There’s only two things you really need to know about me: I was born in 1986 and I was a rather lonely child.
I don’t need your pity (but I’ll take it!) — this combination provided me with a front-row seat to a veritable boom period for cartoons. I was born at the perfect moment to catch the tail-end of series like G.I. Joe and Thundercats and old enough to truly enjoy the slew of amazing ’90s cartoons (Doug, Animaniacs, Batman: The Animated Series, TaleSpin, Spider-Man, Aaah!!! Real Monsters, Rocko’s Modern Life, etc.) These shows made any isolation I experience a little less intense and overwhelming. Though they did more than entertain: they provided the framework for a creative passion that drives a lot of my personal life and professional efforts as an adult.
Yet for all the shimmery superheroes and singing dog-children, there are three shows that hold a special place in my heart: Street Sharks, SWAT Kats, and Biker Mice from Mars. On the one hand, they’re outliers from the “proper” canon of great cartoons, and thus they appealed more to my specific whims and perspective. Yet there’s no discounting their popularity, even on the “fringe” of cartoon-dom. (Street Sharks did nab Vin Diesel before anyone else.) Because of that, it’s these shows, perhaps more than any other properties, that influenced myself and whole chunks of an entire generation in rather specific ways (again, even as they weren’t pulling the numbers of, say, Animaniacs). It’s these three shows that have helped forge men and women that I can actually relate to: mostly progressive thirty-somethings balancing a fanatical love of pop culture with an increasing sense of responsibility and relevance they may not have been prepared for. In short, these Millennials are perhaps the first generation, empowered by their Boomer parents, to genuinely believe that pop culture can save the world.
To paraphrase Dot Warner, let’s do it!
First, if you happened to miss these three shows (shame upon your house), they’re surprisingly similar (but also not at all). Street Sharks is about four brothers who are turned into genetically engineered shark hybrids and then have to fight a piranha-human mutant and find their lost dad. SWAT Kats is about two amateur crimefighters who fly around in a sick jet — and they occupy a alternate universe of humanoid cats. Finally, Biker Mice from Mars is… actually, that one’s pretty obvious (because when you’re 7, obvious things are like a warm blanket). I can in no way defend these shows now, in the year of our lord 2020, and I clearly admit that, in a world of weird and imperfect ’90s cartoons, these three shows are the peak of unnecessary cheesiness. But there’s core threads shared by all three, plus their place outside the normal offerings, that make these shows so wildly important to folks of my ilk.
The most obvious point of commonality are the animal portrayals. Sure, everyone loves a cool cat or silly pup, but Millennials, a generation that came to the digital world as pre-teens (Gen X and Boomers were older, and Zoomers have always had the web). As such, a lot of what my generation does online still feels firmly rooted in some child-like interests. That’s got to be why the slew of animal-centric memes, videos, and articles (“This dog ran 50 miles to meet its blind owner at an Arby’s”) seem to be so prevalent in the digital world. And while other shows had beloved animal heroes, none were as effective as mutant sharks, deeply humanized cats, and bulky space mice. They’re deeply weird, borderline unsettling animal heroes, with a level of humanity unlike most shows (flying around in jets they built from spare parts, eating hamburgers and rollerblading with shark fins, having washboard mouse abs, etc.) And that whole aesthetic feels like it’s reflected in the overt attachment my kind has with animals and the all-too-human intellect and worldview we attach to monkeys and squirrels.
I don’t think that animals are dumb, and I’d die for any pupper, but there’s little denying that I attach far too much of my own humanity to them. To an extent, it’s the empathy and emotion built into me by pop culture, and these three shows particularly blurred the line between man and animal in a way to expertly forge this deep-seated connection regarding the (perceived?) inner lives of animals. There’s little space between the human and animal in these cartoons, which is a mostly great way to build a more thoughtful and empathetic generation. At the same time, though, it’s perhaps another extension of Millennials’ inability to separate fact from fiction (said by someone with a Peter Pan-ian devotion to preserving the sanctity of beloved pop culture). These three shows aren’t the only example of this whole dynamic, but they are great instances used to trace how an entire generation was inundated with truly bizarre animal heroes and how that’s shaped their worldview in the best and worst ways possible.
It’s not just that these three shows had animal heroes (and motorcycles galore) — it’s also what their respective worlds say about our place as the top predator. SWAT Kats is perhaps the most obvious example, as the show did away with humanity entirely for a world run by cat-people. That opens up all sorts of theoretical and conceptual doors to explore, like the way we actually view humanity’s role in the world, or (without beating a dead horse) the value we attach to animals (cats specifically). But mostly how we think literally anyone but humans might make a world that’s like our own (suffering exists, people are still jerks) but also better (the tech was far advanced, and their world also had endless examples of neat-o anachronism). Me and mine are the first generation to come into proper adulthood with the notion that we may not actually be the best leaders of this world. Pair that with the global warming and the more recent coronavirus, and Millennials are more than comfortable with a world where we may not even have a place in. That opens up another whole societal and existential can of worms, but one thing’s clear: we don’t subscribe to the notion of our own supremacy. Street Sharks‘ whole bag was to marry the two worlds of man and animal, which adds all new layers to this argument.
It’s not that we all want to die off (that kind of semi-ironic desire belongs to Zoomers), and Biker Mice from Mars proves that. For all our planet’s problems, we still see the value of our world, and celebrate the notion that formerly enslaved biking enthusiasts from the red planet might come here in the pursuit of freedom and junk food. This idea that what makes us great isn’t our dominance and superiority, but this being a place for people to come and be who they are. No Millennial would ever actively admit to such a star-spangling attitude, but I think we’re one of the few generations to retain that American-style of freedom that was burned into our brains despite increasing knowledge indicating otherwise. Like in so many other facets of life, Millennials feel stuck (between ideas, generations, financial obligations, etc.), but in this regard, we seem duty-bound to some sense of patriotic hope and a level of actual inclusion.
And inclusion is a big deal for my generation. Zoomers may be pan-centric in every regard, but we’re the first group to accept a larger worldview and embrace the many sides of the human experience. A lot of that is being taught as much in school, but again, it’s also because of my three favorite cartoons. Each one focuses on outsiders: the shark brothers were outcast given their hideous transformation; T-Bone and Razor from SWAT Kats were kicked out of The Enforcers and forced to live and work out of a junkyard; and the biker mice boys were 125.69 million miles away from their actual home. I can admit that it’s these elements that most spoke to me as a youngster with few friends and a penchant for playing alone in an empty dirt lot. At the same time, though, these shows’ persistent emphasis on the outsider didn’t just comfort lonely kids like myself but place a firm spotlight on what it’s like to be all on your own.
These characters may have been weirdos and freaks, but they felt the same sense of longing and a shared desire to build a community that welcomed all the little weirdos. I don’t want to tout my generation too much, but as the de facto adult leaders once Gen X enters retirement and Boomers finally shuffle loose, we have a lot of say in how the world will unfold over the next half-centruy or so. It in no way will be perfect at all, but I do get the sense that community is central to this brave new world. We can see that in the power of online platforms like Reddit, the connective power of Skype and Zoom, and the influx of people seeking connections (no matter how terrible) via Twitter. Millennials are in no way the singular driving force — we’re just the ones overseeing a world where these connections are so hugely important. I like to think, in my heart of hearts, that these 3 cartoons gave us new insight and perspective for the lessons of our parents (and heroes like Barney) to love and welcome our neighbors.
But it’s also their key differences (which is to say, a lack of community and cohesion) that make these shows important. SWAT Kats, for instance, was all about honor and a self-starting desire to make changes in the world. Street Sharks, meanwhile, was about the value of family, especially in the face of great tragedy and boundless drama. Biker Mice from Mars shared some of these motifs, but ultimately it was about building a home when the one you had was taken away. If you look at all three of these together, they’re pretty powerful messages about how to live a good and just life. I can’t say, in any way shape or form, that my generation has lived up to these ideals, and we’re certainly victims of self-doubt and endless selfishness. Still, having these shows as “guides” further speaks to the sort of power we instill within our fiction. Sure, people have always turned to stories across all mediums to help inform their behavior and better understand the world. Yet Millennials do so without even trying, and we rely on these tales to give us direction and insight we felt the world somehow held back or obfuscated from us.
Don’t believe me? See how much money our generation pours into entertainment: it’s not as much as Gen X and Boomers, but then it’s likely a much larger percentage given rampant income inequality. And neither of those generations have created such a massive cult around our favorite comics, shows, films, etc. (and I’m not counting Zoomers in this, as Millennials clearly laid the groundwork for this kind of endless culture worshiping). We are the generation who believes the things we consume make us who we are, and in that regard, we’re doing slightly better than our parents and older siblings. It may not be the most perfect way to create good and decent people, but it’s the fact that we have these values and pillars to work toward that make all the difference. And, yes, the things we ape nowadays for morals and ethics are likely way more advanced, but it’s these shows that represent the fundamental framework of our desires to be better, more well-rounded people who work toward something greater. We may not ever get there, but maybe the thought can actually count?
If you’ve made it this far, and I’ve yet to sway your opinion in any way, please feel free to dismiss me however you see fit. I am, after all, a Millennial, and am thus mostly used to such treatment. But if you take anything away from this, let it be this: dumb opinions are valuable. The freedom to see the world as we see fit, and then act accordingly, is perhaps the one thing I never dislike about my generation. More than our pop culture obsessions, or a keen interest in inclusion, it’s the very habit that makes me feel safe in Millennials’ continued ascension in the realm of adulthood. We mostly suck and can’t balance a checkbook to save our lives, but we want to make the world our own, even if some of those building blocks are actually knock-off Legos.
We have the skills, tools, and insights to make the world better, and these cartoons and larger pop culture are very much a reflection of that. They’re the most obvious example, and a pseudo lingua franca, that says to the world, “This is who we are and this is what we want to do with our time atop of the ladder.” I can’t say if we’ll do right by the world — Boomers clearly wanted to and look how that turned out. Yet it’ll be an interesting journey from Saturday mornings in front of the TV to leading a new global era. In that sense, I feel a little less alone as my people steel themselves for the future with little more than a dream in our hearts and the twinkle of pop culture in our eyes.
And just because it feels so right…
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