The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Six – Cartoons
The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Six – Cartoons by Jerry Whitworth
A number of advents in animation largely emerged in the 80s. Of note, we already discussed the relationship between toy companies and cartoons (which we’ll revisit briefly later). But, another prevalent phenomenon was the relationship between American and Japanese animators. Anime, the Japanese word for animation (used in America to describe animation from Japan made for Japanese audiences), was not new to the United States. Series like Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom), 8th Man, Gigantor (Tetsujin 28-go), and Speed Racer (Mach Go Go Go) had been edited and dubbed in the ’60s for American children. There would be a lull in this movement broken in the late ’70s with Battle of the Planets. Adapted from Tatsunoko’s hit series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (which inspired Super Sentai, which Power Rangers is derived from), Battle of the Planets told the story of five youths who operated together as the group G-Force to combat an alien invasion from the planet Spectra led by its malevolent agent Zoltar. The series would also prove successful in the United States running until 1985 where G-Force: Guardians of Space would begin the following year as a more faithful adaptation of Gatchaman. Sadly, the show was mysteriously pulled off the air after only running for a week where it then ran in syndication internationally. Battle of the Planets would be the opening salvo for anime in America (a trend that largely remained constant to today where some have referred to the ’80s as the Golden Age of Anime in America).
Almost exactly a year following the premier of Battle of the Planets, Leiji Matsumoto’s legendary Space Battleship Yamato would find its way to America by way of the adaptation Star Blazers. In this series combining footage from three of Yamato‘s series, the crew of the Argo must face alien invaders from the likes of Gamilon, the Comet Empire, and the Bolar Federation. The series was groundbreaking in that it involved sophisticated characters in overarching story arcs generally absent in American animation to that point (Star Blazers edited significantly less than Battle of the Planets). The series ran until 1984 before coming to an end (the final season was not widely released and has generally been viewed unfavorably). Another anime to find its way to America beginning in 1980 had a unique blend of toy marketing and intertwining separate unrelated series (which would become common in the ’80s for anime). The Shogun Warriors toyline (which made ample use of Go Nagai‘s giant robot creations) of the late 1970s imported Japanese toys based on anime and tokusatsu series that proved to be popular with kids. Some of the series these toys were based on were edited and dubbed to form the show Force Five. An anthology series made up of Gaiking (Divine Demon-Dragon Gaiking), Danguard Ace (Planet Robo Danguard Ace), Starvengers (Getter Robo G), Grandizer (UFO Robot Grendizer), and Spaceketeers (Sci-Fi West Saga Starzinger), Force Five aired weekdays with an episode from each series assigned its own day (Great Mazinger was originally set to be included but Starzinger was used instead; though, Mazinger Z would find its way to America in 1985 with TranZor Z). Marketing akin to Shogun Warriors and Force Five would only be the beginning of such an advent in the 1980s.
American Greetings, the famous greeting card company, would throw its hat into the ring of marketing licensed characters to kids. Its character Strawberry Shortcake would make the transition in 1980 with The World of Strawberry Shortcake. An animated television special, it was a co-production between Murakami-Wolf-Swenson and Japanese studio Toei sponsored by the Kenner toy company that was the first of six such specials that emerged during the decade. The villainous Peculiar Purple Pieman would be introduced trying to steal fruit from the residents of Strawberryland, notably Strawberry Shortcake. The success of the project led American Greetings to invest in other marketable properties including the Get Along Gang and Popples but arguably their biggest triumph was the Care Bears (a property that produced multiple animated series and films and whose popularity thrives even today). While American Greetings struck gold with Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears, Hanna-Barbera would yet again resurrect a tried and true franchise born from the Justice League of America.
The Super Friends emerged in 1973 from Hanna-Barbera using the sublime character design of visionary Alex Toth. Since its inception, the Super Friends would frequently be revived time and again to the joy of its young audience (arguably its greatest heights in 1978’s Challenge of the Super Friends pitting the heroes against some of their greatest villains that led to the live action Legends of the Superheroes the following year featuring Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin). 1980 would see the series The World’s Greatest Super Friends draw to a close and the premiere of simply Super Friends arrive. Composed of seven minute shorts, the series guest-starred several heroes from the Challenge season as well as the Latino hero El Dorado. Largely, this season was to be the final for Super Friends (twenty four subsequent episodes were produced but were only aired in Australian until some time later) until the exploding action figure market changed everything. With toylines like Kenner’s Star Wars, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe and Transformers, and Mattel’s Masters of the Universe, there was big money in action figures and the cartoons based on them that were glorified extended commercials. It wouldn’t be long before superheroes joined the fray as Kenner obtained the license to produce the Super Powers toyline and Hanna-Barbera was again called upon to produce more Super Friends. For the two subsequent series, Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show and The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, the Toth designs were largely abandoned in favor of the more sophisticated designs of José Luis García-López (which the toys were generally modeled after). Adam West, who famously portrayed Batman in the 1960s live action series and voiced the character for Filmation’s The New Adventures of Batman, replaced Olan Soule as the voice of Batman in these last two seasons. Galactic Guardians would be significant for Batman as it featured the premier of the Joker to Super Friends and approached Batman’s origin wherein the Scarecrow forced the hero to relive his parents’ deaths. 1980 would also see another wave from the world of comics come to animation.
Steve Gerber, a well-regarded writer for Marvel Comics, would have an idea for an animated series set in a post-apocalyptic future. Bringing his idea to Ruby-Spears (the men behind Scooby-Doo that went on to form their own company) and adding character design by Alex Toth with production design by Jack Kirby, Thundarr the Barbarian was born. Featuring the adventures of Thundarr (a mash-up of Conan the Barbarian and Flash Gordon), Princess Ariel, and the Wookiee-like Ookla the Mok, the trio battled wizards and mad scientists across a heavily scarred Earth following a rogue planet passing too close to our world. The show was greatly influential to the world of animation (nods appearing in later Hanna-Barbera series like Galtar and the Golden Lance and The Pirates of Dark Water which seemingly borrowing elements of Thundarr). A year after Thundarr’s premier, a comic inspiration of a different sort would capture the minds of children.
In 1981, Hanna-Barbera would adapt Peyo’s Belgian comic The Smurfs into an animated series. Featuring tiny blue, humanoid woodland creatures working together for survival as a community and led by the magical elder Papa Smurf (drawing some minor parallels to Hobbits and Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings), the Smurfs were troubled by the evil wizard Gargamel and his cat Azrael. The series proved to be a cultural phenomenon in the United States (despite claims by some of being socialist or communist propaganda). The show would be a Saturday morning staple airing for nine years with several prime time specials and merchandised heavily with the characters appearing on just about anything you could imagine. The franchise’s impact is felt even today with live action films and holiday television specials. Hanna-Barbera would try to capture the success of Smurfs with adapting Nicolas Broca’s Belgian comic Snorks featuring a similar theme but set underwater. While less successful, that series would run for four seasons. The same month Smurfs premiered on American television, an American comic book icon would return to animation.
While Marvel Comics saw the likes of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Woman as animated series in the late 1970s via DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, their star would return to animated television after a decade long absence (as an aside, he did appear in two episodes of Spider-Woman) with two shows. Spider-Man and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends were two concurrent series as the former featured Spider-Man solo (often battling Doctor Doom) and the latter saw Spider-Man teaming up with various heroes (drawing parallels to the Super Friends). For Amazing Friends, Spider-Man teamed with Human Torch stand-in Firestar and X-Man Iceman to form the Spider-Friends and often battled Spider-Man’s foes when they weren’t teaming with the likes of Captain America, X-Men, Thor, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, Hulk, and Doctor Strange against their enemies. The show would prove to be a success running for three seasons (airing in syndication when Mattel’s Secret Wars toyline emerged) and spawned interest in the 1982 The Incredible Hulk animated series (which aired alongside Amazing Friends during The Incredible Hulk and the Amazing Spider-Man programming block and Hulk and the Spider-Friends made notable live action appearances at the NBC Yummy Awards) and the television pilot X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men (which aired as part of the animation block Marvel Action Universe which featured adaptions of Dino-Riders and RoboCop). Other animated series were developed but never saw fruition during Amazing Friends‘ height including Ant-Man, Teen Hulk, Daredevil and Lightning the Super-Dog, The Monstress, Hulk Hound, Muffy, Howard the Duck, The Aliens, and Iron Man. 1981 would not only see the return of Spider-Man to television but also a certain fictional music group.
Alvin and the Chipmunks were conceived by Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (known better by his stage name David Seville) as a novelty to sell music records. Composed of three juvenile talking chipmunks managed by Seville, the Chipmunks would be a hit in 1958 with songs like “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” leading to an animated series in 1961. Sadly, Bagdasarian died in 1972 which largely derailed the franchise. The concept was given new life in 1981 with the animated special A Chipmunk Christmas. Featuring character designs by legendary animator Chuck Jones (who worked on previous Christmas specials like Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper), the special featured Bagdasarian’s son take up his father’s mantle in a sweet tale where Alvin gives up his prized harmonica to help a sick child. The musical instrument a gift from his surrogate father Dave, Alvin and his brothers try to replace the harmonica before Dave learns of what they did (the boys believing he would be upset with the news). The piece, with its accompanying soundtrack, performed very well and renewed interest in the franchise. This would lead to Ruby-Spears bringing Alvin and the Chipmunks back to television which would introduce a rival female group in the Chipettes and generated an animated feature film. The show would run for seven years with seven specials (with direct-to-video animated films some years afterward). The success of the Chipmunks continues today with three live action films and an upcoming television series. The Chipmunks, along with dozens of other series, would appear on an animation block that got its start in 1982.
Founded in 1979 from the ashes of the Madison Square Garden Network, the USA Network built itself around airing talk shows, children’s programming, and sports. Calliope was the name of the children’s programming block which prominently featured Paddington Bear before the network instituted a format change. In 1982, Calliope would be replaced by the USA Cartoon Express, a block of animated programming predating Nickelodeon’s animation block by half a decade and Cartoon Network by over a decade. In the beginning, Cartoon Express featured Hanna-Barbera content of yesteryear like Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, Space Ghost, and Jonny Quest but would expand with newer content from that company and many several other companies by the end of the decade (many of the series discussed in this very article). Truth be told, much of my knowledge of animation from the 1980s and earlier derive from being an avid fan of this block of programming. Simply put, USA Cartoon Express took some of the best cartoons from some twenty to thirty years and offered it up daily to an audience of young people and their parents (who themselves fondly watched these programs as youths). As alluded to, Nickelodeon would follow suit in 1988 with Nick Jr. featuring series like The World of David the Gnome, Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Elephant Show, The Adventures of the Little Koala, The Adventures of the Little Prince, and Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics. The USA Cartoon Express would run for fourteen years before ending in 1996, making way for programming blocks like Fox Kids, Kids’ WB, and Toonami, as Nick Jr. changed its programming in 1994.
As discussed previously with the impact of toys on animation, 1983 was a big year. Care Bears, G.I. Joe, and He-Man saw their stars shine as they became deeply rooted in American culture. Care Bears started out as animated television specials this year, with The Care Bears in the Land Without Feelings and The Care Bears Battle the Freeze Machine leading to an animated series and three feature films expanding to include the Care Bear Cousins, who were non-bear animals bearing the popular tummy symbols of their progenitors. The Marvel Comics’ led reinvention of G.I. Joe saw its series animated by Japanese studio Toei becoming a monumental success as American animator Filmation took up He-Man to its own incredible results. Also this year, Marvel and Toei would spearhead the aforementioned Dungeons & Dragons animated series (making the game a household name and helping move a second wave of toys). In the Fall of 1983, America would also receive the gift of Inspector Gadget. The first syndicated series from DIC Entertainment (which would become an animation powerhouse in the years following), the series followed inept cyborg policeman Inspector Gadget with his niece Penny and dog Brain as they travel the globe combating Dr. Claw and his organization M.A.D. (mashing up elements of Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau, Get Smart, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). Despite lasting only two seasons, the series had a lasting legacy with a new series currently in development. Rounding out the year, the popularity of Mister T rose such that an animated series was produced based on his likeness and Disney entered the Christmas special arena with its timeless classic Mickey’s Christmas Carol featuring Scrooge McDuck (a comic character created by Carl Barks that will be discussed in more detail later) and Mickey Mouse.
While American Greetings was making waves with properties like Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears, rival greeting card company Hallmark would also make a move. In the Summer of 1984, Hallmark’s Rainbow Brite would make her television debut in the animated special Peril in the Pits. A little girl named Wisp dons the magical Color Belt and transforms into Rainbow Brite, the protector of Rainbow Land who, along with her companions Twink the sprite and Starlite the horse, join with the seven Color Kids to safeguard color across the universe. Two more specials would emerge before Rainbow Brite received her own brief animated series and feature film. While Rainbow Brite was on her way to becoming an icon of the 1980s, Hasbro, Marvel, and Toei struck gold again with their collaboration in Transformers (Toei exceptionally qualified having produced the animation for Force Five and TranZor Z). That same month, Marvel and Toei would collaborate to turn Jim Henson’s Muppets into the animated series Muppet Babies (based on a sequence from The Muppets Take Manhattan). The Japanese invasion wouldn’t end that year with Transformers and Muppet Babies.
While Toei was making lucrative deals with Marvel, other companies wanted to cash in on what the studio had to offer. World Events Productions partnered with Toei to combine footage from the studio’s separate series Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV to produce the series Voltron: Defender of the Universe (originally, Future Robot Daltanious was to be used in place of GoLion before a mix-up facilitated the change). The need to combine two series was necessary because in America, animated series generally produce at least 65 episodes such that the show could be run in syndication five days a week for thirteen weeks (or, three months, i.e. a season). In Japan, however, such was not the case and many series were either half or even almost a third of that amount. The first half of Voltron (adapting GoLion) did remarkably well in America, but the Dairugger material was significantly less impressive. Originally, Lightspeed Electroid Albegas was going to be the basis of a continuation of Voltron until the preference of the GoLion material commanded Toei produce new work in this vein culminating in the special Voltron: Fleet of Doom. However, this new material came too late and the series was canceled. Demand for Voltron persists even today, a new series aired from 2011 to 2012 and comics are still being produced in the United States featuring the property. Toei wouldn’t be the only Japanese studio making headway into America as Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS) was making waves in the market.
The Mighty Orbots was a giant robot animated series produced by a joint collaboration between Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS) and Intermedia Entertainment in 1984. Directed by the legendary Osamu Dezaki (known for his work on Tomorrow’s Joe and who co-directed Rainbow Brite for TMS’ part in the production), the show featured six robots who could form together to become the Mighty Orbots and battled the evil organization SHADOW. The series would ultimately be done in by Tonka in a lawsuit that alleged the designs infringed on their intellectual properties for GoBots (which were licensed from Popy’s Machine Robo toyline). 1986 would see TMS make big moves into the US market. In 1981, TMS partnered with DIC Audiovisuel (or, DIC Entertainment in the US) to produce a French-Japanese series based on The Odyssey in the space opera Ulysses 31. This series would make its way to America in ’86 as TMS series The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers and Galaxy High also emerged. Galaxy Rangers was a space western created by Robert Mandell and the Gaylord Entertainment Company that featured alien beings that shared technology with Earth in order to gain an ally against the malicious Crown Empire that sought to conquer all intelligent life. Galaxy High was conceived by movie director Chris Columbus about two kids from Earth accepted into an alien high school in space. In 1987, TMS followed these series up with Bionic Six which more-or-less turned aspects of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman into a family affair under the guidance of Osamu Dezaki. That same year, Hasbro would depart from its relationship with Marvel and Toei (through Sunbow Productions) and work directly with Sunbow who brought in TMS in place of Toei (though, Marvel would produce a comic series for the property). The result was Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light which described the war between the Spectral Knights and the Darkling Lords on the planet Prysmos. The series would end when Hasbro reached the end of its agreement with Sunbow.
Rankin/Bass, a company known for their Christmas specials and animated Fantasy films, would jump into the world of animated syndicated television to much acclaim. ThunderCats, animated by Japanese studio Topcraft, told of a race of feline humanoids who escape their world’s destruction to begin anew on another habitable world and the dangers therein. The show would be a huge success drawing parallels to He-Man and supported a toyline from company LJN. Rankin/Bass would follow the success of ThunderCats with SilverHawks, featuring birdlike cyborg humans battling alien mobsters in space. Topcraft would close before this latest series begun (the company bought by publishing company Tokuma Shoten and becoming Studio Ghibli) as Pacific Animation Corporation took up animation for both series. Kenner would pick up the license to produce SilverHawks toys. As toy sales lagged and the popularity of cartoons waned, Rankin/Bass would stop producing television series following the anthology series The Comic Strip. This show featured segments for The Mini-Monsters, Street Frogs, Karate Kat, and TigerSharks (an aquatic themed adventure series in the vein of ThunderCats and SilverHawks). The popularity of ThunderCats persists today, as a rebooted animated series recently ended with a live action film in development. Some months after ThunderCats premiered, another mashed up series of several unrelated anime in the vein of Voltron arrived.
Combining The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, The Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA from studio Tatsunoko, Robotech was another groundbreaking series for American audiences. Describing three ongoing wars between Earth and alien species, the show added a level of sophistication and drama generally absent from American cartoons prominently featuring death, complicated characters (and character interactions), and the effect of war on people (with complex character journeys). The show would be a hit with kids and adults alike, the former enjoying the action and transforming vehicles while the more mature audience brought in by overarching story arcs. The Matchbox company would be awarded a license to produce toys based on the series which itself was another hit. As Harmony Gold, the company that adapted the several Tatsunoko series into Robotech, was left trying to figure out what to do next and tried to go to the well again with Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years. This time combining two unrelated series together concurrently (splicing one show into another in each episode) with Leiji Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock and Queen Millennia series from Toei, the result was less than desirable. Trying to form an animated film from the Robotech franchise, AIC & Tatsunoko’s Megazone 23: Part One was spliced with footage from Southern Cross and original animation to produce a Robotech movie but test audiences abhorred the result. Harmony Gold was left with ordering a sequel television series to Robotech financed by Matchbox in Robotech II: The Sentinels. Taking place between the second and third parts of the original series, a number of issues arose that killed the project while it was in production. Carl Macek, the architect of Robotech and an avid fan of anime, would go on to form the company Streamline Pictures which distributed anime films in America dubbed in English (most notably the film Akira and several Studio Ghibli works). Robotech remains today a popular franchise as several attempts have been made to produce a live action adaptation and recently a tabletop wargame was produced based upon it.
Disney, known for their animated shorts and films, would begin producing animated television series in 1985. Disney CEO Michael Eisner helped enact an animation studio for television production starting with two series (released at the same time). One, conceived by Eisner, was The Wuzzles featuring characters who were each an amalgamation of two animals (such as a bumblebee-lion in Bumblelion or bear-butterfly in Butterbear). As was the case with the Care Bears and Popples, the series inspired stuffed animals based on the characters’ likenesses. The other series, also conceived by Eisner, was Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears featuring nearly-extinct talking bears living in a medieval setting who drink a special juice that lets them bounce like they were made of rubber. Of the two series, Gummi Bears did significantly better running for six seasons and whose success helped usher in the Disney Afternoon programming block in 1990. 1987 would bring the next series, this time well within the preexisting Disney canon with DuckTales. Featuring Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck (Donald Duck’s uncle), the adventurous, wealthy skinflint is forced to take in his rambunctious grandnephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie after their uncle Donald enters the Navy. The family travels the globe as McDuck seeks to expand his vast fortune and fans ate the series up. The show would be so popular, it spawned a popular video game from Capcom (which has been remastered and recently re-released) and a feature film in DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp. More series like The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers followed soon after as a spin-off series emerged in Darkwing Duck (about a superhero in the vein of the pulp character the Shadow). Gummi Bears, DuckTales, and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers formed the backbone of the 1990 syndicated programming block the Disney Afternoon which expanded throughout the ’90s with ten other series over time. 1985 was rounded out with such other works as Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, an animated adaptation of Kenner’s M.A.S.K. toyline produced by DIC, and the annual Halloween favorite Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.
Alluded to within reference to the SilverHawks, the animation and related toy business would begin a decline around 1986. Still, notable works emerged within this year. One of such note was Ruby-Spears’ The Centurions. Featuring character designs and story concepts from comic book legends Jack Kirby and Gil Kane with a bevvy of notable Sci-Fi writers contributing scripts and animation from legendary Japanese animation studio Sunrise (most famous for its Gundam franchise), The Centurions was based in the future where threats from cyborgs and robots were met by a unique team of specialists who donned power suits that integrated with advanced weapon systems. In essence, these men, the Centurions, would become merged with vehicles with excessive armament enough to take down a conventional army. Kenner would be awarded the license to produce oversized toys for the line prominently featuring various weapon and vehicle enhancements that could be snapped onto figures (providing the capability to mimic action in the show or create entirely new and unique variations). Despite all of this, the show only ran for two seasons. Another animated series to emerge to much better results in 1986 was from a film that blended comedy, action, and horror.
Real Ghostbusters (titled such to differentiate it from Filmation’s Ghostbusters) was an animated series based on the popular film Ghostbusters starring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Spearheaded by J. Michael Straczynski (who would later become famous for his Sci-Fi television series Babylon 5) who penned the production bible, acted as story editor, and wrote twenty episodes of the series, Real Ghostbusters was largely a sequel to Ghostbusters (and later folded in story from its film sequel). Where the series deviated was the members of the team donning multicolored variations of their uniforms (which worked better in animation) and saw the spirit Slimer from the film become the team’s mascot (intriguingly enough, these changes were even explained within the series). The show proved quite popular, especially for Slimer who took on a starring role in the show’s third season with his own spin-off Slimer! which headlined the Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters hour of programming. Even more than the show itself, the accompanying toyline was extremely popular (lasting longer than the cartoon being on the air). The series would run for seven seasons and was followed some years later by Extreme Ghostbusters, featuring a young team of new members. Elements of the cartoon (as well as the franchise) continue today in comic books with a third film gaining traction for development. The year following Real Ghostbusters‘ premier, an animated series would take its first steps toward becoming a cultural phenomenon.
Matt Groening was a cartoonist hired by producer James L. Brooks to bring his comic strip Life in Hell to The Tracey Ullman Show as animated shorts in 1987. Groening, however, feared losing the rights to his original work and on the spot came up with another idea. An animated sitcom that parodied television tropes using characters named after his own family, The Simpsons became a hit gaining its own show after three seasons as part of Ullman’s series. Bart Simpson, modeled after Groening’s older brother Mark, was the breakout star becoming an idol to children across the country (and bane to many parents, teachers, and school administrators) known for his catchphrase “Eat my shorts!” which was repeated across schoolyard after schoolyard by his fans. The series continues today, the longest running sitcom and cartoon in human history, and was even turned into a feature film. The success of the series is difficult to measure as it has been so deeply engrained in our culture with its characters plastered across virtually any kind of merchandise. In a real way, the show altered long held conventions for sitcoms and animation forever. The same year the world gained the Simpsons, animation as it was changed in the United States forever.
By the start of the 1980s, animation proved to be too expensive to produce in the United States and so a mass exodus was underway where virtually all work was shipped overseas to animators in Eastern Asia (primarily Japan and Korea). Stories were conceived, character designed, and storyboarded in the US and then was given to companies outside the country to produce at much lower wages than if done at home. Among the remaining American animation studios, one stood against the turning tide in Filmation. Founded in 1963, Filmation produced children’s programming (both live and animated) and animated such works as adaptations of DC Comics (Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Superboy, Atom, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Justice League of America, Teen Titans, and the Marvel Family with Wonder Woman appearing in The Brady Kids) and Archie Comics (like Archie and Sabrina the Teenage Witch), Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Star Trek: The Animated Series, and Blackstar. Likely Filmation’s most notable work was on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra: Princess of Power based on the Mattel toylines. Filmation cut production costs by rotoscoping animation (filming someone physically performing an action and animating over this taped movement) and recycling backgrounds and action scenes (like flipping the image so you don’t realize you just saw the same motion or adding different dialogue during a sequence or putting the same action on a different background). Filmation would be the last studio to produce hand drawn animation for TV in the United States when it closed its doors in 1989. Its last series was BraveStarr, premiering in 1987 set as a Space Western featuring a Native American named BraveStarr sent to the planet New Texas to act as its Galactic Marshall. The series was accompanied by a toyline from Mattel and produced a feature film in 1988. A spin-off titled Bravo! was in production (as well as a series called Bugzburg) when the studio was sold off under the idea it would continue under new management only to instead be closed. The same year Filmation saw its final television series hit the air, Hanna-Barbera was trying to bring a Japanese icon back to America using a Japanese animation studio.
When Tsuburaya Productions’ Ultraman hit Japanese television airwaves, the show was a huge hit. Within the year, the show came to America dubbed in English and also was a hit in the United States. However, while the franchise continued to grow in Japan, it was dropped in America. In 1987, Hanna-Barbera tried to change that. The company licensed Ultraman and had Japanese studio Ashi Productions (known for its animated adaptation of Vampire Hunter D) produce a pilot film entitled Ultraman: The Adventure Begins. For reasons unknown, the pilot never evolved into a series but was aired in America and later in Japan as Ultraman USA. A few months later, another fusion of American and Japanese ideas emerged on US airwaves in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Loosely based on the comic of the same name with a wildly successful accompanying toyline, Ninja Turtles began as a mini-series animated by Toei featuring the group of young mutant martial artists taking on the Shredder, the Foot ninja clan composed of androids, and alien Krang with his power suit and massive mobile fortress the Technodrome. The series would be a massive hit spawning live action films and whose popularity continues today as a new live action film is near completion and a CG-animated series is in its second season.
The 1980s came to a close as the exponentially growing popularity of video games was sweeping America epitomized by a short Italian plumber from Brooklyn named Mario. Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 (actually a revision of Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic) from Nintendo were two of the biggest games in the world and formed the basis of the program The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! The show was split between live action acts (featuring wrestler Captain Lou Albano as Mario) starring the Mario Bros. and their plumbing business in Brooklyn with an animated short in between the opening and closing segments set within the Mushroom Kingdom (where the Mario games generally take place). A weekday show, the Friday episodes of the series would air an animated short for Legend of Zelda, Nintendo’s second biggest franchise. Super Show! would spawn a spin-off local to Southern California alone in King Koopa’s Kool Kartoons produced in a vein similar to Bozo the Clown but starring King Koopa. The Super Show! would last a season before giving way to The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 based on the third game the following year. The show would drop the live action portions and was partnered with Captain N: The Game Master (which showcased characters from Nintendo, Capcom, Konami, and more). Mario would return again the following year with Super Mario World (based on the new game on the new game console) before the series was canceled. While Mario continues today as the mascot of Nintendo and star of his own games, World would mark the end of his existence as an animated television character in the United States.
In Part Seven of “The ’80s – Geek Edition,” we’ll examine Video Games of the 1980s.