See more photos in “San Diego Comic-Con 2011 Preview Night,” “San Diego Comic-Con 2011 Day One,” “San Diego Comic-Con 2011 Day Two,”“San Diego Comic-Con 2011 Day Three” and “San Diego Comic-Con 2011 Day Four.”
If you were at San Diego Comic-Con last weekend, you couldn't miss Adventure Time. The Cartoon Network series about a boy named Finn, his dog Jake and their antics in a magical world filled with princesses and villains stood out this year amidst the sea of comic books, TV shows and movies. Inside the exhibit hall, massive, inflatable versions of Jake and Finn marked Cartoon Network's booth, where passers-by could pick up buttons featuring a different character from the show every day. Offsite, the cable television station had taken over a pizza shop in the Convention Center-adjacent Gaslamp Quarter, decorating it with murals depicting characters from the show. Two to three times daily, a parade headed across Market Street and Fifth Avenue, with Lady Rainicorn– a rainbow/unicorn hybrid– held up on poles like a Chinese New Year dragon.
It's all too common to see massive marketing spectacles at SDCC, however, what we observed with Adventure Time appeared to go beyond corporate strategy. Throughout the course of the convention, we saw cosplayers dressed as various characters from the show. Finn, Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen were popping out of exhibit hall booths and patiently waiting in a long line for the show's Saturday panel. A new line of toys based on the show had sold out by the time we met creator Pendleton Ward on Saturday afternoon. The animated series, which premiered in April of 2010 and is already on its third season, has become a smash hit in a little more than a year, growing dramatically in popularity since we first interviewed Ward before SDCC 2010. This was marketing that fans were clearly excited to see.
Hynden Walch, who plays the incredibly smart Princess Bubblegum, says that she knew that Adventure Time was “going to be huge” since she first auditioned for her role.
“It's going to appeal to five-year-olds, it's going to appeal to college sophomores late at night,” Walch recalls thinking. “It's going to appeal to a lot of people.”
Her assessment was right. OFWGKTA leader Tyler the Creator has tweeted about the show. Walch and Jeremy Shada, who plays Finn in the series, mentioned hearing about a college dorm that was painted Adventure Time-style. Spend some time on Tumblr and you'll see lots of references to the show, from animated gifs and captioned screenshots to fan art and cosplay photos. Though technically geared towards children, and youngsters certainly watch it, Adventure Time has found its footing with an older crowd, largely teens and young adults.
“I figured college kids would like it because it's so random,” says Ward. “A lot of times it's kind of goofy nonsense all over the place. College kids can dig on that.”
But Adventure Time is more than silly pranks that unfold in a candy-colored world.
“I think there's some really intelligent humor in it,” Ward continues. “All of the board artists are super brainiacs and are charming people. I think it's just a charming show put together by a bunch of really interesting artists. “
Two of Adventure Time's major female characters, Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, stand out as a testament to the intelligence of the show. Both characters play against stereotypes of young females. Bubblegum is a science wiz and leader of the Candy Kingdom. Marceline is a bassist with a knack for out-pranking Finn and Jake. They're strong, independent girls who aren't necessarily well-behaved, but are always a lot of fun.
Olson's quirky, dark and funny character has definitely picked up a fanbase of her own.
“There are a lot of goth kids that are into [Adventure Time],” says Olson. “Some of the fans told me that they started playing the bass because of Marceline. I think that's really cool.”
Adventure Time combines smart, well-written characters with relatively simple catch phrases, the best known of which is the question “What time is it?” followed by the answer “Adventure Time!” We could hear the call-and-response sporadically during the convention.
“The 'What time is It?' tagline is super, super smart,” says Shada.
Also popular are the faux curse words spouted by characters when they're frustrated.
“It's teaching kids all new ways to swear in every episode,” jokes Walch, mentioning Princess Bubblegum's saying, “What the cabbage?”
“It's super clever catchphrases that you can say if you're 38 or 8,” she adds.
But, what is perhaps more impressive than the writing is the animation. The show was when Ward, who even sketches when being interviewed, was looking through a sketchbook for ideas to pitch to animation studio Frederator and came across the basis for Finn and Jake. The character designs are relatively simple and as adorable as mascots for Japanese stationary companies like Sanrio and San-X. Their world is colored in breathtaking shades of blue, pink, purple and green.
“I think credit for that goes to Nick Jennings, the art director on the show. He's brilliant and he makes everything beautiful,” says Ward. “It's mind-boggling how gorgeous how some of the establishing shots are. There's one…the Ice Kingdom with these cobalt blue ice mountains with the sun rays shooting out.”
Some of the influence in terms of the show's color scheme comes from Ward's brief flirtation with World of Warcraft.
“World of Warcraft, has so much gradience and sun rays. It's so bright and colorful, I feel like that's got to be subconsciously one of the reasons that attracts people to it,” he says. “I feel like, subconsciously if you're watching something really brilliant, colorful and pretty, you're like ahhh.”
Subversively funny and overwhelmingly cute, Adventure Time is hitting a cultural nerve. It's as much an Internet sensation as it is a television one. There's even an extremely well-put argument for its addition to Know Your Meme. If you aren't already doing so, you should be watching it.
For more from San Diego Comic-Con, follow @lizohanesian and @ShannonCottrell.