Tag Archives: 80s Nostalgia

Learning to cook with the Muppet Babies!

Last week’s post on the DC Comics cookbook insert from the 1981 reminded me that I have another one that’s been sitting on my desk for almost a year.  I picked up a huge lot of old Woman’s Day magazines a year or so ago and I spent a weekend flipping through all the issues to pullout any interesting ads, article and inserts, and one of the things that really jumped out at me was a 4-page spread that was a mini Muppet Babies cookbook.  Don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to scanning this and sharing it sooner…

This insert is from the January 8th, 1985 issue of Woman’s Day and it features recipes presented by all the characters from the cartoon (well, except for Bean Bunny, but we don’t speak of that character here at Branded.)  Actually, now that I look a bit closer, whoever whipped up this insert snubbed Beaker, and added a drink by the tadpole version of Kermit’s nephew Robin (who did make some appearances on the cartoon), which is kind of irksome as well.  Oh well, Beaker usually gets the crap end of the stick anyway, so why not here as well…

  

Honestly, aside from Animal and Fozzie’s deserts, and the “mixed” drinks, there’s noting all that great to write home about in this cookbook.  In fact Skeeter’s Flying Saucer recipe reminds me of a noxious meal my friend/roommate used to eat all the time.  I lived with this guy for almost three years after high school and every night he’d prepare the exact same dish.  He’d put four pieces of whole wheat bread on a plate, cover two with a can of beans and the other two with a slice each of white American cheese.  Then he’d eat his two bean sandwiches in silence.  For three years.  Egads!

I wonder how many other mini cookbooks popped up between the covers of Woman’s Day back in the 70s and 80s?

Putting the banana in the Batman…

Thought I’d take a second today to share this great gift that I received in the mail in response to my TMNT postcard project from a few weeks ago.  Mr. & Mrs. McFavorite (of the fun podcast Open Your Toys) sent in this awesome vintage mini DC comics cookbook (ripped out of a July, 1981 issue of Woman’s Day magazine)…

Seriously, it boggles the mind.  There were so many geeky awesome kid-centric inserts and advertisements in these 70s/80s era housewife magazines that 30 years later they’ve become a goldmine for great vintage ephemera.  From insanely obscure Transformers comics and cool mail-away and in-store Tron merchandise, to the coolest jungle gyms known to man and advertisements for the one and only Nerd Tuxedo, Woman’s Day was apparently where it was at in the early 80s and I never knew.

This tiny cookbook is no exception and features some food art that I’m sure to try and replicate in the coming weeks at the house of Branded.  Nothing says “Um, um, Good” like a Mild Mannered hamburger…

 

Though in reality there is no conceivable way that the Superman insignia scrawled on top of the cheese would last past the placement of the Clark Kent bun-face, it’s still pretty awesome that the fella or gal in charge of writing this insert thought enough about the character to consider his patented transformation in the recipe.  I guess this is one burger that begs to be eaten open-face style.  As a side note, I never thought about adding wheat germ and bread crumbs to my hamburger patties.  I wonder if it gives the burger a more meatloaf like consistency?

There’s even a “recipe” for constructing an army of villainous Veggie Robots!

Well, at least I think they’re villains based on their threatening posturing and proclamations to destroy some of our favorite foods, healthy or not.  I also love the notation at the bottom that parents could order a copy of this army as a full-sized poster.  “Mommy, I can’t sleep under the paralyzing olive-eyed stare of Broclotron!”

 

Next up we’re charged with solving the case of the Invisible Banana French Toast with Batman and Robin.  Though the writers got a bit cheeky with this entry (“You get that taste by putting the banana IN the Batman…”), I did learn a new term, Alimentary.  By the by, it means of or relating to nourishment or nutrition.

Lastly we have Flash’s Quick Apple Crisp, that actually isn’t all that quick.  I mean, having to peel, core and slice up 5 apples and baking for over half an hour still seems like work to me…

Thanks again Mr. and Mrs. McFavortie, this was an awesome gift!

Creepy advertising for the Spiral Zone

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

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

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

   

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

   

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

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

   

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

Surrender or pay the consequences!

The end of the 80s really was a time of transition for me, not so much in that the decade was coming to a close, but because there were a lot of changes in my life.  Id just turned thirteen and most of the family was uprooting from out home of the previous 12 years.  My sister had decided to stay behind in Florida as the rest of us made our way up north to Massachusetts (a temporary stopgap on the way to New Hampshire where we’d only end up spending nine months before moving back down south to Georgia.)  I was stuck in that awkward phase where I still wanted to collect toys and spend every afternoon and Saturday morning watching cartoons, but at the same time I was trying to act more like an adult after moving into middle school and riding the same bus as the high school kids.  Heck, even though I still loved a lot of the cartoons and toys from my childhood, these properties and franchises were beginning to die out.  There hadn’t been an peep on the Star Wars and He-Man fronts for a few years at that point (except for the New Adventures of He-Man which I was ignoring), and G.I. Joe and Transformers were both starting to convulse with the death throws of ailing toy lines (Pretenders and G.I. Joe in space anyone?)  Though there was a brand new crop of cartoons that were vying for my attention, only a handful caught my eye (C.O.P.S., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Real Ghostbusters, and Beetlejuice.)  For the most part, in those last few months in Florida I started tuning out to kid’s stuff.

After the move, when we first got settled in our Massachusetts apartment, I went through a weird mourning period.  I wasn’t enrolled in school yet because we were waiting for our new house to be finished in New Hampshire, and there were no kids in the complex where we lived.  It was the middle of winter, my first experience being cooped up during snow and ice storms, and I was really starting to miss my friends.  Even though I’d lost a lot of interest in the current crop of cartoons, they were a link back to Florida and happiness, so I started gorging on them as much as I could.  We didn’t have cable during that time so I only had access to a couple of UHF channels and the main networks, and what I discovered were a bunch of shows that I’d never seen before.  I didn’t realize it at the time but most of these new cartoons were actually a couple years old and I count myself very lucky to have been exposed to them before they disappeared into obscurity.

There was Denver the Last Dinosaur about a group of kids who unearth a bipedal talking brachiosaur from a giant egg in a tar-pit, and Bionic Six which was basically a cross between the Brady Bunch and the Six Million Dollar man.  But the one show I really fell for was called The Spiral Zone…

Set 20 years in the future of a potential 2007, the story follows an elite band of heroes called the Zone Riders led by Col. Dirk Courage who are Earth’s last defense against the Spiral Zone.  The zone is a cloud of dark mist that engulfs half of the earth’s landmass.  Created by mad scientist Dr. James Bent, the biological zone mist is dispersed by a sort of organic mechanical generator that the doctor developed, and it has the effect of turning most humans into mindless zombie slaves.  After being dismissed from military service, Bent hijacked a space shuttle and started “planting” these generators all over the Earth.  He took on the moniker of Overlord and built a specialized army, called the Black Widows, to help him take control of and rule the world.

   

Though society continues to function in non-zone areas, Overlord is gaining ground and it’s up to the international members of the Zone Riders, Wolfgang “Tank” Schmidt, Max Jones, Hiro Taka, Kat Anastasia, and Col. Dirk Courage (who are equipped with special armor and vehicles that can protect them from the zone mist) to stop him.

First and foremost, what really stuck me as a kid, and even now, is the interesting visual design of the series.  The zombifying effect of the zone causes the skin to break out in vivid red lesions, as well as a yellowing of the eyes and a slack jawed expression.

   

For an action cartoon from the 80s, this is pretty disturbing stuff and adds a very serious tone to the overall production quality of the show.  I especially love how these zone symptoms were worked much more artistically into the character designs of the villains.  Take Overlord for instance.  With his overly exaggerated black brow, under which his small eyes are sunken into large skull-like red lesions, and the batwing-like design around his nose and mouth he is both ghoulish and evil looking.  Add to this the skeleton tooth-like texture on his upper lip and it makes for a truly frightening visage.

   

The mix of symmetry and character traits is also intriguing.  Though all the villains have heavily patterned red facial lesions, there is a distinct separation between those full invested in the cause (or who are too dumb to know otherwise) who have very eye-pleasing symmetrical splotches, and those who would even stab Overlord in the back who tend to have asymmetrical blots (usually giving the character a Two-Face like appearance.)  This level of thought put into the character design is awesome and it’s a trait I wish I saw more often in animation.

Though the hero characters are overly wholesome and “white bread” in their character designs, a lot of care was put into their very iconic vehicle design that also really floors me.  Col. Courage pilots what can only be described as a giant cannon mounted on top of a huge wheel.  He sits at the center of the wheel and is balanced on both sides by ski-like skids.

All of the other characters drive very interesting anime-influenced single wheel motorcycles that are both compact and very novel in design.  As far as I can tell, the Spiral Zone cartoon was very loosely based on Bandai’s Japenese toy line of the same name (of which pretty much on the design of the vehicles and some of the armor makes the transition), but the idea of mono-wheel mechanical transportations is hardly a new one (with examples of potentially fuel-based working models dating back as far as 1931, as well as many modern designs.)  Though I first saw them in the Spiral Zone cartoon, they were also a popular mode of transportation in another Japanese property, the Venus Wars from 1989.  In fact, when I was first exposed to the Spiral zone I only caught a couple of episodes and even though the character design had a big impact on me I probably would have completely forgotten about it if I hadn’t taken a chance on picking up a copy of the Venus Wars back in the early 90s when anime was making its first huge influx into America.  Watching that movie over and over is what kept the vehicle designs from the Spiral Zone alive and well in my memory.

If the super awesome character and vehicle designs weren’t enough to cement this show as a seriously interesting bit of animation history, there is also a legacy of top notch writing on the series.  Though like most 65-episode syndicated cartoon series of the 80s the level of the writing can be hit or miss, there was some great talent working on this show including J. Michael Strazinski (though he did end up taking his name off the credits in lieu of a pseudonym) and my favorite animation writer from the 80s, Michael Reeves.  Reeves penning scripts for a series is almost always a great sign of boundary-pushing and iconic concepts my all time favorite being the episode of Dungeons and Dragons where Hank and gang decide to take the offensive and hunt down Venger), and Strazinski has a history of helming great series like Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors and The Real Ghostbusters.  Because of the main plot, the series deals with a lot of higher level concepts beyond just good versus evil and strays into some odd territory for children’s programming like survivalist militia groups and acceptable losses during war.  I’m not saying that the episodes are all heady Band of Brothers-like romps into morality, but there are a lot of issues brought up that you don’t tend to see in cartoons.  They’re just undertones most of the time, like the racial genocide theme in the original Transformers cartoon.  Also, unlike its predecessors G.I. Joe, The Transformers, He-Man, etc., the series does feature a bit more violence.  Characters typically use laser guns and rifles, and there are sequences with characters getting hit, though it’s usually always on a “stun” setting ala Star Trek.   It does add to the grittiness of the series though.

Also, this show was also one of the series Bruce Timm worked on before striking out a couple years later with Batman the Animated Series.  The voice cast is great as well featuring many Sunbow actors including Michael Bell, Frank Welker, Neil Ross and Dan Gilvezan…

The series also features one of my favorite cartoon theme songs from the 80s.  Written by Stephanie Tyrell, and performed by Steve Tyrell (husband, brother?), Max Gronenthal, and Ashley Hall, the tune is a hair-metal-inspired classic with a pumping chorus that would be right at home with the soundtrack to Transformers the Movie.  Seriously, the song will put hair on your chest.

   

Before this becomes a dissertation of intriguing obscure animation, I’ll cut this installment short with some more general facts about the franchise.  Though the series did receive a full 65 episode order, it didn’t make a huge impression on its target audience.  The toy line, adapted from Bandai by Tonka in the states, was also a relative dud, most likely because it centered on the classic G.I. Joe and Barbie 12″ doll format which never really caught on in the 80s.  Honestly, figures any larger than the 6″ Masters of the Universe line tended to be duds (including Bravestarr and V.)  It was merchandised a bit with a least a lunch box and a 4-issue comic book series released by DC (written by Michael Fleisher and penciled by Carmine Infantino.) 

The series was never officially released on DVD (though it was released on a handful of VHS tapes collecting a smattering of episodes), but there is a complete set floating around on the internet produced by Spiral-Zone.com with the aid of the original series supervising director Pierre De Celles (who provided the series masters on VHS to the website for DVD production.)  Though it’s currently listed as sold-out on the site, the webmaster seems open to limited print runs when there’s enough interest.  I bought the set as soon as it became available a few years ago and I have to say it’s pretty darn cool.  The quality on most episodes ranges from about a 7-8 out of 10, definite VHS quality, but they are far from unwatchable and pretty much are only available in this format.

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).

Molly ringwald wants you to eat your raisins!

I’m breaking out of my post Halloween downtime to remind everyone that back in 1982 Molly Ringwald and who I believe is a very young Emily Schulman (the nosey pugnacious next-door-neighbor on Small Wonder) wanted you to eat your raisins.   If raisins are like the red-headed step children of grapes, then I think the California Raisins Ad Council chose pretty well spokes model-wise.  I mean, Ringwald was one of the girls written out of the second season of The Facts of Life, and Schulman, well, for anyone who’s seen an episode of Small Wonder, is the poster child for red-headed nuisances…

This ad is kind of interesting for Ringwald fanatics as it’s an example of the type of work she was taking in-between leaving The Facts of Life and landing her breakout role as Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles.  Aside from pimping raisins as Linda, founder of Linda’s Babysitting Service, Ringwald was also spending a lot of time recording vocals for Disney albums around this time.  Alright, back to working on the Up! Fair and junk…

The Great Pudding Pop Wars of 1982…

Thinking about some magical food moments from my past I can’t help but immediately gravitate towards the splenderferious invention that graced America’s freezers in 1982 (by my best educated guesstimates), the Pudding Pop.  Sure, there are other frozen treats that I love, Screwballs, Otter Pops, and Slurpees, but sucking on a pudding pop was like having a symphony in your mouth and it always played the theme to Star Wars.  Seriously though, there was something magical about the smooth, velvety texture of a good pudding pop that other treats (Fudgsicles and ice cream bars) just couldn’t match.

Growing up there was only one pop in my household’s freezer, the Bill Cosby endorsed Jell-O Brand Pudding Pops from General Foods.  Introduced in 1982, these frozen treats were originally available in three flavors, Chocolate, Vanilla and Banana.  Personally I was a vanilla man, though I have a vague recollection of eating a banana pop or two.  One of my favorite food related sense memories is of the thin coating of ice that would envelop the pudding pops.  It was always fun to see if you could loosen it in an entire sheet and slide it off the pop.   This ice coating also made for a great makeshift wall between the bottom of the pop and the stick so that the pudding wouldn’t melt directly onto your hand if you decided to savor the experience.

Though Jell-O was the only brand in my house, there were others available, in particular Swiss Miss, which had a much more robust variety of flavors…

I’ve had a tougher time trying to nail down the date that these Swiss Miss Pudding Bars were introduced, but I’m betting it was in and around 1982 as well based on this television commercial.  The ad above is from 1984 and features no less than eight different varieties including chocolate, vanilla, chocolate covered chocolate & vanilla, chocolate chip, fudge swirl, and chocolate toffee covered chocolate & vanilla.  There were also sugar-free varieties (mentioned on the back of this box in Jason Liebig’s collection.)  On a side note, I really dig the older style Swiss Miss mascot design because she was a claymation style puppet.  Drinking Swiss Miss hot chocolate back in the day was like sipping on a Rankin/Bass Christmas special, and ever since they switched to a more realistic rendering it’s just never been the same (even if it is only in my mind.)

I think it’s interesting that the print ads for Jell-O Pudding Pops strayed away from using spokesman Bill Cosby, and instead focused on the guilt-free aspect of the frozen treat.  As this above ad from 1984 showcases, the pops only had 90 calories and apparently were just as good as eating an apple or a banana.  Insane nutrition claims aside, I do have to admit that, that is one heck of an attractive calorie count.  It brings to mind the other Jell-O frozen treat introduced in the 80s (1981 according to the Jell-O website timeline which suspiciously doesn’t even mention pudding pops, but I’m betting it was also in 1982 alongside the pudding pops), the Jell-O Gelatin Pops as seen in this 1985 ad…

These fruit pops were only 35 calories and were a much slower melting bar because of the added gelatin.  According to the above ad, General Foods also produced chocolate covered Jell-O Pudding Pops, though I don’t remember ever seeing those for the life of me.

Unfortunately, sometime in the early 90s Jell-O Pudding Pops seemed to disappear from our grocer’s freezers.  My guess is that after the line-up of General Foods brands were merged in with the Kraft family of products in the mid 90s (as Phillip Morris owned both by that time), their frozen treats were dropped as Kraft didn’t really have a market share in the sweet end of the freezer section.  As far as the Swiss Miss bars go, your guess is as good as mine.  It wasn’t the last time we’d see Jell-O Pudding Pops though.  They made a small comeback in the early 2000s under both the Jell-O and Popsicle brands, but they weren’t the same product.  Offered in a slimmer Fudgsicle-like stick, the flavors and consistency just weren’t the same.  There’s also a Jell-O branded pudding pop maker for kids, though I’m guessing it’s not much different than sticking a pudding cup in the freezer.

Today there are still some brands of frozen pudding pops though, mainly Kemps and Blue Bunny, but this summer Coldstone Creamery is also presenting a variation on the Pudding Pop with Jell-O branded pudding ice-cream.  It’s not the same, but it’s as close as we’re going to get.

Here are some Jell-O Pudding & Gelatin Pop commercials to take you back to the 80s for a few minutes: 1982, 1983, 1984, 1984, 1985, & 1986.  I wonder if Bill Cosby misses these pudding pops as much as I do?

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…and I ain’t faking, I’ll bring home the turkey if you bring home the Fakon!

Something that I don’t talk about a lot here at Branded are some of the insane food products that were big back in the 80s, so today I thought I’d remedy that the best way I know how, by talking about pork.  In the 80s I learned two things about pork.  One, it was The Other White Meat.  Two, there were no limits to the ways that companies like Swift and Hormel would twist processed pig to sculpt it into fascinating new products.  And my mom made sure that we tried them all, or at least I thought so before doing a little digging…

If I had to pick one pork related sin, it would probably be screwing up bacon.  Yeah, I know it’s beyond cliché to obsess over bacon in this geeky internet age, and honestly I tend to roll my eyes whenever I see someone extolling the virtues of bacon infused chocolate, bacon vodka, or Baconnaise.  But I am a red-blooded American, and I can’t ignore the beauty of a nice pure crispy piece of savory, salty pork belly.  I wasn’t always so discerning in tastes though, and neither was my mother, which is why throughout the 80s our fridge was always stocked with a package of Sizzlean…

If bacon is the ultimate cut of pork (though Anthony Bourdain and his crispy cheek fetish would probably beg to differ), then the ultimate in processed pork must assuredly be Sizzlean (sorry Spam.)  Touting itself as a healthier (50% less fat) and meatier slice of pork, Sizzlean was truly an ingenious, if not blasphemous product.  I loved it.  Looking back on it now, it seems like it has more in common with jerky than straight up pork, as it was sort of tough when fried up and had a very similar consistency.  My main complaint as a kid was the product’s tendency to contain odd, tough bubbles of fat in the meat which I’m sure was a by-product of the meat processing.  Though they’re not quite Beggin’ Strips, Sizzlean was for all intents and purposes fake bacon, or if you will, Fakon, and I sure do miss it. Also, I have to hand it to the product designers on Sizzlean, mixing sizzle and lean in the name was perfect advertising work.  Here are a couple of commercials for this wonder product by Swift.

Next up is a product I was lucky enough to never have tried back in the day, Hormel canned sausage…

For some reason my mother had an aversion to most canned and jarred meat products, so I never had the opportunity to taste delicacies such as Spam, Underwood’s Deviled Ham, Libby’s corned beef, dried beef, or these incredibly interesting (to me of course) canned sausages or breakfast ham slices.  I did however grow up on a steady diet of smoked oysters and the occasional can of Vienna Sausages, so go I wasn’t completely deprived of weird canned meats.  Out of curiosity, to all the cooks out there, is sausage-shrinkage truly a hurdle that needs jumping?  Also, the tag line that “…only Hormel seals sausage patties in an airtight can to protect their delicious country fresh flavor…” is a little telling.  There’s probably a good reason that no one else was attempting this and why these are no longer available.  Canned ham & cheese anyone?

Next up is another amazing product from the meaty, master minds at Hormel, the Frank ‘N’ Stuff hotdogs!

Okay, who remembers burning the ever-living hell out of their mouths when biting into these insane lava-like chili-filled monstrosities?!?  Granted, filling a hotdog with things like cheese and chili sounds like a good idea, and sometimes it can work (Oscar Meyer Cheesedogs anyone?)  But the Frank ‘N’ Stuff hot dogs were a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Besides, the best way to know when a hot dog is done cooking is when the skin splits a little, and in the dreadful case of these dogs, that means chili seepage.  Now I don’t know about you, but the words chili seepage and appetizing do not appear together normally in the English language.  They’re like opposite poles on a magnet, no matter how much you try and stick them together, it just won’t work.  Alright, even though I do have vivid memories of burning the crap out of my tongue on one of these, I do remember them tasting just fine, but you have to admit that going with a Frankenstein theme was totally relevant (what with the hot dog’s proclivity to turn on its master and all.)

This also reminds me that I need to take this opportunity to point to my favorite Flickr account in the whole wide world, the collection of one Jason Liebig.  I’ve never come across someone so dedicated to sharing nostalgic memories of ephemera, in particular for foodstuffs of days gone by.  I’m constantly amazed and happily shocked at the stuff that he finds and shares.  It’s literally a gold mine of memories.  So if you get a chance, please click on the crazy Hormel Bacon Bits Spin-Off collection below and prepare to get lost in nostalgia.

By the by, how did my mom miss these further Bits products when I was a kid!  We were strong supporters of the Hormel Bacon Bits and Bacon Pieces jars, and yet I never knew of the existence of Pepperoni, Ham, and Cheddar Cheese Flavored Bits.  Oh what will the geniuses at Hormel think up next?!?

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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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