01 November 2009
Because it was on TV: The Cultural Synthesis of The Venture Bros, Part II
Last week I described how in many ways contemporary animated program, The Venture Bros emulates old Hanna-Barbera and action/adventure show tropes. Most of which you may ridiculously find right here. While this was very prevalent in the first seasons, the show has gradually moved towards much more of a parody of Superhero genres, in particular Marvel Comics. This of course is only the tip of VB's cultural exegesis.
Doom, Kraven and Sunshine
I've found that Venture Bros episodes fall into a handful of categories. There's the action/adventure setpieces I described earlier, on-going conspiracy stories (often inspired by comic book tropes) and finally, the silliness associated with outrageous characters doing mundane tasks (think "Tag Sale - You're it!" S1;E10 or just about any Byron Orpheus scenes). Of course there's a lot of blurring of these lines and the stand-out episodes of each season have a good dose of all three elements.
Comic books, Marvel Comics in particular show up all the time, most often in very direct parodies, not unlike the Hanna-Barbera influence. The fairest indicator is Baron Ünderbheit (See "Home Insecurity" S1;E3, "Past Tense" S1;E11, "Love-Bheits" S2;E7) who is a clear analogue to Dr. Doom and otherwise over-the-top dictator villains in comics. The classic VB twist is that his vengeance is sworn on Dr. Venture because Venture was a careless lab partner in college, causing an explosion that scared the Baron's face (although of course this was later revealed to be The Monarch's doing). One of the best ways any show can satire is through achieving cliched results like this through a much stupider action. Thus the unending scorn comes not from killing the villain's father or gaining control of the company, but rather by being a lazy and careless lab partner. Brilliant.
There's a lot more of these kinds of analogies. For the most part, VB will spin these paradigms wildly out of control, a good example of which are Professor Impossible's family, all exaggerated and twisted takes on the Fantastic Four ("Ice Station - Impossible!" S1;E7). Quickly now in addition to these, Hunter Gathers (not unlike the Scooby Doo / Serial Killer meld) is both Hunter S. Thompson and Nick Fury from S.H.I.E.L.D. (O.S.I. is also basically S.H.I.E.L.D.), Le Tueur closely resembles Kraven the Hunter from Spider-Man, and also continually chats specifically about Silver Age Comic Books. Fun stuff. There's really so much more here, from Torrid vaguely resembling Deadman to Orpheus as Dr. Strange, the analogy list is virtually endless.
Many characters situations if not directly analogous are more pastiches of Comic characters. Molotov Cocktease heartily represents the femme fatale / assassin trope (see Black Widow, Catwoman, Elektra, etc). Phantom Limb is a play on eloquent, cultured villains such as Magneto or even a bond villain such as Dr. No (See Dr. No, 1962). The recent Captain Sunshine is a clear pastiche of many DC heroes, with many Batman and Superhero elements most prominent ("Handsome Ransom" S4;E2). Even someone like Dr. Dugong represents a kind, simple kind of protagonist that has only one place in the Venture world: Death ("Tears of a Sea Cow" S3;E8).
There are many many many more references to comics, some of what I mentioned here are DC and others, but Marvel is the primary fuel. This extends to comic culture as well, not just characters. A lof of this comes through Henchman #21 who tends to represent the fat nerd, better known as the typical Venture Bros fan. "Hate Floats" (S2;E2) showcases much of his stash, including Hulk Hands, a Captain America Shield, a Magneto Helmet and Magic: The Gathering cards. This represents an interesting fusion, also when considering the prominent display of Marvel Comics #1 in "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel" (S4;E1) definitively shows that unlike Hanna-Barbera characters who really exist in the Ventureverse, Marvel characters are still on paper. This should make the pastiches that much more interesting.
Joe, Voltron and Everything Else
There's so much other culture here, from repeated Bowie references ("Ghosts of the Sargasso" S1;E6, "The Incredible Mr. Brisby" S1;E4, "Showdown at Cremation Creek Part II" S2;E13) to G.I. Joe ("The Invisible Hand of Fate" S3;E3, "The Family that Slays Together, Stays Together Part I" S3;E12), even Voltron ("The Lepidopterists" S3;E10). Each is given the same treatment of Marvel and Hanna-Barbera, exaggerated, twisted and placed in a more realistic context.
The Venture Bros therefore proves to not only be a hollow Johnny Quest spoof, but rather a synthesis of all nerd culture. The show does not merely rely on comics or periodism or adventure pieces but a fusion of all at once. Because the show is still pulling it off, it is indeed something very special. A satire can become very notable as well when it starts creating its own mythology and compelling storylines, which recent Season Three and Four episodes have done marvelously. Other character-based episodes like the aforementioned "Tag Sale - You're it!" demonstrate that in many ways the show to something better than what it parodies, because it has the ability to rely on strong and consistent character interactions instead of a real plot. In essence, the show is an on-going case of Cerberus Retcon played with some genuine authenticity.