The Freedom of Pendleton Ward

A massive battle known only as the ominous “Mushroom War” has effectively destroyed humanity. Earth’s very crust has been half-shattered as though an asteroid has sheared a quarter of half the planet. Our hero suspects he is the only human remaining in existence.

This is not, we should note, the plot of a sci-fi novel or a summer blockbuster film. Instead it is the premise behind Pendleton Ward’s popular cartoon Adventure Time, which airs on Cartoon Network. The series follows a pair of friends — Jake the (shapeshifting) dog and Finn the human — as they battle boredom, rescue and hang out with an array of eclectic princesses, and explore dungeons and seek adventure glory.

Adventure Time is part science fiction dystopia, part fantasy adventure, part bedtime children’s story, part teen drama, and part bromance comedy. Perhaps the keys to the show’s success — and therefore the most prominent genre — is in the bromance teen dramedy elements: the relationship between the brotherly main characters, Finn and Jake, and the constant tension between Finn and his trio of love interests — a bubblegum princess, a flame princess, and vampire kinda-princess.

But what the casual viewer may miss in the dynamic relationships of the show is the ingenuity of its creator, Pendleton Ward. The universe he built in Adventure Time is at the same time sarcastic and fully invested, childish and heavy, goofy and tragic. Its first episode on Cartoon Network featured a kingdom of candy people. Being attacked by candy people zombies. Its hero has no discernable super powers in a world replete with magic and super-science. The villain is a tragic and endearing loner.

Ward appears to have nothing but fun with his shows. His latest show, Bravest Warriors of YouTube’s Cartoon Hangover, is set many years in the future, but it — like Adventure Time‘s strange setting — eschews traditional paradigms of genre. The technology is part childish, part magical. The heroes activate their laser animal-weapons by scratching stickers on their chest. Restaurants season breakfast cereals with seahorse dreams and rainbow spit. And a holographic elf crosses over into the real world, where he expands infinitely until reaching unity with the universe.

But Bravest Warriors still manages, despite its somewhat obtrusive apparatus, to revolve around issues of teenage angst, mortality, and fate. The colorful, vibrant universe becomes a vehicle for deeper investigations and worthy overarching plots.

At the 2013 AWP conference in Boston, Benjamin Percy participated in a panel in which he conducted a lively critique of modern literary fiction. The acclaimed author of Red Moon and The Wilding decried what has become a mainstream of literary writing, where much of the drama is internalized and the settings muted. By creating worlds both absurd and dynamic, Pendleton Ward has a certain freedom, a creative liberty. The story can go any direction — and often it does. Both universes in Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors have limitations and rules, just as any Dr. Seuss world and language has boundaries (though they are sometimes hard to identify). But they also have an unpredictability, an adventurousness unparalleled in much of modern literature.

Step one to writing any good story is to unlock the mind. Allow thoughts to pour onto the page unrestrained. Steps 2 through 15 are all editing, but no story is worth all of the necessary editing if it does not start with a creative nugget of inspiration, of creative freedom. And that is something even a cartoon can show us.


I recommend writers watch Bravest Warriors, embedded below. The series also shows a certain degree of plot flexibility necessary in all good writing. It is obvious the writing staff was inventing the plot as they went, allowing it to flow naturally in the best avenues, but also carefully editing the master story, inserting hints and foreshadows along the way. The whole first series — 11 episodes in all — takes less than an hour to watch, and though some of the earlier episodes vear sophomoric, I suspect most viewers will find themselves entranced by the end of the final episode.

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