I ABSOLUTELY HATED THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUT MY FAVOURITE AFTER SCHOOL CARTOONS HEPLED ME SURVIVE
Summer has officially ended for millions of carefree kids and I totally sympathize. I loathed the first day back to school with a rabid passion. I mean sure, kindergarten and grade one were kind of novel, but after that the happiness went right out the window. 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 having my head dunked in a toilet until high school).
But I had two balms to help soothe the wound that was back to school. First, when I returned home from the fresh hell known as the first day of school, I was almost always greeted by the brand new Sear’s Christmas Wish Book, which never failed to bring a smile to my school weary face (even when I was seventeen-shut up). The second medicine was new cartoons.
Every September in the 80’s and 90’s, kids were treated to 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 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 while others haven’t, but they all have a special place in my heart (as well as the paradise known as YouTube). Many have even been remade, re-launched and re-imagined, reflecting how timeless some of them are (or how obsessed my generation is with them).
10. Voltron: Defender of the Universe (1984): Let’s make something clear right off the bat, I’m talking about the kick-ass Lion Force version 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). Adapted from the popular Japanese show Beast King GoLion, the lion force Voltron followed the exploits of an elite force of pilots who commanded the five enchanted lions that comprised the giant robotic warrior Voltron. Whenever the evil King Zarkon and his jerk wad of a son Prince Lotor made trouble for the planet Arus (whose princess commanded the Blue lion), the lions sprang free of their colour coordinated hiding places 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’d use his sword to reduce the robeast of the day into bio-mechanical confetti before the end credits. I probably witnessed more decapitations and dismemberments on this show then in Silence of the Lambs.
9. She-Ra Princes of Power (1985-1986): Like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (which it was spun off from), She-Ra was also a glorified commercial for a line of action figures 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). After learning the truth about her family, Princess Adora (Prince Adam’s twin sister) defies her former master Hordak and joined the planet Etheria’s rebellion against the evil Horde. Armed with a magical sword that mirrored her brother’s, Adora turned into She-Ra: the Princess of Power, and became the rebellion’s biggest greatest champion.
She-Ra was the first real female action figure to be introduced to western 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 channeled when he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
8. Centurions (1986): Set in “the near future,” Centurions followed three heroes as they defended the world from the cybernetic menace Doc Terror, his cyborg sidekick Hacker and his army of robotic war machines. The three could bond 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 Jake Rockwell was the ground bound heavy artillery and marine biologist Max Ray fought the underwater battles. 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, each episode concluded with a brief science lesson and producers occasionally recruited some heavy science fiction names to write some surprisingly compelling stories.
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 instructed in the ways of nin-jitsu by their rat sensei Splinter, 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. Even though it was most of the same creators and voice talent, the Saturday morning version somehow lacked the same sprit as the one you could catch Monday through 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 morning cartoons went another step or two in subduing the property.
Fun fact: the only reason the show came about was to satisfy Playmate toys, who was concerned that the Turtles initial audience wouldn’t be large enough to make a toy line worth their while. So Playmate asked Mirage Studios (publishers of the comic) to secure a cartoon agreement first and thus the show was born. For the better part of the next decade, Playmate would co-operate with whichever party held the cartoon license (there were more than one) to create and market new toys. Capitalism at its goddamn finest.
6. He-Man and The Masters of The Universe (1983-1985): This show combined high fantasy, science fiction and public service announcements into a thirty-minute bundle of animated goodness. I mean, He-Man turned his pet cat into a giant, armour wearing, talking tiger with attitude and he rode that mofo into battle. How could you not love this show? The concept of the clumsy slacker prince Adam turning into the most powerful man in the universe 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 a shadow filled cowl, it scared my little toddler socks clean off. As far as cartoon villains went, Skeletor was the original, predating the likes of Megatron, Cobra Commander and Mum-Ra. Skeletor not only set the standard for looking scary, but also for passing the buck onto underlings when his plans failed spectacularly (which happened 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 one of the first times this was done on a regular basis, setting an 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 are large hunting cats just made this show even cooler. Fleeing their doomed home world, the feline-humanoid Thundercats took to the stars in search of a new planet. Attacked by the Mutants of Plun-Darr, most of the Thundercat fleet is destroyed and their remaining ship badly damaged. Fortunately Lion-O, the heir to the Thundercats throne, is aboard the remaining ship along with 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 make the strange planet their new home. But a band of Mutants also became stranded on Third Earth, and everyone makes so much noise they awaken Mumm-Ra, a demon as ancient as he is powerful (and Skeletor had nothing on this dude in the bowel emptying department). Hijinks then ensued.
What was cool about this show wasn’t so much the themes and ideas it embraced, but that the storytelling gradually matured and the fourth and final season was actually written to conclude most outstanding plot points (and in a curious twist for a kids cartoon, the scary-evil Mumm-Ra was elevated to virtual godhood). And for much of the first episode, all the Thundercats were completely naked. Even the female Cheetara. Their civilization apparently didn’t discover clothes until the end of their 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 generic soldiers, the new toys would focus on individual characters with unique personalities, skill sets and appearances. As a result of this partnership, virtually all of the Joes 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 mini-series in 1983 and 84, a full fledged after school cartoon was launched in 1985, airing 95 episodes over two seasons.
Sharing the same block as Hasbro’s other mega-franchise the Transformers, G.I. Joe gave us daily doses of American pie 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 Cobra Commander, the most incompetent leader in the history of animation). I didn’t realize until I caught a few episodes on Teletoon Retro a few years back that G.I. Joe was also pretty racist. Roadblock, the most popular black character, communicated strictly in rap 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 growing psyche, but I do remember the PSAs added to the end of every episode (much like those included in He-Man and She-Ra, these were to help ease concerns over marketing WMDs to eight year olds). G.I. Joe’s PSAs forever embedded the catch phrase “And knowing is half the battle!” into pop culture’s lexicon. To think, all of that because a couple of moguls bumped into each other in the men’s room. 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 animation. It was grim, gritty and darker then anything ever seen before. Producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had to deflect criticism over the show’s action-oriented approach from Fox studio execs until the first episode aired to critical acclaim and gave them some breathing room. The show made Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy a star (Conroy has voiced the Dark Knight in cartoons, animated movies and video games for over twenty years) and made Mark Hamill the definitive voice of the Joker to an entire generation. The show’s art-noir style was even given it’s own name-Dark Deco-and along with the two Burton movies it established Batman as the greatest comic icon in the world (and allowed him to weather the two 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 Unlimited and the legion of direct to DVD/Blu-ray releases DC has successfully unleashed over the past decade. You could even argue that if it hadn’t been for Timm and Dini’s barrel chested, square jawed Batman, 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 concept 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 Scottish Gargoyles who found themselves in modern New York City following a thousand year hibernation. Turning to stone during the day, the majestic Goliath and his small family of winged warriors were forced to adapt to a bizarre new world, making allies and enemies alike as they eventually adopted the Big Apple as their new home. Soon they were protecting the city from corporate barons, evil Gargoyles, robots, rogue sorcerers, aliens, werewolves, cyborgs and the kitchen sink.
Their stomping ground eventually moved beyond New York as the show mined every major mythology on the planet for fresh story ideas (in one episode, Goliath stood toe-to-toe with Odin the All Father). The art was often light years ahead of anything else and the storytelling was smart and complex. The show’s writers created a genuine mythology and infused the characters with legitimate pathos and depth. 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. Despite everything the show had going for it (Disney’s hype machine and a voice cast that included just about everyone who ever appeared on Star Trek), the show was only mildly successful. But 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 nearly two decades after it went off the air.
1. The Transformers (1984-1988): From the moment I got my first Transformer (the Decepticon jet Thundercracker) I was hooked more than Donald Trump on redneck applause. The original Transformers not only filled the void left by Star Wars, but it excited my imagination more than anything else before or after. The idea of a race of sentient robots divided into two warring factions (the valiant Autobots and evil Decepticons) whose ancient civil war came to an unsuspecting Earth filled my blossoming imagination with fresh creative air. Everything else be damned, this was the show I rushed home to watch every afternoon. 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, wallpaper, I’m pretty sure there was even a Transformers breakfast cereal at some point. It just goes to show I wasn’t the only Transformers geek demanding my parents spend an ungodly amount of money on Dinobot slippers.
Airing 98 episodes over four seasons (the fourth season was really just a three episode mini-series) and with a kick ass theatrical release in the summer of 1986, this is actually one of those shows that didn’t age well. The animation was sub-par, the stories were actually pretty mediocre 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’s allowed me to reluctantly tolerate the Michael Bay movies (though this summer’s The Last Knight pretty much put a end to that). Transformers is my intellectual kryptonite, and it all started with this show. But you know what? That’s not the worst cross someone could bear.
Now pass me my Christmas Wishbook.