Cartoon Network's Billy & Mandy First Appeared In A Gory Head-Drilling Film

Maxwell Atom's animated series "The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy" debuted on the Cartoon Network on June 13, 2003, and would go on to run for 84 episodes over the course of six seasons. The premise was delightfully ghoulish. The cluelessly happy Billy (Richard Steven Horvitz) and the angry misanthrope Mandy (Grey DeLisle) once cheated Death by rigging a limbo competition; it seems that Death will grant favors to the living should they win at a competition à la Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal."

Because of Billy and Mandy's limbo victory, a grim reaper named Grim (Greg Eagles) becomes their indentured servant. Grim constantly wants to kill Billy and Mandy, while the kids just want to go on adventures. Grim begrudgingly goes along. Early Billy & Mandy segments were originally aired as part of the diptych series "Grim & Evil," which shared its 22-minute airtime with another Maxwell Atom series, "Evil Con Carne." The full version of "Grim Adventures" would debut two years later. The series was terrifically popular and won two Emmys and an Annie, in addition to launching three TV movies.

Before his big break with "Grim & Evil," Atoms worked as a character animator on 1990s TV shows like "The Adventures of Felix the Cat," "Cow and Chicken," and "I Am Weasel." Prior to that, he was an animation student at the University of Arts in Philadelphia; there, he started to test out his ideas for Billy & Mandy at the tender age of 21(ish). It was at school wherein he made his first animated short, "Billy and Mandy in: Trepanation of the Skull and You." In it, Billy and Mandy drill holes in their heads.

Billy and Mandy in: Trepanation of the Skull and You

Note that it was de rigueur in the 1990s for animation students to create shocking, often sickening calling cards like "Trepanation of the Skull and You." Some '90s college kids might even recall attending tours of the annual Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation, which featured some of the hottest up-and-coming talents in the animation world. It was at Spike & Mike's that audiences would first see "Beavis & Butthead" creator Mike Judge's "Frog Baseball," wherein Beavis and Butt-head murder frogs with bats.

Future "Powerpuff Girls" creator Craig McCracken similarly exhibited his early "No-Neck Joe" shorts at Sick & Twisted, while the violent, crass "The Spirit of Christmas" by Matt Stone and Trey Parker was the prelude to "South Park." Fans of "Ed, Edd n Eddy" should likewise know that creator Danny Antonucci is the mastermind behind "Lupo the Butcher" — and no "Courage the Cowardly Dog" fan should go without watching creator John R. Dilworth's hilarious short "The Dirdy Birdy."

"Trepanation of the Skull and You" fits squarely into that generation of "shock" animation. Maxwell Atoms posted his early short on YouTube, explaining that it was a copy of a copy of a copy in the comments:

"The film was made in 1998, I believe, as my Junior thesis. The directive was to make a two minute animation, and that's what I did. I was big into fringe culture at the time, and found trepanning fascinating. I also wanted to do something with this 'Billy' character I was obsessed with, and I HAD to have some dinosaurs." 

Trepanning, for those not into fringe culture, is the medical practice of drilling through one's skull and exposing the brain, hoping to increase blood flow and attain a constant mild euphoria.

Billy & Mandy is far from the only cartoon with twisted origins

Atoms also explained why the quality of his posted short was so low. As one might imagine, he no longer had access to any sort of master print of "Trepanation of the Skull and You." As a young man, he felt he could save himself time and cost by skipping past animation cels and photographing his paper sketches. It seems it was more trouble than it was worth:

"The animation was hand drawn on paper, colored in markers, and then cut out and glued to cels. I thought that would save time over painting cels, but the cut-and-glue process really sucked. So I was probably wrong about that. The film never looked great, but the version you see here was transferred from 16mm shot on a WWII-era Bolex, which was transferred to VHS, then DVD, then ripped for your viewing pleasure. So yeah ... sorry about the quality."

He was also not entirely impressed with his 1990s sense of humor, saying that "the characters, my style, and my sense of humor developed over the years. Hopefully for the better. I'll let you decide!" "Adam Burton," who played Billy, is actually Maxwell Atoms.

There's a reason a lot of your favorite animated shows from the '90s and 2000s had a slightly twisted sense of humor; their creators were slightly twisted people. Ultimately, a lot of the shows 1990s animation students created needed to be toned down for a young audience, but in the best of cases, the grimness survived and the bleak surreality often bubbled up from underneath. One can watch a few episodes of "The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy" and understand that, of course, the creator once made a short film about trepanning.