Tag Archives: MonStar

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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