The Horrible Truth About Super-Science

Jackson Publick of The Venture Brothers on superheroes, satire, and the '60s

Mr. Fantastic is a sociopath who hides his super-powered brethren in a giant Arctic laboratory. The Scooby Gang is a collection of addled misfits with a talking dog that barks ominous commands only his pill-popping master can hear. And David Bowie’s shape-shifting powers have helped make him the world’s greatest supervillain.

This is the universe of The Venture Brothers, a series on the Cartoon Network that’s currently in production for a third season. It’s not the breakout hit of the “Adult Swim” lineup of late-night shows for older viewers. That would be the series that brought Boston to a standstill, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. And it’s not the first Cartoon Network series to mangle the characters and conventions of classic cartoons and paste them back together like a William Burroughs cut-up. The first episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast debuted 13 years ago.

The Venture Brothers is a different beast. It flaunts all the elements required of a cartoon for hipsters: irony, social satire, pop culture parodies, uncomfortable pauses. But at its heart, as creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer frequently explain, the show is about failure. It’s about the vision that inspired the science fiction TV shows of the 1950s and ’60s, the optimism of the space race, and the baby boomers’ beloved, indulgent idea that they could achieve anything they wanted.

These were ideas that satirized themselves. Giving its 1966 Man of the Year award to “the Young Generation,” Time’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.

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 who solved mysteries under the wing of his brilliant father, his friend Hector, and their bodyguard Swifty. His ’60s were an era of superhero teams, super-science, space stations, and helpful robots. 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 analog named Baron Underbheit), loses portions of the family business, and enters middle age trading off his family’s successes while reluctantly raising his two rather dopey boys. When the Monarch, his butterfly-fetishizing archfoe, breaks into Venture’s lab, the villain 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 that their father is a genius and that the adventures they stumble into are legendary. They think nothing odd of the fact that he wears a one-piece “speed suit” and that 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 bodyguard Brock Samson steps in to save them with palpable boredom and a heavy sigh.

Not that the series is some relentless Bergmanesque downer. Far from it. The world Publick and Hammer have sketched out mashes together every trope from classic science fiction and boys’ fantasies. The multiplicity of supervillains and influences isn’t too surprising, since Publick (who was born in 1971 and whose real name is Christopher McCulloch) cut his teeth working for Tick creator Ben Edlund on the comic book, animated, and live-action versions of that superhero parody. It’s the other pop culture lifts that are surprising. Depeche Mode’s David Gahan shows up at a super-science yard sale. David Bowie is the superpowered figurehead of the Guild of Calamitous Intent.

Nods like these distinguish The Venture Brothers and make Hammer and Publick’s ambitions a little clearer. The duo isn’t simply slapping a show together. It’s synthesizing everything Hammer and Publick like about pop culture into one narrative, one overarching science fiction vision. What Robert Anton Wilson did with conspiracy theories in Illuminatus!, Hammer and Publick do with superheroes, space age futurism, mystery-solving kids, and New Wave rock.

Associate Editor David Weigel interviewed Publick by telephone in April. Comments can be sent to letters@reason.com.

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 it 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 Hammer 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 super-science—beating the Russians to the moon, curing every disease, etc.

Publick: 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.

Publick: 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.

Reason: But when you write in one of those ’60s-style heroes, they come off pretty well.

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