Category Archives: Cartoon Commentary

Shoot Rambo, Smoke that sucka!

More or less, the tone that I try and keep here at Branded is one of an earnest optimism.  Personally I find a bit tedious to read articles filled with ranting and too much mockery, and when it comes down to it, it’s just more fun to talk about stuff that I love.  Every once in a while though, there’s something that I want to write about that stretches the limit of credible good natured excitement.  It might be something that I enjoy, but when it comes down to it I’m probably enjoying it for unfortunate reasons.  Like watching a particularly bad Ed Wood movie (yes, there is a range in his filmography and, no, Plan 9 From Outer Space is far from his worst film), or tuning in to the first couple of episodes of American Idol to see the current year’s crop of horrible singers, sometimes one can’t help but revel in stuff that is just gloriously bad.

For today’s Cartoon Commentary I’m going to take a look at an episode of Rambo and the Force of Freedom which originally aired in 1986.  Produced by Ruby Spears, and based on the action film franchise starring Sylvester Stallone, the Rambo cartoon is one hell of a strange nut to crack and was the keystone in one of the oddest merchandising machines of the 80s.  Throughout the 60s and 70s with the adoption of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system, lines were being drawn around what was considered proper entertainment for children.  For the most part, most films and TV shows didn’t have a ton of crossover appeal when it came to their intended audiences, but there were some that landed in that magical spot smack dab in the middle of the age appropriate Venn diagram.  On top of this, with the amazing blockbuster success of films like Jaws and Star Wars, whole new avenues of merchandising potential were opening up.

So with the release of films like Alien, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Conan, all of which were aimed at an adult audience, the studios were seeing an interest from a much younger demographic and it was making the marketing of and merchandising of these flicks very complicated.  Bottom line, there was money to be made on R-rated films outside of ticket sales, and no one was quite sure how to tap into this pipeline.  With Alien we saw the release of a toy based on the iconic xenomorph (from Kenner in 1979) as well as a series of bubble gum cards and stickers from Topps also in 1979.  In 1982 we saw the release of an Atari 2600 video game based on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre where players strangely took on the role of Leatherface slaughtering npc’s while trying to hurdle fences and cow skulls.  More important to today’s topic is the proposed merchandising of the Conan film back in 1981-82.  Mattel toys were interested in acquiring and developing a line of toys based on the Schwarzenegger fantasy film, and this would eventually morph into the Masters of the Universe toy-line and Filmation cartoon.  Though not direct Conan merchandising, the He-Man and the MOTU franchise was indelibly influenced by the film and barbarian phenomenon of the late 70s and 80s.

So it shouldn’t be that shocking that with the success of the Rambo films, toys, lunchboxes, stickers and a cartoon were soon to follow…

The Rambo films are the quintessential over-the-top American action flicks of the 80s, the second of which is also the textbook definition of a cash-grab sequel.  Rambo: First Blood, Part II, though wildly successful, was an utter parody of the first film, ratcheting up the violence, gore and mayhem a thousand fold and turning movie’s protagonist into a live action cartoon character.  Hell, the title alone shows how commercial this film was intended to be both recalling the title of the first film while also adding the character branding, a colon and a comma.  So while the live action counterpart of the character was busy killing hundreds of characters on screen, it fell upon cartoon studio Ruby Spears Entertainment, and in particular head-writer Michael Chain’s shoulders to try and figure out a way to make an animated series palatable for kids and parents…

   

I can’t help but find this cartoon hilarious and horrible on so many levels.  Drawing on influences such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe A Real American Hero, Rambo and the Force of Freedom tries way too hard to appeal to kids and parents while also trying to stay true to its roots to absurd effect.  Though he totes around an improbably arsenal of combat knives, rocket launchers and machine guns, the Rambo character in the cartoon is more or less played as a pacifist (much in the same way He-Man was characterized in the MOTU cartoon) always looking for a non-violent solution when confronting villains.

Each episode opens with an animated suiting up montage swiped wholesale from the second film.  This is followed by some general plot narration in the style of the A-Team (performed by the legendary Don LaFontaine, here’s the theme song and narration), stating:

“Rambo!   Anywhere and everywhere the S.A.V.A.G.E. forces of General Warhawk threaten the peace-loving people of the world, there’s only one man to call.  Get me Rambo!  From the canyons of skyscrapers, to the canyons of remote mountain peaks, liberty’s champion is unstoppable.  Rambo!  Helped by the mechanical genius know as Turbo and the master of disguises named Kat, the honor bound protectors of the innocent.  Rambo, the Force of Freedom.”

  

All I can say is that Rambo like’s protecting canyons.  “Hey Rambo, a family is being held captive in a nearby suburban home!  Will you help?”  “I don’t know, would you consider the spaces between the houses to be canyon-ous?   If so, I’ll do it!”

Seriously though…no wait, this is the point, it’s hard to take this show serious on any level.  The episode I’m going to talk about today is called Terror Beneath the Sea, and it was written by Steve Hayes.  Typically I look at the first broadcast episodes when I tackle a cartoon, but I only have Vol. 4 of the DVD releases, and this is the one that really jumped out at me (of the eleven available on the disc.)  The basic plot of this episode revolves around a remote Eskimo village that’s being attacked by an insane killer whale named Corac.  Much like the horror movie Orca, the whale pops up at random, breaking through thick sheets of ice in the village and then skating along the surface gobbling up igloos and causing unparalleled havoc…

   

A couple military officers happen to be flying by and quickly land to see what the ruckus is all about.  The whale ends up dragging their plane underwater trapping them in the village.  Apparently when killer whales nonsensically attack an Eskimo village and strand two officers, there’s only one man you can call.  Rambo!  Incidentally, he just happened to be busy saving one of the dumbest children ever born from getting eaten by a grizzly bear at that moment…

   

My guess is that instead of adding a Rambo-hosted segment at the end of each episode teaching kids some general dos and don’ts ala G.I. Joe’s Knowing is Half the Battle segments, the producers thought it would be more effective to include them in the actual episodes.  But rather than trying to tie them into the plot of each episode, they’d just feature an unrelated scene of Rambo spreading him wisdom before having him receive the call that the world needs him.  In this particular episode, we get a chance to see a kid in a forest park watching a bear eat out of a trash can.  Even though there are like six million signs warning not to feed the bears, the kid gets out of the car he was sitting in and tries to feed the bear a hot dog.  Good thing Rambo was there to deter the bear and to point us to the very obvious signs.

Anyway, that segment wasn’t all that bad, but I found it hilarious that seconds after saving the kid, Rambo’s Force of Freedom team pulls up in one hell of a crazy vehicle.  Decked out with both a mounted machine gun and some sort of cannon, this set of wheels is what the team was using to tool around the forest cataloging the animals for the park rangers!  Were they expecting a secret terrorist cell during their scouting mission?  Jesus, talk about over-preparing for the job…

Learning of the killer whale attack and the stranded officers, Rambo and his crew make their way up to the village.  Of course they encounter the crazy killer Corac in a scene swiped right out of Jaws…

In this scene we get some of my favorite lines from Turbo, the master mechanic.  As their boat is bumped by the whale he shouts, “Holey pajamas, what was that!”  Wow, that’s an awesome exclamation that I’m going to have to try and work into my repertoire.  After Corac starts munching on the boat there’s also a great line where Turbo yells, “Shoot Rambo, Smoke that sucka!”  I find it fascinating that the writer was more or less penning dialogue for the characters that is very reminiscent of what you’d hear in an R-rated flick.  Again, it’s another example of the off dichotomy of adapting this sort of material.  Expanding on this weirdness a little is the fact that the production designers on the cartoon decided to include all realistic weaponry instead of taking the G.I. Joe route and creating more futuristic laser-based guns.  So instead of featuring a laser rifle that could be “set to stun”, Rambo instead chooses not to fire on the whale after he spots a weird box on its dorsal fin.  A bit later, after jumping out of the boat onto some floating pieces of ice, Rambo does use his machine gun to help secure his escape from the killer whale by shooting a ledge of ice creating an obstacle between them.  What really surprised me was the realistic firing sound effects, and even some spent bullet cartridges flying off of the weapon.  Weird.

   

Similarly, after they find a secret base where they realize the officers they’ve been looking for have been kidnapped and stored, the team is confronted with a locked door.  Instead of having the mechanical expert pick the lock, Rambo just pulls out his rocket launcher (which he affectionately named Hanna) and from point blank range fires on the door!  Though the writers were trying to be clever in how they showed Rambo using his weapons in a non-violent manner, they only really succeeded in illustrating how insane and unintentionally violent his problem solving skills are.  Again, the unintentional hilarity of a scene like that is just astounding to me.  What’s even sillier is that moments after trying their darnedest to portray Rambo as non-violent, they write a scene where in order to get some information they need he dangles a villain scientist over a pool that houses the killer whale.  Threatened with the fate of being eaten, the scientist tells them what they want to know, and I couldn’t stop laughing at the length to which the writers were willing to basically show Rambo torturing someone to get information.  Granted, I see that it’s tame, especially compared to what Jack Bauer might do to someone on 24, but for a kid’s show in the 80s this was extreme…

   

Also, there are some crazy scenes with the whale furiously writhing around in pain that are both sad, and sadly hilarious…

Anyway, Rambo ends up realizing that the scientist was using a pain-inducing box to train the whale to attack the nearby villages, so he scuba-suits-up (with yet another montage), and makes friends with the whale by removing the box.  After some fun bonding scenes, he and the team take the whale out to General Warhawk’s second hidden underwater base so that they can try and end his wintery evil scheme…

   

   

There was some surprising talent on this show.  In addition to some great voice talent including Alan Oppenheimer (Skeletor), Neil Ross (Shipwreck on G.I. Joe), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Frank Welker (Megatron), and Michael Bell (Duke from G.I. Joe), Gil Kane and Jack Kirby also worked as consultants, I’m sure designing the look of the series and characters…

   

All in all, this series is beyond ridiculous, and lacks all the style and panache of series like G.I. Joe and He-Man.  The characters are ridiculous and the plots are gut-splittingly funny, and honestly I can only recommend the show as an example of 80s excess gone horribly (and hilariously) wrong.  Yet, even so, I still watch it as a piece of my past…

If you’re curious, all 65 episodes were released by Anchor Bay back in 2005 over a series of 6 single disc DVDs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Silverhawks, Part 2: Soaring through the highway of the heavens in their flight…

As I mentioned in the first part of the discussion on the Silverhawks cartoon, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot going on in the first two-part origin story.  Peter Lawrence delivered a pretty bare-bones story that sets up all the main characters of the series, and some general plot points, but overall there’s noting all that interesting about this maiden voyage of the Silverhawks as they battle MonStar and his mob of intergalactic mercenaries.   I spent a good bit of part one talking about what is great about these first two episodes, which is showcasing the dynamic character designs and concepts of the villains.  Today I’m going to take a look at the heroes of the show, Commander Stargazer and the five core Silverhawks characters.

Before I get into the specific characters, I thought I’d mention some of the other design aesthetics in this series that really struck me.  First, from the get-go the artists and writers chose to work in an odd style that blends futuristic and antiquated elements in the design of the world.  With the villains for instance, you have a handful of characters, Pokerface, Buzz-Saw, and Mo-Lec-U-Lar, that seem right at home in an alien sci-fi environment, while some of the others (Windhammer and Mumbo Jumbo) seem more at home in classic Greek fables with their odd style of clothing, and their more mythical designs.  Then there’s a character like Melodia, which seems grounded in the 1980s, the time in which the cartoon was produced, yet not set in.  Also, we can look to the style with which MonStar’s mob is handled, flying through the galaxy in convertible speedsters that would seem more at home in a 40s era gangster flick that a sci-fi action adventure cartoon.

This odd mix of style is a bit more recognizable in the heroes of the series, in particular with Commander Stargazer.  Aside from some gold plated cybernetic enhancements to his face, chest and left arm, he’s basically a character that’s been ripped right out of a Raymond Chandler pulp novel.   The character is decked out in a private dick’s suit minus the trench coat and fedora, which are actually there, just hung up in his office.   Speaking of his office, it’s been retro-fitted to look and feel like something from the 40s or 50s complete with frosted windows, and wood paneling.  Though it’s completely out of place for the environment, it speaks volumes about the disposition and personality of the character.  One look at his design and there’s no question as to who runs Hawk Haven.

As for the actual team, we have Quicksilver (the mission leader), Bluegrass (the pilot and resident cowpoke), the Copper Kid (the only alien of the group), and Steelheart & Steelwill (the brother/sister duo.)   Their overall design is surprisingly un-avian, and more in the realm of clean-lined, organic cyborgs.  They share more in common with the character designs of Robocop or Boba Fett, than they do birds.  In fact, aside from the idea that they have (presumably) metal skin, the basic design of the characters could be considered quite simple and almost boring.  What saves the design, I think, is all the little details, in particular in the rendering where the artists have broken their outer armor into form fitting plates.  All these plates are outlined and have small embellishments, giving them a much more detailed and dynamic look to they’re less T-1000 (from Terminator 2), and more Robocop.   There are a couple of other design flourishes that I really dig which helps the characters keep a bit of their humanity while also making them a bit more dynamic at the same time.  The first is the single bare arm each character sports, an unrealistic but striking affectation in the armor that breaks up the symmetry of the design.   More important is the removable faceplates that each character has for combat/spaceflight.

If there was one gimmick to the designs that really suckered me visually as a kid, it was the faceplates.  First off, the design of the masks echos that of Boba Fett’s helmet, which are both futuristic with their thin visors that melt into very inorganic, alien mouth-pieces, yet they’re also antiquated, mimicking the design of medieval battle helmets.  Remove the lens in the visor/mouth-piece and you’re left with a helmet that wouldn’t look all that out-of-place on a knight.  But the appeal isn’t just in the visual design, as it’s in the functionality.  To put the mask in place, the Silverhawks just have to wave their hand in front of their face (again, mimicking the action of a knight bringing a hinged faceplate down into place before a battle/jousting) and it appears.  With a slight laser light flourish, it’s almost liquid or digital.

Also, there’s some other fun aspects about the simplicity of the characters, from the character names that work into the visual design, the lack of handheld weaponry (instead each character has lasers concealed in their shoulders, biceps and feet), and an interesting way of displaying faction iconography.  With the names, for example we have MonStar, which is really just a play on monster.  Thinking about it, his character design, especially the plotting and scheming organic form, hits on a lot of the basic monstrous iconography (wild hair, sharp teeth and claws, dark, etc.)  You get this with the heroes as well in that their names reflect both there color and aspects of their characters.  As far as the faction iconography goes, I didn’t remember that there was any when I first revisited the show.  There is a definite symbol for the heroes, an eagle head against a triangular background, but it’s mostly worked into the aesthetic of their home base, Hawk Haven.  Every one in a while though we see this symbol flash on the chest plates of the characters, so I’m not sure if it’s a weird hidden cybernetic detail or if it’s just the animators taking liberty with their artistic license…

Anyway, as far as the core team goes, first we have Quicksilver, who’s both covered in silver cybernetics and is arguably the first to head into danger. As the leader of the group there aren’’ that many really personalized traits to the character, probably to give kids a basic hero archetype to latch onto.   As a kid, Quicksilver was the only Silverhawks figure I had, and even though it was kind of cool that you could squeeze his legs together to get his arms to pop to the sides revealing his cybernetic wings, I was always bummed that he didn’t have his iconic faceplate.  I’d turn his head all the way around to mimic the mask with the chromed plastic silver of his “hair”…

Next up we have Bluegrass, the pilot of the Miraj, and all around jovial cutup of the team.   The character has both blue armor and is also a spirited country and western playing, guitar toting cowboy with a Stetson and a neckerchief.   For some reason the idea of space cowboys was common in 80s era syndicated animation.  Between Bravestarr, Silverhawks, the Galaxy Rangers, and Saber Rider and the Star Sherrifs, there was no shortage of intergalactic cowpokes.  Heck there was even a cowboy on C.O.P.S. (though not intergalactic, it is set in a cybernetic enhanced future.)  Anyway, I always thought it was weird that Bluegrass sported a steel mohawk under that Stetson.

The only alien of the team is the Copper Kid, who’s filling in the silent yet fun slot (think Harpo Marx or Teller from Penn and Teller.)  CK is sort of a weird character that’s all over the play in terms of design.  On the one hand he’s a kid from the planet of the mimes, so he comes off sort of as a novelty, or a mascot for the group.  Tiny, with his clashing blue skin against his copper/orange armor he really sticks out in the Silverhawks line-up.   Yet he also sort of painted as the Snake-Eyes/Panthro of the team with his ninja-like reflexes, and his built in boomerang disc weapons (the spherical discs on each hip); there’s never a shortage of action when the Copper Kid hits the screen.  If nothing else, he’s certainly the character that kids are supposed to map themselves onto as he’s typically the one being taught lessons in the stories, and literally at the end of each episode where he’s being trained to be the backup Miraj pilot in a series of PSA like quizzes about the universe.

You can hear one of the lessons here.

Rounding out the team members are the brother/sister combo of Steelheart and Steelwill.   These are the two that I remember the least from watching the show as a kid.  Like Quicksilver they don’t have a lot of obvious or physical character traits aside from the fact that Steelwill is athletic based on his silly looking football inspired faceplate.  The most notable aspect about the duo revealed during the two-part series opener is that their hearts didn’t take to the cybernetic implementation process and they needed to have artificial hearts surgically implanted.  Though this is played off as sort of a heart-warming joke (pun most certainly intended), I think it was more of a missed opportunity for some character development.  Considering the amount of cybernetic implants these characters have, it would be interesting to have a character with more than the rest who has a challenge in keeping their humanity.  Sort of like the trials and tribulations of the Data character from Star Trek the Next Generation, this idea of grasping onto a humanity that’s slipping through one’s fingers is a common theme in cyberpunk fiction and I’m surprised that they didn’t allude to this.  Maybe it’s in some of the later episodes, though I haven’t come across it yet.

Last, but not least, is the single coolest looking spacecraft known to mankind (in my opinion at least), the Miraj.  This star-fighter, consisting of four compartments and launch-able cockpit, has a super sleek design that I was always trying to replicate out of Lego blocks as a kid.   The Miraj is more of a launching pad than a true star-fighter though, carrying the team to a destination where they open their individual canopies and then shoot out into space.  Not only does it look cool, but it also has a cloaking device (which is where it get’s its name), and the exhaust is a multicolored rainbow of energy.  Sure, maybe that sounds a little too “gay”, but as a kid I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

The plot of the second half to this opening mini-movie is again, pretty basic.  After flying up to Hawk Haven and meeting Stargazer, the headquarters is immediately attacked by MonStar and his cronies.  The Silverhawks fly out and basically whip the pants off the villains, showing off most of their capabilities.  There a couple bits that I found pretty interesting including a musical laser battle between Melodia and Bluegrass that ends in a true cacophony of energy, and a showdown between Buzz-Saw and Bluegrass where he uses his guitar gun to blow up the saw-toothed android.  But it’s all pretty anticlimactic.   For all his bluster, MonStar packs it in pretty easily and we’re back to the status quo pretty quickly.

Again, these episodes are serviceable to showcase the characters, but they really are kind of boring at the end of the day.  I much prefer the intense backstroy of the Thundercats as a great example of a Rankin/Bass series kick-off…

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Silverhawks, Part 1: A Rainbow in the night…

I realized the other day that while I’ve been making a concerted effort to make my way through piles of magazines, books, and other vintage papers top share on Branded, I haven’t really made a dent in my cartoon collection either.  There are a lot of shows that I loved growing up, as well as a ton of others that I remember fondly, that are just sitting on my DVD shelves begging to be written about.  I think I’m going to try and correct that over the coming year.

Today I want to talk about one of the shows that I was so excited about as a kid, I’d speed home on my bike as fast as I could each day afraid I’d miss an episode.  As I careened home at light speed, I’d literally jump off the bike, letting it fall into a crumpled heap, and then I’d sprint into the house past my mom and any potential waiting snack to flip on the TV so that I wouldn’t miss the opening credit sequence of the Silverhawks.  No joke, as my mom wandered off to close the front door that I’d left wide open, I’d be almost screaming “Tally Hawk!” at the top of my lungs along with the Silverhawks theme song as it played out on the TV before me.

For some reason I have some very vivid memories of actually singing along to the Silverhawks theme song, much more so than any of the other cartoons I used to watch after school.   I’m not sure exactly what it was about the song, but it combined with the breathtakingly pretty animation must have been pure sugary eye-candy for me as a kid.  Though there were anime overtones to shows like G.I. Joe, Dungeons and Dragons, and Jem (which were all animated by the Japanese studio Toei), it was with the Rankin/Bass cartoons that I feel like I really got my first taste of Japanese influenced animation.  Aside from the well rendered illustration in the cels, these RB productions, Silverhawks and ThunderCats in particular, were also edited with a skilled eye towards action.   At the time I’d never seen characters that were so dynamic and fast.  The animation studio responsible for these Rankin/Bass productions was the Pacific Animation Company, which had alumni like Hayao Miyazaki and some of the animators at Studio Ghibli, so the talent pool was certainly high quality.

Much like its sister show, the ThunderCats, the Silverhawks series opens with a two part origin story titled, oddly enough, Origin Story & Journey to Limbo.  Honestly, there isn’t much to these first two Peter Lawrence scripted episodes aside from a lot of story setup where we’re introduced to practically every reoccurring character in the cast (good and evil) and their capabilities.  The first episode is framed as a status report filed by Commander Stargazer who keeps watch over the edge of the galaxy in the space station Hawk Haven (odd because the Silverhawks proper haven’t been introduced and there’s no explanation as to why there is an avian theme.)  His report centers on MonStar, the most unruly and probably the craziest mob boss in the galaxy, who has just broken out of an intergalactic prison and has started putting his gang of ruthless criminals back together.  Stargazer is requesting help in dealing with the menace when we switch perspective to Earth where a group of soldiers and an alien from the planet of the mimes are in the process of being retrofitted with cybernetic enhancements so they can both combat MonStar and survive the trip to Limbo where the series takes place.  Calling upon the tagline of the series, an alien scientist (in his best Bela Lugosi impression) states that to make the trip to Limbo the group must be “…partly metal and partly real…”  This is actually a phrase that’s used ad nauseam in these first couple of episodes, to a point where it’s almost comical.

As far as design and concepts go, I think these Rankin/Bass cartoons are the culmination of five years worth of industry expansion and benefit from the freedom animation studios were gifted with by first run syndication and the softer intervening hand of government “regulations”.  In the explosion of televised cartoon creativity, the Silverhawks and ThunderCats are in my opinion, the resulting mushroom cloud; big, beautiful, and airy.  The one aspect where I think Silverhawks really excels is in the iconic character design of the series, in particular with its villains.  Rankin/Bass used very similar templates with their shows, but the archetypes they chose, in particular those of the villains, were flat out insane and unlike any other cartoons.

MonStar is just crackling with energy and truly frightening aspects, from his mane of wild, flowing black and red hair, to the jagged edges of his twisted mouth and dangerously sharp teeth.   Add to this his black body suit, shiny red chest plating, imposing eye-patch, and his wicked sharp fingernails and you have the makings of a truly scary villain.   But that’s just one half of the character’s design as the Rankin/Bass villains tend to have two forms, one that plots and schemes and a second outfitted for battle.   Using the fiery rays of the Moonstar of Limbo, MonStar can transform into a formidable evil knight with organic red armor platting and spikes all over his body.   His original appearance is mimicked in the armor design with sharp spikes jutting out of his head like the character’s hair and beard, a row of interlocking spikes for teeth, and a black star over his left eye.   This secondary design also mimics the metal bodies of the Silverhawks, which seems to be outfitted for self-contained sojourns into space (even including rocket boosters in his elbows for propulsion.)

This process of transformation is so tangible and visceral.  You can almost feel how disturbingly painful it is as the skin and hair is literally ripped from MonStar’s body while it turns into his armor.   His screams of rage, pain and glee are truly insane, taking the typical megalomania of cartoon villains to another realm entirely.   As a kid, and even now as an adult, I found it completely and intoxicatingly riveting.   No other cartoon villains come even close to matching the ferocity and downright freakiness of MonStar (except Mum-Ra from the TunderCats, which again is also Rankin/Bass), though he’s certainly rooted in the same traditions.   Not only his he visually imposing just by himself, but he also has an indentured, intergalactic steed, a giant squid named Sky Runner who goes through a similar transformation process (initiated by MonStar firing a pink “Light Star” from his eye) that also seems to speak to the transformation of Cringer into Battle Cat on the Filmation He-Man cartoon.   Sure, Skeletor had Panthor, and Cobra Commander had Scrap Iron and Major Bludd, but none of these cartoon villains ever had to intimidate and force their henchmen into subservience.

MonStar runs his mob out of a gnarly castle located deep within a planetoid, which looks like a cross between a giant spiraling drill bit and a torture device.   The set design is wonderful and creepy, in particular MonStar’s throne, which is surrounded by the picking fingers of some rusty machinery that resembles an overturned spider.  When MonStar initiates his transformation sequence, the arms curl upwards creating a sort of star shaped filter for the Moonstar rays to shine through.  Also, on a side note, in another bit of crazy over the top design, to catch the rays of the Moonstar, MonStar’s planetoid needs to be repositioned. His henchman, Yes-Man, operates the controls of some ginormous booster lasers that shift the entire planetoid into the Moonstar’s beams which just seems crazily over the top…

Continuing along with the superb character designs are MonStar’s eight main henchmen.   First up there’s the sickeningly loyal afore-mentioned Yes-Man, a snake-like alien with a dour expression and a penchant for saying “Yes boss…” to every command.  With his curving spine and head drooping down below his shoulder line he comes off as a completely slimy character that will turn on you at a second’s notice.   Yes-Man, like most of the characters are one note, but there’s a purity to there simplistic design that makes them not come off as interchangeable.

Next we have the generically-named Buzz-Saw, who is a robot with launch-able circular saw blades for hands (he also has them on his shoulders, as well as one adorning his head like a Mohawk.)  Though I’ll get into it a little more when I discuss the second episode, Buzz-Saw, though sentient, is a weirdly disposable character who gets blown up more often than simply defeated.  I think it’s really odd to have this type of dynamic with a character, even if it is a robot.  On a separate note, we have Mumbo Jumbo, a fire-breathing robotic Minotaur.  Since his character design is much more organic with his animalistic features and body, I’d be willing to bet that he doesn’t fit into that same disposable camp as Buzz-Saw.  I wonder if this sort of nonchalance towards robotic destruction stems from the depiction of C3P0 in Star Wars, in particular the scenes in Empire where he’s blasted into pieces.   Though it should have come off as disturbing, it was more comedic because he not only survived, but goofily complained for the rest of the film.

There’s also Windhammer, a pale blue-skinned warrior with a giant tuning fork that he uses to control cosmic weather (meteors, wind, lightening, etc.)   I think it’s interesting that the artists and writers of the show chose an almost god-like theme for his design.  He’s decked out very simply in a raggedy tunic, which with his flowing hair and Thor-like tuning fork really evokes a the design of a Roman or Greek god.   Again, sort of like the general design of Mumbo Jumbo, Windhammer comes off very organic in a very inorganic futuristic setting.  On the other hand we have Mo-Lec-U-Lar who has the oddest looking design of the bunch.   He’s resembles an atom, with bulbous protons and electrons, and can shape-shift into other forms, but for all intents and purposes he looks like one of the Fruit of the Loom characters.  I’m not a huge fan of his design as it’s a bit too bulky and feels out of place with the rest of the series’ design elements.

Conceptually the strangest of the mob is Poker Face, a slick looking cyborg with slot machine eyes and a tuxedo.  I think it’s strange that his design is so much more comedic than the rest of his counterparts, in particular when compared to MonStar.  Stealing a bit of the character design of Slythe from ThunderCats is Hardware, a squat reptilian alien who is a master engineer and weapons maker.   Last, but not least and probably my favorite, is Melodia, the new-wave musician who can literally create havoc with her futuristic laser keytar.  Also as a quick aside, Maggie Wheeler provided the voice of Melodia.  She’s probably best known for portraying Janice, the woman with the single most annoying voice known to mankind on Friends.   Anyway, what really jumps out at me is that the artists and writers truly exhibited the idea that nothing was off the table when designing some of these characters.   For example, Melodia fires lasers from her keytar that resembles a long string of pink electric sheet music, complete with musical notes and a jamming soundtrack to boot.   Typically that’s the sort of thing that works well on a comic book page, but would be really difficult to pull of in animation, though I think they do it well.

I think I’ll end this here and pick up with the heroes, as well as more of the design and conceptual elements when I get into episode 2 later in the week.

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I can still hear the laughter echoing from the Filmation Studios hallways 25 years later…

After reading Adam Eisenberg’s Thundarr article from a 1980 issue of Fantastic magazine earlier in the week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of violence and marketing in cartoons, and the whole debacle of Action for Children’s Television in the early 80s.  9.999 times out of 10 there are usually only two reactions to the debate; people either tend to agree with A.C.T. and believe that merchandised cartoons are just 30 minute commercials that have almost nothing to offer children, or they disagree and don’t see the harm in matching toy lines and feel that cartoons are either good for kids or are at least not doing harm.  It’s easy to forget that even though the issue appears black and white, the world is always a weird gray place filled with all kinds of people (that 0.001 out of 10 people.)  For this Cartoon Commentary I’m going to take a look at someone else’s commentary for a change…

Steve (the Evil King Macrocranios) over at the Roboplastic Apocalypse pointed me to a April 25th, 1985 Washington Post editorial by Jane A. Welch, a concerned mother of two who has the most unique (at least I hope so) opinion of the merits of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe property I’ve ever come across…

First off, though Welch’s editorial reads like the semi-crazy ranting that tends to get buried in the lifestyle section of a local paper and is really yesterday’s news on the day it sees print, the story actually caught on.  While doing a bit of research in trying to pin down the impact of Welch’s rant I came across a number of other papers from all over the country that picked up the editorial, so this was most likely Welch’s fifteen minutes.

So what is so crazy about Welch’s commentary?  Well for starters she takes the unique stance that Filmation’s He-Man cartoon has the potential to turn her then two year-old son into a bleeding heart pantywaist!  For once, a parent stands up and says that there isn’t ENOUGH violence in a cartoon and that morality of avoiding fighting and violence is downright un-American.  Welch might just be a long lost relative of Roger Sweet, the initial creator of the Masters of the Universe toy line for Mattel, as she seems to closely mimic his feelings towards the Filmation version of the He-Man storyline.

There are a couple things that I find really interesting in the editorial including the idea that the cartoon and toy line differ so much in execution and tone.  Whereas the toys were designed in the image of fierce warrior barbarians with axes, swords, and rippling muscles, the cartoon, which uses most of the same imagery, all but ignores these violent aspects of the characters in favor of moralistic, fable-like storytelling where He-Man is more likely to thrown Beastman in the mud then physically harm him in any way.  Though this dichotomy is apparent in most cartoon merchandising, it points to the underlying issue that’s really been bugging me about how my generation appropriates pop culture icons.

What I’m seeing is an issue of potential and the wish fulfillment of seeing that potential realized based on the idea of “how things work in the real world.”  So when we have a character like Superman/Clark Kent who is ripped with an unstoppable alien musculature powered by Earth’s yellow sun and very rarely unleashes the full brunt that he can dish out, it’s understandable to want to see this potential released.   What’s more maddening than a cocked gun that isn’t fired, right?   People want to see Superman punch a fist-sized hole right through Lex Luther’s head, because A) he’s got it coming, B) Superman could totally do it if he wanted to, and C) in the “real world”, if a Superman existed, he probably would do it for the “greater good”.  I think the quest set in front of the writers of this type of fiction is how to balance character potential and relatable character depth without breaking the character.   As an aging audience, I think more and more we want to see these characters broken.  As children everything is still new to us and we’re content with going along on the adventures that have limitless possibilities, and this makes serialized stories and ideal experience.   As adults we develop a different perspective on life.  We don’t see limitless possibilities, we see stark reality and the eventually of our own mortality.  Add to this the possibility of a long time familiarity with a character and it’s easy to see how we can take them for granted and want to go to that next step, the step that changes that character forever.

For fear of standing up on a soapbox, I think I should get back to the crazy editorial.  Welch complains that a character that illustrates such obvious violent potential that is never realized sends the wrong message to her son.  The idea that her son isn’t getting enough machismos, that he might learn to solve difficult issues with forethought and compassion actually scares her, which I think is so absurd it’s hilarious.  Even more surprising is her apparent stance on politics of gender, in particular in how it relates to the dynamic between Prince Adam/He-Man and Teela.  She writes:

“And there’s Teela.  At first glance she’s not extraordinary.  He-Man’s female companion has the round, full hips and tiny waist so loved by comic book artists.  The serpentine objects encircling her breasts might seem a bit much for preschoolers, but after all, cleavage didn’t hurt Wonder Woman.

Teela is Captain of the guard.  She isn’t just a soldier, but a leader of soldiers.  No kitchen duty for this woman.  More times than not, she rescues He-Man – or at least helps.  No damsel in distress here.

Again, how is this affecting children?   Young Americans might begin to think that men and women are equals – that sex isn’t necessarily destiny.”

At first blush I was taking this for sarcasm, that Welch was going to make a point about how even though she thinks He-Man is a bit of a emotional cream puff, at least Teela is handled as strong and independent.   But in re-reading it I don’t think she’s kidding.   I think she yearns for a more subservient female role model, which is strange since she brings up Wonder Woman, who’s about as strong and independent a role model for women there is in pop culture (well, except for maybe Xena.)

I want to believe that the whole editorial is a joke, or more accurately that it was snidely disguised social commentary with a tongue firmly planted in the writer’s cheek, but I’m scared that it isn’t.  What’s troubling is that in the version carried by some of the other papers, the editorial is edited, removing some of the more troubling exclamations about gender roles and at the time current American military skirmishes.  The above exceprt about Teela is reduced to the following when the editorial appears on May 8th in the Orlando Sentinel:

“…and his female companion, Teela, is a decidedly modern woman.  She’s not only a soldier, she’s a leader of soldiers.”

The question I have is, are editorials edited by the paper’s staff, or did Welch submit her thoughts to various papers in different iterations?  Either way, the clear message of useless morals and backward antiquated roles for men and women is absurdly hilarious and just a little bit frightening.  If the editorial was published as widely as it appears, I can only hope it made its way into the Filmation studios because I think I can still hear the laughter echoing from those hallways after 25 years, and it’s deep, rich and “…sounds like Gary Owens in an echo chamber…”

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Man, I miss Steve Gerber…

I found some time this weekend and scanned another Thundarr the Barbarian article.  This one comes from an issue of Fantastic from 1980, though for the life of me I can’t remember which month.  It was written by Adam Eisenberg and makes a nice companion piece to the Fangoria/Buzz Dixon article I posted before, though it centers on more of the limitations and censorship the series had to overcome because of the imposed network standards and practices…

I know I tend to go on and on about this idea time and again, but I think it’s interesting to note just how important the 1980-1983 timeframe was for modern action animation.  In the piece Steve Gerber talks a little bit about the collective intentions to bring the “action” back to action/adventure cartoons while creating Thundarr with Joe Ruby (of Ruby Spears.)   First off, though he was already working in animation doing production design for Hanna Barbera, Jack Kirby was probably hot on Gerber and Ruby’s minds because of what he brought to the table for Marvel and DC comics.   I think it’s really cool to see an animation production team playing to the strengths of their contracted talent instead of trying to force them to bend in another direction, which doesn’t always bode well in network/studio environment.

At the same time, Gerber admits that even while shooting for the stars in terms of creating a thrilling action oriented cartoon they still had their hands tied to an extent where their barbarian hero couldn’t “…throw a punch or…even hit anybody.  He can do all kids of acrobatic things, but he can’t even trip anyone.”  This kind of over protective standards and practices is equal parts infuriating and incredibly flooring.  Whereas it’s frustrating to watch a cartoon that centers around a barbarian that you just know wants to knock the block off of every douche-bag wizard that he runs across (they are enslaving humanity you know), these limitations opened the door to exploring another heroic archetype, the strong non-violent hero (think He-Man.)  Though I know it’s really easy to bag on the He-Man ideal for being too goodie good and unrealistic, this kind of storytelling is not always about focusing on the visceral and gritty realism.  Sometimes it’s about fables and though I know this is obvious, morality.  This is what’s really cool about a great creative environment, that there is room to explore both paths (and more), so you can have something more fist in the face like G.I. Joe, something more moral like Masters of the Universe, and something inbetween like Thundarr.

So this short period in animation is so interesting to me because it marks the beginning of the end of 10 long years of anti-integrity self-imposed studio censorship…

Similarly Gerber and Ruby found themselves challenged by another aspect of depicting violence in cartoons in that they weren’t allowed to have any kind of traditional barbarian sword for the Thundarr character.  According to S&P there could be no sharp objects like knives or swords.  Though it could have hampered some of the design aesthetic on the show this limitation pushed them to create something interesting and new in Thundarr’s Sunsword.   Trying to sidestep riffing too much off of Star Wars the sword was designed to have a blade forged from a bolt of lightning.   Again, even though they were hampered by network S&P the crew ended up treating this as a chance to bring something relatively new to the table, or at least they used it as an opportunity to tie in a different set of influences than a barbarian fantasy cartoon would normally lean on.  It’s less Conan and more Norse god in look and design.  Again, this is certainly playing to the strengths of Jack Kirby who brought a taste of his work on characters such as Thor and the various 4th World creations for DC.

   

Here’s another Gerber quote from the article that I love…

“The big thing that we’ve had to overcome is that the censors tend to treat children as if they’re not just morons, but lunatics, potentially dangerous creatures.”

 

Demon Dogs!

I’ve been getting pretty excited about the impending release of Warner Bros. Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s, Vol. 1 as it’ll finally give me a chance to revisit one of the shows I never got a chance to see much of as a kid, Thundarr the Barbarian.   Granted, it’s only a taste with one episode on this two-disc set, but it’ll be better quality than the various youtube videos that have been satiating my hunger in the interim.  Besides, if this set is successful it might lead to more Thundarr on DVD.

Regardless, I’ve been thinking about the series lately and in a moment of kismet I stumbled upon a couple of Thundarr-centric articles while doing some magazine back-issue research on another project.  These articles are pretty cool considering they largely feature Jack Kirby’s production artwork, not to mention a few Alex Toth model sheets.  I thought it would be fun to share one of them today; written by Buzz Dixon (of Sunbow animation fame) this article was originally featured in issue number 9 of Fangoria magazine back in November of 1980 (when the horror magazine felt a whole heck of a lot more like its sister publication Starlog.)

Since I haven’t really seen a full episode of Thundarr since I was a kid, reading this article puts me right back into that mindset of speculation and hoping the cartoon will be as cool as it potentially can be based on this artwork and Dixon’s enthusiasm for the project…

  

Like Blackstar, Thundarr unfortunately debuted right before the landscape of network and syndicated television was drastically changed in 1982-83.   Because of strict regulations and pressure from parent activist groups there were some crucial missing ingredients that kept most cartoons from reaching their true potential in the 70s and very early 80s.  In particular there was a ban on fully merchandising cartoon series, in particular releasing toys of popular shows, and I think this lack of product awareness hurt that instant recognition a good toy line has on kids.  When He-Man and the Masters of the Universe came on the scene it shattered all expectations of just how popular the combination of a well-designed toy line and thought out cartoon series could be.  Had Thundarr gestated in the minds of Steve Gerber and Ruby Spears just a little longer I think it had the potential to depose He-Man from the throne it seized in the early 80s. 

Not only was it similar in style, design and tone, and thus obviously a successful to the audience, Thundarr pushed the envelope of action animation much further as it was coming from the likes of Gerber and Kirby who were well steeped in comics dynamic storytelling.  The unbridled power that Kirby is well known for can be felt in every second of the animation, even if it’s only a shadow of what he brought to the comics medium.  Add to that Steve Gerber’s wackiness and biting social commentary and you have a powder keg just waiting to explode.   Again, there was so much potential in this series, and I truly believe that a toy line, even a mediocre one, would have ignited it.

  

If I get a chance I’ll scan the second Thundarr article I found this past weekend, though I think it’s filled with the same production artwork.   Now to go back to waiting, though it’s just a couple more weeks before the DVD finally hits store shelves

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Cartoon Commentary, a look at the 1st episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe!

A quick note on the organization of the Cartoon Commentary! columns here at Branded in the 80s.  I’ve been slowly tweaking the tags and archiving of some of the sections on the site for awhile to try and make this beast a little easier to navigate (since the engine Branded is built on doesn’t support a lot of the nicer things like next page functionality, or multiple tags.)  Anyway, I wanted to take a second and point to a new portal page I set up for Cartoon Commentary! which divides the articles I’ve written by cartoon series as well as individual posts.  By clicking on the banner above, or the one in the sidebar to the left you can reach the portal page where you can choose to view all posts on a particular series or the specific episodes from that series.  It should make navigating the site easier so you wouldn’t have to load every single Commentary post on one page.  Next up, wrangling the best that is Peel Here, but that’s for another day…

Anyway, in honor of the release of episode 21 of the Saturday Supercast (where I and co-hosts Kevin Cross and Jerzy Drozd deconstruct the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon series) I thought I’d take a closer look at the first broadcast episode of He-Man, the Robby London penned Diamond Ray of Disappearance which had its debut on September 5th, 1983.

As we mentioned in episode 21 of the Supercast, Diamond Ray of Disappearance does a pretty good job of setting the stage for the Masters of the Universe series.  Though it’s not an origin episode (not many 80s cartoons had the foresight to set up a continuity), it does spend some time introducing a lot of the main characters that populate the world of Eternia, as well as giving a pretty good overview of what He-Man is capable of.   One subtle aspect to this episode’s introductory nature is the opening title card screen that was chosen for this first episode, a shot from space of the planet and its main continents.  You can get a general gist of the main body of lush green jungle-like land, with the icy mountains to the north, a treacherous desert to the south and to the east, which separates the peaceful region with the fire and brimstone of the region that Skeletor overseas to the far east.

As far as the episode proper, it opens on a shot of the imposing Snake Mountain, which again is a subtle way of starting off the series by introducing the main struggle.  I mean, we’re already watching a show called He-Man, and in the opening credits we get the point by point on Adam and his quest, so it makes sense to get into the nitty gritty with Skeletor summoning his minions.  What I really dig about this sequence is that it does a fairly good job of setting the tone for some of the dark fantasy that makes up the periphery of the show.   Between Snake Mountain, and the various spikes and skeletal accoutrements that make up the décor, it sets a pretty creepy tone for a kids show.   Some of the imagery is downright Giger-esque in design, and Skeletor’s throne of bone is only slightly removed from the seriously f-ed up human and animal bone furniture in the Texas chainsaw Massacre flick (or for that matter TCM’s real world influences of Ed Gein and Ilse Koch.)  Granted skeletal imagery and evil in fantasy worlds sort of go hand in hand and could be viewed as pretty tame, but it does has some real world connotations that can get pretty heady, especially for kids.  I just think it was a brave move on Filmation’s part.

As Skeletor calls his henchmen to his side to explain his nefarious plot with the Diamond Ray, I always thought it was pretty hilarious that he calls Merman who just happens to be in the middle of wrestling a huge aquatic monster…

Another thing that jumped out at me in this opening sequence is some of the Filmation visual trademarks that really define the look and feel of the cartoon.  Because of the limited budget the studio had to produce 65 syndicated episodes of He-Man, there was a lot of limited animation and an extensive collection of stock sequences were devised, so that each episode’s new animation burden could be whittled away.  One of these stock sequences features Skeletor in a fit of megalomaniacal fist pumping.   It really is sort of a strange shot, as the edit sort of cuts to an aside soliloquy featuring a mimed or laughing punctuation from the evil leader.

I also thought it was interesting in the first battle sequence that both factions have their own Sky Sleds, though in slightly differing colors…

As a kid I never thought twice about this, but from the perspective of a grown man this seems very odd.   I mean I just always sort of thought that each side designed and constructed their own vehicles.  I know Man-At-Arms is always building and tinkering for the good guys.  Maybe Tri-Klops is doing the same for Skeletor? Anyway, because their both using the same sleds (well except that the evil ones have fangs and the good have molded ears on the gargoyle head that acts as a ram), it gives the impression that there is a third party out there designing vehicles and weaponry for the battle waging across Eternia.

Also, a quick note on Trap Jaw’s character design from toy to cartoon.   I thought it was cute that Filmation decided to keep his little hook/eyelet on the top of his helmet, a feature from the toy that let him slide down a zip-line, but in the show is just ornamental.  I’ve talked before about the differences in cartoon and toy design, and it’s always fun to see stuff that should be exclusive to the toys end up in either packaging art or the final cartoon versions.   I mean typically these little things don’t have to translate from toy design to other media, I mean not that many kids thought too hard about what happens to Optimus Prime’s trailer section when he transforms in the show…

It’s also fun to see a little bit of Star Wars influence on the cartoon.   I mean it came out right in the middle of the hype for Return of the Jedi, so it’s not surprising, but even so it’s fun to see Man-At-Arms wielding a makeshift lightsaber…

I also love the inclusion of Skeletor’s Battle Robots to the show’s list of villains.  Because Lou Scheimer and Hal Sutherland had such strong ideas on the virtual non-violence in the action of the He-Man cartoon, these robots become yet another in a very long line of violence-friendly punching bags…

There was also a scene with the Sorceress’ magic mirror that I thought was neat for a couple of reasons.   One, there is another Filmation visual, a shot framed by He-Man’s feet in the foreground which is just really dynamic.   You see this a lot in Filmation’s cartoon work, these interesting shot set-ups and uber weird camera angles (either extreme worm’s-eye-view or security camera, high up in a corner shots.)   Secondly we get to see the Filmation designer’s mind’s eye view of what it would look like inside this magical universe, which is apparently a world of Atari?!?

The last thing that really jumped out at me in this episode (that we don’t cover in episode 21 of the Saturday Supercast) is an early Orko sequence that has him getting in on the final battle a bit.  There are a lot of character match-ups in this series and this episode in particular.   In fact the set of evil and good characters is almost symmetrical.   He-Man offsets Skeletor, Evil-Lyn the Sorceress, Man-At-Arms and Tri-Klops, Ram-Man and Beastman, Stratos and Trap Jaw, Man-E-Faces and Merman, not to mention Cringer/Battle Cat and Panthor.  Orko though is sort of the odd man out.  There really isn’t a reoccurring character that fits Orko’s bill on the evil side, his bumbling ways are only sort of echoed in Merman and Beastman.  He’s more of an in for the children as viewers, giving them a character to latch onto, one who is a guide to the world of Eternia.

So it’s strange to see him step into the battle at the end of the episode and spin Tri-Klops’ head silly.   It’s sort of out-of-character for Orko, but fun none-the-less.

Again, to listen to Jerzy, Kevin and I wax nostalgic on this episode of He-Man you can download Episode 21 of the Saturday Supercast from the Sugary Serials site (or directly here), or you can subscribe to the show through iTunes.   We’re really proud of how the podcast is developing so far and we can’t wait to tackle more cartoons in future episodes.  We’ve got a lot of big plans…

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Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 5 A Stake in the Serpent’s Heart




Finally getting around to finishing off the Cartoon Commentary! series on the 1st G.I. Joe mini series (A Real American Hero).  This final episode, titled A Stake in the Serpent’s Heart, was first broadcast on September 16th, 1983, and it was the last taste kids would get of the cartoon series until the following year when the second mini debuted.  I’ve said this a number of times recently, but it bears repeating, these first five episodes go a long way in defining the series, and bowing only a week after the first syndicated episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, it also helped to define the next decade of television animation.   1983 really was a banner year for action in cartoons as we also saw the release of Dungeons and Dragons on Saturday mornings, and between these three shows TV animation, at least when it came to action, was free for the first time in over a decade.

Granted, there were shows that flirted with action premises, Super Friends, Blackstar, the Lone Ranger, Thundarr, and Spiderman & His Amazing Friends just to name a few, but all of these shows were just not quite there in terms of bravery.  Even He-Man, for its revolutionary first run syndication, and breaking the ice in terms of injecting action back into cartoons, was still taking a very moral stance on depicting violence.  But G.I. Joe burst onto the scene like Duke amid a group of Cobra Troopers, punching and kicking everything in sight.


So, getting back to the episode at hand, the story picks up from the cliffhanger where Destro and Scarlett are plummeting in an escape pod towards certain doom.  Of course, in the "coming next time on G.I. Joe" segment at the end of the previous episode we clearly see Scarlett running down a Cobra compound hallway, letting all the air out of the opening sequence of this episode…





Where this sequence fails as a cliffhanger, it succeeds in bookending the mini series as Destro leads Scarlett off of the escape pod at Cobra headquarters.  Just like Duke, and with an impassioned fit of feminism from the writers, Scarlett proves herself to be quite the "Woman of Action" as she breaks free and takes on a platoon of Troopers.  It’s another example of that never-say-die attitude exhibited by the Joes, and a more subversive example of imbedding a sense of morality into the show.   In He-Man for instance, this morality would be worn on the show’s sleeve so to speak, and we’d more than likely be treated to an insightful yet, borderline obvious quote from a character.  Here this sense of always doing the right thing and never giving up is written into the action.  It’s still a bit over the top, but much more natural.





One thing that I love about the Sunbow cartoons is their weird villain relationships.  You tend to get a lot of characterization out of these villain characters while watching them bounce off each other.   Like the Starscream/Megatron relationship in Transformers, there’s a weird back and forth between Cobra Commander and Destro.  Whereas Starscream always talks big, he usually backs down to Megatron (except when Megs is at his weakest in the 1986 Movie, but that’s a story for another time.)  On the one hand, Destro seems independent, the head of his own arms dealing organization, yet on the other he’s always vying for and temporarily taking control of Cobra.   Unlike Starscream though, Destro is the more physically imposing in his tête-

Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 4 Duel in the Devil’s Cauldron




One of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about cartoons in the 80s is the tonal shift that a lot of the shows took.  Throughout the 70s child advocacy groups like A.C.T. (Action for Children’s Television) were having a huge impact on the production of Saturday Morning cartoons, in particular pressuring studios to self-censor content.  So most action and adventure was stripped from new shows, and generally humor ruled the day.  In the 80s though, with a new president in the White House who had an eye on freeing up TV regulations, some studios took the opportunity to bring back action and adventure, while at the same time doing their level best to also make the shows a little more educational.  Some studios were more heavy handed than others (Filmation for instance based most episodes around a moral quandary), while others were sort of sneaky about the "good for you" content.


For the most part Sunbow was a bit sneakier about it.  Sure there were the "Knowing is half the battle…" PSAs, bust as far as the content in the actual episodes, it seemed like pretty straight forward storytelling.  This is sort of the genius of the writers, at least in terms of knocking down the wall between educational and exciting & fun television.  Instead of knocking kids over the head with a moral, they injected little subtle ideas here and there that didn’t draw all that much attention.   That was one of the first things that caught my eye while re-watching episode four of the original G.I. Joe mini series, Duel in the Devil’s Cauldron (which was originally broadcast back on September 15th, 1983.)





In the cliffhanger from the episode before, the Joes have been mostly knocked out by a noxious gas emitting from a Cobra canister that Snake Eyes used to bring back some of the eradiated crystals for the M.A.S.S. Device.   The canister was also set to explode, but with some quick thinking on Covergirl’s part, she manages to get the bomb out of the hanger they’re all in.  What caught my eye was when she breaks a beaker of water and then uses a hanky to soak up the liquid.  This makes an impromptu gas mask that she uses to keep from passing out.  Granted it’s not a huge deal, but it’s a little fact like this that’ll sit in the back of a kids brain and one day might come in handy.  I mean education doesn’t always have to be about algebra and world history.   This sort of stuff was peppered all throughout the series, and in my opinion is the way to go when educating kids with television.


Anyway, getting back to some of the visual tropes of the show, one of the main differences between the action figures and the cartoon were the weapons.  While all the toys were outfitted with a menagerie of different kinds of weapons, from handguns and shotguns, to Uzis and rocket launchers, the cartoon was a little more toned down.   Instead of realistic weaponry, most of the characters (good and evil) carry laser rifles and guns.   On the one hand it works toward the branding of the heroes (red laser fire) and villains (blue laser fire), but it also puts the show in that fantastical near-future with advanced technology.





While I don’t mind the laser fire in place of bullets, I always thought the standard issue Joe rifles were a little boring.  They didn’t have a ton of character like other weapons design, and they were typically beige with silver trim which isn’t all that visually exciting.  I always wondered why they didn’t vary the designs a little more…





So this episode has the Joes globetrotting on down to South America for their crack at the third catalytic element, the meteor chips that can only be found in the Devil’s Cauldron.  Like Kevin Cross mentions in the second half of the Saturday Supercast, this has got to be the one location that got all the child viewers excited.  What kid doesn’t love lava?  I mean seriously, what kid didn’t play the "The carpet is now lava and we have to only walk on the furniture…" game when we were young?


The other thing I dig about this sequence is that it’s another great example of backlit animation with the lava.  It’s such a great technique that’s lost in modern cartoons because most, if not all of them, are now drawn digitally.  God bless the popularity of Tron for ushering in 10 years of backlit techniques into cartoons is all I have to say…


I also love the next sequence in the cartoon, if only for its blatant commercialism.  I love G.I. Joe, and I’ll defend its merits to the death, but sometimes the product placement/30 minute commercial aspect to the show was insane.  When Stalker signals the surrender of the Joe army to Cobra via a super secret transmission, the whole thing is a ruse to buy time for the team to get to the meteor.  The gag transmission is being filmed using miniatures on a soundstage that are obviously the Hasbro toys.   I have to agree with Gung Ho, they are pretty darn cute and I for one was never a fan of electric train sets….





Talking about product placement, like the Cobra Moccasin in the second episode, I thought it was pretty interesting to see an early version of the Cobra Rattler, the jets that could take off vertically because the wings would pivot at the hinges.  It wasn’t part of the toy line yet in 1983, and they don’t quite have that nicely finished vehicle design look to them (a bit rough around the edges), but they’re certainly there in concept.  Again, I wonder if this was a case of something being developed for the show that Hasbro thought might make a cool toy.  I wonder how often that happens?





Too bad no one at Hasbro ever got a bug up their butt to design one of the awesome floating battle stations that Cobra used throughout the series…





I’m sure the logistics of creating something that would approximate that would be insane.  Even the 5-6 foot long U.S.S. Flagg was way out of proportion to the Sky Striker toy, and there was no way a kid was going to be able to pick-up a Flagg sized airship.  Still though, it was a cool vehicle reminiscent of the one S.H.E.I.L.D. used in the Marvel comics…





One thing I didn’t really care for in this episode was the retrieval of the meteor.  The sequence with the Joes using the Dragonfly helicopters and the huge magnets was kind of fun, but the idea of playing catch with a net strung between two Sky Strikers was kind of silly…





That’s alright though, because directly after we get a really fun fight scene involving a bunch of Joe strapping on their trust jetpacks and flying over to the deck of the Cobra floating battle station.  Weirdly enough, even though I didn’t care for the previous meteor catch scene, I thought the gag with Timber jumping out of a Dragonfly after Snake Eyes was kind of fun.  Silly fun, granted, but fun none-the-less.





One aspect of the advanced technology available to the Joe team that I never understood is the portable laser prison cells.   I get how it would be both visually fun, and an easy thing to write into the show when it comes to taking a bunch of Cobra Troopers captive during the show, but it seems kind of insane.   How exactly would it work?  Heck, maybe it’s just a regular portable prison that’s seriously electrified.





The last hing that sort of stuck out to me was both how well this episode ended with a riveting cliffhanger, yet at the same time it was totally ruined by the "Coming Next on…" segment.  There’s a bit where Scarlett, tied up and taken prisoner by Destro, manages to finagle her crossbow to fire with her feet, taking out the control panel of the escape ship that Destro is piloting…





The whole idea of them plummeting to their sure death was a great way to end the 4th episode…





But just as we cut to the coming attractions, there’s a scene of Scarlett running down a hallway.   How anticlimactic is that?


Tomorrow I’ll be back with some more G.I. Joe fun, a little surprise that will hopefully break-up all these Cartoon Commentary! posts.   Again, if you’re curious about listening to the Saturday Supercast where I talk about the original G.I. Joe mini series with co-hosts Jerzy Drod (of MLaT comics, the Art & Story podcast, and Sugary Serials) and Kevin Cross (of the Big Illustration Party Time podcast, not to mention a heck of an illustrator), then head on over to the podcast page at Sugary Serials.  The show spans over episodes 19 and 20, for a total of almost 3 hours of G.I. Joe conversation.



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Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 3 the Worms of Death…




I don’t know how obvious it is, but I’m really excited to be podcasting again.  As some of the long time readers might remember, this site started at a platform for a podcast I was doing on my nostalgia memories, but what I discovered pretty quickly is that I had a difficult time getting across the type of info I wanted without having to basically write the whole thing out as a one man monologue show.  Though I talk to myself all the time, the act of sitting behind the mic to record it by myself feels pretty damn weird.   I’m no Spalding Gray, and I have absolutely no yearning to do stand-up, so finding that comfortable place to podcast from is hard.


At the same time though, I love listening to podcasts, and I really want to give a little back to the community, particularly when I see a niche that needs to be filled.  I really think the Saturday Supercast is going to go a long way in filling that whole, which is a deconstruction of cartoons (as well as some other similar fare, but that’s for later.)  There are a lot of fun shows out there that focus on a particular cartoon franchise, but most don’t stray too far past "OMG" and "It’s so cool when…".  Granted, it’s hard not to, with any interest in a subject, this is typically the first sort of gut reaction, but it’s only part of the equation.  Anyway, I just wanted to say again, that I’m having a lot of fun with the new show and I hope some of you take the time to download an episode or two and can get into it.


As I mentioned on this past post, we released the second half of the G.I. Joe discussion, so I thought I’d spend the rest of the week talking up G.I. Joe.  Though I was weaned on He-Man and Star Wars, G.I. Joe was the main franchise I grew up with.   I collected the toy line throughout most of the 80s, and it was the main cartoon that I ran home from school to watch.  There were a lot of other similar shows, and I’m pretty sure I watched most of them, but they were all second choice to G.I. Joe A Real American Hero.  This first mini series is a great example of what the show had to offer, in particular in the second half.  For this column I’m going to focus on episode 3, the Worms of Death which debuted on September 14th, 1983…





One of the things that G.I. Joe did very well was keeping the action and adventure thrilling in the episodes by ending each act break, and sometimes episodes, with a cliffhanger.  When we left off in the second episode, Snake Eyes had shut himself off in a chamber filled with radioactive crystals to save his teammates.  This episode picks up with a still breathing yet, glowing Snake Eyes plodding on.  Honestly, I have no clue what true radiation exposure might lead to (besides burns, sickness and death), but my guess is it doesn’t involve glowing pink (red if you get the new color corrected DVD set.)  Even so it makes for a great visual, and an interesting tête-