Several years ago, on the advice of a friend, I watched a few episodes of Adventure Time and found myself blown away. Even after seeing some glowing reviews online, and an obvious nostalgic D&D influence, I had not been quite willing to indulge my inner child, but after a few episodes I was hooked. I hadn’t been captivated so much by an animated show since I was a teenager and my skepticism and feeling that it was somewhat untoward to be a childless adult so into an animated show for kids melted away. I devoured the first season on Netflix, dragged my family members into it, and started going out of my way to search out more. There was something about the show that really drew me in, something about the atmosphere, humor, style, just the whole presentation. There is a lot going on under the surface, under the charming characters and colorful world of Ooo. After all, the charming characters and colorful, quirky Land of Ooo is built over the post-apocalyptic ruins of the modern world.
Creator Pendleton Ward and his talented group of writers, artists, and animators have created what I feel is a truly unique and ground breaking piece of children’s entertainment, one that transcends the age barrier. I don’t want to say that the show, or its products, aren’t really aimed at children, or is made specifically with adults in mind. I certainly see a lot of children, boys and girls, checking out the comics at the library. But I would say that there is definitely enough there to entice adults too. The humor and bizarre situations appeal to children, but it neither talks down to them nor indulges in pointless pop cultural references to appeal to adults. Children are, of course, more sophisticated than much pop culture gives them credit for.
I won’t go too much into the world and plot here, (see Emily Nussbaum’s article in the New Yorker and the PBS Idea Channel episode on Adventure Time to get caught up) but suffice to say it doesn’t rely on rote moralizing, but allows the viewers to come to their own conclusions. In spite of this, I feel that the show has a deep, progressive moral compass that informs everything. Pendleton Ward’s claim that his favorite emotion is one of “feeling simultaneously happy and sad,” an emotional range that I think resonates with people throughout their lives In a confusing and complicated world, Adventure Time celebrates a childlike imagination while never shying away from the tougher things in life.
In any case, like any popular television series, particularly one intended for kids, a lot of merch has popped up around it! For a licensed property, there seems to be an emphasis on quality that probably can’t be said for most such tie ins. In particular, I have been quite invested in the comics, getting that Adventure Time fix while waiting for the next season. Recently, I’ve gone on quite a binge. I can definitely explain away my recent penchant for reading material intended for preteens as work related! It is quite impressive how consistent and strong the quality of these peripheral stories have been, replicating the voice and the feel of the animation remarkably well. Drawing talent from many talented names in alt comics, as well as from the show itself, they are all well worth checking out. In addition, I’ve taken a look at some of the other miscellaneous tie ins as well. Here are my thoughts on a few recent ones, divided by their types.
These lush, hard cover collections of the art featured on the covers of the Adventure Time comic series published so far, Adventure Time: Eye Candy Volumes one and two are definitely a treat to flip through, absorbing the various diverse, colorful interpretations of the adventure time characters by a variety of different artists, each with their own take and style of depicting the exciting world of Adventure Time. However, most, if not all, of these covers appear also in the various collected volumes of the comics as well, making it a nice book to check out from the library but really a purchase for only the most completest of Adventure Time fanatics.
Last year, on a trip to Denver, I attended an author event at the Denver Central Library, including actor and comedian Martin Olson, and his daughter Olivia Olson (who voice Adventure Time characters Hunson Abadeer and his daughter Marceline the Vampire Queen, respectively). Both daughter and father are talented writers, voice actors, and comedians, so it was fun seeing them discuss the Adventure Time show from behind the scenes and how their parent-child relationship shapes the dynamics between their characters. All around a fun time, the two discussed some of their writing, in which they expand the show’s world, such as Martin’s “The Adventure Time Encyclopaedia.” Their latest in going deeper into their characters and the weird, magical background of the Land of Ooo, a combination of the show’s important artifact, the Enchiridion and Marceline’s diary, accidentally fused magically together along with a magical chat interface for the other characters.
In many ways a compendium of show lore, the art in particular is lush and detailed, lovely to look at, both humorous and ornate (like a lot of the show). The Enchiridion section is definitely an homage to the old roleplaying games that inspired so much of the Adventure Time ambiance, complete with spell lists, character types, and all the information you ever need to know on wizards and heroes. Marceline’s diary goes into further detail on her background, and the background of the world, and does a great job of capturing its ambiance. On the other hand, all of this fluffy information might just be a little too much, just a bit too indulgent for anyone other than superfans.
Tales from the Land of Ooo is a simple collection of Adventure Time stories, along with some cute illustrations, that feature most of the main cast of the show. Intended as a reader for 3rd or 4th graders, I could see this being a well enjoyed first “chapter book” for many young readers. For the most part, it replicates the dialog and off the wall feeling of the show quite well, including its irreverent plays on genre tropes and cliches as it spins a few short yarns in the Adventure Time tradition. There is little that feels super new, but for kids, that might be a plus, especially for reluctant readers.
One of a series of children’s chapter books set in the gender-bent Ooo of Fionna and Cake, Queen of Rogues is a silly little book, but one that should be an entertaining and gripping read for any kids who are fans of the show. For grown ups, even Adventure Time fans, there is definitely less here. Queen of Rogues follows Fionna and Cake in a pirate themed high seas adventure, battling the Ice Queen, Marshall Lee, and Fionna’s own crippling fear of the ocean. Like anything Adventure Time, the humor is gentle but with a bit of an edge, the writing is witty, and the characters endearing. On the other hand, I feel that the novel (in spite of relying on the reader’s own imagination) can only approach the dynamic animation, voice acting, and pure visual exploration that makes the show so great.
Ostensibly written by the mysterious writer T.T. MacDangereuse, an alter ego for the show’s doting grandmotherly mini-elephant type, Tree Trunks, this one uses the gender swapped characters developed as fanfiction in the show by Adventure Time’s resident misguided magic user, Ice King. So, in effect, this is a novel written in universe as fanfiction written about other in-universe fanfiction- pretty meta!
The comic adaptations and series by KaBoom! studios are probably my favorite use of the Adventure Time intellectual property in other products. The variety of stories told, artistic styles attempted, and interpretations used throughout these comics by the writers and artists always take the characters and themes of the show into new and interesting territory while still feeling true to them. The dialog replicates the feel of the cartoon so well, throughout them you can easily hear the voice actors coming through in your mind.
This is particularly true of the main Adventure Time comic series, written and illustrated until recently by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics fame, Sheilli Peroline, and Branden Lamb. The seventh volume was one of my favorites. The collection starts off strong with a zine collected by Marceline the Vampire Queen herself and including stories “written and illustrated” by various Adventure Time characters, from Lemongrab to Lady Rainicorn (and featuring the work of some awesome guest artists, including Liz Prince and Yumi Sakugawa). The main storyline in this collection is also pretty fun, pitting Finn, Jake, Princess Bubblegum, Marceline, and other characters against the Mnemonoid (a sarcastic robed alien creature obviously inspired by one of D&D’s most creepy creatures, the illithids)- the fiend devours Finn’s memories causing him to awaken years into the future, allowing us glimpses of teenage, 30-something, and elderly Finn. I also enjoyed the references to the previous Adventure Time comics, and I really felt the Mnemonoid to be one of the series most effective villains, rivaling even the Liche (though the memory-eater is a little more personable).
In Volume 8, North and company pen a final hurrah before the series is taken over by Christopher Hastings (creator of another beloved webcomic, Dr. McNinja) and illustrator Zachary Sterling. The former team closed with an amusing caper involving LSP trying to track down who stole her star, leading to some amusing detective bits (which would come to be a running theme in a lot of the comics this time). This felt like a nice, low key ending to their run. Hastings and Sterlings’ addition, so far, keep up the dedication to maintaining the feel and voice of the show, though the continued use of minor apocalyptic episodes might be beginning to wear a little thin. Still, plenty of funny situations and jokes to be found. I recently checked out the next one, Volume 9, so we will see how that continues the streak.
The Adventure Time Original Graphic Novels are stand alone comics that, in general, put the limelight on fan favorite characters, such as the Party God. Throughout these comics, some of the minor characters and amusing beings from the cartoon series get a little more time to shine. This is not to say that Finn and Jake don’t appear themselves, of course. In addition, they often provide a break from the more “epic” conflicts of the other Adventure Time comics.
Grayble Schmaebles, the fifth in the series felt like one of the fluffier, less engaging ones to me, even though I’m a fan of the episodes that the story is riffing on. Still super fun, we watch Finn and Jake try to track down some kind of evil, mysterious force that’s stealing everyone’s stuff, with the help of a weird jelly creature that seems to be able to control the cosmos. A lot of random encounters with show regulars, there is definitely some fun whimsy to be found, though in the end, this entry is a bit ephemeral. Of course, that continues to be the case with the wordless filler comics included in each of the Original Graphic Novel entries, the style of which I can’t say I’m a fan.
The next one, Masked Mayhem, I quite enjoyed. Another detective homage, this one focuses on my (and a lot of other people’s) favorite supporting cast member, BMO, that adorably agender sentient gaming console, who teams up with Jake the Dog to attempt to track down a trickster on a Halloween-esque holiday. What’s not to like there? Also inspired by a few key episodes, Masked Mayhem is a cute, gentle caper that definitely engaged me throughout its meandering mystery.
A nice interpretation of the show, while expanding its themes and riffing on all manner of mystery tropes, all in all, this one was quite a treat, especially for BMO aficionados.
Probably the oddest of the Adventure Time comics I’ve read, Banana Guard Academy focuses almost exclusively on minor characters, in particular the candy people of the Candy Kingdom and their rather bizarre social order. Starting off on an amusing note, also riffing on mystery and police procedural cliches, in the end I felt it all became a little bit too convoluted, in particular with yet another apocalyptic time traveling escapade that is reset conveniently at the end. Also, the “lesson” here seems a little vague and contradictory. Still, it is quite amazing just what can be pulled off in this weird and wonderful setting, and how many different artistic styles can do it justice!
This is illustrated by the next couple, Meredith Gran’s Marceline Gone Adrift and Jen Wang’s Fionna and Cake: Card Wars. Each of these standalone comics utilize both of these comic artists trademark humor and styles, making their takes on the Adventure Time setting both familiar and distinctive. Both appear to have a nice affinity to the material, yet enough originality to make it their own.
The strained friendship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, another common theme of the licensed works, is used to great effect in Marceline Gone Adrift. Using Adventure Time’s penchant for deep emotional resonance and just plain whacky situations, Gran’s take on the series has a strange and destructive force possess Marceline, causing PB to launch her into space “for the good of the people,” while Finn and Cinnamon Bun wrestle with their own reactions to the force. The original characters, such as the grasping music producer Suspenser were all interesting additions that fit the theme well. In perfect Adventure Time style, the pathos and humor of these strange, over the top situations make for a fun read.
Jen Wang’s contribution of the gender bent alternate Adventure Time world of Fionna and Cake was my favorite of this take on the Land of Ooo, and with its gaming theme, it is not hard to see why. With Fionna being drawn by Cake into the competitive world of Card Wars, a Magic: The Gathering-esque fantasy card came, it had a lot of great things to say about gender in gaming, probably even better than similar themes in the author’s own collaboration with author Cory Doctorow, In Real Life.
It is a little funny to think of the kooky denizens of a gaming inspired fantasy world playing their own fantasy games as well. It helps to give the reader/viewer the feel that the characters, even so bizarre, random, and nonsensical world, have their own everyday existences and interests, making them appear just a little bit more real. Jen Wang definitely gives us that feeling in this comic.
In addition to these “lessons” of making gaming an inclusive space for everyone who is interested, and reminding us that it’s all for fun, the comic also deals with that old issue of dealing with your friend having interests different than your own, which is very sympathetically expressed here.
It seems pretty unique that the ever growing glut of Adventure Time material flooding our libraries continues to maintain such steady quality. After all of this Adventure Time reading, I’m still not bored, still wanting more! After a stressful day of being an adult (or a kid), sometimes some pure escapist fun with heart is what we’re looking for.