From Powerpuff Girls to the new Jack McBrayer-voiced cartoon Wander Over Yonder, Craig McCracken has mastered the art of children’s television that appeals to young and old, and boys and girls alike.
A decade before My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic—and the Brony movement it spawned—blew everyone’s mind with the crazy idea that older audiences (including males!) could like a show aimed at little girls, a similar thing happened with Powerpuff Girls, which was adopted by late-90s ravers (including me!) thanks to its sly humour, anime-inspired art, and electronic score.
This is no coincidence. The creators of both pop-culturally pervasive shows—Lauren Faust and Craig McCracken, respectively—are a married couple who met on the third season of Powerpuff and then collaborated on McCracken’s next award-winning cult cartoon, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.
Following Faust’s not-entirely-amicable departure from Pony after one season, and McCracken’s involvement with Adventure Time, they’ve rejoined forces for Wander Over Yonder. This kinder, gentler Loony Toons-esque cartoon—about a cluelessly optimistic space cowboy (voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer) and a cynical steed, Sylvia, who travel the universe helping people—looks set to replicate the couple’s multigenerational, cross-gender successes.
“I’ve never sat and thought: ‘What does a kid like and I’ll make it for them.’ I just think about if I would’ve liked this as a kid,” says McCracken over the phone from the Disney lot in Burbank, California. “Powerpuff was my attempt to make the ’60s Batman series mixed with Underdog, which were my two favourite shows when I was little. It was me purely entertaining myself. I didn’t know what the response would be. And it worked. Kids really liked it.”
McCracken doesn’t have children of his own—“Not yet, we’re trying; it’s harder when you’re older”—but he made life a lot better for parents with Powerpuff’s extraordinary feat of appealing to boys and girls.
An unnecessary gender divide permeates every aspect of kid culture, but PPG erased it by mixing boy-centric action with the girliest girl characters imaginable. It became a huge Emmy-winning hit with kids, their parents, and twentysomethings, too—an unintended consequence that greatly influenced the show’s eventual big-screen adaptation.
Says McCracken, “When we were developing the [2002 Powerpuff Girls] movie, my boss was starting Adult Swim and that mentality was encouraging us to go older. He said, ‘I want you to make it for 25-year-old guys.’ There was a part of me which embraced that—even though Powerpuff was really solid, a lot of the merchandise that came out didn’t reflect the show. It was make-up kits and jewelry kits. This had nothing to do with the TV show we’re making, so I saw the movie as a chance to take back the superhero and fighting aspect of what Powerpuff was. Possibly, I might have swung the pendulum too far the other way,” he says of the shockingly dark movie.
But that wasn’t the only reason the film flopped. “The kids didn’t come—a lot of boys who were fans of it didn’t want to tell people they were fans of it and didn’t buy tickets. There’s a safety of watching Powerpuff at home if you’re a guy. It was pre-Brony.”
While gender divisions remain a problem, the Bronies have now risen up against it. A highly vocal male cult fanbase was not something McCracken and Faust expected when the latter transposed Powerpuff’s visual and intellectual aesthetic to her 2010 revival of the cheesy ’80s My Little Pony franchise.
“I always knew the show was great,” says McCracken. “Lauren said, ‘I want to make a show for little girls that their parents can watch and it’s not stupid.’ When she grew up, everything that was made for her was never good and everything that was made for her brothers was really high-quality. Why can’t shows for girls be good?
“But the entire Brony fanbase was a complete surprise to both of us,” he admits. “One of the reasons Bronies showed up was that the show was so nice and the characters are friends with each other. There’s no angst in it—it’s not dark or brooding or cynical or mean-spirited. It’s a very positive and nice show where characters get along with each other. I think audiences are starved for that entertainment.”
So why did Faust leave a show that had become epic enough to warrant “previously on” pre-episode plot summaries and a big enough phenomenon that Entertainment Weekly was premiering trailers?
“It was not an easy decision and she’s not happy about it,” McCracken reveals. “I know there were things she wanted to do with that series that she just wasn’t able to do. It’s difficult trying to make a show like that for a toy company. She had big ideas and I don’t know she was able to get them on the screen, and there’s still some frustration with that.”
While the show hasn’t exactly lost its following in Faust’s absence, it has made a controversial move with My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, a spin-off that turned the ponies into teens and made the show sadly gender-stereotyped.
“I don’t think [Lauren]’s the biggest fan of that,” McCracken deadpans. “That’s one of those things would have made her leave anyway. If they had told her you have to turn them into human beings now and they have to go high school, she would have said, ‘No, that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do with this show.’ Lauren’s priority was telling stories and Hasbro’s priority was selling toys. It’s a different way of approaching the work and it was difficult for her to bridge that gap.”
Faust went off to work on a series of DC Nation shorts called Super Best Friends Forever (starring Supergirl, Bat Girl and Wonder Girl) that strangely never became a full-time series (“She’s got a show for it, I know it’s in her head!”) while McCracken began developing Wander Over Yonder on his own until she came onboard.
But considering both their careers have revolved around female-fronted cartoons, why make one starring a male when there are already so many?
“It just started with Wander as a character I was drawing in my sketchbook for fun,” McCracken replies. “Lauren and I happened to meet Jack McBrayer because he’s a huge animation fan and he loved Foster’s. We went to lunch with him and I felt like I had just met this character I’ve been drawing for a year.
“But even though he’s a male character, there’s also a lot of flipping of how a typical male hero behaves. Wander doesn’t hit anybody, he’s nonviolent, and loves hugging people. He’s Mr. Friendly and wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s a very sweet and loveable and innocent guy, so even as a male character he doesn’t speak to the typical male stereotypes. I just wanted a hero who could save the day in different ways.”
In that way, Wander feels as subversive as Powerpuff, and when it does play with stereotypes, it piles them on until they’re hilariously meaningless—the first episode literally featured a shark-man on a dinosaur fighting a robot!
Faust may eventually move on, though. “I want her to get a chance to do her own shows because I think Pony turned out incredible,” McCracken says, noting Faust’s interest in long-form narrative isn’t possible in “an 11-minute cartoony cartoon.” In the meantime, the couple are happy to be working together on something that makes others happy, too.
“There’s just so much darkness,” McCracken observes. “In all entertainment for kids or adults, everyone is just trying so hard to be cool. All heroes are tortured now. I remember when superheroes were fun. Superman used to be fun. Yeah, he was a boy scout, but I liked that he was a boy scout. So with Wander, we’re just trying to bring fun and silliness back to cartoons.”
Wander Over Yonder airs Sundays, 2:15 p.m., on The Family Channel.