Cartoon Network a number of years back spun-off a line of late night shows, many only about ten minutes per episode, under the “Adult Swim” umbrella. A number of their short original programming often looks crudely animated (on purpose), and may require some substances illegal in most states to really enjoy. One such show that is neither ten minutes long nor requires such stimulation is The Venture Brothers.
The Venture Brothers is often hilarious, and much of it comes across as a distorted Geek pop culture argument on acid.
The series, created by Doc Hammer and Christopher McCulloch, follows the adventures (if that’s the right word) of the Venture family, primarily the two fraternal twin teenage brothers Hank and Dean. They’re being raised on the Venture Compound by their father, former child adventurer Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, with assistance from various bodyguards, most notably Brock Samson, a rage-filled killing machine with a soft spot for the boys, and an old, barely functional robot named H.E.L.P.eR. Rusty’s own late father, Jonas Venture, was a super-scientist who had a cadre of assistants, and he often took Rusty on various dangerous adventures and forced his son live through them.
Rusty, it should be noted, is a pale shadow of his father in many ways. As an adult, Rusty’s own scientific skills and abilities are often lacking. He basically perfected one thing and lives a shallow, pathetic life. The more the viewer sees of Rusty’s childhood, the easier it is to see why he turned out the way he did. This makes Rusty a little more sympathetic, which is necessary since otherwise he’s a total sleezeball.
To top it off, Rusty has an archenemy, a butterfly-themed supervillain called the Monarch. The Monarch really, really hates Rusty for some reason. That reason has never really been explained. There are other villains running around, with one noteworthy one being Baron Underbheit, despotic ruler of Underland (or, as the Monarch refers to him, a “dime store Doctor Doom”), and legitimately effective (sometimes) villain Phantom Limb, who has invisible arms and legs.
I could probably spend the better part of a day describing characters from this show. The majority are voiced by Hammer and McCulloch themselves, and the two creators also switch off on writing duties for almost every episode. The one episode they didn’t pen came from The Tick creator Ben Edlund, an episode that featured a particularly dark re-imagining of the cast of Scooby-Doo, with the gang being basically recast as famous American serial killers (Fred was Ted Bundy, Shaggy was the Son-of-Sam who could hear the dog telling him to kill, etc).
That’s actually one of the pleasures of the Venturverse: it is a twisted, broken recreation of many beloved Geek properties. The Venture family, both past and present, looks vaguely like the family from Johnny Quest, with an adult Johnny occasionally popping up as a deranged fellow called “Action Johnny,” and the revelation that Race Bannon worked for the same S.H.I.E.L.D.ish spy agency, the O.S.I, as Brock Samson. There’s an in-universe version of the Fantastic Four, and Hank Venture apparently wants to be Batman when he grows up. The O.S.I. was apparently G.I. Joe using lethal force in the 80s. The Venture’s downstairs tenant, Dr. Orpheus, could very well be a more “dramatic” version of Dr. Strange. Hank looks vaguely like Fred from the aforementioned Scooby Doo, and Dean resembles the original drawings of Peter Parker (he even wears Spider-Man pajamas).
The show also has a very deep mythology that probably isn’t going anywhere. There are twists, but I’d be surprised at this point if there’s an end game. Much of the show seems to exist to provide odd pop culture discussions between different characters, most notably a pair of the Monarch’s henchmen who sit around all day, avoiding problems, and just chatting about geek stuff. The reason for that may be the show’s real underlying theme is failure. Very few things actually work in the Ventures’ world. A mysterious, powerful orb that everyone is scrambling for will be revealed to have been broken for a century without anyone noticing. Rusty’s science doesn’t work. Orpheus’ magic doesn’t always work. The bad guys are hampered by the bylaws of their Guild. Even things the show establishes can be reversed in passing dialogue, such as the identity of the Guild of Calamitous Intent’s shapeshifting Sovereign (a really good joke when originally revealed). Likewise, longtime viewers may get a tickle when small callbacks are revealed to be of bigger significance than originally thought. Viewers don’t need to have seen every episode to get the mythology, since, as I said, I am pretty sure they aren’t going anywhere with all this. The major characters really aren’t allowed to enjoy success. Supporting characters who are successful are often resented for it.
The series only comes out sporadically as things stand now, and that’s too bad. Apparently, the show takes a while to produce episodes, and the budget may not be that high when it comes to getting professional voice talent (one of the reasons why Hammer and McCulloch play most of the characters). The show probably will continue to run when the team has produced enough episodes for Adult Swim to call it a season, and I know I’ll be there as much as I can. I don’t expect answers to mysteries, or a conclusion, but if they do pull one off somehow, I’m going to be mighty impressed. Answering the mysteries really isn’t the point. Exploring a messed up sci-fi setting where nothing works is.