After decades of working in the animation industry and creating series like The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends, Craig McCracken’s latest project, Kid Cosmic, crash-lands onto Netflix at a time when the world’s anything but hurting for even more streaming service superhero content. And yet, everything about Kid Cosmic is a sort of challenge from McCracken about the idea that there’s too much cape content these days.
Kid Cosmic’s story about an orphaned boy who becomes a legendary superhero will ring familiar to anyone who’s ever picked up a comic book, as will the show’s initial focus on wish fulfillment. When we spoke with McCracken by phone recently, he explained that what he really wanted to do with the new series was tell a positive, upbeat story that both celebrated the idea of superheroism while pushing its protagonist to understand the real difficulties that come along with it. Understanding that gravity, McCracken said, is something he thinks a lot of superhero media is trying to touch on by being grim and dark, but he doesn’t think that’s the only way these stories can be told.
Charles Pulliam-Moore, Gizmodo: What sort of creative headspace have you been in lately?
Craig McCracken: I’ve really been focused on telling long-form stories. I’ve had a long career of doing short-form comedy, 11 and 20-minute episodes, but over the years, I’ve just been itching to finally tell a story where a character can grow, and change, and learn, and be different at the end of the story than they were when it started.
Gizmodo: What is it about long-form storytelling that’s been pulling you towards it?
McCracken: Growth is really the essence of it, you know? When you’re making 11s and 22s — especially ones that are going to get shuffled around into any order — you always sort of have to hit the reset button at the beginning of every new episode. “Yeah, yeah, they learned all those things, but never mind that; let’s start over again.” There’s fun in that, but it doesn’t feel like you’re going anywhere, and telling the same central story, thematically. As a creative person and writer, I want to go somewhere. I want to arrive at a destination with my characters who’ve gone through something that gets deeper into who they are.
Gizmodo: It’s interesting that you bring that up; one of the first things you notice about Kid Cosmic is how much the show leans into it being a riff on comic books, a medium not exactly known for their substantive character growth in the long term. The process of growth is there, but it’s neverending.
McCracken: True, yeah.
Gizmodo: What made you want to go with the superhero genre specifically for this show?
McCracken: It speaks to something a lot of kids fantasize about. I have a four-year-old daughter, and already she’s putting on a cape and flying around going “Whooooosh!” It’s just part of being a kid, and I like the idea of exploring that fantasy, but also this blind confidence that they’re going to be immediately great at it. I remember being like that with my art as a kid, and not understanding why I couldn’t be a professional artist when I was 12.
There’s this superficial idea about heroes you have when you’re a kid that boils down to the good guys punching the bad guys and the evil just stops because the good guys have won. But life isn’t that simplistic, and violence isn’t a good lesson to lead with.
McCracken: The theme we kept coming back to is this idea that heroes help, but hurt — that the real core of being a hero is being helpful, and kind, and compassionate. I think that’s also been erased from a lot of modern superhero stuff that’s always dark and always brooding. I ask myself sometimes, what’s happened to the heroes who just want to help people just because they could? I miss that, and kind of want to bring it back.
Gizmodo: Say more about that. What was your creative process for striking that balance between being light-hearted to a fault and excessively grim?
McCracken: A lot of kid characters, especially kid hero characters, are always very aspirational. They’re always going, “Don’t you want to be that kid?” And I wanted to tell a story about the kid that people really are. So it was a matte of exploring that. Like, if you became a hero and realised that you sucked at it, it’d make you furious, you know?
We wanted to allow Kid to have those emotions. He lost his parents when he was really young, and literally has a tragic origin story, but I think that’s why he grew to love superheroes, which is something that I can relate to. My father passed away when I was seven years old, and so when I read Batman as a kid, it resonated with me in a very different way. He wasn’t just a cool guy with gadgets — he was someone who’d lost something that was really important to him.
McCracken: Kid wants to be a hero to stop bad things from happening, and he thinks that if he can do that, he can keep himself safe from anything ever harming him, but that’s not how life works. Bad things keep happening to us all, and the important thing is how we grow through them and learn from them.
Gizmodo: I wanna touch back on your big picture thoughts about the current state of superhero media. You’re an industry veteran and, obviously, Kid Cosmic is working within a very specific set of ideas that are aimed at a younger audience. But what do you think the genre as a whole could be doing more to keep things interesting?
McCracken: I think it’s not shying away from the goodness of heroes. The thing is, wanting to be a superhero is a very childlike, innocent idea, and a lot of superhero media doesn’t want to own up to that because everyone wants to be cool. But it’s not cool. It’s flying around in a cape and saving the day. It’s fun, and I wish there was more of that spirit.
There’s nothing wrong with being kind or nice. I know those things sound hokey and dippy, but it’s true, especially in this world we live in where the message of being kind and compassionate has been sorely lacking in this genre of storytelling.
Kid Cosmic is now streaming on Netflix.