Guide to Classic Cartoons


When it comes to entertainment, television shows and movies are among the top choices for many people, and that includes cartoons, too. Cartoons are very popular among kids but are also enjoyed by some adults. The term cartoon originally refers to an illustration, which is sometimes animated, usually in a non-realistic or semi-realistic style. But over time, its meaning has evolved. In modern times, cartoons refer to either an image or series of images envisioned for caricature, satire, or humor. It can also be a motion picture that relies on a sequence of illustrations for its animation.

Today, people can watch lots of cartoons on television and as well as online. These cartoons are made from different parts of the world. However, even though there are lots of new cartoon series and animated movies today, we can’t deny that many of the most popular cartoons are classic ones. If you’d like to learn more, read on as we’re giving you a guide to classic cartoons.

A Brief History of Cartoons

The word “cartoon” came from either the Italian word “cartone” or the Dutch word “karton,” which both refers to a thick or heavy paper or pasteboard. The illustrations were originally made on a sturdy piece of paper as a foundation study for finished work, like a tapestry, painting, or stained glass. Back then, artists used cartoons to form murals, to precisely link the components of the composition when painted on damp plaster over several days, which is called giornate. 

Making illustrations can be traced back as far as the Paleolithic Age, as evidenced by the ancient cave paintings. The exact purpose of the paintings can’t be determined, but humans retained the technique and used it in order to express their feelings, ideas, and emotions. 

The origins of the modern cartoon began as caricatures in the 17th century. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci used caricatures to provide definite shape and form to the features of their subjects. But it was William Hogarth who developed the pictorial satire, which became the forefather to the development of political and editorial cartoons. Cartoonists used their productions as a form of satirical propaganda during the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799. 

In addition to that, cartoons were also used as a powerful means of portraying the events that occurred during the American Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln was a prominent figure in those cartoons. Thomas Nast, a German-American cartoonist, applied the realistic-looking German drawing and sketching technique to his political cartoons in America by the mid-19th century. This redefined American cartooning. He has 160 cartoons relentlessly campaigned against the “Tweed machine” in New York City.

Since the 1840s, comic books as a print medium have existed in America with the publication of The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842. It was considered the predecessor to modern comic books. The early 2000s became the era of superhero comics that most kids grew up watching. 

In the present time, cartoons or animations are no longer limited to comic books and television. There are now lots of animated movies that you can watch. In fact, Animation took a big leap further when computer-generated imagery or CGI was introduced and revolutionized the animation industry. If you’d like to read more about the origins of cartoons, you can read our article about The History of Cartoons.

The Pioneers of Early Animation

Among the many animators in the world, Walt Disney is known to be one of the most popular and oldest. However, before Walt Disney, there are the early-20th-century inventors of a new art form, which is referred to as the five pioneers of early animation.

1. Emile Cohl – Fantasmagorie (1908)

Emile Cohl was a French cartoonist and animator. He was often referred to as the father of the animated cartoon. According to a legend, in 1907, when motion pictures were reaching critical mass, he was walking down the street and spotted a few posters for a movie clearly stolen from one of his comic strips. With this, he confronted the manager of the studio, Gaumont, in outrage and was hired on the spot as a scenarist, which is responsible for generating one-page story ideas for movies. 

From February and May 1908, he created Fantasmagorie, which is considered the first fully animated film ever created. He created the drawing on an illuminated glass plate and traced the next drawing. These reflected the variations needed to show movement over it until he finished around 700 drawings. These characters looked like they were drawn on a chalkboard but were only an illusion. 

2. Georges Melies – The Prolific Egg (1902)

Georges Melies was a French filmmaker who was known as the first “cinemagician” because of his early use of special effects in cinema. From 1896 to 1914, he directed more than 500 films, which range from one to forty minutes in length. These usually feature single in-camera effects throughout each whole film. In 1902, he created The Prolific Egg, which was a groundbreaking exploration of scale and transitions that sealed his reputation as a “cinemagician” and the father of special effects in film. 

3. Winsor McCay – Little Nemo (1911)

Winsor McCay was a cartoonist and artist who was often known as one of the fathers of true animation. His 1911 film, known as Little Nemo, has two minutes of pure animation. It used sequential hand-illustration in a novel way that was not seen in previous films. 

4. J. Stuart Blackton – The Enchanted Drawing (1900)

J. Stuart Blackton, a British filmmaker, is credited with creating the first animation in America. He was also one of the first in the world to use stop-motion as a storytelling technique. He was also the one who founded the American Vitagraph Company, where he started to produce films, including The Enchanted Drawing, in 1900.

In that film, he sketched a face, cigars, and a bottle of wine. After that, he removed the last drawings as real objects so that the face appears to react. It is a technique that offered an early glimpse of what animation could become. His films are included in the collection of works that sparked what became one of the most powerful and permeant movements in visual creativity.

5. Eadward J. Muybridge – Waltzing Couple (1893)

Eadward J. Muybridge was an English photographer. Though his work is not animation, his animal locomotion studies are one of the earliest visual experiments with moving images, which laid the foundation for later forms of videography. In 1893, he utilized the phenakistoscope, which was an early animation device that harnessed the persistence of vision principle to make an illusion of motion. This extended his visual studies to animation. 

The Best Classic Cartoons of All Time

If you’re in for some nostalgia, here are the best classic cartoons of all time:

1. Popeye, the Sailor

Popeye, the Sailor, is a sailor man who lives in a garbage can. With the power of the spinach, he’s able to beat any man regardless of size. This cartoon character started as a comic strip in newspapers. When the short theatrical features began airing on television in the ‘50s, King Features Syndicate TV found something to take the character and turn him into a
TV star. With this, a series of made-for-TV short features were made, which brought Popeye into people’s homes. If you’d like to know more about this classic cartoon, read our Introduction to Popeye.

2. Rugrats

Among Nickelodeon’s first major successes is Rugrats. This cartoon series features combined humor for both kids and adults. It is about a group of toddlers and their baby adventures. Upon its debut in 1991, it has become a massive success, making it a franchise giant for Nickelodeon. It also saw a short-lived spin-off from 2003 to 2008, in which the characters growing into teenagers. For more information about this classic cartoon, you can check out our post about The History of Rugrats – A Classic Cartoon.

3. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!

logo of Scooby-Doo cartoon

This is a Hanna-Barbera title that only lasted two seasons. However, it launched an animated franchise that still continues today. This cartoon is about the cowardly Great Dane who solved crimes with his teen friends. The show captured imaginations with its light horror elements, hilarious lines, and silly characterizations. Its popularity launched many reboots, too. You can read our Introduction to Scooby-Doo for more information about this classic cartoon series. 

4. Teen Titans

logo of the Teen Titans cartoon show

Teen Titans is a group of superhero characters from the DC universe. The original series of Teen Titans did not earn a lot of viewers on its first run. But it proved to be solid as it runs for four more seasons. The original series premiered on Cartoon Network in 2003. It was only planned to have four seasons, but its popularity led the cable channel to launch the fifth season. You can learn more about it in our article, The History of Teen Titans

5. The Flintstones

The Flintstones logo

The Flintstones is inspired by The Honeymooners. It became the first animated series released in primetime, and it remained the most successful of its kind. It’s a 1960s TV sitcom that aired on ABC. What made it successful was its satirical take on modern suburban culture using absurd, outdated elements in a Stone Age setting. You can find out more about this cartoon series on our Introduction to The Flintstones.

6. Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack is created by Genndy Tartakovsky, which is one of the modern-day masters of animation. The cartoon series aired on Cartoon Network from 2001 to 2017. It features beautiful martial arts, which taught its fanbase patience due to its inconsistent release schedule. This cartoon series won eight Emmys during its run. You can learn more about it in our article, The History of the Artistic Cartoon Samurai Jack.

7. Ren & Stimpy

The Ren and Stimpy Show was a creatively innovative series due to its unique voice and visuals. It revolved around the emotionally unstable chihuahua Ren and the happy-go-lucky cat Stumpy. They are friends who filled different roles in every episode. However, the creator of this series, John Kricfalusi, has been accused of sexual abuse by two women, which was the reason he was fired by Nickelodeon from the series. You can read our article on The History of the Ren and Stimpy Show to learn more about this classic cartoon series.

8. Phineas and Ferb

Phineas and Ferb are among the most popular cartoon characters to date. It was a comedy series created for Disney which aired from 2008 to 2015. Its story revolved around Phineas and his stepbrother Ferb Fletcher who are always working on a new project while annoying their sister Candace. Find out more information about this classic cartoon by reading our article, The Delightful Origins of Phineas and Ferb.

9. Justice League

Justice League is a cartoon series that aired on Cartoon Network from 2001 to 2004. It is part of the DC animated universe and was produced by Warner Bros. Animation. It is also based on the comic book by DC Comics, titled Justice League of America. Read more about it on The History of the Justice League TV Cartoons.

10. The Simpsons

logo of the Simpsons

The Simpsons hold the title for producing the most episodes of a primetime scripted series in history. It was first aired in 1989 as a cartoon short on the Tracy Ulman show. Nobody saw that it will be one of the most successful and longest-running American cartoon sitcoms. If you want to learn more about this classic cartoon, read our Fun Random Facts About The Simpsons.

These are just 10 of the best classic cartoons of all time. If you’d like to learn about the top classic cartoons for each decade, feel free to check out these links:

Cartoons have indeed been a part of the entertainment industry for many years. It is likely that there are many more cartoon series and movies that are going to be created in the future. But these classic cartoons that we’ve known for years will always remain in our hearts. 

If you’d like to learn more about other wonderful classic cartoons, here are some helpful links that you might want to check out:

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