Cartoon Network's Best Cartoon Cartoons

For most of television’s early history, animation existed primarily as a means to an end. Even after the advent of cable TV, cartoons mostly took their major network residence on Saturday mornings and after school blocks, juggling reruns of golden age theatrical cartoons and hyper-toyetic fantasy shows that were veritably half-hour commercials for highly-collectible merchandise With the medium still plagued by the belief of being “just for kids”, animated shows were largely produced as a tool to placate and sell to the impressionable young audiences, but everything changed almost immediately with the dawn of the 90’s.

Along with the rise of countercultural prime-time animation like The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead, studios like Disney and Nickelodeon had begun setting a higher production standard for television animation and introducing the idea of creator-driven cartoons to the small screen. While these were huge stepping stones for the medium, animation’s primary commercial goal was still to entertain children and share the schedule with live-action sitcoms and game shows.

In 1992, the devout huddled animation masses were given a home all their own for the first time in the form of Cartoon Network. Founded by the Turner Broadcast System, Cartoon Network presented the novel idea of playing animation around the clock for not only the schoolyard crowd, but for every generation of cartoon lovers. Animation of every shape and origin had a place on the network, ranging from childhood favorites like The Smurfs and golden age greats like Tom and Jerry, to international hits like Sailor Moon and DragonBall Z in one of the first major western adoptions of anime. Most importantly, Cartoon Network’s line-up of hip creator-driven programming aimed to be cartoons in the most traditional and sincerest sense of the word that also went beyond what the competition was airing. These were no mere cartoons; these were Cartoon Cartoons, the branding given to these original programs on Cartoon Network.

To commemorate Cartoon Network’s 30th year, here is a list of the top ten greatest original Cartoon Cartoons that conquered the 90’s into the early 2000’s:

10. Whatever Happened to... Robot Jones?

The most short-lived of the Cartoon Cartoons, Greg Miller’s Whatever Happened to... Robot Jones? lasted only 13 episodes across two short seasons spanning less than two years. Despite its blink-and-you-miss-it presence on the network, Robot Jones has since amassed a cult following of fans who fondly remember the series’ cleverly fractured take at a coming-of-age story from the perspective of a mechanized youth. The series’ retro-grunge aesthetic borrows heavily from 70s cartooning like Schoolhouse Rock and MAD Magazine, but incorporates text-to-speech software for its robotic cast that plants it firmly in the computer age.

9. Time Squad

They say it is those who fail to learn from history that are doomed to repeat it, but in the case of Dave Wasson’s Time Squad, it is history itself that needs a lesson every now and again. A Peabody’s Improbable History for the new millennium, the series chronicles the adventures of time cop trio Otto (Pamela Adlon), Buck (Rob Paulsen) and Larry 3000 (Mark Hamill) as they jump around the space-time continuum to set frayed timelines right and make sure that history as we know it stays on course. The series is a practical melting pot of markable voice talent as, along with the main cast, each episode features a new historical figure caricatured in the show’s geometric design and voiced with an often less-than-flattering impersonation.

8. Cow and Chicken

“Mama had a chicken! Mama had a cow! Dad was proud! He didn’t care how!”

The opening line to the theme song for David FeissCow and Chicken perfectly embodies the show’s bizarre spirit. Starring a duo of suburban barnyard siblings, the series followed in the trend set by The Ren and Stimpy Show of lovingly grotesque 90s cartoon absurdism that aims to get a laugh at how grossly strange it can be over making any semblance of logical sense. Voice actor Charlie Adler plays dual roles as the titular twosome, as well as the ambiguously demonic “Red Guy” that provides much of the series’ off-kilter storylines. From eating pork butts at every meal to literally disembodied parents, Cow and Chicken is as unapologetically weird as the Cartoon Cartoons get.

7. Johnny Bravo

Like Pepe Le Pew before him, the muscle-bound star of Van Partible’s Johnny Bravo is wannabe lady’s man on a lifelong mission to find love to minimal success. Johnny’s main shtick is that he hopes to woo every woman he sees with his Presley-esque swagger, highly-toned physique, and mountainous amounts of hair gel. The majority of the series’ comedy is built around Johnny getting his rightfully earned comeuppance at the hands of cartoonishly painful physical comedy. While a machismo he-man character like Johnny may not fly today, the series delivered enough cartoon zaniness and style to make Johnny’s failed attempts at flirting a joy to watch.

6. The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy

Born out of Maxwell Atoms’ double-billed series Grim and Evil, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy was a cynical celebration of all that is strange. The series follows the Jamaican-tinged Grim Reaper (Greg Eagles) as the indentured best friend to the unlikely team of Billy (Richard Horvitz) and Mandy (Grey DeLisle) as they embark on adventures that range from the fantastically gruesome to the lucidly Lovecraftian. Much like Cow and Chicken, the series fully capitalizes on its concept of otherworldly powers in the hands of hilariously selfish children to make each episode more absurd, more disgusting, and more morbid than the last.

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5. The Powerpuff Girls

Creator Craig McCracken’s debut series, The Powerpuff Girls became the supercharged mega-hit that catapulted Cartoon Network’s popularity to previously unimagined heights. Blossom (Cathy Cavadini), Bubbles (Tara Strong) and Buttercup (E.G. Daily) are the chemically-conjured kindergarteners tasked to defend the City of Townsville from giant monsters and a roster of comically plausible baddies like a hyper-intelligent simian and gangster amoebas. While the series packed a powerful punch balancing superheroic exploits with comedic antics, what sets it apart from the comic-based competition was its brilliant juxtaposition of adorably designed innocent little girls with lightspeed hyper-violence. The Margaret Keane-inspired girls make it a practice every episode to defeat villains and monsters with hilariously over-the-top cartoon brutality that borders on the gory, resulting in a series that is iconically empowering.

4. Courage the Cowardly Dog

John R. Dilworth’s Courage the Cowardly Dog is the finest breed of horror in the classical literary sense. The titular canine follows in the pawprints of Hanna-Barbera's Scooby Doo in nervously tackling a frightening assortment of monsters and villains to save his farm house and adopted family. Despite starring a neon-pink pooch with hilariously bad teeth, the series captures an aura of poetic melancholia in its depiction of the terrifying world of Nowhere that is often forgotten in popular horror. While there is no shortage of legitimate scares and creepy crawlies that have left many a millennial traumatized for year, most of the disturbed individuals and otherworldly fears faced in the series are revealed to be tragic and even sympathetic souls that Courage conquers not with show of might, but with compassion and understanding. Courage the Cowardly Dog teaches that out of fear can come bravery.

3. Dexter's Laboratory

The inaugural Cartoon Cartoon born out of the What a Cartoon! program, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Dexter’s Laboratory is a masterclass in classic animated comedy. Since the days of Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry, the greatest cartoon humor has been rooted in conflict and contrast of character, which is on expert display within the metallic halls of the boy genius’ secret laboratory. The short-stacked hyper-intellect of Dexter must endure the free-spirited innocence of his gangly sister Dee Dee as they coexist in a battle of the sexes that typically results in gloom, doom and things going boom. Dexter and Dee Dee are the kind of comedic team that can be placed in any scenario or location and make cartoony sparks fly between Dexter’s self-assured ego as a wannabe Einstein and Dee Dee’s blissfully childish curiosity. Add onto that a slick art style and riffs on popular sci-fi, Dexter’s Laboratory stands tall as one of the networks’ founding favorites.

2. Codename: Kids Next Door

Before series-long, overarching narratives become a standard in kids’ cartoons today, Tom Warburton’s Codename: Kids Next Door chronicled a literal battle of the ages that became one of Cartoon Network’s most popular series. Fan-selected to become a series through the network's “Big Pick” event, the show follows an organization of covert adolescent operatives as they fight the tyranny of adulthood to champion children's rights. Although it features a principal cast of five lead characters, known in the series as “Sector V”, the six-season run expanded the world of its initial cast and their adventures into a veritable universe and rich history of childhood’s war on the grown-ups. Celebrating 20 years since its debut, Codename: Kids Next Door pushed the storytelling boundaries of what a Cartoon Cartoon was capable of.

1. Ed, Edd n Eddy

Creator Danny Antonucci has said to have developed Ed, Edd n Eddy on a dare, challenging the overtly adult-tinged underground artist to make something more suitable for kids. What resulted was not only the longest running Cartoon Cartoon of them all, but one of the most beloved animated series of all time. The headlining Eds, voiced by Matt Hill, Samuel Vincent and Tony Sampson, are a trio of aspiring entrepreneurs set on pinching the pocket of every kid in their cul-de-sac of their allowances to earn enough money for gargantuanly globous jawbreakers. What makes the series the epitome of a Cartoon Cartoon is that it infuses every second of every episode with an elastic and expressive flair that utilizes the medium of animation to its fullest. From its library of bizarre sound effects, emphatic jazz soundtrack, impossibly over-the-top physical gags and iconic ever-boiling outlines, no other series looks, sounds or feels like Ed, Edd n Eddy. The series has persisted years after cancelation through meme-culture and a cult fanbase that celebrates the creatively unpolished spirit of Peach Creek’s candy-driven capitalists.

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Austin Allison (39 Articles Published)

Austin Allison is an Animation Feature Writer for Collider. He is also an illustator, avid cartoon watcher, and occasional singer. His karaoke favorites include singing Rainbow Connection as Kermit the Frog and Frank Sinatra's My Way as Goofy. Check out his Instagram (@a_t_allison) and Twitter (@atallison_) for his latest artwork and to submit commssions.

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