In 1991, MTV introduced Liquid Television, an program devoted to showcasing wild animation and artwork. The music channel had already demonstrated a proclivity for edgy cartoons, with its relentlessly psychedelic network IDs, but Liquid led us down a deeper hole. Every episode was a madcap grab bag of decidedly adult material produced by independent artists. The segments were often short, violent, symbolic, and confusing, but they were always fascinating. If you ever wanted to see a robot cockroach skewer a superhero, or Jimi Hendrix’s famous Woodstock performance portrayed in stick figure, or Elvis Presley shake hands with a trio of burrowing spider aliens, this is the show for you.
Most of the segments featured were brief and self-contained, but there were a few recurring series, too, that were shown in portions each week.
Invisible Hands was a film-noir style cartoon about a psychic, Mister Z, who solves murders. Winter Steele was a puppet show about a biker chick seeking out her wayward soulmate. Dog Boy was a mixture of live-action and video effects about a man who develops canine attributes (it also has that guy who played Angelo from Who Framed Roger Rabbit in it). Some of you may have heard of Beavis and Butt-head, a cartoon that, after only two appearances on Liquid Television, gained its own series and became a cultural phenomenon.
And then there was Æon Flux.
MTV knew that Æon Flux was something special. It had a quality that was a few heads above the other cartoons, and it was nearly always saved for the episode finales. It was produced by Peter Chung, a skilled artist who’s especially good at animating flames, flares, fluids, and plumes. His distinctive style presents tall, sinewy characters who move with swift, exaggerated motions, and who inhabit beautiful, evocative, and intimidating worlds. The Liquid Television segments are all wordless, which only adds to their mystery. Even as an eleven-year-old, watching Æon for the first time, I sensed there was a context, an ocean of backstory behind the action, but I was okay with not knowing it.
There were only six “episodes” of Æon Flux shown on Liquid, and the first one, obviously titled “Pilot,” is the longest, and best. I don’t want to say too much about it in case you haven’t seen it yet, so I’ll just drop some appetizers. It opens with a flurry of action movie madness, all bullets and blood and an invincible protagonist, but then it makes a sharp left down Disturbing Avenue and stays there. It’s a story about an assassination mission, but it’s also about a lethal epidemic, high-level betrayal (though this may not be true), and sensual fetishisms. Questions abound, but things wrap up far too quickly to make sense of them, and I get the feeling Mr. Chung wanted to add a lot more to the resolution than his budget allowed. Repeated viewings might be necessary.
Which is okay, because Pilot had me entranced. It was a mature, visionary masterpiece, and I made sure to tape it when MTV finally showed it in its entirety, so I could enjoy it, analyze it, and study it for hours. This is a Top Cartoon if there ever was one.
A side note: MTV recognized the potential of Æon and made a series out of it in 1995, but I found that it didn’t work for me. For one thing, it had dialogue, a fact that single-handedly sapped a good portion of the series’s magic. Themes that were fluid and open to interpretation in the shorts were now carved out and underlined. Like I said, I didn’t need to know who these people were or what nations they were from. I was okay with not knowing. Also, the twenty-two-minute episode times meant that certain sacrifices had to be made in production, so the quality of the animation was significantly degraded. Still, I know they tried their best, and the series did have some indelibly eerie moments, but it just can’t compare to that virginal event when Pilot taught me that cartoons could be so much more than Buster Bunny and Scrooge McDuck. Pilot is the true Æon for me.
Also, let’s, uh, just not talk about the movie.