The name "Craig McCracken" carries a great deal of prestige in the world of animation and beyond.
After getting his start on Dexter's Laboratory, he set out on his own, creating two of the most iconic TV shows ever to run on Cartoon Network: The Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. If McCracken wanted to retire after those slam dunks, his legacy would've been secure, but he's always up for a new challenge — never content to be pigeonholed into a single category or coast off his past successes. Take, for instance, his latest series, Kid Cosmic, whose first season arrived on Netflix today.
Recently speaking with SYFY WIRE over the phone, the legendary creator describes the project as his most mature show to date. "This one is really grounded in reality, whereas a lot of my other shows take place in a fantasy reality," he explains. "Powerpuff is definitely a cartoon, it's very campy and very tongue-in-cheek; Foster's was very playful and Muppet-y and imaginative; and Wander [Over Yander] is definitely super, super cartoon-y — almost like Bugs Bunny and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
**SPOILER WARNING: The following contains certain plot spoilers for Kid Cosmic Season 1!***
On the surface, Kid Cosmic seems to share a lot of creative DNA with The Powerpuff Girls, as its plot centers around a team of unlikely superheroes trying to protect their town from extra-planetary threats — whether it be invading aliens or kaiju-esque monsters. But unlike Powerpuff Girls, which leaned heavily into its bubbly and borderline anime-inspired universe, Cosmic goes for a much more subdued approach in its execution to the central genre premise.
"These are real people and this is really happening to them, so we consciously decided to not design it super broad and not to animate it really squashy and stretchy; not to put wacky sound effects in it and just really ground it in reality," McCracken adds. "To me, this is the first time I've ever been able to tell a real, sincere human story. It's definitely less cartoon-y than anything I've ever done, for sure."
"When I was a kid, I loved the Tintin books. I loved the adventure stories and I loved how grounded they were in reality. Even though they were cartoon characters... it really felt like [they were] in a tactile, believable, [and] real world, so I wanted to tap into that," McCracken reveals. "From a science fiction perspective, I'm a huge Buckaroo Banzai fan — it's one of my favorite movies. I was definitely pulling a lot of influence from it because even though that movie is about science fiction and alien invasions, it's still grounded in reality. There's a very human thread moving through that whole thing of: 'These are regular people in these extreme situations.'"
More than anything, though, Kid Cosmic is a loving celebration of comic books and their narrative tropes. Set in a sleepy hamlet in the middle of the American Southwest, the series kicks off with an origin story that would make Hal Jordan and Thanos proud. When the titular hero (an oddball of a boy simply named "Kid," voiced by Jack Fisher) discovers five cosmic stones that grant special abilities to anyone who wields them, he decides to turn them into rings and form a team of local heroes who have no prior experience in defending the planet.
"A lot of times when I would watch superhero films, there was always a quick montage in the middle where the characters suck at using their powers and then they get great," McCracken says. "To me, that moment when they're not good is the most human moment and the most relatable moment and the funniest moment. I was like, 'Well, let's just make series that takes place in that moment, expand on that idea, and allow them to not be great at it for a while.'"
Keeping the stone of levitation for himself, Kid distributes the remaining gems to Jo (Amanda C. Miller), a teenage diner waitress who gains the power of teleportation; Papa G (Keith Ferguson), Kid's scrapyard-owning grandfather who is able to replicate himself into an army of clones; Rosa (Lily Rose Silver), a volatile 4-year-old girl who can exponentially increase her size; and Tuna Sandwich (Fred Tatasciore), a lazy cat that gains the power of precognition. To round out the group is "Stuck Chuck" (Tom Kenny), a big-headed alien intent on obtaining the stones for nefarious purposes.
It's a motley crew, to be sure, but one partially based on characters in McCracken's actual life.
"The relationship of Kid and Jo is very similar to the relationship I have with my older sister. I have a sister who's 11 years older than me and she was the one who introduced me to The Beatles, Star Wars, and Monty Python, so this idea of having a young kid looking up to a cool, older girl is basically what I grew up with," he continues. "I've had that dynamic show up in a couple of my shows. The relationship between Mac and Frankie [in Foster's Home] was similar to that and Kid and Jo's relationship is definitely like that. I also have a four-year-old daughter, so there's some of her in Rosa, for sure."
Shortly after i's initial formation, the team finds itself under attack from hordes of different extraterrestrial visitors that want to get their slimy hands on the stones of power. Given the fact that Kid Cosmic is also an homage to classic, 20th-century creature features — from the Cold War-era B-movies of the '50s and '60s to the more visceral monster movies of the '70s and '80s — McCracken was able to draw from several decades' worth of genre aesthetics.
"I wanted to run the whole gamut of alien designs from all different sources," he says. "Stuck Chuck is obviously a nod to the classic, Mars Attacks! aliens. Just visually referencing other types of aliens you've seen in the science fiction genre. In Episode 4, we have a lot of aliens. There's some that look like rubber suit monsters, there are some that look like kaiju, there are some that look like [H.R.] Giger aliens. From a design perspective, it's paying tribute to that visual language of what we've seen in science fiction movies."
With the last two Avengers movies (Infinity War and Endgame) still so fresh in the pop-culture consciousness, it's not all that hard to get audiences to buy into the concept of all-powerful rocks from outer space. When asked for his thoughts about Kid Cosmic coming so soon after Thanos snapping away half the universe with the Infinity Stones, McCracken says:
"It's part of comic book iconography. It's like wearing a cape. Things that come from space that give you powers or rings that give you powers are just part of the science fiction/comic book vernacular. There's a line in the first episode where the Kid says: 'Just like the movies and the comic books?' And [then] he says, 'Yes, but this is real!' The idea is that we're nodding that yeah, we're doing this stuff you've seen [with] Infinity Stones and the Avengers, but what if you applied that to regular people on Earth?"
That love of superhero stories also impacted the animation style. "We embraced the idea that: 'Yeah, this is animation, these are drawings, [but] it's not supposed to be super fluid. It's a little more limited. Also, just letting the performances be a little more human and natural," McCracken adds.
Luckily, he was able to reteam with previous voiceover collaborators like Ferguson and Kenny. McCracken doesn't refute that Kenny — who has lent his voice to every single one of the animator's shows since Powerpuff Girls — is something of a lucky charm at this point.
"It's a little bit of that, but also, he's just a great person. He's a great guy. I love working with him," the creator admits. "He's such a fan of cartoons and animation in general, even prior to him becoming SpongeBob and one of the top voiceover guys in the world. He just loves the medium and the art-form and he's really dedicated to it, so I'm always looking for a place for Tom. Also, Keith Ferguson... He and I worked together for a long time. He was in Foster's and he was in Wander Over Yonder. There are certain talents and voice actors you work with who just get what you want and they get what you like. You sort of have a similar brain as far as humor and character and story, so I just like continuing to collaborate with people like that."
And like the comic books that it so reveres, this series had to be told in a serialized format, with each episode leading into the next until a complete, overarching story was told. While the idea began to take shape all the way back in 2009, McCracken had to place it on the back-burner for several years due to the fact that most network-based cartoons are comprised of unconnected episodes that run for about 11 minutes apiece.
"I can't do a random 11 minutes with this because, in a random 11 minutes, a character can't grow or change or learn anything. Because those old school cartoons that we made, they were made to be shown in any order at any time on any day. So, you sort of always had to hit the reset button for every episode, but when I started thinking about this idea, I realized it needed to grow and change," McCracken explains. "As soon as I saw Netflix animation was doing stuff and knowing what Netflix shows are like, I'm like, 'Oh, well they would be open to serialization. They would do a limited series. They don't need to do hundreds and hundreds of episodes.'"
Season 1 of Kid Cosmic is now streaming on Netflix. If you've watched the entire thing already, you know that Episode 10 ends on a cliffhanger. While McCracken remains tight-lipped about the next chapter — "Kid Cosmic and the Intergalactic Truckstop" — he does promise that "there are more adventures and stories to tell with these characters."