“You are about to embark on a journey into one of the most incredible ecosystems on this planet … the Intertidal Zone!” Bob says in the comic’s opening frame.
It was a world created by Stephen Hillenburg, an imaginative marine biologist equipped with a fresh college degree in marine resources and a love for film and illustration. He made the comic book while working as an instructor and staff artist at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point to teach kids about the diversity of the intertidal pools in an entertaining way.
For a time, Hillenburg’s comic book creation existed only inside a pamphlet for kids. But within a decade, Hillenburg would transform it into one of the greatest TV cartoons of the new millennium, trading Bob the Sponge for SpongeBob SquarePants, the Intertidal Zone for Bikini Bottom, and charming millions of kids and adults alike into falling in love with a nerdy, neurotic, obnoxiously good-natured, burger-flipping sponge.
Nearly two decades after “SpongeBob SquarePants” hit Nickelodeon, Hillenburg died Monday of ALS, eliciting an outpouring of tributes from fans who grew up captivated by Hillenburg’s zany underwater community. He was 57.
“Our condolences on the passing of Stephen Hillenburg, creator of SpongeBob SquarePants. Prior to 1999 when the show first aired, he worked as a science instructor at Ocean Institute, where he touched the lives of many students,” the Ocean Institute, formerly the Orange County Marine Institute, said in a statement. “Through his dynamic career he brought laughter to millions.”
In many ways, “SpongeBob” is an amalgam of Hillenburg’s passions and life experiences, stretching back long before he worked at the marine institute in California. He’d always loved the ocean, spending his childhood learning to surf and snorkel and watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” his favorite TV show from the 1960s and ’70s. After graduating from high school in Anaheim, Calif., he spent a few summers working as a fry cook and lobster boiler at a restaurant in Maine. The experience would serve as the inspiration for Bikini Bottom’s favorite fast-food restaurant, the Krusty Krab, and its owner, the avaricious Mr. Krabs.
Hillenburg started working at the Orange County Marine Institute in 1986, and soon his boss encouraged him to put his drawing skills to use with the educational comic book. In Hillenburg’s “Intertidal Zone,” Bob the Sponge stars alongside a tuxedo-wearing Rocky the Shrimp, his co-host, as they visit creatures such as a cranky Mr. Barnacle, a hungry lunch-hunting crab and a “beautiful sea anemone” who has a hot date with the shrimp.
“This sponge character in my 1989 comic book, along with the undersea setting of the Intertidal Zone, was the precursor to and served as my inspiration for the SpongeBob SquarePants character and animated series. … I picked the sea sponge because I wanted a funny-looking narrator/announcer and because I liked the versatility of the sponge as an animal,” Hillenburg said in a 2008 declaration, during a copyright lawsuit in which a California cartoonist accused Hillenburg of taking the idea of “SpongeBob” from his 1991 advertisement for a “Bob Spongee” doll. Hillenburg and Nickelodeon prevailed in the case.
Hillenburg attempted to sell the comic book to various publishers in 1989. No one was interested.
But it was no problem for Hillenburg, who decided that same year that he wanted to go back to school at the California Institute of the Arts to study experimental animation. The skills he picked up there would eventually land him a job with Nickelodeon, working as a storyboard artist for the children’s series “Rocko’s Modern Life.” That’s where Nickelodeon would first encounter Hillenburg’s undersea comic book.
“One of the guys saw it and said, ‘This should be your own show,’ " Hillenburg told the Guardian in 2016.
So Hillenburg started brainstorming. He wanted more of a tiki vibe, inspired by a recent visit to Tahiti and a love of Hawaii, he told the Guardian. He started drawing up a new sponge character, starting with more amorphous sea sponges who had stubby limbs and droopy faces before turning to the square, kitchen sink sponge — more in tune with the squeaky-clean, rule-following SpongeBob he would become. “I thought [it] fit perfectly the innocent, nerd image and the series theme of a character forever stuck between a boy and a man,” he said in the 2008 declaration.
The result was Sponge Boy, the name of the character when Hillenburg first pitched the show to Nickelodeon in 1996.
“Who is Sponge Boy?” Hillenburg wrote in his original pitch to the network in ’96. “Sponge Boy is our hero! He’s a single male sponge who resides in a fully furnished, two bedroom … pineapple. He has an abnormal love for his job at ‘The Crusty Crab,’ a fast food restaurant. In fact, he’s so proud of his Crusty Crab uniform that he never takes it off — not even when he showers. His big dream is to capture the not-so-coveted ‘Employee of the month’ award, but, because of his overzealous nature and havoc it creates, this goal constantly eludes him.”
He described Squidward, SpongeBob’s grumpy neighbor and co-worker at the Krusty Krab, as “the kind of guy who subscribes to Martha Stewart Living” and “conducts along with his favorite Beethoven recordings” and Plankton, the owner of the failing Chum Bucket restaurant, as “a text book case of the Napoleon complex” who “talks like Gregory Peck and with perfect diction.”
Nickelodeon executives were sold on the spot. Sponge Boy, however, would become SpongeBob after Hillenburg discovered that a mop company had already copyrighted “Spongeboy” for its product.
“SpongeBob” is perhaps most loved for, above else, its naivete, the slapstick humor revolving around SpongeBob’s self-created fiascoes rather than dirty or cruel jokes. Tolerance and diversity have long been central themes, as SpongeBob is eager to befriend virtually every living creature he meets (often oblivious of his intrusions). SpongeBob’s optimism, Hillenburg said in his 2008 declaration, is intended to “transform the way the audience looks at things, helping them find the irony in even the dullest of life’s details.”
But the mission that originally led Hillenburg to the Orange County Marine Institute — wanting to educate young people about ocean conservation and its beauty and all of its endless curiosities — was never far behind, either.
As he told The Washington Post in 2009, just ahead of a release of a “SpongeBob SquarePants” documentary: “People have to come together and realize how important our oceans are. One thing I’m hoping will come out of the documentary is the realization that the show came from something that’s precious, and that we need to appreciate it. … Hopefully, if you watch ‘SpongeBob,’ you see the plankton and the crabs and starfish, and you’ll want to take care of our oceans.”
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