Tag Archives: Steve Gerber

Man, I miss Steve Gerber…

I found some time this weekend and scanned another Thundarr the Barbarian article.  This one comes from an issue of Fantastic from 1980, though for the life of me I can’t remember which month.  It was written by Adam Eisenberg and makes a nice companion piece to the Fangoria/Buzz Dixon article I posted before, though it centers on more of the limitations and censorship the series had to overcome because of the imposed network standards and practices…

I know I tend to go on and on about this idea time and again, but I think it’s interesting to note just how important the 1980-1983 timeframe was for modern action animation.  In the piece Steve Gerber talks a little bit about the collective intentions to bring the “action” back to action/adventure cartoons while creating Thundarr with Joe Ruby (of Ruby Spears.)   First off, though he was already working in animation doing production design for Hanna Barbera, Jack Kirby was probably hot on Gerber and Ruby’s minds because of what he brought to the table for Marvel and DC comics.   I think it’s really cool to see an animation production team playing to the strengths of their contracted talent instead of trying to force them to bend in another direction, which doesn’t always bode well in network/studio environment.

At the same time, Gerber admits that even while shooting for the stars in terms of creating a thrilling action oriented cartoon they still had their hands tied to an extent where their barbarian hero couldn’t “…throw a punch or…even hit anybody.  He can do all kids of acrobatic things, but he can’t even trip anyone.”  This kind of over protective standards and practices is equal parts infuriating and incredibly flooring.  Whereas it’s frustrating to watch a cartoon that centers around a barbarian that you just know wants to knock the block off of every douche-bag wizard that he runs across (they are enslaving humanity you know), these limitations opened the door to exploring another heroic archetype, the strong non-violent hero (think He-Man.)  Though I know it’s really easy to bag on the He-Man ideal for being too goodie good and unrealistic, this kind of storytelling is not always about focusing on the visceral and gritty realism.  Sometimes it’s about fables and though I know this is obvious, morality.  This is what’s really cool about a great creative environment, that there is room to explore both paths (and more), so you can have something more fist in the face like G.I. Joe, something more moral like Masters of the Universe, and something inbetween like Thundarr.

So this short period in animation is so interesting to me because it marks the beginning of the end of 10 long years of anti-integrity self-imposed studio censorship…

Similarly Gerber and Ruby found themselves challenged by another aspect of depicting violence in cartoons in that they weren’t allowed to have any kind of traditional barbarian sword for the Thundarr character.  According to S&P there could be no sharp objects like knives or swords.  Though it could have hampered some of the design aesthetic on the show this limitation pushed them to create something interesting and new in Thundarr’s Sunsword.   Trying to sidestep riffing too much off of Star Wars the sword was designed to have a blade forged from a bolt of lightning.   Again, even though they were hampered by network S&P the crew ended up treating this as a chance to bring something relatively new to the table, or at least they used it as an opportunity to tie in a different set of influences than a barbarian fantasy cartoon would normally lean on.  It’s less Conan and more Norse god in look and design.  Again, this is certainly playing to the strengths of Jack Kirby who brought a taste of his work on characters such as Thor and the various 4th World creations for DC.


Here’s another Gerber quote from the article that I love…

“The big thing that we’ve had to overcome is that the censors tend to treat children as if they’re not just morons, but lunatics, potentially dangerous creatures.”


Cartoon Commentary! #14, Presto the giant killer…

So here we are at episode 13 of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. I just wanted to remind anyone who cares, that next week I’ll be switching to a different cartoon for a bit to take a rest of dragons and underpants. Hopefully the change will turn out all right, as it’s been kind of weird switching gears to another show, from action adventure to comedy, from a fantasy setting to science fiction. Maybe it was a bad idea, too drastic a change, but we’ll all soon see.

Episode thirteen, titled P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster, originally aired on December 10th, 1983, and if you guessed the prolific Jeffrey Scott wrote it, then you’d be correct. This episode serves as the last for the first season, though I’m not sure exactly how these were produced or in what order. Scott was also responsible for writing two episodes that aired in the second season. So far, judging by the 7 episodes that he contributed so far, I’d have to say that Jeffrey Scott tends to fall back on a lot of tried and true story conventions, particularly plots from fairy tales in his scripts. There are a couple of exceptions, in particular the episode Servant of Evil, but for the most part it seems as if he was more comfortable placing the characters into comfortable situations to see how they would react. It reminds me of the work of a lot of sitcom writers in that you tend to see a lot of repeated plots (snowed in at a ski lodge or cabin, trapped in a store after hours, a recipe was mixed up and the wrong ingredients added, and in all cases hilarity ensues.) This seems like it would make sense as Scott has written a book on writing for animation. Stands to reason that he must have some sort of system in order to have dedicated an entire book to it.

This episode basically serves to highlight Presto as a character, in particular focusing on his self esteem issues by having his magic backfire in a much larger way than normal. While trying to escape an attack by a bunch of orcs, Presto casts a spell that whisks away the rest of the gang (sans Uni) to a castle in the sky, leaving him alone to try and find a way to get his friends back. The story ends up being a loose re-telling of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale, only with a lot more dragons and a lot less golden chickens.

Hearkening back to the beginning of the series, the episode opens on the gang running away from a giant beast, though in this case it was a very odd in that they are running from a stegosaurus. Color me surprised, but apparently it’s not uncommon to find dinosaurs roaming around in the Dungeons and Dragons realms, which is a convention of fantasy that’s always sort of bugged me. It seems a lot of the time that fantasy worlds are more or less made up of a sort of mish-mash amalgamation of events and cultures of our own world, becoming fantasy by default because it technically never existed. Though I’m sure this is a perfectly viable definition of fantasy, I can’t help but have a much more traditional ideal stuck in my head, most of which is informed by Tolkien’s worlds. I guess I have a hard time defining what fantasy is for myself, not knowing whether to concentrate on themes, settings, or what. It’s like trying to fit Star Wars into a specific genre. Is it Sci-Fi (set in futuristic space) or fantasy (the hero’s quest, swords and sorcery), or honestly does it even matter? I guess stegosauruses in D&D just feel weird to me…

Though I think we’ve seen one before (in the Man-Thing episode I believe) we get another chance to see one of the higher-ranking orcs, probably a captain or something. I’ve always been fond of this sort of helmet design, what with the spread out bat/dragon wings (it’s one of the aspects that makes the Warduke character so appealing.)

The scene in which Presto mistakenly whisks away the gang with his magic hat is kind of weird when you consider how the episode plays out. In fact his magic hat is very odd to me. He never seems to have any control over what comes out, even if 99% of the time it’s helpful if not exactly in the way expected. They way the power is written it comes off very much like a Deux Ex Machina, or if I were to really stretch it, as a way for Dungeon Master to screw with the gang. In this episode DM pops up after Presto wigs out a bit and he sets Presto on a quest to find his friends, and like usual he very cryptically lays out how the rest of the episode will play out. Now is this because he has the power of premonition or is it all his doing? I mean it becomes very coincidental later when characters have exactly what Presto needs in order to find his friends, coincidental unless DM made it that way. Wow, I’m really reaching here.

After Presto sets off on his quest there is another oddly out of place editing wipe, this time a more traditional straight line across the screen wipe. I wonder if these are in past episodes and I didn’t notice them before? I mean I guess it’s not that weird, I mean look at Transformers for crying out loud, how crazy and obvious of a wipe is a giant Autobot symbol flipping to reveal a Decepticon symbol as the episode shifts focus to the enemy? I think I’ve just noticed them a lot more in the D&D cartoon because I’ve been trying to subconsciously pick out all of the Star Wars references (of which wipes are a possibility.)

The sequence where the gang finds themselves transported into a glass cage in the giants castle reminds me a lot of a similar sequence in the movie Time Bandits, where that group ends up on a giant’s ship (which is actually strapped to an even bigger giant’s head), and pretty soon afterward they also come across a ‘force field’ that is actually made of glass. It’s too bad Venger wasn’t in this episode, because then it would almost seem as if Time Bandits might have been a more direct influence, though it’s not out of the realm of possibilities…

Both in the glass age, and then after they get outside of it, the kids run into a very familiar creature (the prison guard beast from the Servant of Evil episode), who in this episode is identified as a slime beast named Willy. The giant decides to have some fun by watching his ‘pet’ chase after the gang, so he sets them all loose and waits for the slaughter.

The giant by the way (who might be voiced by Peter Cullen, but I’m not sure) has a very odd, almost New York-esque accent, which comes off very funny. The performance reminds me a lot of how Junior Gorg was played on Fraggle Rock, a very common theme in cartoon/muppet giants, very manic, almost friendly, but in the end sort of a bumbling evil.

In the scene where the gang is scrambling to get away from Willy, there’s a bit with Eric getting stuck under the door where his neck has a very weird animation line drawn in that closes off the two sides and makes him look very awkward…

On a completely unrelated note, I really like it in cartoons when the main characters are either very small or are shrunk to a tiny level because by default the backgrounds become a lot more detailed. In order to make the door look as big as it is for instance, the artists have added a lot of wood grain detail, and since it’s part of the background it’s got a nicer, more textured look to it. Same goes for the rock on the wall, you get to see all the little divots and cracks and stuff. It’s an effect I’ve noticed in a lot of Don Bluth’s work, in particular The Secret of Nimh and An American Tail (because the main characters are mice and rats in a human sized world.)

So another thing that I’ve begun to wonder about is the design work on all of the background characters that pop up in towns and such throughout the series. In this episode, when Presto stumbles upon a town trying to find three people that’ll help him find his friends, he runs into a weird, yet cute sasquatch looking guy, as well as some odd Star Wars cantina-like characters sitting around a pub. What I’m wondering is if the storyboard artists are contributing these designs or if the overseas animators are. A lot of these characters end up being really weird, and very un-fantasy (there goes my weird misconceptions again), take for instance the heavy set looking gentleman sitting closest to the foreground in the second picture below. He looks like a cross between ALF, Batman, and Norm from Cheers. Who comes up with these guys?

Eventually Presto finds the man/men he’s looking for (though he doesn’t realize it) in the form of a big three-headed, three-card Monte playing bruiser who really wants Uni in trade for some magic marbles (read magic beans.) In a silly twist Presto refuses to trade Uni for the marbles, and instead is forced to play a round of three-card Monte with roughly the same stakes of the trade.

This gag has been done so many times in movies, sitcoms and cartoons, that it has almost become the TV equivalent of the Aristocrats joke (made more public by the film of the same name.) How many different ways can the mark get screwed by entering into a game of three-card Monte? I don’t know, but add one more…

This is when the episode really kicks into Jack and the Beanstalk mode as Presto storms off after losing (and losing Uni to the Monte triplets no less.) All he has to show for his trouble is those three stupid magic marbles, so like any good Jack clone would, he chucks them in the dirt…

Of course a gigantomungus tree immediately starts to grow, which not only knocks off Presto’s hat in a moment of shock and awe, but also reveals the realm’s worst case of hat hair ever. It’s actually kind of funny how the animators drew his head sans hat. I wonder if this is one of those instances where the story boards weren’t explicit enough and the animators took a quick drawing too literally?

This is where the episode gets a little wiggy, if only because it would be hard to stick to the traditional telling of the beanstalk story considering Jack doesn’t get his cow (Uni) back. There’s a quick scene as Uni escapes the triplets, runs to Presto and both of them quickly run into a newly open door in the tree (which abruptly traps them inside.) Inside the trunk of the tree is a huge set of spiraling stairs that the duo decides to climb, urged on by a growl and a freakish face at the foot of the stairs…

What’s weird is that there is a creature in the tree (what will soon be revealed as a very large and angry dragon) so it’s kind of weird that Scott (or the storyboard artists) decided to add an odd layer of evil face-age to the tree’s interior. Honestly, I think the growling noise would have been sufficient.

While patiently waiting for my first dragon to pop up, I again was tricked into thinking I was going to have to settle for some dragon iconography in the form of a weird Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: Dragon Edition play set (that the giant forces Eric and Sheila to play on)…

…but again, I am rewarded with an actual dragon. A cute baby golden dragon to boot. There’s an interesting moment in the sequence (when Presto goes out on a limb, Looney Tunes style, to save the baby dragon), where Uni ends up taking Presto’s hat and manages to cast a much better, more accurate spell, even in muffled whiney Uni speak…

I think so far everyone who has used the hat besides Presto has done a better job, even the Lizard Men. What’s weird is that I believe this is a turning point for Presto and his hat. Later when he attempts a spell again he has much more confidence, and honestly the only thing I can trace it back to is him witnessing a baby unicorn out magician the group magician. I think this is a really odd way of trying to get Presto to believe in himself. In fact, logically I think it should have the opposite effect…

Anyway, after the baby dragon, we also get the mother, a nice large golden one. Not only that, but for once it’s a good dragon, though we really don’t find that out until the last few seconds of the show for what it’s worth. Honestly it was a nice curve ball in a realm filled with non-stop evil, cryptic mentors and a bunch of slave dwarves…

So a little bit later, after the group has been ‘saved’, and we’re to the part in the Beanstalk story where the gang has reached the ground and the giant is about to come down after them we get a really weird twist. Presto, now much more sure of himself and his abilities whips out one heck of a lumberjack spell, and zaps the living heck out of the tree…

…and oddly enough the giant as well.

The spell that Presto used was meant to shrink the giant, but from what I can gather it killed him, zapped him right out of existence, becoming nothing more than thin plume of smoke rising from what will seconds later become the new nest to a Golden dragon and her two pups.

I’m a little confused by the standards and practices department on the show now. Honestly, it’s not like the scene bothered me, it’s more of a weird double standard that seems to deem it okay to use magic from a hat to kill a lumbering giant, yet Hank (for the most part) can’t fire his bow at people in a threatening manner. Bobby can’t thump an orc over the head. Eric can’t…well, Eric is on defense, but you get the point. Even in the Garden of Zinn episode, the two shadow Stalkers are turned to lifeless rock by a secondary guest character, but Presto’s actions are a whole different ball game. I find it kind of odd.

On that note, I’m gonna officially take a break from D&D for a bit, but next time on Cartoon Commentary! I’m going to try and turn my microscope on a show that I’m pretty sure I caught every episode of when it originally aired, Galaxy High. To tide you over until then, here’s the theme song by Don Felder

Cartoon Commentary! #13, D&D in space, or more likely the other way around…

It’s funny how life gets in the way of website content updates. I was supposed (I say supposed, but that’s so self-imposed) to have this posted last week (as well as the 13th commentary on the D&D cartoon), but it had to wait until today. Hopefully I’ll have the next on up later, probably on Wednesday, and then it’s on to another show for awhile; something much, much different, say a comedy set in space for instance. Today though we’re going to keep trudging along with the dragons, fantasy, and underwear jokes. Wait, I think we are blissfully devoid of underwear in this episode…

The title of today’s show is The Lost Children, which originally aired on December 3rd, 1983, and was yet again written by Jeffrey Scott who took a stab at really pushing the envelope as far as some of the story elements go. I would have to call this the de facto Star Wars reference episode as we get everything from almost direct quotes, creature name dropping, similar plot points, and above all else a mixture of fantasy and science fiction.

The basic gist of this episode involves the gang, on instructions from a very oddly animated Dungeon Master (he appears very mischievous, almost evil at times), going on a quest to find a ship that can take them home. The key to finding the ship lies with a group of lost children, aliens from another world, who are also on a quest (to find their elder Alfor, who is being held prisoner by Venger.) Together they set out to free Alfor and, who they hope can use his spaceship to get everyone home.

Like I mentioned above, some of the sequences with DM at the beginning are weirdly animated, so much so that he also appears to be sort of villainous…

After the gang sets out to look for the lost children, they very quickly get their wish, though it takes them completely by surprise as the ‘children’ are a strange alien race that appears to be some sort of amalgamation between Willey Kit and Willey Kat from the Thundercats, and the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. At first I figured the kids were painted up in some sort of tribal war paint, but I believe that this might actually be their real skin…

So one of the interesting aspects of this episode is the mass amount of more modern technology that shows up, the first bit of which is a blowtorch used by a mystery prisoner of Venger. What struck me as kind of odd is the design of the device, which was very fantasy influenced (the tip of the torch is shaped like a dragon.) I’m wondering how much this was thought out in the script? We later learn that the mystery prisoner is Alfor, the elder of the lost children, so he’s obviously from another more technologically advanced planet and could very well have brought the device with him on his spaceship. Yet since it looks so fantasy oriented in it’s design, I’m wondering if it’s something Venger conjured up to assist his prisoner in fixing his ship. This question pops up again later as well…

Along with all of the weird technology in this episode, we also get a look at Castle de la Venger (mark IV.) His castle was shown again in the last episode, though I didn’t mention it because it was again one of the hanging stalactite abodes from before. Why he keeps castle hopping is beyond me, unless he really does like to spread himself out among the realm, maybe to keep all the indigenous people in line.

Another thing I noticed is that either Scott, the storyboard artists, or the animators decided to do the whole "see the footsteps of the invisible Sheila as she walks" gag when she decides to sneak into the castle by herself to free Alfor. I didn’t realize that they did this again in the series…

So getting back to the oddly advanced technology, Sheila stumbles upon a trap along one of the halls of Venger’s castle, a hanging cage that will fall down on top of you if you step through a laser tripwire. I mean, this is straight out of Mission Impossible or something (well maybe not the cage part), and it’s very out of place in the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Like the blowtorch, it begs the question of where it came from. Are these enhancements that Alfor has been forced to make on the castle, or is this simply the work of Venger? Personally I’d like to believe that Venger made Alfor install this stuff as it would really enrich the story and not come off as convenient writing.

Speaking of convenient scripting, when Sheila makes her way down to the dungeon to try and free Alfor (she has no idea what he looks like) she instead finds a guy who just happens to be Venger in disguise. How in the heck did he know to hide in the dungeon like that, or that she’d even come to the particular cell? It makes for a dynamic reveal (as most of Venger’s transformations do), but it really doesn’t make all that much sense…

Again, like in episode #8 (Servant of Evil), I though the obligatory dragon of the episode was going to have to be something that really stretched the concept of dragons in every episode, like the tip of the torch (or the prison gate locking mechanism in SoE), but again I wasn’t let down as a little while later we get a true dragon appearance. This one is pretty cool as it’s possibly another reference to the Lord of the Rings series (something we get surprising very little of in D&D) in the form of the steeds of some very Ring Wraith looking fellas.

Seriously, besides their one glowing yellow eye, they are very Ring Wraith-ish and very awesome looking minions of Venger. I don’t think we ever see them again in the series, which is sort of a shame as I’m insanely curious about their origins and I’d love to see a little more characteristics as they end up being dispatched in a very odd way (well actually in a very unseen way.)

Right about the time that the episode cuts for a commercial, the plot all of a sudden gets all wiggy. The Ring Wraith-like riders end up besting most of the kids, and it’s left up to Presto to literally pull something out of hit hat to save them all. Well, nothing comes out of his hat and then the episode fades to black to go to a commercial. This is very common in the series thus far, usually fading to black on a villain as they trudge towards the kids, and then as it fades back in it sort of backs up a couple seconds to pick up where the episode left off. In this episode though, the timeline jumps forward about ten minutes with the gang having defeated the riders, and are now posing as them (in the rider’s garb) to sort of Trojan Horse their way into Venger’s castle with Bobby and the Lost Children as prisoners. It’s a very Star Wars thing to do by the way, though it’s also a trick as old as time itself. There is pretty much no explanation as to what went down, only an off hand comment by Presto that he couldn’t believe that his hat saved everyone (or something to that effect.) Though it bugs me that there is a gaping plot hole like this, it’s also sort of a fun allusion to the way such cliffhangers were handled during the serialized movie shorts of the 30s and 40s. In a lot of those serials the hero would be in a very dire position as the episode ended, and then when it picked up next week the situation was re-written to be a little more in favor of the hero so that he could escape, triumph, etc. Probably not intentional in the D&D cartoon’s case, but I still found it a little neat.

Apparently, I opened my big mouth too soon as far as stating that the phase of having zombies pop up in the cartoon was over. There are just no more purple-ish zombies with white hair. In the next sequence as the gang smuggles themselves into the castle Presto mistakenly opens the wrong cell and a zombie-like creature jumps out and plays pro wrestler with him for a bit. There’s also a bit of anime-esque animation to the scene, what with the odd art on Presto’s teeth as he’s being lifted for the beat down.

The kids find the correct cell and release Alfor, who at first bore a striking resemblance to Ookla the Mok from the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon…

…but upon closer inspection looks more like the lost older (more hairy) brother of Lion-O from the Thundercats. Eric also drops another Star Wars reference here, referring to Alfor as a wookie.

Alfor leads the kids to his ship, which turns out to be a spaceship with a design that reminds me of a cross between the H.G. Wells time machine and the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea sub from the Kirk Douglas Disney movie. It’s pretty snazzy in a 50s sci-fi sort of way, though very unrealistic as it has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. I have to admit that I really like the whole romantic notion of space craft that have open canopies (or ones that lift up so that the crew can just jump out), it’s very much in line with the 60s Hanna Barbera adventure cartoon, or comic books from the same time.

There’s yet another Star Wars reference as Alfor explains to Eric that he needs to fix a bad motivator on his ship ("Hey Uncle, this one’s got a bad motivator…"). I’m not a technically inclined type of guy, but I’m pretty sure that this is just some weird techno babble from Star Wars.

Apparently it’s completely kosher to feature violence against the lizard men in the D&D cartoon (as far as standards and practices go) as this is the second episode to feature a direct energy bow bolt hit from Hank (there was one in the Servant of Evil episode as well.)

I wonder if this is sort of a double standard because there are obviously no real lizard men, they’re more like monsters and therefore it’s cool to have violence directed at them. It’s sort of like the robots on Samurai Jack, or how all of the blood and guts where allowed to be every color except red in Evil Dead 2 to avoid an X rating. I noticed a similar scene in the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’s Stardust, where a character had his throat slit yet the blood was blue…

One of the rumors that has followed the cancellation of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon around to this day is that it went off the air because of the supposed ‘demonic’ content or the evil connotations that the tabletop game has been accused of having. A scene that a lot of people point involves Alfor’s ship as they gang and the kids pile in to escape from Venger’s castle. There’s a set of engravings on the ship which could be mistaken for three sixes, the sign of the devil, but I think that this is really reaching…

As the ship takes off, there is an odd reference to a port hole in the room (one which Venger brings to life with two sets of chomping teeth) as a garbage masher, which again seems to be a reference to Star Wars if only because a ‘wookie’ is flying them out on a spaceship with a bad motivator, blah, blah, blah. Add to this the escape (in the garb of the enemy) from the dungeon (read detention level) and it makes one wonder is Scott was watching Star Wars as he wrote the script…

To top all of this off, Venger ends up blasting the ship out of the sky, which appears to crash in a huge ball of flames…

When in fact the ship just sort of crashes nose first into a nearby swamp (an Empire reference perhaps) and every one is fine and dandy. Well, fine and dandy health-wise. I’m sure they’re all depressed and pissed that their ticket home is lying damaged in the swamp…

All in all, I thought that this was a really odd direction to take the show in, especially in it’s first season, as the writers hadn’t really yet explored the full potential of the fantasy themes and environments. Nonetheless it’s an interesting addition to the cannon and continuity.

Next time on Cartoon Commentary we’ll look at the episode P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster.

Cartoon Commentary! #12, So many editorial wipes…

This week I’m going to tackle the last three episodes of the 1st season of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon before moving on to a new show for a little bit. Today’s episode is titled The Box (a word that the movie Se7en has totally ruined for me as I find myself uncontrollably falling into the character that Brad Pitt plays, endlessly whining the phrase, "What’s in the box?"), which originally aired on November 26th, 1983 and was again written by Jeffrey Scott. It’s funny, though a couple other writers on the series ended up writing scenes where the kids almost get home, the two such scenes that Scott wrote both have the kids making it all the way back to their world, which I find both frustrating and amazingly interesting. In fact even though the series eventually ended with an episode that didn’t even address the plight of getting home, I’m glad the two which Scott wrote that tackled the subject weren’t at the end of the series because that would really have bugged me.

This episode follows the children on a quest to free a friend of Dungeon Master, Zandora, after they stumble upon a mystical box that belongs to her. After they free Zandora, she shows them the way home, though Venger is hot on their heels. Now back on earth, the gang has to make a hard choice about what they should do now that Venger is set to take over their home world as well as the D&D realm.

This episode opens with a very odd bit of background fun as Eric is washing his clothes after being sprayed by a creature with skunk like glands. It’s interesting to see his outfit separated out on the clothesline as you very rarely see cartoon characters out of ‘costume’ unless they have an alter ego or something. I mean when was the last time you saw the Sorceress in anything besides her multi-colored bird outfit? Of course, this is also another chance to see a D&D character in their underwear, which I swear is way too often for a cartoon that only lasted 27 episodes. There’s also a bit of a slight time warp in this scene as one second Eric is half naked and in a pond…

…and then he’s fully dressed and (I guess) aired out as no one brings up his stink again. The bit with the earthquake is kind of convenient, as the chasm that opens up just happens to be where a very mystical box is buried. Once again, I know it’s a cartoon and all, but this type of writing really hurts my head, and honestly it’s not relegated to the world of kid’s shows either. This sort of scripting is what ruined Spiderman 3 for me, as at practically every turn an amazingly coincidental event would occur, to a point where the plot became ludicrous. Anyway, that’s a bit off topic.

The box that is unearthed is called Zandora’s box, which is a play on Pandora’s box

Something odd that caught my eye in this episode are a couple of editing wipes that I hadn’t noticed in others. The first one is an iris wipe (an expanding circle which opens into a new scene) that happens as Eric stand dumfounded after Dungeon Master’s trademarked abrupt disappearance. Immediately after I saw this I couldn’t help but think of the original Star Wars flicks, as George Lucas is a notorious wipe enthusiast. Now that I’m thinking about it, placing a wipe like this in a cartoon is pretty counter-intuitive as wipes (I believe) are generally so stylistic as to draw the audience out of what they’re watching a little on purpose, sort of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink to reaffirm that what you’re watching is fiction. In an action cartoon, I’d think that the creators would want you immersed in the world as much as possible, trying to avoid anything that would break a suspension of disbelief.

After the gang sets off on their quest to free Zandora from her box, there’s a fun bit of character development as Eric is fed up with blindly following orders, and he sort of plants his foot, strikes a very heroic pose, and attempts to make his first coup…

As soon as some bullywogs show up though, he’s back to his cowardly self. It was funb to see a moment like this, which reminded me a lot of both Starscream from Transformers, and possibly Destro from G.I. Joe. When the bullywogs show they also bring either a commander or the king of the bullywogs with them as one is obviously in higher-ranking garb.

There’s also a nice moment with Venger in his castle dungeon, where he’s just frozen one of his minions in a block of ice, which is apparently THE villain thing to do in the realm. If I had a dime for every time someone is frozen solid into a block of ice in this series I’d have like $0.40 right now. Anyway, it’s kind of fun to see Venger venting over the disloyalty of a background character just sort of thrown in, instead of him writhing his hands in villainous glee over the next trap he’s laid out for the gang. He’s actually interrupted by Shadow Demon, and then is sort of reminded that he needs to get those kids. Refreshing to say the least.

Another nice bit of subtlety in this episode involves a map that Dungeon Master gave to the gang in order to find their way to the shadow of Skull Mountain (where they are supposed to open the box in order to free Zandora.) The group follows the map to what they think is Skull Mountain (which looks nothing like it did on the map), though it ends up being a trap set by Shadow Demon and Venger. What I find interesting is that later, after the gang finds the real Skull Mountain, it ends up looking exactly like is does on the map. This level of detail is awesome, and is a great example of what is missing from a lot of similar shows.

There’s a weird bit as the kids approach the fake mountain and are pushing the box into its shadow. As the kids get near the shadow, it’s moving very fast as if the planet were spinning much faster than normal, but as soon as the box is within the shadow, it stops. Just an odd bit of physics, which could have been animated in a reverse fashion with the kids moving and the shadow standing still (instead of both moving.)

The location design has been getting pretty weird in the last couple of episodes, branching out into almost Escher-like landscapes…

As the gang descends into box (into a trap) they end up falling through the checkerboard floor of the dimension they entered, which again illustrates and interesting bit of animation. As the gang falls, the animators (and possibly Jeffrey Scott or the production staff) made sure they all of the characters have their legs in position to cover they crotches. Now I may just be reading into this, but I think it could very well be to avoid any further panty shots. I’ll have to see if this continues along with the rest of the episodes. Also in this scene we get a chance to see Hank tolling up his energy bow once again, this time as a sort of grappling hook and rope. I honestly don’t think I would have been able to write such weird uses for a bow and arrow into the show had I been writing for the series. I think by this point I would have opted to have the bow replaced by something more utilitarian or something, but that’s just me…

As the kids find their footing in the weird environment, a giant wasp, yet another mainstay of the tabletop D&D game, very soon attacks them. I thought it was kind of weird that the wasp’s stinger appeared so tentacle-like or soft. I guess the producers wanted to shy away from implying the characters might be run through by a giant stinger at any moment.

After the kids make it out of the box to safety, there’s another fun editing wipe. This time the scene changes from Venger’s (who is angry) point of view to the kids, so there’s a variation on the iris wipe in the form of a burning hole through a map wipe. This time I didn’t care that it took me out of the show a bit as it was such a flamboyant editing decision, which instead of reminding of George Lucas, made me think of old westerns of all things (I’m sure there is a TV show or a commercial or something when there is like a hot branding iron which sets ablaze some piece of paper causing a wipe; actually I might be thinking of the opening to Bravestarr…)

Finally in the revel of how subtly detailed this episode can be, the kids make their way to the real Skull Mountain. Even for this though, the rest of the map doesn’t resemble the area at all (which is now subtly ironic.)

After the kids free Zandora from the box (who by the way looks suspiciously like Dungeon Master, which reinforced my conspiracy theory I’d been working on that all of these quests were just ways that Dungeon Master found to screw with the kids), she promptly shows them the way they can use the box to get back to their home world. This brings up a sad moment where Bobby once again has to face leaving Uni behind, though this time he seems to get over it a lot faster. Heck, maybe Uni was even getting on his nerves by this point…

I really liked the sequence where the kids get back home, as it echoes the opening credit sequence, reintroducing the roller coaster car and the wiggy portal. If and when kids did get home, I would hope that it resembled this moment.

In a very strange twist on the gang getting back home, Venger confronts Zandora, easily bests her, and then flies his nightmare steed right into the box, chasing after the gang (in a strange visual that Tim Burton would similarly use as his headless horsemen enters his weird bloody tree home.) This brings up a little bit of hypocrisy, which we’ll get to in a minute…

As the kids pull to a stop on the coaster, which has brought them back home, there is a slight change in the art style, almost as if another animation studio took over for a bit. The kids look a lot more cartoony and with a lot less detail, not to mention the opening of the D&D ride which looks drastically different than it does in the opening credits (not only that but the little trademark symbol that is on the ride marquee in the opening sequence is left off in this sequence…)

Anyway, back to the hypocrisy. So Venger has enter the gang’s world and he apparently is just as powerful, not suffering at all from leaving the realm (as we’re told in past episodes that this is the case, which is why Uni can’t cross over.) What’s weird though is that the kids are stripped of their powers, which in the end just comes off as a little bit unfair of Scott. In an episode with a good bit of subtlety and nice character moments, it kind of sucks that we also have to deal with such inevitable conventions like these. In fact, it’s these dichotomies that I think lead to wanting more out of cartoons, or any similar media like comic books. Kids grow up, become more aware of what’s possible and then they want to instill this in the media that they love. This is one reason why, I believe, that cartoons and comics have become more and more adult with each passing generation. Kids that don’t want to grow up, bring their arrested development issues into their work. Just a thought…

The kids, of course, forgo their homecoming to lead Venger back to their home world (as they’re afraid if they don’t, Venger will take over Earth). I found this a little weird as the ride ends up talking them right back to the realm (under who’s command?; the ride is closed after hours), and not only that but right back to where they escaped the realm (which is on a rock bridge in a valley.) Again, of course, as soon as both the gang and Venger is out of the box and it’s moved to safety, the rock bridge has to collapse, effectively stranding the kids back in the realm (as that was the only place the box could get the kids home from.)

Zandora does trick Venger back into the box though (by hiding the kids weapons in it and then moving the box), trapping him in another dimension. Another dimension that that just so happens to also contain Tiamat (who apparently dimension hops in her spare not-fighting-Venger time), an ending that was crying out for that silly want-waaaaa music queue…

At the very end of the episode we get another brief appearance by Dungeon Master who is reunited with his long lost friend (who looks so much like him.) I guess seeing them both on screen crushes my conspiracy theory, but it does bring up the idea of a race of small Yoda-like wizards wandering around the realm.

Next time we’ll take a look at the Episode titled The Lost Children in which we’ll get so many Star Wars references you’d think we were watching a really weird episode of Droids or something…

Cartoon Commentary! #11, The unintentional transformation episode…

I’ve been thinking a little more about the format of this column again, and I think I might take a break from Dungeons and Dragons after episode 13, which is the end of it’s first season as well as both the half-way point in the series and the point at which the writing shifts a little as Michael Reaves comes aboard to take over the heavy lifting for Jeffrey Scott (at least in terms of episode count.) I’m afraid that if I stick with just this show for another month and a half straight my commentary is going to get a little stale. So, I’m going to get through (at least) episode 10 this week, and then next week we’ll hit the last 3 shows before switching gears and talking a look at another show (I’m not sure which one that will be yet, but I’m thinking something else will a low episode count.) Anyway, on to today’s installment of Cartoon Commentary!…

Episode ten, titles The Garden of Zinn, originally aired on November 19th, 1983 and was again written by Jeffrey Scott. The writing in this episode is probably some of Scott’s weakest, relying heavily on clichés (in particular some very over done sitcom clichés), as well as a nauseatingly repetitive theme of secrets and transformation, which almost becomes absurd by the time the 22 minutes are up.

The episode opens with a small twist of convention, this time with a creature of the realm running from the gang instead of vice versa. It’s actually kind of interesting as the fracas involves the gang scrounging for food, a concept that is lost on most cartoons, and particularly in role playing games. I remember a few times when various game masters I’ve played with made things like eating, going to the bathroom and sleeping pretty big issues as they wanted to instill a sense of realism in the gaming environment, much in the vein of the various Sims games. I’m sure there are plenty of people on both sides of the fence on the concept of showing characters doing day to day things, but I’ve always been a fan of it, if only because it makes it all that much easier to suspend my disbelief of the world I’m being shown.

Of course, this scene also features the quickest appearance of our obligatory dragon, as the creature being chased appears to be a baby dragon (who acts strangely like a chicken.) The scene is also another example of madcap/Looney Tunes style humor, what with all of the fudging the bucket, head smacking, cloud-of-dust-raising hilarity that ensues. This is a style that comes and goes during the series, and to me it’s always out of place as the concept begs for a more serious tone. Sure it’s a cartoon aimed at kids, but that doesn’t mean the writers have to succumb to outright physical comedy, and again, this is just my opinion.

The sequence takes a turn for the more dramatic…well, it will, after a crazy sitcom convention, you know the one, where someone fishing has got a really big nibble and try as they might they can’t reel it in? Yup, that one. Well, the rest of the gang comes to the aid of Diana who is fishing, and together they manage to pull a huge Nessie-like creature out of the water. According to the DVD notes this is a dragon turtle, which because of the wording, gets a pass on the obligatory dragon thing.

In the scuffle with the creature, Bobby steps up to attack only to have his forearm scratched on one of the turtle’s fangs. This is the turn to the serious as the bite is more deadly than it at first seems…

Before we get to the ramifications of the turtle bite, I’d like to point out another crazy issue with one of the gang’s magical items, though for once it’s not Hank’s bow, but rather Diana’s staff. Her staff is already a little weird as it sort of has telescoping powers, as well as the ability to come to her hand (as seen in the first episode when she’s tricking Tiamat into a dungeon) much in the fashion of a Jedi willing their light sabers to their hand. Well, at one point the turtle grabs her up and is about to eat her whole like a Twinkie when she jams her staff in it’s mouth (ala Luke in the rancor pit in Jaba’s palace.) Just like the rancor, the dragon turtle chomps down on her staff, snapping it like a twig. After the monster is dispatched though, Diana, very off the cuff grabs the two broken pieces of her staff and just sort of puts them together, all good as new. You know, I would really have loved to have been in on the training sessions these kids must have gone through with Dungeon Master…

As Bobby falls ill from the turtle bite and the gang is lost with no ideas on how to help him, Dungeon Master makes his first appearance and surprisingly doesn’t really help the kids. Apparently his magic has no effect on natural occurrences, which seems like poppycock to me (effectively an excuse to have the kids go on a quest to help Bobby instead of DM just curing him.) It’s scenes like this that really make the character hard to peg in terms of his disposition and power. Is he strong enough to do things like cure Bobby and send the kids home? Is he just toying with the kids in an odd attempt to teach, or is he really so polar in what he’s capable of doing? I’m not sure and the writers never really give any concrete answers, again, a convention of writing for children’s television, but not one that I enjoy.

It’s as this point in the episode where the writing takes a distinct step towards becoming more of a fairy tale as the gang is pointed towards the Garden of Zinn in search of a yellow dragon (whose foot holds the curative powers that Bobby desperately needs.) The garden turns out to be the equivalent of your basic Disney magical kingdom

…complete with an evil queen bent of ruling the land.

The best part of this sequence is when the Shadow Stalker is introduced (there are actually two, but we don’t meet up with the second until the next sitcom cliché.) I really like the design and voice acting on the Stalker, the latter of which was done by Frank Welker  (who voices Uni) in a precursor to his voice work for Dr. Claw (from the Inspector Gadget cartoon.) I could so see the Stalker becoming the Boba Fett of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon (you know, how like in Empire and Jedi, even though he has a pretty small part, he’s considered one of the coolest characters; see also Wedge Antilles)

The gang, stumbling on their way to find the Garden of Zinn, run into a very unassuming character named Solars, who bears a passing resemblance to an aged aardvark. He has them bring Bobby to his little hut where he’ll try and help the gang. Now almost all of the Disney fairy tale conventions are set into place (the last of which we’ll get to in a bit after some more sitcom conventions.)

The gang splits up leaving Sheila, Bobby and Uni with Solars, while the rest go on to find the Garden of Zinn and a definite cure for the turtle bite. Along the way their road forks, and while questioning the path to take Dungeon Master shows up. Or does he? Hank and Eric are suspicious, so they try and test him, which pisses him off. All of a sudden another Dungeon Master appears (will the real DM please stand up), bringing us into one of the oldest gags in the business, "which one is the real one". Seriously though, I think this has been in every single sitcom and cartoon since the beginning of time, and at this point it’s almost a cliché of a cliché.

The two fight it out and it’s only then that gang realizes who the real DM is, as one of the two merely defended himself instead of attacking. This introduces the first of a million transformations in this episode, as the false DM is revealed to be none other than the Shadow Stalker.

Of course, just as the kids are off on their way again with the new advice from the real Dungeon Master, we’re introduced to another bit of trickery as DM turns out to be a second Stalker. You know, if Hank was so wise to spot the first false DM (by noticing that he wasn’t speaking in riddles), I’m surprised that he didn’t notice the second, as he doesn’t mysteriously disappear after doling out the riddles like he always does. Oh well. This Stalker also has a transformation sequence, though it’s utterly pointless, unless you consider hitting the audience over the head with the fact that he’s evil beyond his Jack Nicholson-like sneer after the kids leave is purposeful.

Once again the gang come to an impasse, and for whatever reason we’re sort of forced to relive the last sequence as both stalkers take turns showing up as DM again. There’s more transformations (we’re up to four now) and deceit, though luckily it ends in a rather neat bit with the gang getting pulled underground by a bunch of crazy vines.

In the sequence that takes place underground we’re introduced to a staple of the D&D gaming universe, a giant Purple Worm (I’m pretty sure it’s a purple worm as it meets the description almost to a T.) Once again Diana gets a chance to show off her prowess (she did land a dragon turtle while fishing after all) by literally (though not very forcefully) beating the worm into submission with her staff, basically horse-whispering it to a point where the kids end up riding it up out of the cavern, back into the topside world.

Getting back to the fairy tale aspects of this episode, after the kids successfully face off against the worm, Queen Zinn decides that Eric is the perfect choice to be her king, a idea that sounds great to him after she basically plops down a ransom and buys his love. I can sort of see why Mark Evanier detests the character and possibly regrets having to leave him in; he really is played off as the fall guy for hammering home morality to the kids, but not necessarily in the best way. I mean, it’s always him versus the group, and that dynamic gets old after awhile, as if the rest of the kids are fallible or something.

Another this that this screen grab illustrates is the art style in this episode.  All of the characters look a lot more realistic and I think it’s a bunch of small details like the lines drawn under Eric’s nose, little things like that. 

Anyway, the Queen then takes the kids to the ‘yellow dragon’, which just happens to be a plant and not a giant fire breathing lizard. Not only that, but in a weird coincidence, the yellow dragon just happens to share almost the exact same color scheme as Eric, the Queen’s new husband to be. Just thought that was weird.

Back over with Sheila, Bobby, Uni and Solars, there is another slight animation error, a paint mistake that has Bobby’s hair color matching Sheila’s. This was sort of a fun error though as they are brother and sister and it would make more sense that they both have red hair, especially since it’s rather rare and genetic.

So in the true wacky (though I have to admit that it’s actually played off sort of subtly in this cartoon) cliché spirit, Eric is getting married to Queen Zinn by a very stuffy priest, yet the rest of the story is pointing to the fact that this union is going to be disastrous so the rest of the characters have to race against time to break it up. Pretty much you get everything except for the Queen hurrying along the priest. There are also some interesting backgrounds in this scene with a whole bunch of miscellaneous characters attending the funeral including a tiny green blob with huge eyes (which might just be a turtle), some dwarves and gnomes, and even an orc or two. Sheesh, you think the orcs would have tipped of Eric to the situation…

What I find the most interesting about this episode though is that we get to witness two characters dying (at least I’m assuming they’re dead, what with the charred out husks of their bodies looking the way they did and all), which is the first time in the series that this happens (not including the golems as they aren’t really alive.) Hell, maybe the Shadow Stalkers aren’t alive, but either way it’s a pretty disturbing scene, and it’s pretty interesting that it made it into the show considering how much the writers and producers seemed to care about such content.

So even though the Shadow Stalkers wouldn’t be transforming into Dungeon Master anytime soon, that didn’t stop Scott from writing in a ton more transformation sequences. The next involves Solars and Sheila, who after saving the kids from the Stalkers and helping her and Bobby, Sheila gives him a big teary hug. Well, in perfect Disney fashion, the grateful tears of Sheila just happen to be the one thing that can transform Solars back into the King that he truly is (we get a very obvious hint about this earlier in the episode when Sheila finds his cloak, crown and scepter.)

Of course, this transformation sets into action another, and of course it’s Queen Zinn’s spell firing back upon her. So we’re up to six now.

When Eric realizes that his bride to be is no longer the Leia-golden-bikini-wearing looker that he thought she was, he high-tails it out of there, complete with an insane double take sound effect (you know, the one that sounds like insane stammering, something like, "eyeyaeyeyaeyeyaeye".)

Of course, this wouldn’t be a complete transformation episode without Eric changing his shape as well, I mean hell why not at this point right?…

He gets his unintentional wish to be transformed into a blue-faced baboon while grabbing Dungeon Master (who had finally popped up for real.) Then the whole episode ends in laughter, and yet I was just sort of sitting there thinking, "Hmmmm, that sure was a wacky episode. I think I’ll go shape-shift into someone who enjoyed this episode…"

Anyway, next time on Cartoon Commentary! we’ll take a look at the episode, The Box, and ask ourselves, "What is in said box?" 

Cartoon Commentary! #10, Something Skeletal This Way Comes…

I ended up doing a bit of unintentional research on Dungeons and Dragons this weekend as I visited with a friend who is currently trying to perfect a competition chili recipe. While he was tinkering in the kitchen he let me look through some of the older (1983) D&D game books, in particular the Monster Manuel, and I started taking some notes on creatures that I remembered popping up in the cartoon series.  So sometime soon I’m going to have to put together an addendum post talking about these creatures, in particular the Griffon/Sphinx/Manticore from a few episodes ago, which has finally been identified.

This week’s commentary covers episode #9 of the D&D cartoon, titled Quest of the Skeleton Warrior. It originally aired on November 12th, 1983, and was written by veteran comic book and animation writer Buzz Dixon who has worked on everything from Thundarr the Barbarian and G.I. Joe to My Little Pony and Jem. I believe he began his career at Filmation, and then ended up working with Steve Gerber (who remember, wrote episode #7 of the D&D cartoon) and Jack Kirby on Gerber’s Destroyer Duck, before going on to write or story edit for a lot of the more popular cartoons of the 80s. Currently Dixon is spearheading a Christian manga comics company called Realbuzz Studios with partner Marlon Schulman. Quest is the only episode Dixon wrote for the D&D cartoon, but it’s an arguable fan favorite as Buzz ended up pushing the comfort boundaries a little by introducing more magic, as well as a frightful character, Dekion, who takes the form of a skeleton warrior.

This episode, like the last one, opens not on the children, but instead on a meeting between Dekion and Venger atop a mountain overlooking what we will soon find out is the Lost Tower of the Celestial Knights. Dekion informs Venger that he’s located the Circle of Power (the first of many possible Lord of the Rings references in this episode), which will (like the children’s weapons) no doubt give Venger the edge he needs to finally have complete control over the realm. The mysterious skeleton warrior cannot enter the tower though, so Venger sets him on a quest to meet up with the gang, tricking them into fetching the Circle for him.

We meet up with the gang crossing a perilous chasm on a rickety rope bridge in a scene where the animation appears to be very ‘off model’. In particular, Uni is drawn with huge flaring nostrils and an oddly almost forked tongue. Bobby also has a very anime influenced appearance with huge eyes and a very unrealistic oval for a mouth. The animation is also very different for Dungeon Master, who appears to actually look like Yoda, even more so than usual. In addition to being off model, the art is also very loose and almost sloppy at times.

On the flip side, as the children run into Dekion for the first time there is a very effective sequence which, when slowed down reveals the anatomy of a cartoon lightning strike in a very drastic way…

In particular I love that third cel, the one that looks like a piece of Frank Miller artwork. This is the cel that makes the whole lightning strike dramatic and amazingly effective. Man, I love being able to freeze these cartoon and look at them cel by cel, it’s really one of the great advantages of DVD.

In the next sequence we have another full on attack made by Hank, who sends an energy bolt directly at Dekion, who manages to snatch it out of the air and destroy it in his fist. I’m not sure if this is a strength of the character, or a weird reinforcement of the ineffectiveness of Hank’s energy bow in general. It seems like it’s only destructive in certain circumstances, and most of the time end up being pretty harmless.

Another aspect of the show that I’ve begun to notice as I’ve re-watched the series is the apparent lack of swords. Only a handful of characters have them, and those that do don’t really wield them (well, Warduke freezes both a tree and Dungeon Master in the 5th episode, and a few of the orcs have them in the 7th episode, though they are very quickly dispatched.) This episode is no exception as Dekion, instead of drawing his sword against the gang, removes it from its scabbard and throws it at Bobby with the apparent force of his own will. It comes off as odd when you think about it, I mean, practically, you could just pull it out and swing, but then that’s where I believe the dreaded Standards and Practices department comes swooping in with notes about ‘imitatable actions’. For the most part, the kids all have items that really don’t fall into this category, but even the ones that do aren’t showcased in a manner that would be harmful if imitated (like Bobby slamming his club on the ground; and as for Hank’s energy bow, most kids would probably remove the string if they could and pretend to fire it, since that’s what Hank is basically doing.)

In this same sequence, there is a slight animation error. After Dekion shoots his sword at Bobby, Sheila grabs it to face off with him, and you can clearly see that there is another sword drawn into the Dekion animation. In the next close-up shot it’s gone again.

As the quintessential example of odd art (not to mention being off model) for this episode, I present you with Eric, he of the amazing rubberneck family (cousins to Stretch Armstrong)…

There’s also a very distinct difference in style between the middle two cels and the fourth one, which you can really in both the level of detail, thickness of the line art, and the shape of the eyes. This entire episode flips between styles like this, so much so that I’m wondering if maybe more than one production studio did the animation. Maybe there was an issue with the original artwork and some scenes had to be quickly redone or something, I’m not sure. Either way, that’s one heck of a neck, even for a cartoon. It’s practically as long as his head is tall.

After Dekion tricks the kids into going into the Lost Tower for him, we get a chance to see a lot of new creatures which haven’t been featured on the show before, the first of which is a quick bit involving gargoyles. I’m not sure if these were added with the knowledge of the creatures existing in the D&D game folklore, but I’m betting it’s a possibility seeing as how many other more specific creatures from D&D were worked into the show.

Before I began watching this series again for the first time in 20 odd years, I pretty much had only one vivid memory from the show, which involved a sequence with Hank running up a set of stairs that were crumbling and vanishing behind him as he went, revealing nothing but the empty void of starry space. I was so excited to see that sequence in this episode as it both brought on a flood of nostalgia and reassured me that I did remember the show and hadn’t suffered from the odd effect of years gone by (where people tend to miss remember things, combining memories and such.)

Basically, the Tower functions as a sort of playground for fear, and end up acting a lot like the holodeck in Star Trek the Next Generation, where the gang is split up and seem to be in their own frightening world. Dixon wrote some of these sequences better than others (in particular Sheila’s fear of abandonment; she ends up in a huge flat expanse by herself), though all of them ended up pretty interesting in a visual sense.

Presto and Eric end up together, seemingly teleported outside of the tower into a nearby forest, where in a very weird turn of events a white sheet floating by covers Eric for a second and when it’s removed he all of a sudden has taken on the appearance of a donkey. This certainly seems to be a theme, at least in the first season, I assume to focus on Eric’s apparent vanity (much like in the Beauty and the Bogbeast episode.)

Also, and not to beat the weird animated sexuality into the ground with this series (I do believe the last of this is in this episode), but Eric’s transformation seems to also have been a, shall we say phallic one. Look at that schnoz?!? I probably wouldn’t have felt that it was as phallic as it appears if it weren’t for that odd indented ridge running underneath it. Hey, maybe it’s just me…

Just after Eric’s donkey make-over, we get a chance to see yet another set of creatures from the D&D universe, though I’m not sure whether they’re Vampires or Wraiths. On the one hand, they’re humanoid (as D&D wraiths are not) so they might be vampires, yet they also sort of have no legs and appear to float about like a wraith. Heck they might even be spectres, who knows. Either way they’re pretty cool.

In addition to the above creatures, we also get another odd beast that might in fact be either more zombies or possibly something new (as they walk through mirrors and stuff.) Maybe these are wraiths. Wraiths or Zombies, you be the judge!

In the last bit (I think) of odd sexuality in the D&D cartoon series we have a weird scene with Bobby and Diana looking into a funhouse mirror where the reflection shows the two characters aged in two very drastic manners (Bobby getting much younger, whereas Diana is very old; a scene that is also very much a reflection of a similar sequence in the 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes, though probably note a direct reference as the animation must have been in production at the same time the movie was being made.) In the mirror image of Diana we get to see what looks very much like her exposed breast, though I believe it’s not really the case, just a little bit of drooping detail that could very easily be taken as a nipple. I don’t know, I can see it as plain as I’ve seen Jesus in the wood grain of doors or the Virgin Mary in the texture of a pancake, but this is also a tendency that humans tend to have, projecting their own thoughts onto an image making them think they’re seeing what they probably aren’t, but again, you be the judge…

I do have to mention that Diana, in her extremely aged form, bears a striking resemblance to what I believe a combination of the two main creatures from the Dark Crystal would look like combined (the Skeksis and the Mystics), though I do realize that the two are actually halves, being split when the dark crystal shard was removed (they were known as urSkeks which look more like the gelflings than Diana above, but oh well.)

In the next scene we get our first honest to goodness Lord of the Rings reference in the D&D cartoon series in the form of a Palantir (or seeing stone), which Hank finds at the (I assume) top of the tower (along with the Circle of Power, which could be a reference to the One Ring, but it’s a stretch.) It’s even covered with a sheet, much like the ones that are revealed in the LOTRs books.

It’s at this point that Hank realizes that the Tower is putting the kids through tests of fear (this entire sequence also reminds me a lot of the scene in the Empire Strikes Back on Dagobah when Luke enters the marsh cavern to face off with his minds eye of Darth Vader) and he begins calling out to the gang through the Palantir, letting them know not to be afraid. In the sequence with Presto and Eric there is an animation error as the two realize they don’t need to be afraid anymore. As they two come to this realization they are transported to where Hank is, and just as they begin to teleport there is a cel (which has painted teleportation effects on it) flipped so that it looks like the kids switch places for a second before ending up with Hank…

The final showdown between Dekion, Venger and the kids takes place on a flat hilltop that has a very familiar set of ruins on it (Stonehenge anyone?)

Also, as the kids are about to hand over the Circle of Power to Dekion, Dungeon Master interferes, acting out of character, yet strangely like an actual D&D Dungeon Master might as he warns them not to just hand it over. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s always odd when DM steps in and changes things like this (or mysteriously blasts Venger from the sky for instance.)

During the ensuing battle with Venger, there is a very short bit of animation (taking advantage of the DVD format again here) in which he begins to transform Hank into a skeletal creature much like Dekion. The change is very slight (you can barely see it, even in the screen shots) but it’s a very disturbing image that I’m sure frightened younger viewers back in the 80s. This was a very common sequence in media entertainment in the early 80s, what with the end sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the bathroom sequence in Poltergeist, and the water fountain sequence in Gremlins. Hey, wait a minute, they were all either produced or directed by Steven Spielberg!?! Holy crap, so he’s responsible for this onslaught of face melting in the 80s. Weird.

Again, the kids sacrifice a chance to get home for another character as they destroy the ring of…I mean the Circle of Power to free Dekion from Venger’s spell. There certainly a lot of transformation sequences in this cartoon series, at least six in these first nine episodes alone. I wonder is that’s a tendency in writing fantastical fiction or just a coincidence in this series?

After Venger is sucked through a tornado like portal, the now human Dekion summons his steed, a giant eagle (which could quite possibly be another LOTR reference considering there were possibly two others already in this episode.) Dekion makes a promise to return to the kids if and when he can find a way for them to get home, considering their last ticket was destroyed to ensure his return to human form.

All in all, Buzz Dixon, much like Steve Gerber, gave us a really memorable episode of D&D, one that was (or at least seemed) much more of the game’s world than we’d been seeing yet. I’m not sure if it was all of the side stories, but this episode just seemed a little more dynamic than the rest. Dixon also didn’t stoop to the obligatory dragon, and neither did the storyboard artists or animators, as there is nary a flying lizard in sight.

Next time on Cartoon Commentary!, episode #10, the Garden of Zinn, in which one of the characters actually gets hurt. Crazy!

Cartoon Commentary! #9, Where does Eric get all those wonderful toys?

So, moving right along, we’re going to take a look at episode #8 of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon today, Servant of Evil. The episode originally aired on November 5th, 1983, and was again written by the most prolific contributor to the series, Jeffrey Scott.

The first half of this episode basically serves as a Bobby solo story as he’s left alone after the rest of the gang is taken prisoner during his birthday party celebration. Dungeon Master gives Bobby an amulet and send him on a quest to free his friends from the Prison of Agony, where he befriends a giant named Karrox and faces off with Venger and his lizard henchmen.

In a fun twist, this episode opens not on the gang, but instead on Venger’s Prison of Agony, in particular on a very disturbing shot of some depressing wraith-like creatures hanging onto some of the prison bars, moaning for freedom. This reminded me a lot of the scene in Beetlejuice when Alec Balwin and Gena Davis stumble upon the lost souls room. For a second I was hoping that these were more zombies, which is a possibility, though these look a little more in control of their senses…

The shot then pulls out to reveal the prison itself, which is pretty darn imposing for Saturday morning cartoon. The prison is suspended above an active volcano, which houses another one of Venger’s castles, up on top, on the edge.

The opening scene continues on, panning over to Venger, who is ruthlessly lording over yet another red haired slave dwarf. This time though, he urges a giant, Korrax, to be the one to throws the dwarf in the prison, as Venger is black mailing him to do his bidding. It’s a very disturbing scene, in which you can really see Venger enjoying his power, one of the rare times you see him with any sort of happy expression on his face.

The show switches gears then, catching up to the gang in the woods surprising Bobby on his birthday. Once again we see Eric with a strange Earthly item, this time a mask, and again it looks like it’s of Asian (Chinese in particular) origin. Where does Eric get all these wonderful things, stranded in this fantasy realm? Ah, unexplained, yet convenient writing to the rescue again.

Though the mask thing is kind of weird, it was pretty cool of Scott to bring in an element like a character’s birthday. The presents the kids dug up or made were pretty interesting as well, though a little on the wacky side, which is certainly an apt description for a good bit of this episode. For instance, Eric’s present to Bobby is a small box full of odd little creatures with two legs, no arms, and what appear to be large shiny olives for helmets…

It’s actually very much like anime in its execution (in particular I’m thinking of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and his penchant for placing weird tiny creatures in his films.) Now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if some of these Asian details I’ve been noticing are because of the animation outsourcing? Like maybe these things were written into the scripts, but weren’t described in detail, so the animators threw in stuff that seemed normal enough to them? Hmm. See this is where my geek flag flies as well, because I’m interested in little details like this, yet I can’t imagine trying to contact Jeffrey Scott to ask such minutely detailed questions about cartoon scripts he wrote 25 years ago. Heck, maybe he’d appreciate it, but another larger part of me believes he’d probably think I was obsessed, like some sort of American version of an Otaku or something. Ahhh, fandom.

Anyway, as Eric’s creepy little olive hated things bound off into the forest with Bobby in tow, a bunch of new creatures, Venger’s awesome lizard men, show up to attack the kids. In fact for some reason these guys remind me a lot of the Snake Men from He-Man, but I’m not sure why exactly as I can’t remember what most of them looked like.

Possibly taking a cue from Steve Gerber, Scott has the gang take on the creatures in a more natural, less weapons as tools, sort of way. Hank even manages to bull’s-eye two of the lizard men with a double shot from his energy bow…

I’m wondering if there is a little bit of footage cut from this segment, in particular the scene with Sheila crouching to let Hank shoot the two lizard men. While I was looking online for D&D cartoon stuff, I came across this Spanish website with season 1 episode annotations, and for this scene the webmaster posted the following: "Cuando Sheila se agacha para que Hank pueda atacar a los hombres-lagarto vuelve a enseñar su ropa interior (esta vez es rosa)…", which roughly translates (via Bablefish) to: "When Sheila crouches itself so that Hank can attack the man-lizard returns to teach his underclothes (this time is pink)…" Granted, it’s a really rough translation, but it looks a lot like the site is claiming that either Hank or Sheila’s underpants were showing in the scene, and they were pink. Now I’m going to take an educated guess here and go with Sheila, and not just because the undergarments in question were pink, but because other than Presto, the only underwear we get to see in the series is Sheila’s from episode one, which were white, so I’m actually playing off of the "…(this time is pink)…" part. By the way, now I think I’m a crazy American Otaku, and I want to smack myself. Anyway, the rest of the notations the person made on their site, even translated horribly, seem to be spot on, so I’m wondering if there is maybe a different edit of the show in Europe (as it was released over there years ago, way before it saw a release here), or if they’re working off of memories from when the show originally aired in the 80s. I did notice that it was very hard to get a screen shot of the bolts connecting with the lizard men as it lasts for only a fraction of a second, which possibly speaks to the footage getting cut back a little, perhaps to cut out some rogue pink panties. Now I’m going to go hit my head against the wall until I stop writing dissertations on cartoon characters underpants.

As I mentioned before, this episode is full of super wackiness, including Looney Tunes-esque physical/sight-gags like the following…

I have to assume this was Presto’s present to Bobby, a present that apparently would have scared him right off his feet. Once again, I’m curious where this sort of gag comes from, the writer, the storyboards or the animators? Only Jeffrey Scott can answer that question and I’m not going to bother him with it, so it shall remain a mystery. Actually that’s not true, I’m sure a lot of people can answer it, but they’d all be bothered or think I was crazy.

As I stated above, this episode is sort of a solo Bobby adventure (at least in spirit), so when Dungeon Master finally makes an appearance, it’s to him alone (in fact he only appears to Bobby in the entire episode for once.) DM also gives Bobby a little bit of special consideration, I would assume because he’s the youngest of the group, in presenting him with an amulet that will protect him from Venger. The amulet also serves as a stand in for future DM appearances as he talks to Bobby through it, much the same as Ben Kenobi talks to Luke in the first Star Wars flick after Vader slices him into an empty crumpled cloak on the Death Star.

Another interesting thing I noticed in this episode is a tendency for the main characters to get angry when faced with danger or problems. Typically characters seem to express emotions like surprise, astonishment, determination, or fear (or honestly they just keep a straight face) but there seem to be more and more times (like when Bobby was frozen and had to watch Uni have her horn removed) when characters just get downright pissed. It’s odd to see heroic characters showing anger, at least it seems out of place to me, in terms of what seems appropriate (not by my standards, but by those imposed on children’s programming.) I think that’s why I love movies like the Goonies, where characters (and the actors playing them) seem to be freer to be honest, and when they get pissed, they get pissed. I think this is why I like the worlds Steven Spielberg helps to bring to life, because they seem so damn honest, whereas other flicks, and especially cartoons try to either sugarcoat things or force characters to react in non threatening ways that seem off.

For all of you who ever wondered what Sheila would look like with jet-black hair, there is an animation error as the gang is lead into the Prison of Agony by Karrox…

Also, at first I thought that this following gate lock on the prison was going to have to serve as the obligatory dragon for this episode, but luckily there is an appearance later on in the episode of a more or less real dragon. It’s still a really nifty lock though.

Here’s a shot of what Venger’s castle (version 3) looks like. I really dig the idea of having it balanced on the precipice of an active volcano, it’s really dramatic and seeming the perfect place to go about planning cruel deeds to play out on a bunch of hapless kids from another world…

There’s another odd moment in this episode, which features Eric with a real world item that isn’t explained. This time it’s a Spiderman comic book, which is actually sort of an in joke as the show was one of the Marvel Productions cartoons, and thus was probably free to reference some of the marvel properties (sort of like Man-Thing’s appearance in the last episode.) Where does Eric get this stuff? I can’t even attribute Presto as the source as Venger confiscated his cap before they were tossed in the prison. Just sort of weird.

There’s also another bit of subtle character development in the prison segment, where we catch Hank and Diana sharing a moment. I wonder is this was improvised or specified?

This episode also introduces us to another hero of the realm (in addition to Karrox that is), Strongheart, who once again had an action figure in the D&D line of toys produced by LJN. This was another figure that I owned as a kid, though I didn’t care for him all that much, probably because he wasn’t as cool as the Warduke figure (and I have to admit that I think I had a soft spot for all of my villain action figures because they always looked cooler.) I’m not sure if Strongheart is a character in the table top game, but his action figure comes with different accessories than what he ends up with in the show, so I’m betting that this is another reason why the line of toys was separate from the cartoon.

There’s a weird bit of background detail on a barrel in the prison that’s marked "Santory 1855". I’m not sure if this is supposed to be something reflected from our world, or if this is a date marker for the realm. I did a Google search, but I couldn’t come up with anything. I was thinking in might be a type of wine or something.

There’s an interesting four-armed monster that the lizard men set on the kids during an escape attempt. He sort of reminds me of Ray Harryhausen’s design of the Kraken from Clash of the Titans…

Getting back to the wacky, there’s a weird little bit as Bobby is crossing a small lake on a raft when he’s sighted by one of Venger’s lizard men. There’s this really out of place spring sound effect (think like a goofy "boing" noise) when the lizard man has a glint in his eye. The thing that kills me about this is that this must have been done by the American crew, as they would likely be in charge of the sound design in the cartoon. Actually this isn’t the only out of place sound effect in this sequence. When Bobby first gets on the raft there is a moment when he’s running where you can hear a sort of Scooby Doo scramble (you know that noise when the characters start to run and their legs are just going at like a hundred miles an hour.)

When Bobby frees his friends and Strongheart, we find out that he has a magical weapon too, a golden hammer. Unfortunately, we never get to learn what its power is, though I’m willing to bet it’s up the alley of Bobby’s club. In this scene we also get to see the character’s trademarked feathery helmet (well I say that, but I’m totally going off of the figure here.)

In one of the coolest segments of the episode, Venger has his lizard men take the children’s weapons to use against them. It’s interesting that they can use them (not to mention a while heck of a lot better) than the kids…

Okay, here’s the obligatory dragon, a two-headed lava dragon summoned by Venger after the kids more or less get into an equal stand off with the lizard men…

This episode once again jumps into wacky territory, though now it’s sort of super wacky as we get a very anime influenced expression of fear from Presto, and then a crazy Looney Tunes/Hanna Barbera floating eye gag. I’m really curious to know how this episode received such an insane comic twist, especially when you consider the overall theme of this particular episode is very dark and depressing.

It does revert back into a more or less serious tone when Karrox steps up to put a hurtin’ on Venger. First they get into a struggle in which Venger teleports them outside of his castle, and then in a very common sequence for this series, he tosses some magic at the giant only to have it bounce directly back at him (via the amulet that Dungeon Master gav to Bobby, which he then gave to Karrox.) This causes him to fall off of a cliff into the molten lava below, though he oddly teleports at the last second averting a certain doom.

Even though he appeared to teleport away at the last second, there is yet another crazy scene as Venger turns into a giant spire of smoke, though again, it’s very cool and well animated. This is one convention of the series that I am full force behind because it’s so pretty…

This sequence again illustrates the very anime influenced quality of the animation, something that shows like this and G.I. Joe (which was also animated overseas I believe) could certainly have stood for more of.

All in all this is another example of some really decent writing on the part of Scott, and one of the more interesting episodes of the series.

Cartoon Commentary! #8, Here comes Man-Thing!

With today’s Cartoon Commentary!, wherein I take a look at the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, episode #7, Prison Without Walls, I may start showing my weirdly anal fanboy side a bit as I try and get some facts straight on this episode’s writer, Steve Gerber. See, part of the reason I started this column was to start connecting the dots, creator/producer/writer-wise for a bunch of the shows I grew up loving, but in order to do so all I have to go on is a few sources of information, namely IMDB, the DVDs themselves, Wiki, and the handful of people involved who have personal websites/blogs, or fans that have put up websites, all of which can be questioned to one degree or another on how accurate the information provided is. Lets take IMDB for instance. How many times have you done a search on say a television writer and some of the entries for a particular series list one episode written when you know for a fact that they wrote at least 12 or something.

There are similar inconsistencies with Wiki, and the reason for both is that a lot of this information is largely user supplied, and not by the actual writers/what-have-you. Personal and fan sites are great, but again, there are often inconsistencies or a lack of information. Of course there are also the credits on the cartoons themselves, but these are often not nearly in depth or specific enough, and seem to cover the entire season (if not the series) instead of crediting episode by episode (for instance, it’s common to see like 30 or so voice actors listed when there were only maybe 10 different characters or creatures in an episode.)

I’m bringing this up because I’m not positive on a few of the things Gerber is credited with. So lets start with some concrete stuff, shall we? Prison Without Walls originally aired on October 29th, 1983, was written by Steve Gerber, and is the only episode in the series where he received a writing credit. Gerber is the creator of Howard the Duck and has written a lot of stuff for TV and comics (including story editing the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons, as well as a run on the Man-Thing comic, which will come up in a bit.)

According to his website, he also served as chief story editor on Dungeons and Dragons, though it didn’t mention if it was for a particular season or the entire series. Hank Saroyan is the only guy I know for sure who was a story editor on the series according to the DVD set, but I’m also not sure exactly how writing for or being a story editor in a cartoon series really works. One the one hand it seems like some writers go off by themselves and bang out episodes, while at other times (based on interviews and stuff) it seems like it’s more of s team effort with the editor serving as a captain.

Either way, this episode certainly benefits from his years writing comics, as it’s one of the few to feature past continuity (if only for a minor detail.) Gerber also continued the theme of showcasing enslaved little people, though in this episode’s case, gnomes are playing the part instead of red haired dwarves.

The basic gist of this episode involves the gang questing to free a village of enslaved gnomes from Venger, who is using them to mine mystical gemstones for him. The kids quickly learn that they must track down Lukion, a spellbinder who has the power to free the gnomes from Venger’s grasp, but who is also himself a prisoner of Venger. By freeing Lukion, they believe that he will also be able to point the way home.

In the opening sequence, there is a slight animation error. After the gang hears a strange noise, Presto makes a statement, but both his and Eric’s mouths are moving to the voice work.

When the kids first stumble upon the gnome mining camp we get our first glimpse of the (more or less) obligatory dragon for this episode in the form of a giant stone statue.

Bobby, noticing how badly the gnomes are being treated by their orc captors, runs blindly into the camp to help them, which kicks off one of the more impressive fight sequences of the series, which also happens to be the first honest to goodness club on sword fight.

Also in this segment you can see that there must have been different animation houses working on the series as a lot of the quick moving or background stuff has a very classic anime appearance to it, which is more or less lacking from a lot of the shots in the series.

The rest of the gang follows Bobby’s lead, and even though Hank doesn’t connect with his shots, it still feels like he was trying to in the animation.

Even Diana gets a little more connective, as she vaults up and smashes some swords with her staff. All in all it’s a really dynamic fight scene that feels very honest to the world and for once doesn’t feel like it was creatively written around the interests of parents groups or any other standards and practices issues.

Heck, even Eric jumps in, protecting others with his shield, a very out of character though brave moment for him. It’s not until Presto tries his hand that we sort of see the action pulled back a bit, but then again it is Presto we’re talking about.

To round things out in the fight sequence, even Sheila takes down an Orc leader instead of her typical disappearing act that simple keeps her out of the way. I hate to dwell on this fight, but it really is a shining moment for the cartoon, and perhaps another benefit of having had a writer that is used to writing action in super hero comics.

In a nice establishing shot, we once again get to see Venger’s castle, this one a variation on the first, though much more streamlined which leads me to believe that it’s a separate castle (though obviously it could just be a side effect of a different animation house.) We also get to see that the realm (or planet) has four suns, each of a different color (which again, could be background info worked into the show, though it does play a specific role in this episode so who knows.) I like that they stuck with the hanging castle design, though I believe this is the last time we see a castle like this.

As far as Dungeon Master appearances go, this episode takes the cake with four separate scenes. There’s also a weird trend set up where DM sort of appears from out of nowhere when the kids aren’t paying attention (which could be a way of showing the audience that he’s always there with them, as sort of a comfort buffer; it’s also weirdly described in the series bible as him "popping up out of nowhere, or maybe he doesn’t…"; it keeps describing him doing something one way, than countering with "…maybe he doesn’t…"), and for once this is done very effectively as he begins talking to the gang and then emerges out from inside a log that Eric is sitting on. So far the writers have handled his disappearances much better than his appearances, but this one was pretty cool.

Speaking of Dungeon Master, the animators really upped his Yoda-ish influence in this episode, to a point where he even sort of waddles around like the master Jedi. Actually, his movements also sort of reminded me a little of E.T. with his hands sort of limp out in from of him and all. I wonder if this was in the animation notes, or what?

As far as new creatures go, the first thing we’re introduced to in this episode are some pretty strange and vicious violet mushroom-like things with freakish red tentacles. They’re actually very violent little fungi.

We’re also introduced to a second more impressive creature who comes to the gang’s aid; a giant lumbering plant-like monster who bears a striking resemblance to Marvel Comic’s Man-Thing

So, on the DVD there is a small trivia section that accompanies each episode (in the select a scene menu), and this one mentions that Steve Gerber created Man-Thing for Marvel, which makes this creature kind of an in joke of sorts. When looking up the character on wiki though, I found that he wasn’t created by Gerber (instead he’s credited as being the creation of Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and artist Gray Morrow as he appeared in Savage Tales #1 in 1971), though Gerber would begin writing for the character in Adventure into Fear #11 (through #19) and would go on to writer his 22 issue solo series after that (becoming his most prominent writer.) Here’s a picture of the Marvel comics character for comparison to the creature in the episode…

There’s a much more obvious bend in the anime direction of the animation in this sequence where Hank ends up mistakenly ‘feeding’ the creature. Specifically in the top screen shot, Eric has a very classic anime appearance.

Though the kids aren’t all that sure about the monster as it seems to be just as likely to help them as to attack them, they are reassured that they’re on the right track by yet another appearance of Dungeon Master.

So, as promised in the Warduke episode, here are more sweet ZOMBIES! This sequence was more like an early 80s horror film than a fantasy adventure show as the gang finds an abandoned cabin in the swamps while looking for Lukion, the savior of the gnomes. While inside the cabin, zombies begin bursting forth from every imaginable hiding place (from behind curtains, from holes in the floor, from underneath the bed even), grabbing the kids, and I imagine frightening the bejesus out of all the kids watching at home. I especially love the shot of the Bobby-stalking zombie in this last screengrab…

Just as the kids think their number is up, Man-Thi…I mean miscellaneous swamp monster comes to their aid, knocking down the cabin and presumably destroying the zombies with it. Sadly, this is the last we see of any zombies in the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, but heck if they weren’t awesome while they lasted. You know, now that I’m thinking about it I think the proposed third Ghostbusters movie (that’s reportedly being shopped around Hollywood as an animated feature) could do with a New York zombie infestation that the GBs have to take down.

There’s another pretty transformation sequence as the kids realize that the swamp monster is Lukion, trapped in a form where he can’t speak or perform magic (i.e the Prison Without Walls.)

From here on out the episode sort of takes a down turn for me as the gang and Lukion race back to the slave-mining camp to free the gnomes. Lukion places the heart of the dragon (a pulsating violet crystal gem) into the giant stone dragon right as the realm’s four suns align into what looks like the cross section of a giant glowing gobstopper. The suns cast a ray of magical light down upon the heart of the dragon, which in turn separates the ray into many beams with again reflect off of the gemstones in the mining camp. What we don’t realize at the time is that at every beam crossing there are directions to a portal into another place or world, one of which is the way for the gang to get home.

Of course, this is just as Venger pops up, throwing an energy bolt that destroys the junction at which the portal to the kids home world is.  The battle that ensues is kind of wacky, with Presto providing most of the solutions.

Gerber also uses some of the giant golems in this episode (like in the last one), as a battle breaks out…

During the fracas one of the golems scoops up Uni, at which point Bobby urges her to teleport (a small, yet very nice bit of continuity carried over from the Valley of the Unicorns episode.) I’m wondering if Gerber read some of the previous scripts, or if this teleportation deal was written into the model of the character? It sure wasn’t in the series bible, so I’m thinking it was either a notation on the character after the Valley of the Unicorns episode, or the writers had access to other writer’s scripts. Either way it was pretty cool.

After the battle, and after the kids are told about the destruction of the junction that would point to their portal home, the kids seem more depressed than usual. Of course there is the last appearance by Dungeon Master to try and pep them up, but it really doesn’t seem to work this time as the kids leave the camp dejected with heads hanging. I’m not positive, but I believe this episode holds the record for the number of times DM pops up (four, and not considering the episode where he’s kidnapped, as that’s not fair.)

Though I joked around about the Man-Thing-like creature, it was a pretty cool addition to the show, as was Gerber’s script for this episode. Actually, I guess I’m glad that it was a variation on Man-Thing rather than Howard the Duck that ended up in the show. Gerber also manages to make Hank, who is the leader by default, actually act a little more like a leader, as he’s giving commands and trying to solve the situations more like a commander than just the guy with the bow.

Next time on Cartoon Commentary!, we’ll take a look at episode #8 of Dungeons and Dragons, Servant of Evil.

Cartoon Commentary! #7, Cawamung-a dude!

Well, I missed this episode last week, but who’s really keeping track of a schedule right? It’s kind of weird actually, how I try and box myself in to themes and schedules, which helps to keep me focused and relatively prolific, yet it takes all the spontaneity out of blogging. Anyway, on with the show…

The episode we’re going to take a look at today is titled Beauty and the Bogbeast, which originally aired on October, 22nd, 1983, and was again written by Jeffrey Scott, the man who, by the way, has sort of written the book on how to write for animation (well, maybe not the book, but certainly a book, a well received book at that.) Like I mentioned last week, Scott has a nice record of long stints writing on the same show, which is sort of rare in animation, at least it appears that way.

In a fairly funny twist on the typical opening sequence (not the credits sequence mind you) where the kids are usually running for their lives, this episode opens on the gang on the offensive, stalking an invisible entity through what appears to be an area with a ton of lava. I’m not sure if this was unconscious or an attempt to sort of pick up from where the last episode left off (where Dungeon Master fought off Warduke and his minions by summoning an eruption of lava.) It was sort of jarring to see the gang working as a team, with all of their weapons/items glowing and ready as they surround the entity (which they’ve tracked via a series of foot prints), as they’re more apt to fight with each other than to work together. Turns out that it’s just Dungeon Master, but it was nice to have an episode start off differently for once.

DM’s guidance in this episode is very dynamic, much like in the first episode, with interesting visual aids (rivers running skywards and such), a practice that I believe is sort of rare throughout the rest of the series.

This is also one of the first times when the group splits up at the beginning of the episode (well, Eric storms off in the last episode for his mini adventure in the swamp, but that was more of a temper tantrum than the group splitting up.) It’s sort of weird now that I think about it because of the circumstances in the realm, what with the kids essentially being lost and all. It’s not like they could easily meet up at a destination or something. I’m wondering, though, if maybe I’m just projecting my own fear of getting lost on this situation. I think maybe it’s easier for other people to split up like this knowing that they could double back and wait at the last place they were all together (I mean is this common sense?) I don’t know, but again, later in the series you don’t see the gang split up all that often. The one thing I did like about the split was that it broke up the linear plot of the episode and made viewing a more interesting experience.

After Hank, Sheila and Bobby split off they run into a pretty cool metal giant…

After messing around it for a bit, the giant comes to life and attacks the kids, scooping up the brave Bobby and Uni. Right before he crushes them Hank once again ends up using his energy bow as a tool (and once again to get Bobby out of danger), in this case as a sort of flying carpet/witch’s broomstick, which Bobby and Uni ride to safety. I still find this incredibly weird in terms of trying to get a handle on the ‘rules’ regarding the energy bow usage. Does Hank have some sort of telepathic link with the bow in which he can switch it from being harmless (in terms of the arrows being constructed of energy) to dangerous (as we’ll see in a minute)? Or is there something more going on as he draws back on the ‘bowstring’ where he has control over what exactly will propel from the bow? I know it’s just a cartoon, but it fascinates me none the less.

At least after he saves Bobby, Hank uses his energy bow as a tool in a way that makes more sense as he fires a bunch of volleys between the giant’s feet, basically soldering them together so that he’ll trip and fall.

Granted, the giant/golem is constructed out of metal and might not technically be a living creature, but this is the first being that the gang willfully destroys, again, something of a rarity in the series, as well as cartoon in general.

Elsewhere, the rest of the group stumbles upon a river, though it’s not the one prophesied by Dungeon Master. Instead, we get to the gist of this episode as Eric, against the cryptic warning of DM, sniffs a flower, which ends up turning him into a frog-like bog-beast.

It’s kind of interesting when you consider the character of Eric, who is almost the opposite of the rest of the main cast. While everyone else is more or less heroic or brave, Eric is conniving, rude, self-centered, and basically a whiner, but more importantly he’s actually trying at times to do what the entire group wants to do, which is to get home. What’s interesting is that when refining the show and writing the series bible, Mark Evanier was basically told to leave the character in the show, as he would be the key to inserting the moral lessons which were rampant in 80s cartoons. Evanier talks about this on his blog (it’s close to the bottom of that link’s entry), and he has a really interesting point, that when you boil it down this is sort of disconcerting. See, this type of character will often be the voice of decent in the group and by the end of the episode ‘learns’ the right way to do things, which is basically what the rest of the group wants to do. As Evanier writes, it’s basically saying that you should follow the majority, which doesn’t necessarily come off as all that bad in these cartoons as the seemingly ‘right’ decision is written to be the view of the majority, but it’s still a bad way of thinking about things.

Getting back to the episode, it’s at this point where we get a second visit from Dungeon Master to sort of keep the kids on the right path, as Eric’s transformation is only half of what they are to encounter on this quest. It also possibly shows some of the limitations of his power as he explains that since he did not have a hand in the magic that changed Eric, he can’t undo it (as well as getting a self reliance message across.)

Though it’s a quick segment, there are a couple of small flying dragons that could count towards the obligatory dragons for this episode…

Of course, so could this serpent like dragon creature that Presto, Diana, and Eric meet up with in a swamp…

We’re also introduced to a whole village of bog-beasts, which look pretty freakish, what with their concentric circle eyes, and stuff. I think the females throw me off the most. It’s the long hair that does it.

There’s a second giant in this episode as well, Cawamung, who rules over this underground area and who is trying to drive the bogbeasts out of their homes. He seems to derive his power from his magic amulet, which I found kind of funny, as it’s a yin and yang symbol. Though in the end it fits, what with how the episode plays out, it’s still strange to see Chinese iconography in a fantasy setting, something that’s actually pretty pervasive throughout science fiction and fantacy.

Again, we see the slaves of choice are dwarves, predominantly red haired dwarves.

For a third time in this episode we see Hank uses his bow as a tool, in this case mimicking the action of a boomerang.

Unfortunately, it’s all for naught as Cawamung displays his real, hidden talisman/amulet. Seems kind of pointless to go to the trouble of animating such a weird usage of Hank’s bow when in the end it was all a waste (and pretty much a pointless one, as there’s no real reason that the end sequence had to flow the way it ends up anyway.)

Villains seem to freeze stuff a lot in this show, what with Kelek freezing the kids in the unicorn episode and Warduke freezing Dungeon Master in the previous episode.

I did like the gang pouring it on and basically realistically attacking Cawamung in the end. Hank actually uses his bow correctly (though he misses all his shots) and Diana does a little one on one physical combat with Cawamung’s head. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now, or maybe it’s just that I’ve seen too many violent movies, but this just seemed like it was more of how the show is supposed to feel.

To top everything else off, the Gang actually makes it home, if only briefly. Though they saw the way home through a portal in the Eye of the Beholder episode, here they who group actually makes it back to the theme park (Uni curiously included and not appearing to be effective by the regular world.) Eric, though, isn’t returned to his normal self, and the rest of the gang is still in their realm wear, so it’s pretty obvious that it’s too good to be true.

Eric, returning to the realm because he can’t bear to live as a bog-beast, leaves the rest of the gang in a very tough spot. Do they abandon their friend and stay home, or do they once again sacrifice their desire in order to do what’s right?

I’m also kind of confused on the ending a bit as Eric changes back to his old self as the rest of the gang returns to the realm. I’m not sure if it’s because he gives up and accepts his bog-beast status or if it’s because he returned to the realm (which is what he hates the most, and what was in DM’s riddle at the beginning of the episode.) If it’s because he chose an option that he hated, e.g. staying in the realm, than this whole moral is sort of twisted. I think I’m sticking with his coming to grips with his vanity, as it just sounds better.

Again, as in the last episode, Dungeon Master makes a third appearance, this time to share in the happiness of the gang because Eric was changed back to normal. I think I enjoy this type of ending much better than the style where DM would pop up away from the kids and sort of gloat from afar.

This is the first episode that doesn’t feature Venger at all, again, another convention broken by Scott’s tenure on the show.

Next time we’ll take a look at episode 7, Prison Without Walls written by the guy who created Howard the Duck.

Cartoon Commentary! #6, with 30% more Dungeon Master!

So with episode 5 of the D&D cartoon, In Search of the Dungeon Master, we finally start getting into the show a little deeper as Dungeon Master becomes a little more active, and we’re introduced to screenwriter Jeffrey Scott, who ended up penning a third of the series, with 9 episodes under his belt. Scott, the grandson of Moe Howard, actually wrote for a lot of cartoons over the years, but more importantly he wrote a lot of episodes for each cartoon he worked on, which so far from my research is pretty rare. Typically it seems like writers get credited with a few episodes on a series, or they’ll have one series where they contributed a lot, but practically every show Scott’s worked on has been for 8 or more episodes, and in some cases entire seasons (Super Friends, Spider-Woman, and according to IMDB the Trollkins, though it also credits Mark Evanier on that project as writer, so I’m not sure if this is trustworthy.) For most of Scott’s tenure on the show he managed to push the boundaries a little past the basic conventions of the series, providing more back story, putting characters actually in harm’s way, or looking outside of the realm for inspiration. Of course he also penned the questionable Teddy Bear episode (episode 17), which is probably influenced a bit too much by Star Wars and the Ewoks.

This episode begins a little different than normal as the imposing Warduke, as a means of bartering with Venger, kidnaps Dungeon Master. This leaves the gang directionless with only the odd ramblings of a fairy to hopefully lead them to DM. Along the way they end up seeing how evil some areas of the realm can be as they try and help a band of Dwarf slaves.

Actually the gang is sort of on a quest at the beginning of the episode, looking for a talking tree, which hopefully will have the wisdom to tell them the way home. This is sort of a red herring though, as this quest is abandoned pretty quickly.

At the beginning of the episode we also get a quick glimpse into the world of Dungeon Master when he isn’t dolling out his Yoda-esque cryptic witticisms to the kids. Apparently he likes to spend his afternoons on leisurely snail rides while having some good conversation time with high pitch voiced fairies. We also get a chance to see him facing off with a bunch of bumbling toad creatures before Warduke shows up to abduct him.

I was surprised to see Warduke in this episode, as I have a bunch of fond memories of the character from childhood. Though I haven’t played the tabletop game (I’m not even sure if Warduke is a character in it), I did have the toy which I loved to death because he was so gnarly and evil looking. I’m not sure exactly how I came about getting him as a kid, but there was something awesome about his beady read eyes sunken deep with his winged helmet that I used to love. He also reminded me a lot of the weird villain goons from the two Mad Max sequels.

Where the toad men bumbled ad failed at getting a handle on Dungeon Master, Warduke simply sweeps in, chucks his huge sword into a tree where DM is escaping, and freezes him in his tracks. Apparently Warduke’s sword acts as a sort of freeze ray (maybe it’s the evil icy cold touch of death or something.)

Like E.T., we can clearly see that DM is still alright as the gemstone on his tunic is still glowing red.

The slightly annoying fairy from the beginning of the episode (who is voiced by Frank Welker doing a precursor to his voice-work for Slimer from the Real Ghostbusters) runs to get the gangs help in aiding DM. By the time they get to the area where DM was abducted, all that’s left are the crazy toad men. There’s also a couple of animation errors right after the fairy comes to fetch the gang, one where Diana’s hair is discolored red (actually more of an orange, Sheila’s hair color) for a second (though I forget to get a screen grab), and a seond one where Bobby and Presto’s voices are switched.

In the ‘fight’ that ensues, there is some more crazy bow work from Hank where he manages to use his energy bolts as fireworks to make the toad men flee. It’s kind of funny, I have to keep asking myself why I am so anxious to see the kids use their weapons in a violent manner instead of being so weirdly creative with them. It’s not like I’m a really violent person, or that I want to see the kids actually harm someone, but there’s something I find disconcerting about having weapons like a bow or a club introduced and they are almost never used the way they are intended. I guess it’s a lot like watching the Star Wars flicks, except instead of seeing Luke cutting off phantom Vader heads he’d be constantly making his light saber into a sort of light lasso or light whip. What if Obi Wan, instead of cutting off Walrus Man’s arm, switched on his light saber, sliced into the floor in front of Walrus man and a series of fireworks popped up that made ‘ol Wally run like the dickens? It’d be weird wouldn’t it?

At Least Diana seems to be using her staff correctly in the scene, at least in terms of how one would use a bo in a fight.

There’s another instance in this episode where Eric reaches under his clothing to produce a real world item, in this case a wad of $100 bills. Again, I realize that this is used as a sort of one off gag, but it’s really distracting from an otherwise sort of serious show.

There’s a nice quick scene involving Warduke sending Shadow Demon off to fetch Venger so that he can barter Dungeon Master away. It’s kind of cool to know that there are independent forces of evil at work in the realm as Venger has been the main villain, or the boss of the main villain in every episode so far.

This episode also features some mysteriously helpful winged lions (now I know these have a name and I was thinking of either manticores, sphinxes, or griffins, though none of these really fit the bill.)

Much like the scene in the first episode where Sheila is jumping on a horse and you get a weird panty shot, we also get a confirmation on what type of underwear Presto prefers. For the record he’s a striped boxer sort of guy…

There are a couple of other paint errors in this episode as well, one small one (that wasn’t worth getting a screen grab of) on the cliffs where Sheila and Eric’s eyebrows aren’t filled in, and a second where Eric’s glove mysteriously disappears for a second.

Jeffrey Scott sure as heck wasn’t holding back on the amount of new monsters and creatures in this episode. In addition to the Toad Men, the Warduke, the giant snail, a fairy and the winged lions, we are also introduced to this huge rock creature (with cool gem eyes I might add.) Also, it’s kind of hard to see but those white blades on his hands aren’t his fingers (though they sure look like ’em), they’re more like Wolverine claws extending from it’s knuckles.

With the introduction of a creature character like this, I guess Scott felt more comfortable having the kids fighting it directly, as for only the second time in the series Hank fires a few volleys of energy arrows directly at the rock creature. I’m wondering if the less humanoid the creature, or the more obviously it isn’t made of flesh and blood, the easier it is to do direct damage to it, sort of how Genndy Tartakovsky found himself replacing human villains with robots in Samurai Jack to appease the censors and parents groups, or how all of the gallons of blood in Evil Dead 2 were a variety of colors, except for red of course, so that they could avoid an X-rating.

If all of the creatures above weren’t already enough, than we also have a more starring role for the Orcs, which were introduced in episode three. Apparently they are the go to henchmen as they work for both Warduke, and later Venger.  The thing that struck me the most about the Ocs was their likeness to the Gamorean Guards in Return of the Jedi, what with their build, their horns (even if they’re on the helmets), and their piggish snouts.  Star Wars has a great deal of influence over this series as it was at the height of it’s popularity in the 80s, not to mention merchandised to the gills and back.  Hooking kids in with similarities is a no brainer and more or less to be expected of cartoons of the time.

Scott wasn’t done though; he is apparently a lover of all things creature, as we also get a quick snippet of some sort of tentacled swamp creature…

…as well as the most awesome thing ever for a Saturday morning cartoon, ZOMBIES! The Zombies will feature more prominently in episode seven, but it was so cool to see a lone creature of the undead wandering around the swamps of the realm.

Scott also introduces another long running convention of the series in this episode, which is featuring an establishing shot of Venger’s castle. Almost every time it’s shown from here on out it looks completely different and I’m not sure if it’s because it wasn’t described on a model sheet, so it was left up to the animators, or if the producers and writers were trying to get across the idea that Venger held residence all over the realm in many different abodes. Of course, a lot of the forthcoming castles are also destroyed, so that’s another reason right there.

I really liked the design on this castle, sort of like a huge stalactite. You don’t seem to find to many castles that are built to hang, almost more like a hive or a mud dobber (what is the correct name for a wasp’s nest?)

Red haired dwarves are common slaves in the realm, as we’ll see in further episodes. In fact if it isn’t dwarves, it’s halflings. Short folk get the crap end of the stick in the Dungeons and Dragons universe.

What’s that? You say that Scott didn’t throw in enough new creatures in this episode? Well then here’s a giant swamp turtle to tide you over.  Actually for all of the creatures showcased in this episode, I’m surprised that it also doubles as the first episode not to feature any sort of dragon.

In yet another scene where the gang uses their weapons like tools, it appears that Hank’s energy bolts can also be fashioned into a lasso. I suppose this means that he has some sort of psionic control over the bolts, as he seems to make them into whatever he pleases, not to mention as harmless as he pleases, as Bobby has ridden them before. Hank does have a cool moment a bit later when he shoot Warduke’s sword out of his grasp.

As the kids free Dungeon Master we get to really see him in action as he has a short fight with Venger in which he totally owns him, and yes, once again Venger is dissipated, though unfortunately not into some sort of cool towering visage. Makes you wonder Dungeon Master doesn’t just kill the guy off you know?

Anyway, this is the first instance where Dungeon Master and Venger are on screen together (well except for the opening credits, but does that really count?)  If Scott can be credited with anything as far as the series goes, it’s breaking out of the confines of the normal story structure that was set up in both the series bible and in the first four episodes.

Right after he’s done with that and the kids free the dwarf slaves, DM makes quick work of Warduke and his cronies as he causes the mines where Warduke made his hideout to fill with lava (I guess it was a dormant volcano or something.) It was kind of cool to see DM really letting loose with the destruction, though on another hand it’s also inferred that he let himself get caught (for the benefit of the kids coming to rescue him I guess), so that takes away from it a little. Either way it was a pretty dynamic episode, and one that would set the tone for the rest of the series.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at episode six, Beauty and the Bogbeast.