Category Archives: Cartoon Commentary

Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 2 Slave of the Cobra Master…

So the Saturday Supercast Jerzy Drozd, Kevin Cross and I recorded recently was pretty mammoth.  We ended up talking about the 1st G.I. Joe cartoon mini series for well over two hours and it was decided to break the show in half to make it easier to consume.  This worked out pretty well for me, at least in terms of spacing out these Cartoon Commentary! posts to coincide with the podcasts.   In the first episode we cover a lot of the basic stuff involved with the mini series as well as diving into the first two episodes.  For this column, I’m going to concentrate on that second episode which originally debuted on September 13th, 1983 and was titled Slave of the Cobra Master.

Again, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the massive amount of Cobra branding that was thrown in for this first mini series.  Above is a nice example of some of the background artwork used to illustrate the Cobra temple.  Not only does that snake make for an awesome temple topper, but it’s also a conduit helping to direct the energy bursts from the M.A.S.S. device.  Also, it’s kind of interesting how intertwined snake imagery was with action entertainment in the 80s.  The cold blooded reptile’s use in G.I. Joe is pretty obvious, but it also served as the design for the obviously named Snake Mountain, Skeletor’s castle in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  Then there are the intertwined snakes in Mumm-Ra’s headpiece on the Thundercats show, and of course I was a huge fan of both the first Conan movie and Clash of the titans, and the duo of James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom and Harryhausen’s version of Medusa terrified me.   Anyway, it’s just a thought…

One of the reoccurring themes in the Joe universe is Cobra Commander’s megalomaniacal Caesar complex (written into the Writer’s Guide), which is illustrated quite well in the first two cartoon mini series’ with the Cobra gladiatorial arena fights.  In the A Real American Hero mini, the fight takes place between two mind-controlled opponents, the captured Duke and the slave giant Ramar.   Again, this is interesting, at least to me, in that it works in fun action, a couple elements of the fantastical, and even a bit of world history, though that last one is a stretch.   Either way, it’s fun and again it works to define the character of Duke who never backs down, not even when the odds are stacked against him.

In fact Duke’s smarts and tenacity are even admired by Destro.  Cobra Commander and Destro are each controlling one of the combatants (Destro has Duke and CC has Ramar), and in mid battle Destro relinquishes control over Duke knowing that he’ll be able to handle Ramar better under his own control.  As a kid I was never all that fond of Duke’s character, though a lot of that could be contributed to his bland character design (and granted it’s only really bland in comparison to the outlandish Joes that would follow and what made up most of my collection.)  Now that I look back at him I think that his simple (in terms of not being flashy) design works perfect for the type of character.  Just goes to show the differences in the two mindsets…

What’s also kind of weird in the Joe universe is that Cobra’s infatuation with world domination and wealth often takes the form of an accumulation of gold.  When CC and Destro make a bet on the arena battle the spoils are pieces of gold (which is also what CC uses to pay off the Dreadnoks in the second Joe mini series.)  I wonder if this was a purposeful way to avoid talking about money in the cartoon, like maybe the producers or story editors (Steve Gerber and Buzz Dixon) wanted to avoid as much real world strife as possible.  We also see gold used as the ultimate coveted element (a very fairy tale like quality to the writing) in its use as a way to escape the mind control devices.  When we’re introduced to Selena, the save girl with a heart of gold (oh geez, bad turn of phrase I know), she gives Duke a thin stick (think bubble gum stick) of gold that will allow him to shirk the headband’s power.  I’m also reminded of an episode of Transformers where there is a pool of gold liquid that when bathed in makes robots invincible to laser fire (great Beachcomber episode to boot.)

When Duke decides it’s time to use the gold strip to break the mind control it unfolds in a very odd way.  I was expecting Duke to be free to do what he wants, which is essentially what happens, though it comes in the form of redirecting the energy used to control the headbands into laser like beams that knock the controllers out of Destro and CC’s hands.  It’s more visually interesting, but it’s also one of those weird leaps in logic that the show is famous for.  To be honest, even as an adult I don’t mind these leaps.

There’s another subtle moment (like in the previous episode where the Baroness in disguise fingers her earring) in the sequence where Selena is helping Duke to escape via the Cobra Viper Glider (one of the few times in this mini series where the writing feels like it’s pushing the toys.)  As they’re talking his Joe class ring glimmers a couple times.  He eventually gives the ring to her so that she can both remember him and so that he’ll remember to come back and save her and the rest of the slaves.  It’s also another sequence to show off his lady’s man side (by the end of the series he’ll have both Selena and Scarlett hanging off him.)

In a weird turn of events, the Joe team rescues the scientist (Dr. Vandemeer) that unwittingly helped Cobra build their M.A.S.S. device.  He helps them to build their own M.A.S.S. device, which is sort of a odd way to combat the original problem on a couple of different levels.  On the one hand it doesn’t seem like a likely answer unless the goal is to use their device to steal Cobra’s device.  I mean they’re matter transference machines, not weapons.   Also, as Jerzy brought up in the Saturday Supercast, it sort of breaks the unspoken rule of using the enemy’s weapons against them, a concept highlighted by the plight of Frodo in the Lord of the Rings series.   It points to the idea of corrupting one’s self to combat corruption, which is pretty self-defeating in terms of a winning end game strategy.   On the other hand, this conceit opens up the plot of this and the following two episodes as both teams race around the globe in search of the rare catalytic elements that power the M.A.S.S. devices.  It’s not just a matter of trying to stop the other side, but scoring these elements for your own team in the process.  It helps set the tone of the series as a whole and it makes the mini visually stunning for all its environments…

The first location explored is the dreaded Sea of Ice in the Arctic Circle where the pink radioactive crystals are located in a cave guarded by Cobra.   I love this sequence because it features some of my favorite Joe team members from the 1st two waves of figures from ’82 and ’83.  Putting myself back in the 1983-4 mindset, I wasn’t all that fond of the basic green fatigue-wearing Joes.   I hadn’t read the comics yet, and I wasn’t paying attention to the file cards yet (and I think at the time my parents were still giving me figures already out of the packages so I didn’t even realize there were file cards to clip), so the characters that stuck out to me were the ones that had interesting visual cues.   First and foremost there was Snake Eyes, who completely decked in black stood out the most of the early Joes.  Then there’s Tripwire and Flash, both of which had cool-looking helmets (with the coveted visors), and the grey and red highlights (respectively) to the basic green fatigues that made them aces in my book.  Scarlett has always been a cool character, and for me she fell into that group of figures I never managed to get my grubby hands on, so I wanted her all the more.  And last, but certainly not least, Snow Job, who was one of the first Joe action figures I distinctly remember receiving (right before meeting up with my Dad after he got off work at a local Florida Red Lobster.)  The sense memory of a mound of empty King Crab leg shells acting as a stand-in for a snowy peak that Snow Job could ski across is burned into my memory.

Anyway, it’s in this set of scenes that we’re first introduced to the Polar Battle Bear snowmobiles, and the evil Cobra Snake Robots

Animation-wise, the scene when the group of Joes enter the cave has some really nice choice camera angles, not to mention some nice shading and shadows (which always tend to make the art look so much richer.)  As a funny side note, it’s kind of odd that Snake Eyes carries a walkie talkie with him seeing that he’s practically mute and all.  I will admit that it’s been pointed out that walkie talkies do have Morse Code buttons on them, and I realize he can listen in, but it’s still kind of oxymoronic.

Something else that caught my eye while watching this episode is the dynamics of telecasting Cobra Commander to the world during one of his maniacal world domination rants.   There are a couple of shots which showcase some of Cobra’s finest troopers running the TV camera.  I guess either Cobra has one hell of a cross training media department, or they’ve spent some time recruiting out of the various A/V clubs in high schools around the country.  It leads to the obvious question, is there a brigade of sanitation troopers roaming the various temples and the Terror Drome in full gear?

Also, even though it isn’t really that much of a miraculous bit of precognition on the writer/designers parts, I thought it was kind of cool to see a quick shot of a suburban home with a flat screen the size of a coffee table on the living room wall.  We’re pretty much living in that age I guess.  Now where’s my personal jetpack and standard issue tan & silver laser rifle?

I’ve mentioned it a couple times in these past couple of columns already, but I thought it was really interesting that the story editors make it a very clear point in the writer’s guide to stay away from using real world U.S. antagonists as enemies in the cartoon.   Instead, the unspoken guideline (I haven’t seen it stressed in print) was to show other countries as allies against Cobra. In this first mini series Cobra’s second major target of their M.A.S.S. device attack is Russia.  Cobra burgles an entire battalion of their tanks and soldiers, teleporting them to the temple base.   I do have to stress that I thought it was odd that this army didn’t put up any fight when they arrived, unlike Duke who practically took on the entire Cobra army by himself twice by this point.

Ron Friedman is the man responsible for the heavy lifting on the writing duties in this mini series (as well as the other three Joe Minis and the G.I. Joe & Transformers movies), and if there is one reoccurring theme that I kind of dig, it’s his inhibition when it comes to potentially offing or downplaying beloved characters.  Granted I’m sure these were decissions that the entire writing staff disscussed, but they tend to occur in his contributed episodes.  Of course his most famous coup in this department is killing off Optimus Prime in the Transformers flick, but he also intended to kill of Duke in the Joe Movie (changed after the animation was finalized and the reactions were coming in to Prime buying the farm), he helped Buzz Dixon depose Cobra Commander in the Arise, Serpentor, Arise! mini, and in this episode basically left Snake Eyes for the soon to be eradiated dead.  Honestly, the show hadn’t been on long enough to really garner Snake Eyes the "beloved character" status, but it was still a gutsy cliffhanger in my eyes.  I mean, unless you’re James Bond or Ursula Andress in Dr. No, there really isn’t any coming back from radiation poisoning so bad your entire body beings to glow.  The "good bye" scene with Scarlett was pretty touching too, with nice shot of Snake Eyes slowly backing up into the radiation cloud.

If the show was every going to be accused of product placement, it’s probably in the scenes involving Duke’s crazy escape from the Cobra compound.  First Selena insists that the only way out is by stealing a Cobra Viper Glider, which Duke of course does, and then proceeds to go on a wacky trip with a bunch of Cobra troopers in tow.  I say wacky because not long after Duke is airborne, he crashes into a tree, and then falls directly into the waiting cockpit of an idling H.I.S.S. tank.  He then speeds away in the tank, through a nearby swamp where he again crashes into an embankment, and then ends up falling into a pit of quicksand.  It’s daring and exciting, but a little bit too Benny Hill for my tastes.

Something interesting I noticed during this chase sequence was another (almost) product placement in the form of the Cobra Water Moccasin.  For a brief second while in the water we see a white Moccasin speed by the frame…

…which is kind of interesting in that the toy hadn’t been released yet.   Most everything that ended up in this first mini series, from characters to vehicles, was already available in the 1982-1983 toy line (with some exceptions like the Baroness, the S.H.A.R.C. which will show up in the next episode, and Duke – who was only a mail-away at the time.)  There was also an appearance of a Rattler-like jet which shows up in the fourth part of the mini, but my guess is that wasn’t tied in with Hasbro.  So the Moccasin showing up, in a different color no less, seems to point to the idea that the writers/designers of the cartoon had access to upcoming vehicle designs.   Either that or their rendition of the water craft struck a nerve at Hasbro who then put it into production.

Anyway, like I mentioned above, the last we saw of Duke he was all but drowning in a pit of quicksand.  What I love about this sequence, and it’s something I never would have thought to watch out for if it hadn’t been for Mark Rudolph’s description of camera angles and blocking in the original Star Trek show (on an episode of the Art & Story podcast), is how interesting it is when a scene is framed by close-up objects in the foreground.   I love the shot of the two Cobra troopers with their legs framing either side of the screen and Duke breast-deep in quicksand.  Not only is it visually interesting, it gives the scene a menacing tone with the soldiers towering over duke and being so close to the "camera" that viewers get a feeling of being too close to the enemy.  It’s a little thing, but it’s a nice touch.

What’s really weird about this sequence though, and what makes me wonder if there is something missing in this segment of the episode is Dukes sudden memory loss and almost death.   Honestly he seems to be playing possum until the Cobra troopers leave, and in the next scene he’s on a gurney being attended by Doc and all of a sudden everything is tense.  If nothing else, why exactly does Duke forget about the whole affair in the Cobra fortress?  It seems like a very weird cliffhanger ending to me.

In the final episode of this mini series there is a segment where Doc is trying to help Duke remember in some sort of sensory deprivation chamber (that looks an awful lot like the bacta tank in the Empire Strikes Back), and his memories are projected onto a screen.  In this sequence we get a glimpse of Duke’s childhood and young adult years where he’s fighting off bullies and being a football hero.  When we talk about this in the Saturday Supercast Jerzy recalled the fact that this sequence of Duke’s younger years was cut on the copy of the official FHE VHS tape for the miniseries.   It points to the idea that there are different versions of the episodes floating around.  I’m pretty positive that there are differences in the original broadcast episodes and the later syndicated ones, if only because as the years go on the restrictions of cutting in commercial time get harsher.  So I’m sure there are a lot of episodes that are missing segments and I have to wonder is Rhino, when they were putting together this mini series DVD might have gotten an edited set of the masters that was missing something.  It’s just a thought.

Anyway, this commentary brings us up to date with what we end up talking about in episode 19 of the Saturday Supercast.  Also, we should be posting the follow-up show, episode 20, in which we discuss the next three episodes as well as touching on some of the more modern incarnations of the franchise, namely the new live action film set to debut in August, the Rise of Cobra, as well as the lead up cartoon even that debuted this past spring called G.I. Joe Resolute.  Also, and I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me mention this, the season 1.1 DVD set of the original G.I. Joe cartoon (featuring this very episode) hit store shelves yesterday and is current available on Amazon for only $17.  Alright, pimp mode off.


Cartoon Commentary! Eyes of the Hawk, Ears of the Wolf, Strength of the Bear, Speed of the Puma!

What a week. I never realized just how insane an office move could be. Even though the physical aspect is over, the residual ripples are still keeping me swamped. I do have to say that the step up in quality in the new office is great. 20 inch flat screen monitors on adjustable arms, hidden PC towers under the desks, so much better than the ancient set up we had before. Now if I can just find the time to blog. BLARGH!

Anyway, the most exciting thing going on outside of crazy work moves is the coming Halloween season. I’m already seeing signs for the seasonal stores popping up, and Party City has already started rolling out its spread. I can’t wait to see what the Target displays look like this year, as well as beginning the hunt for interesting goodies. Can’t wait.

In the interim here’s the first of a handful of Bravestarr animation cels from around 1987. I figured I should begin with the show’s namesake, Marshall Bravestarr himself…

Bravestarr makes the end of the 80s cartoon era, at least in terms of shows that I remember fondly as a kid. For some reason it seemed like interesting shows dried up for a couple years as there didn’t seem to be that many shows that really entertained me. Of course this was also around the time that got into Metallica and started “acting more adult” as the ripe old age of 10. Anyway, Bravestarr also marks the end of an era for Filmation studios as it was their last big show before they closed their doors.

When I was hunting for cels I couldn’t find that many of Bravestarr that featured a nice shot of his face, or a full body shot. The above cel was about the best I could find. I wasn’t sure what he was holding in the scene, but I’ve since found the episode and realized that it was some sort of canister with a rope coming out of it.

One of the complaints I’ve heard about the quality of the Bravestarr cartoon is actually one of the aspects that I love the most, the sketchiness of the black line work. The cartoon feels very rough around the edges this way but I think it adds both character and enhances the western feel of the show.

Cartoon Commentary! A horde quickie!

Today’s Cartoon Commentary! is going to be a quick one as I’m so busy at work I feel like I need an extra set of legs so that I can run in two directions at once.  This cel is another from the She-Ra: Princess of Power cartoon (circa 1985-86) and features one of the Horde Troopers on his wonderous flying machine.  I originally picked up this cel to showcase an example of a more rigid technological item instead of the more common fluid character cels.

What I found really interesting about this is that even though vehicles like this come off very straight-edged and technically perfect, when you get close up to the image you can see that it’s not quite so.  Some of the line work looks like it was done by hand instead of with rulers and stuff, though I don’t have the pencil under drawing to see this for sure.  Because it looks like it was mostly drawn free hand I can only imagine how much of a headache this could be while animating, trying to match up all the little parallel lines and connections between the metal plates and stuff.  Maddening actually.

Next week, less stress at work (laugh) and some cels from Bravestarr!

Cartoon Commentary! Battle Cat in a play bow…

I feel like I’m so behind in keeping a regular posting schedule around here.  My day job is sapping so much of my time lately, and yeah, blah, blah, blah I know no one wants to read about my day job woes.  Anyway, there is a bright light on the horizon though as things are starting to fit into place and are getting back to normal (which means a regular schedule and routine), so hopefully I’ll be back to normal soon.

In the mean time, here is another edition of Cartoon Commentary!, and yet another piece from my 80s animation cel collection.  This week I’m going to take another look at a cel from the Filmation He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, circa 1984-85.  This one features another one of my favorite characters, Battle Cat, the alter ego of Cringer and steed/side kick to the muscled man himself, He-Man.

I think when it comes to Masters of the Universe I tend to fall in love with characters based on their design more than their personality per-se.  So as far as design goes, I really dig Battle Cat, in particular his gnarly helmet/mask, which highlights his almost serpentine yellow eyes.  I also love that the toy and cartoon designers managed to use the red and green color scheme without evoking even a lick of Christmas, which I have to say seems almost an impossible feat.  As far as personality goes, I like that they managed to turn give the Scooby Doo archetype a bit of a twist with his transformation from the meek fraidy cat Cringer into the bold and gruff Battle Cat.

Also, I managed to get a more overall scan of the cel this time so the production notes are included at the bottom (like I’ve mentioned, my scanner isn’t all that big.)  I haven’t managed to decode all of the notes yet, but I do know that the MU-92 refers to Masters of the Universe episode #92.  I’m not positive but I think that this cel is part of a sequence in which Battle Cat is about to leap up, and not the play bow that it appears to be.  Here’s a closer view of the cropped image…

There isn’t a whole lot to learn from this cel and its pencil under drawing.  The one thing I did notice that is kind of interesting is in the pencil drawing.  The animator made sure to color in a couple areas in Battle Cat’s mouth, I’m assuming to show the final ink & paint artist where there would some color variation in that area.  You can see that whoever painted this cel could have misinterpreted the area to the right of Battle Cat’s teeth as another place to paint in a darker red as it appears to be colored in like the area to the left, but upon closer inspection this is just where some of the blue pencil lines came close together.  I can see where it would be easy to miss-color something in the painting process, and again where Filmation benefits from having it all done in house where the communication would be better.

I have one more cel, from She-Ra, to share next week before I move on to another Filmation cartoon that I loved growing up, Bravestarr.

Cartoon Commentary! Loo-Kee another animation cel!

I figured since I started sharing my animation cel collection last week with an Orko Cel from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (the 1st cel I broke down and purchased for the collection), I thought I’d stick with posting Filmation cels for a bit.  Also, I wanted to mention again that because my scanner is relatively small (8"x12") I can’t get a good scan of the entire cel and have decided instead of crop the image so that only the painted image is in frame.  I’m trying to include the production notes at the bottom of the cel when I can, but it doesn’t always work out.  What I need to do is also include a photo of the full cel, which I’m working on (my camera is on the fritz at the moment), but it might take a bit.

Anyway, this week I thought I’d share a cel from the sister show/spin-off of He-Man, She-Ra Princess of Power.  Though I never really watched it when it originally ran I’ve become a pretty big fan of the show in recent years as there are some interesting plot change-ups when compared to He-Man, a cartoon that I loved growing up.  I always figured that She-Ra was just a version of He-Man for girls, and though to an extent it’s exactly that, the premise isn’t quite the same.  The most marked difference is in the power struggle between She-Ra and her arch nemesis Hordak, and the fact that Hordak is in control of the fantastical land of Etheria with She-Ra leading a band of freedom fighters to try and liberate the populace.  Whereas on MOTU where King Randor was in control of Eternia and Skeletor was always attempting to usurp that power, constantly being derailed by He-Man and his friends.  The She-Ra cartoon comes off a lot darker and seems as if it takes more cues from the original Star Wars trilogy than any of the barbarian/sword & sorcery epics that informed He-Man.

Again, since I shared a cel featuring Orko last week I thought I’d share a character from the She-Ra cartoon that is sort of his counterpart, Loo-Kee, circa 1985.  Well, actually, the She-Ra ‘Orko’ would actually be Madame Razz, a bumbling witch who knows She-Ra/Adora’s secret much in the same way that Orko knows Prince Adam is really He-Man, but Loo-Kee also shares some similar characteristics to Orko…

Basically Loo-Kee was a character that was hidden in the background of each episode.  He’d appear before the end credits and ask the viewers if they managed to find him (in a very Where’s Waldo sort of way), and then he’d proceed to give the moral of the episode. I think this is sort of an interesting way to change up the moral-giving aspect of 80s cartoons as it’s now coming from an outside source and can be taken a little bit more as commentary instead of a direct lesson from one of the main characters.  I do believe he ends up mixing with the main cast in a couple of episodes, but for the most part he’s sort of outside the plot and it more of a figure head for the show, much like how Orko seems to figure in as a representative icon for the MOTU cartoon.  He’s also a smaller, almost comic relief type of character, again much like Orko, so I kind of consider him a partial counterpart.

Anyway, as far as the cel itself goes, I was really happy with this one. The painting is on the large size, taking up a good portion of the cell (about 6.5" square) and it’s really colorful.  See color is another draw, at least for me, with animation cels.  Since the cels tend to only have one character or item on them, and since they are typically mostly clear negative space for other cels to lay on top or show through, I find it really cool when the image is striking or vivid.  Loo-Kee was made to be just this as his desing works in practically ever color in the rainbow (except orange and purple, though orange is sort of implied in his skin tone.)  So having the image on the large side and colorful really makes this cel pop.

I even like the depressed, sort of scared expression on the character’s face as it’s an emotion you don’t typically get from him, sort of like an enraged He-Man cel would be.  There’s also very little paint damage, just a few specks of missing paint on his coveralls here and there.  The black linework can out mostly crisp as well in this cel, so it doesn’t end up looking too sketchy or like a bad photocopy.

Something I meant to point out in the last CC! is the quality of work Filmation did with it’s cartoons.  Now I’m pretty much talking out of my ass here as I really don’t know all the ins and outs of the animation process, but from what I can gather just by examining the cels in my collection, the Filmation cels all seem have a little bit more going on in the quality department.  For instance, when looking at the back of the cels where the paint was actually applied, you can see that almost none of the black line work shows through the paint.  Typically I wouldn’t claim a paint’s opaqueness as a mark of quality, but when I was thinking about some of the other cels I have and how you can very clearly see the line work through the paint on the back it occurred to me that you might have areas when paint overlaps that might be discolored because the last color applied might filter through the other layers of paint.  This certainly seems like a quality issue to me.  Also, all of the Filmation cels that I own are larger (11"x14") than most of the other cartoons I’ve seen so far (which range from 8.5"x11" to 9"x12".)  Again, not that size equals quality, but it does free up the artists to work in a little more detail or play around with layout a bit more.

I have to assume this is because Filmation was almost entirely animated in-house as opposed to outsourcing the cel production work.  From all of the special features I’ve watched included in the sets released by BCI: Ink & Paint, Filmation really does come off as a studio that cared a great deal about quality.  It"s funny, people tend to point fingers at Filmation for re-using animation sequences, but by doing so they could afford to keep the whole production together which meant that coordination and communication between departments putting a show together were always the best they could possibly be.  Not that this is something visible from the cel above, but you could also see this in the various series they worked on as there really weren’t that many obvious animation errors like miss-colored characters or unevenly photographed cels, again because of the fact that it was all done in-house.

As far as the pencil under drawing for this Loo-Kee cel goes, there isn’t all that much to comment on.  I thought it was interesting that the animator took the extra couple of seconds to fill in his eyebrows and pupils as it seems like an extra step that’s not needed considering the final cel will have to have these areas filling in or touched up in black paint.  Granted it’s not a large area of black fill in the pencils, but when you compare it to the Orko pencil drawing I shared last week, you can see that they didn’t bother to color in either the ‘O’ on his cloak or the shadow under his hat where his eyes peek out.

Next week I’ll have another CC! featuring yet another animation cel from Filmation…

Cartoon Commentary! is back, KINDA!

It’s been awhile since I had a moment to sit down and sort of deconstruct a cartoon episode for the Cartoon Commentary! column.  I’m not tooting my horn in terms of importance or quality when I say this, but these columns tend to be pretty time intensive including watching and re-watching cartoon episodes, note taking, getting the screen grabs for the scenes I want to talk about, etc.  It’s still something that I want to and enjoy doing; it’s just been on the back burner for a bit.  Before I get too far removed from doing them though I wanted to sort of revive the column by including another facet to my 80s cartoon nostalgia.

Recently I began thinking about how I want to ‘collect’ and remember the cartoons I loved as a kid.  I have a few goals as far as a collection goes, and since I have some silly issues about buying up old toys and stuff off of eBay I’ve mainly been focusing on picking up whatever I can on DVD.  My original goal was to get at least one episode from every show on DVD, but as the format changed and season boxsets became first the rage, and then affordable, I’ve been focusing on those.

Lately though I’ve stumbled unto another money sucking aspect to the collection, but one that really solidifies the idea of ‘owning’ a piece of my childhood, which are animation cels.  Pretty much, for me at least, animation cels represent the ultimate keepsake when it comes to cartoons, as you can’t get much closer to the source material beyond finding a weird Charlie Kafuman-esque way of crawling into the heads of the animators and writers who created these shows (and it’s much less disturbing in that stalker sort of way.)  Also, as far as the collecting gene that I suffer from, I’m the type that prefers the ability to easily look at (my wife would say ‘blankly stare at’) the collection, as opposed to simply squirreling it away with the knowledge that it’s there (which is one of the reasons I can’t bring myself to buy individual comic books anymore as they don’t display well.)  So the nice original hand-painted cels will hopefully look really swell framed and on the wall.  Anyway, I figured since I’m going to be scanning these in as I buy them for posterity reasons, I might as well share them on the site, and it might as well be under the Cartoon Commentary! heading as it fits in really nicely.

Today I thought I’d share the first cel I decided to buy.  It’s a medium sized shot of Orko from the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe show…

Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with the process of traditional animation, each second of footage in a cartoon in made up of a series of drawings and paintings done on cellulose acetate (think of a clear plastic sheet much like a transparency) overlaid on top of an opaque painted background.  Typically, each separate element in an animation scene that moves will be painted on it’s own transparent cel, and then the cels are laid on top of each other to form a scene.  So when I say I’m picking up animation cels for the collection, they are usually going to be one of the individual elements on it’s own cel without the background (as this is pretty much the only way I’ve seen them available for purchase.)  Since the backgrounds are re-used so much they are a bit rarer and might have been sold off in separate lots than the bulk sets of animation cels when studios liquidate their stock.  Also, there are typically a series of production numbers at the bottom of a cel (so the animators can keep track of each cel as there are thousands per episode), and I’m going to try and keep those in the scan when I can, but my scanner only has an 8"x12" bed, so for the Orko cel above I couldn’t fit both the painting and the production notes.

I was really happy with this cel (especially for the price), as it’s a character I adored from the He-Man cartoon and the actual image itself it pretty nice.  He’s floating in a more or less normal pose, which his full body in the shot and his eyes are open.  This points to another aspect of collecting cels that’s sort of weird.  Like I mentioned above, there are thousands upon thousands of cels produced for each and every cartoon covering a whole range of movement and perspective, so it’s a gamble as to whether or not you’ll find a cel where the character or element you want is small, medium or close-up, whether it’s in a weird position, whether the character’s eyes are closed or if there’s an element from another cel intended to sit directly on top of this one you want (in which case that portion isn’t painted as it wouldn’t show on film anyway.)  Sometimes characters are cut-off on the side of a cel if they are entering the scene from either side, and it depends on what you are looking for as to where there is a full body shot or if it’s more of a bust-like close-up.  It really is a crap-shoot.

As far as the actual quality of the artwork itself, this particular cel has survived pretty well over the 24 year or so that’s it been around changing hands.  None of the paint has chipped off or stuck to the pencil under drawing that was included (see below), and all of the tiny little blemishes in the black line work appear to be original from when the cel was first produced.  Again, going into a little bit of the process of cel animation, and I’m certainly not an authority on the matter, but from what I can gather there are a series of pencil tests done on paper that is the same size as the finished cels.  These pencil tests include drawings of the various elements through out their series of movements in a scene.  Each pose is rendered on a separate piece of paper which are them scanned in or photographed to see how well the movement works.  If these pass the inspection, they are passed on to junior animators who fill in the gaps of the movements, again in pencil on separate pages.  When the final set are approved, they go onto to yet another group who use model sheets as guides and they re-draw all the pages so that it all looks like one artist drew the final sequence.  These final pencil drawings are then copied to the acetate cels, either hand inked, or photocopied.  I’m not positive but I would assume with the speed at which television animation needs to be produced that they are typically photocopied onto the acetate and then painters come behind them and paint the cels.

The blemishes in the black linework in the above Orko cel look like a bad photocopy job, is basically what I’m getting at here.  Now, for completeness sake I thought I’d also scan in the back of the cel where the actual paint is applied…

Now the Orko cel above is pretty simple in terms of color choices, there aren’t any shading or color variations in the final image.  So basically it was simply a matter of painting on the back of the cel (so that the front will look crisp and clean) underneath the copied black linework (so that the line work when the image if flipped around will be showing with the paint under), taking care to paint anything perspective-wise that would be closer to the camera (for instance his right hand and ear with overlap both is cloak and hat respectively.)  You’d want to paint the closer aspects first so that they appear to overlap the colors that are ‘behind’ them and so that the red of his cloak doesn’t bleed onto his hands, which would break the suspension of disbelief aspect to the image.  So when you look at the back of the cel you can see that the paint is pretty messy, but because of the way it’s layered it looks crisp and clean from the other side.

The last element of the process (which is actually the last image created before the final cel is painted) is the pencil under drawing above.  This is the final drawing that is transferred onto the cel before it’s painted.  As you can see in the drawing, it’s initially done in non-photo blue lead to get the pose and basic shapes down, and then is ‘inked’ with a regular graphite lead for the final line work.  You can see in the artwork above where the animators kept changing the placement of the tip of Orko’s hat.  When the final pencils are done there is no need to erase the blue under pencils because they won’t copy onto the cel.

So I don’t have a ton of animation cels in my collection yet, but over the next few months I’ll try and share them as I scan them in.

Cartoon Commentary! #18, Snot Bubbles…

Though I thought I was going to be able to knock out the Cartoon Commentary! columns with the 31 days of Halloween with no problem, it looks like I was basing that assumption on the idea that there were about four more hours in the day than there really are. So for the next couple of weeks there frequency might be off a little. I did manage to knock out a lot of the legwork on the next week’s (or two) worth of Halloween posts so I might be able to get to two of these CC! columns a week, but I’m not gonna hold my breath.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a little deeper into the series and a lot of the conventions that had been bothering me (loud color scheme, wacky pacing, insane amount action going on all the time) are becoming a little easier to swallow, or if my mind has finally been able to shift gears from a show like Dungeons and Dragons to this one, but I’m starting to enjoy the experience a little more. There are still a few aspects that I don’t love, but the show certainly has it’s place in 80s cartoon history. Today’s episode, titled The Beef Who Would be King, is chronologically (I believe) supposed to come after last week’s Pizza’s Honor airing on September 27th, 1986, though it’s listed as the second episode on the DVD release (which lists the cartoons in production order.) The episode was penned by the script-writing duo of David Wiemers and Ken Koonce who worked together on a few 80s cartoons including Muppet Babies, DuckTales and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors.

This episode basically revolves around the rivalry between Beef Bonk and Doyle as a diplomatic committee from the planet Cholesterol comes to Galaxy High looking for a new king. Their interest in Beef makes Doyle and his friends a little jealous, so the two decide to put the kingship on the line in a winner takes all race…

The episode starts off with an answer to a question I had about the concept of exchange students in space, which is, where are Aimee and Doyle staying? Typically in the exchange student comedy situation there is a wacky fish out of water scenario involving the student shacking up with a family that is the polar opposite of them (ala Long Dock Dong from Sixteen Candles or Monique from Better Off Dead), but in this cartoon the producers and writers decided instead on a college dorm type of situation. The dorms are connected via a woosher pneumatic tube to the high school just like Luigi’s Pizzeria and the galleria are.

What’s kind of interesting about this opening scene is that the writers do a decent job of working in the concept of gravity in space (or a lack there of) with the gag of having had Beef put an anti-gravity pill in Doyle’s breakfast. A little later on in the episode though, this is all thrown out the window with a different gag that makes it seem like there is gravity in space, which is kind of weird.

There’s a small continuity error in the next segment involving Beef’s woosher patrol sash/belt, which disappears on the monitor screen when the Cholesterolians are spying on him and Doyle.

Though this is a little error, it’s interesting to note that this points to a choice that directors and animators face when using the picture within a picture gag in cartoons. Basically it raises the question of whether or not to simply reuse the existing animation, though shrunk down and cut to fit the screen in the new sequence, or to re-draw and paint the scene taking place on the screen with the reset of the animation in this sequence. You also see this in comic books when panels are repeated for effect with either slightly different art or different speech bubbles, and it’s up to the artist as to whether they re-draw the same panel over and over again, or to photocopy it (or digitally copy them nowadays.) The sash/belt error came about because the director had the animators re-draw the scenes in the monitors instead of recycling the previous animation. What’s also kind of interesting is that neither choice is easier or safe, and both pose possible continuity errors. For instance, in the opening sequences of Transformers the movie, Laserbeak is spying on the Autobots on their moon base orbiting Cybertron. Laserbeak then returns to Megatron and plays back his video, which director Nelson Shin decided to show by recycling the animation from the opening on a monitor. Because of this, and because there were many dynamic p.o.v.’s in those scenes, the whole effect is thrown off a bit because it would have been impossible for Laserbeak to get the shots that are displaying on the monitor (at least without finding a way into the room he was video taping.)

This is a little long winded, but it goes to show that there is a lot of thought and artistry that goes into all aspects of animation, comics and filmmaking that get overlooked by the audience a lot.

On a lighter note, I though the character design work on the Cholesterolians was fun (and sufficiently bulbous and soft for their eating habits), though it reminded me a lot of the Michelin Man (who apparently has a name, Bibendum)…

Though I’ve complained in the past about how busy the backgrounds are in this show (what with the myriad of aliens cramming every scene), I’m really starting to get to like the ‘Where’s Waldo’ aspect to freezing the action and looking through all the different characters. Some of the designs are just sort of weird shapes or almost Seussian aliens, but then again a lot are also anthropomorphic Earthy items. For instance in the three screen shots below we have a hamburger alien, a ‘peas in a pod’ alien, a walking cigarette lighter (that’s an odd one for a cartoon, not to mention a missed opportunity visually), and, well, Mr. Penis man (again.) When, oh when, will the penis gags stop on this show. Heck, by this point I’m almost coming to expect it, like the Dragons in the D&D cartoon.

Another odd subject that’s broached in this episode (for a comedy series that is) is the death of a student. I realize that by pointing this out I’m sort of upping the drama of the situation as it really was meant to be a one-off gag, but it’s still a little weird. Doyle, having just come back from the garbage bin where Beef had wooshed him off to, is supposed to be dirty and smelly as he’s walking down the hall. It’s so bad he’s attracting flies, one of which he takes a moment to smash, only to find out that it wasn’t just a fly, but a student, Harold Horsefly.

Granted, it’s just a cartoon, but I thought it was a little weird, maybe even a little inappropriate, to illustrate Doyle’s problems with integrating into the school by having him mistakenly kill another student, no matter how silly it is. I don’t know. Death is such an odd subject to broach in cartoons..

One thing I noticed that I really respected is that the show had been thought out past the gags they incorporate into it. For instance, the weird notion that everything is alive, like the ships and chalkboards and stuff.  Well we haven’t seen the chalkboard in action since the first episode, yet in the background paintings of the classrooms the board is depicted with robot arms and stuff. I think that this would be an easy detail to overlook, especially in a BG painting, so I’m really happy to see it here.

As far as the plot of this episode goes, I thought it was a little weird that Aimee and Doyle were jealous of the Cholesterolians choice of Beef Bonk as their new king. I guess since Doyle seems to be on his last leg as far as school is concerned, maybe Aimee thought it was a chance for him to make something out of his life, though idea of the characters wanting to leave school this early on into the show is kind of jarring. Heck, you’d think they’d want to be rid of Beef Bonk instead.

Also, the design on the alien’s ship (a sort of flying waffle with a cherry on top and fork satellite dishes) reminds me a lot of a similar design in a Garfield coloring book I had as a kid. I guess the idea of food-centric aliens isn’t a new one (Pizza the Hut from Spaceballs for instance.)

According to a Galaxy High fansite, this cartoon, like many others that made it into re-run syndication after their initial airings, was also subject to the editors knife to make room for additional commercial time. Because of this, about two minutes of footage was cut from each episode, which typically consisted of material that was considered non-essential to the plot like one-off gags. One of these gags was probably the Creep serenading Aimee from time to time in each episode. The website alludes to the fact that this joke was done multiple times in a given episode, so it would make prime material for cutting.

So, in getting back to Harold Horsefly for a second (and to illustrate how silly the whole idea is) there is a scene at the start of the big race in which Coach Frogface eats a fly as he’s announcing the race. Beef even made a joke about Frogface eating Harold earlier when Ms. Mcbrain called on him during roll call. Again, it’s a cartoon and just silly, but why would you, as a writer, use a common horsefly as a student to illustrate the idea that the environment is alien and that you have to respect it, and then include a gag with the coach eating a fly just minutes later? As far as morality in cartoons goes, this is very conflicting. Oh crap, now I’m starting to sound like a member of ACT or something. In my defense, I simply think it’s interesting, not something that needs to be changed. There, I feel a little better (maybe I am looking too deeply at these episodes…)

To illustrate the wacky Tex Avery quality to the show, there is a gag at the start of the race where Doyle and Beef fly though a time warp (represented by a giant clock floating in space, a gag that I think the first Starfox video game also used) and are intermittently switched from being babies to rickety old geezers as they’re driving…

Specking of moral content in this episode, I thought it was fun that the writers decided to make the morals a little ambiguous. For instance, at a point in the race when Doyle realizes that Beef is cheating, he makes a pit stop and tells Aimee that the only way he can win is if he also cheats. Aimee gives the obvious speech about cheaters never winning, and sends Doyle off with a clear head to win the race…

…which he does, reinforcing the moral lesson and all. (By the way, like Penis man, there has been a confetti-throwing scene in every episode so far. What is up with this penis-confetti obsession?)

Now to muddy up the waters a bit, we find out that the Cholesterolians actually celebrate cheating, and therefore Beef Bonk is still crowned King. I thought that this made for a nice spin on the whole idea of morality in cartoons, and it’s used a bit later to illustrate yet another moral lesson, so in the end it all works out.

Now this seems a lot like Kricfalusi design, though again, I’m not sure on what aspects of the show he worked. It just reminds me a lot of the inserted paintings in the Ren & Stimpy cartoon, not to mention the zaniness of a planet made out of bologna, eggs, head cheese and salami.

Also, we get a clearer view of the spaceship and it’s possibly waffle influenced. It’s either that or it’s supposed to be one big pie, which probably makes more sense now that I think about it…

In the vein of getting a little more mileage out of the conceptual aspects of the cartoon (like the muddied morality), I was impressed out how naturally the gag of why Beef was chosen king plays out. First off, the Cholesterolians plan on eating him. There, I’ve ruined the surprise. What I love is that in what should have been some pretty by the numbers joke writing (ala giving Beef a bath that’s actually in a stew, ala Looney Tunes), the writers (or whoever worked on the gag) instead decided to have Beef be given a ‘beef’ tenderizer shower. I don’t know, I just found that really witty and clever.

Similarly, in a segment on the planet, there is a crowd gathered to greet Beef, and there’s a gag concerning two kids spoiling their supper (their Beef Bonk supper). I thought it was a nice extra detail to have their chocolate on a stick be in the shape of Beef’s head. Again, a detail that could have easily been more ordinary and less in on the joke, so it seems a little more thought out.

Now how the candy making denizens of the planet managed to know ahead of time what Beef looked like in order to mold chocolate in his visage is beyond me…

So finally getting back to the whole gravity and morality issues, there is a scene when the students figure out why Beef was chosen as king of Cholesterol and decide to go help him. First off, this plays into the ‘doing the right thing’ lesson, even though Doyle did the right thing before and was still stomped on because of it (Beef winning the race by default because he cheated.) This moral plays out very straightforward but is made a little more powerful by Doyle overcoming his feelings about Beef, and helping him anyway. Second, we’re brought back to the idea of gravity in space as Aimee’s car conks out mid flight and it starts to fall downward (only being saved by a balloon that pops out of the trunk) instead of say drifting forward as they would in reality. Now, I get that the whole falling thing is a funny gag, but I don’t think it’s really funny for the most artistic of reasons. I think it was intended in a very straightforward manner; ship takes off, flies, conks out, and then falls. Ha ha, funny. Now think about a similar gag in say Spongebob Squarepants where it’s raining under the sea. Sure there are your normal rain jokes thrown in, but it’s all encapsulated in the irony of rain under the sea, and it’s obviously written to be that way. I’m not convinced Galaxy High was written this way, it just doesn’t feel intentionally ironic. This is of course, just my opinion…

Okay, I keep invoking his name, but this seems so Kricfalusi inspired…

The idea of milking a giant chicken (who bears a striking resemblance to Beef Bonk for anyone who didn’t think that he was chicken inspired; which also sort of makes this scene weirdly Beef Bonk inspired as his name could be considered ironic considering his appearance, and the cows and chicken here are switched as well), and having to collect the eggs from a bunch of nesting cows seems like something that would fit perfectly into the Ren & Stimpy universe.

For once I was so glad when I heard a very obvious joke in this show as the Cholesterolinas are chasing Beef and his savior Doyle and someone shouted "Where’s the Beef?" I sat through the whole episode hoping to hear that silly Wendy’s slogan from the eighties, as it seemed like it would be a crime if it weren’t used.

Now getting back to the whole idea of these American created and written cartoons being animated overseas.  There is a moment at the end when we can see that the Asian animators added one of their cultural touches to the cartoon. In a pile-up of aliens, there is a pink Cholesterolian on top who is either out-cold or sleeping from the strenuous chase, and he has what can only be described as a snot bubble coming out of his nose. This is a convention in anime and manga that is used to illustrate deep sleep or unconsciousness. Why a snot bubble you ask? Well, why do we use a series of floating Z’s or a pictogram of a log being cut by a saw to illustrate the same point?

I thought it was really cool to see something like this make it’s way into an American cartoon, and it makes me wonder how many other little instances our cultures have crossed in 80s animation.

Well, hopefully later this week, but probably not until next week I’ll get to episode four of Galaxy High, Where’s Milo.

Cartoon Commantary #17, Spookiness in Space…

I was re-reading over the first Galaxy High commentary and I think that I came off a little cold regarding the main characters and how I was viewing their archetypes. I think part of this comes from my mindset after watching 27 episodes of Dungeons and Dragons where all the characters are painted in very broad strokes for the most part. Venger is evil, Dungeon Master and the kids are good, and that’’s just how it was. There are episodes later in the series where the characters are put into some more dynamic situations and end up growing a little bit, but there aren’t that many shades of gray in the show (except for Dungeon Master who can come off kind of suspicious at times.)

With the first episode of Galaxy High, Chris Columbus shook the conventions of the good/bad characters up a bit, for instance by painting Doyle Cleverlobe as an ass in the beginning (in particular in the credits where he not only hogs most of the scenes and song cues, but also ends up treating Aimee like crap)…

Going into the episode I was sort of hoping he’d get his yet at the same time I also immediately felt for him, as he and Aimee were exposed to the weirdness of 80s animated space. I guess at the end of the day Doyle isn’t all that much different from a character like Eric on D&D. Hell, when you get right down to it, Beef Bonk and his stooges aren’t all that different either. I think there’s a part of me (a subconscious part) that really took it to heart when I was a kid that being evil was wrong, and therefore I shouldn’t get behind evil characters. This is kind of crazy though as I feel villains tend to make the much more interesting characters. Take Cobra Commander and his crazy ranting, or the mysterious Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget, both are pretty damn entertaining. Hell most of my favorite characters from childhood fall under the umbrella of evil in one shape or another. I don’t know, maybe I’m looking too hard at these cartoons and finding stuff that isn’t there (well except for that giant penis man in the end sequence, he was definitely there…)

Anyway, just a thought. On to the next thrilling chapter of Galaxy High, an episode that I ended up really liking (though it’s probably because of the season we’re about to jump into; more on that in a bit.) Today’s episode, titled Pizza’s Honor, originally aired on September 20th, 1986 and was written by Larry DiTillio (of He-Man and Beast Wars fame.) DiTillio also served as story editor for the series’ 13 episodes.

I’m not positive, but the title might be a reference to the film Prizzi’s Honor (starring Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) which came out the year before this episode aired, though that film’s themes aren’t really visited upon in this episode.

Out of all the characters on the show, I think my favorite in terms of design and concept is Booey Bubblehead, the girl with the impaired short term memory. I think part of what I like are the clean lines on her bubble head, not to mention that fact that it’s made of glass which gives her color scheme more depth than the average character as there will usually be two shades of the pink used to color her (to illustrate where her collar is behind the glass neck for instance), as well as a shine. This is something that I like about cartoons that are painted with using flat colors; whenever there is any shading needed the animators typically add another layer (possibly on another cel) with a darker shade of the same color already in use, which adds a world of dimension to what amounts to a very flat painting. It’s something that I’ve found in the style I’ve chosen to color my own artwork with. So with Booey this concept is always used to one extent or another simply because of her design…

Something else that I brought up in the first episode commentary is the sense of claustrophobia that the writers, storyboard artists and animators have in many of the scenes as there are at time up to ten to twenty characters on screen. So far in the establishing shots of Luigi’s Pizza there has been a recycled animation scene featuring a bunch of background characters dancing to a band playing up on an elevated stage. The creators chose to animate the point of view of this scene looking up from about waist level and to give both depth and a sense of how crowded the place is they placed out of focus figures close to the camera.

I find this very interesting because it’s a very cinematic move, which is rare in cartoons. Actually this is the opposite of something that tends to give me a headache when watching most animated movies, the fact that every single part of a scene is drawn in perfect focus; there’s just too much information going on and my eyes strain to take it all in. So a subtle focus adjustment on one of the levels of animation actually makes the scene a little easier on the eyes, though it still puts me in a very confined space.

Another thing I’d like to revisit for a second is the odd convention of having Beef Bonk turn blue when he’s angry. I got to thinking about this as well, and I completely forgot about the Hulk, whose thick angry green skin doesn’t bother me in the least. In fact, back when I took a look at the TV pilot movie I mentioned that the show/film’s writer/director Kenneth Johnson had wanted the character to switch from his classic green to a more logical red, which I thought was ridiculous. So why does the switch to blue bug me so much? I think it has something to do with the character’s color scheme to begin with. I’m not fond of the clashing, loud red, yellow, pink, green and flesh colors he sports, and when you replace the red with blue and the green eyes with magenta, it’s just as loud and clashing, so the change doesn’t really grab me the way I think it’s supposed to.

The basic gist of this episode involves a phantom spaceman arriving at the pizza parlor to order 100 pizzas for his master who resides on the supposedly haunted planet Tingler in a manor called Tremble Hall. Doyle, Luigi’s newest delivery boy gets the job of delivering the pizza’s, who unbeknownst to him is being followed by Beef Bonk and his cronies who hope to scare the living crap out of him…

When the phantom shows up in the pizza joint, there’s something odd about him, something I couldn’t pinpoint at first, as there’s a static-y like effect that shivers through him every so often. Eventually he reveals that he’s a hologram sent by his master, which normally would have been just hunky dory, but then I remembered that as he entered the pizza joint he was doing things, turning off lights, freezing the band, etc., things that a hologram shouldn’t be able to do. This is another pet peeve of mine, the idea of introducing technology and then writing it incorrectly. It’s funny because, if there was another explanation, even a made up technology, like solid holograms, then I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but when you go so far to invoke something in particular I think it would be best served to treat it like it actually works. We’ll see this again in this episode…

So, last episode we stumbled upon a little adult themed in-joke between either the storyboard artists or the animators in the form of a giant penis man in a crowd scene. Not that I’ve got my eyes peeled for more penis references, but I think I found another one, though this time a little more veiled. When the phantom stranger revels that he’d like the pizzas delivered to planet Tingler, the supposed haunted planet, the crowd inside Luigi’s goes nuts running in panic. In the craziness there is a character running across the screen that has a very phallic shape to his body (I say his for obvious reasons, though maybe in space there are female penis people, who knows.) In a scene just a few seconds later, the character pops up again, though this time colored more normally (he was tan and flesh colored in the first scene, and now he’s purplish-blue and green and wearing a T-shirt…)

Though in his purplish-blue hue he looks more like a lizard alien, his distinctly phallic shape is hard to ignore (or maybe I’m just seeing this.) What sort of seals the deal for me in terms of this being another veiled sexual reference is the T-Shirt depicting an arrow pointing downtown, if you know what I mean. Granted, I could so see this as being in my own head, if it weren’t for the appearance of the other such ‘alien’ in the first episode. Here’s to hoping giant penis men aren’t to Galaxy High what Dragons are to Dungeons and Dragons…

I do have to say that I really like the design on Beef Bonk’s ride. I’m not a huge fan of the idea that everything futuristic has to be rounded or saucer shaped, ala the Jetson’s. This is something that made the design work stand out for me in flicks like Star Wars and Alien, that the ships were a nice mixture of boxy and a bit futuristically rounded (or in Alien’s case, a floating city mining compound that looks much like what it would probably look like if it were just a compound on Earth.) The squared jets with the soft rounded corners on the back of Beef’s cruiser are nice, along with a subtle nod of the hat to the fined card designs of the 50s. It just really works for me.

Of course it is weird that this is a vehicle that’s proposed to be ready for space travel and yet there is not sort of canopy, not even a rag top hanging on the back. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s a fun cartoon that’s not really taking the space setting seriously, but it still bugs me a bit. I think Futurama did a much better job of dealing with the balance between fun comedy and factual environments…

It begs the question why in the next scene Doyle is stepping aboard the Luigi delivery ship with does have a handy dandy glass canopy. Is this more of a visually pleasing design element or is it because Doyle is human and can’t survive out in space?

I’d like to point out again how weird it is that so many things in this show are anthropomorphic in design. There’s a scene later when the ‘face’ on this ship makes a weird, almost surprised expression when it’s rear-ended by Beef’s ship. I get why it’s done, but I still struggle with the idea if it’s a good idea or not. I think the show feels like it has got one foot firmly planted in a pseudo-reality that makes these weird design aspects too foreign for me. Maybe I just need to let go of that notion and sit back and enjoy the ride more…

Like I mentioned earlier, this is basically a Halloween episode with out all of the trappings of the traditional Halloween celebrations. You know the planet is spooky because of its giant foggy cloud that surrounds it…

So, in dealing with holograms weirdly again, there is a sequence where Beef Bonk, who hopes to scare the crap out of Doyle by using a hologram gun to disguise his car as a monster. The thing that bugs me is that the hologram that Beef has Roland make takes on a corporal aspect, so much so that the car’s new monster jaws can bite at Doyle’s delivery truck, get stuck on the back and force both of them to crash land on the planet. Though I can see where DiTillio was going with this, it doesn’t work for me because of the idea of using a hologram…

It is a fun moment though, and it does get the job done as far as having both parties stranded on the planet.

The two parties end up separated in the crash, and Doyle ends up running into the first inhabitant of Tingler, Mutie (the stereotypical New York auto mechanic.) What’s kind of cool is that Mutie is a reference both visually in titularly to the Mutant creature from the flick This Island Earth (a fact that I only realized because I have a little toy of that character that I got with a set of Little Big Head monster figures a few years back.) It makes me wonder how many of the other characters are similarly referenced from other 50s and 60s B movies…

Now something else that was kind of weird to me in a ‘this doesn’t really jive sort of way’ is the fact that when Beef and his cronies run into some of the other indigenous life forms on the planet that are scarred out of their minds…

The reason that this bugs me is that the character design on the students from Galaxy High leaves little room for scariness. I mean if some of the inhabitants of GH aren’t already scary to Beef, then why would a big tree with goofy eyes be scary? Again, I realize that it’s an aspect to this world that I’m supposed to take for granted, but as a viewer who is trying to get acclimated to the craziness he’s seeing under normal circumstances, this seems a little silly. It ends up working a little better for me later on when the penguins show up…

Another main-ish character that’s introduced in this episode is Ollie Oilslick the resident taxi driver extraordinaire. His amoeba-like design is practically burnt into my psyche and is one of the things I remember most about this show from watching it as a kid.

To reinforce that this is basically a Halloween episode, we get a lot of creepy background design which actually plays really well into the overall color scheme of the show. I really liked the jack-o-lantern rocks surrounding the very creepy grounds of Tremble Hall, which is a very Castle Duckula-esque mansion…

So I mentioned penguins a little earlier. There’s a sequence when Beef, Roland and Earl split up looking for Tremble Hall and each of them comes across a different crazy monster, my favorite of which is vampire penguins. I don’t know why this concept hasn’t been broached a million times before as it seems perfect to me, what with the cold environments and the fact that penguins are basically already dressed for the part. Comparing them to Count Duckula, I almost sort of wish he was a penguin now…

The giant man-eating mushrooms are pretty neat as well, and it was a nice touch by DiTillio to have the two creatures fight as Beef and Roland crossed paths…

As Doyle enters Tremble Hall there are some pretty heavy Rocky Horror vibes coming from the place with the phantom spaceman in the place of Riff Raff, and the Master as Frankenfurter. I though this was a nice touch, though Rocky Horror itself is playing off of countless old horror movies itself, so it might all just be paying homage to the same material.

Though the idea of weird monster aliens doesn’t work all that well for me, I did like the design work on the various creatures hanging around Tremble Hall, in particular the light brown insect looking alien with the nail stuck through its head. Honestly, when I think about it, the whole moral of this story sort of works because the monsters don’t look all that different from the denizens of Galaxy High. Because of this Doyle isn’t really scared of them, so maybe there was sort of a point to this after all. Yay DiTillio for bringing a deeper layer of meaning to something that actually came off as silly, and in a nutshell, this makes a great argument for the artistic validity of cartoons…

By the way, though this episode was the second aired, I think it’s actually chronologically (or possible production order-wise) supposed to be after the third episode which I’ll talk about next, The Beef Who Would Be King.

Cartoon Commentary! #16, Wait until you see what’s in the last screen shot…

Well, here I go with my first episode of Galaxy High on Cartoon Commentary!, and I hope I don’’t blow my wad, commentary-wise, as I’ve mentioned that this show was harder for me to get into than Dungeons and Dragons. Who knows, I managed to take more notes than I thought I would, so it’s probably just worrying for worry’s sake.

This first episode was written by show creator and series consultant Chris Columbus and originally aired on September 13th, 1986 on CBS Saturday mornings. The episode, aptly titled Welcome to Galaxy High, was the only one that Columbus took full writing credit on, but I’m sure he had a hand in the tone of the rest of the series considering he stayed on as a consultant. As I’ve mentioned before, the show’s back story on how Doyle and Aimee come to be exchange students in space is more or less told through the ultra concentrated opening theme song and credits. On Earth Doyle was popular, athletic and not very good in his studies, while Aimee (who is very short changed in the song) was apparently the opposite.

Now, even though he’s portrayed as popular and sort of dumb, Doyle is far from a villainous character (I mean he is one of the points of view we’re supposed to follow into this strange space high school), but there is a tinge of ill will cast over him by a scene in the credits where he knocks Aimee down while playing Frisbee. From the moment the kids arrive at the school, almost every scene for the next twenty two minutes focuses on beating Doyle down and treating Aimee like a queen, to a point where I think the show becomes a little unbalanced.

Also, from the opening shot of the school onwards, the audience is treated to an almost uncomfortable amount of loud colors, sounds and non-stop zany antics. I mean you know you’re in for it when the school’s name is in flashing pink neon above the door…

In fact, the two main colors in the show’s palette are pink and yellow, not always the best combination.

In addition to the scene in the credits, there are also a couple of moments at the beginning where Doyle comes off as an ass, which sort of pit both Aimee and the audience against him, but I think this dynamic would have been a little easier to swallow had we seen some of this in a comfortable environment, like on Earth. In this fashion the show moves a little too fast (in fact, it moves a little too fast in most other fashions as well…)

Though the show doesn’t really break any new ground in terms of plot (there was a very similar premise in the cartoon the Partridge Family 2200 A.D.), I was surprised buy some instances where the show didn’t stoop to the level of making a million Star Trek references. The main mode of transportation throughout the school (and possibly to other locals) is by pneumatic tubes (ala Futurama) and not by transporter beams…

The first resident of Galaxy high that the kids run into is class president, Milo De Venus (whose name is a play on Venus De Milo, though instead of having no arms, he has six.)

For some reason this is when I started counting the number of fingers each character had. Apparently, all of the aliens have three fingers and a thumb, while Doyle and Aimee have the more normal four fingers and a thumb. It seems like you tend to see the three finger hand in more comedic cartoons (like the Simpson’s or Looney Tunes), whereas in more serious or action/adventure cartoons characters typically have four. I suppose that the reason there would be varying amount of fingers in Galaxy High could be to show the difference in Earth and otherworldly characters, but I wonder if it was also influenced by the comedy cartoon convention (if only because the character design would sort of call for it?)

Part of the reason that I was dreading the idea of deconstructing this show is that the cartoon itself was so loud in terms of color palette, action, and character design. I realize that the show is set in the future and in space, but man was this show wacky. Part of this insane wackiness is the fact that everything moves in this show, the characters, the backgrounds, everything. This is very distracting, unsettling almost, and one of the most extreme examples of this is that practically everything at Galaxy high is alive. For instance, Doyle and Aimee are introduced by Milo to their lockers, both of which are basically robots with extreme personalities…

We’ll end up seeing more, much more, of this later as well.

Another comedy convention that I noticed this show delving into is the practice of breaking the fourth wall, which was pretty big in the 80s (just watch Ferris Bueller to get enough to last you a lifetime.)

Seriously, everything is alive at Galaxy High, even the gymnasium…

At this point in the cartoon my head was reeling from things bopping all over the screen. If it was Columbus’ intention to throw the viewer off balance, mission accomplished. What’s funny is that this is, more or less, a common practice in cartoons, especially in the eighties. I’ve shown friends the Transformers movie (guys who never saw it the first time around) and they are completely lost in all the frantic action and quick plot movements. I guess I was weaned on it enough to be used to it, but I can certainly see (going back to GH) how it could be off putting.

Like I mentioned earlier, loyalty-wise, the show leans heavily towards Aimee as she’s portrayed as smarter and more of the underdog (even though the second she steps foot into the school she is instantly and for no reason amazingly popular.) Reinforcing this is the number of (more or less) main cast members who are both female and ‘on’ Aimee’s side. When I say main cast members, I’m sort of referring not only to the reoccurring characters, but also to the ones that are considered ‘good’, or at least the ones advancing the plot in a positive way. There are a couple of guys who would serve to balance out the cast if they weren’t basically the villains of the show.

When Doyle and Aimee are shown the gym, they meet Booey Bubblehead (literally an almost brainless girl with an apparently glass ‘bubble’ head), Gilda Gossip (voiced by Nancy Cartwright of the Simpson’s), and Wendy Garbo (who is possibly named after Greta Garbo.)

In these scenes we get some queues to the extent that the physical and visual comedy will go with some Looney Tunes conventions (e.g. the love inspired eyes turning into hearts gag.)

Did I mention that EVERTHING is alive at Galaxy High?

It’s at about this point in the episode where Columbus really starts sticking it to Doyle, who has just watched Aimee be rewarded with a full scholarship and a brand new car (not to mention plenty of confetti dropping, when taken into context with the opening credits you have to wonder who on this production had such a hard on for confetti as a means of celebration…) Doyle, who as far as the audience is concerned, seems to be just as qualified to be at Galaxy High (I mean he is there and all) is told that not only will he not be getting any sort of scholarship, but that he also has to get a job and is only shown a little bit of the happy with the revelation that he’s now the proud owner of a used intergalactic scooter. At this point Doyle even wants to go home, but is refused with the knowledge that (and I’m paraphrasing here) Galaxy High is his last chance at graduating.  Not to look too deeply into a cartoon plot, a comedy plot at that, but this isn’t the story I was set up with in the credits. As far as I knew, Doyle, though a little inconsiderate and dumb, was the king of his high school, and could easily have breezed by on his athletic merits alone. So why is this all of a sudden such a dire situation for him? I think this should have been covered in the credits…

Pretty much (with one exception we’ll get to in a minute) the rest of the episode is a beat down on Mr. Doyle Cleverlobe, starting with his introduction to the school janitor, Sludge, an unassuming little pink puppy who can change into a lumbering monster at the drop of a hat (or a pat on the head)…

Sludge chases Doyle through the school, corners him, and is about to do God knows what, when Milo happens by and stops him. To complete the zany atmosphere, Milo explains who Sludge is, and then in an attempt to illustrate his capabilities, Sludge mistakenly causes a tide wave inducing plumbing snafu that whisks the three (and eventually Aimee) away into a garbage dump…

This is sort of a tone in cartoons that was kind of missing in the 80s, hearkening back to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of the 60s and 70s, and the Loony Tunes shorts as well. Sure, there were plenty of Gummi Bears, Smurfs, and Get-Along Gangs to cause silly havoc in their towns, villages and hollows, but it was never quite as zany as it was in the HB and Looney Tunes cartoons, and in turn in Galaxy High. Though I doubt he had a hand in setting up the gags in the show, John Kricfalusi did work on the project, and he is a big fan of this style of animation.

Of course weird space food equals antennae, holes, and negative colors…

So rounding out the cast of male characters you have Beef Bonk (the odd red chicken-looking guy with the Earth Stinks shirt), Rotten Roland (the weird blue egg-centric guy in the overalls), Earl Eccchhh (the anthropomorphic pile of slime), and the Creep (the flying yellow guy who almost literally attaches himself to Aimee.) All of which fall into the seriously annoying or basically villainous category, so they don’t seem like main characters as much…

Just to illustrate that the show throws all conventions about physics out the window, in space humans can be turned into French fries, and then reformulated into many creatures before being reconstructed to a (temporarily silly-putty-esque) human…

As far as the geography of the show, everything is basically just floating in space, ala some sort of high school themed space station. There’s at least a mall and a pizza joint connected by the afore-mentioned pneumatic tubes to the school. Also, you can really see the Jetson’s as an influence in these scenes as all of the vehicles make the patented Jetson’s space sputter.

Like the Ferris Bueller moment when Doyle broke the fourth wall, there’s another huge 80s cinematic convention in the form of a montage as the girls take Aimee ‘Style’ shopping at the galleria. It’s really weird to see a montage in the middle of a cartoon, but then again it was the 80s, even commercials had montages.

It’s interesting to note that by the end of the style-shopping Aimee has changed in appearance enough to almost push her away from human and into alien territory. Add to this the fact that she’s getting attention and praise heaped on her at every turn, her character seems close to losing the audience as far as following her through the series. Because of this Doyle pretty much becomes the defacto main character, which is weird as he was painted the schmuck at the beginning of the episode. This is another bit that alienates the viewer…

Even in space there are amazingly silly stereotypes as in Luigi, Doyle’s boss at the pizza joint (who-a talks-a like-a this-a.)

Towards the end of this episode Columbus shoves a second plot into the mix as Doyle tries to befriend Beef Bonk and his cronies, only to piss him off to the point of getting, um, blue with anger. By this point I’m getting pretty comfortable with not being comfortable with the odd visuals and stuff, but having a character turning blue with anger illustrates a pet peeve I have with design. I am not a fan of using cool or dark colors as a means of highlighting or illustrating anger as it’s ironic, but not in the good way. (As an aside, I also hate it in DVD menus when there is a choice between options and the the highlighted option is dark or of a cool color and the rest of the options are like yellow or bright colors. It messes with my head.)

Also, as far as Rotten Roland is concerned, I think it’s really disturbing that he has a tendency to throw ‘rotten’ eggs at people, eggs that look so much like they came from him that it’s a little bit more than weird.

So have I mentioned that everything is alive…oh you get the picture…

It was kind of fun to see the ‘puck’ written and animated as a masochist. Not only is it fitting, but it’s funny.

Another odd aspect to the show is the amazing amount of background characters in all of the scenes. In fact there’s so many of them that the animation almost becomes claustrophobic at times, but I have to give the designers a hand in putting so much thought into the background. Of course having this much leeway can only lead to insanity mixed with a little bit of stereotypical character design, and a pinch of salacious design. Let’s take these in turn. In the screen shots below you can get a feel of the mass amount of BG characters as well as the claustrophobia (in particular in the top two shots on the left.) In the shot on the bottom left you can get an idea of the insanity that comes out in crazy space crowd shots (I’m more or less referring to the flowery pig creature.) There’s also the muted craziness of the little brown Droopy looking dog in the shot on the top right. Now, in the middle shot on the right, there’s a very stereotypical Asian caricature that’s actually fun to watch as it’s in a looped bit of animation that has him dancing. Finally, in the bottom right shot we have, well, we have a giant penis. Man, I thought I was going to be leaving the odd sexual imagery behind when I took a hiatus from writing about D&D…

Lo and behold, Giant Penis Man in the crowd. Penis man.  That is just wrong on so many levels…

Okay folks, I think that does it for this episode of Galaxy High. Hope there’s still stuff left to talk about in the next episode…

Cartoon Commentary! #15, In space a giant chicken will make you scream…

As I’ve been mentioning ad nauseam for the last couple weeks, I’m going to switch my focus on Cartoon Commentary! away from Dungeons and Dragons in hopes that I can keep my perspective a little bit fresh. I had thought that the best way to do this was to take a look at a cartoon that was more or less the polar opposite of D&D, so I chose Galaxy High, a sci-fi comedy set (I believe) in the year 2024. Since I’m not super knowledgeable about the cartoons I grew up watching, I figured I’d just take the same approach to each series, doing some preliminary research on the internet as well as watching the series from beginning to end and any special features that might be included on the DVD sets. After I started into D&D I became sort of confident, finding plenty to write about (as you can see so far in past CC! columns), but now I’m not so sure.

I started watching Galaxy High a couple of weeks ago and honestly it’s been a struggle trying to make notes. I’m not sure whether it’s because the show is so different from D&D, so I’m having a hard time switching gears, or if I there isn’t as much that I find interesting. That isn’t to say that I’m not going to try, I mean I have the same fond memories of this show as I had for Dungeons and Dragons, it’s just that these following 14 or so columns might not be quite as in depth.

I think the main reason I’ve been stumbling is that the environment of the cartoon is so utterly wacky that it’s very hard trying to figure our when something is intentionally odd or just plain odd. Though Dungeons and Dragons is set in a fantasy environment, there are enough parallels to our world, as well as stories told from the ‘fish out of water’ point of view to make the job of analyzing the cartoon easier. Galaxy High on the other hand isn’t as patient with the viewer, and even though the two main characters also come from the ‘fish out of water’ P.O.V., they’re expected to, and end up, adapting much quicker, leaving the audience in the dust. The comedy in the show also comes more from the Looney Tunes school of extreme physical comedy than say the standard sitcom fare (which seems like it’s more influential on other cartoons of the 80s.) You’re more likely to see a character smashed down into a tiny cube or turned into a gelatinous blob than to see them misplace their homework or have a crush on another character. Heck, actually you probably do see these sitcom conventions, but in the middle of realizing their homework is missing, the character would be reduced to a pile of ooze and then scooped into a small box after which the character would completely forget about the homework.

Anyway, enough griping. I thought I’d start off with a quick column (made long by the above rant) on the show in general before moving onto the episodes themselves. Galaxy High was created in 1986 by none other than famed writer/director Chris Columbus who was responsible for writing some of my favorite movies from the 80s including Gremlins and Goonies, and directing some of my least favorite films of the 90s including Home Alone (and the sequel) and Mrs. Doubtfire. There were only 13 episodes produced by TMS Entertainment over one season, which is pretty common for a major network 1st season episode order. Larry DiTillo served as story editor, as well as writing or co-writing four of the episodes, and the great John Kricfalusi (of Ren and Stimpy fame) worked on the graphic design of the show (yet another reason that it might look so wacky.) The rest of the show was mostly written by a couple of writing teams (Karen Willson & Chris Weber, Ken Koonce & David Weimers), with a few other writers filling in here and there (Marc Scott Zicree, Jina Bacarr, Eric LeWald.)

The show featured a bevy of great voice actors, including Susan Blu as Aimee Brightower and Hal Rayle as Doyle Cleverlobe, the two main characters. Other voice actors include Nancy Cartwright (she of Bart Simpson fame), Pat Carroll, Gino Conforti, Jennifer Darling, Pat Freley (of Bravestarr fame), David L. Lander (Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley), Neil Ross (veteran voice actor of too many shows to mention), John Stephenson, Howard Morris, and Henry Gibson (of Laugh In fame.)

The basic premise of the show centers around two characters from Earth (Doyle and Aimee) who are picked to be exchange students in space at Galaxy High. The back-story, much like that of Dungeons and Dragons, is featured in the credits sequence and theme song (which was written and preformed by Don Felder of the Eagles), the first verse of which describes Doyle:

Doyle was a high school star.
Everybody thought he’d go real far.
But he didn’t get a thing from the classes he took.
You know he just wasn’t interested in his books.

Actually, the majority of the credit sequence is dedicated to Doyle, as seen in the myriad of ‘Doyle being popular and good at sports’ scenes above. Aimee sort of gets shafted in this respect, as well as in the song, only garnering two lines to Doyle’s four so far:

Aimee was the smartest girl at school,
not very popular, not very cool.

The rest of the song sort of makes up for this as the kids arrive at Galaxy High, reversing roles as I guess smarts and girls are much more popular in space…

Two kids will be chosen from Earth,
to go to school at Galaxy High.

Traveling millions of miles through space,
to go to school in a far out place.
Aimee is the sweetheart.
Doyle’s got a lot to learn.
Here at Galaxy High.

The rockin’ theme song ends on a chant of the school and show name in time with a zooming close-up of a blinking neon title over a shot of the school itself…

The series was released on DVD by Media Blasters in 2006 in two separate one disc sets, which unfortunately had no special features, not even episode summaries. Heck, even the cover artwork provided on the cases is really weird and amazingly off model (even though it’s artwork done at the time of the series.) Al least it’s on DVD though, which is all you can really ask for these days.

Hopefully I’ll have another CC! up this week detailing the first episode, but if not, I’ll dig in and make sure to really get going on the series next week.