2018 has had many ups, but it wasn’t without its downs. We’ve been made to part with brilliant minds, authentic artists, and storytellers who put the “excel” in “excelsior”. Now, we gather to say goodbye to another.
I’ve always had reservations on writing my own eulogies for those who’ve passed on. I tend to focus my posts on the positive, and when a death does hit close enough to home to make me consider writing something, I either procrastinate or someone manages to fully encapsulate my feelings towards the deceased first. But I’m not gonna let this one go. Not when we’ve lost someone who’s had a bigger influence on my own life than I ever realized.
Any fan of Looney Tunes can point you to Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, or any of Bugs and Daffy’s many, many fathers. Every opening of The Simpsons and Family Guy will feature Matt Groening or Seth MacFarlane’s names respectively. But when it comes to this generation of cartoons, no single name has had as big effect on popular culture than Stephen Hillenberg. All he had to do was introduce the world to a simple sponge.
Well, that’s the short version, anyway. Hillenberg had humble beginnings as a marine biologist at the Orange County Marine Institute; in his spare time he created educational comics about undersea life for the benefit of his students.
Hillenberg loved the ocean, but he loved art even more. He wanted to make a living creating art, though chose to stay in a safe professional career. He minored in art in college; for some, that would be enough. He got to create comics for his workplace. That might also have been enough. But it wasn’t. Eventually he quit, earned his Masters degree in experimental animation at Cal Arts, and got his first job bringing Rocko’s Modern Life, one of the founding Nicktoons, to life. While at Nickelodeon, his two greatest passions – animation and the sea – would collide in a way that would change animation.
Hillenberg never predicted the success that would stem from a Saturday morning cartoon inspired by those Marine Institute comics, but he never flaunted it or abused his power like less humble men in his position have. Instead, he continued to do what he always did: worked hard in creating something that earned its place among the likes of those previously mentioned cartoons. I’ve said it before, but those early seasons of SpongeBob are comparable to The Simpsons in its prime: instantly quotable, brilliantly animated and all around hysterical. It hooked both children and adults, and if the past nineteen years are any indication, it hasn’t let go since. How many singular cartoons can you name that have two hit theatrical films, several stop-motion holiday specials, guest stars ranging from Betty White to David Bowie, a Broadway show, and had a mushroom named after them?
And that’s what gets me. It all happened because he took that first step. That he realized it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
Goodbye, Stephen Hillenberg. And thank you.
Normally this would be where I ask for Patreon support, but instead I urge you to consider donating to The ALS Association in Hillenberg’s name. Thank you.