While you weren’t looking, Saturday morning cartoons officially died. A cultural phenomena lasting nearly 60 years, gone. I’m sure none of you continued to wake up on Saturdays to watch, giant bowl of cereal in hand. At best, you turned it on for background noise. As you grow up, leaving something behind doesn’t change your feelings for that thing, or lessen the time you spent enjoying it. But there was a bit of comfort knowing it was always there, ready to welcome you home if the mood ever struck or to share with your kids. Now, it’s a permanent relic of the past.
Saturday morning cartoons started earnestly enough, with classic shows like Mighty Mouse, Tom & Jerry, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Looney Toons, Yogi Bear, and more. While these shows are still remembered fondly, there were plenty of off beat ones like Partridge Family 2200 A.D and Gilligan’s Planet to round out the schedule. Other shows like Super Friends, Space Ghost, and Birdman (all of which were eventually spoofed on Adult Swim) brought superheroes to the forefront. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Saturday mornings became a haven for cartoons, those early Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. shows were surely part of a Golden Age.
The 1980s brought the Silver Age of cartoons, an age that centered on marketing toys to children. The first two shows to truly capitalize on the trend were He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Both shows brought cartoons and toys to the forefront in astounding ways, and were wildly successful. This brought dearth of not only original (-ish) content like Voltron, Transformers, Thundercats, and The Real Ghostbusters, but a bevy of knockoffs like M.A.S.K., Silverhawks, Bravestarr, and Dinosaucers. While the former group had their successes, and the latter their general existence, each show still has fans that remember it fondly.
In 1987, Disney unleashed DuckTales onto the unsuspecting public, and the world was forever changed. Until now, most shows (He-Man) had an admittedly low level of quality, minimizing production costs while capitalizing on merchandising. Disney wagered that by investing in high quality animation for a syndicated show would pay dividends in the long run. The gamble paid off. Until this point, shows recycled animation or imported dubbed anime. No more; the bar had officially been raised. DuckTales paved the way for every amazing cartoon that followed; Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and more.
As DuckTales debuted, so did the undisputed king of Saturday mornings, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. On paper, this shouldn’t have worked. With bevy of whack-a-do ideas cobbled together, regurgitated in every medium (comics, movies, cartoons, musicals), and merchandised to hell, TMNT was something that should not have survived, and yet it did. The show lasted 10 years, and has been rebooted several times since, with one of its best iterations currently airing on Nickelodeon. TMNT is a dynasty, one that fans of any age can enjoy.
Finally, the dawn of superhero cartoons cemented the 90s as the greatest era for Saturday morning entertainment, starting with the best – Batman: The Animated Series. Much like DuckTales, the importance of this show cannot be understated. Another decade-spanning dynasty, Batman: TAS, along with its contemporaries, introduced a new generation to superheroes. X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond; these are just a few of the amazing superhero shows that forged today’s comic book readers.
With the success of Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon, anime was accepted into the pop culture lexicon. Sidenote: Toonami tried to compete against the Saturday morning juggernauts of Fox and WB (CW) with their own Saturday morning anime block, called Rising Sun, only to see it quickly scuttled; ironic given the ultimate outcome. More and more anime was imported and repackaged for Saturday morning audiences; Digimon, Sonic X, Shaman King, and of course, Yu-Gi-Oh!. Correlation isn’t causation, but it’s important to note the decline in quality of original shows like Skunk Fu!, Los Luchadores, and Beast Machine: Transformers and the increase of replacements like Sailor Moon, Zatch Bell!, and B-Daman Crossfire.
Ultimately, it was technology that brought the giant down. As dedicated networks and on-demand services came to prominence, Saturday morning was no longer the bastion for cartoons it once was. Audiences dwindled, as did the content providers. The first major network to bow out was Fox, home to some of the greatest cartoons ever, in 2008. ABC, the network owned by Disney, gave up the fight in 2011, followed in 2013 by CBS, a network criminally forgotten for its solid content. Finally, on September 27, 2014, CW aired the last block of cartoons, Vortexx, officially ending Saturday morning cartoons.
I won’t lie, writing this chokes me up a bit. Saturday morning cartoons were more just television. They were what I looked forward to every weekend. They were the reason to get up early, a ritual that defined my weekends for years. These shows fueled my imagination, making me the creator I am today. Saturday morning cartoons are the reason for our current cultural renaissance; comics, television, and movies – particularly the superhero ones – have never been better. These shows influenced today’s creators, who will in turn influence tomorrow’s.
It’s sad how Saturday morning cartoons faded away. These shows successfully fended off not only the FCC, but parents’ rights groups and the Reagan administration. I could continue to extol them, but I won’t. If you experienced them, especially at their apex, you know exactly what I mean. If you didn’t, I feel truly sorry for you. Nostalgia is normally a rose tinted glass, but in this instance it’s clear: Saturday morning cartoons were something special. Content on demand, while convenient, strips away the ritual and ceremony, the ever-growing excitement for the weekend, and the agonizing wait once it ends. Saturday morning cartoons will forever remain an extraordinary relic of the past.
With over 100 Saturday Morning Cartoon posts and 800 articles on his site, thecredhulk.com, Tony is moving on. Check out his new original works at AnthonyMathers.com. He’s still always up to talk about comics, cartoons and the like. Though his time at THN has come to an end, he’ll always be a love slave at heart.