Tag Archives: Sunbow

Knights of the Holographic Light!

After I started reacquiring some of my childhood toys recently, specifically picking up a number of the more obscure figures from the less popular lines, there have been a few figures that have rocketed up to the top of my to-find list.  Taking a break from the more well-known properties like G.I. Joe, Transformers, Masters of the Universe & M.A.S.K. and focusing on the lesser known stuff has been kind of liberating as my personal shopping list has become way more manageable and compartmentalized.  Instead of trying to track down affordable bulk lots or prioritizing my favorites from one of the larger lines I can focus on a single figure from a specific series since I tended to only have one or two figures from each of the weirder properties.  Happening upon a carded Gabriel Tonto figure, a Blackstar  demon, or a Dungeons & Dragons Warduke has been a really fulfilling experience, so when I went on the hunt for the next childhood treasure I had my sights set on a very specific action figure, Witterquick from the Visionaries!

Witterquick Filecard 2

Released by Hasbro in 1987, the Visionaries were sort of like a mystical, fantasy version of G.I. Joe.  In fact, not only were the toys manufactured by the same company, with similar designs (similar articulation and size), but the accompanying animated series was also produced by Sunbow with a number of the same voice actors and writers and had very similar animation.  Though not as popular, the toy line only had one wave of figures and the animated series had just a single 13-episode season that aired on Saturday mornings.  Though I have very fond memories of plopping in front of the TV and watching the cartoon, I only managed to acquire one action figure, the scarlet speedster who calls upon the power of his totem deity Light Speed by proclaiming “Sheathe these feet in the driving gale, make swift these legs, o’er land I sail!”

witterquick 1

One of the main conceptual draws of this toy line was the inclusion of holograms both in each character’s armor and in a totem staff.  There were two opposing forces, the Spectral Knights (with a unicorn as their group totem) and the Darkling Lords (who have a dragon totem.)  Holograms were pretty darn popular in the 80s and early 90s (as seen in these amazing Lazer Blazers stickers), and as far as I know this was the main toy line that incorporated the technology into the figures.  Though it could easily have come across as super gimmicky, I really love the way they’re used as the holographic images are a great stand in for the magical energy that the characters exhibited in the cartoon series…

witterquick 3

Not only were the holograms pretty darn awesome, but all of the characters had cool removable helmets, which was always a plus in my book.

witterquick 4

I feel pretty lucky that I managed to not only find a complete Witterquick (so many of these figures on the secondary market are missing their chest plate holograms and helmets), but the guy I bought the figure from kept him in very good condition and even had the original filecard clipping!

Witterquick Filecard

I’m glad the I got that as well because it has a some of the original packaging artwork intact.  Like the other Hasbro 80s offerings, the Visionaries boasted some amazing airbrushed artwork.  I also felt pretty lucky as I found this figure at a very reasonable price.  These tend to sell for pretty ludicrously inflated rates, between $50-$120 carded, and even upwards of $30-$40 loose and complete.

witterquick 2

Now that Witterquick has joined my collection, there is only one main obscure action figure left that I need to kind of complete my vintage toy collection, Quicksilver from the Silverhawks.  The hunt is on…

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

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

Did you know that the Autobots can SURF!

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

Did you know that Soundwave can read your mind?

   

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

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

So Soundwave was a streetlight on Cybertron?!?

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

Taking a closer look at Season 1 of the Transformers…

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

So, first things first, can the Autobots fly?

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

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

Spike really wanted to blast some Deceptichops!

  

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

Energon Cubes = the Flashiest MacGuffin ever!

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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! G.I. Joe Episode 5 A Stake in the Serpent’s Heart




Finally getting around to finishing off the Cartoon Commentary! series on the 1st G.I. Joe mini series (A Real American Hero).  This final episode, titled A Stake in the Serpent’s Heart, was first broadcast on September 16th, 1983, and it was the last taste kids would get of the cartoon series until the following year when the second mini debuted.  I’ve said this a number of times recently, but it bears repeating, these first five episodes go a long way in defining the series, and bowing only a week after the first syndicated episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, it also helped to define the next decade of television animation.   1983 really was a banner year for action in cartoons as we also saw the release of Dungeons and Dragons on Saturday mornings, and between these three shows TV animation, at least when it came to action, was free for the first time in over a decade.

Granted, there were shows that flirted with action premises, Super Friends, Blackstar, the Lone Ranger, Thundarr, and Spiderman & His Amazing Friends just to name a few, but all of these shows were just not quite there in terms of bravery.  Even He-Man, for its revolutionary first run syndication, and breaking the ice in terms of injecting action back into cartoons, was still taking a very moral stance on depicting violence.  But G.I. Joe burst onto the scene like Duke amid a group of Cobra Troopers, punching and kicking everything in sight.


So, getting back to the episode at hand, the story picks up from the cliffhanger where Destro and Scarlett are plummeting in an escape pod towards certain doom.  Of course, in the "coming next time on G.I. Joe" segment at the end of the previous episode we clearly see Scarlett running down a Cobra compound hallway, letting all the air out of the opening sequence of this episode…





Where this sequence fails as a cliffhanger, it succeeds in bookending the mini series as Destro leads Scarlett off of the escape pod at Cobra headquarters.  Just like Duke, and with an impassioned fit of feminism from the writers, Scarlett proves herself to be quite the "Woman of Action" as she breaks free and takes on a platoon of Troopers.  It’s another example of that never-say-die attitude exhibited by the Joes, and a more subversive example of imbedding a sense of morality into the show.   In He-Man for instance, this morality would be worn on the show’s sleeve so to speak, and we’d more than likely be treated to an insightful yet, borderline obvious quote from a character.  Here this sense of always doing the right thing and never giving up is written into the action.  It’s still a bit over the top, but much more natural.





One thing that I love about the Sunbow cartoons is their weird villain relationships.  You tend to get a lot of characterization out of these villain characters while watching them bounce off each other.   Like the Starscream/Megatron relationship in Transformers, there’s a weird back and forth between Cobra Commander and Destro.  Whereas Starscream always talks big, he usually backs down to Megatron (except when Megs is at his weakest in the 1986 Movie, but that’s a story for another time.)  On the one hand, Destro seems independent, the head of his own arms dealing organization, yet on the other he’s always vying for and temporarily taking control of Cobra.   Unlike Starscream though, Destro is the more physically imposing in his tête-

Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 4 Duel in the Devil’s Cauldron




One of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about cartoons in the 80s is the tonal shift that a lot of the shows took.  Throughout the 70s child advocacy groups like A.C.T. (Action for Children’s Television) were having a huge impact on the production of Saturday Morning cartoons, in particular pressuring studios to self-censor content.  So most action and adventure was stripped from new shows, and generally humor ruled the day.  In the 80s though, with a new president in the White House who had an eye on freeing up TV regulations, some studios took the opportunity to bring back action and adventure, while at the same time doing their level best to also make the shows a little more educational.  Some studios were more heavy handed than others (Filmation for instance based most episodes around a moral quandary), while others were sort of sneaky about the "good for you" content.


For the most part Sunbow was a bit sneakier about it.  Sure there were the "Knowing is half the battle…" PSAs, bust as far as the content in the actual episodes, it seemed like pretty straight forward storytelling.  This is sort of the genius of the writers, at least in terms of knocking down the wall between educational and exciting & fun television.  Instead of knocking kids over the head with a moral, they injected little subtle ideas here and there that didn’t draw all that much attention.   That was one of the first things that caught my eye while re-watching episode four of the original G.I. Joe mini series, Duel in the Devil’s Cauldron (which was originally broadcast back on September 15th, 1983.)





In the cliffhanger from the episode before, the Joes have been mostly knocked out by a noxious gas emitting from a Cobra canister that Snake Eyes used to bring back some of the eradiated crystals for the M.A.S.S. Device.   The canister was also set to explode, but with some quick thinking on Covergirl’s part, she manages to get the bomb out of the hanger they’re all in.  What caught my eye was when she breaks a beaker of water and then uses a hanky to soak up the liquid.  This makes an impromptu gas mask that she uses to keep from passing out.  Granted it’s not a huge deal, but it’s a little fact like this that’ll sit in the back of a kids brain and one day might come in handy.  I mean education doesn’t always have to be about algebra and world history.   This sort of stuff was peppered all throughout the series, and in my opinion is the way to go when educating kids with television.


Anyway, getting back to some of the visual tropes of the show, one of the main differences between the action figures and the cartoon were the weapons.  While all the toys were outfitted with a menagerie of different kinds of weapons, from handguns and shotguns, to Uzis and rocket launchers, the cartoon was a little more toned down.   Instead of realistic weaponry, most of the characters (good and evil) carry laser rifles and guns.   On the one hand it works toward the branding of the heroes (red laser fire) and villains (blue laser fire), but it also puts the show in that fantastical near-future with advanced technology.





While I don’t mind the laser fire in place of bullets, I always thought the standard issue Joe rifles were a little boring.  They didn’t have a ton of character like other weapons design, and they were typically beige with silver trim which isn’t all that visually exciting.  I always wondered why they didn’t vary the designs a little more…





So this episode has the Joes globetrotting on down to South America for their crack at the third catalytic element, the meteor chips that can only be found in the Devil’s Cauldron.  Like Kevin Cross mentions in the second half of the Saturday Supercast, this has got to be the one location that got all the child viewers excited.  What kid doesn’t love lava?  I mean seriously, what kid didn’t play the "The carpet is now lava and we have to only walk on the furniture…" game when we were young?


The other thing I dig about this sequence is that it’s another great example of backlit animation with the lava.  It’s such a great technique that’s lost in modern cartoons because most, if not all of them, are now drawn digitally.  God bless the popularity of Tron for ushering in 10 years of backlit techniques into cartoons is all I have to say…


I also love the next sequence in the cartoon, if only for its blatant commercialism.  I love G.I. Joe, and I’ll defend its merits to the death, but sometimes the product placement/30 minute commercial aspect to the show was insane.  When Stalker signals the surrender of the Joe army to Cobra via a super secret transmission, the whole thing is a ruse to buy time for the team to get to the meteor.  The gag transmission is being filmed using miniatures on a soundstage that are obviously the Hasbro toys.   I have to agree with Gung Ho, they are pretty darn cute and I for one was never a fan of electric train sets….





Talking about product placement, like the Cobra Moccasin in the second episode, I thought it was pretty interesting to see an early version of the Cobra Rattler, the jets that could take off vertically because the wings would pivot at the hinges.  It wasn’t part of the toy line yet in 1983, and they don’t quite have that nicely finished vehicle design look to them (a bit rough around the edges), but they’re certainly there in concept.  Again, I wonder if this was a case of something being developed for the show that Hasbro thought might make a cool toy.  I wonder how often that happens?





Too bad no one at Hasbro ever got a bug up their butt to design one of the awesome floating battle stations that Cobra used throughout the series…





I’m sure the logistics of creating something that would approximate that would be insane.  Even the 5-6 foot long U.S.S. Flagg was way out of proportion to the Sky Striker toy, and there was no way a kid was going to be able to pick-up a Flagg sized airship.  Still though, it was a cool vehicle reminiscent of the one S.H.E.I.L.D. used in the Marvel comics…





One thing I didn’t really care for in this episode was the retrieval of the meteor.  The sequence with the Joes using the Dragonfly helicopters and the huge magnets was kind of fun, but the idea of playing catch with a net strung between two Sky Strikers was kind of silly…





That’s alright though, because directly after we get a really fun fight scene involving a bunch of Joe strapping on their trust jetpacks and flying over to the deck of the Cobra floating battle station.  Weirdly enough, even though I didn’t care for the previous meteor catch scene, I thought the gag with Timber jumping out of a Dragonfly after Snake Eyes was kind of fun.  Silly fun, granted, but fun none-the-less.





One aspect of the advanced technology available to the Joe team that I never understood is the portable laser prison cells.   I get how it would be both visually fun, and an easy thing to write into the show when it comes to taking a bunch of Cobra Troopers captive during the show, but it seems kind of insane.   How exactly would it work?  Heck, maybe it’s just a regular portable prison that’s seriously electrified.





The last hing that sort of stuck out to me was both how well this episode ended with a riveting cliffhanger, yet at the same time it was totally ruined by the "Coming Next on…" segment.  There’s a bit where Scarlett, tied up and taken prisoner by Destro, manages to finagle her crossbow to fire with her feet, taking out the control panel of the escape ship that Destro is piloting…





The whole idea of them plummeting to their sure death was a great way to end the 4th episode…





But just as we cut to the coming attractions, there’s a scene of Scarlett running down a hallway.   How anticlimactic is that?


Tomorrow I’ll be back with some more G.I. Joe fun, a little surprise that will hopefully break-up all these Cartoon Commentary! posts.   Again, if you’re curious about listening to the Saturday Supercast where I talk about the original G.I. Joe mini series with co-hosts Jerzy Drod (of MLaT comics, the Art & Story podcast, and Sugary Serials) and Kevin Cross (of the Big Illustration Party Time podcast, not to mention a heck of an illustrator), then head on over to the podcast page at Sugary Serials.  The show spans over episodes 19 and 20, for a total of almost 3 hours of G.I. Joe conversation.



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Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 3 the Worms of Death…




I don’t know how obvious it is, but I’m really excited to be podcasting again.  As some of the long time readers might remember, this site started at a platform for a podcast I was doing on my nostalgia memories, but what I discovered pretty quickly is that I had a difficult time getting across the type of info I wanted without having to basically write the whole thing out as a one man monologue show.  Though I talk to myself all the time, the act of sitting behind the mic to record it by myself feels pretty damn weird.   I’m no Spalding Gray, and I have absolutely no yearning to do stand-up, so finding that comfortable place to podcast from is hard.


At the same time though, I love listening to podcasts, and I really want to give a little back to the community, particularly when I see a niche that needs to be filled.  I really think the Saturday Supercast is going to go a long way in filling that whole, which is a deconstruction of cartoons (as well as some other similar fare, but that’s for later.)  There are a lot of fun shows out there that focus on a particular cartoon franchise, but most don’t stray too far past "OMG" and "It’s so cool when…".  Granted, it’s hard not to, with any interest in a subject, this is typically the first sort of gut reaction, but it’s only part of the equation.  Anyway, I just wanted to say again, that I’m having a lot of fun with the new show and I hope some of you take the time to download an episode or two and can get into it.


As I mentioned on this past post, we released the second half of the G.I. Joe discussion, so I thought I’d spend the rest of the week talking up G.I. Joe.  Though I was weaned on He-Man and Star Wars, G.I. Joe was the main franchise I grew up with.   I collected the toy line throughout most of the 80s, and it was the main cartoon that I ran home from school to watch.  There were a lot of other similar shows, and I’m pretty sure I watched most of them, but they were all second choice to G.I. Joe A Real American Hero.  This first mini series is a great example of what the show had to offer, in particular in the second half.  For this column I’m going to focus on episode 3, the Worms of Death which debuted on September 14th, 1983…





One of the things that G.I. Joe did very well was keeping the action and adventure thrilling in the episodes by ending each act break, and sometimes episodes, with a cliffhanger.  When we left off in the second episode, Snake Eyes had shut himself off in a chamber filled with radioactive crystals to save his teammates.  This episode picks up with a still breathing yet, glowing Snake Eyes plodding on.  Honestly, I have no clue what true radiation exposure might lead to (besides burns, sickness and death), but my guess is it doesn’t involve glowing pink (red if you get the new color corrected DVD set.)  Even so it makes for a great visual, and an interesting tête-

Cartoon Commentary! G.I. Joe Episode 2 Slave of the Cobra Master…




So the Saturday Supercast Jerzy Drozd, Kevin Cross and I recorded recently was pretty mammoth.  We ended up talking about the 1st G.I. Joe cartoon mini series for well over two hours and it was decided to break the show in half to make it easier to consume.  This worked out pretty well for me, at least in terms of spacing out these Cartoon Commentary! posts to coincide with the podcasts.   In the first episode we cover a lot of the basic stuff involved with the mini series as well as diving into the first two episodes.  For this column, I’m going to concentrate on that second episode which originally debuted on September 13th, 1983 and was titled Slave of the Cobra Master.





Again, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the massive amount of Cobra branding that was thrown in for this first mini series.  Above is a nice example of some of the background artwork used to illustrate the Cobra temple.  Not only does that snake make for an awesome temple topper, but it’s also a conduit helping to direct the energy bursts from the M.A.S.S. device.  Also, it’s kind of interesting how intertwined snake imagery was with action entertainment in the 80s.  The cold blooded reptile’s use in G.I. Joe is pretty obvious, but it also served as the design for the obviously named Snake Mountain, Skeletor’s castle in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  Then there are the intertwined snakes in Mumm-Ra’s headpiece on the Thundercats show, and of course I was a huge fan of both the first Conan movie and Clash of the titans, and the duo of James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom and Harryhausen’s version of Medusa terrified me.   Anyway, it’s just a thought…





One of the reoccurring themes in the Joe universe is Cobra Commander’s megalomaniacal Caesar complex (written into the Writer’s Guide), which is illustrated quite well in the first two cartoon mini series’ with the Cobra gladiatorial arena fights.  In the A Real American Hero mini, the fight takes place between two mind-controlled opponents, the captured Duke and the slave giant Ramar.   Again, this is interesting, at least to me, in that it works in fun action, a couple elements of the fantastical, and even a bit of world history, though that last one is a stretch.   Either way, it’s fun and again it works to define the character of Duke who never backs down, not even when the odds are stacked against him.





In fact Duke’s smarts and tenacity are even admired by Destro.  Cobra Commander and Destro are each controlling one of the combatants (Destro has Duke and CC has Ramar), and in mid battle Destro relinquishes control over Duke knowing that he’ll be able to handle Ramar better under his own control.  As a kid I was never all that fond of Duke’s character, though a lot of that could be contributed to his bland character design (and granted it’s only really bland in comparison to the outlandish Joes that would follow and what made up most of my collection.)  Now that I look back at him I think that his simple (in terms of not being flashy) design works perfect for the type of character.  Just goes to show the differences in the two mindsets…





What’s also kind of weird in the Joe universe is that Cobra’s infatuation with world domination and wealth often takes the form of an accumulation of gold.  When CC and Destro make a bet on the arena battle the spoils are pieces of gold (which is also what CC uses to pay off the Dreadnoks in the second Joe mini series.)  I wonder if this was a purposeful way to avoid talking about money in the cartoon, like maybe the producers or story editors (Steve Gerber and Buzz Dixon) wanted to avoid as much real world strife as possible.  We also see gold used as the ultimate coveted element (a very fairy tale like quality to the writing) in its use as a way to escape the mind control devices.  When we’re introduced to Selena, the save girl with a heart of gold (oh geez, bad turn of phrase I know), she gives Duke a thin stick (think bubble gum stick) of gold that will allow him to shirk the headband’s power.  I’m also reminded of an episode of Transformers where there is a pool of gold liquid that when bathed in makes robots invincible to laser fire (great Beachcomber episode to boot.)





When Duke decides it’s time to use the gold strip to break the mind control it unfolds in a very odd way.  I was expecting Duke to be free to do what he wants, which is essentially what happens, though it comes in the form of redirecting the energy used to control the headbands into laser like beams that knock the controllers out of Destro and CC’s hands.  It’s more visually interesting, but it’s also one of those weird leaps in logic that the show is famous for.  To be honest, even as an adult I don’t mind these leaps.





There’s another subtle moment (like in the previous episode where the Baroness in disguise fingers her earring) in the sequence where Selena is helping Duke to escape via the Cobra Viper Glider (one of the few times in this mini series where the writing feels like it’s pushing the toys.)  As they’re talking his Joe class ring glimmers a couple times.  He eventually gives the ring to her so that she can both remember him and so that he’ll remember to come back and save her and the rest of the slaves.  It’s also another sequence to show off his lady’s man side (by the end of the series he’ll have both Selena and Scarlett hanging off him.)





In a weird turn of events, the Joe team rescues the scientist (Dr. Vandemeer) that unwittingly helped Cobra build their M.A.S.S. device.  He helps them to build their own M.A.S.S. device, which is sort of a odd way to combat the original problem on a couple of different levels.  On the one hand it doesn’t seem like a likely answer unless the goal is to use their device to steal Cobra’s device.  I mean they’re matter transference machines, not weapons.   Also, as Jerzy brought up in the Saturday Supercast, it sort of breaks the unspoken rule of using the enemy’s weapons against them, a concept highlighted by the plight of Frodo in the Lord of the Rings series.   It points to the idea of corrupting one’s self to combat corruption, which is pretty self-defeating in terms of a winning end game strategy.   On the other hand, this conceit opens up the plot of this and the following two episodes as both teams race around the globe in search of the rare catalytic elements that power the M.A.S.S. devices.  It’s not just a matter of trying to stop the other side, but scoring these elements for your own team in the process.  It helps set the tone of the series as a whole and it makes the mini visually stunning for all its environments…





The first location explored is the dreaded Sea of Ice in the Arctic Circle where the pink radioactive crystals are located in a cave guarded by Cobra.   I love this sequence because it features some of my favorite Joe team members from the 1st two waves of figures from ’82 and ’83.  Putting myself back in the 1983-4 mindset, I wasn’t all that fond of the basic green fatigue-wearing Joes.   I hadn’t read the comics yet, and I wasn’t paying attention to the file cards yet (and I think at the time my parents were still giving me figures already out of the packages so I didn’t even realize there were file cards to clip), so the characters that stuck out to me were the ones that had interesting visual cues.   First and foremost there was Snake Eyes, who completely decked in black stood out the most of the early Joes.  Then there’s Tripwire and Flash, both of which had cool-looking helmets (with the coveted visors), and the grey and red highlights (respectively) to the basic green fatigues that made them aces in my book.  Scarlett has always been a cool character, and for me she fell into that group of figures I never managed to get my grubby hands on, so I wanted her all the more.  And last, but certainly not least, Snow Job, who was one of the first Joe action figures I distinctly remember receiving (right before meeting up with my Dad after he got off work at a local Florida Red Lobster.)  The sense memory of a mound of empty King Crab leg shells acting as a stand-in for a snowy peak that Snow Job could ski across is burned into my memory.


Anyway, it’s in this set of scenes that we’re first introduced to the Polar Battle Bear snowmobiles, and the evil Cobra Snake Robots





Animation-wise, the scene when the group of Joes enter the cave has some really nice choice camera angles, not to mention some nice shading and shadows (which always tend to make the art look so much richer.)  As a funny side note, it’s kind of odd that Snake Eyes carries a walkie talkie with him seeing that he’s practically mute and all.  I will admit that it’s been pointed out that walkie talkies do have Morse Code buttons on them, and I realize he can listen in, but it’s still kind of oxymoronic.





Something else that caught my eye while watching this episode is the dynamics of telecasting Cobra Commander to the world during one of his maniacal world domination rants.   There are a couple of shots which showcase some of Cobra’s finest troopers running the TV camera.  I guess either Cobra has one hell of a cross training media department, or they’ve spent some time recruiting out of the various A/V clubs in high schools around the country.  It leads to the obvious question, is there a brigade of sanitation troopers roaming the various temples and the Terror Drome in full gear?


Also, even though it isn’t really that much of a miraculous bit of precognition on the writer/designers parts, I thought it was kind of cool to see a quick shot of a suburban home with a flat screen the size of a coffee table on the living room wall.  We’re pretty much living in that age I guess.  Now where’s my personal jetpack and standard issue tan & silver laser rifle?





I’ve mentioned it a couple times in these past couple of columns already, but I thought it was really interesting that the story editors make it a very clear point in the writer’s guide to stay away from using real world U.S. antagonists as enemies in the cartoon.   Instead, the unspoken guideline (I haven’t seen it stressed in print) was to show other countries as allies against Cobra. In this first mini series Cobra’s second major target of their M.A.S.S. device attack is Russia.  Cobra burgles an entire battalion of their tanks and soldiers, teleporting them to the temple base.   I do have to stress that I thought it was odd that this army didn’t put up any fight when they arrived, unlike Duke who practically took on the entire Cobra army by himself twice by this point.





Ron Friedman is the man responsible for the heavy lifting on the writing duties in this mini series (as well as the other three Joe Minis and the G.I. Joe & Transformers movies), and if there is one reoccurring theme that I kind of dig, it’s his inhibition when it comes to potentially offing or downplaying beloved characters.  Granted I’m sure these were decissions that the entire writing staff disscussed, but they tend to occur in his contributed episodes.  Of course his most famous coup in this department is killing off Optimus Prime in the Transformers flick, but he also intended to kill of Duke in the Joe Movie (changed after the animation was finalized and the reactions were coming in to Prime buying the farm), he helped Buzz Dixon depose Cobra Commander in the Arise, Serpentor, Arise! mini, and in this episode basically left Snake Eyes for the soon to be eradiated dead.  Honestly, the show hadn’t been on long enough to really garner Snake Eyes the "beloved character" status, but it was still a gutsy cliffhanger in my eyes.  I mean, unless you’re James Bond or Ursula Andress in Dr. No, there really isn’t any coming back from radiation poisoning so bad your entire body beings to glow.  The "good bye" scene with Scarlett was pretty touching too, with nice shot of Snake Eyes slowly backing up into the radiation cloud.





If the show was every going to be accused of product placement, it’s probably in the scenes involving Duke’s crazy escape from the Cobra compound.  First Selena insists that the only way out is by stealing a Cobra Viper Glider, which Duke of course does, and then proceeds to go on a wacky trip with a bunch of Cobra troopers in tow.  I say wacky because not long after Duke is airborne, he crashes into a tree, and then falls directly into the waiting cockpit of an idling H.I.S.S. tank.  He then speeds away in the tank, through a nearby swamp where he again crashes into an embankment, and then ends up falling into a pit of quicksand.  It’s daring and exciting, but a little bit too Benny Hill for my tastes.


Something interesting I noticed during this chase sequence was another (almost) product placement in the form of the Cobra Water Moccasin.  For a brief second while in the water we see a white Moccasin speed by the frame…





…which is kind of interesting in that the toy hadn’t been released yet.   Most everything that ended up in this first mini series, from characters to vehicles, was already available in the 1982-1983 toy line (with some exceptions like the Baroness, the S.H.A.R.C. which will show up in the next episode, and Duke – who was only a mail-away at the time.)  There was also an appearance of a Rattler-like jet which shows up in the fourth part of the mini, but my guess is that wasn’t tied in with Hasbro.  So the Moccasin showing up, in a different color no less, seems to point to the idea that the writers/designers of the cartoon had access to upcoming vehicle designs.   Either that or their rendition of the water craft struck a nerve at Hasbro who then put it into production.





Anyway, like I mentioned above, the last we saw of Duke he was all but drowning in a pit of quicksand.  What I love about this sequence, and it’s something I never would have thought to watch out for if it hadn’t been for Mark Rudolph’s description of camera angles and blocking in the original Star Trek show (on an episode of the Art & Story podcast), is how interesting it is when a scene is framed by close-up objects in the foreground.   I love the shot of the two Cobra troopers with their legs framing either side of the screen and Duke breast-deep in quicksand.  Not only is it visually interesting, it gives the scene a menacing tone with the soldiers towering over duke and being so close to the "camera" that viewers get a feeling of being too close to the enemy.  It’s a little thing, but it’s a nice touch.


What’s really weird about this sequence though, and what makes me wonder if there is something missing in this segment of the episode is Dukes sudden memory loss and almost death.   Honestly he seems to be playing possum until the Cobra troopers leave, and in the next scene he’s on a gurney being attended by Doc and all of a sudden everything is tense.  If nothing else, why exactly does Duke forget about the whole affair in the Cobra fortress?  It seems like a very weird cliffhanger ending to me.




In the final episode of this mini series there is a segment where Doc is trying to help Duke remember in some sort of sensory deprivation chamber (that looks an awful lot like the bacta tank in the Empire Strikes Back), and his memories are projected onto a screen.  In this sequence we get a glimpse of Duke’s childhood and young adult years where he’s fighting off bullies and being a football hero.  When we talk about this in the Saturday Supercast Jerzy recalled the fact that this sequence of Duke’s younger years was cut on the copy of the official FHE VHS tape for the miniseries.   It points to the idea that there are different versions of the episodes floating around.  I’m pretty positive that there are differences in the original broadcast episodes and the later syndicated ones, if only because as the years go on the restrictions of cutting in commercial time get harsher.  So I’m sure there are a lot of episodes that are missing segments and I have to wonder is Rhino, when they were putting together this mini series DVD might have gotten an edited set of the masters that was missing something.  It’s just a thought.


Anyway, this commentary brings us up to date with what we end up talking about in episode 19 of the Saturday Supercast.  Also, we should be posting the follow-up show, episode 20, in which we discuss the next three episodes as well as touching on some of the more modern incarnations of the franchise, namely the new live action film set to debut in August, the Rise of Cobra, as well as the lead up cartoon even that debuted this past spring called G.I. Joe Resolute.  Also, and I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me mention this, the season 1.1 DVD set of the original G.I. Joe cartoon (featuring this very episode) hit store shelves yesterday and is current available on Amazon for only $17.  Alright, pimp mode off.



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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.