Licensed comics are often the worst bait and switches in the medium. You like the TV show, so you buy the comic and realize the scribe isn't quite as talented as the writer of the worst episode of the series. Meanwhile, the artist tries way too hard to draw photorealistic renditions of the cast members so the characters are frozen in blank expressions like someone ripped their souls from their bodies. That's usually the case, at least. We can't forget that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics had Floyd Gottfredson and Carl Barks working on them, but mostly stuff based on other things are ultimately inconsequential and not very good, to put it lightly, as if what a fan wants from his or her tie-in comic is a diluted dose of the entertainment drug they itch for.
I knew Adventure Time would be different the moment I heard Ryan North was writing the comic book. I can't say I was surprised — the (astoundingly fucking brilliant) Cartoon Network show has always had a wicked indie sensibility about it, and hiring the legit-funny creator of Dinosaur Comics to script the comic book series proves, if nothing else, the people involved with putting the show on the page wanted to create something actually worth reading — not just an easy money tie-in that feels like a dumber, shittier version of the source material.
If you haven't seen Adventure Time, it's genius. It's like some '90s kids watched Rocko's Modern Life during the day, stayed up late to watch Liquid TV and Duckman, graduated to webcomics in their teens and then grew up to make their own cartoon — one that speaks to the kids who are just like them, but growing up now. The show is deceptively complex — Adventure Time looks like the best kid's notebook doodles ever, perfectly capturing the animistic imagination of a child, but then it goes shockingly dark in the most rewarding ways if you're paying attention. Condescension is the greatest sin a kid's cartoon can commit, and Adventure Time avoids it completely as a show made by people who obviously actually care about the work they're creating. So something so tenuously affiliated with "reality," it's startlingly human.
Which is a huge, daunting thing for the comic book (or anything) to live up to, but Ryan North and artists Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb have created a comic that is as great as the show.
In scripting Adventure Time #1, North captures the characters' voices way beyond making exclamations like "Asymptotic!" even though that happens, too. He not only gets how the action-seeking bros Finn and Jake interact ("I don't think that was a very good battle burn." "Hey man, I appreciate your honesty.") but also displays a full awareness of the show's cute/disturbing dichotomy with gags like a sand sculpture of Finn that removes its own head, spraying sand-blood all over our excited heroes. Moreover, he makes the comic into its own experience independent of the show thanks to incredibly funny odd alt-text messages at the bottom of the page that less acute readers might miss. Hilariously, the most visible message is a cipher that I haven't figured out how to accurately decode yet. This is a comic that keeps on giving.
On the art side of things, Paroline and Lamb don't half-ass it, either. Their character designs are rarely off-model from the TV show, which is nice, but most importantly they understand how the characters move and act, like Jake's wriggly appendages and Finn's contorted facial expressions. Like North, they too understand the show's basic dichotomy and are capable of drawing legit scary monsters and cuddly creatures, as seen in the third page of the issue, where a precious snail meets a being that's all bones, torn flesh and horns.
Together, the group creates a satisfying reading experience in an era where comics seemingly require like five minutes to read when you're taking your time. Unlike most comics, Adventure Time #1 begs you to stop and absorb all the background details like two-headed ducks or the fossil layers that appear when the ground opens up. Often I wonder why I don't pick up some comics in trade, but with this comic I have no reservations dropping four bucks a month on it.
If that weren't enough, it seems like each issue of Adventure Time is going to have a backup story featuring the book's many supporting characters. This issue's story, "My Cider the Mountain" by Aaron Renier is all about the tiny, grandmotherly elephant Tree Trunks investigating some mysterious new apple cider that's upstaging her classic recipe. This story is as true to the show as the feature story is, complete with cute animals, deliciously adorable food creatures and a really gross/hilarious conclusion. Renier draws in a style closer to his own than that of the show, but captures the spirit and basic designs of the characters, polishing it all with really beautiful, brilliant watercolors. Next issue's story is a Marceline-centric tale by Lucy Knisley, and I couldn't be more excited for these sections — even more than the main story, which I loved.
The best "licensed" comics maintain a fidelity to the source while also delivering a unique comic book experience independent of whatever they're wor
king from. For me the gold standard had always been the Archie Comics Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series which developed its own weirdo universe with giant cow heads and wrestling ducks, but based on first issue alone, Adventure Time is going to rival any other licensed comic and maybe even some of the non-licensed ones.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.