Category Archives: Cartoon Commentary

These Should Exist: the Jem & the Holograms edition!

With the release of the first two trailers for the new big screen, live action adaptation of Jem & the Holograms only a couple of months away it’s had me thinking a lot about the original cartoon and toy line and what made those so special to me growing up in the 80s.  I pretty much have zero interest in the new movie because I feel like the production has completely shrugged off the original concept and vision of the property that it’s all but unrecognizable.  In fact it feels like a more earnest adaptation of the Hannah Montana television series, which was itself a lesser derivative of the original Jem cartoon.  On a brighter note, I finally managed to pick up the first five issues of the IDW comic book adaptation of Jem written by Kelly Thompson and lavishly illustrated by Sofie (formerly Ross) Campbell, a favorite artist of mine for the past 15 years or so.

Jem comic

The comic series is great and manages to hit all the notes of the original while still updating the plot and characters into a more modern take.  We hear a lot about comic book adaptations and mining comics for film these days, but this is the type of material and a philosophy for how to write fan favorite material that Hollywood just isn’t grasping.  That said, I’m not trying to knock the wind out of the film industry, though if there are ever any executives out there reading this, you’re getting it wrong.  Anyway, since I’ve been diving back into the story of Jem a lot lately I thought it would be the perfect time to try my hand at designing another set of trading cards that SHOULD have existed back in the 80s but for whatever reason never happened…

Jem_Wrapper_v1    Jem_Wrapper_v2

Like the previous sets I created (or co-created) for The Monster Squad, Adventures in Babysitting, Rad, Young Guns and Young Guns II, I had a blast working on these.  I love trying to slip into the creative mindset of a Topps employee circa 1985 when laying out and utilizing artwork to create these wax wrapper and card designs.  Finding colors that work well with the content or trying to make the cards dynamic yet still true to the aesthetic of the 80s…


Jem_Cards_1_combo     Jem_Cards_3_Combo

First and foremost, since there is a lot of gorgeous Jem & the Holograms toy box art for each of the characters I wanted to highlight that before utilizing any of the animation imagery.  Though there were some cartoon series that had trading card sets in the 80s (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Masters of the Universe immediately spring to mind), the majority of trading card sets seemed to focus mainly on film and live action TV.  Also, the cartoon sets tended to add speech bubbles with puns and dialogue to the cards and I really didn’t want to do that.  It’s not like I feel I’d have to per-se, but it would be more accurate which is half of what I’m striving for when making these sets…

Jem_Cards_4_Combo     Jem_Cards_5_Combo


Jem_Cards_7_combo     Jem_Cards_6_combo

The crazy 80s-inspired design of these cards is also a bit personal for me because I was able to tap into my childhood experience growing up in central Florida.  The color scheme I went with is heavily evocative of what I remember seeing all over the place from the design on the scratch-off lottery tickets that became legal around 1988.  It’s a mix of a beachy feel with a splash of flamingo, aqua and neon.  I had so many pairs of surf & skate shirts and shorts that sported these colors…


Jem_Cards_11_combo     Jem_Cards_12_combo


Making these cards was also an excuse to seek out a ton of Jem-related research materials including interviews with series mastermind Christy Marx, making-of featurettes from the Shout! Factory DVD release, as well as diving back into watching the cartoon itself.  I always love re-watching cartoons when I’m doing research for a project like this because it makes me stop and take a closer look at what’s going on both in the episode and behind the scenes…

Jem_Cards_13_combo     Jem_Cards_17_combo



Jem_Cards_16_combo     Jem_Cards_15_combo

All in all, I think this is my favorite of the digital trading cards sets I’ve worked on solo thus far.  And at the risk of sounding like a broken record I really wish that I had a set of these in hard copy cards to stick in my collecting binders sandwiched in between my Robocop and Harry and the Hendersons cards.  Maybe someday.

*UPDATE* this is pretty darn cool

These are excellent. Hasbro should totally do these.

Posted by Christy Marx Clubhouse on Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Transformers & G.I. Joe, finally the shared universe I always dreamed of…

As an 80s nostalgia nerd it’s kind of hard to pick a favorite brand or property from my childhood. There are just way too many fond memories and of the thousands of things that I love from that decade each and every one of them has the power to take me back and give me the warm fuzzies. However, looking back and remembering how I felt at the time, if I had to nail down the stuff that I considered my favorites it would unquestionably be G.I. Joe and the Transformers. Not only was I completely smitten by both toy lines, I was also heavily invested in both cartoon series. Between the ages of 7 to 13 almost every afternoon you could find me in front of the TV after school emersed in the worlds that the Sunbow animation staff created, or in our dining room setting up epic battles with my collection of Hasbro toys.


Those two universes were practically sacred to me and they felt very interconnected. As I grew older and started digging into the background of the properties it downed on me that there were a lot of reasons for this. I mean the toys were all developed or marketed by Hasbro, the cartoons were both handled by Sunbow/Marvel Animation utilizing the same pool of voice talent, show runners and writers, and much of the periphery merchandise was also handled by the same companies (both comic book series were Marvel for example.) At the time I didn’t realize this and as I sat in rapt attention during the cartoon or when coming up with stories to play out with my toys I always chose to entertwine the universes. The idea of Cobra Commander and his legion of terrorists and Megatron and his armada of Decepticons teaming up to face off against the Optimus Prime and the Autobots and the entire roster of G.I. Joe was always a go-to story for me. Even though I planned out a ton of epic battles in my head there was always a part of me that was bummed out because this crossover universe wasn’t official. It never stopped my from day dreaming about it, but I always felt a tinge of sadness because what I really wanted was to see some actual “official” crossovers and for the most part it never really officially existed until now. There were a handful of teases, specifically in the Sunbow cartoons that stoked the flames of my crossover desires like the time that a character who was for all intents and purposes Cobra Commander popped up in a season three episode of Transformers titled Only Human


This character was named Old Snake in the episode and is almostly undeniably Cobra Commander as he was voiced by Chris Latta (who provided the voices of Cobra Commander and Starscream on the Sunbow cartoons), was the defunt leader of a one great terrorist orginization and even has the iconic mirrored face plate. But as they never referred to him specifically as Cobra Commander, nor did they evoke Cobra or even feature a Cobra logo insignia, it leaves it up to question enough that it feels way more like an homage to me than an actual crossover. There’s also an episode featuring an older version of the Joe team character Flint (whose real name is Dashiell Faireborn) in that thrid season of Transformers. But again, the connection isn’t explicit. He’s not refferred to as “Flint” and there are no G.I. Joe connections beyond inferring the identity of that character through context clues based on his appearance and the fact that, that character’s daughter’s name is Marissa Faireborn. The closest connection between the universes in the cartoon series is the appearance of a newscaster named Hector Ramirez that pops up in most of the Sunbow series set in modern times (G.I. Joe, Transformers, Jem, and the Inhumanoids.) But as solid a connection as this is, it doesn’t have the panache of seeing Autobots pop up in an episode of G.I. Joe.



Now, there is a very popular and very explicit connection between the two universes that I’m sure readers are screaming about right now, and that’s the Marvel comics crossover G.I. Joe and the Transformers that was published back in 1987. You know, this is about as clear cut as you can get in terms of universes crossing over, and I’ll agree that it’s cool and groundbreaking, but there are a couple of reasons that I kind of dismiss these comics. For one, I never stumbled upon those comics until well into my adulthood, and two, the comics always seemed like they were outside of the official continuity to me. Much in the same way that it’s arguable whether the Star Wars novelizations are cannon, or if it’s just a product to enrich the brand which is the officially released movies. For me, when it comes to G.I. Joe and Transformers the official continuity begins and ends with the cartoon series, animated films, and the toy lines. Again, I’ll be the first to admit that this is more or less just my weird way of perceiving the universes, but it just feels right to me. So I’ve been waiting for over 20 years to see something released in one of these two realms that unites the properties.


So when I learned that Hasbro was releasing an official crossover toy in the new Transformer Combiner Wars line I was absolutely floored. The toy, a hybrid Decepticon/Cobra jet named Viper that was modeled after a variation of the Cobra Rattler and it’s main pilot Wild Weasel, is one of the first pieces of widely released Hasbro merchandise that finally officially merges the universes of G.I. Joe and the Transformers. As soon as I laid eyes on grainy pictures online I knew I had to get my hands on one asap, and I want to give a huge thank you and shout out to my buddy HooveR for hooking me up with the toy of my dreams.


Now, as far as I’m concerned Viper is (for me) one of the most important pieces in the modern Hasbro offerings because it acts as a link that has the potential to spark an entire line of toys that I feel are in a way tailor-made to fill a void in my nostalgic past. Now, I know that there are still folks out there that are going to want to point to earlier examples of the G.I. Joe and Transformers universe’s crossing over in toy form. I mean there are a couple of specific examples that spring to mind, namely the 2004 Transformers Energon figure Snow Cat which is an homage to the G.I. Joe vehicle of the same name and general design. But again, as cool as an homage as this is, it’s not explicitly a crossover. There’s no G.I. Joe logo and storyline attached.


A more apt example would be the SDCC exclusive release of the Starscream decoed Sky Striker set that was released back in 2011. The set came with a Cobra Commander pilot figure armed with an appropriately-sized Megatron laser pistol. Again, this is a super cool set that I really wanted to get my hands on, but there were some aspects to the release that again make me feel like it’s outside of an official crossover. First, the set was a limited edition only sold at the SDCC which means that most folks couldn’t get their hands on it, and second, even though the repainted Sky Striker looks really awesome as “Starscream”, it was just a repainted Joe toy. They didn’t re-tool it so that it could transform or anything. So as cool as it is, it doesn’t feel official to me.


Viper on the other hand is about as official as you can get, widely released, branded with both G.I. Joe and Transformers insignia logos, and functions as both an action figure, vehicle (with the ability to transform.)  It may be a narrow view for some, but for me, this is the toy I’ve been waiting for for over 20 years!  Here’s some more views of Viper….




I love the way they made Viper an homage to Wild Weasel too, a really nice touch…


I have no idea whether Hasbro is testing the waters with a figure like Viper, but I hope they are.  I’d love to see a whole line of hybrid releases like this.  I can totally imagine transformer Hiss Tanks, Vamp jeeps, or Tomahawk helicopters.  I can even see a combiner made out of the various Dreadnok vehicles.  The possibilities are limitless!


Filling a gap in my pop culture past…

There are a million reasons why I’m thankful for being brought into this world in the late seventies, but the one that I’ve been focusing on lately is that I feel a very deep appreciation for my luck in experiencing what the world has been like before and after the internet. I do my best to not take the wonderland of the World Wide Web for granted, and I consistently marvel at the level of access we have to information, even if it seems banal and trivial on the surface. With the tools, databases and connections at hand we can use these resources to practically break through the implausibility of a concept like time travel and experience things that should be long gone and forgotten. I spend the majority of my time here at Branded writing and talking about all the stuff from my childhood that I hold dear in particular my personal experiences with the shows, movies, books, toys and pop culture ephemera that I grew up loving. Today I want to talk about something I completely missed out on, something that I only discovered after starting this site almost a decade ago, the Saturday morning entertainment showcase specials that were broadcast by the major TV stations back in the 80s.


Growing up I never really had a say in what the family would watch on TV. I know, everyone is crying me a river, right? Honestly, it’s not a complaint; I had food, shelter, and more than my fair share of toys and entertainment, but when it came to TV there were only a few windows when I had access to controlling the dial (and much later the remote), especially as soon as my father would come home from work. As soon as he got in the door he immediately changed the station from the afternoon cartoons I might be watching on the UHF channels to whatever station would have local news. So if that meant suffering through syndicated reruns of Alice or the Jefferson’s for the billionth time so that the channel would be tuned in to the news as soon as it started, that’s what we watched. Then it was the local news, then national news, then Entertainment Tonight, and finally onto whatever stuff caught my dad’s interest for the rest of the evening. My TV time was mostly regulated to 30 minutes in the morning before school (where I caught old Our Gang and Three Stooges shorts or the odd episode of Woody Woodpecker or Chilly Willy), an hour after school (where I caught most of my syndicated cartoons like He-Man, G.I. Joe, Bravestarr and the Silverhawks), and a couple hours on Saturday morning for cartoons. Because of this I never tended to flip through the actual programming portion (the B&W newsprint part) of our copies of the TV Guide and therefore I never stumbled across any of the advertisements for the one-off showcase specials that aired during the kickoff of the new network lineup in fall.

So at 8:30pm on Saturday the 8th of September in 1984 I had no idea that there was a 30-minute special called Laugh Busters airing on NBC. In fact I didn’t even learn that it existed until about five years ago when I broke down the 1984 Fall Preview issue of the TV Guide here at Branded. At the time it was a bit of a curiosity that I wished I could explore further but there was nothing online about it except for a glorified placeholder entry on IMDB.

IMDB Laugh Busters

Well, a few years went by and Laugh Busters slipped to the back of my mind as one of those oddities, a hole in my childhood experience that I wished I could fill but knew I’d probably never get a chance to see as something like that would never merit a DVD release (way too many licenses and clearances would be needed.) But, as I stated above, the internet and all its connections are pretty damn miraculous and my buddy Tim over at Flashlights Are Something to Eat had his own Laugh Busters journey going on. Unlike me, Tim had actually seen the original broadcast as a kid and even had the presence of mind to tape the audio on a blank cassette! He did a short synopsis/write-up on his site but was still yearning to re-watch the full special, so he kept up his search and a couple of years later he finally found one of his childhood holy grails, an old VHS copy that had been ripped to DVD. Tim, being the super awesome guy that he is, offered to let me borrow his copy and finally, 30 years after it originally aired, I was able to experience a small part of 1984 that I thought was lost to time. As a bonus the copy of the special was complete with the commercials that originally aired with it, so this was as close to time travel that the internet has made possible.

Laugh Busters

As I mentioned above, Laugh Busters was a Saturday Morning showcase special which was designed to sell the kids of America on NBC’s new line-up of shows, particularly because half of the schedule was brand new for 1984. Here’s a copy of the SMC comic book ad for NBC from which introduced 4 new shows including Kidd Video, Pink Panther and Sons, the Snorks and the live action sitcom Going Bananas starring JR the orangutan as Roxanna Banana a simian zapped by a U.F.O. and given super powers.


The basic premise of Laugh Busters revolves around the making of the NBC Special starring all of the new cartoon characters as well as the Smurfs, Spider-Man, Mr. T, Alvin & the Chipmunks, and the cast of Going Bananas. The director in charge, D.W. (played by Sandy Helberg), has his plans put in peril by Gargamore O’Dette, a super evil wizard (also portrayed by Helberg) bent on the end of laughter and the ultimate destruction of NBC. Why you ask? Because he’s allergic to laughter of course!  Here’s some audio from that opening segment

Director DW and Assistant

Gargamore ODette

Right off the bat after hitting play I was taken aback as there was a scene during the opening credits that featured a team up between an animated Mr. T and Alvin, Simon and Theodore. At first I thought this was a weird composting of elements from the two Ruby Spears cartoons, but upon digging a bit I found out that Mr. T was featured in the first segment in the premier episode of the 80s Chipmunks series (both shows debuted together the year prior in 1983.) There’s also a great song in the middle of the episode.  Somehow I’ve managed to miss out on this epic bit of pop culture fun for the last 31 years.

Chipmunks 2

After the detour of watching the first episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks I dove back into the Laugh Busters special. To execute his nefarious plan Gargamore kidnaps the Smurfs off screen and recruits two live action henchmen (played by James “Uncle Phil” Avery and Bill Saluga reprising their roles of the Grit Brothers Hank and Hubert from Going Bananas) to stop the rest of the characters from making it onto the special.

Captured Smurfs

Grit Brothers

Of course Thom Bray (Boz and his rad orange robot Roboz from Riptide) show up at the studio for the Special and they end up helping to track down the missing stars and cartoon characters starting with Spider-Man.

Thom Bray

Dan Gilvezan, voice of Spider-Man from the cartoon, redubs animation segments from the show to talk about being excited for the new season as well as taking a trip across country to appear on the new NBC special. He then proceeds to web-swing from NYC all the way to Burbank (seriously) set to the sweet dulcet melody of the city-name-dropping portion of the Huey Lewis song Heart of Rock and Roll.


Of course he encounters the infamous Grit Brothers near the city of One Horse USA, swinging into and getting trapped on a gigantic piece of ACME Fly Paper (in a live action segment that looks like it was straight out of an episode of the Electric Company)! Boz uses Roboz to call a honkytonk out there to enlist the help of Danny Cooksey (from Diff’rent Strokes and later Salute Your Shorts) to help. After performing his best Waylon Jennings imitation of the Ed Bruce song “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (where the keen observer will notices the entire Kidd Video and Going Bananas cast in attendance as well as Alfonzo Ribero), Danny takes Boz’s call and agrees to help, though he needs a ride to go help Spider-Man since he’s just a kid and all.



Boz then enlists the help of KITT from Knightrider to drive Danny out to rescue Spider-Man. What I love about this segment (aside from seeing a pint-sized Danny Cooksey behind the wheel of K.I.T.T.) is that this is the only onscreen pairing of Spider-Man and K.I.T.T. (I have a soft spot in my heart of Knightrider crossovers.) I also love that William Daniel voiced K.I.T.T. in this special uncredited…

Cooksey KITT Spiderman

With Spider-Man rescued, the Grit brothers turn their attention that that new up and coming rock ‘n roll band Kidd Video, and they literally roll a rock at the gang’s, knocking them and the Kiddmobile right out of the flipside back into the real world. Since their ship is messed up they decide to practice their new hit song (Video to Radio) out on a bridge near the wreckage.

Kidd Video

The special then cuts to Roxanna Banana listening to Kid Video on the radio and a reworking of the opening segment of the Going Bananas series then plays out. This bleeds back into the GB cast in their jalopy bus running into Kidd Video still playing out on the bridge and they decide to pick them up and head out to Burbank together.

Going Bananas

Things get a little weird when the special moves on to Alvin and the Chipmunks. Again, like with Spider-Man, Ross Bagdasarian Jr. reprises the role of Alvin to voice new material over clips from one of the cartoon episodes to tie it into the plot of this new story. The Grit brothers have boarded a train carrying the Chipmunks and Dave to Burbank, and the plan is to steal their train tickets so they’ll get kicked off, which they do. But when the Chipmunks get thrown off the train the special switches from animation to live action with three very bulky and ridiculously large chipmunk outfits. They’re rescued by Boz who sends the Riptide Helicopter (the Screaming Mimi) to pick them up.


As the special moves into its second half the pace starts to pick up dramatically and the amount of original non-clip material is reduced. The last longish bit involves Mr. T and his gymnasts stopping at a meet they were invited to only to realize that it was a trap and they have a run in with the Grit brothers. Luckily they foil the Grit Bros. plan to steal their bus in a weird mix of live action and animation.  Though you hear his voice, you only ever see Mr. T’s real life arm (well, it was supposed to be Mr. T, but I’m sure it was just a stand-in double…)


Next up is the Pink Panther and Sons segment where Pinky and Panky, the sons of the Pink Panther are taking a bike ride through a city. The grit brothers show up and decide to paint a fake tunnel opening on a huge rock in the hopes that they will ride smack dab into it. The animation switches over to live action as a person in a huge Panky costume rides a bike straight through the painting much like in a cartoon. It’s just assumed that the false tunnel has become a wormhole to Burbank.

Pink Panther

In the second to last segment the Grit brothers are sitting in a raft and have a plan to obliterate the Snorks. They explain that everything in the Snorks underwater kingdom is run on steam and so they take control of one of NASA’s inter-continental ballistic missiles with a remote control and crash it into the sea sealing off an underwater volcano that is the source of the Snork’s steam production. This then switches over to animation where there is a clip of the Snorks removing said missile from the volcano and foiling the Grit Brother’s plan.


In the last segment Papa Smurf, the only Smurf not captured by Gargamore, figures out that O’Dette is trying not to laugh. So he develops a potion which he slips to Gargamore that makes him evaporate. Yes, Papa Smurf apparently kills Gargamore!


This leads to an all-out dance celebration with all of the live action characters, cartoons and the guest stars (minus Panky and Thom Bray), rocking out to a spoof of the Ghostbusters theme by Ray Parker Jr.

Dance Party

I’ll be the first to admit that this Laugh Busters showcase special was super hokey and kind of hard to watch in spots, but I’m glad I finally caught up with one of these because it was great to see the mash-up of properties and characters. I know I would have loved it had I seen it back in 1984. It’s kind of a shame that it’s mostly lost to time, so as a small little capper to this experience I took the time to submit a bunch of information about the special to the pathetic IMDB listing. It’s slowly updating, but at least there’s now a synopsis, more crew and some trivia added. Hopefully they’ll add the rest of the cast that I submitted soon and this won’t be a completely lost bit of 80s fun.

And before I close this out, here’s a list of the original commercials that aired during the special…

Commercial Break

1). Fun with McNuggets: This is a fun early McNuggets commercial that still featured some of the older McDonaldland characters like the Professor and Captain Crook…

Fun With McNuggets

2). Raisin Bran BMX: This commercial is like a mash-up of the movie Rad and a kid crazy for his two scoops of raisins.  So crazy in fact that he decides to ditch halfway through the race to go eat more raisins…

Raisin Bran BMX

3). Wrangler Clothes (Live It to the Limit with Wrangler): This is the first time I’ve seen a Wrangler ad that was aimed at a young teen audience.  I’ve always associated these jeans with like older guys who work on farms or construction, so it was weird seeing the brand try and take a more Jordache spin.  Also, the commercial is an excuse to strip out of the clothes, a weird choice if you ask me…


4). Wendy’s Where’s the Beef?: The classic 80s Where’s the Beef commercial, ‘Nuff Said.


5). Sneak Week with Punky Brewster, Silver Spoons, Highway to Heaven: Always fun seeing the 1st season promo material for Punky Brewster and the most adorable Brandon with an afro…

sneak week

6). Pop Tarts: Color coordinate your Pop Tarts kids.  Also, I forgot how much I missed seeing the bit where the knife is spread over the fruit filling that spells out fruit…

Pop Tarts

7). Chef Boyardee: This commercial wins the award for worst mom ever.  The little girls wants a cookie, but the mom thinking that’s unhealthy (why do you have them in the kitchen then?) stops her and gives her a full can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs instead.  Because that’s SOOOOO MUCH BETTER.  Sigh…

Chef Boyardee

Commercial Break 2

The Seedy Adult Underworld of 80s Family Entertainment

I know every generation says this about the decades when they came of age, but growing up in the 80s was seriously a whole different world; like living on another planet at times.  There was a lot more going on when it came to entertainment aimed at kids in terms of adult themes and material that surely went over the head of most of the viewing audience.  Looking back I love this and really appreciate that the creators and writers didn’t dumb down the content, even if some of it might stray a little further towards “adult” than many people might realize. You definitely saw this in a cartoon like Ren & Stimpy (which granted was the early 90s, but was the culmination of the freedom the previous decade expressed), which constantly toed the line of what was considered decent for a kid’s show.  Heck, I’ve mentioned before that I think John Kricfalusi is very probably the guy responsible for animating anthropomorphic penis aliens into the background sequences in the Saturday morning cartoon Galaxy High (particularly in the first and second episodes)…

Galaxy High penis creature 2

I was having a conversation with a co-worker the other day about catching up with some 80s flicks that they hadn’t seen in over 20 years, in particular Ghostbusters and the Goonies.  The topic turned to the awkward dream sequence featuring a sex scene between Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stanz and spectral “presence”.  I guess you could call it oral innuendo, but the background behind that sequence is pretty plain.  Ray banged a ghost.  It’s one of the interesting aspects of reading the original Richard Mueller novelization

Ghostbusters Novelization

In the book (which is based on the Aykroyd/Ramis screenplay) we learn that, that dream sequence was actually from a real sequence planned for later in the film.  Right after Ray and Winston are driving through the city talking about the end of the world, when the two go to Fort Detmerring looking for a spook. They split up and Ray stumbles upon a room that is a replica of a revolutionary war officer’s barracks. He finds a uniform and puts it on, lays on a bed and promptly falls asleep. When he wakes, the ghost they were looking for is about to go to town on his junk. Apparently this sequence was largely cut, but I’m betting none of them wanted to ditch the blowjob joke, so they sandwiched it into the montage (and it also explains the old war uniform Ray is wearing beyond the fact that they morphed the scene into a dream.)  What’s even weirder is that this is actually the culmination of a plot thread in the book where Ray is both lonely and changing his feelings about catching the ghosts. Since Peter is courting Dana and (in the book) Egon and Janine are becoming an item, Ray is looking to blow off some steam, and the experience with the ghost is just what he was looking for. Also, there’s a bit with Ray thinking about how it might be wrong to catch these ghosts just to jail them in the containment unit, and when he awakes to his spectral date-night he wonders if maybe some ghosts are good.

The author, Mueller, actually expands the sexuality in the novel here and there. For instance, everyone thinks about sex to one degree or another, but if I’m used to dealing with a character where this is never brought up, say the Librarian in the opening sequence of Ghostbusters, then when she starts “thinking” about how she feels guilty for seeking out all kinds of ancient kinky woodcuts featuring taboo sexual practices in the library’s non-public collection, well, I get a little weirded out. As far as I can tell, the librarian character in the script is slightly different; she’s written to be rotund and in her mid to late twenties, but for all intents and purposes the scene in the script is almost shot for shot what we’ve come to know and love in the final film. Mueller, though, felt the need to paint her as a bit more sad and depraved, which for an incidental character is pretty weird. This sort of thing pops up here and there in the novel, including in the scene where we’re first introduced to Dana as she gets out of a cab and goes into her building. The narrative is fractured into a bunch of perspectives as a handful of people on the street take notice of her and give their two cents. One of these includes an elderly man walking his dog who glances at her and thinks, “…how long (has) it been since it’s been long…

This is actually a trend in 80s era novelizations, and for some movies that might be surprising, like say, the Goonies book

Goonies Novelization

Now you may be asking what could possibly be sexualized in the Goonies, I mean it’s not like there’s a secret love scene between Chunk and Sloth right?!?  Well, Sloth love Chunk, but that’s actually (and thankfully) not explored in the novel, but that didn’t stop author James Kahn from evoking electricity-induced orgasms.  Say what?!  Um yeah.  So in the wishing well sequence, at the end, after Andy has sent up the bucket empty, all the kids realize that they’re covered in leeches. Data has a bright idea and end up strapping two wires to a 20-volt battery. He sticks the wires in the water by his feet sending a light electrical charge through his body that’s lethal enough to kill the leeches. He does this for the rest of them, and afterwards, James Kahn tags on a small scene that is, well, almost obscene. After getting the shock, Andy and Stef are standing off to the side, and Kahn describes them as having “…limp smile(s) and small sigh(s)…” Then Stef says to Andy, “I got all tingly – just my luck, I’m in love with a pond!” After which the following passage appears: ‘It annoyed Andy, for some reason, I don’t know, like someone had made her feel good and she didn’t want to…’ Then Andy hauls off and slaps Data saying “Don’t-you-ever-try-that-again-with-me-Buster!” What the hell! Did Kahn actually suggest that Andy and Stef had orgasms from the electric shock!?!  Yeah, yeas he did.

What I’m really curious about is how much of this was in the original shooting script.  I know the leech sequence was in the script (as it made it’s way into both version of the book, including the leaner kid’s version) and was shot and deleted (and has sadly been lost to time), but how much of the subtly was in the actual film versus something that Kahn added for the book.  On the one hand, looking back this is so weird and out of place in the story, yet I have to remind myself that I was reading about pre-teen and teen orgasms in Judy Blume books when I was 7 years old!

There had to be flicks that were completely pure and free from blowjobs and sexual innuendo though right?  I mean you’d never see any of that in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial right?!  Wrong.  Again, taking a look at the novelization by William Kotzwinkle we get a much darker depiction of the story than what would eventually end up on film (well, I’m assuming the following sequences weren’t shot…)

ET Novelization

There’s a sequence in the novel where Elliot, Steve and Gertie’s mother Mary (played by an exasperated Dee Wallace in the film) is so lonely and lost in her own mind that she fantasizes about disappearing from life and, believe it or not, masturbation. (See page 17; the innuendo is there.) She’s also simultaneously dreading the world her children have to face, wondering if they’ll succumb to overdosing on drugs, all while listening in on them playing a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons in the kitchen.  There’s also portions of the book where E.T. becomes weirdly stalker-ish and longs to bond with Mary, starring at her from the closet, thinking about how he could fulfill her needs.  E.T. even gets pretty downright creepy in the sequel novel, E.T. The Book of the Green Planet, where he reaches out to his long lost friend from Earth, melding with the now older Elliot’s mind from across the cosmos.  It comes across very peeping Tom-like, and sort of disturbing.  Experiencing love and yearning “through” Elliot.

ET sequel

All in all, though all of this adult stuff might seem really questionable on the surface of things, again, I’m really glad that these authors and creators took the chance to expose kids to the real world.  Some of it is for the sake of comedy, some of it is important info that awkward pre-teens probably need, and some of it is just exploring deeper adult themes.  Weird, interesting and kind of neat…

Thank you Mr. Scheimer.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lou Scheimer and I regret that I was never able, in person, to say those two little words that can’t even begin to express how I felt, “Thank you.”

Like so many kids who grew up or came of age in the 70s and 80s, cartoons were the cornerstone of our lives. For some maybe only during those formative years pre-K to third grade or so, but for others like me, cartoons have been an essential part of my life for over three decades. As a kid cartoons were an alarm clock on weekends, as well as my introduction to comedy, tragedy, drama, and heroes and villains. They were my inspiration to pick up a pencil and start drawing. They were an escape, a comfort. They helped instill in me a moral compass. They were/are magic. Over my lifetime there are a handful of studios that have greatly affected me to different degrees, Sunbow, Hanna Barbera, Ruby Spears, Disney and DiC, but at the end of the day there really was only one that helped to define my voice as a person and that was Filmation. And Lou Scheimer basically was Filmation.


I’m well aware that no one person is solely responsible for a studio, and I have a very long list of artists, animators, writers, producers, voice actors, secretaries and interns to be grateful for, but from all the documentaries, interviews, and articles I’ve read, Lou Scheimer really did put his all into Filmation and so many of his ideas and principals shine through in every production they released. He wasn’t just a figurehead; he was involved and invested in the art that was being created. The more familiar you become with Scheimer, the more and more you see him in the Filmation stable of cartoons, not only in just tone, but in all aspects of production. The most obvious example is his contribution of voice-work for so many characters I grew up listening to. In so many of the live action series Scheimer provided both credits narration and was constantly heard breathing life into robots and creatures, over intercoms and on computers. He was Dumb Donald on Fat Albert, Bat-Mite and the super computer on Filmation’s Batman. He played Tracey the Gorilla in Filmation’s Ghostbusters, was Zero, the off-screen boss from the live action Ghostbusters show from the 70s, and was Sandstorm on Bravestarr. But to me he was one of the major players that helped to define the vocal sound of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra Princess of Power voicing so many of my favorite characters including Stratos, Orko, Trap-Jaw, King Randor, Swift Wind, Kowl, Mantenna, Grizzlor, Fisto, Spikor, Two-Bad, Moss Man, and the Attack Trak computer just to name a few. Scheimer’s voice has been with me in one form or another for practically my entire life.


Scheimer was also instrumental in keeping animation in the US, and was one of the last hold outs with a studio that had all aspects of creation in-house for the majority of their run. Though a lot of people like to make fun of the studio for its budgetary restraints and re-use of animation, the work, to my eyes, is still beautiful and well worthy of study and deconstruction. I’m still really proud of the two episodes of the Saturday Supercast where Jerzy Drozd, Kevin Cross and I took a stab at breaking down the Masters of the Universe cartoon (Part one and Part two.)

If nothing else, I’m glad that Scheimer had a chance to see the impact that he had on so many lives and that over the last decade we fans have been treated to wonderful releases of a good majority of the Filmation library on DVD. These initial releases, the ones produced by BCI Eclipse, are also chock full of lengthy documentaries on Filmation, the shows, and Scheimer and his family. He made it out to conventions to meet with the fans and together they celebrated a lot of great animation art and childhood memories. Andy Mangels, who produced most of the special features content on those DVDs, also sat down with Lou and co-wrote his biography, Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation, so for anyone interested in his story, there is plenty to delve into.

It’s a little late, but I guess this is my way of saying thank you Lou, for all you did, for living the life that you did and making mine immeasurably better off for it. Thank you.

Cartoon Commentary, taking a closer look at King Gorneesh from the Ewoks…

I’ve been on a kick lately going through my collection of ephemera and animation cels looking for my favorite stuff to pull out and frame.  I recently converted our office into the true Branded HQ and archive, and for the first time in 6 years there’s actually stuff on the walls besides action figures.  While sifting through my collection of cartoon cels, I came across this one of Gorneesh, King of the Duloks from the Ewoks cartoon, circa 1985…


I’m a pretty big fan of the design of these bumbling villains in the series.  There’s something about how they visually spar with the shorter, stubbier design of the Ewoks that really works for me. They’re taller, lanky, and much more slimy in appearance, yet they feel like they inhabit the same world I guess, specifically in the cartoon series (I have a hard time imagining them in the live action Star Wars world without them coming off like the Gungans from the prequels.)  Actually, now that I think about it, the Duloks were a sign of things to come in the overall Star Wars universe, design-wise, but I guess I can forgive a lot of their cartooniness when they’re in an actual cartoon.  Hell, there’s an episode of the series where the Duloks big scheme is to steal the fabled Ewok soap so they can take a bath and get rid of their ever present fly infestation!  Maybe it’s hypocritical of me, and I can accept that, though I think there’s a possibility of them being pulled off less like Jar Jar, and more like the characters in say Jabba’s Palace from Jedi if handled by the right creative team.  Hell, the Ewoks don’t come off nearly as cartoon-y in ROTJ as the Gungans so in TPM.


In particular, with King Gorneesh, I love the animal bone armor he was given, and think that the vertebrae headpiece doubling as a Mohawk was a brilliant flourish.  I also love that one of his ears has been scarred, along with his eye; makes the character design seem really imposing, even though he was sort of goofy in the cartoon.


I also loved the dark, dank, swamp the Duloks called home.  Again, it’s in drastic contrast to the Ewok’s village in the trees, and reminds me of the Legion of Doom’s hideout in the Super Friends cartoon


All in all, whenever I think about the Ewoks series, the first thing that comes to mind is King Gorneesh, as the Duloks were the most striking addition to the mythology that the cartoon introduced.  I remember seeing these Kenner figures on the pegs before I got a chance to see the cartoon and was in awe of a Star Wars villain I’d never been introduced to before.  It’s made the acquisition of the animation cel above one of my favorites too.


Now, if only the animated series would get a proper release on DVD instead of the horrible edit that already exists, I’d be a truly happy Ewoks fan…

Taking a look at the first season of the ThunderCats!

So I recently caught the first couple episodes of the newly relaunched ThunderCats cartoon and it got me in the mood to break out the first season of the original show on DVD and watch a bunch of episodes.  Sort of like the Transformers posts last month, I figured I’d run through a bunch of scenes and aspects that I found interesting.  Before I get to that though, I wanted to say that I’m enjoying this new series even though I think it’s making some very weird choices story-wise.  For the most part I really like the changes the writers have made to the back-story, picking a relate-able age for Lion-O, ignoring the Superman origin of escaping the destruction of Thundera, and introducing some familial ties to the characters; heck, even tying in Mumm-Ra to the legend of the Eye of Thundera feels like a move in the right direction of making sense of the enormous amount of ideas presented in the original series. T here are some odd aspects to the story though, that I feel just don’t work.

First, the concept of treating “technology” like magic, as if it were some mystical unknown fairytale, is just weird and goes against the logic of what technology is.  With magic, which is heavily prevalent in the world of the ThunderCats in both series, there is no real basis for why it works or exists because it’s completely fictional and a product of fantasy.  There’s no science or reason to it, it just is.  Technology on the other hand has its roots in reality, in the simplest of tools (levers, wheels and inclined planes), and even though a graphing calculator might be light years ahead of an abacus, it’s a natural progression of the concept.  Granted the tech introduced in the show is of a more advanced and alien design than what we currently have in the world, but it’s not to say it’s stuff that out of the realm of possibility.  It’s the science fiction aspect of the series.  So to treat technology as if it were a fairy tale, a part of fantasy, though interesting, just seems like a plot device full that’s at odds with itself by the very nature of the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

The other weird plot point is that at the end of the first episode we’re left with a group of ThunderCats that are more less seeking vengeance for the destruction of their kingdom and the murder of their people and king.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good vengeance/revenge story, but I think it’s the wrong way to frame a story about heroes.  The Punisher, the Bride from Kill Bill, Lone Wolf and Cub; these characters aren’t heroes and are beyond redemption.  It’s a weird choice to frame the ThunderCats story with this sort of anger and intensity.  Not only does it possibly lead to unjustifiable actions by the “good” characters, it’s also hard to keep that intensity going over the course of an extended series.  Either every story has to tie into Mumm-Ra and the revolt of the Mutants, or there’s going to have to be a pretty darn good reason to stray from the path to have a stand alone story without it feeling like a waste of time.  The beauty of a lot of 80s era cartoons was that they were set up in such a way that you could go anywhere with the characters.

Well, anyway, that’s how the new show’s introduction came off to me.  Getting back to the original series and the point of this article though, first thing’s first, let’s get the naked cat out of the bag so to speak.  By that I mean…

Why were the ThunderCats freaking naked in the pilot episode!?!

I have absolutely no idea why Leonard Starr (the pilot’s writer) or the guys in charge of production on this series decided it would be a good idea to introduce the ThunderCats as a race of seriously naked cat people.  Not only are the characters naked, but they don’t even have any distinguishing genitalia.  They all have creepy Barbie Doll crotches and it’s just weird and disturbing.  I mean I know there is a history of anthropomorphized cartoon animals that aren’t wearing clothes (Porky Pig’s missing pants anyone), and I understand that there are plenty of mammals in nature that just have the fur on their backs, but this goes beyond that.  Way beyond that…

I mean there’s even a point where Jaga takes all the characters aside and gives them each magical clothing (and weapons) stating that “…on our planet you needed no protective clothing or special weaponry…”.  My question then is why is Jaga wearing clothes from the very beginning then?  I almost get the vibe that Jaga’s been traveling off-world or something, which he may very well have, but from a design standpoint it’s just really wonky.  Maybe it was the writer’s intent to showcase the characters getting fancy new uniforms, but then why not introduce them in some common bland tunics or something that they eventually change out of?


Honestly, it probably wouldn’t seem so weird if the character design on all the ThunderCats didn’t allude to the idea that their faces, chests and neither regions aren’t covered in fur. Or the fact that though naked, they’re all wearing boots.  It also doesn’t help seeing scenes with Kit and Kat, or a naked Cheetara waking up a very young, naked Lino-O.  Maybe it’s just me, but seeing naked women and adolescent young boys and girls in cartoons for kids is just wrong…

Speaking of weird decisions in the pilot episode, why did Lion-O grow to full adulthood while in the suspension capsule?


While preparing for the long journey to Third Earth the ThunderCats are ordered by Jaga to make the trip in a series of suspension capsules that will slow their aging and enable them to survive the trip.  He mentions offhand that some aging does occur, but when their ship crash lands on Third Earth Lion-O has grown to full adulthood and it’s treated like an anomaly.  What’s weird is that none of the other characters seem to have aged at all, including Wiley Kit and Kat who were roughly the same age as Lion-O.  Again, I have a feeling the writers and/or producers wanted the character to be like a child in a man’s body who has to learn to lead the ThunderCats, but their choice to age him up with no real reason was just weird.  How hard would it have been to write a quick segment that showed his capsule being damaged somehow?  I mentioned above that one of the cool aspects to 80s era cartoons was that they were usually set up in such a way that nothing was off the table.  The guys and gals who put this show together really took that to heart though, and these sorts of decisions, to age Lion-O, etc., really point to that freedom to try anything (even if it doesn’t make sense.)

I completely forgot that Wiley Kit and Kat were just as likely to shred some waves as the Autobots and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

One of the first things that Panthro creates for Wiley Kit & Kat are surf/hover boards to give them a little bit more mobility and something to do.  Growing up in Florida it was really hard to not be inundated with the surf and skate culture of the 80s, but I’m not sure how other areas of the country reacted to it.  After moving up to New Hampshire at the end of 1989 I was shocked by the lack of T&C, Billabong, and Maui surf and skate T-shirts at school, and I even ran into some kids that didn’t know what surfing was.  Watching these cartoons though, it’s really weird to see the surfing trend popping up so often.  It makes me wonder how many of the other series feature it?

Sometimes, life REQUIRES arm wrestling!


In Episode 15, The Time Capsule, Lion-O is getting a bit depressed and home sick for Thundera.  At the same time he doesn’t remember all that much about it and Jaga appears to him and mentions that part of their ship’s cargo was a Time Capsule that contained the collective knowledge of Thundera.  The ThunderCats go on a quest to seek out the capsule and Lion-O eventually finds it in a cave, though it’s now apparently been claimed by a caveman that isn’t going to give it up without a fight.  Actually, he won’t give it up unless Lion-O beats him in the most macho of all manly contests, the arm wrestling match!  It’s like watch an animated version of Over the Top, just with no estranged children in military academy, eating cigars and drinking motor oil, or big rig trucks.

The last thing I wanted to bring up today is an aspect of the series that’s very close to my heart, the amazing amount of branding in the cartoon!

Not that long ago I met a guy though my day job that used to play with the Misfits back when the band was still coming together for the first time.  I have a Misfits messenger bag, and he noticed the Crimson Ghost Skull logo and we got to talking about how amazing it is that over thirty years later there are still kids picking up stuff stamped with that image.  Heck, though Jerry Only has been trying his damnedest to keep the band going, most people really only dig the original stuff when Danzig was a part of the band, and that’s been over for about 25 years.  Yet still, that iconic skull has power.  If there’s one thing that came out of the commercial design of the 70s and 80s, this type of powerfully iconic branding was it.  The Autobot and Decpticon symbols, the Ghostbusters logo, Pac-Man, the Atari Logo, the Nike Swoosh, and the ThunderCats logo are just a few of the hundreds of popular logos that are still around to this day.  This show really took this banding to heart and you can see it in almost every aspect of the design from the vehicles…


…to the castles…


…and even the villains. Mumm-Ra’s logo, though almost as iconic as the cat’s head logo, is actually the one aspect of this sort of branding in the show that was really underused.  I’m surprised, seeing as how Mumm-Ra is basically the leader of the Mutants, that they weren’t all sporting the entwined snakes on their outfits, vehicles and gear.  This is actually something addressed in the new series that I really loved.

In particular I love how the ThunderCats logo is worked into the stories of the various episodes because of the Sword of Omens.  Whenever Lion-O is in trouble he can call upon the other ThunderCats by reciting a chant (“Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, ThunderCats HOOOOOOO!”) and then holding the sword aloft.  It then projects the ThunderCats logo into the sky so that any member of the team within sight of the symbol will feel the call and come running…

So not only is the logo plastered on every building, vehicle, article of clothing, etc, it’s even an integral part of the narrative.  In my opinion this is hands down the most brilliant use of branding in a cartoon during the 80s.

Well, come back next week for part 2 of this article where I’ll be talking a look at some of the ThunderCats characters, the crazy designs, and more.

Move over TMNTs, The Transformers are going to Hang Ten!

So, picking up from where I left off last week when discussing some of the things that jumped out at me while re-watching the 1st season of the original Transformers cartoon, there were a lot of things that I didn’t remember from watching the show as a kid.  I really curious to see how the second season holds up to the first considering the franchise really caught on and became hugely popular between the two.  At some point I also need to go back and see how these first 16 episodes stack up against the Marvel comics.

Did you know that the Autobots can SURF!

Whereas a motif in the series is to introduce new characters with specific alt-modes that work in a specific environment (ala Jetfire to help give the Autobots flight capabilities or the Constructicons to enable the Decepticons to burrow under the Autobots base), sometimes this is thrown out the window because there are no toys to back up these needs.  In episode 13, “Revival”, part 3 of “The Ultimate Doom” mini series, the Autobots need to infiltrate the Decepticons new energy station from the sea.  Instead of building a boat or introducing a new character (Sea Spray was a year or so away from release), the Autobots instead decide to catch a tidal wave and secretly surf into the complex.  Hey, maybe skateboarding mutated giant turtles weren’t such a groundbreaking idea after all!?!

Did you know that Soundwave can read your mind?


In episode 5, “Roll For It”, we’re introduced to a new human, Chip Case, who is working in a laboratory with a scientist on an antimatter formula.  Of course Megatron wants to steal it as a means of producing energon cubes, and though he tried to out-smart those big evil bozos by memorizing the formula and destroying the only electronic copy, Chip Chase soon learns the folly of underestimating the Decepticons!  Again, another motif of the Transformers was for the writers to introduce new powers for each of the robots, but largely these were dictated by the plots and from a continuity standpoint didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  For instance, sometimes Optimus Prime’s antennae on his head can work as a long range communications device, yet other times when he’s stranded and needs help these aren’t utilized.  Hell, just consider his trailer which rounds out his vehicle form nicely, but then typically it disappears when he transforms (except the episode where he’s badly injured and Huffer helps out by hauling it back to their base.)

So when Megatron is confronted with Chip holding the antimatter formula hostage in his brain, he simply orders Soundwave to read the puny human’s un-evolved mind.  At first I thought Soundwave was going to utilize some sort of device, but then I was surprised to see him bend down and place his index fingers to Chip’s head, downloading all the pertinent aspects to the formula.  How utterly weird!

So Soundwave was a streetlight on Cybertron?!?

One of the cool aspects to the first episode, and something I’m really glad that the writers and story editors decided to include in the Transformers series was to highlight the Autobot and Decepticon’s alien natures by giving them different alt-modes before they come to Earth.  It isn’t until crashing on the planet and being awoken millions of years later that the Transformers get their iconic alternate modes (Teletran-1 is awakened and send out a satellite that scans various vehicles and items and then sends that data back to be reprogrammed into the Transformers.)  For instance, before becoming fighter jets, the Decepticon seekers Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp have an interesting pyramidal alt-mode, referred to by the fans as Tetrajets…

These al-modes back on Cybertron were typically similar in nature to their eventual vehicles counterparts, with a couple weird exceptions.  Apparently on Cybertron Soundwave was a streetlight!  Granted, as far as spying on the enemy faction goes, this would be an awesome alt-mode, but with the playability factor in mind for the toys this would have been a nightmare.  Some of the characters were also somewhere in the middle of oddly alien and their new Earth counterpart.  Take Laserbeak for instance.  He seems like a weird flying disk, but also has the head of an avian…


Even though this concept was decently thought out by the writers, there was one major stumbling block that couldn’t be overcome (at least not without confusing the young target audience.)  Having an alien alt-mode is one thing, but what about the iconic appearance of the robot characters?  How would the kids know who is who if for instance Bumblebee is introduced in a robot mode that retains some of the parts of his Cybertronian alt-mode, and then changes after he’s programmed to convert into a VW Beetle on Earth?  Sure, he might still be yellow, but then so is Sunstreaker.  Nope, to circumvent any confusion and to keep the iconic designs of the robots intact Sunbow decided to keep aspects of the eventual Earth alt-modes on the characters.  So Bumblebee’s feet are still the front end of the VW Beetle, Optimus Prime still has the big rig front end on his chest, and Soundwave still has the playback buttons of a tape recorder on his chest…

So there was already a 2nd set of seekers, before the introduction of Dirge, Thrust, Ramjet?

In episode 6, “Divide and Conquer”, a group of Autobots travel over the spacebridge back to Cybertron in an attempt to find a crucial component to save Optimus Prime’s life.  While there Megatron orders three Decepticon seeker jets to attack them by causing an acid rain storm.  These seekers have mostly different color schemes than Starscream (red, white and blue), Thundercracker (mainly blue with red accents), and Skywarp (purple, grey and black), and are neon green, bright yellow and completely blue…

Though not named in the episode, these characters are dubbed the Rainmakers by fans (since they create the acid rain storm), and eventually some of them would get monikers.  The green one is named Acid Storm, and was released by Hasbro recently in their Transformers Classic line of toys.  The yellow one is technically unnamed by Hasbro, though there is a seeker jet named Sunstorm with similar coloring that some fans assume is this character.  I don’t believe the blue one was ever given a name or a back story.

So Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon swiped the overall plot MacGuffin from the original cartoon?

Yup, from the three part series “The Ultimate Doom”, episodes 11-13, Megatron conceives of a plan to conquer Earth by building the ultimate spacebride, large enough to reach through space and transport Cybertron into the planet’s orbit.  The idea is to capture the energy released by this cataclysmic cosmic disturbance and funnel it into Cybertron.  Part of this plan even involves setting up Pylons around the globe, all of which is part of the new big screen movie.  Personally I’m not a fan of these films, but it was interesting to see this plot point ripped out of the cartoon…


As a last bit of interesting trivia for the Transformers 1st season, I thought it would important to point out the level of action and violence.  Generally, when I think about the action cartoons of the 80s I tend to remember them having a whole lot of lasers with none of them actually finding any of their targets.  I mean there are running jokes about Cobra Troopers being horrible marksmen and then there’s the idea that the Decepticons must of have a lot of accuracy training between the end of the second season and the beginning of the ’86 film.  The fact of the matter is that there was a ton of violence in the 1st season of the Transformers and actually there are scenes that rival the movie for its gritty reality.  In episode 6 Optimus is hurt so badly in a fight that he’s on the verge of death.  This scene could have been ripped right out of the ’86 film, complete with him lying on an operating table with exposed inards and such…

The main difference between the movie and the 1st season is the finality of the violence.  No one dies in the series, not like in the film, but there are plenty of scenes that surprised me because of how gritty and action packed they were.  Just goes to show that the zeitgeist, though ever-present and affecting everyone, isn’t always accurate.

Taking a closer look at Season 1 of the Transformers…

I’ve spent the last five years building a library of cartoons on DVD and sometimes I fear that I get too caught up in acquiring new series and not spending nearly enough time actually sitting down and watching them.  Since it had been awhile, I decided to devote an entire afternoon of my recent vacation to planting myself on the couch and getting reacquainted with the first season of the Sunbow Transformers cartoon, a feat that I haven’t attempted since I was in middle school.  I’ve always been more apt to watch the 1986 film than the actual series that proceeded it, and over the years I’d forgotten how many of the little things that I loved about those first 16 episodes.  I thought I’d talk a bit about some of the highlights over the next week or so…

So, first things first, can the Autobots fly?

For some reason I was always under the impression that one of the things that separated the Autobots from the Decepticons was the enemy’s ability to fly, regardless if they had some sort of aircraft for their alternative mode.  In fact some of the most common scenes from the series are consist of a sky full of Decepticons either flying into the extended opening to their hidden sea base or while retreating from battle.  But the Autobots on the other hand seemed to very rarely take flight, and when they did it seemed to be limited to Sideswipe or Sunstreaker (the two flashy Lamborghinis of the team) who had jet packs.  That concept always made sense to me since the Autobots mainly consisted of cars and trucks while the Decepticons were an assemblage of jets, birds and insects.  If nothing else, the Decepticons alt modes are fashioned after war or spy-influenced devices and it kind of makes sense for them to have powers above and beyond the heroes.

So I was taken aback a bit by the first few episodes that showcase the entire Autobot team flying into battle.  This is the kind of storyline continuity debate that really brings the nerdiness out in the fandom, and honestly it’s something easily explained by the differences in cartoon writers ideas and how difficult it is to create a consistent set of rules and guidelines when creating a fictional universe.  I’m not sure whether flight was addressed in the Transformers series bible (developed by the story editors and show creators to help the writers keep the series consistent), but my guess would be that writers like George Arthur Bloom and Donald F. Glut wanted/needed the characters to fly for the scenes they were working on and so they didn’t hesitate in making that happen.  I can imagine it’s a pain to have to constantly flip through the bible while writing a script, and I doubt at the time that they were considering that people would be watching these episodes almost 30 years later.

Spike really wanted to blast some Deceptichops!


When the Decepticons come calling the Autobots are usually there to stand up and fight, but every so often they’re just too damaged or scared to carry on the fight.  That’s when it’s Spike’s time to shine, and these scenes usually involve him grabbing one of the Autobots oversized laser guns and then comedically hoofing it into battle.  There’s something really absurd about these scenes, and it’s not the huge blaster he’s toting and firing, but the fact that the Autobots let him get that involved in the battles.  This is the kind of weird logic-defying writing (employing a relatable vehicle character for the audience to feel connected to) that bugs me a bit about the cartoon, and honestly it’s one of the main things that keep me from enjoying the recent big screen adaptations.  I’m watching the Transformers to see giant robots square off, and all the human drama tends to get in the way.  Don’t get me wrong, it can be done well, just look at the original Japanese Godzilla film, but there are times when it’s just a bunch of whining and overly implausible situations that take me right out of the story.  I do have to admit that Spike’s passion to fight the good fight gets to me emotionally; I just wish it didn’t typically involve hefting a blaster that’s bigger than his own body…

Energon Cubes = the Flashiest MacGuffin ever!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from re-watching these episodes it’s that Megatron wants his damn energon Cubes, and like right NOW!  Every single episode revolves around the Decepticon tyrant devising a plan to manufacture energon Cubes, be it stealing energy from a power plant, tapping into the Earth’s core, or utilizing an antimatter formula.  And in every single episode his plans are thwarted, the energon Cubes are destroyed, and it’s back to the drawing board.  What I never understood as a kid was why the Autobots weren’t on a similar quest to find the fuel they need to replenish themselves and to get them back home to Cybertron.  If energon is the fuel that these sentient robots need in order to survive, wouldn’t they all need it regardless of political stance or faction?


Regardless, I love how crazy and versatile these cubes are.  Typically created by Soundwave out of his tape-deck chest, the cubes are clear and empty until filled with some form of energy (from fire and lightning, to oil or ever the energy released by volcanos and natural disasters) after which they turn into a rainbow of flowing back-lit colors.  It’s one of the most stunning light and animation effects in the series, and it certainly helped to define and differentiate the look of the Transformers series from other syndicated action fare of the 80s.

Wait … Hauler?  I thought his name was Grapple, and he didn’t come until later!

One of the things that I was really curious about when re-watching these episodes were which characters appeared and when.  I’ve read in interviews with some of the Sunbow story editors that Hasbro wasn’t overly restrictive in terms of trying to match up characters that were on the toy shelves to those in the current episodes, but then again there was that idea to kill off the majority of the original Autobots and Decepticons for the ’86 film to make room for all the new movie characters on the toy shelves.  From what I can gather though, all of the characters present in the first season were part of the first two waves of toys from 1984-85, and most were from wave one.  The wave two exceptions were the Dinobots, Skyfire, the Insecticons and the Constructicons, all of which were special and more or less had specific origin stories.  Well, except for a character named Hauler who shows up in the first episode only in his alt mode.  What I find strange about this is that Hauler would later appear as the character Grapple both in the cartoon’s second season and in the second wave of toys.  I’m sure George Arthur Bloom, the writer for this episode, included the character in the script with no thought to the release schedule of the toyline, probably after seeing a variation of the toy or box art.  I always find these little mistakes in continuity interesting though…

Reflector, generic Decepticon clone or just as cool as Soundwave?

Finally I wanted to talk about another odd character from the first season that I feel never really got a fair shake, the Decepticon Reflector.  Though he, and by he I mean the three robots that speak in conjunction and make up “Reflector”, gets plenty of screen time in the first sixteen episodes, there’s something awfully generic about his character design that tends to keep him in the background.  I think a big part of this is that he is comprised of three robots that all look alike with the exception of the “main” bot who has different markings on his legs and has the lens of his alt mode camera on his chest.  Since repeated character designs are extremely common in the series (consider the Decepticon seeker jets Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker or Ironhide and Ratchet), when you see a set that has the same color scheme and design it tends to make them feel like drones instead of main characters.  It also didn’t help that the character didn’t receive an American toy release until 1986, and even then only as a mail-away figure which made him even more rare.


I find that this kind of a shame because when you stop and think about it, Reflector is just as dynamic and interesting as Soundwave, but not nearly as popular.  Both characters are comprised of multiple robots (if you consider Soundwave’s arsenal of cassettes), both transform into common household electronics (camera/tape deck), and both are commissioned by Megatron to spy on the Autobots.  Soundwave does have a leg up in that his voice (provided by the ever awesome Frank Welker) is a bit more interesting and iconic.  I think in the pantheon of Transformers characters Reflector is the one that got the shortest shrift and probably deserves a nice Classics redeco toy to be released.

Next week I’ll discuss another handful of topics that struck me including the characters pre-Earth designs, some more interesting and weird powers, and a weird plot connection to the new summer blockbuster Transformers 3!

Creepy advertising for the Spiral Zone

Before I step away from the Spiral Zone for awhile I thought I’d talk about another interesting angle this series took with its advertising and marketing.  Though the Spiral Zone franchise had its share of merchandising (with a small toy line and lunch boxes at least), it potentially reached most of it’s audience outside of the cartoon through the 4-issue DC Comics mini series and its subsequent comic ads in other DC titles back in 1987.  It’s an assumption, but one based on the idea that the comics had a greater reach at the time as they were offered in so many more locations than the toys, and even if the actual SZ comics weren’t connecting with people, comic readers most likely saw the ads while flipping through their favorite titles…

What sort of fascinates me about this advertising is that DC and the ad designers chose to reuse a striking panel from the first issue of the comic featuring the character Tank worrying about his boy who is held captive in the zone.  He’s imaging all the other children sucked into zombie-like obedience to Overload, which Carmine Infantino chose a bunch of ghostly floating heads to illustrate the point.  It’s a striking image, more so in the actual comic than in the ad above as there are many more children depicted so it really nails that feeling of hopelessness and loss.  I think the idea to highlight this panel was both genius and frightening as a way to draw potential young readers into the series by making them the prime candidates for zonification.  Sort of a call to “Read the issue and watch as the Zone Riders take on the Black Widows, or Overload might be coming for you!”

This is sort of a similar tatic used in the editing of the opening sequence for the cartoon series.  After the opening scene with Overload warning the viewers to “surrender or pay the consequences”, there is a barrage of imagery and one bit in particular with is really eye catching.  It involves a short bit where a zoned child is standing in the path of Max Jones as he’s speeding by on his mono-cycle.  Just as he’s about to hit the kid he swerves a bit and garbs him, taking him along on a trip out of the zone…


The totally empty and slightly sad expression on the kid really sells the danger of the Spiral Zone and it’s a bit harsher in terms of disturbing imagery than in your typical 80s cartoon.  It reminds me of some of the darker 80s kids flicks like The Lady in White, Explorers (at least some of the family life subtext behind the Darren Woods character), or more specifically, Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It can be really unsettling to watch children having to deal with the problems of adults, in particular with the risk of imprisonment, slavery or death, and that’s sort of what’s touched on it the Spiral Zone.  The opening credits scene with the kid getting scooped up by Max Jones comes from the series pilot episode called Mission into Evil…


The episode opens with a kid out shopping with his mother at the edge of the zone territory.  Even though there are a bunch of signs and barricades “blocking” entrance into the mists of the zone, the kid wanders over to take a peek and is surprised to hear the faint lilting tune of circus music being played on a harpsichord..

Not able to fight his curiosity the kid gets close enough to the zone that he’s easily snatched up by Duchess Dire and pulled into the murky mists to be zonified.  This sequence feels like it borrows heavily from the influence of Something Wicked and the lure of the circus that two boys just can’t fight.  What’s weirder and even more disturbing is that the boy is left alone to wander the zone, waiting from any possible orders from Overloard.  I guess in a way it’s also riffing on the Pinocchio story as well.


There’s another disturbing turn in this episode after the child is brought out of the zone.  Even though the Zone Riders saved him, he was still under the influence of Overlord and at one point he gets his hands on a laser pistol which he then levels at the heroes.  Though it’s easily taken from him, the imagery is still weirdly out of bounds for 80s cartoons, and it’s an example of how far television animation had come by 1987.