Adventure Time and Apocalypse Lit

On the End of the World

By Heather Smith

The crashed helicopters and half-buried cars poking out of the ground in Adventure Time remind me of my childhood, wandering in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. We were sent to the museum more to pay fealty to the Detroit that had been -- by the late ‘80s the auto industry had pretty much packed up and left and those remnants that were still around were busy running themselves into the ground.

We all learned the word “recession” at a young age because we knew what that meant –gloomy parents, who would otherwise be at work, at home, on unemployment. These were traumatic times. The parents monopolized the remote control, and failed to appreciate the needs of children who really, really wanted to watch cartoons.

The collection at the museum was strange: old tractors, pieces of steam engines, and, for some reason, noteworthy objects that U.S. Presidents had been sitting in when they were murdered (Lincoln’s theater chair, JFK’s Lincoln Continental). If I needed any validation as a child that the world of adults was a weird one, and not one I was in a hurry to get into, here it was, spread out before me.

“I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used,” Henry Ford said, about the museum. “When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived.” What Ford had missed was that history kept on changing even as you collected it, and so did the people who moved through the space that was built to house it. You could build a vainglorious museum about the assembly line and the $5 day, but there were larger forces outside of your bubble-world that made it more and more irrelevant.

I went away to college. On the train back to visit my family I could see that the industrial backbone of the city was being eaten by plants. Pheasants fluttering through the tall grasses that had pushed their way up through the factory yards. The Packard plant filled with weeds and raver dance parties.

Once I got hopelessly lost at the Henry Ford Museum, and I stumbled into a 1950s model classroom. Rows of empty desks faced a movie screen, where a cartoon turtle called out “Duck! And Cover!” in an endless loop, intercut with footage of towheaded children hurling their bookbags to the ground and diving into the fetal position.

When my mom found me, she had a strange look on her face. “This is my childhood,” she said. “We were supposed to duck and cover if nuclear war broke out. Every day, I thought, “This is it.” She got a faraway look. “It still could happen, I guess. All those old bombs, pointed at us.”

There are many ways to apocalypse. There’s Gilgamesh and there’s Noah and the ark and there’s the Persian prophet Zoroaster, who promised a cosmic battle between good and evil that would end in a new, perfect world for humanity. A Swedish friend described his adolescence to me as “getting drunk and talking about Ragnarök.”

Their particular evangelical, Book-of-Revelations style apocalypse was – some historians have argued – a religious mutation, created out of necessity by the first Christians in 30 CE, as a way to deal with the shock of having their leader being unexpectedly crucified just as the whole “we’ve got our own religion” party was getting started. The mutation (everything is bad now, and makes no sense, but there is a new world coming after this one is destroyed where everything will be great) was more popular than the rest of the religion (feed the hungry, be nice to lepers, judge not lest ye be judged).

The Puritans were fans of this apocalypse, though they couldn’t decide if the world was going to end, or had ended already. Clearly the Bible was all about them, and not about anyone else, and so when they set up a colony in North America in the 17th century, they wondered -- was this the new world that had been promised to them? If so, why was everything there trying to kill them?

The historian Paul Boyer has argued that this 17th idea of America as a promised land lasted much longer than the Puritans themselves managed to. It persists as a vague idea that America is somehow a special place, with a redemptive role in world history. When Woodrow Wilson talked about America making the world “safe for democracy” or Ronald Reagan talked about it as a “city on a hill,” it speaks to this subterranean notion of a post-apocalyptic dream America, instead of just sounding like crazy talk.

In 1826, Mary Shelley, who had just written Frankenstein, wrote The Last Man, about how, in the years leading up to 2100, a plague breaks out and everyone dies but a guy named Lionel. It was possibly the first work of apocalyptic science fiction, and people hated it. “The offspring of a diseased imagination, and of a most polluted taste," said one reviewer. Shelley was baffled. She really liked the book. She promised her editor that she’d write something that people would actually want to read next time. The book didn’t come back into print until 1965.

The unpopularity of Shelley’s book didn’t stop the apocalypse fiction from coming. In 1885, the British author Richard Jefferies' wrote a novel called After London, about an unspecified catastrophe that leaves England nearly depopulated, except for a few survivors who live in a quasi-medieval colony. The entire book could be described as ruin porn – Jefferies spends more time lavishly describes plants taking over the city, and of domesticated animals running wild than he does about the few humans survivors. If apocalypses are something that you have to choose sides for, Jefferies is on team plant.

A few years later, H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, about the year 802,701 A.D. The Time Machine introduced a new kind of apocalypse –the “dying earth” subgenre, where the planet is not so much being deliberately destroyed, but just over.

When they were young, my grandparents were fruit pickers on the tent revival circuit, and to them, the apocalypse was just another harvest -- a sorting mechanism that would separate the good from the bad. They thought of themselves as good, and discussed the end times with no small amount of cheerfulness. They loved nature, but were openly contemptuous of attempts to protect it. What was the point of protecting the landscape, since the world was going to be destroyed and rebuilt any day now?

The nuclear apocalypse has been described as “our first secular apocalypse.” It was built in secret. It was a thing that had been brought into being out of part strategy, part vengeance, and part curiosity. It was the sort of thing that seemed like it would end the world, but without any deeper point. In a television interview in 1965, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, said, after the Trinity test in the desert of New Mexico, in 1945, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impressed him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

In August 1945, a month later, Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the existence of the bomb became known to the world. And then, something strange happened, and continued to happen. People who had access to nuclear bombs often thought about using them. Harry Truman thought about using the bomb during the Korean War, but didn’t. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon all thought of dropping the bomb on whichever communists they were most angry about at the time. Year after year, and then decade after decade, the nuclear war kept on not happening.

Instead, it split the future in two. There was the regular future that we all lived through, with its suburbs and interstate highways. But there was also the nuclear dream world of late-night television, filled with mutants, last men on earth, and animals the size of parade floats.

In Japanese films, Godzilla came from beneath the ocean and went on a rampage. In There Will Come Soft Rains, the machines designed to take care of people kept on trying to do so long after they are gone. In others, the technology is gone, and only people remain.

The earliest work of post-nuclear apocalyptic fiction, Shadow on the Hearth, was published in 1947, just over a year after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. America, it seemed, worked through the issue of having bombed Japan by generating an endless number of stories were America was the bombed, not the bomber. Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril was, like many versions that would follow, about regular suburbanites trying to make it in a post-apocalyptic world—in this case, trying to escape the fallout from a bomb that fell on New York city. ABC made a television version called Atomic Attack and aired it on the Motorola Television Hour. Merril herself would move to Canada and spend her golden years dressing up as a witch and putting hexes on the Canadian Parliament as retribution for allowing American cruise missile testing over Canada.

Adventure Time is not a classic American apocalypse, like the Matrix or the Terminator series, where the end of the world is some grim-jawed exercise in salvaging or rebuilding the world. It’s also not a more low-key, ‘90s apocalypse, like Octavia E. Butler’s work, where people struggle, just as grimly, to adapt to apocalypse, now that preventing it is no longer an option.

Instead, the show is post-post apocalyptic, like a pop art version of the end of the world. We know from flashbacks that Ooo was once a classic b-movie scorched metropolis. But present day Ooo is made of freshly mowed grass and candy. Responsibilities are nil. Children grow up in a day. Piles of treasure and video games are everywhere. The protagonist, Finn, may be bummed at being the last human standing, and at being considered edible by some of the creatures around him, but he also lives with a dog that cooks him breakfast. Once, when reality itself is threatened, Jake saves the universe without even trying, by schmoozing with some trans-dimensional beings in a hot tub.

This kind of storytelling has a lineage, but it isn’t American. In many ways, it resembles the work of Hayao Miyazaki, the godfather of Japanese animation, who displays no affection for civilization. “I want to see the sea rise over Tokyo,” he told the New Yorker, once. “I’d like to see Manhattan under water,” he said. “I’d like to see when the human population plummets and there are no more high rises, because nobody’s buying them. I’m excited about that. Money and desire – all that is going to collapse and wild green grasses are going to take over.”

In Miyazaki’s films, the heroes don’t so much reshape reality as learn how to navigate it and so, in a way, the apocalypse hovering in the background of his films are more in keeping with the origins of the word, which isn’t so much about destruction as it is about revealing, or folding something open. The most dystopian future in Adventure Time is the one where Finn prevents the Mushroom Wars from ever happening. The atomic bomb that would have obliterated the past hovers just a few inches from detonation for 1,000 years, but the reality that its failure to explode is protecting is one where Jake is not a hero -- just a simple farm kid getting picked on by bullies.

Pendleton Ward, Adventure Time’s creator, once summarized the show as occurring "after the bombs have fallen and magic has come back into the world." Other than that, Ward keeps it close with the apocalypse talk. An interview on the subject with Comics Beat went like this:

Comics Beat: Do you see fruits in the destruction of our current society?

Pendleton Ward: No. I’m not going to make any social commentary.

CB: So is our society in a pre-apocalyptic stage right now?

PW: Yeah, of course.

CB: That’s social commentary, by the way.

PW: This interview is over.

CB: What?

PW: This interview is over.

When something is destroyed, we think of it as staying that way. There is some precedent for this. The passenger pigeon? Never coming back. T Rex? Ditto – not the dinosaur, not Mark Bolan. But, in the decades that humans as a species have managed to not destroy the world with nuclear weapons, the sites of the first atomic bomb tests have become a refuge species who don’t know enough to fear dying from cancer. In 1954, a hydrogen bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands created a fireball four miles wide, vaporized three islands, and raised the lagoon temperature by 99,000 degrees. Today, it’s a paradise of coral reefs and sharks.

The idea that dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere is actually less damaging to all of the species that aren’t us, than just living near them and doing our thing is an unsettling one. Let’s not think about it.

Instead, I’m going to leave you with two things:

  1. I got bored with the apocalypse. Growing up around so many adults with so many different apocalypses made me interested in the small and resilient. What I could get excited about was insects, so I became a science journalist, and then, because you can’t separate the awesomeness of insects from their environment, I became an environmental journalist. Then, one day as I was having dinner with a prominent environmental journalist, I mentioned what a relief it was to have science instead of apocalypse. “But Heather,” he said, seriously, “the world is ending.”
  2. The poet Marianne Moore once described poetry as “an imaginary garden, with real toads in it.” Adventure Time is this garden.