Animator Craig McCracken's name first attracted attention on The Cartoon Network thanks to his contributions to the series Dexter's Laboratory, but it's more recently become inseparable from his most famous creation, The Powerpuff Girls. Since making its debut in 1998, the show has become the network's most ubiquitous original program, and with good reason. Set in the city of Townsville and following the adventures of three super-powered kindergarteners—Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup—McCracken's creation mixes visual flair, smart humor, entertaining stories, and a generous amount of action involving evil monkeys. In addition to new episodes, a flood of toys, and a soundtrack, he now has a feature-length Powerpuff movie in the works. McCracken recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his background and life behind the scenes of The Powerpuff Girls.
The Onion: How did you get into animation?
Craig McCracken: Well, I've been drawing since I was about three years old, and I always knew I wanted to be a cartoonist, but there weren't really any schools for cartooning. Then I found out about CalArts [California Institute Of The Arts], which teaches character animation, and that was the closest thing I could consider to go to study cartooning.
O: Was animation what you always wanted to do?
CM: It wasn't always animation. Originally, I wanted to do comics or comic strips, but as I got older, I got a little more into animation and filmmaking, and I thought, "Okay, maybe CalArts is the place to go." That's kind of where it started.
O: Did you do a strip or anything in high school?
CM: I did stuff on my own, like always trying to come up with a character, but nothing that I sent anywhere to get published. I would just do it and then keep it. It sucked, and I never did anything with it.
O: Where did the concept of The Powerpuff Girls come from?
CM: When you're at CalArts, the main goal each year is to do a student film, and my sophomore year, I wanted to do a superhero film. But I didn't want to just cast this strong, muscley guy; I wanted to do something a little different. And I had happened to draw these three little girls, and I thought, "Oh, wait, this is a cool thing—little cute girls in this really tough environment." That contrast was really nice to me, so it all just started rolling from there.
O: How much has the concept changed since then?
CM: The core concept hasn't changed at all. The only thing that's changed is the name: They used to be called The Whoop-Ass Girls, and we had to do The Powerpuff Girls for obvious reasons. But the main idea is still the same.
O: What was your first-year film?
CM: No Neck Joe.
O: That's actually aired on The Cartoon Network, hasn't it?
CM: No, those were in Spike And Mike's Festival Of Animation.
O: I must have seen that at one point. Which one was No Neck Joe?
CM: It's the ones with little, violent jokes: There's this kid with no neck and really dumb jokes with these two bullies who pick on him and give him a turtleneck, and there's a vampire who tries to bite him but he can't, and giraffes laugh at him. It starts out where the announcer yells, "No Neck Joe!," and everybody in the audience yells along with it. They're really goofy and short.
O: How did you end up at Hanna-Barbera?
CM: I got a job offer to art-direct the Two Stupid Dogs series that was being produced. Some friends of mine were working on it, and they told me to come in, and that's kind of how I got in the door at Hanna-Barbera. I'd heard they were looking for new shows, so I pitched them The Powerpuff Girls as a possible series.
O: Did you have any idea how popular it would become?
CM: No. I thought I would get a college hit where 20-year-olds would watch it in their dorms when they're stoned. That was it. And it would be real fringe, and maybe rave kids would pick up on it, but I didn't think it would hit as big as it has.
O: It seems like you're pitching to two different audiences at once: kids and people who appreciate it as adults.
CM: That was the goal. That was the main philosophy of making the show. My favorite show when I was a kid was the Adam West Batman. When I watched it as a kid, it was totally real and intense and bad things were happening, but my parents were laughing at it, and I couldn't understand what they thought was so funny. When I saw it again when I was older, I realized that it was a comedy. I realized I needed to try to make a show that works both ways. That's a really good challenge to try to pull off. I guess we seem to be doing it. Kids might not get a lot of the jokes, but they're enjoying the action, and adults are picking up on the little innuendoes.
O: What's your rule of thumb for gags? Do you decide that something is too smart, or too dumb, or too obscure, or anything like that?
CM: Not at all. The main thing we always try to do is motivate the stories based on the characters' personalities—to tell a story you could only really tell with The Powerpuff Girls or one of the specific girls, as opposed to some crime or something you could apply to any superhero across the board. We're trying to get to the core of their personality, and that's where the best stories and jokes come from. As far as being too smart or anything, we just put it in there if we think it's funny. The main thing we try not to do is cultural references. I don't want to see, oh, The Powerpuff Girls in Titanic now.
O: It kind of dates it.
CM: Yeah, it dates it, and it also makes them not their own characters; it makes them just like actors. They do that a lot in Warner shorts now, where the cartoon characters are just there to service this funny concept, as opposed to being characters in their own world who have their own stories.
O: But I like that there's tons of pop-culture stuff in the show, and that it tends to be non-specific. It tends to be from the '50s through the current era, kind of indiscriminately. It reminds me of Pee-Wee's Playhouse in that sense.
CM: That's in there intentionally. That's a nice little sprinkling of homages to things, as opposed to being direct: "Here they are, in Jurassic Park." There are a lot of little things like that that people might not pick up on. The mayor's office is actually Commissioner Gordon's office from the Batman show. We designed it the same way as kind of a tip of the hat to one of my favorite shows.
O: One thing it actually reminds me of is Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse from the '80s. Were you a fan of that show?
CM: Yeah, definitely. That was one of the first cartoons where I was like, "Whoa, this is drawn really well and it's really trying to be funny." It was appealing to me as an artist and as a fan of cartoons. I'd get up and watch it all the time. Then, when we were at CalArts, everybody had it on tape and we would just keep watching it. That was one of the first signs of new, creator-driven cartoons that came out before Ren & Stimpy. That was the first glimmer that cartoons were getting good again.
O: One reason I think your program appeals to kids is that there's a lack of honest, unironic, non-soap-opera-ish superheroes now. Why do you think those disappeared?
CM: I don't know. There seems to be this embarrassment with superheroes in the culture. If you see the new X-Men movie, they all have to wear black leather because it makes them look cool and tough, because people are afraid to make the characters look like the characters. There's something cool about superheroes, like medieval things or whatever, but there's this tendency to think it's dorky or it's geeky, so you've got to hip it up and make it cool. With The Powerpuff Girls, we're just like, "Yeah, they're superheroes and they have powers and that's cool, and kids still like that." Kids don't look at Superman and Batman and go, "Oh, that's geeky; they've got to be dark and tormented for me to like it." They can have bad guys and good guys and fight crime and have colorful outfits and still be entertaining and cool.
O: I think Batman: The Animated Series has done that, but you'd think more enterprising people would find a way to return to more iconic superheroes.
CM: The thing with the Batman show—even though it's one of the most beautiful and well-written shows, and it really gets into Batman—is that it doesn't really move that fast. The fight scenes aren't that intense, and it doesn't really go actiony. There's a lot of walking and talking in it. It looks great, but it needs that kick of having action. And I think that's another thing that kids are picking up on: For the first time, you're actually seeing superheroes really fight bad guys. In a lot of the cartoons when I was growing up, like Super Friends, there was no fighting of bad guys. They would just get sent off to jail. It was wacky, it was silly, it wasn't intense, and there wasn't real fighting and stuff in it.
O: Super Friends came out at a time when there was a lot of concern with violence in cartoons. Do you think that's died off a little?
CM: It has on certain networks, and some people are still against it and don't want to see it, but The Cartoon Network has been really supportive and understanding, like, "Okay, you've got bad guys in your shows, and you have to make your bad guys threatening or your idea isn't going to work. The villains can have guns, but don't point it at their head. Don't fire it." Whereas on some networks, you're not even allowed guns at all, period. They really understand that we have to at least make the villains seem villainous in order for the heroes to save the day, to make it real and justified, and to make the story work.
O: I can't imagine the show without Tom Kenny's narration. I love his work in Mr. Show. How did you come across him?
CM: Tom would do incidental characters for us on Dexter's Laboratory, and he was always one of my favorite incidental guys. He's really funny and he knows exactly the jokes we're trying to do, so when it came time to cast the show, I didn't have any auditions. I was like, "Tom Kenny is the narrator and the mayor." He had the part before we even started, because I knew he's got a great sense of humor and he understands the jokes we're trying to get across. He really brings something great to the show.
O: You did an episode that was a good send-up of anime, which you've cited as an influence. What about anime appeals to you?
CM: The Japanese do the best action films in animation, so when you're studying animation, you look to the best sources you can for whatever you're trying to be inspired by. If I'm looking for great writing, I watch Jay Ward cartoons, because he does it better than anybody. If I want to look at good design, I look at UPA and early Hanna-Barbera. If I want to look at good action, I watch anime. In that sense, they've inspired the show. It wasn't a definite homage to anime, because there are a lot of other influences mixed in there.
O: Is it safe to say that the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack represents your musical taste better than it does your characters' musical taste?
CM: Probably, yeah. The soundtrack is basically pretty self-indulgent. They offered it to me and said, "What would you think if we got a bunch of bands to do songs about the show?" And I went, "Yeah, that's a great idea."
O: What was the creative process behind Mojo Jojo?
CM: He's kind of like a… Well, monkeys are always good, so that was a given. There's a character named Dr. Gori from a show called Spectreman that was on in the '70s, the Japanese live-action show. He was just this evil monkey guy. I had seen a few episodes of it, and it always stuck with me. There's also this book called The Super Dictionary, a DC Comics dictionary, and the way they would define words is just by using them in a sentence over and over again. It was the funniest thing to read out loud, because it made no sense, and that's a lot of where Mojo's dialogue kind of came from. It's inspired by that and the translation of the Speed Racer shows, just that fast talking where you've got to keep people talking while the mouth is moving. He's kind of a conglomeration of all that stuff, and we added a lot to make him who he is.
O: We've touched on this, but how do you feel about television animation today?
CM: There's a lot of… People are trying to do different stuff. A lot of the networks are like, "Here's our new show, and we're trying to do this and get something original and unique." It's good that networks are looking for the next great cartoon, and they haven't completely brushed it off as something that's just for little kids. But I don't think there's been… The Simpsons is great. I like South Park; those guys really know what they're doing. A lot of the other shows just don't seem to be hitting. It seems like networks are so desperate to find that Simpsons or South Park that they're finding people who really might not be ready to do it, or might not be fans of animation. They might be guys who want to write scripts for sitcoms, so they're like, "Oh, I'll do a cartoon!" They don't have a love for the medium, so they're not really taking advantage of it.
O: What about film animation? Is anything exciting you there?
CM: I like Pixar, the philosophy they apply to their films. They're, to me, like what old Disney used to be: these creative guys trying to push the medium to a new level and do something great and do legitimate, honest films. I'm a big fan of what they've done. I like Japanese stuff. I don't know too much about it, but [Hayao] Miyazaki's films, like Princess Mononoke, are incredible. I don't know. I always get frustrated with everybody just trying to copy Disney. They're so stuck in that rut. There are all these other ideas you could do if you'd just have the confidence to go out and make a film that's not a Disney film. The Iron Giant was the best example of that. That was one of the best films I've seen. They didn't put any songs in it and they didn't try to make it a Disney film. They just did a great film. It proves that you can make really great films that don't have to fit into that mold. I just wish there were more companies taking that chance.