The Life and Death of the Flash Cartoon
In the early days of the internet, a subculture was built around the cartoons made with Adobe's Flash. But now that the software is dying, is the community dying with it?
"Haven't you heard! Flash is dying! You know, like what we breathe!" yells Strong Bad, one of Homestar Runner's best known characters, as bits from the Adobe interface start collapsing around him.
It's a funny gag, but it also speaks to an ongoing generational shift in digital arts entertainment. Flash used to be the marquee way to design websites, games, movies, and practically everything else on the web. It was originally called "FutureSplash" and created by a programmer named Jonathan Gay. In 1996 Macromedia (now Adobe) acquired FutureSplash and rebranded it as "Macromedia Flash 1.0." By the early 2000s, Flash was installed on practically every computer to load interactive web pages and power early audio and video players. It was a fundamental part of the early internet experience. Bejeweled and Candy Crush, two of the most popular mobile games ever developed, were originally Flash games. Some of the earliest memes on the internet—Laid Off: A Day in the Life and The End of Ze World, Jib-Jab—were all programmed in Flash.
Before YouTube, before streaming, before your computer could handle dozens of embedded gifs, thousands of these amateur Flash movies and games were hosted in communities like Newgrounds. Newgrounds was one of the first and most visceral democratizers of online publishing. To this day, Newgrounds' slogan is "Everything by Everyone." The content on the site was entirely crowd-sourced. Kids would handcraft cartoons in their free time and throw them on the internet for everyone to see. If a cartoon or game was terrible (most were), it would be immediately relegated to the sites bowels, colloquially known as getting "blammed."
But some of it was good, even great. Take Lemon Demon's Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny. It has accumulated 12 million views over the last decade, and stands as a blueprint for dozens of nerdy music videos. EgoRaptor's Metal Gear Awesome 2 might be a little tonally off-key to 2015 ears, but the animation chops are still impressive. Here you were, on the internet, watching video game jokes designed by someone who could've been your friend. There was no middleman, no networks to appease, no markets to embrace. Newgrounds was a community where kids could relate with each other using their own humor, their own skills, their own passions, their own language. Suddenly these amateur Flash authors, some who wasn't even out of high school, had a following. They were inundated with fan art, forum wars, and cheap knockoffs. It was a very early version of internet fame, back when such a concept was novel.
These days Flash is mostly obsolete, with high-profile companies like Mozilla and Google planning to drop support for the plug-in entirely. This is probably a good thing. Flash slows down computers and has plenty of exploitable security shortcomings, plus there are simply better ways to build cartoons (and everything else) on the internet now. Newgrounds isn't nearly the creative juggernaut it once was, with more flexible avenues like Twitch and Youtube taking over as the go to spots to find DIY cartoon animation. We simply don't use the internet like we used to. A 30 second GIF is a lot more shareable than a five-minute animated movie.
However, it does make you sad watching Strong Bad running around his deteriorating animated homeland, desperately trying to learn HTML5 before his very existence is destroyed. My empathy for this cartoon reminds me that Flash's popularity marked a pivotal moment in internet history, a time when amateur creators were independently using the web and its tools to reach broad audiences in an age before social media. A decade ago, this form of entertainment felt huge, while today the work is digitally decaying into a mess of forgotten ones and zeros. According to Google Trends, Newgrounds search-based traffic peaked in 2005. Today, its search interest has dropped to less than a tenth of what it used to represent.
The rankings were the be all end all on Newgrounds back then. If something hit the top, it was a big deal. –LegendaryFrog
Joseph Blanchette is LegendaryFrog, one of Newgrounds' first stars. He was barely out of high school when he started messing around with Flash, learning the basics from programming odd jobs around town. Eventually, he started pasting together his own cartoons. His first major work was the cheeky Lord of the Rings parody One Ring to Rule Them All back in 2002. The Fellowship of the Ring had just come out, so he animated a world where Sauron and his orcs argued over pizza orders.
"It was in my bedroom on a crappy computer with a crappy mic through most of it," he says. "I did a lot of the voices myself and you could hear the computer hum in the background. I was using a copy of Flash I got from work, so I actually spent very little on it all."
Blanchette never made cartoons full-time, Flash was always just a hobby, but before long he was one of the most prominent names on Newgrounds. He garnered a small legion of fans entranced by his humor, his art, and their mutual taste.
"It wasn't until my Final Fantasy Tribute reached number one on the Portal rankings that people started to take notice," says Blanchette, who still works with Flash as a programmer. "The rankings were the be all end all on Newgrounds back then. If something hit the top, it was a big deal."
In the years after his debut, LegendaryFrog became more of a brand. He developed two distinct characters, Ark and Kerrigan, and started animating their little adventures as part of an ongoing series. They were simple stories, clearly inspired by winsome Japanese anime, but it was a departure from the movie and video game parodies of his past. Suddenly people were coming to Blanchette for his own point of view. He didn't owe the success to anyone else.
"By the time the second [Ark and Kerrigan] movie came around, I developed a cartoony personality for them that stuck," says Blanchette. "It's very flattering how people took to those characters, even if they were only really around for a couple of cartoons."
Again, Blanchette never did this full-time. But in 2002 alone, he published eight cartoons. Three in 2003, six in 2004, each one taking him between two and four months of writing, recording, and animating. Joseph tells me that in retrospect, he finds his style to be a little amateurish, but he was absolutely an integral member of the community at its peak. Content in 2015 is defined by faceless, unauthored memes, but people came to LegendaryFrog like they would for a favorite director.
"It was a unique experience to be a part of that era of the internet in some small way, it had its ups and downs, which is something many creators with success deal with. But nowadays, they deal with it on a much larger scale. I was just a guy who made cartoons, popular Let's Players have to deal with making a living," says Blanchette, reflecting on modern internet personalities who have to spend hours and hours in front of a camera each day to get by. "I do miss the feeling of when a friend or I would release something new, and waiting for it to get out of judgment to see the score and see what awards it might win at the end of the week."
Matt Jolly goes by Krinkels on Newgrounds, best known for the eternally popular and still-ongoing Madness series. They're simple, wordless cartoons of odd mannequin-looking figures engaged in highly detailed, super goofy ultraviolent combat. The first episode was unleashed all the way back in 2001.
"I don't think it occurred to me how popular it was until after Madness Combat 3 came around," says Jolly. "I could see people were watching it and thought nothing of it. It wasn't until the fan mail started rolling in that it clicked in my head that people really liked what I was up to and kept pressing along."
For a few years Jolly was able to do Madness full time, stopping only when it was no longer economically viable to "blow 8-10 hours a day animating." His latest cartoon, Madness 11, is written and ready, but still needs between 250 and 300 manhours to complete. It's a much easier labor when you're a kid with no other emotional or physical duties, but Jolly still makes time to do what he loves.
"Animating Madness, while far and away the most tedious thing I've ever done, is extremely rewarding. It's personally gratifying first. And then after that, the fact that so many people enjoy it just makes it all the more a worthwhile endeavor," says Jolly. "I just want to keep telling the story of Nevada, [Madness' fictional universe], but at least Madness: Project Nexus 2 will open up the canon a bit more, explaining things while shrouding other things in mystery."
Madness: Project Nexus 2 is Jolly's latest video game, slated to be released sometime next year. Designing a game is far more impressive and difficult than putting together a cartoon, but Jolly is still sad he has to spend time away from Flash, which will always be his first love.
"The last two years have been tragically Flash-free for me, spending most of my time working on game design, 3D modeling, and general art," says Jolly. "The trick to working on this whole Madness thing is to keep the power on while I do it. I do a lot of non-Madness work on the side."
By running-time alone, The Super Flash Bros. were some of the most ambitious creators on Newgrounds. Their magnum opus, the classic Decline of Video Gaming series, might be the most era-defining Newgrounds cartoon of all time. They were 15 minute globetrotting video game send-ups that starred fictionalized versions of the animation's creators: the real life brothers of Adama and Tom Vian, and their friends Dan and JT, all aged from 16 to 19. Their work stood as the total summation of the highly referential, highly personal tone that so many amateur Flash movies had. Adam and Tom still exist as The Super Flash Bros., but these days they're called called SFB Games. Today, they put skills they developed as Flash artists to use by developing mobile games like Rugby Golf and Rainstorm Rivals. Adam Vian was just a kid during Flash's peak years, which gave him a unique perspective on how success in the scene can shape a life.
"We started playing around with Flash in 2001-2002. This was Flash 4! Back in the Macromedia Days, of course. I didn't know anything about animation, but Tom taught himself Flash because he was interested in website design. We eventually tried making our own cartoon, after being inspired by LegendaryFrog specifically his Final Fantasy Tribute. That's where it all began," says Adam Vian. "Tom and I started working on our first cartoon Metal Gear Mayhem while on a family holiday. We had a laptop, and a copy of Flash. I did all the artwork from memory . Either we didn't have internet or Google Images didn't exist yet, I can't remember. Either way, we made the whole thing up as we went along."
Tom says, "I couldn't put backgrounds in as it would 'take up too much file space.' It's a pretty terrible cartoon."
The Super Flash Bros. peaked in productivity from 2004 to 2005. They uploaded four of their marathon-length Decline cartoons and contributed to various other collaborative Flash projects like The Matrix Has You and FF7: All About Random Battles. In the YouTube era you can go on the internet and find millions of people playing video games on the internet, but in the early part of the 2000s, it was easy to feel alone in your obsession. The Super Flash Bros. filled that gap. They were funny, but they were also very empathetic.
"I lived in a different town from most of my friends, so I'd often spend all evening after school, and sometimes all weekend, sitting by myself at my computer animating. I didn't have any other responsibilities, so I was free to do it as much as I liked," says Vian. "We came along at the right time with Decline, people loved video game parodies, but I was more thrilled to see the positive response to my Another Day cartoons. It was an abstract, personal animation series and I had a lot of people leaving thoughtful, emotional responses, analyzing the story and content. I can't describe how exciting that was."
Adam Vian is very happy making video games now, but it's safe to say that SFB Games aren't as ubiquitous as they were when they were the king of Newgrounds. Of course that might have more to do with the increased scope of the internet than any artistic shortcomings.
"I just checked and The Legend of Zelda and the Lampshade of No Real Significance has been played 3,542,969 times, now. If all those people could just download one of our new games..." says Vian. "I think we started making Flash cartoons in an era when it wasn't too impossible to stand out on Newgrounds. If you have quality cartoons or games, there was a decent sized audience waiting to enjoy them. As the years went on, more and more talented people emerged. The amount of high quality animations rose, as well as the general standard of quality. Naturally it became harder to stand out as the years went on."
Vian tells me that at the end of the day, creating content for views was a shallow reward, and he pursued Flash for authentic artistic reasons. However, some of SFB's most popular games are adaptations of their older Flash titles like Haunt the House and Detective Grimoire, and does wish that more people remembered that they still exist.
"It would've been nice to carry more of our Newgrounds audience to what we do now," he adds. "I feel like a lot of people still ask themselves, Whatever happened to those guys?"
Every submission [on Newgrounds] was given a fair chance to be recognized and appreciated. Making the daily or weekly top five was all you had to do to get the ball rolling.–Adam Vian
The Newgrounds ethos still exists. There are still young, talented artists uploading their hard work to the internet, but there was something unique about the community of creators and consumers that the Flash scene nurtured than the more generalized YouTube era. The digital world was smaller back in the early 2000s, which made content a little less disposable.
"Every submission [on Newgrounds] was given a fair chance to be recognized and appreciated. Making the daily or weekly top five was all you had to do to get the ball rolling. Tom Fulp [Newgrounds founder] was aware of all the successful creators, and I think he did a great job at giving front page features to everyone who deserved/needed it," says Vian. "When you submit games to Steam and the App Store, you're up against every other developer and publisher in the entire world. Standing out is incredibly difficult! You need press, YouTube presence, social media support, Steam/AppStore front page featuring—all stuff that often boils down to luck."
"I feel like the work I've been doing with Toonwerks these past few years has been light years beyond what I did as LegendaryFrog, but it was done in a time where the Flash cartoon community isn't really a thing anymore. If I write a silly Zelda parody now, it probably wouldn't make much of a splash, but Newgrounds was a small pond," says Blanchette. "For example, a few years ago we made a Minecraft parody called The Journey of Greenfeet. If you combine all the Newgrounds and YouTube views, it got over a million hits. It's been our most popular movie by far. If it was magically released on Newgrounds in 2003 it probably would've become ingrained in people's early internet memories like some of my older cartoons. Now it's just another Minecraft spoof that people liked and moved on."
Every day famous Minecraft streamers like StampyLongnose upload another video that earns a healthy 500,000 views within a few hours. Compare that to Blanchette's months-long animating process, and it's easy to understand why he feels he can't keep up anymore.
To the creators who spilled blood, sweat, and countless cans of Red Bull on this work, it can be upsetting that their digital paintbrush of choice is being replaced with contemporary mediums like Unity and HTML5. But as dead as Flash can seem sometimes, it's absolutely still alive in the hands that made it famous.
Every year Matt Jolly hosts something called Madness day, where dozens of amateurs upload a cartoon inspired by his original line of Madness movies, ostensibly the same stuff they grew up on. They all get posted to Newgrounds, and Jolly picks his favorites.
"It's like a second Christmas," he says. "I order some take-out and camp out in front of the computer watching cartoons. It's good times. Never too thrilled about picking winners though. Who can play favorites when everyone is just showing up to appreciate and be enthusiastic?"
After years of absence, Joseph Blanchette has started updating the LegendaryLilypad again, the formal home for all the art, animations, and comics associated with his LegendaryFrog name. He's even working on a new feature for the fans who still remember him.
"I've been thinking of reviving Ark and Kerrigan with a new cartoon for years, but it never quite worked out," he says. "It felt like the right time to try again. Every so often I get a message on Twitter like, 'OMG LegendaryFrog is alive?' 'He's still making stuff?' It makes me feel good but also like an old man!"
Tom Vian is making video games with the same people he's been working with for nearly 15 years. He was a teenager then, a grown man now. This has been his entire life. With luck, it will never stop.
"I still use Flash for all my animation and graphics work," says Vian. "The skills I learned on Newgrounds about character design, audio design, animation, storytelling, even how to handle public expectation, all of that still applies to me today. I owe a lot to Tom Fulp and the entire community."
Flash might be dying, but the beauty of the internet is that something as mundane as an animation program can change lives. There are people who still play ancient, fuzzy Metallica tapes despite being technologically outdated years ago. But they do it because this is what they've always done. It's not a format anymore, it's become something spiritual. Flash has left an imprint on these lives, and that has made it immortal.
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