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.
40. Home Movies (1999-2004)
Before he melted faces with the power of rock as the lead singer of Dethklok, Brendon Small teamed up with the creator of Bob’s Burgers to create one of the first hits of Adult Swim. Home Movies is about a movie obsessed kid named Brendon and his two pals making short films after school or during school or whenever they have time. He lives with his mother and has a odd father/son relationship with the coach of his soccer team named McGuirk.
It’s a delightful show about childhood obsession but the real reason it’s on the list and the reason it’s a hit among fans is 100% McGuirk. H. Jon Benjamin brings every character he voices to life, not because he’s an expert voice actor (he never changes his voice) but because he’s one of the funniest people on the planet. There’s a reason almost every show he’s been on is on this list — he’s fucking hilarious and McGuirk is arguably him at his most funny.
39. The Legend of Korra (2012-2014)
Outside of long awaited follow ups to beloved anime, cartoons don’t get as big a hill to climb as the one left behind by Avatar: The Last Airbender. Trying to live up to that shows legacy is nigh Impossible, so the mere prospect of making a sequel is by its very definition, a fool’s errand. Unless, of course, the show is about trying to live up to that legacy. By centering the show on a protagonist who must live up to the legacy of her predecessor, the show smartly decides to confront the issue head on and by doing so, created a compelling arc for the main character.
Any viewer can understand the pressures of what it is like to live up to the expectations of a society that demands greatness from you and because of that, it makes her and the show itself, more relatable. She became an underdog simply by virtue of the fact that she was in a show destined to fail. But against all odds, the show not only didn’t fail but was deemed a worthy successor of the original. It might not have been perfect (season 2 was a bit shaky) but The Legend of Korra eventually found its footing with season 3 and its powerful character growth, gorgeous fight cinematography, and commentary on mental health.
38. G.I Joe (1985-1986)
One of the things you’ll notice about this list is the amount of TV shows made to sell toys. They were either designed specifically to sell toys or they were toys to begin with that needed a glorified commercial to sell more. G.I Joe was a toy line a good 30 years before the animated series premiered but nobody gives a fuck about the shit your grandfather played with when he was a tyke. This was the 80’s, which meant more action, more ninjas and more American asskickery than the 50’s ever thought of.
This was a decade built on cocaine and explosions and in the middle of that Venn diagram was G.I Joe. Every kid had a favorite character (it was always Snake Eyes) because they were all lean, mean cobra kicking badasses that usually had punny codename. And there was always a message because the joes cared about the kids as much as they cared about kicking ass and they really cared about kicking ass.
37. X-Men: The Animated Series (1992-1997)
The live action X-Men movies have been pretty hit or miss in terms of quality. They’re usually amazing or shit with no middle ground but the one thing they all have in common is the fact that they’re not as good as this show. And the reason they’re not as good is the fucking theme song. If this was a list of the greatest cartoon theme songs, this would be in the top 5 easy. That’s how amazing it is.
But a show can’t be a theme song alone (unless it’s Friends), and X-Men ain’t no one trick pony. It’s one of the best written superhero shows ever created. The storylines were pulled from the comics or created wholesale by a team of amazing writers. If the superhero craze never kicked off in the beginning of the 00’s, it would’ve sucked but at least we still had this show and it’s incredible theme song.
36. Naruto (2002-2007)
To the outsider, anime looks like nothing but big eyed girls with physically impossible busts running away from monsters with the occasional robot thrown in and while that describes about half of them, the other half are usually some of the deepest, well written shows on TV.
Based on the third best selling manga of all time, Naruto is huge, sprawling epic that would cripple my fingers if I tried to explain in detail but the cliff notes version is: Naruto is Pokemon if you replaced all the Pokemon with ninjas and made Ash a ninja. It’s a little bit more complicated than that but that’s essentially the gist. There’s a ninja that wants to be the best ninja and there’s a whole bunch of other ninjas. It’s pretty much just ninja porn. But, ya know, good ninja porn.
35. Steven Universe (2013-2020)
While researching this show for this list, I found out that, apparently, unbeknownst to me, it has one of the most incredibly toxic fanbases around. I’m talking about worse than the slime that primarily hangs around 4chan bad. I have no idea why so many douche bags gravitate to this show but if you manage to steer clear of the filth, Steven Universe is a delightfully charming and deceptively deep show about friendship, family and love.
Bridging the gap between My Little Pony and Adventure Time, Steven Universe mixes a little from column A and a little from column B to create a wholly original show that promotes LGBTQ rights and has a strong emphasis on world building.
The world Steven and the three lady gems he hangs out with is as expansive and intricate as they get. The storylines are deep and the characters are extremely well written. It’s a real gem of a show. (Get it? Because it’s all about gems.)
34. The Jetsons (1962-1963)
I don’t know what’s harder to believe, that there was a time where cartoons were played during prime-time or that The Jetsons became a worldwide sensation with only one season. That’s right, before the 80’s movie renewed interest in the show, the original run lasted less than 30 episodes. Isn’t that crazy? It feels like it lasted for decades but that’s the power of creating instantly iconic characters such as The Jetsons, it’s impact outweighs it’s quantity.
There’s a reason why there been a remake in the works for the last 20 years and that’s because people still love the wildly imaginative future the show created and the characters that inhabit it. Or maybe it’s the treadmills. Audiences love a good treadmill joke.
33. Daria (1997-2001)
A spin-off of Beavis and Butt-head, Daria focused on the (mis)adventures of a cynical, highly intelligent teen trying to survive not only the hell that is high school but the drudgery that is her family.
“I don’t have low self esteem, I have low esteem for everyone else.”
Daria was one of the first cartoons to truly understand the “outsider.” Other characters realized immediately that she was intelligent but nobody ever bullied her or insulted her because she was introverted. They accepted that she was different and it wasn’t a big deal. Her sister and her vapid friends are the only ones that have a problem with it but the show goes out of its way to show that they’re the true “outsider” because they have nothing to offer anyone. They’re all just fashion mannequins that can talk. Daria was a mature look at the teenage experience and when it ended, MTV officially died.
32. Gravity Falls (2012-2016)
If you were to judge a show based on how fanatical it’s fan-base was, Gravity Falls would be right behind My Little Pony in terms of devotion and adoration. Fans of this show really connected to it and it’s not hard to see why. It’s built like a less weird Twin Peaks but with way more mysteries and targeted more towards children. Not to say Twin Peaks isn’t for children (God knows I loved that log lady when I was younger), but, actually no, that is what I’m saying. Don’t show your children Twin Peaks. It’ll fuck em up.
The show is about Dipper and his younger sister Mabel who are sent to stay the summer with their great-uncle Stan in a town filled with nothing but paranormal oddities. It’s a regular ‘ol hotbed of weird, so much so that their great-uncle runs a tourist trap called “The Mystery Shack”, which sells nothing but bizarre knick-knacks. The bulk of the show is about the two investigating the spooky shit that happens in the town and it’s fantastic. Oh and it’s in the same universe as Rick and Morty, so automatically it’s good.
31. The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005)
“Sugar. Spice. And everything nice. These were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little girls. But Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction… Chemical X. Thus the Powerpuff Girls were born. Using their ultra-superpowers, Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup have dedicated their lives to fighting crime and the forces of evil.”
Thank god for that dumbass professor and that wonderful Chemical X or we’d never have the greatest female superhero team of all time– The Powerpuff Girls.
Made up of Blossom, who’s the leader, Bubbles, the emotionally fragile one with a heart of gold and Buttercup, the Raphael of the group. The lone wolf that barely plays by the rules. These 3 super powered kindergartners protect the city of townsville from a huge rogues gallery that includes villains such as Fuzzy Lumkins, Princess Morbucks, Him and the infamous Mojo Jojo. A character so great, he almost overshadows the rest of the show. Almost.
What are some of your favorite cartoons? Maybe they will show up later in the list!