I was the right age for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming when it started in 2001. Sophomoric tomfoolery like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken was perfect programming for drunk twentysomethings. But only one show from the programming block remains one of my all-time favorites. It comes about once every other year, like the Olympics, and it stars a bunch of middle-aged has-beens and never-wuzzes.
The Venture Bros. started in 2004 and is about to enter its sixth season. The core of the show revolves around Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, a Johnny Quest-type boy adventurer who has slacked into middle age with little to show for it; Hank and Dean Venture, his two inept sons who have a nasty habit of dying; Brock, their blond-mulleted bodyguard; and their archnemesis, a butterfly-themed villain named the Monarch.
More than that, though, the show is about failure. Failed super-scientists, failed super-villains, failed spy agencies, failed sorcerers, failed dictators of small kingdoms outside Michigan, failed marriages, failed tech start-ups, etc.
If the show were just a send-up of Johnny Quest, it would be good, but co-creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick have gradually expanded their world to send up the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, Dr. Doom, Ant-Man, Blade, G.I. Joe, David Bowie, Hunter S. Thompson, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Sean Connery, the Walt Disney Co., the Hardy Boys, Chinatown, The Manchurian Candidate, the Batman-Robin dynamic and many other characters and concepts I probably don’t even realize.
A piece in The Atlantic from last year compares the world of the Venture Brothers to Springfield, and rightly so. The Simpsons is another animated show in which its ancillary characters have, over time, come to be as fully realized as the main players, often generating memorable episodes that barely incorporate the main cast.
Keeping in that vein, here are five of the better characters from The Venture Bros.:
Dr. Orpheus: What if Stephen Strange were a middle-aged divorcee raising a teenage daughter and riddled with insecurity despite having the power to communicate with the dead? Enter Byron Orpheus, the Ventures’ tenant who is occasionally called on to watch Hank and Dean, though one time it resulted in their deaths (It’s OK; they have tons of clones). Orpheus is regularly humbled by his mentor, The Master, a shape-shifter who is voiced to caustic perfection by H. Jon Benjamin (Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Home Movies). In Season 2, he forms his own team of magic-themed heroes called the Order of the Triad, whose other two members are the Alchemist, seeker of truth and aging, gay Jimmy Buffett fan, and Jefferson Twilight, Blacula hunter (think Blade, if Blade looked like Richard Roundtree).
Phantom Limb: Next to the Monarch, Limb is the best villain on the show. In fact, if he’s anybody’s archnemesis, it’s Monarch, as Limb steals his girlfriend, lands him in prison and comes far closer than him to killing the Ventures. He also used to be the Monarch’s boss and a professor at the university Dr. Venture attended in the 1980s. Toward the end of Season 2, Limb tries to take down both the Monarch and his boss in the villains union, the Guild of Calamitious Intent, unsuccessfully of course. The defeats drive him mad and lead him to team briefly with inanimate objects, including a toaster, a mug and a woman’s shoe. Eventually, he regroups – literally – forming a team called the Revenge Society with Baron Underbheit, a deposed Dr. Doom-type tyrant, and Professor Impossible, a Mr. Fantastic type super-scientist/stretchy guy who sinks into a deep shame spiral after his wife leaves him for Dr. Venture’s brother, who spent the first four decades of his life as a parasitic growth inside the doctor.
Henchman 21: Gary is Henchman 21 in the Monarch’s hierarchy of butterfly-themed goons. His best friend, Henchman 24 (the one who sounds like Ray Romano), is killed at the end of Season 3, which leads 21 on a between-seasons quest to become a better henchman. By the beginning of Season 4, he’s jacked and has a HENCH4LIFE tattoo on his stomach. Like many other villains, he comes closer than the Monarch to destroying the Ventures, but over the course of the season, and with the help of the ghost of Henchman 24 – and that old, dancing guy from Arrested Development who’s not actually dead – he realizes how much of a jackass both the Monarch and his wife are, and he defects to the upstart spy group Sphinx. At the end of Season 5, he returns to the Monarch’s fold.
Sgt. Hatred/Vatred: Sgt. Hatred is a child-molester whose wife enjoys being bound, gagged and kidnapped, and he becomes Hank and Dean’s bodyguard after Brock leaves to rejoin the super-spy game. He is the epitome of how dark this show could be if it weren’t so funny. Also he was Dr. Venture’s Guild-assigned archenemy for a time, whom he treated more like a friend to spite the Monarch. After top-secret government experiments seek to control his urges (and give him man-breasts), Hatred removes his army togs, puts on a powder-blue speed suit and has the red H tattooed on his face changed to a blue V (the letters ATRED are still tattooed on his chest). Hatred has a mental breakdown at the end of Season 3, in “The Family that Slays Together, Slays Together,” locking himself in the Ventures’ bathroom and demanding someone bring him a “beautiful brown boy.”
David Bowie: Music and music references are a big part of the Ventures’ jokebook, so much so that the Guild of Calamitous Intent is ruled by a being that takes the form of David Bowie, who appears to his subordinates as an Oz-style floating head known as The Sovereign. Bowie’s name is first mentioned in Season 1, Episode 4, in which the mercenary Molotov Cocktease claims to be running a mission for him. He first appears physically in the “Showdown at Cremation Creek” two-parter at the end of Season 2, when he attends the wedding of the Monarch and it is revealed that he is the Sovereign. The Bowie-being’s influence may extend far back in the Ventures’ universe, as in the Season 3 MacGuffin-quest episode called “ORB,” a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”-style flashback shows a group of old-timey heroes in a dogfight with Nikola Tesla, whom Bowie portrayed in the 2006 Christopher Nolan film “The Prestige.”
Watch a panel discussion on the show from this year’s Comic-Con International here, as part of a con diary recorded by James Urbaniak, who voices Dr. Venture. Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers, as Publick and Hammer barely spend any time talking about the show.