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Spicy toons spawn life on HBO

The longterm success of shows like “The Simpsons” and the various programs found on MTV has created openings for adult-oriented toon fare all over the television dial, with cable TV especially ripe to take off in such directions. That’s the view of executives at cable web HBO, and they are currently making major animation moves, targeting mature audiences specifically.

“By being HBO, we found that we could do something that nobody else could do,” explains Carmi Zlotnik, VP of original programming, production and creative affairs at HBO. “When we were surveying our programming landscape, we discovered the one capability that was missing was animation, something that we could do in a very adult way. So we created an animation studio with goals and aesthetics that are a little bit different from other studios.”

HBO’s toon division began work late last year, with two new series set to debut in the next few months: “Spawn,” which has been in development for three years and premieres in May, and “Spicy City,” premiering in July. Both programs were created by men who already significant animation pedigrees: Todd McFarlane, creator of the top-selling comic book “Spawn,” upon which the HBO series is based, and Ralph Bakshi, creator of “Spicy City” and well known for creating extremely adult toons, including “Fritz the Cat” and “Cool World.”

“Animation has always been looked upon as a kid’s medium,” says Eric Radomski, supervising director of “Spawn.” “Yet the whole process evolves. While ‘Spider-Man’ and others have their place on network TV, we wanted to be the first to push the limits, and there are no rules here … other than good taste.”

Both series will, from time-to-time, include graphic violence, nudity, foul language and drug use, not exactly “Smurfs.”

HBO officials say fewer constrictions on the two shows will open new creative worlds that have yet to be explored in American TV animation. “HBO provides few boundaries in the creative process, but we want to ensure that adult-themes will only be used sparingly, when it is needed to build on a story,” explains Catherine Winder, VP of HBO Animation and former producer of MTV’s dark “Aeon Flux” series.

Winders adds that although other toons aimed at adults have broken important new ground, such shows as “The Simpsons” and “Duckman” are still bound by the limits of commercial television, whereas programs shown on HBO will air on a non-commercial pay service. “MTV made significant inroads in evolving adult animation, as have ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Duckman,’ ” she says. “However, they still have to keep their shows watchable for all audiences.”

Generally, the FCC and networks themselves have strict guidelines for animation that is aired in timeslots aimed at children. The consequences of violence must always be shown and main characters must refrain from killing except in very limited situations, and of course, no nudity or foul language is permitted.

“Spawn,” on the other hand, is based on the dark hero created by McFarlane in 1992. The comic book has since become a cult favorite, and sales have climbed steadily, even in the declining comic book market. Although offers were previously made to bring the hero to network television, the prospect of toning down the concept caused McFarlane to decline such opportunities until the HBO situation came along.

“It wouldn’t have been ‘Spawn’ the way that Todd wanted it,” explains Zlotnik. “He didn’t want to tone down the darkness of the character and add a dog to make it more marketable to children.”

Although major merchandising of animated characters is usually aimed at younger viewers and their dollar-spending parents, “Spawn” producers say that HBO will use extreme measures, including limiting TV marketing to latenight spots, to keep merchandise aimed specifically at the show’s target audience, and to let parents know the program is not intended for children.

The same holds true for Bakshi’s “Spicy City.” The anthology series will center around different characters each week and include an offbeat futuristic look. “It’s ‘Blade Runner’ meets the ’30s and ’40s,” explains the show’s director, John Kafka. He says the show was made possible because HBO was able to finally lure Bakshi to a TV project after years of focusing on feature film animation.

“There really haven’t been any outlets for adult animation,” says Kafka. “We have really needed a supportive place like HBO that will allow us to explore thoughtful, adult themes.”

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