» Let’s Hear It For the Creators

One of the first published items that drew grassroots attention to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was a now-infamous post on the animation blog Cartoon Brew by prolific author and commentator Amid Amidi entitled “The End of the Creator-Driven Era in TV Animation”. This post appeared on October 19, 2010, just after the very first episode of FiM aired, and Amidi used it as a piece of evidence in a thesis that seemed to suggest that the best days of modern cartoons were behind us.

Perhaps it’s time, after two full seasons and with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, that we take a look back at what the animation blog world’s take on the nascent show was and what it portended for the industry—and whether those predictions have, in fact, come true.

The article wasn’t about FiM per se, really. It was about animation in general, and the phenomenon Amidi was pointing out was the emergence of the Hub network, which had launched that week with a stable of shows firmly drawn from its past properties. Amidi’s impression from this was that a broad era in animation history had come to an end, an era when cartoon shows that were the brainchildren of their gifted creators were given the blessing of production money by a studio like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network and allowed to go hog wild in expanding on their original creative visions. It was an era when every show sported a prominent “Created By” credit in the titles. It was the era of Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff GirlsRen & Stimpy, Johnny Bravo, Beavis & Butt-head, and Spongebob Squarepants—all pet projects that developed under studio tutelage into standalone phenomena that underpinned their respective studios’ success throughout the 1990s. It was an era that, according to Amidi, was now giving way to corporate-sponsored marketing movements to revive decades-old properties by recruiting well-respected creators like Lauren Faust and her contemporaries to shill their preexisting material. In short, Amidi was accusing the artists who had given animation its new 1990s Golden Age of selling out their own personal visions in the face of newly assertive studio powers.

We know an awful lot more about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic now than we did then. Let’s take a look at whether the show has played into Amidi’s dire predictions, or has proved to be a red herring from which no such conclusion can be drawn.

The Hard-Won Creator Credit

The first thing that Amidi might have noticed, setting off his cognitive-dissonance radar, is the huge “Developed For Television by Lauren Faust” credit that accompanied the show’s pink and sparkly My Little Pony title card. Coming on the heels of two decades of Cartoon Network and Nick shows where a “Created By” credit usually meant a goofy and off-the-wall piece of subversive, envelope-pushing, entirely original animation like Courage the Cowardly Dog or Spongebob Squarepants, this—not even a true creator credit, but just a tacit acknowledgment that the property is and always was Hasbro’s—must have looked like the worst and most classical kind of sellout. “Lauren Faust,” one might cry, “how the mighty have fallen!”

But as we now know, it’s a mistake to think that the development of FiM was a corporate-steered, master-planned effort to harness the power of big creative names to breathe new life into Hasbro’s old toylines. True, that’s what the strategy became. But it’s not how it started. Hasbro did have the idea to reboot its old cartoon properties in the wake of the success of the live-action Transformers movies helmed by Michael Bay, and so the idea of bringing in a heavy-hitter to legitimize an otherwise ignored toy brand was percolating among the same minds that later gave birth to the Hub network itself. But Faust’s involvement wasn’t the hollow, sinister thing Amidi darkly suggests. She wasn’t railroaded into channeling her creative energy unwillingly into some soulless, toy-driven behemoth, kidnapped by a corporate monster and forced to create like the Tour de France bicyclist tied to an exercise bike in The Triplets of Belleville. We all know by now that the balance of power in FiM is, and was, nothing like that.

We’ve all heard the story of how Faust came to be associated with the My Little Pony brand. It wasn’t that Hasbro sought her out, looking for a big name to attach to their venerable property and thereby bestow upon it a measure of unearned respect. It was, as they say in Middle-earth, a chance-meeting. Faust was at Hasbro pitching her Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls project as a toyline and an animated show, and her past love for My Little Pony was what kept her in the office of Entertainment & Licensing honcho Lisa Licht after it became clear that she wasn’t going to go for Galaxy Girls. The idea of a whole cable network populated by rebooted iterations of well-known Hasbro brands was barely an apple in anyone’s eye at the time, and if anything the FiM project was what made it a possibility in the first place.

Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls—the creation closest to Faust's heart.

What, then, might have been if Licht had been won over by the Galaxy Girls pitch? What if Hasbro had decided to run with Faust’s personal pet project, instead of putting her in charge of the recreation of one of their flagship properties? Would Amidi have been unable to observe any supposed end to the era of creator-driven animation efforts?

Any attempt to describe trends like these in the animation world depends on circumstantial evidence and the ability to read larger significance from seemingly small and isolated data points. On top of that, the long lead time associated with the creation of any new show makes these observations all the harder. In late 2010, with the Hub a nascent phenomenon and Cartoon Network becoming more and more ill-named by running ever more live-action and licensed content, it might well have looked as though the animation heyday begun in the 90s was over, and that there was some rising force of corporate-imposed creative stagnation to blame for it.

Indeed, there’s a tempting mythology associated with the Cartoon Network Golden Age, one that probably helped to color Amidi’s observations. It’s a great story, this idea that present-day luminaries like Faust, McCracken, Tartakovsky, Partible, Renzetti, and many others all came of age as friends and colleagues at CalArts or otherwise found their way into the newly-relevant Turner cartoon empire just when it was finding an audience among sarcastic, college-age animation fans. We’re inspired by looking back on the days when a cartoon like Johnny Bravo or The Powerpuff Girls (or, as it was originally known, The Whoopass Girls) could get its start in a prime-time showcase anthology like The What A Cartoon! Show, or, even more amusingly, on Space Ghost Coast to Coast. It’s wonderful to watch this group of tight-knit friends and colleagues go on to create their own masterpieces like Samurai Jack and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and, in the case of Faust and McCracken, to marry.

By the same token, it’s difficult to swallow evidence that such a narrative is coming to a seemingly ignominious and tawdry end. But drawing these kinds of conclusions from so little real data is risky to say the least, with so many stories still in the process of being told. Now, with two years of history to look back on, we can fairly easily see that the Hub is a unique entity in the cartoon landscape—an outlier that doesn’t represent any larger trend in the industry. Hasbro is in a unique position as one of only a few large companies founded on toy merchandising and only secondarily known for the entertainment they have produced in support of it.

Outside of the Hub example, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that there’s as much creator-driven content as ever being brought to fruition today. Cartoon Network itself, indeed, has produced a few, particularly in its late-night Adult Swim block—short-form and off-the-wall as they often seem, they’re intensely personal creative efforts, far from being cynical boardroom-spawned money-harvests. New comedy names like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim owe their exposure to the continued love affair Cartoon Network has with its individualistic stable of creative names. Elsewhere in the industry, revived franchises like Futurama seek to keep their original creative teams together even when jumping ship from one network sponsor to another; in this sense modern networks are being better stewards of their creator-driven content than Cartoon Network was ten years ago, when it invasively retooled shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo after their creators left, sapping them of much of their charm and attraction. Shows all over the animation landscape seem to support the idea that creators are given free rein to realize their vision just as much as ever, from The Amazing World of Gumball to The Secret Saturdays to Phineas & Ferb to Adventure Time. For every data point that seems to support Amidi’s thesis of an oppressive corporate drive to saddle creative heavy-hitters with tired old portfolio projects like the recent Thundercats reboot, there is a creator-driven counterexample like Avatar: The Last Airbender and its hotly anticipated successor The Legend of Korra to help sink it.

And what about Faust herself? After an interlude helming a series of interstitial shorts starring DC Universe characters called Super Best Friends Forever (at which Amidi would have raised a knowing eyebrow), she’s joining her husband on a Disney-produced all-original creation straight from his fertile mind, Wander Over Yonder.

Care-Dudes and Confirmation Bias

An email recently sent to Amidi by the PR agency for the Hub would certainly have done little to disabuse him of any notions that corporate behemoths with brand portfolios are bad news for creators and savvy fans:

What’s the Care Bears equivalent of a Brony? Belly-Bros? Care-Dudes? “Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot” premieres this June on The Hub TV Network and features the same re-imagined CG animation and spirit of friendship and caring that made shows like “My Little Pony Friendship is Magic” a cult hit.

“Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot” is a modernized, CGI-animated version of the classic animated cartoon, which hits its 30th anniversary this year! Re-imagined in the same vein as the Hub’s other hit television shows, everyone’s favorite bears and their iconic Belly Badges have been transformed with today’s technology into a series that kids and families can enjoy together. I’d love to see if you’d be interested in featuring the bears for the series launch this June.

Though the Hub quickly backpedaled and disavowed the email, it still had carried a certain ring of seeming truth. Clearly (so it appeared), the network’s marketing department doesn’t have much of an understanding of what turns some shows into lightning in a bottle, and why others are bound to achieve their stated goals of keeping a brand alive for another generation and accomplish little else. It’s tempting to fit this event into the ongoing narrative that paints creators as being at the mercy of clueless corporate overlords who would think it natural to try to manufacture a grassroots fan following for a new show.

This may or may not be true, of course. Hasbro appears recently to have shown a much greater sense of self-awareness than it has in the past with regards to the adult fan base, what with the development of fan-favorite characters in toy form, from Gilda to DJ PON-3. Besides, the horrified tone of the Hub’s retraction followup email indicates that they were as taken aback by the idea of it as the fans were. Evidence suggests that all parties relevant to the fandom are closer to being on the same page than we might think.

But in any case Amidi would do well to rethink his conclusion of a year and a half ago, that having a company like Hasbro as a corporate partner is a death-knell for creativity, or especially for the “creator-driven era” in general. He could not have known this having seen nothing but the very first episode of Friendship is Magic, but as we’ve all become aware in the time since then, the show has enjoyed a tremendous amount of creative leeway. Faust and director Jayson Thiessen have attested numerous times to the extraordinary way that Hasbro allowed them to pursue their creative vision in bringing ponies to life. Things they never thought they’d be able to get away with came back stamped “OK” by Hasbro’s content managers time and time again, with the result that what we see on the screen more or less is a personal creative vision—it’s a pet project of Lauren Faust’s every bit as much as Galaxy Girls is. It stems from the rich storytelling universe she created around her pony toys as a kid in the 1980s, and Hasbro—knowing the value they’d bought in bringing her on board—let her run wild with it, to the point where the show is as demonstrably, iconically “hers” as it is Hasbro’s. A recent LA Weekly article profiling her creative vision and saluting her effect on the “bronies” doesn’t even mention Hasbro.

It’s always much easier to do a post-mortem analysis than a prescient forecast, especially of the movements of a large-scale industry. Back in October 2010, it might well have looked like the vibrant and energetic cartoon world was in very real danger of being swallowed up by a tide of rebooted, unoriginal properties sponsored by toy companies and franchise portfolio owners, the only entities willing and able to keep funding the animation industry. Seeing a name like Lauren Faust attached to a brand like My Little Pony must have looked like the end of the world to someone who was already seeing his beloved industry slipping away into a sea of cheap CGI and endlessly rehashed toy franchises. But I hope he’s put his dismay to rest in the time since then. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has pretty clearly shown itself to be something special, something that can’t be categorized. It hasn’t killed the animation industry, and it hasn’t even killed Faust’s career. On the contrary, it’s probably done more to boost both those things than anything else has in recent history. 

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  1. I don’t think the launch of Hub augured much for creator-driven content. If anything, it just gave younger artists working in the industry more opportunities. Perhaps Amidi was concerned that talent like Faust and Renzetti couldn’t get positions elsewhere. However, it’s clear that they were willing to give up a bit of creative control (not much, as it turns out!) to get a great show for younger girls on the air. And I think several aspects of the franchise actually helped the show gain its adult following, such as the broad cast and detailed setting that were mandated.

    That is not to say that the animation landscape didn’t look concerning at the time. However, I believe he should have focused on broader trends that were becoming clear issues. One was the move towards cheap live action content on channels like Cartoon Network. I believe that this trend has largely subsided after a number of failures. The other was the general trend towards rebooting every franchise that has ever existed at the expense of trying out new content. This trend is as strong as ever, particularly in movies.