Growing up is never fun, but it can be funny. Childhood cartoons constantly used the concept of childhood and adulthood as fodder for humor and stories, but what can we learn from aging in cartoons that could be applied to our favorite comic characters?
I’ve been rewatching certain shows from my youth to remind me of simpler times in my life and give me a feeling of joy and serenity. One such show is Ed, Edd, n Eddy, which ironically has the distinction of being Cartoon Network’s longest running original series.
The show could be described in one of two ways, three different characters reacting to the same situation or The Three Stooges for kids. Officially, its about three friends navigating adolescence while trying to earn money to buy their favorite candy, Jawbreakers. Every episode dealt with the Eds (the group name for the three titular characters) as they got themselves in over their ends and usually met with a karmic comeuppance for their deeds. Usually they tried to trick the other neighborhood kids out of their money through a scam or some other ploy and almost always had the results blow up in their faces. Episode after episode follows this structure, loosely teaching lessons about bullying, respecting other’s cultures, honesty and the importance of friendship. That last lesson is one of the show’s most endearing qualities to me and stuck with me through my own adolescence. In the Season four finale, the Eds finally pull off a scam that works and they’re able to purchase their sought after prize; jawbreakers. Of course the candies get locked away and as they endeavor to get them back, Eddy gets struck on the head while wishing he would never grow old. Flash forward decades and Eddy awakens as an old man with all of his peers the same. Somehow, the former children waste away their days doing most of the same things they did as kids, even the Eds. Decades later, the trio remained friends and neighbors. As Eddy tries desperately to wake up from his nightmare, he awakens as a kid again just as his friends recover the jawbreakers and exclaims “I never want to get old”. It turns into Inception after that, with his older self waking up and his friends explaining that he had been regaling them with stories from their youth. He begrudgingly accepts this, and later the series returns to their youthful adventures and more shenanigans on their path to maturity.
The point of the series (if there ever was one) was that at the end of the day, these three would always have each other and their friendship to fall back on. As their fans have grown older, they’ve tried to unravel the various quirks that exist in the show like why Edd always wears a hat (its a secret within the show what’s underneath and never shown), what country one of the children immigrated from, etc. Perhaps the biggest mystery is what would the next stage of the children’s lives look like as teens? I must confess a morbid curiosity to this myself, but its not one I fully want to see. As much as I love the show, I got six seasons and a movie, I’m grateful for that. Unless it came back with all of the original writers and voice cast free to continue where they left off, I’d rather it didn’t return at all.
Seeing the Powerpuff Girls return as slightly older has been a disappointment for a majority of reasons. Something was lost in the translation between their original interpretation and their return. The magic is gone, for lack of a better term.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to cartoons, it has a long history in comics as well. For a time, the Golden Age characters of the JSA were depicted as much older than the heroes of the Justice League which is funny because when the JSA characters were created they were close to the same age as the new characters. Dick Grayson, Jason Todd and Peter Parker have all matured from young boys into “adult” men although their respective ages have all been tampered with numerous times. For a time though, Peter Parker had gone from a teen to a college student to seemingly a man in his late 30s. This was a conscious effort on the part of the writers to appeal to the fans who had grown up on Spider-Man and wanted him to grow up as well. There’s a perverse sort of logic in doing this.
“Cartoons don’t age, they just mature.”- Jamie Hewlett, co-creator of Tank Girl and the virtual band Gorillaz
As Peter Parker grew older, settled down and got married, it (supposedly) became harder for fans to identify with him. In growing up, he stopped being the neurotic funny man that grabbed readers attention. Trying to make him younger again only draws more attention to the fact that Spider-Man has changed, because he was forced to. Part of the meteoric appeal of characters like Miles Morales and Kamala Kahn are their youth (their ethnicity and legacy status help too), because they represent something that the industry has been ignoring for decades as they aged their characters in order to appeal to the same aging base of readers. It may sound counter-intuitive, but not changing the characters is what will make them endure. Its why every Spider-Man movie starts out at the same place with him in High School, its not only where he begins but where he belongs.
Dick Grayson is probably the exception to the rule, he no longer belongs in red and yellow tights following in Batman’s shadow. His appeal is dependent upon his maturity, but for almost every other character I’d say the opposite is true. Its absolutely fine for these characters to mature and grow, but they can’t grow old. Its impossible for them, unless we force it. Once that happens, they stop being the characters they were.
Imagine another Peter, Peter Pan. As a young boy he has adventures and flies and never grows old. Except in the movie Hook, he did grow old and became an adult. By the end he could still do all the things he did as Peter Pan, but he wasn’t the same and he knew it. In growing up, he lost his childish self as he should. Its a good movie, but also sad in a number of ways.
Seeing Ed, Edd, n Eddy grow up would have the same effect to me and other fans as well whether they realize it or not. As children they’re able to be appealing to generations of kids if they’re able to ignore the absence of cell phones, hover boards and flat screen TVs. We’re free to enjoy them as they were too, despite outgrowing the situations that the characters experience. Seeing them step out of adolescence and the mindset of preteens would mean the fundamental end of who they are.
Even if it means losing the characters we love and cherish, forcing them to change for us denies them the eternal spring of youth that endows them. Once that happens, what is left for us as fans to enjoy about the characters?