“Animation Is A Medium Not A Genre”: The Rise of The Great Adult Animation Boom

by Tito W. James

I think in the next ten years we will be doing PG-13 or even R-rated fully animated movies in the way they are done in Europe or Japan, where they understand that animation is a medium, not a genre.

Guillermo Del Toro

“Animation is a Medium Not a Genre” is becoming a slogan for every animation professional who seeks to push the medium of animation into a more mature realm. This way of thinking has been true in the heads and hearts of animators for generations but contemporary audiences and critics are still behind the times.

We are currently entering what John Evershed calls “The Great Adult Animation Boom“. I believe that adult animation will continue to grow thanks to the popularity of streaming services. This “growing up” of Western animation is similar to the mature movement seen in American comics with the likes of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Sandman.

It’s worth noting that comics and animation in Japan and Europe were already speaking to adult audiences decades before their American counterparts. To that end, these American mature movements are less about comics or cartoons “growing up” and more about audiences “catching up.” So in the spirit of gross-oversimplifications of complex and nuanced artistic movements, I’ll give you my stab at adult animation history.


Any animation nerd will be quick to point out that cartoons were originally for adult audiences. The black-and-white inkblot styled cartoons of the 1930s included macabre themes, sexual innuendo, and were set against the backdrop of the Great Depression.


Ralph Bakshi is considered to be the godfather of adult animation. From low-lifes to high concepts, Bakshi’s animated films explore life at its most unvarnished. He broke all the rules and forged a path for other rebels to follow.


With the advent of bootleg VHS tapes, Americans were exposed to Japanese animation and the world would never be the same. There was this new thing called anime – it was an alien entity that would infect the minds of all who encountered it. We are still in anime’s aftershock and its popularity and influence has increased with every decade.


The 1990s were a powerhouse for adult animation. This decade saw the rise of the prime time sitcom with The Simpsons, whose formula is still emulated to this day. Anime and M-rated video games were becoming more common amongst young people. We also saw adaptations of adult comics like the Spawn animated series as well as The Maxx.


2009 saw the production of two creepy cult favorites with Laika’s stop-motion masterpiece Coraline and the post-apocalyptic odyssey, 9. The latter example deserves more recognition for being a theatrically released PG-13 animated film based on an original concept.


This may have been the most important year in adult animation history. 2018’s mature animated Renaissance was when several adult animated projects made their way into the world and were met with critical and commercial success. Ultimately this is the tipping point. Adult animation used to be underground and only appeal to a niche audience but thanks to the accessibility of streaming services we now have narrative driven adult animated programs like Castlevania.


I still can’t believe that Primal and Love Death and Robots came out in the same year. As a fan of Pulpy Sci-Fi and fantasy it’s great to see genre fiction being given such lush animated treatment. To me, Primal is the pinnacle of mature prestige animation. No other animated program before or since has embodied “pure cinema” as well as Primal, and directors working in any medium would do well to learn from Genndy Tartakovsky.


The Global Pandemic halted the production of live action film and TV but animation was able to continue through remote work. With audiences stuck at home and still craving entertainment, the use of streaming services skyrocketed. A show like The Midnight Gospel wouldn’t have been possible without streaming services and we may see more unorthodox projects finding audiences in the future.

Present Day and Future Predictions

The Invincible animated series has changed animated television’s format by utilizing the episode length of live-action shows. I hope that Invincible does even better than the Walking Dead because I want prestige hour-long animated shows to become the norm.

I predict we will see more successful adaptations of indie-comics and video games into animated movies and TV shows. I hope that we will see a greater variety in art styles and animation techniques both 2D and 3D. We will see the genres of action, scifi, fantasy, horror, and romance explored in more sophisticated animated stories. Adults talking about their favorite animated program will become as common as talking about the latest superhero film.

Remember that none of this is possible without audience participation. Please support adult animation that breaks the mold with your time and money. We have the opportunity to change the course of artistic history– make the most of it!

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