Pendleton Ward may be the most influential person on American television animation as we know it today. In the 2000s it seemed like we only had two different kinds of animated shows. It was either a wacky comedy like The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants and Phineas and Ferb or an action show like Kim Possible, Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Pendleton Ward broke the mold when he created Adventure Time (2010), an animated series that was so original it didn’t fit neatly into any previous classification for a TV show. So much so that it created a new type of animated series throughout the following decade.
Pendleton Ward was born in 1982 and grew up in San Antonio, Texas. Because his mother was an artist who worked with animators, Ward was inspired to pursue animation as well, doing all the things animators did when they were children like creating flipbooks and drawing comics.
His interest in animation led to CalArts, where his classmates included J.G. Quintel (Regular Show) and Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls). He graduated in 2005 with a BFA in character animation and got the attention of Frederator Studios vice president Eric Homan after Homan saw one of Ward’s films at a CalArts screening.
Frederator Studios is an animation television production company founded by Fred Seibert in 1997 that helped make The Fairly Oddparents and Castlevania among other animated series. Seibert, who created TV animation showcases like Cartoon Network’s What a Cartoon! (1992) and Nickelodeon’s Oh Yeah! Cartoons (1998), had created yet another showcase for young animation talent in 2008 for Nicktoons called Random! Cartoons and it was here where Pendleton Ward first introduced his short films Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors to the world before both became popular series.
At the same time, Ward gained television experience working as a writer and storyboard artist on Thurop Van Orman’s The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack (for which fellow CalArts student Alex Hirsch also wrote and storyboarded and J.G. Quintel was a creative director).
Pendleton Ward pitched his own animated series at this time. He tried to sell his Random! Cartoons short Adventure Time to Nickelodeon as a series but was turned down. Meanwhile the Adventure Time short had become an internet phenomenon in 2007 getting over a million views on YouTube. Once his development deal with Nick expired, Ward pitched the concept to Cartoon Network, but the series was so unlike anything they had ever seen in animation that even with the popularity of the short on YouTube the animation network was skeptical about its success on cable television. One of the network executives ultimately gave it a chance because they predicted it would be something special.
Pendleton Ward worked on the show with other creative animators like Patrick McHale, Adam Muto, Niki Yang, Skylar Page and Rebecca Sugar and many of them would go on to create their own animated series.
The show was basically about a high-spirited human boy named Finn (voiced by Jeremy Shada) and a magical shape-shifting dog named Jake (John DiMaggio) who had various adventures in a post-apocalyptic land known as the Land of Ooo which had many strange and magical inhabitants who Finn and Jake either befriended, battled or aided, such as Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch), the Ice King (Tom Kenny), Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson), BMO (Niki Yang), Lumpy Space Princess (Pendleton Ward) and countless other strange beings.
The show is one of the most creative and emotionally complex of any show I’ve ever seen aimed at kids and there are many teenage and adult fans who also appreciate the show because of the sophisticated nature of its writing. If you watch the show regularly, you will notice obvious clues that there is much more going on with its cast of characters and the world in which the show takes place than initially meets the eye.
A lot of critics and audiences loved it because of how different it was from other cartoons of the time. But specifically surprising for many people was how unafraid it was to go into dark areas rarely ventured in the land of children’s programming. And as the series progresses it gets darker, growing up alongside its characters just like the Harry Potter books.
Pendleton Ward has sighted influences for the show that range from The Simpsons, My Neighbor Totoro, Dungeons & Dragons and less shrill and more quiet animated series like Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies. Fred Seibert has called the art style of the show reminiscent to a blend of a Max Fleischer cartoon and a video game.
Ward was the showrunner for the first four seasons but he stepped down during the fifth season because he is naturally introverted and found it exhausting to constantly interact with so many people in the TV development process, ultimately handing over the reigns to Adam Muto. Ward continued to contribute to the show’s art and writing, although less so starting in 2014.
The very evident style of the animation, writing and humor of Adventure Time went on to influence many subsequent animated series to various degrees (some of which were created by people who worked on Adventure Time) including Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall, Clarence, OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, We Bare Bears, Summer Camp Island and Thundercats Roar.
Adventure Time was without question Pendleton Ward’s biggest career highlight, but in 2012 Frederator also developed a series out of Ward’s other Random! Cartoons short Bravest Warriors for Cartoon Hangover. The web series has a significant fan base although Ward has little creative involvement.
Also coming soon is an adult animated series Ward co-created with comedian and podcaster Duncan Trussell for Netflix called The Midnight Gospel that will be about a podcaster who interviews various beings from other worlds using a multiverse simulator.
While Pendleton Ward is keeping busy with new projects, apparently this isn’t the end of Adventure Time. The series ended in 2018 but four hour-long specials called Adventure Time: Distant Lands are being developed for WB’s upcoming streaming service HBO Max. As usual, Adam Muto is helming the specials, but that’s okay with me. Ward has done enough in my mind to deserve early retirement. Glob-speed!