Thank God for Ted Turner. Sure, he’s a post-Cretaceous T-Rex of a tycoon, stalking the corporate mastodon herds of the modern era like the last remnant of a forgotten age. His ways are alien to us, but in odd, seemingly unconnected ways, we prosper from them.
Observe the adventure cartoon pastiche The Venture Bros., a show which has in the last couple of years become the hottest addition to Adult Swim’s lineup. Like its spiritual predecessors Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, The Venture Bros. owes its existence in part to the fact that the great majority of its parody is based upon properties that all live in the House that Ted Built. While it’s not likely that Turner went on a spending spree through the annals of cartoon history so that a couple of upstarts like Venture creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer could twist his properties into funhouse mirror-images a couple of decades later, God bless that crazy cowboy anyway.
Here’s a simple recipe: Take the Jonny Quest universe, run it through MAD magazine for a couple of decades, let it simmer in a comic-book geek’s bedroom until its main characters are steeped in in-jokes and failure, cut it into half-hour slices, and serve it to a late-night audience of mid-20s burnouts who aren’t embarrassed by watching cartoons. That’s The Venture Bros., and as those aforementioned predecessors have proven, there’s nothing its demographic likes more than seeing the veneer of idealism wiped from their cherished childhood memories and replaced with an outward expression of the sarcastic inner commentary which pervades their own viewpoints.
It’s easy to imagine where the idea came from. Kid-friendly fiction never ages well—go watch an episode of The Herculoids and try not to mock it. Try not to wonder how young Rusty Venture, constantly overshadowed by his father’s globe-trotting enterprises and given no grounding in a normal life, could grow up to be anything but maladjusted. Try not to understand why he, knowing only adventure and superscience, would think that they are his only lots in life and that he would inevitably attempt to take up the same mantle. Most importantly, try not to realize that poor Dr. Venture’s efforts would be doomed to spectacular (and hilarious) failure.
It’s a bad time to be uninitiated in Venture lore, though. Season Three’s oft-delayed premiere has finally come and gone, and while viewership is at its highest levels to date, the new Ventures are hardly a starting point for new fans. That’s hardly their fault, though. If you don’t know enough about Season Two’s cliffhanger to know why Season Three’s flippant resolution is so funny, or if the Office of Secret Intelligence’s G.I. Joe-meets-the-Village-People moments don’t make sense in context, you only have yourself to blame. Shame on you.
Oddly enough, Venture’s early Season Three offerings have worked largely in the context of origin stories and flashbacks. Season Three seems to be the season of the tertiary character, with more screen time devoted to characters whose roles thus far have fallen somewhere between “supporting” and “filler.” It’s becoming a great watch for different, more fan-service-oriented reasons. Seeing the ridiculous, over-the-top origin stories for the least of the Venture cast stimulates the part of the nerd brain which forces its owner to gleefully buy every Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook he can find out of some morbid respect for creators who put that much effort into crafting their universe.
But the weirdest thing about Venture is why it succeeds. It’s real somehow, in a way that the straight-laced adventures of yesteryear never were. It sells neither paragons of virtue nor exemplars of vice. Venture bodyguard Brock Samson is no Race Bannon, but his typical fist-first modus operandi, as disturbing as it can be, makes his character more believable than his thematic predecessor’s one-dimensional unflappability. Similarly, Dr. Venture’s on-again, off-again arch nemesis the Monarch may be a guy in a butterfly suit who flies around in a giant floating cocoon and tries to kill off a failed super-scientist for a perceived slight from his college days, but digging into his personality (which is common, given Venture’s conversation-heavy scripts) reveals him to be a hotbed of career and relationship insecurities, with a penchant for outlandish schemes and a dash of stoic acceptance of his own impending doom, instead of a mustache-twirling supervillain archetype.
Around here we’d call them nutjobs, but they fit in perfectly within their collective storyline. Like the rest of the Venture world, their weirdness works well in context, and it serves as a jumping-off point for the real humor in the layers beneath it.