Tag Archives: Cartoon Commentary

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Taking a look at the first season of the ThunderCats!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

  

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

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

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

Sometimes, life REQUIRES arm wrestling!

  

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

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

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

   

…to the castles…

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know that the Autobots can SURF!

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

Did you know that Soundwave can read your mind?

   

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

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

So Soundwave was a streetlight on Cybertron?!?

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

Taking a closer look at Season 1 of the Transformers…

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

So, first things first, can the Autobots fly?

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

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

Spike really wanted to blast some Deceptichops!

  

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

Energon Cubes = the Flashiest MacGuffin ever!

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

Creepy advertising for the Spiral Zone

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

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

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

   

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

   

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

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

   

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

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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can hear one of the lessons here.

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

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

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

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

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Silverhawks, Part 1: A Rainbow in the night…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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