Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo by Chris McDonnell. Harry N Abrams, 2014. 9781419704505.
Sarah: I am a terrible person to lend books to. I have the biggest to-read stack in the world, so if you loan something to me your book is just going to live at my house for a while.
Gene: This book of mine lived at your house for… six months?
S: Yeah. I’m very sorry!
G: It’s okay! I gave it to you to review because I couldn’t make a coherent pitch for it. But I am glad to be getting it back.
S: It starts with the background of Pen Ward, who designed and created the Adventure Time cartoon, with some of his art from before he worked on it then some art as he was developing the show.
G: Is he an animator?
S: Yeah, he’s a cartoonist and animator.
G: What was that first cartoon he did? There’s art from it in here…
S: Flapjack. There are his notes as he built up the Adventure Time world, figured out who the characters were, what it looked like…
G: Was he making a series bible in the form of notes?
S: It’s interesting, because this was when they were still working it out. Eventually there’s series bible stuff. Like this, “How to Draw Adventure Time.” They do new ones every few years, because the style evolves. Here, “Can Finn’s mouth leave the circle of his mask? NO.” So it will look like this, but not like that.
G: I thought the answer was “maybe.”
S: “There are times when there is no other option, but try to keep the drawings funny and attractive.” So you can break the rules but you have to have a really good reason, and we prefer these reasons.
This is the page where they have the “approved” stamps that they designed themselves, you’ll see it on artwork later in the book.
G: What’s that on Pen’s stamp?
S: A nude man with a giant beard covering him, reclining in a bed of flowers.
G: Who are these people in the photographs?
S: They’re the folks working on the show, animators and writers and production people. They talk about how there are almost no other shows where someone who is doing the storyboards or the art contributes so much to the story. These artists are doing stories.
G: Oh, great!
S: This is about the art, but it’s also about story and how it feeds into what they’re doing on the show. There’s this gorgeous page of background art for the intro which, the first time I saw Adventure Time, was what made me stick with it.
G: It’s weird, right?
S: You zoom through what’s essentially a post-apocalyptic wasteland that’s grown up to be this magical kingdom.
G: You can tell there’s some D & D inspired craziness as well.
S: They never explicitly say it, but it’s clear that Adventure Time takes place after a devastating nuclear war on Earth.
G: Or something.
S: Or something similar to that. They call it The Mushroom War. In the background of the art, you can see some unexploded nuclear warheads. It’s not magic-apart-from-reality, it’s this other thing. This is a page of just Finn the Human. Finn running, Finn doing an ankle-walk.
G: This shows how he moves.
S: Yeah. It’s cool to see how his character comes through in his movement. “How to Draw a Good Jake.” How his eyebrows behave. It’s all practical and mechanical but I like it.
G: Do you get a sense that there are rules on the show? The show seems to be able to go anywhere. One of the things that expresses that is how the characters move.
S: They’re rubbery. There’s a section in here about how Finn doesn’t have elbows.
G: Everyone’s noodley. How do you create coherent, consistent movement with that?
S: This is how they do that, where they talk about the rules. Because it’s a collaborative effort, they all work together, there has to be some way to guide the work or you’re just going to be disappointed.
Throughout the book, there’s art that the artists do themselves based on Adventure Time. Sometimes they will draw something and post it to their own social media and say “the next episode is one that I did.” They’ll make a little title card. This painting of the Earl of Lemongrab was for an Adventure Time themed art show. It’s interesting to see the artists take it on as their own.
G: So many cartoonists work on this show, people who are amazing, like Jesse Moynihan who did Forming, which I really liked.
S: Yeah, several artists I like did major character designs or other work on the show. Steve Wolfhard did this reference diagram of what’s inside BMO.
G: Oh, wow!!
S: There’s a heart, a medal of courage, and a diploma, just like in The Wizard of Oz! “What is that? A tiny princess crown or a copper cuff? Mystery!” This is a page of the model design test. When someone is hired, they give them a list of problems to solve. Making a storyboard into something the animators can use, make it 3 dimensional and usable to the animation studio. Then you invent a character based on the name “plant scavenger” or “golden pig-armed beast with intestines falling out.” How do you make that? And the work is incredible.
G: And these are different settings?
S: Yeah, it’s background art for different places. Here’s a bad neighborhood in the Candy Kingdom, I love that.
G: Very seedy. Is that a tavern? Looking at this, I feel like there’s so much in this show that I’ve forgotten.
S: This picture of one of the Ice King’s castle’s sub-chambers, it’s a “shrine to ninja movie memorabilia and artifacts.” And you look on the wall and, yeah, there’s a whole bunch of ninja movie posters.
G: The color is just amazing in these pictures.
S: In Finn and Jake’s treehouse, I hadn’t previously noticed all the old Mac computers in the background.
G: That’s so funny.
S: This is a page of designs by another artist we love, Michael Deforge. I like that they have an internally-consistent world but they’re still able to throw it out and do some crazy abstract thing, like the episode about the food chain.
This is story-meeting drawings, where they’re talking about a story and drawing about it at the same time.
G: They’re little doodles.
S: It’s interesting, they use post-it notes to cover up and re-draw something they want to correct on the storyboard notes.
G: Do they write an episode first, then design it, then it goes to an offsite animator somewhere?
S: Yeah, to South Korea. It sounds like the writing and storyboarding is combined into one process and then they have someone who cleans it up and makes it usable to the team overseas. They send it back and maybe do some fixes.
G: Everything is gorgeous, it all looks so finished.
S: It does! And these are just their doodles, just their ideas.
Then this is fan art, then the comics from Boom Studios by amazing indie comics artists, like Emily Partridge. Here’s an alternate cover drawn by Eleanor Davis.
G: Sophie Goldstein did an alternate cover that I really liked.
S: They respect the same artists that I respect, and include their work.