I should probably preface this with the fact that these are not the best cartoons of the 1980s. These are simply my favorites, those that I remember and still pull up on YouTube from time to time when I need a boost. These cartoons influenced me in an assortment of ways through my art style, my outlook, and my preferences in animation and stories.
Growing up in the late ’80s, I had limited access to television. When I had control of the television, I almost always turned to animation. It wasn’t conscious, but I was drawn to lives in other universes, peopled with characters who looked and acted radically different from myself. I didn’t want the real world. There was rather too much of that for my liking. Naturally, then, my list includes shows with the likes of mutant turtles, talking animals, and creatures best known as the Muppets.
1. Inspector Gadget (1983-1986)
I’ve always had a fondness for mysteries because of this show. Being an amalgam of Mission Impossible (with its exploding communication devices), Get Smart (the Inspector voiced by Don Adams), and the Pink Panther (Gadget is rather like Inspector Clouseau), this madcap detective series was formed from a Canadian, American, Japanese, and Taiwanese alliance.
The anime-esque aspect of the show was intriguing, but what I found most compelling was the intelligent Penny and her dog Brain. While Inspector Gadget was the main character, it was up to Penny and Brain to solve the mysteries and save the clueless Inspector from certain death at the hands of Dr. Claw. Penny was the first technologically minded female I was aware of, and as such, she provided a role model of sorts for me well before I became acquainted with Willow Rosenberg from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1993)
While this cartoon was at first seen primarily as a boys’ show (evidenced by all my guy friends having the cool toys and other merchandise), I loved it. I was enraptured with the idea of mutant turtles especially because they were linked to classical art and martial arts which were two of my earliest interests. Their penchant for pizza and roughhousing ways appealed to me in a visceral sense and their coolness knew no bounds. I have very fond memories of watching those cartoons and then playing with the toys with my friends.
3. Ducktales (1987-1990)
Who didn’t love Ducktales? With the catchy theme song, quirky names like Gyro Gearloose, Launchpad McQuack, Scrooge McDuck, and pop culture references galore, this was the introduction to the Golden Age of Disney cartoons. The best cartoons are those you can still go back and watch after a couple decades and laugh because they’re just as funny, with even more references you get because you’re older, and Ducktales is definitely one of those.
The range of characters was an interesting mix for the show. There were males and females of all ages, including a villainous female, a housekeeper, and a young girl, and of course the trio of brothers, Scrooge, and his right hand men like Duckworth the butler. There were also various social classes amongst the characters, and all of this was put to good use when Ducktales took a familiar tale and wove it into the fabric of Duckburg.
4. Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears (1985-1991)
This show, more than any other, influenced my love of fantasy worlds and is definitely an inspiration for the later games of DnD that I played. It was another first for me as it was one of the earlier shows that depicted various cultures (there’s an Asian prince, but also several different races). Anthropomorphic bears, ogres, and humans populated a world rich in lore, culture, and history; an array of personalities mixed well. My personal favorite was Gruffi Gummi (which might explain my fondness for gruff, mercenary characters like Jayne from Firefly), and I still want a hat like his. Also, I’ve always wanted to know what Gummiberry juice tastes like.
5. David The Gnome (1985)
My favorite of favorites, this cartoon is responsible for part of my art style (particularly the light colors, watercolor texture, and romanticized figures). It was a Spanish cartoon based on a Dutch book and made its first appearance in America with its entire run of 26 episodes in 1985. The start of my interest in folklore also began here as I saw tiny gnomes, talking animals, and scenery from another country unfold before my eyes.
This was also my first experience with a show that promoted taking care of the planet, showing the dangers of pollution and over development, and being responsible for what’s around you. The gnomes ate a vegetarian diet and the natural world was the biggest part of the show.
6. Muppet Babies (1984-1991)
I went to a Muppet Babies panel at Dragon Con and was shocked to see a full room with standing room only. The panelist, who happened to be the creator of the show, was just as shocked, but we assured him this had been a huge part of our growing up years and happily listened to him talk about the making of the show. It began as a series of doodles in a business meeting, and while Jim Henson loved the idea, Frank Oz hated it. Eventually, it was made and became the cultural icon we now know it to be.
To cut down on costs, they asked for “found” footage and movie clips from various groups, and because of the Muppet craze, everyone was very obliging. This meant the show was highly referential, and as such is still great fun to watch today. It wasn’t ostensibly for kids, since Henson’s original idea was for the Muppets to supersede age, and this helped keep it from going too childish.
These cartoons were the gateway to my love of animated television. Without them, I would never have experienced the next wave of animation, which I will discuss in another article, the glorious ‘toons of the ’90s.