Tag Archives: Cartoons

31 Days of Monsters, Day 1: Slimer’s coming to get you!

Welcome back to another Branded in the 80s Countdown to Halloween!  This year marks my 7th year celebrating the season here on the site and I’m really excited to be able to resurrect the 31 Days of 80s Monster animation cels.  Back in 2009, and again in 2010 I had the opportunity to share a total of 62 Real Ghostbusters monster, ghost and creature animation cels from my personal collection.  This year I was able to dig up 31 new pieces, though I’ve decided to shake things up a bit and alternate between both the Real Ghostbusters and Filmation Ghostbusters cartoons.  Though TRG is arguably the more popular franchise, oddly enough Filmation GB animation cels are much harder to come by.  It’s taken me years to be able to find some, though only enough cels so that I could share them during half of my Halloween-y countdown.  So I thought it would be fun to bounce back and forth.

To get this started though, lets go back to the 31 Days of Monsters roots with this awesome cel featuring everyone’s favorite focused, non-terminal repeating phantasm, or a Class 5 full roaming vapor (who can eat a vending cart full of hotdogs like no one else), Slimer!

I absolutely fell in love with this cel when I stumbled across it.  Not only is Slimer wearing a great Hawaiian shirt, but that demonic expression is great.  I actually ended up donating this exact cel to the recent Strange Kids Club Issue 3 kickstarter to help raise the funds needs to get that comix anthology printed.  So this guy hopefully has found a new loving home where it will be displayed proudly in a “Strange” collection.  Be sure to keep tabs on the Strange Kids Club to get the details on when Issue three will be available for public purchase, as it’s going to be an issue full of fun comics and articles that you won’t want to miss.

As a bonus, here’s a scan of the accompanying pencil sketch that the base animation cel was produced from…

So come back each day this month for a new monster animation cel, and also, for more Halloween-y fun all month long, be sure to check out the Countdown to Halloween website for the complete list of sites participating in this year’s spooky fun.  John Rozum has been working hard compiling the list, and it looks like there is a lot of awesome sites already signed up.

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…

Introducing Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon!

Friend of the site Manny Galan (you may remember him for submitting the stunningly amazing Knight Rider Meets the Dukes of Hazzard story idea in the comments section of a recent League post), dropped me a line recently to announce his upcoming animation/puppetry mash-up project called Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon.  Riffing off of our collective memories of the sugar-induced insanity that was Saturday morning cartoons, Galan and crew have created a show that any kid that grew up in the 70s through the 90s is bound to dig.  Here’s a bit from the press release…

“Join Wet Willy Jones and Axel Rodd McGee on their undersea quest aboard the Manta Ray, a cartoon-retrieving vessel commanded by Captain Cornelius Cartoon.  This brand new animated/puppet show adventure plumbs the depths of Cartoon Lagoon in search of the best and the WORST cartoons ever made.

Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon, coming to DVD Fall 2012.”

Judging from the trailer, I think we’re in for some MST3K-esque cartoon hilarity.  If you dearly miss the days of waking up in your He-Man pajamas, sprinting into the kitchen to pour a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, before leapfrogging over the coffee table and into your favorite beanbag chair to tune into the Saturday morning block of animation, then I think Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon will be right up your alley.

Until the DVD is released, you can tide yourself over by heading to the site’s blog and checking out interviews with the crew of the Manta Ray including Wet Willy Jones, Axel Rodd McGee, and Captain Cornelius Cartoon himself.  You can also check out this post that works as a sort of mission statement for the project…

Spiriting the Nerd Lunch crew away to the world of Miyazaki!

Though I haven’t recorded an episode of the Branded podcast in awhile, I was lucky enough to be asked back to guest star on another episode of the Nerd Lunch podcast this week.  I’m not sure, but I think I might be on the road to eventually becoming the Charo of the nerdy/pop culture podcasting set.  Crossing my fingers.

Anyway, back to the Nerd Lunch episode, this week’s theme was all about introducing the guys to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, in particular the film Spirited Away. T hough Jeeg, CT, and Paxton have all experienced some level of anime in the past, none of them have really become fans of the genre perse, so I thought Studio Ghibli might be the way to ease them back in and could very well get them into watching some more Japanese animation.  Did it work?  Well you’ll have to listen to the discussion to see.  You can find episode 24 of the Nerd Lunch Podcast on iTunes, or you can download the episode directly!

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!

A ton of 80s cartoons finally coming to DVD!

The last few years we’ve been going through a relative drought of 80s cartoons on DVD.  Though I was super happy with Shout! Factory re-issuing Transformers (recently vastly encheapened) and G.I. Joe on DVD in the past couple of years, there are still some big holes in my collection that seemed would go unfilled forever.  Well some 80s cartoon god must have heard my laments because there are a ton of new to DVD titles coming in the next six months or so!

As you can see from the advertisement above, the Warner Archive (manufactured on demand DVDs) is releasing some great catalog titles including the Go Bots (shipping on May 17th), Mr. T (shipping today), and finally a complete set of the Herculoids (shipping on June 14th) on DVD!

In addition to these awesome WB titles, Shout! Factory is currently prepping releases of M.A.S.K. (shipping in August), the Japanese Transformers Headmasters series (shipping on July 5th), as well as a re-issue of Jem (to be announced officially soon) on DVD.

Still keeping my fingers crossed that the Warner Archive will release the second half of the Silverhawks someday…

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.