Wallpaper of the Week: Plastic Army Men

May 1, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — No moving parts. No interchangeable weapons. No transforming. No bright colors. No battle damage chests. No remote controls.

Army men were just solid-stamped molded plastic. And that left the door open for so much creativity.

My family didn’t have much money when I was young, so shelling out $60 for an Optimus Prime or even $7 for a G.I. Joe was pretty much out of the question. But grabbing a 30-piece army men set off the grocery store rack for $2 every once in a while was well within the budget, and it was enough to keep a five-year-old amused for hours.

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My army men waged thousands of campaigns. The sandbox became the desert theatre. The tall grass became the African front. The loamy dirt beneath the trees became home to jungle warfare.

The brave soldiers of Jason’s Army also lived and died to protect countless staircases, book shelves, and wooden block forts.

After some digging around, I discovered the toys I loved so much were the Vietnam-era M-16 Infantry line made by Tim Mee. They were actually the last run before the company cut production.

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Mine had all the classic members of the corps: Crouched machine-gunner, pistol-wielding commander, flame-thrower, bazooka-guy, radio guy, minesweeper, crawling soldier, the soldier swinging his bayonet overhead, the soldier waving his troops forward with machine gun in hand, the mortar launcher.

Once in a while, the army men would come bundled with half-tracks, tanks, jeeps, and emplacements.

Some folks have since created a papercraft world and a tabletop game around those little plastic dudes. Combat Storm looks incredibly interesting, not to mention visually appealing:

If you want to be cheap, though, you could always take the tack my little brother and I once did: Use army men as chess pieces. Bayonet guys make great pawns. Bazooka guys make excellent rooks. Flamethrowers work just fine as bishops.

Mortars make sense as knights. Machine-gunners are the logical queens, and the pistol-wielding commander is the only choice for king that makes sense.

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YouTube Cinema: Robotix

March 16, 2009


Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11
Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15

FROM JASON’S ROBOT AND DINOSAUR OBSESSIONS — Robotix was to LEGOs what MASK was to Hot Wheels. It had a limited release, an oh-so-brief flare of popularity, and then collapsed into obscurity when marketing agents turned their backs on it.

A product of Toei Animation — the Japanese studio that gave rise to both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata — Robotix was a typical 1980s cartoon enterprise in that it was a blatant vehicle for a toy line.

The “Motorized, Modular Building System” made by Milton Bradley was comprised of interlocking blocks, gears, differentials, winches, tires, and sci-fi accouterments. It was a worthy antecedent to the far more successful LEGO Mindstorm franchise, and is surprisingly still sold today (though by a different manufacturer and distributor). Every set made is still backward-compatible to the original 1984 systems.

Those systems were the byproducts of a 90-minute movie which aired just once in 1985 as part of the syndicated Super Sunday. The Marvel Entertainment block ran several serialized ‘toons, including Jem, Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, and Inhumanoids. It split Robotix into 15 six-minute shorts. Jem and Inhumanoids became popular enough to warrant full-length treatments, but at the end of their respective runs, Bigfoot and Robotix got stomped into cartoon purgatory.

I was five years old, living in Oregon at the time, and happened to see a couple of those episodes. Like any true 1980s man-cub, I was captivated by the Eastern animation idea of mecha; I was equally caught by the magnetism of GoBots, Transformers, and RoboTech, Exo-Squad, AT-ATs and AT-STs, Centurions, and of course Voltron.

So I was stupidly happy when a family friend (I believe it might have been a sometime babysitter) purchased a Robotix kit for me that Christmas. Certain clickable pieces, which themselves resembled smaller red-and-chrome robots, remained in my possession for years, finding an out-of-place life in the ol’ LEGO bucket.

They may still be there, hidden away in my parents’ attic, held hostage along with some action figures and comic books until such time as I give my parents some grandchildren.

Some awesome person posted the full Robotix series on YouTube two years ago, and it has yet to be yanked down on any kind of copyright claim, which is excellent because the ‘toon is only on DVD in the UK.

Helmed by Wally Burr, voice director of G.I. Joe the Movie, it’s rendered in the same detailed anime style of the 1980s’ most memorable 22-minute-long toy commercials. It’s also got some of the most interesting pulp plot elements: Stars going nova, lizardmen, giant robots, benevolent supercomputers, suspended animation, alien spirits transfered into machines.

And it seems as though Burr tapped some of his old Joe buddies — who geeks will recognize as some of the biggest names in the voice business — to star. There’s:

  • Peter Cullen, who was Pincher from GoBots, Zander in G.I. Joe, Optimus Prime in Transformers, and Cindarr in Visionaries.
  • Frank Welker, known for playing Scooter from GoBots, Megatron in Transformers, Torch in G.I. Joe, and Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters.
  • Pat Fraley, aka Marshall Bravestar, Krang on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Max Ray on Centurions, and Ace in G.I. Joe.
  • Corey Burton, who was Spike in Transformers, Tomax in G.I. Joe, and Dale from Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
  • Michael Bell, who had big roles as Duke in G.I. Joe, Lance in Voltron, and Prowl in Transformers.
  • Arthur Burghardt, who was Devastator in Transformers, Destro in G.I. Joe, and Turbo in GoBots.

Robotix also had narration by Victor Caroli, who did the same type of voice-over for Transformers: The Movie in 1986 and several of the television series’ episodes.

That, and many stylistic choices (such as the rock-anthem theme that’s one-half “who you gonna call” and the other half Max Hedroom), made it obvious Marvel was trying to capitalize on the Transformers craze and hoping to spur a similar sales frenzy.

Sadly, it didn’t work.

It’s a shame, because as such things go it wasn’t a bad story line, boasting a bit more complexity than most children’s adventures of the day. Of course, Robotix had the normal, innocent lack of moral ambiguity as most shows; the bad guys were determinedly evil, the good guys irreproachably ethical. But it also cooked up some interesting Cold War metaphors, and served them on a plate of techno-imagination to a pre-computer-literate audience.

Oh well.

I guess I pine a little too much for these old-style cartoons. They seem so much more detailed and rich and imaginative than the line-and-paint-bucket-fill computer-aided works aired today by Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. And believe me, I’m tired of the modern “burps and farts are funny” and “wacky, zany people doing anti-social and ludicrous things” mentalities.

I wish we could go back to blasting through the universe in spaceships that look like oversexed submarines with fins, and exploring the jungles of exotic planets filled with dangerous and mythical inhabitants.


Week of Cartoons – Day 4: Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (1985)

March 26, 2008


Part 2 | Part 3

jayce.jpgFROM JASON’S DETACHABLE CIRCULAR SAW — From the golden vineyards of France came Jayce et les Conquérants de la Lumière. You probably didn’t see it, even when it was imported to the US and translated to English in syndication.

Imagine taking He-Man and Transformers, putting them in the Large Hadron Supercollider in Switzerland, and bashing them together. Ta-da. You’ve got Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors.

This is more than just a little coincidence. Executive producer J. Michael Straczynski was a former Masters of the Universe writer and went on to do The Real Ghostbusters and Captain Power. The ‘toon’s writers also had hands in Inspector Gadget, She-Ra, MASK, and Centurions.

The premise has some pretty familiar elements: In Eternia a universe where sorcery is used alongside interstellar travel and advanced battle machines, an experiment goes wrong and radiation from a supernova mutates plants into sentient beings known as the Monster Mind. The leader of the Monster Mind, Skeletor SawBoss, drives the plant people toward galactic conquest.

The only thing standing in his way are the Masters of the Universe Lightning League, led by Prince Adam Jayce. With help from a space smuggler known as Han Solo Herc, a wizard called Obi Wan Gillian, a telepath named Teela Flora, and a wisecracking magical robot living suit of armor named C3-PO Oon, Jayce tries to defeat the forces of darkness.

Opposing him are Saw Boss’ henchmen, who can Transform change into a tank, Megatron a giant gun, a flying flail, and an AT-AT a four-legged transport.

Luckily, Jayce and company have all kinds of cool vehicles to help fight the Monster Mind. And guess what? The toys were for sale! You could own them! I had four of them! Wow! Who’s ever heard of a cartoon that has merchandising tie-ins? It was revolutionary.

The toys were amazing, though. Their schtick was that they disassembled and you could switch the parts out — all kinds of wheels, treads, buzz saws, lasers, torpedoes, grappling hooks, drills — you name it. The more you bought, the bigger and cooler custom Wheeled Warriors you could build. Mattel executives, you are geniuses. The toys didn’t really morph, though; that was left to Transformers and MASK.


Week of Cartoons – Day 1: Dino Riders (1988)

March 23, 2008

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Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S 13″ KITCHEN TV — There are two things that 8-year-old boys like: Dinosaurs and outer space. When I was that age, I couldn’t be bothered with the big pirates versus ninjas question. I just wanted a triceratops mounted with a laser cannon.

Along came Dino Riders and my world was complete.

Transformers had already set the standard for using cartoons as 22-minute ads for toys, and Dino Riders called on Peter Cullen and Frank Welker — again — to pretty much re-skin the eternal Transformers struggle with a whole bucket of prehistoric awesome. It was by all accounts a flop, with just 14 episodes made and 13 hitting the air. But its brevity belied the widespread appeal of the toys, which somehow managed to stay in my bedroom until the mid-90s.

The plot, briefly (it’s part of the show opener anyway): The Valorians are a peaceful people fighting the good fight against the evil Rulons. When the Valorians use an experimental time-travel warp drive to escape their attackers, the Rulons lock on a tractor beam. Both factions are hurled back in time to prehistoric Earth, where they use their advanced technology to carry on the eternal struggle.

Oh, did I mention that the good guys are telepaths and the bad guys are snake men, ant men, and shark men?

Dino Riders had the same premise flaw as all other 1980s cartoons: There were evil characters doing evil for the sake of being evil. There was no other motivation. The Valorians’ arch-nemesis, Emporer Krulos, was a Cobra Commander clone and just wanted to rule the universe for the sake of having power. There were no shades of gray in the Cold War mindset. America considered itself the soldier of the light, and it needed an Emmanuel Goldstein caricature to be the soldier of the dark.

The show was laced with a pretty cliché moral of universal harmony prevailing over coercion. The Valorians befriended the planet’s dinosaurs, forging alliances. The Rulons use force, creating mind-control devices called “brain boxes” to enslave vicious dinos.

There was no historical cohesiveness about the show, which mixed a few hundred million years worth of dinos into the same setting. In fact, there were primitive humans living alongside the dinosaurs, which in retrospect makes me wonder if stupid Young Earth creationists had something to do with the show.

Interestingly, the writers took great care to align docile and defensive saurians with the Valorians (stegasaurus, diplodocus, dimetrodon, brontosaurus). Meanwhile, the Rulons got dinos that were more or less tanks (T-Rex, ankylosaurus, and several triceratops-ish species). They also tried to evenly match the capabilities of the two factions; Transformers had always bothered me a bit because the Decepticons had all the jets and the Autobots were stuck with ground transportation (mostly). Dino Riders gave each side flying dinos.


TV advertisement for the toys.

My parents were at first a little upset about all the shooting of lasers and such (they were always prudish about cartoon violence), but finally caved and bought the toys because they were marginally educational. These were no cheap Chinese hunks of plastic. The dinos were extremely well-constructed and tremendously detailed, much larger-scaled than typical toys of the time (I never got the brontosaurus, which was HUGE), and often came with turrets or seats for multiple action figures.

I wish this concept would have worked out and that the stories would have been a bit more mature. Had the animation been a little more detailed, Dino Riders would have made an incredible anime cross-over hit like RoboTech, and I would have been a rabid fanatic. Oh well.

“We’re not Valorians anymore. We’re DINO RIDERS!”