Tag Archives: Nostalgia

Before this cheese was Easy it was the perfect Snack Mate!

A couple weeks ago I was in a rush during the morning routine.  For some reason it seemed like I had two hundred things to do before running out the door to go to work, and right when I thought I’d finished everything, I remembered that I’d intended on updating Branded with a quick post during lunch.  What was I going to write about though?  There was nothing on the hopper and I didn’t have time to sit down and get a bunch of screen caps from a cartoon, so I quickly ran into out home office and grabbed a magazine advertisement blindly from a stack on my desk and stuffed it into my bag.  Problem solved, or so I thought.  When I got to work and got a second to catch my breath I pulled out the ad to see what I’d ended up with.  It was an ad for Nabisco Snack Mate, the spray cheese we know as Kraft Easy Cheese these days, from a 1981 issue of Woman’s Day.  I’d originally torn it out because I thought the artwork on all the little cheesy hors d’oeuvres was fun and it made for a striking image overall.

So I scanned the ad on my lunch break and got ready to fire off a few short thoughts about Easy Cheese when I noticed the small section at the bottom that featured a mail-away Snack Mate cookbook.  How weird I thought, that a culinary product this mocked and reviled had an entire cookbook dedicated to it.  I took a second to try and postulate what sort of interesting concoctions one would come up with that included spray cheese.  Then a scene from Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF popped into my head, the one where his character George and his friend Bob both get fired from their umpteenth lackluster job and in trying to cheer Bob up, George makes him the heartburn-inducing delight known as a Twinkie Wiener Sandwich!  I figured there was no way something that crazy was in the mail-away cookbook, but I couldn’t help but wonder what was in that book.

Before I knew it my lunch was over, I hadn’t eaten a thing, and I suddenly realized that this quick post for the site wasn’t going to happen without some more research.  I felt I needed to get some screenshots of Weird Al building a Twinkie Wiener Dog for starters, but if I was going to mention that, it seemed only natural to mention some other theatrical appearances of Easy Cheese.  Since I was digging that deep I figured I might as well go a bit farther and track down some other Snack Mate ads, as well as trying to figure out where this amazing cheese innovation got its start.  Most importantly I needed to get my hands on a copy of that cookbook!  By the end of the day I’d put the wheels in motion to do just that.

Today I’m just going to concentrate on the history. In addition to the ad I found (at the top of the article), I managed to locate a few more that date back to the introduction of this pressurized pseudo-dairy treat which was introduced sometime in 1966.  The oldest ad I was able to track down is from a 1967 issue of Life magazine and features three of the four original flavors, American, Cheddar, and Pimento (Nabisco also offered the cheese in a Swiss variety.)  From what I gather the canned spray cheese phenomenon began as an affordable and easy way for families to prepare nicely plated and pretty hors d’oeuvres for dinner parties.  Burgeoning household gourmands were popping up everywhere in the 60s, and Nabisco wanted a piece of that action, as well as creating a product that would require purchasing their mainstay line of snack crackers.  Design-wise, I actually think the decision to include the frosting-esque applicator tip was a stroke of genius and it beats the hell out of melting your own cheese and trying to scoop it into and dispense it from a piping bag.

It’s also interesting to note the difference between what was considered pretty and chic (in food presentation) back in 1966 versus what we typically think of today.  Plating was a lot more architectural or sculptural in nature 55 years ago, and the idea of building up a cracker with mounds of immaculately sliced olives (pimento included), lump crab meat, and a heaping yet frilly helping of creamy processed cheese so that it looked like a work of modern art was the goal.  If watching 7 billion food-centric shows on TV has taught me nothing else, today’s presentation is more about simplicity and sparseness.  I’m betting the Easy Cheese (which, let’s face it, would never make it to the plate unless we’re watching an episode of Chopped) would be applied in a single dollop only to be smeared in a pleasing arc along side a crisscrossed stack of two grilled baguette croutons over a bead of lightly blanched asparagus.  Or something like that.

I think by 1969 the idea of using pasteurized, processed cheese in a can for froufrou parties wasn’t catching on and as you can see in the next advertisement Nabisco was having a little more fun with dressing up their crackers.  Now the user was encouraged to make cheesy smiley faces, more along the lines of pleasing one’s family instead of guests.  We also get to see a new option of cheese, French Onion.  Also notice that in the line-up of cracker options there is still a Nabisco bacon variety.  I remember eating these, or something similar, as a kid and marveling at the baked-in bacon bits.  In today’s salty-pork belly obsessed world, I’m surprised these haven’t made a comeback.  I mean Chicken in a Biskit crackers are still around, why not Bacon in a Biskit.  I wonder if that rings too much with a dog treat sort of feel?

The only Snack Mate ad I could locate from the 70s was this next one featuring a much more robust line of spray cheese varieties.  Unfortunately I can’t make out the new varieties, though it looks like one might be a Swiss/American blend.

By the 2000′s I know there were at least seven more varieties introduced including Nacho Cheese, Pizza, Shrimp Cocktail, Bacon, Sharp Cheddar, Roasted Garlic and Philly Cream Cheese.  The product was also known as Snack Mate up until the 80s when Kraft Foods bought Nabisco and rebranded the product as Kraft Easy Cheese.  Today there are only four varieties offered, Sharp and regular Cheddar, American and Bacon flavored.  I’m also kind of bummed out in that the Bacon option has changed over time.  From what I remember in the 80s, there were actual bacon bits mixed in with the cheese as opposed to today where there is just a smoky bacon flavor added to the cheese.  I’m sure it’s cheaper to produce, but it’s kind of a letdown.

Next week I’m hopefully going to have part two of this crazy article up featuring some of my own memories of the product, the various cinematic appearances of Snack Mate/Easy Cheese, as well as a the 1981 cookbook, and a bit of fun with the Twinkie Wiener Sandwich!

Wax Paper Pop Art #27, The most powerful wrappers in the universe!

Today is Friday the 13th which seems like the perfect opportunity to share some cool Jason Vorhees themed bits of Wax Paper Pop Art, but alas none exist.  This reminds me of one of my favorite blogs that is sadly defunct, the Bubblegum Fink.  BF was a huge influence on Branded, and one of the really cool things he did was to create sets of digital trading cards that aped the style of Topps sets back in the 70s and 80s.  One of my favorite would-be sets was for Friday the 13th, and it would have been awesome had it actually existed.  I never saved any of the images sadly, but here’s a post of someone else who took notice of these awesome pieces of should-be-nostalgia

Anyway, in lieu of simplistic Hockey Mask art I thought I’d share a set of some of my favorite Topps card wrappers from the Masters of the Universe series circa 1984…

These images, in particular of He-Man and Skeletor were very prevalent on MOTU merchandising back in the day.  Actually both of them also grace the two Lazer Blazer sticker sets as well.  It’s kind of cool to get a chance to see the same image in so many iterations over the years…

   

I talked about the sticker cards from this set, as well as a bunch of other MOTU stickers in an older Peel Here column.

Peel Here #111: A Grossville High School Reunion!

It’s not very often that I get a chance to revisit a set of stickers I’ve shared before with some interesting behind the scenes updates on the production and input from those involved in creating the set.  I was really happy to have a chance to do just that this past week when Gary Cangemi the co-creator, artist and writer behind Fleer’s 1986 sticker set called Grossville High paid a visit to Branded.  Not only did he share some of his experiences working on this set, but he also graciously provided a scan of the original artwork for one of the cards to share here as well as to clean up a bit of a buggy mystery.

About a year ago, a reader of the site named Joe pointed out one of the obscure facts about this set that I neglected to talk about when I first posted about the Grossville High cards.  Basically, the Grossville mascot (named Ronnie the Roach) is hidden in the artwork for each card in the set, so there was a additional bit of fun to be had in searching for the little bugger.  Joe had also pointed out that there was one card that didn’t feature a hidden Ronnie, sticker card #58, Miss Body English (pictured below at the center-left.)

As you can see in the original artwork below, Ronnie is indeed there, he was just cropped out of the final card art by Fleer…

What I really love about getting a chance to see this original artwork is the little details and differences between it and the final printed card.  First of all, one of the things that I’d appreciated about the artwork when I first took a look at this set was the care that was put into the aesthetics of the color when it came to the backgrounds.  This set is very loud with a lot of neon yellows, neon greens, reds, oranges and purples, and it can be an assault on the eyes at times.  One of the ways that I assumed Fleer tried to tone this down was by dimming the backgrounds, which both highlights the main characters and reduces the color “volume” so to speak.  Well, with the original piece, we get a chance to see the artwork as it was intended without the background obscured, and honestly it’s not nearly as eye-strain-inducing as I’d imagined.  Actually, the overall art seems less garish and less intense.  I think this has a lot to do with the fact that Fleer went with a very vivid and saturated look to the set instead of using the more subdued palette Cangemi originally chose.

Closer inspection of the piece also reveals some changes in the art that Cangemi noted Fleer had asked him to make.  In particular you can see a reduction in Miss Body’s bustiness…

Anyway, here’s what Gary had to say about working on Grossville High…

“My business partner Larry Newman came up with the concept of a gross high school and most of the names.  I did all the writing and artwork for the series.  There are some creative and design problems with the series caused mostly by the lack of time given me to complete 66 designs PLUS the humor on the backs.  I remember doing the whole thing in 5-6 weeks.  Some of the stuff got repetitive because there wasn’t enough time for creative development and feedback.  You will notice there are no African-American characters in the series.  Joe Stereo WAS black originally but fleer was so afraid of being accused of racism they made me turn him into a white guy.  I told them they were wrong, that to exclude African Americans was more racist.  Of course they had no objections to my stereotypes of Chinese, Italian, or Latino characters…go figure.  Some of these cards wouldn’t survive today’s hypersensitive market and others make me cringe a little, but the 70s-80s were a different time when people could kid around about race without all the political correctness.  Sitcoms were loaded with these stereotypes.

The only resemblance I see to GPK (in response to my assertion that Fleer was riffing on Topps’ GPK stickers – Shawn) is the naming scheme and the grossness, but I tried to be as original as possible and more MAD-like.  The faded backgrounds were fleer’s decision.  The original art, which I still possess, is rich in color depth and detail, too much so.  Fleer said the characters didn’t stand out enough like the GPKs did so they cut masks around the characters and lightened the backgrounds.  There IS a roach on the Miss Body English card, you just need to look harder.  I had a great time designing these cards but wish they had given me more.  They would have been much better.  By the way, the GH originals were not painted, they were done in Prismacolor markers, ink and colored pencil on Arches watercolor paper.”

As for the future of Grossville High, Gary had this to say…

“I now own the exclusive rights to Grossville High and plan on resurrecting them in some form or another, either a class reunion or a next generation concept.  I also wrote a script for a GH graphic novel which I would like to produce someday.  I think Grossville High, with some updating, would make a great CGI film.”

Also, another bit of fun trivia for this set is that it was originally intended to be called Grossburger High, but Fleer nixed that idea for being too close to yet another of their rival Topps’ products, Gross Bears (their Garbage Pail Kid-like parody of the Care Bears released in 1985.)

I really want to give a huge thanks to Gary Cangemi for sharing his thoughts on the set and for giving the Branded readers a chance to look at some of his original untouched artwork!  I also hope he gets a chance to bring these characters back to life in a new project, and I’m really excited to see what might come in the future…

Learning to cook with the Muppet Babies!

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

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

  

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

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

Putting the banana in the Batman…

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Peel Here #110: Presto Magix, or scrapbooking for nerdy children…

I was picking through a pile of ephemera that I plan on sharing on Branded in the future when I came across my meager collection of sticker transfer sets.  I bought most of these around the time I started this website and for some reason I never got around to really talking about them.  Though not stickers in the most accepted sense, these sets pretty much hit on all of the reasons why stickers were/are cool, and they’re an example of an interesting microcosm that exists within the hobby.

Basically these sets were a much cheaper variation of the Colorforms playsets (which debuted in the 50s), both of which are plays on the evolution of paper dolls.  While Colorforms were a bit sturdier, consisting of cardboard background scene and a bunch of re-useable vinyl cut-outs featuring pop culture characters and imagery, the various brands of transfer sets were much cheaper, featuring paper backdrops and single use transfer “stickers.”  Like coloring and activity books, these sets were designed as a way for children to use their own imagination to create a story with pop culture imagery.  I loved these sets when I was young because I always had more fun setting up a scene when I was playing (be it with actual toys or when I’d draw) then actually executing my ideas.  These sets play on that part of the creative brain that leads kids to drawing scenes of two opposing military forces where you see the cut-away of bases and underground drilling machines.  Best of all they were really cheap, around $0.50 to $1 in most cases, so it was much easier to convince parents that they were a worthwhile purchase.

Though I’m sure there are more, I’m really only aware of two brands for these transfer sets, Colorforms Rub N’ Play sets and Presto Magix.  The Colorforms sets tended to feature more transfers in their sets, but Presto Magix always had cooler backdrops…

Here you can see an example of a Presto Magix Thundarr the Barbarian set from 1981.  Each package had a small sheet of transfers and a fold out scene with which to place the action…

To transfer the stickers you simple had to place the sticker sheet in the desired position and then use a pen or pencil to rub over the area you wanted to transfer.  Some of the more deluxe sets came with a little red plastic tool with a rounded tip that you used to rub the transfers off the sheet.

When seeking out these sets after 20 odd years I was surprised at how many I managed to find.  Like stickers, these sets seemed destined to be used, and afterward I’m sure that most of them ended up in the garbage.  Since they’ve quadrupled in value over the years I limited my shopping spree to 8 sets.  In addition to the Thundarr set above I also picked up a handful of Star Wars Return of the Jedi Presto Magix sets…

      

…as well as three Colorforms Rub N’ Play sets featuring Michael Jackson, Masters of the Universe, and Gremlins.

   

Aside from the single use aspect, the biggest drawback of these sets was getting the transfer on the backdrop in one solid piece.  The heavier plastic material that these transfers are housed on tended to stretch and distort when you’d rub the stickers off of them and since they were so thin and fragile they’d often break in half or have a bunch of cracks in the image.  Sometimes it was also easy to mistakenly get a second transfer stuck to the backdrop while you were working on a separate one simple by the pressure of your hand on the transfer plastic.  For $0.50 though, it was worth the risk.

One of the other things that I loved about these sets was the opportunity to mix and match characters from my favorite TV shows and cartoons.  Why wouldn’t Scooby Doo go on an adventure with Ookla the Mok from Thundarr?  Breaking these sets out again seemed like a great opportunity to put together that dream super-band I’ve always wanted to see…

I always imaged Admiral Ackbar had a very William Shatner-like delivery when singing, and you have to dig those hairy back-up singers!

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.

Wax Paper Pop Art #26, Sucking at a video game was never so pretty…

For today’s WWPA I thought I’d share a wrapper for a set of cards and stickers that I haven’t been able to get my hands on just yet.  The 1983 Fleer Dragon’s Lair game cards and stickers…

The few times I’ve played the original arcade game it totally kicked my butt.  It was beautiful though, as Don Bluth’s animation tends to be.  To hear all about it check out episode 81 of the Retroist Podcast!

Wax Paper Pop Art #25, the Rocket Launcher edition…

Since I ended up talking about the Rambo cartoon yesterday it only seems fitting to end the week with a bit of Rambo Wax Paper Pop Art.  This wrapper is from the 1985 Topps card set (I’ve posted about the stickers in the past…)