"Dia de los Dangerous!," "Careers in Science," "Mid-Life Chrysalis," "Eeney, Meeney, Miney... Magic!," "The Incredible Mr. Brisby," "Tag Sale--You're It!," "Home Insecurity," "Ghosts of the Sargasso," "Ice Station--Impossible!," "Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean.," "Past Tense," "The Trial of the Monarch," "Return to Spider-Skull Island"
by Ian Pugh Lengthy postmodern discussions about the drug use in "Scooby-Doo" and the sexual habits of the Smurfs dominated the public mind long before TimeWarner acquired the Hanna-Barbera catalogue. It was only a logical move, then, that TimeWarner's Cartoon Network would devote much of its late-night Adult Swim programming block ("Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law", "Sealab 2021", and, to a lesser degree, "Robot Chicken") to taking the old H-B anti-classics and filtering them through the fine mesh screen of a contemporary ironic eye. Look here, we've got an old superhero, he's an attorney now, that's pretty wacky! Check it out, we've turned the straightforward drama of "Sealab 2020" into angry surrealism! It works to varying degrees of success, primarily depending upon the individual show's (or individual episode's) willingness to move beyond the inherent ridiculousness of its premise. What can we say, then, when "The Venture Bros." represents the kids-on-adventures serial "Jonny Quest", a series centred on a family whose surname is a literal synonym for the characters being parodied? Are we meant to gasp when brilliant über-dad Dr. Benton Quest becomes Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture (voiced by Henry Fool's James Urbaniak), an ignorant pill-popper, negligent of his teenage sons Hank (co-creator Jackson Publick) and Dean (Michael Sinterniklaas)? Or when bodyguard/second father figure Race Bannon becomes Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton), an emotionally-detached psychopath?
The episode "Ghosts of the Sargasso" (1.8), in particular, tears apart a gauzy halo of late-'60s nostalgia. Its pre-credits sequence is a recreation, lyrics and all, of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," visualizing Major Tom's plight as something slow and painful; thirty years later, when hijackers take over the Ventures' boat, Brock doesn't hesitate to kill a man dressed as a "g-g-g-ghost pirate" (we're not dealing with a group of meddling kids, after all); and Major Tom is finally resurrected as a flaming green skeleton who, not unlike Henry's hideous calf-child in Eraserhead, has little interest in doing anything but screaming. When you think about it, getting jerked back from the dead is probably a horrific experience for the corpse-in-question, too.
As it turns out: no, not really. "The Venture Bros." is not meant to be a parody of "Jonny Quest" so much as a parodic sequel. Rusty is an analog less for Benton than for Jonny, aged thirty-odd years and still living in the shadow of his father, Dr. Jonas Venture (the "real" Benton Quest analog), a so-called super-scientist who took his family around the world and led a guild of heroes in the '60s. Rusty resents being coerced into the realm of super-science by his roots almost as much as he resents his childhood nickname, and he fails to see the romantic aspects of having his own archnemeses, including shrill butterfly king The Monarch (Publick) and "dime store Doctor Doom" Baron Ünderbheit (T. Ryder Smith). Simultaneously, however, the series implies that the petulant Rusty (who never actually received a doctorate) doesn't even deserve the rather spoiled life of science and adventures he doesn't want, and it is only by way of bodyguard Brock that he is given any reason to live.
Through this boy wonder-turned-bald idiot, the true point of "The Venture Bros." emerges. Instead of asking us to gasp and laugh at how our childhood icons have been subverted, it actually forces us to follow a bright, four-colour world like "Jonny Quest" through to its logical conclusions. Children grow up; men fail to live up to their potential; and the strongest and brightest among us grows old and feeble. It works in the reverse as well, as we are shown the pathetic blind spots that comics and television overlook in the origins of superbeings, with women-obsessive villains represented by a version of Fargo's Mike Yanagita (voiced by Fargo's own Steve Park), who responds to rejection by styling himself after Doctor No and creating an army of robotic Marge Gundersons. Of course, one could spend an entire review listing off the twisted counterparts of fiction present in "The Venture Bros.", but that's because the forms they take always extend far past the simple idea of "Birdman as a lawyer."
Shades of Watchmen, but I am more reminded of the Marvel Comics miniseries Ruins (an even darker take on Ross and Busiek's Marvels), wherein familiar members of an alternate universe are crippled with diseases and psychoses thanks to their powers. If the point of Marvels was to present a world of superheroes from the perspective of mortal men, then Ruins is completely engulfed by that sense of banal reality, and it's something "The Venture Bros." takes and runs with in a funnier but no less pessimistic fashion. (No surprise that "The Venture Bros." subscribes to Ruins' ideas directly in its own Fantastic Four, whereby a Reed Richards-esque rubber man (Stephen Colbert, authoritative as usual) is a controlling bully while the rest of his "team" is endowed with disgusting and useless mutations.) What's more, the show implies that, to a degree, such re-imaginings are unnecessary, inviting us to not only consider the "Jonny Quest" characters on a non-stop train to failure, but also realize that the world they (and, for that matter, we) originally inhabited--one of casual racism and technology that constantly threatened to kill us all--was already a dark and disturbing one.
Thus once the actual Race Bannon shows up (1.9, "Ice Station--Impossible!"), only to die in Brock's arms, it doesn't kill the joke but instead functions as an act of passing the torch from one twisted property to another. Failing to recognize that feeds into viewer representation offered us by Hank and Dean, the only naïve holdovers from "Jonny Quest". Stuck in a form of wide-eyed arrested development, they embody our own expectations for wholesome fun from the 'toons of old. It's not the matter of emotional mockery that "Sealab 2021" tends towards, but the joke's on us if we believe that the TV programs of our youth exist exactly as they do in our halcyon, ignorant memories. Indeed, this is a world where the closest thing to sentimentality comes in the boys' attempts to help Brock renew his expired license to kill. It's a Superman II cycle completed by recreating Clark Kent's nasty bar-side confrontations with a trucker.
Admittedly, despite its incisive deconstruction, the season ends on a truly awful note (1.13, "Return to Spider-Skull Island") by having Hank and Dean engage in a comprehensive parody of Easy Rider. (Maybe it doesn't work because Easy Rider is already a rude awakening from an era of idealism; maybe it doesn't work because it's so damned obvious.) But as a series, "The Venture Bros." would redeem itself in its second season, in which the animation satire and random David Bowie references reach a form of critical mass--in which we learn the location of Baron Ünderbheit's micro-nation Ünderland, the solution to the "death-prone" nature of the Ventures' line of work is thoroughly explained, and Ziggy Stardust pops up in the most loving form a fan of the superhero and/or spy genres could imagine. Now that the second season has ended, let's hope Adult Swim releases another volume of "The Venture Bros." on DVD post-haste, if only to educate the uninitiated.
"The Venture Bros.: Season One" comes to DVD courtesy Warner's [adult swim] label in a lovely two-disc set, complete with gatefold art that hilariously depicts the Venture family as virile and effectual. The full-frame picture is nice, if marred by the occasional jitter or errant digital error; as the set-pieces of "The Venture Bros." are by and large populated by bright palettes, some blotchiness in the darker colours is especially noticeable (check out Dr. Venture's wig in "Mid-Life Chrysalis" (1.3)), while the deep black outlines around characters are prone to pixellation. The Dolby 2.0 stereo audio is less problematic, and it allows the dialogue to take precedence over music and effects--crucial for when necromancer and neighbour Dr. Byron Orpheus (a brilliant Steven Rattazzi) launches into one of his music sting-laden tirades.
Audio commentary from creators Chris "Jackson Publick" McCullough and Eric "Doc" Hammer adorns five episodes. It's no surprise that the two are pop-culture junkies; the first commentary (for "Mid-Life Chrysalis") begins with a lengthy discussion about their attempts to dress up as characters from Jaws, Logan's Run, and (of course) The Man Who Fell to Earth. It's charming at first (hell, I wish I had Mayor Vaughn's anchorman blazer, too), but unfortunately, such tangential musings almost completely dominate the conversation. These fellas seem like stand-up guys, but their inability to produce many cogent thoughts on the subject at hand makes this feature nigh unbearable. (Individual commentaries were not recorded consecutively, apparently, as a few topics--such as "which 'Venture Bros.' character would you sleep with," which goes nowhere both times it's brought up--are repeated across multiple episodes.) I'm glad I don't have to listen to these yak-tracks again, though I'd sure like to know which celebrity is under so much scrutiny in "Return to Spider-Skull Island" that the producers felt the need to hold down the bleep button for about ten seconds.
Video-based "Extras" start off with the pilot episode "The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay" (25 mins.), in which Doctor Venture demonstrates his new "OO Ray" at a United Nations Science Expo. As with most pilots, the characters' personalities are fetally developed (Doctor Venture is out-of-touch as opposed to incompetent; The Monarch is a bit toned down and wears a more butterfly-like costume; Brock is slightly more unhinged) and the humour is somehow less subtle. Also notable is the fact that it's produced in Flash, resulting in the blurriest, most stilted image on the disc. However, it can be reasonably argued that it works as a sharper satire of Hanna-Barbera in its limited animation style, which helps put the episode's Yellow Peril pseudo-villain (more exaggerated than any commentary on racism in the series proper) into better perspective. Accompanying commentary on "Turtle Bay" with Publick and Hammer is only marginally interesting, but Publick perks up the ears when he says that his favourite Bond film is You Only Live Twice--a movie featuring a volcanic lair (pretty over-the-top, even for Bond) that almost certainly influenced "The Venture Bros."' aesthetic. Meanwhile, "A Very Venture Christmas" (12 mins.) is billed here as a "bonus episode," presumably because it's a Christmas special approximately half as long as a normal episode. It's all very silly with the obligatory references to other Christmas specials and a once-living Santa Claus, but anything that extends the delightful melodrama of Dr. Orpheus is okay in my book.
"Deleted Scenes" (3 mins.) are comprised of unused recorded dialogue placed over storyboards--nothing special, just already-extant scenes extended by a justly-deleted line or two. "Behind the Scenes of the Venture Bros. Live Action Film" (21 mins.) sees Publick, Hammer, and Urbaniak dressed as (and acting as) their characters while discussing the fictional film of the title--with the disturbing vision of Hammer himself doing double-duty as Dr. Girlfriend, The Monarch's shapely second-in-command. Although the premise alone is something of a riot, the real laughs don't appear until Publick and Hammer (playing themselves) direct the hammy Urbaniak, who's wearing a hilariously poor skullcap. Finally, there's "Animating Hank and Dean" (4 mins.), a faux-informative piece, narrated by Publick and Hammer as secondary characters Mr. White and Master Billy Quiz-Boy, that tries to convince us that "The Venture Bros." is animated via motion-capture technology. It's essentially an example of the hipster bullshit comedy to which the series itself only occasionally succumbs. Originally published: December 13, 2006.