The dynamic, happy-go-lucky horses of My Little Pony are riding higher than they ever have since their 1983 debut, with a third season of the Hub's animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic just underway and a new IDW comic book of the same name debuting Wednesday.
However, what used to be aimed squarely at female youngsters the uplifting, positive and entertaining messages of Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie has fostered a global audience of Pony lovers, including a teen and adult male fandom who proudly call themselves Bronies, a witty amalgam of "bro" and "pony."
"My Little Pony is bringing people together," says Michael Fahey, a Brony and writer at the video-game website Kotaku.com. "It's building friendships among a diverse group of people that otherwise might have just sat on either side of the Internet, flinging insults at each other."
Audiences are responding, and not just dudes: My Little Pony (airing Saturday mornings at 10:30 ET/PT) is one of the Hub's highest-rated series, and its season premiere earlier this month showed increases in child, adult and family demographics. The new comic has already pre-sold more than 100,000 copies, making it potentially one of the best-selling single issues of any title this year.
Those numbers are impressive for an all-ages book in a land of superheroes and adult fare, says My Little Pony comic writer Katie Cook. "Take that, every preconceived notion of what sells! A book with pastel ponies with cute pictures on their butts is a success."
Cook, who was born two years before the first Pony toys and cartoons were released, grew up with the franchise and now watches the new show with her daughter.
Artist Andy Price was more interested in M*A*S*H and Magnum, P.I. in the '80s, but now that he's a Pony fan, the cartoon reminds him of the 1960s Batman TV series in terms of intelligent, comedic writing with broad appeal.
"It's colorful and pretty, but it's not all lace and ribbons and pretty, pretty hearts," Price says. "A child can take away silly humor and fun art and even some lessons. An adult can take away the same, plus the cultural references and the sly witticisms.
Friendship Is Magic has featured characters based on the cult movie The Big Lebowski, but Price most enjoys the Southern-peach drawl of Applejack. "She's the pony version of (M*A*S*H's) Col. Potter!"
Still, when he told a group of friends that he was drawing a My Little Pony comic, a child psychologist among them had a surprised reaction: " 'But that's for girls! Why would you work on that?' "
As Price explains, "It is exactly this barrier that My Little Pony has broken: There is no division of pink girls over here, and blue boys over here. Its message is friendship and positive attitudes and equality, not sexism and stereotyped attitudes. It succeeds because it's delivered with humor, a universal language not specific to any specific gender."
It's the male fans, however, who have taken a kids' show and turned it into a pop-culture phenom.
Bronies, which has become a gender-neutral term, share artwork and foster friendships on a number of fan sites, they stage their own conventions and, in the case of the charitable organization Bronies for Good, promote kindness all over the world.
Founded in 2011, the group began by setting up blood drives and then went bigger, raising more than $60,000 this year for clinics, villages and orphanages in Africa and other projects "to help cultivate a culture of generosity and involvement among Bronies," says member Martin Wilson of Monterey, Calif.
Patrick Traynor was a freshman at Arizona State when My Little Pony fandom hit a fever pitch last year, and "the whole idea seemed like a giant inside joke no one told you about," he says. Then he heard how Bronies for Good raised funds for the Children's Cancer Association and joined up.
"I thought to myself, 'If a TV show can inspire these kids to do such a wonderful thing, how bad could it possibly be?' I gave it a shot, and became hooked."
The innocence and simplicity bring in male viewers and readers, Fahey says. "It's a dark world we live in." However, My Little Pony offers "a place where simple ideas like friendship, honesty, loyalty, generosity and laughter are pure and undiluted. It's a happy place. There aren't many happy places out there anymore."
The recent popularity has been an "epiphany" for Hub president and CEO Margaret Loesch, who was an executive producer for the original 1980s My Little Pony cartoon as well as for those of its fellow Hasbro toy franchises G.I. Joe and Transformers. (The Hub is a joint venture of Hasbro and Discovery.)
My Little Pony was recently relaunched primarily for the pigtailed crowd, but Loesch takes pride when she gets fan letters from men.
Recently, she received an e-mail from a group of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan who became fans through their daughters, and they said the reason My Little Pony means so much to them was because it was all about protecting each other's backs.
"Even though it's a show designed for little girls, the theme of friendship and honor and integrity and the moral center has relevance to them," Loesch says. "That's pretty special."
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)