HERE IS CRAIG MCCRACKEN IN HIS (fairly) new office, full of toys and piñatas and picture books, in a (fairly) new building in the city of Burbank. Shaggy-haired, droopy-eyed, amiable, low-key, casual, a regular-guy sort of guy. He hardly seems 29, for that matter, which might have something to do with the toys and picture books, might have something to do with his line of work. You would not suspect his power: It is the power of the pen, or the pencil, which in either case is mightier than the sword (especially if it’s one of those spy pens that’s also a gun). Mightier than death rays, meat rays, dog rays. Mightier than the power of your grown-up skepticism, your classical aesthetics, your pathetic sales resistance. Foolish humans! Resistance is futile.
Craig McCracken is 29 years old, and the whole second floor of the Cartoon Network building has been set aside for him, for him and his three superpowered little girls.
The official story is that they were created by a certain Professor Utonium from a mixture of sugar and spice and everything nice, with the accidental addition of Chemical X. Thus, as it is said, the Powerpuff Girls were born! But the truth is that McCracken made them up himself. He was 20 then and an animation student at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and they were called the Whoopass Girls, which is not really as good as Powerpuff Girls; it certainly doesn’t travel as well. With their horizontally oriented oval heads and eyes as big as dessert plates, their fingerless hands, their feet drawn to resemble, according to McCracken’s instructions, “socks filled with wet sand,” they are not your average little girls, not even your average cartoon little girls, not even your average cartoon little girl superheroes. They’re littler, for one thing: They’re only in kindergarten. They don’t much like bugs. Bubbles wouldn’t mind the hall light being left on at bedtime, once they are done saving the day.
“I wanted to do a superhero show,” says McCracken, “where you really felt these characters being strong and tough and heroes and kicking ass — and what better contrast than to have them be three cute little innocent-looking things? That’s basically the heart of the show, this cute little girl punching a bad guy and his teeth flying out. That’s the visual soul of the show.”
THE CITY OF TOWNSVILLE, AS NARRATOR TOM Kenny begins every episode of The Powerpuff Girls, is where the Powerpuff Girls kick that ass. They kick a lot of ass, a lot of monstrous villain ass. Sometimes they kick nonmonstrous ass just because they get carried away. (Though they always apologize when they do.) They never walk when they can float or fly, they rarely use a door when there’s a wall they can break through, and they have many times razed the (amazingly resilient) city of Townsville in order to save it. By Rugrats standards it’s a violent cartoon, but it’s cartoon violence, because it’s, you know, a cartoon. As Tara Charendoff Strong, the voice of Bubbles, says, “I think all children love to watch cartoons because it’s a fantasy world where anything can happen — if someone gets mad at someone else, they throw them off a cliff or pull off their head or whatever.”
The PpGs (as they are commonly abbreviated) may not offer children the most desirable model for conflict resolution, but history has shown that you can’t reason with giant flying eyeball monsters, giant inflatable pond-things, alien broccoli, smog monsters, snot monsters, the Gangreen Gang, the Amoeba Boys, the frightfully territorial Fuzzy Lumpkins, the creepy androgynous devil-headed thigh-high-spiked-heel-boot-wearing Him, or their favorite foe, the mutated supermonkey Mojo Jojo, whose huge and powerful brain was produced by the same laboratory accident that created the Powerpuff Girls. Cruel irony! Notwithstanding Mojo’s claim that “Evil geniuses are made, not born,” the fact is that even before he was an evil genius he was a naughty little monkey. (“You were the worst lab assistant I ever had,” remembers the Professor.) In the universe the Powerpuff Girls inhabit, villains are with few exceptions naughty by nature, and heroes are congenitally heroic.
“We’re going to fight crime,” says Blossom.
“That’s what we do,” says Buttercup.
“Duh!” says Bubbles.
And when they can’t fight crime — as when bad little rich girl Princess Morbucks became mayor and declared crime legal, or when Sedusa disguised as Ima Goodlady worked womanly wiles upon the Professor and got the girls grounded so that she could steal the Mayor’s jewels undisturbed — they get fidgety and cranky and sad. “And the worst thing is we won’t get to save the world anymore,” Bubbles lamented when they were thrown in jail (victims of a villainous plot, I assure you). Once, when it was raining out and there was no crime to fight, they resorted to playing at being themselves, humming their own theme music and pretending to fly through the house, though nobody wanted to be Bubbles — who has a reputation as “the scarediest,” though she can kick your ass — except Bubbles.
Of course, the ass kicking is only part of it; the rest of the story, or much of the rest of the story, is one of sisterhood, which is powerful, of teamwork, loyalty, duty, responsibility, chores, homework, slumber parties, hide-and-seek, coloring and ý tooth care. The girls squabble and tease, as sisters do, but at the end of the day they sleep together in one bed, and they have one another’s back when the death rays, the meat rays, the dog rays start firing.
IT IS TWO YEARS AGO THIS MONTH THAT THE POWERPUFF GIRLS bowed on Cartoon Network. It’s been five years since the first fully realized pre-series shorts were seen on the network’s World Premiere Toons program, eight years since Craig McCracken finished Whoopass Stew, his three-minute proto-Powerpuff student film, and a decade since he first got the idea.
Yet for a long time, I had thought them somehow my personal property, my own thing, my secret discovery, a phenomenon known only to me and “the well-meaning but often imperiled people of Townsville.” And then one day I looked around, and it had become without my noticing a Powerpuff World. I went to a pop festival and saw their faces multiplied on Mylar balloons. I went to a toy shop and saw their image graven in PVC and squeezable plush. I went to Doug’s house, and his little daughter Franny showed me the Special Product Preview of Puff Stuff that came with her already dog-eared first issue of The Powerpuff Girls Powerzine. In the window of a gas station in South Carolina I saw a plush Buttercup for sale. I went on the Internet, where the Powerpuff Web Ring lists 192 member sites with names like Welcome to Townsville, Blossom’s Crime Fighting Palace, Powerpuff Hotline and Pokey Oaks Fanfic Library (named for the school the girls attend), where the rules for submission include “no extreme, realistic violence,” “no excessive blood,” “absolutely no mutilation of children or animals,” “no swearing” and “no sex.” Their official Web site, powerpuffgirls.com, logs upward of 4 million page views a month. Their audience includes children of all ages. Says Cartoon Network vice president of animation Linda Simensky, “I think the official breakdown is two-thirds kids, one-third adults, but since there are no Nielsen homes in college dorms, I figure there’s another decent percentage of college students watching.”
Their profile is international. The latest broadcast technology and the frightening reach of the Time Warner infotainment empire — Cartoon Network is now available in 14 languages and 145 countries — have sent their image around the globe. In France they’re Les Super nenas, Belle, Bulle and Rebelle, et elles ont pour mission de protéger le monde des vilains et cela avant l’heure du dodo. In Spain they’re Las Supernanas; in Latin America, Las Chicas Superpoderosas, Bombón, Burbuja y Bellota (Chocolate, Bubble and Acorn). In Italy, quando il pericolo incombe su Townsville, the authorities do not call for Hercules; no, it is for Lolly, Dolly and Molly, Le Superchicche, that the hot line rings. In Poland they are Atomówki: Bójka, Bajka and Brawurka.
The show won an Emmy this year for art direction. Next month production begins on the reported $25 million Powerpuff movie, the first Cartoon Network theatrical feature, produced in collaboration with corporate kin Warner Bros. and slated to arrive in theaters sometime in 2002. They are a DC Comics comic book. They are a Little Golden Book, written and drawn by Craig McCracken himself, with his drawings painted in classic Little Golden Book style by Team Powerpuff member and old school chum Lou Romano. “Those were big influences on a lot of us,” says McCracken. “When we were at CalArts, everybody discovered the great design from those books.” In February a Powerpuff-sponsored car raced in the Daytona 500. There was a Powerpuff presence in the Ladies Lounge of this summer’s Vans Warped Tour, and at the Boarding for Breast Cancer snowboarding festival in Lake Tahoe. Since July, Delta Airlines has been flying a Powerpuff 737, with the girls painted large upon its flanks and tail. That same month, Rhino Records (an “internal partner,” in the corporate parlance) released The Powerpuff Girls: Heroes & Villains, a “sonic adventure” produced by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale and featuring contributions from Devo, the Apples in Stereo, Frank Black, Cornelius, Komeda, Shonen Knife and (on a hidden track) the Dresden Room’s Marty and Elayne, who cover “Love Makes the World Go ’Round,” which the girls themselves performed in “Mime for a Change” to bring color back to Townsville. And there is an extra-long version of the superpowerful Powerpuff theme, by Scotland’s Bis:
Blossom, commander and the leader
Bubbles, she is the joy and the laughter
Buttercup, yeah, she’s the toughest fighter
Powerpuffs save the day
Craig McCracken knew it was a Powerpuff World the day he was driving along and saw Powerpuff piñatas for sale on the roadside. He pulled over, not to say “Cease” or “Desist” but to buy some. He was excited! It was a pop-cultural seal of approval. When he found a fan selling homemade Powerpuff Pez dispensers, he was excited again. Because it’s one thing to sign contracts with toy makers and clothing manufacturers to commercially exploit your images, but it’s a whole other thing, and in its way a cooler thing, to be ripped off, to have one’s copyright violated. Piracy is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s the free-market reflection of the voice of the people. “The weirder, more bootleg obscure stuff is always my favorite,” says McCracken, who likes all the official, less weird stuff as well.
“Everything we do really starts with the show,” says Bob Bryant, who as head of Cartoon Network’s Off-Channel Commerce group is the man in charge of all the official stuff. He speaks a secret professional language made up of phrases like “character branding,” “awareness opportunities” and “creative integrity model,” but he also says “neat” and “cool” a lot and, like everybody else connected with the show, talks about “the girls” as if they were real. “It’s really just collectively being out there as ambassadors to the show and the girls themselves. You just hope for any given piece you can pull off the shelf that anybody who is really a real core fan would either want it or understand it or certainly not be turned off by it.”
Notwithstanding that today’s Powerpuff Girls PVC Figurine Gift Set may be tomorrow’s nonbiodegradable landfill, the PpG product is unusually smart and attractive and, for the moment, irresistible. There are dolls of different sizes, some with Velcro strips that let them hold hands, a Style Salon Blossom with heart-shaped comb and mirror, backpacks in vinyl and canvas, blankets, a sleeping bag, a pink pearlized handbag, metal boxes (rectangular, star-shaped) for keeping stuff or carrying lunch, T-shirts, embroidered jeans, socks, underwear, pajamas, talking key chains with squeezable foam heads, mouse pads, luggage tags, beach towels, a beanbag chair, umbrellas, foaming bath crystals, coin purses, alarm clocks, animated watches, picture frames, pencil boxes, diaries, calendars, magnetic memo boards, books, comic books, coloring books, sticker books, videos, posters, a board game, an Ultimate Art Studio, videos and DVDs — Nintendo has just released Bad Mojo Jojo for Gameboy, with Painting the Townsville Green and The Powerpuff Girls Battle Him set for December and January. There is a Pokey Oaks Kindergarten play set with a little chalkboard and real chalk and a breakaway wall for breaking through, and there is a Professor’s Laboratory complete with sugar, spice, everything nice (hearts, flowers, bunny) and a beaker of Chemical X. There is a plush Talking Blossom who, when you squeeze her squeezable plush stuffed stomach, says, “C’mon, girls, Townsville’s in trouble,” and a Talking Buttercup who says, “Yeah, yeah, but all the fun stuff happens at night,” and a Talking Bubbles who says, “And I would’ve kissed his little boo-boo” and “But then I remembered he was a bad monkey so I kicked in his face.” Oh, Bubbles! Sales of Powerpuff product are projected to exceed $300 million this year, not counting piñatas.
CARTOON NETWORK'S NEW ONE-STOP ANIMATION studios commenced operations in May in a three-story building as unassuming as a superhero’s hideaway — the Burbank Police and Fire building across the street is twice as flamboyant. In the lobby, there’s a Powerpuff Girls totem pole, a big poster for Dexter’s Laboratory, furniture you might find in a cartoon, and Red Vines and pretzels for the taking. The interior might be called rough-hewn office-industrial with subtle atomic overtones. The walls of the back stairwell are covered with animator graffiti, which had to be redrawn when it was mistaken for ordinary graffiti and painted over. Here and at Rough Draft Studios in Korea, the third season of The Powerpuff Girls is being finished; the fourth is in process, and when it’s completed sometime next spring, says McCracken, “we’ll just be full-on on the movie.”
“Everybody here kind of has their own world,” says Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and director of many Powerpuff episodes, whose own office is on the third floor, “but we’re all friends, and everybody loves each other’s shows, and I’ve never been in a studio where everything that’s being made is great and you can’t wait to see it.”
“Cartoon Cartoons,” which is not redundant but specific (the first word modifies the second), is the slogan of the network, which went on the air in October 1992, the year after Turner bought Hanna-Barbera and four years before it merged with Time Warner, creating an empire of animation that pools the cartoon libraries of Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros. and MGM and makes strange bedfellows of Bugs Bunny and Fred Flintstone, ý Scooby-Doo and Droopy. Says Linda Simensky, “I think the main difference between us and other studios is that what we’re making really are cartoons — they use all the elements of cartoon making, right down to the occasional lapses of logic, where a character can pull out something enormous from behind his back or a tiny character can beat up an enormous character. Their logic is cartoon logic. I think the other networks’ cartoons are a little more about real kids and real kid issues.”
Cartoon cartoons are without redeeming social content, except in the sense that they are funny and exciting and sometimes beautiful. The Powerpuff Girls are daily engaged in questions of right and wrong, but they are pretty simple questions, and the cartoon isn’t made to teach anyone a lesson. (Just as Popeye wasn’t about the nutritional value of green vegetables.) When Craig McCracken’s mother told him that the little girl across the street started flossing her teeth after she learned that the Powerpuff Girls did, his response was, “Really? I didn’t mean to be responsible for that.”
MAN IS THE ANIMAL THAT UNDERSTANDS cartoons, that can resolve lines on a flat surface into a three-dimensional world — one of those little miracles we all take for granted, but which is miraculous nonetheless. “I was just totally drawn toward graphic images,” says McCracken, remembering his young self. “I could not look away from them.” He was just 3 years old when he started drawing pictures of the superheroes he saw on TV. “I would have an image in my head of, like, Underdog and Superman hanging out,” he recalls, “and I would look through the comics or watch TV and would never see an image of them together, and I would want to have it, so I could see it, and I would try to draw it and it was never satisfactory, and so I would ask my dad to draw it for me. And then I’d have it, and could look at it. It was almost like my brain was already processing images and inventing things, but my hand wasn’t skilled enough to do it myself.
“I was pretty obsessive growing up and would have phases where I would be into a certain character, and I would only be into that character. The first character I was into was probably Mickey Mouse, just visually, and then I discovered Batman and Superman, and then I discovered Underdog, and each character kind of ruled my life at that point, I was totally into them, and drew them all the time.” He also liked live-action Japanese imports like Ultraman and Spectreman, whose evil Dr. Gori, “a guy in a monkey suit” with a silvery-green face and long blond hair, “so he looked like this cross between a monkey and Edgar Winter,” partially inspired Mojo Jojo. And The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics “was like my bible for years. I would thumb through that every day.”
The death of his father, when Craig was 7, and the move of his family from a small town near Pittsburgh to Whittier, California, intensified his picture making. “He was a very outgoing, very positive kid,” recalls his mother, Eva McCracken, “and then after his dad died he became a little more withdrawn and started to draw more. Because of course he had to start all over again, because we all came out here and he had to make new friends and things.”
In art as in evolution, phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny: The human race and the individual scribbler alike make their way from simple symbols toward an ever more exact and shaded reproduction of reality. But that’s only a sort of progress: Citizens of the 20th century learned to see (from cartoons as much as from Real Art) the beauty of abstraction, of regressive simplification, of suggesting a lot with a little, of rendering the world in signs and symbols. The less realistic, more childish, more essential image might be the less technically impressive, but it’s also the less fixed, the more flexible, the more suggestive, and so often the more powerful.
“Mickey Mouse doesn’t look like a mouse, but he represents a mouse,” says McCracken. “I’ve always liked that type of symbolic design.” The first drawing he ever made of what would become the Powerpuff Girls was very small, “just the essence of a character,” and so he left out details — like fingers. He tried later to give them fingers, but it never looked right. “I tried to define all the characters as iconic images,” he says, and because they don’t look like anything in the real world, they look more like what they’re supposed to be, and more like themselves. The more like an actual real monkey Mojo Jojo looked, the less he’d look like Mojo Jojo. The Mayor, with his sash and monocle and top hat floating a few inches above his head, is, says McCracken, “the visual representation of a mayor — [McDonaldland’s] Mayor McCheese is the same kind of turn-of-the-century mayor.” Professor Utonium — partly inspired by Church of the Subgenius avatar Bob Dobbs, whose bland, smiling image McCracken used to see stenciled in spray paint around town — “is supposed to be superstraight, and so he’s all straight lines; he’s not colorful at all, he’s real black and white.” Miss Sarah Bellum, the Mayor’s curvaceous, hypercompetent aide, whose face is never seen, is “the typical hot assistant, though her best feature’s her brain — but we only represent her by what supposedly everybody cares about.”
Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup are identical — they’re triplets, after all — except for the color of their eyes and dresses, and the color and character-appropriate style of their hair: redheaded Blossom’s bow-crowned ponytail, which functions visually as a superheroic cape; blond Bubbles’ Cindy Brady pigtails; brunette Buttercup’s severe, helmetlike bobbed flip. Model sheets instruct animators in the girls’ streamlined physiology: “Think of head as a solid ball. Features are ‘painted’ on, they should wrap around contour of head.” “Keep body and legs short and cute.” “Hand ends in slight point (like a butter knife).” “The girls’ arms are muscle. They’re solid, not flat.” It’s the very lack of detail that makes them look substantial and strong.
We assume the nose. We assume the fingers. In fact, we don’t want the nose or the fingers, because they would mar the girls’ particular peculiar beauty. “People have asked if we’re ever going to do a live-action Powerpuff,” says McCracken, “but I wouldn’t want to, because then you’re defining them — they’ll have fingers and they’ll have noses and they’ll be real little girls and it just won’t be the same. But as cartoons they’re kind of this symbolic catchall.” And then there is the question of the eyes, which no human head could bear, those big eyes that remind some viewers of the big eyes of Japanese anime, but which were inspired as much by the kitschy art of Margaret Keane. (There are Powerpuff Girl dolls on display in the Keane retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum.)
“We both like really flat, iconic, simplistic design,” says Genndy Tartakovsky. “We try to create our own universe, not based on life. The trend now in animated feature films is to get as close as possible to doing something realistic, but it’s completely not interesting to me.” By Disney standards, The Powerpuff Girls isn’t animated at all, but it is as animated as it needs to be. (When Craig McCracken first went off to CalArts, he was worried it would all be learning “to draw a deer running through the forest.”) Speed and power are suggested through dynamic design, extreme poses, whiplash editing, the skittery electronica of the soundtrack. One particularly clever episode, all seen from the Mayor’s point of view, left the screen black for a couple of minutes (he was blindfolded). “Limited animation” — as opposed to the “full animation” of, say, Pinocchio — began as an economy, a cheaper, quicker way to produce cartoons, but at its best, as in the short films of UPA or Jay Ward’s Rocky & Bullwinkle et al., it provides its own elegant shorthand solutions, trading fluidity and complexity of motion for brilliance of color and form and sharp verbal wit.
The Powerpuff Girls incorporates within its deceptively simple aesthetic a kind of résumé of the form. “A lot of that is just from doing your homework and finding out where the best stuff was done,” says McCracken. “It’s like if you want to study great design you look at UPA and early Hanna-Barbera, and if you want to study great timing you look at Tex Avery and Bob Clampett shorts. For action sequences look at anime — they really do it better than anybody’s ever done it before. So it’s just a matter of knowing where the best people are and learning from them, and all those influences are sprinkled throughout all our shows. There seems to be this focus on Powerpuff as just this tribute to anime, but they’re missing the UPA tributes and the Jay Ward tributes.” There are references as well, passing or extended, to Star Wars, Diff’rent Strokes, The Life of Brian, Monty Python, Spinal Tap, The Karate Kid, The A-Team, Schoolhouse Rock, The Princess Bride, South Park, The Godfather, Star Trek, Pokémon, Batman (the Mayor’s office is modeled on Commissioner Gordon’s, from the ’60s live-action TV series), Yellow Submarine, any movie where a monster destroys Tokyo, the art of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and the films of Jacques Tati, who appears briefly as M. Hulot in a beach scene, while the look of the Professor’s house recalls the boxy modern manse of Mon Oncle.
THE PICTURES ARE ONLY PART OF THE. . . picture. The voices tell you who the characters really are, and tell the writers, too, who are consistently clever without being showy about it. The Mayor is played by Tom Kenny (also the narrator, and the voice as well of SpongeBob SquarePants and the dog half of CatDog on Nickelodeon) as a kind of cross between Wizard of Oz Frank Morgan and Ruth Gordon. Mojo Jojo, played by Roger Jackson (who is the scary voice on the phone in the Scream movies), would be just another evil monkey without his particular redundant way of talking, inspired by the rhythms of Speed Racer’s dubbed dialogue and The Superdictionary, “a DC Comics dictionary I had when I was growing up,” says McCracken. “It would define words using sentences, but it would reiterate the definition over and over again, and when you read them out loud they’re the funniest things, because they would be defining, you know, laughing, and it would say ‘Crypto made Superman laugh,’ ‘He made Superman make an amusing sound come from his throat.’ When Powerpuff came around I just started writing Mojo’s dialogue that way.” For example, from the episode where he turned everyone into dogs with his dog ray: “I, Mojo Jojo, am your master and you shall obey my commands like the dogs you are. Because I am your master, it is I you will obey. Obey commands is what you will do. I will give you commands and you will obey them.”
As to the girls: “For Blossom,” says McCracken, “I wanted a kind of sincerity and strength and cuteness, and a real uniqueness to her voice. Buttercup and Bubbles are more caricatures, there’s the tough voice and the cute voice, but Blossom is this kind of subtle in-between. Catherine was perfect; she is Blossom. E.G. as Buttercup has that gruffness, but there’s still a cuteness to it — she doesn’t sound like a boy. Bubbles was probably the trickiest to cast. A lot of voice actors do the cute-girl voice, but it can become really saccharine and turn you off. And we finally found Tara and she was perfect, and she’s also developed this whole thing where she freaks out and screams, and even when she tries to act tough she’s still cute. When we were recording the first show, there’s a line where Bubbles yells, you callin’ a biped?’ And Genndy said, ‘That’s the show, right there, that sound of this tough girl screaming but still remaining cute.’”
“Bubbles is sweet,” says Tara Charen doff Strong (who is also the voice of Dylan Pickles on Nickelodeon’s Rugrats), “and kind, and willing to do anything for a friend, but she can also be very strong and pigheaded. If someone says she can’t do something, she’ll do anything to prove them wrong. She can be pretty forceful. And she can also be a baby that denies she’s a baby. You know, she sleeps with her little stuffed octopus.”
Spicy Buttercup, says E.G. Daily (who also voices Tommy Pickles on Rugrats — she’s Strong’s brother there and her sister here), “is feisty. She’s passionate about things, and a little bit aggressive — I get to rage out every now and then. You have to be pretty contained a lot of the time, and Buttercup sometimes gets a little leaky.”
And of Blossom, the everything nice in the PpG trinity, Catherine Cavadini says, “She means really well. She takes herself a little too seriously, I think. She’s a leader, so it’s a fine line that I have to play, because I can’t go too cutesy with her; even though she is cute, I have to maintain that she’s serious and she’s smart. She’s the one who’s always ordering everyone around. I have to keep that in there, but also make her likable.”
ONE NIGHT, WHEN HE WAS ABOUT 12 years old, Craig McCracken said to himself, “‘Tomorrow I’m going to start working on a comic book. I’m going to start trying to do it.’” And he did, coloring it in with Magic Markers. “And from that time, basically until I came up with the Powerpuff Girls, I was always trying to invent the character that was my defining character.” He began with “a generic mouse character named Marty Mouse. I was into Tintin comics at the time, and I wanted to try to write those kinds of adventure stories. I had a dream-detective character that was inspired by Will Eisner’s Spirit, I got into a George Herriman phase and tried to come up with a Krazy Kat–type character, I had an angry dog character called Crud Puppy for a while, and right before I did Powerpuff, I had a Mexican-wrestler hero named El Fuego, but I never could really get into it so much.”
But comics were too static for the pictures in his head, and so he applied to the CalArts school of animation, the Harvard Law of its field, where he was accepted on the strength of his sketchbook. Illustrious alumni include Tim Burton, John Lasseter (Toy Story), Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and various high-placed players in such Disneyworks as Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan.
“It was great meeting a bunch of people who were into the same things I was into,” says McCracken. “We could communicate on a higher level than I could with kids I knew in high school. Most of the learning I did there was from other students, ’cause you’d all kind of help each other on your projects. At a certain point I kind of stopped going to class and just focused entirely on my film. I went to design class and a couple animation classes, but most of the time I just stayed up in my cubicle and worked. I was on this rotating schedule where I would be up one or two more hours every night, so I was never either a night owl or a day person, it would fluctuate every week, it would just keep rotating.”
“I always used to go by his desk,” remembers classmate Genndy Tartakovsky, “and his assignments were just amazing. Craig’s one of the first guys who, when I looked at his drawings, I realized how much further I had to go.” They got to be friends, Craig helping Genndy with character design, Genndy helping Craig with animation. Tartakovsky — who’d lived in Moscow until age 7 and learned English from TV and comics — had transferred from a school in Chicago along with his friend Rob Renzetti, who would go on to work on Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff. “I was kind of cocky at the time,” Tartakovsky recalls, “because I thought, ‘Here I am after two years at this one college, and I’m pretty much the best in the class,’ and I get to CalArts and I was like the bottom 10 percent. It was very intimidating.”
McCracken and Tartakovsky shared a vision. “The details might be different, but the ultimate goal is pretty much the same,” says McCracken. “We both wanted to make the cartoons that were what we thought cartoons were like when we watched them as kids. A lot of times, shows that you saw when you were young you see when you’re older and you’re like, ‘What was ý I thinking? This was . . . terrible.’ So we wanted to make the cartoons we thought we watched, the memory of what we thought they were.”
By the mid-1980s, commercial animation was in sorry, soggy shape. Outside of the sort of small independent productions you’d see in traveling animation festivals, there was nothing exciting happening, nothing with a sense of history or irony or mischief. With few exceptions, cartoons as they were produced for television and (rarely) the theaters were cheap, boring, bland, ugly, unfunny, joyless, politically correct and designed not to offend any sensibilities but the artistic. They lacked the true wild cartoon spirit — the impertinence of a Bugs Bunny, the unbridled id of Tex Avery’s wolves, the runaway rage of a Donald Duck, the happy universal anthropomorphism of the world according to Boop.
Then — just around the time McCracken and Tartakovsky were starting at CalArts — came The Little Mermaid, wherein Disney got its commercial groove back and found a new old-fashioned formula to beat to death, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which celebrated the glorious anarchy and lively design of the medium’s golden age, and then The Simpsons, which conquered television and the world. And suddenly cartoons not only looked like good business, but, what was more important, they began to look like cartoons again. A small but exponentially influential new wave of “creator-driven,” historically aware, postmodernist cartoons appeared on TV, beginning with Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures and breaking big with John Kricfalusi’s The Ren & Stimpy Show. Hanna-Barbera got back in the game with 2 Stupid Dogs, a Ren & Stimpy–ized take on the studio’s early classic Huckleberry Hound style, created by Donovan Cook, a CalArts (and Ren & Stimpy) alumnus, who hired Craig McCracken as an art director on the recommendation of another CalArts grad, Paul Rudish; McCracken, who left school at the beginning of his third semester to take the job, in turn recommended Genndy Tartakovsky to work on the show. Rudish, whom Tartakovsky calls “an overall genius,” would help refine and define both Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls. The first episodes of each series, says McCracken, were “basically made by the same guys, just a different person in charge of it.”
Both made their first pre-series appearances as part of Cartoon Network’s World Premiere Toons program. Dexter’s Laboratory, about a suburban boy scientist with an anomalous “foreign accent” who keeps an impossibly large secret laboratory in his parents’ house, was the first to become a regular series, debuting in April 1996, and would four times be nominated for an Emmy. “Powerpuff was a little shaky originally,” says McCracken. “There was one focus group with 11-year-old boys where they basically said, ‘Whoever made this cartoon should be fired,’ and I was in the room with all the producers and the president of Hanna-Barbera, and it destroyed me.”
But the constant inquiries of fans of the two World Premiere shorts, Linda Simensky’s love for McCracken’s Dexter storyboards, and the desire to keep the production unit working led to a second chance for Powerpuff. McCracken settled executive qualms by further developing the individual personalities of the girls, assembling a “bible” in which he posed the girls 20 questions and had each answer in her own voice. And as Dexter reached the end of its 52-episode run (another 13 go into production this month), the team segued into The Powerpuff Girls, with McCracken taking the lead.
“When I first started working on the show,” says Tara Charendoff Strong, “I didn’t know it was going to be as successful as it was, ’cause a lot of the original scripts were very action oriented, and I’d just be like ‘Pow! Take that! Ow! Yeah.’ And I’d be like, ‘What is this show?’” Says E.G. Daily, “You’re not talking about people who have been doing it forever and forever and they just have this formula down, they’re just sort of these guys who started doing this tweaked cartoon and it happened to work.”
It has worked, though, and not by accident, unless you want to consider the distribution of talent accidental. Last year, McCracken and Tartakovsky were named by Entertainment Weekly among the 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment: little kids who stared at pictures until they came alive, growing up to make pictures come alive. (And this year the Powerpuff Girls themselves made the magazine’s list of — appropriately — the 100 Most Powerful People in Entertainment.) But unlike Mojo Jojo’s, McCracken’s head has not swelled. “My mother keeps telling me that I’m famous, and I’m like, ‘The show is famous, people know the Powerpuff Girls, but I’m nobody, I’m just a guy.’
“My agent keeps saying, ‘You’re hot right now, let’s shop you around so we can get your price up,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t wanna leave, these people treat me perfectly.’ They leave me alone and let me do what I want to do. You can’t ask for anything more.” Tartakovsky, whose new series, Samurai Jack, “a quirky action show,” is set to bow next summer, says the relationship with Cartoon Network is “perfect. They just go, ‘We love what you do, so do it. Here’s some money and some time, and give us shows.’”
It’s a good arrangement. Everybody benefits. The creators, the corporations, the consumers. McCracken has bought a house and is moving in with his girlfriend, a Powerpuff storyboard artist. Cartoon Network, which owns the characters, reaps the financial benefits of a bona fide phenomenon. I get to own a Pool Party Bubbles. (Well, my wife does, but I get to play with it.)
And there are cartoons! There are Powerpuff Girls cartoons! It’s a funny thing to love a cartoon. How can you love a cartoon? Human movie stars are at least real people — you can run into them at the supermarket. You can learn all about their private lives and personal thoughts. Mojo Jojo may relax in a bubble bath when he’s not fomenting chaos and trying to conquer the world, but when he’s not in a cartoon, he’s nowhere at all.
And yet they live. They are superpowered on the screen, but they’re magic for real. Pictures that move! Drawings that speak! Impossible things! They are constituted to make you happy, these cartoon kindergartners, even while they are knocking the teeth from a villain’s mouth. There may not be a five-eyed snot-spewing elephant monster or giant alligator at your door, but who hasn’t needed rescue at some time? From the bills in the mail, the boss at your shoulder, the mean kid on the corner, the aphids on the roses, the clog in the sink, and all the various grown-up voices of sensibility nattering in your head? Relief is only a cartoon away. Pleasing colors! Pretty shapes! Hearts and flowers and rainbows and guts and gore! Once again — and again and again — the Powerpuff Girls save the day!