Tuesday, 15 November 2016

But is it Gothic? - Adventure Time

But Is it Gothic? – Adventure Time

Marceline the Vampire Queen, Adventure Time opening sequence

Vampires? Check. Creepy landscapes? Check. Radioactive fallout resulting in mutations of sentient lollipops – come again? No I didn’t spill magic-mushroom flavour ice cream all over my handbook to Gothic literature, I’m just very excited to be writing a piece on one of my favourite animated cartoons of recent years: Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. And, as I’m sure fellow viewers and fans will testify, one does not require any hallucinogenics to enjoy the show – its comic style, trippy visuals and surprisingly dark humour work well enough on their own. Ice cream, however, is required at all times.

In true twenty-first century fashion, I first became aware of Adventure Time through online meme culture. My first experience of actually watching it was through a Youtube clip compilation, including a scene where the hero Finn takes down a villain by threading his jumper through the creature’s eye sockets and shattering its skull (the sweater of l-l-liking someone a lot, it seems, is to this generation’s adventurers as a towel is to galactic hitchhikers. You never know when it will come in handy).

Intrigued, I began to watch the show in earnest, and before long was completely drawn into the exquisitely bizarre adventures of the principle characters.

The show is set in the distant future in the Land of Ooo, a thousand years after a nuclear holocaust called The Great Mushroom War has destroyed almost all life (see picture above). In the wake of the bombs, magic has begun to return to the world, and this combined with the radioactive fallout has resulted in strange lifeforms, including a race of sentient candy creatures who are ruled over by the benevolent Princess Bubblegum. The story revolves around the adventures of Finn, the last human boy, and Jake the Dog, his shapeshifting canine companion.

The show is a surreal combination of dark imagination with childish sweetness and excitement. Visually speaking, whilst other Cartoon Network programmes strongly feature up-close and hyper-disgusting animation styles, Adventure Time has a gentler aesthetic: just look at its pastel-coloured characters, it’s cotton-candy-wouldn’t melt-in-my-mouth backdrop. The show’s darker elemental underbelly is literally sugar-coated, like a charming Peppermint-Butler who wants to steal your flesh. Like a children’s balloon that yearns for the sweet embrace of death. Even when making not-so-subtle sexual references, the humour is dark, but never seedy. Where other shows are fun for their gross-out appeal, Adventure Time stands out as a product of pure imagination that relies on witty storytelling and sassy dialogue to enchant the viewer.

Finn the Human and Jake the Dog
So without further preamble let’s jump into some probably quite tenuous analysis to answer the question: ‘Is it Gothic?’ Objectively Adventure Time certainly appears to draw upon the common archetypes of the Gothic genre. We have the noble hero Finn who seeks to rescue princesses in distress; there are the castles, sinister dungeons and creepy forests that are found throughout the land of Ooo; legions of monsters and spooky creatures that populate them; and a wicked predatory patriarchal figure set on kidnapping a handful of distressed maidens.

However, the series actually goes a step further in representing figures and stories from the Gothic literary canon. Let’s take the character of Ice King. Initially conceived to be the series’ main antagonist (that is, until the appearance of a powerful undead lich demon and an obnoxious monarchist lemon), the Ice King is the ruler of the Ice Kingdom with a singular goal: to kidnap princesses and force them to marry him. He is assisted in this by his psychopathic penguin minion Gunther, formerly Orglorg, who can only communicate through one word: “wenk”.

Penguins aside, a case could be made for Ice King’s similarities with the figure of Bluebeard. In this definitive Gothic folktale, the aristocratic though hideously unattractive Bluebeard marries a series of women whom he murders one by one, hanging their corpses in a secret room. The key to this room he gives to his next wife, telling her that she must never open it. Bluebeard is finally defeated when his latest bride’s curiosity leads to her opening of the room, and Bluebeard is eventually defeated by knights in shining armour.

Okay, so the stories don’t match up exactly, but a strange resonance can be found in the blue-skinned, blue-robed, not to mention bearded Ice King, who experiences periods of intense self-loathing at his appearance and who feels he will only be happy if he succeeds in forcing a princess to marry him.

There are other references to the Gothic literary canon as well. Becoming fed up of his failure to marry a princess, in ninth episode of season four the Ice King takes a leaf out of Victor Frankenstein’s book and steals body parts from all the princesses in the land. He fuses them together to create a new bride, Princess Monster Wife. Therefore, it can be said that Adventure Time deliberately attempts to insert itself into the Gothic tradition through both its settings, themes, and its parodic references to the established Gothic literature tradition.

Princess Monster Wife. 
Of course, such references come highly distorted through the show’s futuristic post-apocalyptic setting, as do many other common literary tropes. For example, bodily disfiguration has long been a theme in Gothic literature. Distortions of the human form are used to augment an atmosphere of unease and to increase fear in the face of the uncanny. In Adventure Time, in addition to the anthropomorphic sweeties and animals, the bodies of both principle and minor characters are changed by contact with radioactive substances. One memorable instance involves the character Shoko falling into an underground river of nuclear waste, from which her body emerges as a hideously mutated amorphous slug-like creature.

In this way, Adventure Time represents a new milestone in Gothic fiction. In the past, Gothic narratives have often emerged as a black mirror to contemporary social issues. This has included advancements in science and technology: who can forget that Frankenstein owes its conception to Mary Shelley’s knowledge of galvanism (the idea of animating deceased tissue through electrical stimulus)? In the same way, Adventure Time owes its narrative backstory to nuclear physics, and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse; a fear of which has been recently renewed in light of certain presidential elections. In this way, we might categorise Adventure Time as “post-nuclear fantasy Gothic”.

To conclude, if you haven’t seen it already, please go and watch Adventure Time. Come on, grab your friends and prepare to travel to (hopefully) distant (but uncomfortably close) lands. Don’t worry, I will bring the ice-cream.

The Gothic Reading Group will be meeting tomorrow, the 16th, for our session on Adventure time. If you wish to join us, but haven't got time to binge watch the entirety of the series, we recommend watching the following episodes for discussion:

Season 1- episode 1: Slumber Party Picnic.
Season 3- episode 12: The Creeps
Season 4- episodes 5-6: Return to the Nightosphere, 9: Princess Monster Wife, 10: Goliad, 20: You made me
Season 5- episodes 1-2: Finn the Human, Jake the dog, 9: All Your Fault, 31: Too Old, 50-51: Lemonhope
Season 6- episode 17: Ghost-Fly

Felicity Powell is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield and is truly mathematical. She is interested in literary post-apocalyptic landscapes & mutated sentient lollipops, as we all are. Peppermint Butler is afraid of her.  

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