The show has gone from being a one-off viral short to long-running series with a feature film in development
Credit: Everett

You might not recognize the name, but Adventure Time is casting one of the longest shadows over the world of animation right now.

The show, which racked up its 12th Emmy nomination this year, already has six wins under its belt, largely without being paid much attention to by most mainstream media. But its backstory is a wonderful example of grassroots success in a crowded field.

Created by Pendleton Ward as a tribute to both the animation classics of his youth (it’s one of the only cartoons to still be animated by hand) and the expansive world of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, Adventure Time stars a boy named Finn and his magical dog Jake, who traverse the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo. Other characters include Princess Bubblegum, the Ice King and Marceline the Vampire Queen.

The show was picked up by Cartoon Network after an initial short produced for Nicktoons became a viral hit and officially premiered in April 2010. Its highest-rated episodes have pulled in more than 3 million viewers and it’s become a hit in demographics it wasn’t necessarily aimed for – namely, teenagers and adults. A feature-length film set in the series’ world was in development as of October 2015, and the lengthy list of awards the series has collected includes an Eisner Award (the Oscar of the comic-book industry) for its comics spin-off and a Peabody award. (Not to mention the six Emmys.)

Ward created the show’s initial seven-minute short almost entirely by himself in 2006, though Nicktoons rejected a series based on it twice. After Nicktoons’ rights options expired, the show was pitched around, and Cartoon Network decided to pick it up. The show follows a decidedly old-school production routine: storyboards, pitch meetings and a three-to-five month animation schedule. The show has also been lauded for its natural-sounding dialogue, which can be attributed to the fact that its cast members record their lines together in group recordings, rather than in separate chunks to be edited together later.

In explaining Adventure Time‘s appeal, The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen described it as “fit[ting] beautifully in that gray area between kid and adult entertainment in a way that manages to satisfy both a desire for sophisticated (i.e. weird) writing and plain old silliness,” calling the show “basically what would happen if you asked a bunch of 12-year-olds to make a cartoon, only it’s the best possible version of that, like if all the 12-year-olds were super geniuses and some of them were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the Marx Brothers.”

The show’s development – viral hit to full-fledged phenomenon – has influenced the way networks option shows as well, with Slate’s Heidi MacDonald crediting it as starting a “gold rush” from major networks to scout and acquire indie animators and their properties.

Any discussion of Adventure Time has to include the show’s rabid fandom, which, as previously mentioned, includes a wide swath of demographics who typically swarm Comic-Con and similar fan conventions in costume, flocking to screenings, panels and a special cosplay ball at Comic-Con 2014. Finn, in particular, with his distinctive (and easily acquired) blue shirt and white hat, is a popular choice for cosplayers, and hundreds of Finns of both sexes can typically be seen at conventions. The show’s fandom is especially Internet-savvy as well, with huge communities on Reddit, Imgur and Tumblr, who swap GIFs, fan art and theories with fervent regularity.

So, are you sold yet? Can we convince you to try an Adventure?

The 68th Primetime Emmy Awards will broadcast live this Sunday on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.