In Search of the World’s Most Important Cartoon Characters; Mickey Mouse, Superman, Snoopy?


Superman is back and as a result there is a renewed
interest in the power of cartoon characters in influencing society and
culture.  I thought of that when I read a
letter to The New York Times Book Review entitled
“Good Grief” complaining that Snoopy had not been included with Superman and
Mickey Mouse in a recounting of the world’s most famous cartoon characters.

I have always loved cartoons and continue to do so
(Family Guy is a must see and South Park with its smart / gross humor is a dose
that I simply have to choke down) so the question of the most important cartoon
characters of all time is not lost on me. 
I think they are important in their ability to express the anxiety of a
generation through humor and adventure. 
The fact that they are not real people allows for a range of emotions, actions
and words that would be unacceptable in actual human terms.


As I pondered the question I decided to do a Google
search.  I tried asking the question in
different ways:  “Who are the most
important cartoon characters?” or “Who are the most famous cartoon characters?”
It seemed that no matter how I asked the question, the same lists came up.  I chose two to share with you as a means of
considering the question.

Top 50 Cartoon Characters of All Time” was created by Nancy
Basile who describes herself as “…a professional writer who has been watching
TV cartoons since the days when they were relegated to only

Saturday mornings,
and she's been writing about them for almost 10 years. Nancy is also
editor-in-chief of Media Medusa.”  Here are
her top 5:

  1. Bugs
  2. Homer
  3. Mickey
  4. Bart
  5. Charlie

Now here is a list entitled “The 40 Best Cartoon
Characters of All Time”
by Josh Jackson. 
“Josh is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Paste magazine. He blogs at High Gravity and Tweets at

  1. Homer
  2. Bugs
  3. Tom
    & Jerry
  4. Eric
  5. Snoopy

As I reviewed their lists I looked for their criteria but
could not find any.  It seems that their
lists were subject to idiosyncrasies like when they were born and how
broadly they had traveled.  Here is why I
say that:  Ask any five year old child
today who Bugs Bunny is and you will get a blank stare.  He is gone from the consciousness of a
generation.  By the way, in 30 years,
someone may well be writing their Top 5 list with Peekachoo listed as number 1.

And don’t get me started on Tom & Jerry.  A Tom & Jerry cartoon is, at least for
me, about as boring as Pepe Le Pew (just how many times can a cat have paint
splashed down its back and be confused for a skunk!?)  Probably the most telling satriric cartoon
about the boredom of cartoon violence is “Itchy and Scratchy” with its
depiction of endlessly gory, bloody, mouse-driven cartoon mayhem.

So, what are my Top 5; that in my next posting?

2 thoughts

  1. You almost have to break down the list by generation … no other way around it. And, for what it’s worth, I’d throw Ren and Stimpy in to the mix … that was one of the first mainstream, adult cartoons (like Family Guy is today). Loved that show, and to this day, my friends and I still quote it. Okay, so maybe that last part doesn’t do much for justifying it as a great cartoon …

  2. I’m not totally clear on the context of the list, which seems to only cover tv animated characters (mickey and Bugs are film first, obviously, but no one alive met those characters for the first time in a movie theater).
    Most of the characters mentioned are culturally irrelevant from the standpoint of today’s viewers, readers, and overall audience. Sure, Mickey Mouse still has relevance, more because of plush and theme parks than because of any actual entertainment (he’s a spokes mouse).
    Bugs Bunny is completely and utterly irrelevant from the standpoint of today’s under 30 audience. I’m not even sure a 10-year-old could pick Bugs out of a lineup of characters.
    Homer and Bart may have permeation with adult audiences but, even at almost 30 seasons, the show’s audience continues to age. In the 1990s Homer and Bart were among the most recognizable character icons but, again, audiences under 30 likely have little to no exposure.
    Charlie Brown or Snoopy? Sure. These characters score high ratings on major networks with each holiday special.
    But, even considering just TV-native character icons, where is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer? Where’s Fred Flintstone?
    If we were to compile a list of today’s four-quadrant (young girls, young boys, men, and women) fictional characters and general awareness, our list would probably look very different. Today’s audience is bombarded by entertainment. Characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Darth Vader, and Harry Potter have been translated into so many pieces of media and consumer products over the course of their individual fictional existences that I would argue nearly every person in every country in every language at any age knows at least the broad basics of their story and could pick them out of a line up of visuals. Darth Vader is an almost universal symbol of “bad.” Superman’s symbol and colors are recognized by kids and adults and everyone in between. Girls know Superman from Smallville, a teen-targeted tv show on WB and later CW. Boys know Superman from a variety of video games, toys, and cartoons. Adult men and women likely remember either Christopher Reeves’ Superman films, the George Reeve TV series, or TV’s Lois & Clark. Parts of asia may only have been introduced to Superman in the 1990s, but superheroes are now a staple of that continent as well.
    Removing religious figures, I’d venture a guess some of these would make the top 10:
    Mickey Mouse
    Buzz Lightyear
    Snow White
    Jack Sparrow
    Darth Vader
    Iron Man
    Wonder Woman
    Harry Potter
    Sherlock Holmes
    James Bond
    Optimus Prime
    Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
    Homer Simpson

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