The Simpsons characters at an anniversary party

"The Simpsons" paved the way for many adult cartoons to come. Here, the characters celebrate at a 20th-anniversary party.

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Where would we be without cartoons? Would we look at pictures poking fun at political leaders the same way? Would the idea of slipping on a banana still be funny?

Throughout history, illustrations have communicated ideas with wit. For instance, political cartoons printed in early periodicals satirized people and issues, providing both a good laugh and food for thought.

With the rise of illustration and animation, cartoons carried a more familiar meaning to TV viewers. Mickey Mouse and company charmed their way into our hearts, doing things too ridiculous to happen offscreen. Superheroes inspired comic readers and viewers to courageously pursue justice, even though their animated worlds were chock-full of fiction (and flying protagonists in spandex).

In addition to entertaining or advancing ideas, TV cartoons have also carved out a large market for commercial advertisers targeting younger demographics [source: Butler]. In recent years, animated shows such as "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "South Park" have gained die-hard adult fans, too.

Interested in learning more about these knee-slapping inventions? Find out more on the next page.