My Top 10 Favorite Cartoon Series

So, thanks to a suggestion by Bryce from JacobsonCinema, I’m writing a new post listing some of my favorite (non-anime) cartoon series. These include the shows that shaped me when I was growing up and the new content that I follow today.

10. Star Wars Rebels

Copyright © 2014 by the Disney Channel
Copyright © 2014 by the Disney Channel

Thanks to The Force Awakens, there’s a plethora of new Star Wars tales coming out of the woodworks, and Rebels is one of the best. This show tells the story of 6 unlikely heroes in the earliest days of the Rebellion. What I like most aren’t their high-pitched firefights with stormtroopers or Hera’s impressive feats of flying, but how they interact in their quieter moments. It’s Kanan training Ezra to be a Jedi or the likes of Zeb and Sabine working with the locals they’re trying to help subvert the Empire’s rule. There’s a sense of family that stands out against the detailed Star Wars settings and mythos we’ve all come to know and love.

9. Invader Zim

Copyright © 2001 by Jhonen Vasquez.
Copyright © 2001 by Jhonen Vasquez.

Absurd comedy is good, and so is dark comedy. Invader Zim has both and I love it for that combination. I can enjoy Zim’s insane logic for his Conquest Plan of the Week, GIR’s actual insanity, and snarky one-liners from Dib and Gaz when there’s enough of them. This is a show where Valentine’s Day is celebrated with slabs of meat, and where school elections include brainwashing and deadly approval meters. And honestly, how cool was it that Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall got to voice one of the characters?

8. Young Justice

Copyright © 2011 by Warner Bros. Animation.
Copyright © 2011 by Warner Bros. Animation.

Building off the love that I had for the Justice League cartoon (as described in the next section), I got into Young Justice because it was a well-done ensemble series of colorful and sympathetic heroes against an elaborate conspiracy with multiple story arcs. The first episode I ever watched was “Secrets,” a simple side story with Zatanna and Artemisbut it was a great introduction to the kind of depth and action that the show had to offer.

7. Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited

Copyright © 2001 by Warner Bros. Animation
Copyright © 2001 by Warner Bros. Animation

I’m including 2 shows here only because they’re done by the same creators, with the same continuity. And because they’re just that good. I didn’t read comic books as a kid. What I know about DC Comics and their superheroes mostly comes from this version of the Justice League. These shows balanced every possible superhero, big and small, and made great use of their strengths and weaknesses (see episodes like “The Great Brain Robbery” and “Divided We Fall” for examples). In a strange way, I feel like they did for a cartoon series what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is achieving on the big screen: an in-depth, multi-arc franchise with numerous stories and a memorable cast.

6. Adventure Time

Copyright © 2010 by Cartoon Network.
Copyright © 2010 by Cartoon Network.

It’s weird to think how long Adventure Time has been on the air now. It’s even been 3 years since I wrote an entire blog post about this show’s many zany qualities. And at the time of this writing, those qualities still ring true (especially if you watch the “Stakes” miniseries focused on Marceline and Bubblegum).

5. Archer

Copyright © 2016 by FXP
Copyright © 2016 by FXP

Archer never fails to make me laugh. I might cheer at some of its legitimately fun spy and secret agent action, but mostly I’m watching this James Bond/Cold War parody for whatever new pop culture references that the main cast can produce. Or whatever mad science nonsense Krieger has on the side. Or anything that Pam and Cheryl do, honestly. I also can’t forget the fact this series has some great allusions to classic stories, making good use of cameos like Burt Reynolds and Christian Slater whenever it gets the chance.

4. BoJack Horseman

Copyright © 2014 by Netflix
Copyright © 2014 by Netflix

If a show like Archer can usually make me laugh, then Bojack Horseman can never fail to make me chuckle right before yanking hard at my heartstrings. But who doesn’t love the story of a washed-up celebrity from the Nineties and his endless spiral into self-loathing and poor decisions? The show, however, isn’t afraid to actually tackle its own continuity and Bojack’s psychological trauma. I know I’m not alone in admiring how well the show has depicted living with depression, and in wanting to see where else this horse’s journey will go in the future.

3. Rick and Morty

Copyright 2015 by Adult Swim
Copyright © 2015 by Adult Swim

I’ve said it before, but Rick and Morty is what I think I always expected out of a show like Doctor Who. It’s a series about a mad scientist antihero and his young companion, as their bond gets tested through a madcap series of adventures across time and space. Yet the scientist is an alcoholic and misanthrope whose genius is unparalleled. And his companion is traumatized. And so’s his family. I think the second season finale really summed up this issue beautifully. If you want to see a truly alien and colorful universe explored by some fallible but sympathetic characters, this is a show to check out.

2. Steven Universe

Copyright © 2013 by Cartoon Network Studios
Copyright © 2013 by Cartoon Network Studios

Created by Rebecca Sugar, who was attached to Adventure Time as a storyboard artist and writer, Steven Universe is one of those shows that’s a real diamond in the rough. This cartoon is unabashedly optimistic and heartwarming, even when it deals with darker matters like the war between the Crystal Gems and their Homeworld, or serious traumas like Pearl’s bittersweet relationship with Rose Quartz. And because it’s got Rebecca Sugar at the helm, there are tons of good original songs scattered throughout the show. The more I watch Steven’s adventures, the more hopeful and inspired I feel about the world.

1. Batman: The Animated Series

Copyright © 1992 by Warner Bros. Animation
Copyright © 1992 by Warner Bros. Animation

Between the solid noir-style animation and the epic soundtrack, it’s not hard to see why this incarnation of Batman stands out for me and a lot of other kids from my generation. This Caped Crusader fit the bill for those of us who weren’t 100% up-to-date on all the comics and their storylines, with tons of individual stories and amazing performances by the likes of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. But this Batman also has soul, as best described by this Tumblr post.

So what did you enjoy watching as a kid? Or what modern-day show are you enjoying now? Please let me know in the comments section.

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10 Key Steps to Writing a Meaningful Story

Ernest Hemingway at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Photo by Lloyd Arnold.
Ernest Hemingway at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Photo by Lloyd Arnold.

If you’re like me, then you’ve read, re-read, and absorbed tons of stories over the years, from novels and short stories to comics and interactive fiction games. What I love about any good story is how you can get lost in a fictional world or in a character’s quest for something. And since I come from a background in literary criticism (even though it focused more on “the classics” than genre fiction), I’ve worked out a few ideas on what generally makes for a good story, regardless of plot or genre.

So to all you fellow writers now reading, here are 10 things to keep in mind for creating your own meaningful story.

1. Pick a genre for your new story.

In a perfect world, we’d judge anything worth our time by its story and its characters. In the real world, genre matters. Some people prefer horror and suspense, others prefer science fiction set on alien worlds, and still others care only about the everyday trials of 21st-century teenagers in suburbia. So this really comes down to deciding what kind of story you’re going to be telling and what kind of audience you’re looking for.

Some Examples to Consider: Science fantasy for Star Wars. Crime drama for The Godfather. Teen romance for Romeo and Juliet.

2. Identify your inspirations.

No story comes from out of nowhere. Maybe you get your ideas from a real-life occurrence, like how losing her child was what inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. You can also get your ideas from someone else’s story, like how Twin Peaks continues to be a source of inspiration for the cartoon Gravity Falls and the video game Life is Strange.

Some Examples to Consider: Akira Kurosawa films, Flash Gordon, and Westerns for Star Wars. Real-life organized crime stories for The Godfather. Pyramus and Thisbe for Romeo and Juliet.

3. Build your own world.

So where does your story take place? What are the customs there? Who’s in charge or who’s at war? These are the kind of questions that not only give your world depth, but also help you frame the conflict that drives your tale.

Some Examples to Consider: A galaxy far, far away for Star Wars. New York City under the Five Families for The Godfather. The Montagues and Capulets of Verona for Romeo and Juliet.

4. Decide whose story you’re going to tell.

Not every protagonist has to be a hero or even moral, but they should be sympathetic. We, the audience, should be able to care about their struggles and their goals, no matter if they’re guaranteed a happy or a tragic ending. It’s also important that they do something to achieve that goal, even if we’re only watching them through some passive narrator’s eyes (think Jay Gatsby being watched by his friend Nick Carraway).

Some Examples to Consider: A young farmboy who gets involved in a galactic war (Star Wars). A war veteran forced into his father’s criminal empire (The Godfather). Two young lovers caught between a family feud (Romeo and Juliet).

5. Create a goal for your main character to pursue.

Fame and fortune. Find true love. Bring down the empire. Expose the truth. Overcome personal flaws and achieve a better relationship with the world. These are just a few (concrete) examples of what your character can be seeking. At least give us something that we can see them achieve, whether it takes place on the page or onscreen.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke wants to go to Alderaan and save the Princess (Star Wars). Michael wants to protect his family from a gang war (The Godfather). Romeo and Juliet want to get married  (Romeo and Juliet).

6. Develop every obstacle in the path to the hero’s goal.

So this is a bit tricky. Yes, bad things happen along the way to the hero’s goal, but they should at least make sense within the story’s context. Having random stuff with no lasting consequences impede your protagonist isn’t good storytelling. It’s an excuse of a plot. This is where your antagonist(s) come into play. They should be opposed to the hero’s goal, whether for good or bad reasons. And they should be a threat to everything the hero holds dear, even if they’re sympathetic characters in their own right.

Some Examples to Consider: The Empire destroys Alderaan and Darth Vader kills Luke’s mentor (Star Wars). Michael loses both his brother and the woman he loves while hiding in Sicily (The Godfather). Romeo is banished from Verona after killing Juliet’s cousin (Romeo and Juliet).

7. Figure out a plot device to aid the hero in their goal.

“Plot device” is a term that gets tossed around a lot, usually as writer’s shorthand for “I made this up so we could move the plot forward.” But is that so bad? A plot device can be anything that helps move the story forward, from a ring that turns the hero invisible when enemies are near to a best friend with a truck who helps you get away from the monster.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke has a team of unlikely heroes to help him rescue Princess Leia (Star Wars). Michael uses his father’s advice to expose the traitors in the family (The Godfather). Friar Lawrence helps Juliet fake her death so she and Romeo can be together (Romeo and Juliet).

8. Create a setback for the hero and a showdown with the adversary.

Eventually, whether it’s a short story or a feature-length film you’re writing, your main character will need to confront their biggest problem (the plot device can only do so much, after all). Of course, the climax is also a good chance for your character to show off how much they’ve learned along the way or how they’ve changed. And if you’re writing a tragic story, then you show how their fatal flaw has ultimately doomed them by this point.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke joins the Rebel fighters as they try to destroy the Death Star (Star Wars). Michael’s father dies, leaving Michael to set up a meeting with Don Barzini (The Godfather). Romeo arrives at Juliet’s tomb and encounters her suitor Paris (Romeo and Juliet).

9. Bring about the hero’s victory with a sharp price.

Victory can mean a lot of things: the end of a long battle, a confession of love, a verdict in the courtroom, or even the chance to leave town and start over somewhere else. Of course, don’t make it easy for the hero. Your audience won’t forgive you if the plot is resolved with no serious struggle or even a few lasting scars (well, maybe it will if you’re writing a fairy tale or working for Disney).

Some Examples to Consider: Luke loses his friend Biggs, but is able to blow up the Death Star (Star Wars). Michael takes out his enemies, including his brother-in-law, and becomes head of the Corleone family (The Godfather). Romeo and Juliet are reunited through suicide (Romeo and Juliet).

10. Capture the story’s theme by the final scene.

The final scene of any story is always important because it carries so much weight. It’s a chance to see what the hero’s victory brought about. It’s our chance to see whatever tension was in the story resolved, a short breather at the end. And if you’ve been developing a good theme throughout—like, say, how far you can go into a life of crime to protect your family—then we’re going to see how well that premise has paid off in the finale.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke, Han, and Chewbacca are honored as heroes for their bravery (Star Wars). Michael lies to Kay about his family business as the new “Don Corleone” (The Godfather). The warring families make peace while grieving for their fallen children (Romeo and Juliet).

So those are my tips for putting together a solid and memorable story. Do you have any ideas of your own you’d like to add? Any anecdotes about your own writer’s journey? If so, please share them in the comments below and thank you for reading.

My Top 10 Favorite Theme Songs

I love music, especially when I’m working. Even while writing this very blog post, I’ve got a tab to my YouTube music playlist open. But there are some songs more than others that get me excited, especially when it comes to theme songs chosen to exemplify a particular TV show, movie, or video game.

So here are my top 10 favorite theme songs of all time.

Note: Because the links to these videos are based on YouTube, it’s entirely possible that some of these links won’t be working by the time you read this article. If so, I highly recommend you try to look them up on YouTube from other channels, as well as through online marketplaces like iTunes and Amazon.

10. “Opening Theme” by W.G. Snuffy Walden (The West Wing)

9. “Opening Titles” by David Arnold and Michael Price (Sherlock)

8. “Tank!” by The Seatbelts (Cowboy Bebop)

7. “Main Theme” by John Williams (Star Wars)

6. “Opening Theme” by Kevin Manthei (Invader Zim)

5. “Battlecry” by Nujabes (Samurai Champloo)

4. “Inner Universe” and “Rise” by Origa (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and S.A.C. 2nd GIG)

3. “Opening Theme” by Murray Gold (Doctor Who)

2. “Made Me Realize” by Brad Breeck (Gravity Falls)

1. “Extreme Ways” by Moby (The Bourne Trilogy)

Some of you may disagree with my ranking, but I’m not talking about which is objectively better. All I’m saying is that these songs are the ones that get my blood pumping fast. The ones where I don’t just hear a snippet, but have to sit and listen to the entire track.

So, have you got one or two favorite theme songs of your own? Please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments below.

My Top 10 Favorite Films

Originally, I didn’t think I could ever make this list. I mean, I love so many movies and how could I ever rank them against each other? But to be honest, movies that we hold dear to our hearts are dear for a reason. They resonate with us every time we watch them, no matter how many lines your video tape gets from overuse or how many lines you can quote word for word, thereby annoying everyone else in the room.

So finally, after some deep consideration, here are the movies I consider to my all-time favorites to date.

10. Wings of Desire

Copyright © 1987 by Road Movies Filmproduktion.
Copyright © 1987 by Road Movies Filmproduktion.

Why? Because it has beautiful German poetry, Peter Falk, and a heartwarming use of color in Act III.

9. Hot Fuzz

Copyright 2007 by Rogue Pictures
Copyright © 2007 by Rogue Pictures

Why? Because Simon Pegg is brilliant, the back-and-forth banter is impeccable, and the action scenes really are that awesome.

8. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Copyright © 1998 by Universal Pictures
Copyright © 1998 by Universal Pictures

Why? It’s a trip through the madness of the American Dream, fueled by drugs, alcohol, a disregard for the rules, and the strange language of Hunter S. Thompson.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Pictures

Why? This is what space opera and big-budget science fiction is supposed to look like. Giant sets, colorful alien lifeforms, huge battles, and brilliant acting.

6. Batman Begins

Copyright © 2005 by Warner Bros. Pictures
Copyright © 2005 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Why? It’s a fresh take on the origins of Batman and a real look at the corruption of Gotham City.

5. The Dark Knight

Copyright © 2008 by Warner Bros. Pictures
Copyright © 2008 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Why? The late, great Heath Ledger is one of the most memorable Jokers in history and this was the “escalation” we were promised at the end of Batman Begins.

4. The Godfather

Copyright © 1972 by Paramount Pictures
Copyright © 1972 by Paramount Pictures

Why? This is half the reason we watch shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards: to watch people go down dark roads for the sake of protecting their families and securing their power.

3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy

A simple shot, but with a powerful impact.  Copyright © 2001 by New Line Cinema.
A simple shot, but with a powerful impact. Copyright © 2001 by New Line Cinema.

Why? Nothing’s more timeless than watching a small group of hobbits become heroes in a big-budget and beautiful fantasy setting.

2. Star Wars trilogy

Copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Why? Lightsaber battles, heroes saving princesses, blowing up planets, epic showdowns between father and son. Take your pick!

1. The Bourne Identity

Copyright © 2002 by Universal Pictures
Copyright © 2002 by Universal Pictures

Why? This movie is already an excellent thriller and action film, but it gets better as a drama of a man in search of his identity, carried out by the talent of Matt Damon.


If you want to list your own favorite films and explain why you love them so, please do so in the comments section below!

My Top 10 Favorite Video Games

I’m not a hardcore gamer by any sense of the term. While I may have spent hours on gameplay, my experience is less about racking up points or achievements and more about the simple joy I derive from playing. I want to get lost in different worlds, just as I would watching a TV show or reading a good book.

So here are my Top 10 picks for my favorite video games to date.

10. Grand Theft Auto IV

Copyright © 2008 by Rockstar Games
Copyright © 2008 by Rockstar Games

What It’s About: An Eastern European ex-soldier emigrates to Liberty City to live the American Dream. Said Eastern European proceeds to leave a trail of crashed cars, exploded helicopters, and dead bystanders in his wake.

Why I Love It: This was one of the first sandbox games I ever played, so I didn’t spend too much time on missions. I had far too much fun stealing cars, misleading the police on wild chases, playing darts in a bar with Cousin Roman, and randomly massacring civilians in a park with an RPG.

9. Fez

Copyright © 2012 by Polytron
Copyright © 2012 by Polytron

What It’s About: A little white dude in a fez jumps through worlds, spinning around his 2-D environment into 3-D to collect golden cubes and save the universe.

Why I Love It: While many of the puzzles are absurdly challenging or time-consuming, the retro style of the game is refreshing. Sometimes it’s relaxing just to be Gomez jumping from level to level while Eighties synth music plays in the background.

8. Dear Esther

Copyright © 2012 by The Chinese Room
Copyright © 2012 by The Chinese Room

What It’s About: Based on Half-Life 2′s Source engine, you explore a deserted island from its depths to its heights, all while trying to piece together a man’s broken life through disjointed narration.

Why I Love It: This was the first art game I ever played. My impression was that it’s like walking through a painting. The texture of the game is so vivid, as is the soundtrack. I keep replaying just for the experience of wandering through the multicolored caverns and swimming through underground pools in search of an escape.

7. The Stanley Parable

Copyright 2013 by Galactic Cafe
Copyright 2013 by Galactic Cafe

What It’s About: An office worker named Stanley wanders through an abandoned office, either in an attempt to break out of his oppression by his boss or to thwart the Narrator’s desperate attempts at control.

Why I Love It: This is a game where the developers accounted for everything a gamer might do. There’s nothing like going from door to door, taking every possible turn just to see what the game will do or the Narrator will say in response. It’s an odd virtual relationship that only interactive fiction can provide.

6. Primordia

primordia

What It’s About: Two robots leave their crashed ship in the wastelands, pursuing a sinister automaton that stole their power source into the heart of the corrupt city Metropol. Along the way, they help other robots with their problems and piece together the truth of the past.

Why I Love It: Besides the detailed 2-D animation of every level, I like the atmosphere of Primordia. The game goes for deep immersion into the world of robots, who imitate human culture just enough to be familiar. The game nicely balances comedy and drama, and it’s a fun puzzle game, though not so taxing as to be frustrating.

5. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

Copyright © 2008 by Penny Arcade and Hothead Games.
Copyright © 2008 by Penny Arcade and Hothead Games.

What It’s About: Your character joins the legendary duo Tycho and Gabe on a quest to track down an evil giant robot, fight several little robots and hobos, and take down a god.

Why I Love It: Technically, I’m including the first two games of this video game series in this category. While I love Episode Two for the great “brain-twisting” mini-game in the second act, the boss battle of Episode One is superior. Not to mention, the game never stops being hilarious, the RPG-style gameplay is well-crafted, and there’s a strong sense of adventure that permeates the whole experience. Plus, we get plenty of cool dialogue and animation that we’ve come to expect from the talented Penny Arcade duo.

4. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy

Copyright © 2003 by LucasArts and Activision.
Copyright © 2003 by LucasArts and Activision.

What It’s About: You play as Kyle Katarn’s apprentice, traveling the galaxy on a quest to become a Jedi Knight and stop a Sith cult from unleashing the full power of the dark side.

Why I Love It: The variety of environments and mission types in this game is pretty enjoyable, whether you’re outrunning a rancor, racing on swoop bikes, or clearing out a tomb full of Dark Jedi. Plus you get to fight alongside Kyle Katarn, the galaxy’s resident badass, in a few missions, listening to him laugh while the two of you cut down waves of enemies.

3. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast

Screenshot 2014-03-11 10.23.47

What It’s About: Kyle Katarn goes on a one-man raid against the Empire and the Dark Jedi Desann, walking a tightrope over the dark side while he struggles to stay true to the ideals of Jedi Knighthood.

Why I Love It: For me, this game is a much more authentic experience of being in the Star Wars universe. It has a stronger story, better dialogue and characterization, and some clever NPC enemies. Fortunately, you get to play as Kyle Katarn himself, taking down stormtroopers and Dark Jedi with ease as you ruin several Imperial bases and criminal hideouts across the galaxy.

2. Portal

Copyright © 2007 by Valve Corporation.
Copyright © 2007 by Valve Corporation.

What It’s About: You play a test subject in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, using a gun that shoots portals to solve puzzles while trying to survive a conspiracy by a power-mad AI.

Why I Love It: This game is fun. The puzzles, the turrets, the breaking narrative, and every word out of GLaDOS—all of it’s well designed and well executed. It also helps that it’s a short run-through once you get into the puzzle-solving groove, making the replay value that much stronger.

1. Portal 2

Copyright © 2011 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2011 by Valve Corporation

What It’s About: After accidentally waking up the AI you helped shut down, you have to stop another power-mad AI from destroying the Enrichment Center by solving puzzles with a gun that shoots portals.

Why I Love It: Honestly, everything I love about the first game was multiplied by 10 in the sequel. The music’s amazing, the dialogue is brilliant, and the narrative is much more intricate. I love the addition of Stephen Merchant as the fast-talking, dim-witted Wheatley and Ellen McLain really gets to shine as a voice actor. While the puzzles aren’t as challenging as in the first one, the massive and detailed environments more than make up for an enriching game experience.


Obviously, I’ll continue to play video games and find more titles to enjoy, but this list is fairly accurate for what games I’ve enjoyed the most and the kind of experiences I tend to value as a gamer.

If you want to share what games you enjoy the most (or think I might enjoy playing), feel free to speak up in the comments below.