From Saturday morning classics to Japanese anime, cartoons have had a long and strange journey to what they are today. Originally airing on prime time TV, cartoons eventually moved to early Saturday mornings and in doing so, gained the reputation of being for children. Much like comic books, they went from being enjoyed by everyone, to being solely consumed by kids. For about thirty odd years, every animated show was made for and aimed at younger audiences. They were either educational, humorous and/or action packed. But then, little by little, shows started becoming more mature.
MTV had an entire block of edgy content, which inspired kid friendly alternatives. There was Batman: The Animated Series, which was lauded by critics and audiences alike and of course The Simpsons, which was the first to get the ball rolling. It was the dawning of a new age and for the first time, the public perception started to change. Soon, it was not only ok to admit you liked cartoons but it became socially acceptable. Fandoms of fancy pony shows could be formed by grown men and actual celebrities could come out as otaku.
Cartoons had become mainstream and not only that, they became amazing. Some of the best written shows within the last fifteen years have been cartoons. The evolution from crudely made shows of the past involving claymation or still images with human mouths super imposed on top of them to current shows that include everything from suicide to abortions, has been insane and I for one can’t wait to see where they go from here. This list honors cartoons humble origins as well as the shows that have and continue to move the medium into newer and better directions.
This is The 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time.
10. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
Blending the best of western and eastern sensibilities to create it’s own unique fantasy mythology, Avatar: The Last Airbender is the closest we’ve gotten to a Hayao Miyazaki TV show. Set in world where “benders” use magic to control the elements around them. It’s sort of mixture between martial arts and spell casting and only one person can learn all four elements at a time. That person is the “avatar” who is bound by an reincarnation cycle. Each new iteration starts off automatically knowing the next element in series and they alternate sexes each time.
The newest avatar is a twelve year old named Aang who knows the wind element and is tasked with learning the three remaining elements to defeat the evil fire nation. Along the way, he’s joined by a brother and sister from the water nation who not only awaken Aang but inform him about the impeding war. The bulk of the show is the relationship between the main three but multiple characters show up including the fire Prince Zuko and a blind earth bender named Toph. Each character is distinct and well written and the story is as good as any fictional you’re likely to find.
09. Samurai Jack (2001-2017)
Stuck in a future world where evil holds dominion, the samurai named Jack must defeat his nemesis in order to go back to his timeline and fix the future. It’s a simple premise. In fact, it’s barely a plot but the magic of Samurai Jack and why it’s a masterpiece, is the framing of the action scenes. Every fight scene (and every episode is 85% action), is brilliantly choreographed. It’s a cliche saying usually associated with describing Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre but every frame of this show is a painting. Every new location is visually stunning and the character designs are instantly memorable.
It would’ve been high on my list if I made it any time in the last five years but the show came back in early 2017 to finally conclude the story of Jack and the the last season is so good, it automatically made it into my top 10. Any sequel made after ten years, is usually a cash grab built around exploiting nostalgia but the last season of Samurai Jack not only proves the old adage “you can’t go home again” wrong, but shows that you can always improve upon the past.
08. The Venture Bros (2003-2018)
Starting as a pastiche of different 60’s homages including Jonny Quest, The Hardy Boys and the comic book cliches of the time, The Venture Bros quickly outgrew it’s references to become it’s own cult of pop culture fandom. And a cult it is. The fans of this show are as devoted and obsessive as the most hardcore of anime aficionados and for good reason, It’s one of the smartest “parodies” ever written.
For lack of a better word, I’m using parody to describe it’s style but it’s more akin to a love letter. It’s never making fun of the things it references but the creators have a great deal of respect for their childhood. The brothers of the title are the unfortunate sons of a failed super scientist who used to be the child star of a show about his own childhood adventures and since he, too was the son of a super scientist, the whole thing comes full circle.
Imagine if the show Jonny Quest was real and the kid playing Jonny Quest actually did the shit that’s portrayed in the show and then went on to become a drug addicted failure who can’t differentiate between the show and his real life. And then he gives birth to the Hardy Brothers who are stuck in his failure. It’s kind of like that.
Failure is a running motif of the show. It’s obsessed with it. The majority of characters are failures, they’re all obsessed with the past and it also deals with the death of the space age dream. In the 50’s, science was supposed to merge with super fantasy to produce such fantastic inventions such as the jet pack, anti gravity boots, moon shuttles and walking robotic eyes. We were denied the promise of a better future and the show wallows in it.
07. Bojack Horseman (2014-2020)
Bojack Horseman is about an alcoholic, washed up actor from a late 80’s, early 90’s sitcom called Horsin’ Around trying to write a memoir about his shitty life. He has a “roommate” (squatters rights, I suppose) named Todd, who is his only friend. An old girlfriend named Princess Carolyn is his only confidant and his ghost writer Diane is the only one that can put up with his shit for more than 5 minutes. He’s a piece of shit that literally can’t function without self imploding. He has either convinced himself that he can live with the chaos or he’s come to terms with the fact that that’s all there is.
Half of the entertainment is trying to guess when the inevitable foot will come down to crush him ala Monty Python. He’s a ticking time bomb that constantly finds a lower spot than rock bottom. I know it sounds like a dead serious drama but it’s a comedy. A comedy with the best visual gags since Arrested Development and some of the strongest writing in any medium. It’s borderline nihilistic but that’s Hollywoo baby.
06. Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)
This is the gold standard in which all other anime are judged. The créme de la créme as it were, this show is a jazz infused noir set in the future that’s the culmination of everything that was ever cool. Cop shows of the 70’s, spaghetti westerns, space operas, chop socky kung-fu flicks, this show throws all of those ingredients into a wok and creates the craziest stir fry that’s ever existed.
But it’s not typical anime craziness. There’s no stylized animation or over the top expressions, it’s not that kind of crazy. It’s the kind of crazy you get when Tarantino decides to score his WW2 film with David Bowie music and ends it with Hitler getting bullet fucked to death. It’s a reinterpretation of influence. Breaking down what’s worked before and improving every one of those elements.
It’s about four bounty hunters, all with different but equally shady pasts all coming together in search of a common goal: to make money. Story is told piecemeal over flashbacks, slowly expanding the world and the characters within it.
It’s a perfect combination of action, story and character development. Cowboy Bebop has it all, including a perfect ending one of the hippest fucking scores around. Seriously, if you don’t want to instantly want to watch this after hearing this jazzy ass bombast, you’re deaf.
See you space cowboy.
05. South Park (1997 – )
Since South Park has been on the air for 20 years, It’s actually evolved into three different shows. The first was the chef years, which were the first 9 seasons. Then after Isaac Hayes left due to issues concerning the Scientology episode, the shows writing got exponentially better.
They were creating multi episode story-lines, their targets were better defined and they even explained how Kenny kept coming back from the dead. The last version of South Park is the era we’re in now, the season long arc. I believe the creators knew that binge watching was slowly destroying week to week watching and they reconfigured the show to cater to that specific habit.
Whichever version of South Park is your favorite, there’s no repudiating the fact that it’s a undeniably culturally significant. For those of you that were born in the mid 90’s, this was your Simpsons. Cartman was your Bart. South Park was your Springfield. It may have lost its way as of late but it’s taken 20 years for its edge to dull and that’s pretty goddamn impressive.
04. Adventure Time (2010-2018)
An amalgamation of Dungeons and Dragons, The Legend of Zelda and candy, Adventure Time not only has every fantasy trope in the book but fully embraces them. The two main characters Finn the human and Jake the dog are constantly in the search for a quest. Just like every RPG in existence, they dungeon crawl for fun and loot. The world they live in Oooo, is a post apocalyptic earth where monsters run rampant and candy is sentient. The ruler of the candy people is Princess Bubblegum who is strongly implied to have been in a relationship with Marceline the vampire queen.
The show has no problem empowering the disenfranchised by normalizing controversial topics such as homosexuality and gender identity. Nobody judges anyone’s lifestyle choices in this show. Nobody is ostracized because of a belief. Besides creating the best animated world since The Simpsons and writing the best gags since Looney Tunes, Adventure Time is this high on the list because it teaches kids that being different is okay. It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to not understand your place in the world. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, Adventure Time might be more important than ever.
03. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Batman has been repeatedly referred to as the greatest superhero among comic book fans and, if you agree, odds are you think this show is still his greatest achievement. I love the dark and semi-realistic world Nolan fabricated and the gothic aesthetic Burton brought to the table was a refreshing change of pace from the Adam West series but I don’t think either hold a candle to the world Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski created together. Feeling more cinematic than most animated shows at that time, Batman was combining darker tones, more mature story-lines and an eye catching art deco look that creates a world that felt so real, it was palpable.
The casting was so perfect, that when I read a Batman comic book, I still hear the menacing, authoritative voice of a Kevin Conroy or the gleeful insanity of a Mark Hamill. They’ve left that strong of an indelible impression on me that no other interpretation lives up to it. Besides nailing the casting and obviously the acting, they also elevated obscure characters and created tragic backstories for them, like Mr. Freeze and Clayface or created some of the most popular new characters in the Batman pantheon such as Harley Quinn. The show was pitch perfect and a masterpiece in every way.
02. The Simpsons (1989 – )
The undeniable heavyweight of the animation world. No other cartoon casts quite the shadow that this behemoth has made. Boasting such records as the longest running American animated program, longest running American sitcom and the longest running American prime-time series (what country is beating us??), it’s impossible to remember a time without The Simpsons. Those first 12 seasons, are among the best writing of any medium in existence. It’s nigh impossible to crown which one is the best because almost all of them are legitimate contenders. The jokes are some of the best constructed, endlessly quotable and instantly iconic in existence.
The cast of characters are so well known, that I don’t need to list them or the basic premise of the show. The Simpsons is part of your DNA. You’re so intimately familiar with this show, that Duff beer and Itchy and Scratchy cartoons make up your atoms. The numerous couch gags make up your molecules. This show is a part of you. Those first 12 seasons are absolute perfection but as the bard said, “therein lies the rub.” The show didn’t end after season 12. Unfortunately, it also didn’t end after season 15. No, The Simspons not only didn’t end when the show was at its absolute peak, it’s still on. Currently on season 30 something and the show is, regrettably terrible.
Terrible isn’t the right word for it, it’s an abomination. The characters are completely different (jerk ass Homer and annoying ass Lisa are the biggest examples), the writing is abysmal, and every year it’s on, gets it further and further away from the amazing shit that preceded it. The ratio is no longer 50/50, it’s no longer half a great show. The show has sunken so far down in quality, that even if they end it now, it’ll be too late. I wish I could only judge it based on the golden years because if i could, not only would it easily be number 1, it would be the greatest show in history but I can’t. I have to judge the show as a whole and It’s influence and impact make it a strong number 2 but because half the show is unwatchable, it can’t be number 1.
01. Looney Tunes (1930-1969)
For a cartoon to dethrone the unquestionable god of animation, it would have to be equally as influential, made as big of an impact culturally and have characters as famous than that of The Simpsons. Not only does Looney Tunes fit that bill but it also has a much better ratio of quality. It’s not exactly easy to pinpoint where Merry Melodies ends and when Looney Tunes begins but if you lump them all together as the company has, the amount of content Bugs and his crew produced is staggering. Although technically not a show in the conventional sense, the series of theatrical shorts has always been shown on television, either as stand alone shorts or as a part of The Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner Show or one of its sister shows.
I unfortunately didn’t qualify the Mickey Mouse cartoons in Silly Symphonies because it’s a weird gray area between shorts and legitimate TV show but Warner Bros immediately started showing Looney Tunes on television as soon as they could and have never stopped. So I felt it definitely counted as a show. And if it counts, there’s no way, It’s not automatically number 1. From the Chuck Jones era, the Tex Avery era, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, each new animator wanted to prove to the other that they were the best and that healthy competition lead to numerous indelible classics, most of which were selected by a group of 1000 animators as the top 50 greatest animated shorts of all time with What’s Opera, Doc? coming in at first place. Not only do I strongly believe that this is the greatest show of all time, I consider these shorts among the most important works of art ever created.
This is the Greatest Cartoon of All Time.
Do you agree with the top 10? Were there any cartoons you were disappointed to see not make the cut? Chime in with your thoughts down in the comments below!