture Brothers was taking the world of Jonny Quest and jumping back into 30 years later, seeing how someone who grew up like Jonny -- with that kind of space race enthusiasm and disregard for other cultures -- would turn out. Dr. Venture is a boy genius who didn't grow up to be what he should have been. Doc has really said it best: The beauty of failure is the beauty of human beings.
Reason: And I suppose you're not just talking about the failure of superheroes, because these fantasy science stories were produced by a culture that was high on superscience -- beating the Russians to the Moon, curing every disease, etc.
JP: That's the deeper thing behind it -- it's me voicing my disappointment that we don't have that kind of magic going on any more, that level of enthusiasm and hope. That extends to the kind of cultural stuff that was going on in the 60s, a youthful generation thinking they could change the world. I'm voicing my displeasure at having been born in a time when some of that magic, for lack of a better word, is gone, and some of those promises that were made in all of our pop culture were never met. My laptop is the coolest thing that's come out of that. I'm still waiting on my jet pack.
Reason: You seem to take some pleasure out of the terrible flaws you write into these characters.
JP: Well, read any biography on one of your heroes or any great man. One thing you discover is that all of their closets were full of rotten skeletons. You find out Eisenhower had a mistress, you find out that Frank Lloyd Wright was an asshole.