When Adventure Time premiered on Cartoon Network just over four years ago, no one could have predicted that Pendleton Ward's silly cartoon about a boy and his magic dog-brother would eventually lead the world into a new era of strange but hilarious cartoons. Most people would have laughed at the thought in 2010, but today, it's true.
Ward's journey to becoming one of today's best animators started long before Adventure Time, though, and it took him longer than most would think to get the hit show off the ground.
After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts (which has produced more renowned animators than you probably realize), Ward got his start with Frederator Studios writing shorts for Random! Cartoons. It was then, in 2006, that he first made shorts for both Adventure Time and The Bravest Warriors. He actually first pitched Adventure Time to Nickelodeon but they rejected it. Most importantly, it was during this time that Ward met people like Adam Muto, Niki Yang, and Casey James Basichis — all of whom eventually came to work on Adventure Time when Cartoon Network picked it up.
In 2007 Ward was hired as a storyboard artist and writer for The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. During this time, Ward was inspired by Flapjack's creation process, which gave storyboard artists the freedom to both write and draw episodes based on an outline. He would later adapt that philosophy to Adventure Time, drawing on the immense talent of his friends to make the show such a hit.
And if anything, that's what makes Ward and Adventure Time so great — both have uplifted everyone involved to great heights. Not only has the entire cast and crew become synonymous with cartoons of the highest quality, but many members have gone off to create their own amazing projects.
That's how Rebecca Sugar's wonderful Steven Universe got its start. After spending a few years as a storyboard artist, writer, and composer for Adventure Time, Sugar's show became Cartoon Network Studios' first series to be created by a woman.
And then there's Natasha Allegri, who worked as a character designer and storyboard revisionist. She's the one who gave us all the awesome gender-swapped versions of the Adventure Time cast, and she also wrote and illustrated the comic Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake Issue 1. That's all great stuff, but what's really amazing is her new cartoon Bee and Puppycat, which you can see on Cartoon Hangover's YouTube channel. It's still in its infancy, but it's shaping up to be another wonderfully weird cartoon that we'll all fall in love with.
The popularity of Ward's creation has also served as a gateway for many other cartoons of a similar type. Though Regular Show came first and was created by Ward's friend J. G. Quintel, it really benefited from Adventure Time's popularity.
Many might not have stuck around to watch if they weren't already tuned in for Adventure Time (not that the Regular Show isn't successful in its own right, because it is). And shows like Uncle Grandpa, which even out-weirds Adventure Time on occasion, might have failed, like its predecessor Secret Mountain Fort Awesome.
And it's clear that Ward's Adventure Time wasn't a fluke, as the Bravest Warriors is just as good. To think that a YouTube series could be so well done might be hard for traditional cartoon-viewers to swallow, but it's true (and you should watch it all if you haven't).
Fred Seibert, owner of Frederator Studios, probably indirectly framed it best in a YouTube interview about the first time he met Ward. He had just finished talking about how they turned Adventure Time down the first time when Seibert said the following.
"At the time I was in my mid '50s, and I'd been making cartoons for 15 years. And like every other idiot executive, I thought I knew what made a good cartoon, and this (Adventure Time) did not fit it, on the surface…his drawings looked funny — like funny weird — compared to all the other cartoons. We had already introduced, you know, 15 years before, a new style of cartoons with Dexter's Laboratory, Cow and Chicken, and The Powerpuff Girls. In my mind, those were cartoons. We had to introduce this whole new generation of talent and I was just sort of riding the wave."
In the same way that Dexter's Laboratory and the Powerpuff Girls introduced a new style of cartoons 15 years ago, Ward and his contemporaries have ushered in a new era today. It's a fine coincidence that Ward got his start at the same studio that mixed things up last time, but it's his work in general that is a testament to the necessity of frequent change in the animation industry. Thankfully, the minds behind Adventure Time seem to understand that.
15 years ago, Adventure Time might have been too weird to survive on TV, but now the world has wholeheartedly embraced its weird charm. And in doing so, dozens of other animators now have the freedom to create the quirky cartoons they want while drawing in the kind of audiences network executives love to see.
And though it's impossible and wrong to heap all the thanks onto Ward, he did play a significant role. But the important thing to remember is Ward never did it alone, and he continues to focus his own talent and the talent of his friends toward making the best cartoons of this generation.