HEADED BACK TO SCHOOL WAS THE WORST DAY IN THE CALENDAR, BUT I HAD A FEW TRICKS TO SURVIVE THE NEW SCHOOL YEAR
So by now just about every student across the Nation’s Capital has returned to school. I know, I know, it sucks and I keenly feel your pain. I hated the first day of school with a rabid passion. Make no mistake, kindergarten and grades one or two were kind of novel, but after that, the happiness threw itself right out the window and I often hoped I was going with it. And it only got worse the older I got (say what you want about elementary school, but I never had to worry about getting stuffed in my locker or initiated with a full can of whipped cream and a used toilet until I started high school). But there were two things that acted like a balm on the wound that was back to school. First, when I got home from the fresh hell known as School: Day One, I was almost always welcomed by the brand new Sear’s Christmas Wish Book catalogue, which never failed to bring a smile to my school weary face (even when I was seventeen-shut up). The second was new cartoons. Every September in the 80’s and 90’s, kids were offered a menu of new cartoon shows and fresh episodes of our returning favourites for our after school and Saturday morning pleasure. And I swear to Batman, Baby Jesus and Bill Murray that new episodes of my favourite robots in disguise were the only thing that kept me sane during the first few weeks back. So here’s a quick rundown of my ten favourite after school cartoons growing up. Some have aged well, others not so much, but they all have a special place in my juvenile heart (as well as the paradise known as YouTube) and many have even been remade, re-launched and re-imagined, reflecting how timeless some of them were (or how obsessed my generation is with them). Enjoy and feel free to chime in with your own personal faves.
10. Voltron: Defender of the Universe (1984): Just to clarify, whenever I think of Voltron I think of the kick-ass Lion Force one first, last and only and not that abomination formed by cars and trucks and sailboats (producers scrapped plans for a Gladiator incarnation because of how hated and unpopular the vehicle version was compared to the Lion Force one). Adapted from the popular Japanese show Beast King GoLion, the lion Voltron followed the exploits of an elite force of pilots who commanded the five enchanted lions that comprised the giant robotic warrior Voltron (Black, Red, Blue, Green and Yellow). Whenever the evil King Zarkon and his jerk wad of a son, Prince Lotor, made trouble for the planet of Arus (whose princess commanded the Blue lion), the lions sprung free of their colour coordinated hiding places (a forest for the Green lion, the bottom of the ocean for the Blue, you get the picture) to kick some Planet Doom ass. Usually the robeasts (giant magical robot monsters) were more than a match for the lions individually, but when the going got tough (and it always did following the second commercial break) the five lions would combine to form the super powerful Voltron, who with his sword would reduce the robeast of the day into science fiction confetti before the end credits. I probably witnessed more decapitations and dismemberments on this show then in Silence of the Lambs.
9. She-Ra: Princess of Power (1985-1986): A spin-off of the highly popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra/Adora was He-Man/ Prince Adam’s twin sister, kidnapped at birth by the show’s primary villain, Hordak, and raised as a commander in the Horde’s conquering army on the planet of Etheria. After learning the truth, she defied Hordak and joined Etheria’s rebellion against the Horde. Armed with a magical sword that mirrored Adam’s, she turned into She-Ra: the Princess of Power, and became the rebellion’s biggest hero and freedom’s greatest champion.
Like MOTU, She-Ra was pretty much a glorified commercial for the toy line of the same name, designed to appeal to girls the way He-Man appealed to boys (Mattel financed part of the production costs for both shows, which were handled by the notoriously cheap Filmation Studios). With 93 episodes spread out over two seasons, She-Ra was the first real female action figure to be introduced to western cartoon audiences, proving members of the fairer sex didn’t always have to be subordinates or damsels in distress (although animators probably should have considered lengthening her mini-skirt when she did roundhouse kicks). You have to wonder how much of this iconic character Joss Whedon may have channeled when he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
8. Centurions (1986): Running for a single season with a total of 65 episodes (including a pair of five episode mini-series that book ended the show), Centurions was set in “the near future” where three special operatives prevented the Earth from being conquered by the cybernetic menace Doc Terror, his cyborg sidekick Hacker and his army of robotic war machines. The agents in question-code named the Centurions-were based on an orbital space station named Sky Vault and could be teleported virtually anywhere on the planet and then bonded with highly advanced weapon systems through their exo-skeletons, essentially turning them into living weapons in the war against Terror (imagine the Bush administration having fun with that nugget of a line). Each Centurion had weapon systems suited to their expertise and combat skills; former fighter pilot Ace McLeod patrolled the skies (and occasionally space), marine/army/outdoorsman type guy Jake Rockwell was the ground bound heavy artillery and marine biologist Max Ray fought the underwater battles. The team was supported by Crystal Kane, who ran the Sky Vault space station and teleported the three and their necessary equipment wherever they needed to be. This show was never going to get an A+ for original names, but the animation was a step or two above other shows of the day and they recruited some heavy science fiction names to write some compelling and complex stories (which occasionally flirted with some issues that had real gravitas).
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1993): Based on the popular indie (and much darker) comic book series of the same name, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exploded worldwide in the late 80’s and could be caught on TVs after school until 1993. Following four turtles mutated into humanoid form by a mysterious ooze and were instructed in the ways of nin-jitsu by their mutated rat sensei, the series ran for an incredible ten seasons, making it the longest running show on this list. The Turtles could be seen on both weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings for a few years before moving exclusively to Saturdays in 1993 before wrapping up in November of 1996. Even though it was most of the same creators and voice talent, I didn’t find the Saturday morning cartoons to be as entertaining as the ones you could catch between Monday and Friday. The whole title had to be toned down and kiddified from the violent black and white comic book series created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird a few years earlier, and it seemed that the Saturday cartoons went another step or two in subduing the property. For my money, the weekday Heroes in a Half Shell offered a stronger (and funnier) dose of escapism.
A fun fact is the only reason the show came about was to satisfy the company TMNT creators were negotiating with for the lucrative toy license. Playmate toys was concerned that the Turtles initial audience wouldn’t be large enough to make a toy line worth their while and asked Mirage Studios (publishers of the comic and run by Eastman and Laird) to secure a cartoon show agreement first. And thus the cartoon was born and for the better part of the next decade, Playmate would co-operate with whoever held the cartoon license (there were more then one) to create and market new toys. Capitalism at its goddamn, animated finest.
6. He-Man and The Masters of The Universe (1983-1985): This show combined high fantasy, science fiction, public service announcements, inter-dimensional travel and dozens of alien races into one half hour bundle of animated goodness. I mean, He-Man turned his pet cat into a giant green, armour wearing, talking tiger with attitude and he rode that mofo into battle. How could you not love this show? Plus, the concept of a clumsy slacker prince Adam turning into the most powerful man in the universe (and you just know every female on his native Eternia swooned when he flexed those cosmic muscles) was especially attractive to little boys desperate for a role model. And the first time I saw Skeletor, He-Man’s primary nemesis and the show’s chief villain, with his naked skull floating inside the shadows of his cowl? Scared my little toddler socks clean off. As far as cartoon villains went, Skeletor was the original Man, predating the likes of Megatron, Cobra Commander and Mum-Ra. Skeletor not only set the standard for looking scary, but also for failing spectacularly and passing the buck onto an underling or minion when it happened (which was a lot). The idea of using the show to market the toys was so controversial at the time (England wouldn’t allow British broadcasters to air commercials for the toy line during the show’s commercial breaks) that producers included public service announcements to ease parental concerns. It was possibly the first time this was done on a regular basis, setting yet another example for future shows.
5. Thundercats (1985-1989): Speaking of high fantasy and science fiction, Thundercats was another show I ate up as a kid. The fact that my favourite animals were (and still are) large hunting cats just made this show even cooler. Fleeing their doomed home world, the Thundercats (feline humanoids) take to the stars in search of a new home. Attacked by the Mutants of Plun-Darr, most of the Thundercats fleet is destroyed and their remaining ship damaged. Fortunately, the surviving ship contains Lion-O, the heir to the Thundercats throne, and the magical Sword of Omens, the greatest weapon of the Thundercat civilization. Lion-O and his small band of comrades crash land on Third Earth (don’t ask because I genuinely don’t know) and begin settling this strange new planet as a new home. But a band of Mutants have also become stranded on Third Earth, and everyone’s arrival awakens Mumm-Ra, a demon as ancient as he is powerful (and Skeleton had nothing on this dude in the bowel emptying department). Hijinks then ensue. What was cool about this show wasn’t so much the themes and ideas it embraced, but that the storytelling matured with the show and the fourth and final season was actually written to conclude most outstanding plot points (and in a curious plot twist for a kids cartoon, the scary-evil Mumm-Ra was elevated /promoted to virtual godhood). One weird bit of trivia, for the first half of the show’s first episode, the show’s entire cast of Thundercat characters was naked. Completely. Even the female Cheetara. They didn’t discover clothes until the end of their entire freaking planet. Talk about your bacon grease burns.
4. G.I. Joe (1985-1986): When Hasbro decided to re-imagine and re-launch the G.I. Joe toy line in the early 80’s, they were at a loss how to market it. According to legend, a chance meeting between the head honchos of Hasbro toys and Marvel comics in a men’s room in 1982 launched the Joe army as its known today. It was decided that instead of making uniform soldiers, the new toys would focus on individual characters with unique training, skills, weapons, personalities and looks and virtually all of the Joes (and their villains) we knew and loved in the 80’s were the brainchild of Marvel comics. This expanding mythology lent itself perfectly to an animated show produced by the Sunbow animated branch of Marvel and after airing two popular five episode mini-series in 1983 and 84 respectfully, a full fledged after school cartoon was launched in 1985 and aired 95 episodes over the course of two seasons.
Sharing the same block as Hasbro’s other mega-franchise, the Transformers, G.I. Joe gave us daily doses of black and white patriotism as Duke, Flint, Lady J, Snake Eyes and the other Real American Heroes went head to head with the global terrorist organization known as Cobra, lead by the most disrespected and incompetent leader in the history of animation, Cobra Commander. I didn’t realize it until a few years ago when I caught a few Joe episodes on Teletoon Retro that G.I. Joe was also kind of racist; Roadblock, the most popular black character, communicated strictly in rap and rhyme while Asian and First Nations characters spoke with stereotypical accents and couldn’t properly use pronouns. Fortunately none of that found its way into my cortex, but I do remember the PSAs added to the end of every episode, and much like those included in every episode of He-Man and She-Ra, these were to help ease parental concerns over marketing WMDs to eight year olds. G.I. Joe’s PSAs forever embedded the catch phrase “Knowing is half the battle!” into pop culture’s lexicon. A movie was eventually produced, explaining the origins of both Cobra and Cobra Commander and starring the voice of Don Johnson, but given how Transformers The Movie and the My Little Pony movies underperformed at the box office, it was broken up into a final five episode mini-series that acted as the show’s swan song. To think, all of that because a couple of moguls shared side-by-side urinals. Apparently a full bladder is the other half of the battle.
3. Batman the Animated Series (1992-1995): Coinciding with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns in 1992, Batman TAS literally started an explosion in comic book media. It was grim, gritty and darker then anything ever seen before. In fact, uber-producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had to deflect criticism over the show’s more action-oriented approach from Fox studio executives until the first episode aired to critical acclaim and gave them some breathing room. The show made Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Dark Knight, a star (Conroy has voiced Batman in cartoons, animated movies and video games for over twenty years now and is a fixture on the convention circuit) and made Mark Hamill the definitive Joker in an entire generation’s minds. The show’s art-noir style was even given it’s own name, Dark Deco, and the show, along with the two Burton movies, salvaged Batman as the greatest comic icon in the world, and allowed him to weather the crimes against cinema that were the Joel Schumacher films that nearly killed the franchise. It also launched an entire animated universe for DC comics, including the Superman Animated Series, Justice League and the legion of direct to DVD/Blu-ray releases DC has successfully unleashed over the past decade. In fact, one could argue that if it hadn’t been for Timm and Dini’s barrel chested, square jawed Batman and his dark and stylized Gotham city, we may not even be enjoying the tidal wave of billion dollar comic book movies that’s helping keep Hollywood afloat these days.
2. Gargoyles (1994-1996): While Batman did its fair share of revolutionizing animated fare, Disney’s Gargoyles proved that you could also produce a smart, slick fantasy show with an original story, deep characters and good storytelling. No one had seen anything like this from Disney. In fact, no one had seen anything like Gargoyles at all. The show followed a clan of Gargoyles, lead by the majestic Goliath, who found themselves in modern New York City following a thousand year hibernation after being betrayed by the humans they once protected in medieval Scotland. Turning to stone during the day, Goliath and his small family of winged warriors are forced to adapt to a bizarre new world, making allies and enemies alike and they eventually adopt the Big Apple as their new home, protecting it from corporate barons, evil Gargoyles, robots, rogue sorcerers, aliens, werewolves, cyborgs and just about anything else, including the kitchen sink. Their stomping ground eventually moved beyond New York to the entire planet as the show mined just about every major mythology for story ideas that were always fresh (in one episode, Goliath would wind up standing toe-to-toe with Odin the All Father from Norse mythology-and would hold his ground). For the most part, the art was light years beyond anything else and the storytelling was smart and complex. The show’s writers created a genuine mythology and infused the characters with legitimate pathos, depth and humanity. A couple of the show’s recurring villains wound up being redeemed, while others who skated the thin line between hero and villain wound up going over to the dark side in hardcore fashion. It wasn’t uncommon to see the heroes make bone headed decisions either, and then struggle with the fallout. Ironically, despite everything the show had going for it (including Disney’s hype machine), the show was only mildly successful, but the voice cast included just about everyone who ever starred on a Star Trek show whose last name wasn’t Stewart over the course of the show’s two seasons and 65 episodes. There was a third season that aired on Saturday mornings, but it was a pale imitation of the previous two and was disowned by series creator and chief writer Greg Weiseman (who had nothing to do with the third season at all). Despite the show’s brief run and lukewarm ratings, it was a critical success, appears on many all time top ten lists and maintains a strong and devoted following online nearly two decades after it went off the air.
1. The Transformers (1984-1988): Was there any doubt? From the moment I got my first Transformer (the Decepticon jet Thundercracker) I was hooked on the robots in disguise worse then Rob Ford on crack pipes and all-you-can-eat buffets. There was something about this property that excited my imagination more then anything else before or after. A race of sentient robots divided into two warring factions (the valiant Autobots and evil Decepticons) whose ancient war came to an unsuspecting and unprepared Earth, there wasn’t anything else as original, as dynamic to my blossoming imagination. But this is the show I rushed home to watch every afternoon and committed large portions to memory. Another brainchild of the creative and marketing relationship between Hasbro toys and Marvel Comics, Transfomers was the dominant property for years, not just appearing on toy shelves but on just about everything else under God’s great blue sky. Clothes, posters, trading cards, sticker albums, bed sheets, wall paper, board games, pencil cases, I’m pretty sure there was even a Transformers breakfast cereal somewhere. Which just goes to show I wasn’t the only Transformers geek demanding my parents spend an ungodly amount of money on Dinobot merchandise.
Airing 98 episodes over four seasons (the fourth season was really just a three episode mini-series) and with a pretty kick ass (though financially disappointing) theatrical release in the summer of ‘86, this is actually one of those shows that didn’t age well. The animation was sub-par, the stories were actually pretty meh and the dialogue could only be appreciated by a ten year old. And yet, I have a Grand Canyon sized soft spot for Transformers that I just can’t overcome. It’s big enough that it forces me to reluctantly accept the Michael Bay movies as not being crap (except the second one, even I couldn’t possibly tolerate that cinematic stench). For some reason, Transformers is my intellectual kryptonite, and it all started with this show. But you know what? It’s a pretty cool cross to bear.
Now pass my Christmas Wish Book.