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In Venture Bros. Season 6, “Maybe No Go,” evil zillionaire Augustus St. Cloud has archnemesis Billy Quizboy and Quizboy’s sidekick, Pete White, tied up and at his mercy. With a flourish, he unveils his secret weapon… a red rubber ball.
Ah, but this isn’t just any mere red rubber ball, you see. It’s from Duran Duran’s music video “Is There Something I Should Know?” Formed by Marc Bolan, inflated by Roxy Music, its power passed down to every New Romantic band ever since. No ball, no music video. No music video, no New Romantics. Spandau Ballet never writes “Only if You Leave,” John Hughes never writes Pretty in Pink. Molly Ringwald never leaves The Facts of Life to star in Pink, and by proximity her charisma propels Kim Fields from the small screen to the White House.
From this Jenga tower of references, St. Cloud teases out a threat: Either Quizboy sells to him all his worldly possessions in exchange for the ball (and a single cent) or he’ll send the ball back in time. Goodbye, Soft Cell. Hello, President Tootie.
Even for a hero entirely themed on trivia, this is hard to buy. “You’re completely nuts!” Quizboy exclaims. “It’s a red rubber ball!”
He doth protest too much. In short order, Quizboy is trudging home with White, shiny penny and rubber ball in hand, and trying to justify their homelessness. Without the New Romantics, then Nu Rock would have happened earlier. Linkin Park and System of a Down would have formed in the ‘80s and ruined the future of hip-hop. “And I lost my virginity to Side A of Wu-Tang Forever,” he concludes. “We had to do it.”
A mega-collector supervillain and a quiz show superhero conduct a time travel plot solely through pop culture references. It’s a concept so high (in both senses of the word) that it’s in the clouds. It’s the sort of trip Venture Bros. takes often. So many jokes revolve around an encyclopedic knowledge of ‘80s music, comic book minutiae, and a fondness for old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. A lot of it is downright esoteric to anyone who didn’t live within a narrow band of American pop history.
I’m an example of someone who should be alienated by that. Through no fault of its own, modern music has eluded me. I became infatuated with polyphonic music, an outdated style, at a young age. With the exception of, say, John Tavener or Eric Whitacre, my musical world stretches from the ninth century to 1949. Friends take immense pleasure in comparing me to Rip van Winkle.
An episode of Venture Bros. should feel like Family Guy, whose endless send-ups drive my heart pressure up and my life expectancy down, but I’m laughing as hard at St. Cloud as my more civilized wife. That’s due in part to the snap and crack of its dialogue. It was one of the first animated sitcoms to perfect the lightning-quick patter which makes Archer and Rick and Morty such sonic delights. Still, that doesn’t fully explain it.
Under the guise of David Bowie and comics lore, a lot of Venture Bros. is about fan(atic) dom(ains). Not in a facile way, mind you (we have Big Bang Theory and Robot Chicken for that), but in a roundabout, more worldly one. It’s about the impressions left on our youth, the disillusionment, how much useless junk we cram into our brains, and how tightly we clutch that baggage even while it’s killing us. Fanaticism is part of who we become.
To explore this, writers Christopher McCulloch and Doc Hammer—the two-man “unibrain” (their word) who wrote all but two episodes—bare their fandoms. At first, Venture Bros is a silly riff on the Saturday morning cartoon Johnny Quest. In real life, if the son of a globetrotting scientist were captured by terrorists every week, he’d probably grow up to be a screwed up adult, huh? Let’s show him popping pills and abusing his own sons. It’s got the sophomoric edge that Adult Swim cultivates.
That acorn of an idea, however, sprouts to include a strangely touching portrait of Doctor Strange as a single father, a mash-up of R. Lee Ermey and Silver Age Nick Fury, and so much more.
All of those are off-brand knockoffs, of course. Unlike Harley Quinn, McCulloch and Hammer can’t tap directly into the majesty of the originals to tell their jokes. They can’t use Two-Face, so they create Radical Left and his genteel southern persona, Right Wing. But this ignites creativity. Without the recognizable branding, they take pains to establish distinct variations on the familiar (something I wish Harley Quinn would do), and it frees them for experimentation. Cultural icons then have obligations and expectations to serve.
Also, McCulloch and Hammer come by these parodies honestly. Venture Bros’ deconstructions date back to 2004. For reference, Mark Millar’s Wanted came out in the same year, Dynamite Comics released Ennis’ The Boys in 2006, and Iron Man was four years away. Fandoms are now multibillion-dollar lures. It’s becoming so difficult to detect care or true love in these increasingly elaborate schemes to hook a series, a franchise, an empire. Here, there’s no doubt that their obsession with this stuff is part of their past.
Their last and most impressive trick is turning that obsession inward. To their own cosmology of not-quite-Batmans and not-quite-Supermans, they bequeath the hyper-continuity that only a lifelong fan can provide. They nourish each snarl and tangle of the plot regardless of how silly or throwaway it was. They discard none of it. Everything must matter.
There are moments when fandom is nothing but pain and rage with no bottom in sight. When that happens, hold your red rubber ball tight to your chest and remember that it all began with love.
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Sean Weeks is a student of classics and mythology who’s wandered slightly off course. If you want to join him in his odyssey, you can visit him at www.weeksauthor.com.
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