Craig McCracken’s visual style is a staple of American animated television. A veteran of Hanna-Barbera’s What a Cartoon, McCracken was instrumental, as art director, in the success of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Dexter’s Laboratory, and his own influential blockbuster hit from Cartoon Network’s 1990s slate of high-octane series, The Powerpuff Girls, got the reboot treatment last year. But after working on episodic animation for the better part of three decades, the creator of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Wander Over Yonder was ready to go serial. And Netflix was ready too.
Kid Cosmic, which Netflix released today, is McCracken’s first series to go straight to streaming, and with it, he returns to tales of childhood superheroics, but with a twist. The series follows a kid, living alone in a desert town and dreaming of being a hero, who happens upon some special stones from outer space. Soon, he’s brought together a ragtag team of locals and turned them into accidental superheroes. The problem? He has no idea what he’s doing — and every alien in outer space has its eyes on his prize. Vulture spoke with McCracken about influences, why this series needed to be serial, and why he didn’t want to just make “another campy parody of superheroes.”
What was the genesis of Kid Cosmic?
I came up with the initial concept and characters for Kid Cosmic in 2009. But the more I started walking through the idea, I realized I couldn’t just make random 11- or 22-minute episodes — the character needed to learn and grow and change. So I put it on the back burner until 2015, when the industry climate was changing and more networks were open to the idea of serialization within kids’ animated series. I dusted off the idea, and I showed it to my friend Frank Angones and my wife, Lauren Faust, and we started kicking around the idea. We were able to ultimately produce an animatic for a 22-minute episode, and when I got word that Netflix was looking for shows, I went over to the studio on a Thursday and played it for them. They said it was exactly what they were looking for — that they wanted serialized 22-minute shows for kids and families. By the next Wednesday, the show was green-lit. It was just being at the right place at the right time with the right project.
In 2009, Avatar: The Last Airbender had just ended the year prior, and there really wasn’t anything else in children’s TV like it. What made you want to do a serial show all the way back then?
It wasn’t like I consciously came up with a serial show. I just came up with an idea and realized I couldn’t make 11’s out of it. I couldn’t just keep having Kid not be good at his powers — a viewer would get really frustrated with that. You want to watch him get better, to show growth. At that point, I couldn’t even have begun to work on it. No one would have green-lit it. I just put it in the drawer, hoping that someday networks would be open to doing serialized comedy.
What’s the main difference between writing episodic and serial episodes, whether they’re 11’s or 22’s?
When you’re making an 11-minute or 22-minute series of an episodic show, you go in every week to the story meeting asking, “What are we doing today?” Then you just kind of make up an idea on the spot. Working on Kid Cosmic, I had to come up with the story first — to think of the whole thing at once. I almost conceived of it as a movie, thinking, “All right, it’s about a three-hour-and-20-minute movie. How do I break this up into chapters?” You think up the big story first, then cut it into parts. You can’t do a serialized show on a week-to-week basis — you have to know where you’re going every episode.
A big influence on Kid Cosmic was Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin, because that was cartoony but grounded in reality. What I always liked about those books as a kid was that each adventure stood alone, but then you’d get another book with another adventure and the cast of characters mostly stayed the same. In conceiving of multiple seasons of Kid Cosmic, we approached it from that standpoint, asking, “What story do we want to tell now? What adventure are they on now?”
That’s a very common storytelling technique in comic books, a medium that influences this series a lot. Let’s talk about those influences. Aside from Tintin, where did you find your inspiration for the show’s content, structure, and tone?
The tone of the show is definitely influenced by its story: A regular kid has a fantasy about being a hero, his fantasy comes true, and he finds that the reality of it is a lot harder than he expected. Because it’s grounded in that reality, it’s not going to be believable if he’s doing crazy bug-eyed takes or if there’s boinks and other goofy sound effects. That’s artifice, that doesn’t feel real. Cosmic had to be grounded in reality, and the characters had to feel like real people. That dictated how we designed the show and storyboarded it.
Much of the story and its structure comes from my own personal experience. A lot of things that the kid experiences in the series are things I personally experienced. [Light spoilers ahead] His whole motivation for being a hero is the loss of his parents; he wanted to be able to have powers so he could stop bad things from happening. My father passed away when I was 7 years old, so I know directly what that feels like. I pulled from my own life and applied it to these characters.
What made you want to tell the story of a kid superhero in a way that focused on the challenges rather than how awesome it is?
It felt like an important story to tell. A lot of kid heroes are very aspirational. They always say and do the coolest things and they never make mistakes and they always get things right. I wanted to show that the kid has problems, that he gets frustrated, that he gets angry, that things don’t work out for him all the time. I wanted to allow for this range of human emotions to be present, and to show kids something not necessarily aspirational, but relatable. To tell them, “This is who you really are, and you deserve to have a chance to be seen on screen.”
It’s interesting that you went for something that aimed at relatability and chose superheroics, a sandbox you’ve played in before with The Powerpuff Girls, which was about kids being superpowered badasses and saving the world. But this show is about a kid who is anything but in control of his powers, to whom saving the world just doesn’t come easy. What made you return to superhero stories in this cheeky, non-traditional way?
I like superheroes. I like aliens. I’m still into that sort of thing. I’m a fan of the genre. But I really didn’t want to tell a story to kids that said, “Hey, if you get great powers, then you can go and beat up bad guys and be violent and win.” I didn’t want that to be the message. So I asked myself what a real hero is. The theme of the show is, “Heroes help, not hurt.” You can help someone whether you have powers or you don’t have powers. It’s not about being the winner, and you don’t need a special advantage to be kind and compassionate and good. In the world we live in now, that’s a very important message to tell everybody and especially kids.
Your art direction is very recognizable, even in shows that look very different. What are some ways you borrowed from some of your earlier aesthetics?
The thing I’m always looking for, in whatever I’m designing, is clear iconography of characters. That’s one of the reasons I love cartooning — there are really clear graphic depictions of different types of characters that are broken down into essential shapes and proportions. You know who a character is already when looking at their filled-in silhouette. No matter what show I’m working on, I’m always trying to break characters down into simple graphics, almost into symbols, whether it’s a realistic character, like Jo from Kid Cosmic, or a super-caricatured character, like Wilt or Eduardo from Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. It’s also just what my hand does! When I’m sitting down drawing, it’s what comes out of my hand naturally. It’s the way my taste manifests itself on the page, I guess. I’ll keep doing a design over and over again until my brain says, “Stop designing now! You’ve got it.”
You’ve worked on a lot of television over the past quarter-century, and during that time, animation has changed a lot. How does this show differ from some of the shows you’ve worked on before?
It’s probably the most sincere, mature thing I’ve ever done. The No. 1 focus wasn’t jokes. It’s a real story, with real emotions, and it pulls from real experiences. And I had the time to tell it! I was allowed to let stuff unfold. I didn’t have to rush storytelling because I only had a short format through which to communicate my ideas. I’m a different person now than I was when I was in my 20s, when I came up with The Powerpuff Girls. I’m a father now, and I have a different way of thinking about and doing things. Plus I’ve already made those shows and got that out of my system. I don’t need to make another campy parody of superheroes. That’s what I look at in a project now: What creative challenge does this idea present to me, and how do I tackle and execute it?