People don’t realize this, but the golden age of cartoons isn’t actually the Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies eras: it was the ’90s.
That’s when people who’d grown up watching those sorts of cartoons started to make them, and actually got a budget to animate them and take them to a new place.
The ’80s were literally cartoons to sell toys, the ’70s were the cheapest thing you could put on Saturday morning TV, but the ’90s brought cartoons that entertained people on multiple levels, because they were designed to be layered as well as make people happy.
The three cartoons that ushered it in were the Nicktoons shows Doug, Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy, which premiered in August 1991. At the same time, the Soviet Union was collapsing. An unsuccessful coup drove more and more socialist republics to break away. And that was it. The United States had won the Cold War, and the ’90s began, one year late.
Lots of really good cartoons came out after that, from the serious (“Batman the Animated Series”) to the wacky (“Animaniacs”) to the downright bizarre (“Aaahh!!! Real Monsters”). The Toonami block on Cartoon Network brought cartoons of many eras together, but re-mixed them into original promos talking about things like anger and identity. (“A boy has the right to dream. There are endless possibilities stretched out before him. What awaits him down the path, he will then have to choose.”)
If people had reason for angst then, I’ll never understand why.
I was a Bonham Junior High freshman on Sept. 11, 2001. I suppose I should have outgrown colorful drawings flashed in quick succession already, but I hadn’t, haven’t, and am not convinced they’re something that needs growing out of.
So when I got home that afternoon, having spent an entire day watching twin towers of smoke billow, watching people jump out of buildings rather than suffocate or burn to death, watching — finally — the slow-motion crashing of 100 stories, pancaked down on another, I really just wanted to go home and watch some cartoons. I’d had enough news and fear and paranoia or a day — and much more.
Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network chose not to alter their programming, since everyone else already was. It was nice, for one more day to pretend things were had they had been, but it was too late.
The ’90s were over, one year late.