In this episode, we say goodbye to Spider-Man and The Transformers as I begin wrapping up this series. First, I look at Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #7, which is the honeymoon of Peter and Mary Jane. Then, I wrap up “Kraven’s Last Hunt” with Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider Man #132. Finally we head back to England for the second part of “Man of Iron” in The Transformers #34.
It’s the summer of 1987. Times are hard. In the hot weather, the kids of Suburbia are desperate for cold snacks and air conditioning, both of which are kept in short supply by parents who are insistent that they go outside. But outside has become a land of boredom–there are only so many places to ride, the playground is overrun by little kids, and the huge tree in the backyard at the latest wiffle ball. The situation seems desperate and there is nothing left to do but fight.
All right, so the summer boredom sometimes suffered by suburban children is not a good premise for a 1980s action movie, but there was a time about 30 years ago where my friends and I took our interest in GI Joe and extended it to our yards and the streets surrounding them. Granted, we had been playing pretend for years, reenacting superheroes, Voltron, and Star Wars on playgrounds, but that was fantasy, before we had seen Red Dawn and realized that we had to be ready to fight real-life villains like Mummar Gaddafi. And so, for our birthdays, we got Entertech water guns.
Now, we’d had water pistols before, usually the plastic-colored kind that came in multi-packs or that you fished out of a bin at Ben Franklin for $1.00. But Entertech was a whole new dimension of water warfare. These were battery-operated automatic guns which meant that all you had to do was fill the clip with water, slap it into the gun, and press the trigger. Once you did, you heard the noise of a small motor and saw the water come out in steady bursts until you ran out and either threw in another clip (you could buy extra clips) or went and got a refill. It was leaps and bounds beyond anything else we had seen until then and more importantly, they looked cooler than anything else we had seen.
Entertech guns looked like real guns. LJN, who manufactured the guns, from 1985 until 1990, gave them fully automatic rounds of 60 RPMs and a range of 30 feet and “realistic” looks. To an extent, anyway. I mean, nobody was going to mistake a kid with an Entertech RPG for a terrorist. But the realistic look and the fact that we were seeing moveist hat had guns just like it, such as Rambo (which Entertech would license at one point), made them incredibly appealing. My friends and I had the Water Hawk, which I believe was a reproduction of a TEC-22 semiautomatic Intratec or “Scorpion,” which is why my friends and I referred to them as “Scorpion UZIs.” And the advertising wasn’t false–they shot far and fired fast.
Unfortunately, without carrying around several clips of water, playing with all the functionality of the gun proved tedious, so what we often did was kept firing and pretending we were shooting bad guys or one another. The motor still worked as long as the batteries weren’t dead, so we could get sound effects going. And long after the batteries had died, rusted, and corroded because I’d stored the gun in the garage, it was still a prop for whatever adventures we devised.
My friend Tom’s backyard, which was huge, was usually the setting for those adventures. We would put on the military camo pants that we’d gotten from Thunder Ride–our local army surplus store–and would run around dodging enemy fire, or army crawling through the grass to find and ambush someone, or climb into the huge tree in his backyard to get into sniper positions or to jump out of the tree like we were Rangers, the best of the best. When we weren’t playing, we were at the local library looking up the various ranks and insignia in the World Book Encyclopedia or were photocopying pages out of books like Weapons of World War II by C.B. Colby. Like I said, we weren’t just pretending; we were training.
Unfortunately, this commitment to realism resulted in its fair share of controversy in 1987 and 1988. There is a line in Die Hard where Reginald Vel Johnson’s character talks a bout how he’s riding a desk because he shot a kid who was carrying a toy pistol. While this served to give some background to his character, it was also a rather timely reference. While this didn’t become a widespread phenomenon in the mid-1980s, toy guns being the cause of shootings or being used in crimes came to national attention.
In 1987, it literally spilled onto the airwaves when Gary Stollman managed to make his way into the studio of KNBC in Los Angeles and put a toy gun to the back of consumer reporter David Horowitz while forcing him to read what the Los Angeles Times called ” a rambling statement on the air about the CIA and space aliens.” Stollman was the son of a former KNBC pharmaceutical reporter and had managed to find a legitimate way into the building–according to 4:00 p.m. newscast co-anchor Kristie Wilde, he had obtained a security badge and had made himself inconspicuous on the set prior to walking up to Horowitz. The news director, Tom Capra, cut the feed, but not before viewers saw Stollman, Horowitz, and the gun:
The incident, which you can read about in the archives of the Los Angeles Times (“Intruder With Toy Gun Puts KNBC Off Air” and “Risk at NBC: Integrity of Newscast vs. a Man’s Life”), was probably the most high-profile incident and by 1988, legislation was being introduced in various states as well as at the federal level to better regulate the manufacture and sale of toy guns. According to a June 16, 1988 article in the New York Times (“After 3 Deaths, Realistic Toy Guns are Under Fire”), after a few deaths and crimes, several major cities–San Francisco, Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit–as well as states such as Connecticut, Michigan, California, Florida, and Massachusetts had begun banning the sale and manufacture of realistic toy guns (they also point out that black, blue, and silver guns had been banned in New York City since 1955). At the time the article was published, the Senate had passed a bill that was sponsored by Bob Dole that required toy guns to have bright orange markings and barrel plugs.
While the article quotes Gerald Upholt, who was the director of Gun Owners of California, as saying, ”Anti-gun types are trying to play on the emotional appeal of a few incidents. The real problem is that police officers may need a little more training,” the incidents and legislation were enough to spell the end of realistic toy guns on the shelves. Toys R Us said they wouldn’t be selling the guns and companies, including Entertech, changed their designs to be more colorful and fake-looking.
So the Entertech era didn’t last very long, and in the 1990s, Acclaim bought LJN and discontinued all of its toys, choosing to focus on the video game side of the company (probably because Nintendo would only license so many games per company per year and having two separate companies under one umbrella meant more games/more revenue). Autofire guns weren’t as in vogue by that time anyway because in 1990, Larami released a game-changing water gun, the Super Soaker (which is now manufactured by Nerf), a gun that had a huge water tank and used pressure to shoot incredibly far and with a more powerful stream than other water pistols.
My friends and I had stopped fighting the war by then, anyway. Our interest in G.I. Joe had faded, and while we were still watching our fair share of action movies, we were more in tune to what was happening in the world of the WWF. Today, kids still can buy Super Soakers but can also arm themselves to the teeth with Nerf darts, which are really good for shooting cups off of a picnic table but maybe not so much for a real-life Red Dawn.
The Joes and Cobras fight high above the Earth in G.I. Joe #65, Frank Castle takes on a cult leader in The Punisher #4 and I look at what’s going on the Marvel Universe with Marvel Age #56. Plus … MEAT LOAF!!!
And here are some covers and scans from these issues …
A pop star in a red jacket slowly morphs into a werewolf. A young woman writhes on the floor against an all-white background. A striking-looking woman with orange hair sings about how “Sweet dreams are made of these.” Or was it “this”? These are indelible images from the 1980s that I am sure most people can identify for me, they comprise my music video origin story.
My history with cable television is spotty (and my relationship with Comcast’s customer service is contentious), and I’ve beaten the “I didn’t have cable as a kid” horse enough but here it actually applies because during the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, I didn’t have cable. So when my friends were getting their musical education through 120 Minutes and Headbangers Ball, I was finding other sources, mostly radio stations, which explains my musical tastes were way more mainstream than a number of my friends and tended to skew towards older music at times (I mean, was anyone else listening to The Stranger and Born to Run as much as I was in 1994?). But that is not to say that I was completely in the dark and didn’t see a music video until 1996 when my parents finally got cable. I had friends, they had cable, and when we had nothing better to do, we would watch MTV for hours. But prior to even that, I saw some of the vanguard of early 1980s videos because of syndication.
MTV launched on August 1, 1981 but was not available nationwide; in fact, it was not carried in New York City where segments were taped, so the veejays had to watch their debut in a bar in New Jersey that had the channel. And up until about 1983-1984, the channel would remain relatively obscure, slowly building an audience before rocketing to the forefront of popular culture because of the stars it was making (or that made it) and its famous “I want my MTV!” marketing blitz. By the time my friend Tom got cable in 1986-1987, MTV was pretty much the only source for videos (with VH-1 running adult contemporary videos right next to it) at any time of the day.
But in 1984, when the New York Times published the article “Music Video is Here With a Vengeance,” that wasn’t the case. MTV wasn’t as ubiquitous but some TV stations were picking up on the fact that the music video was becoming important for teenaged consumers of pop music. The article is clearly written for an older audience but makes an apt comparison to The Ed Sullivan Show, saying that this is this generation’s version of that. It mentions MTV but also mentions a slew of locally syndicated or network-produced video shows: Hot! on WNEW 5 at 4:30 p.m.; Great Record Album Collections on WOR 9 at 5:30 p.m.; Solid Gold Hits on WPIX at 6:00 p.m.; Friday Night Videos on NBC; and ABC Rocks, which also aired on Friday night.
Friday Night Videos is probably the most famous of these and wast he longest lasting, as it technically ran until 2002, even though its format had completely changed by the mid 1990s to a more traditional variety show. I never actually watched it because it was on way past my bedtime–although I know people who were either allowed to watch it or had older siblings who did (and in hindsight, I probably could have taped the show). In the very early 1990s, NBC would air a spinoff show called Saturday Morning Videos that was on right after Saved By the Bell and lasted until 1992 when the network decided to focus on mining the teen audience and began airing shows like California Dreams, which had its own “music videos” within the shwo. I did watch this when I got the chance and specifically remember it’s where I first saw the video to George Michael’s “Freedom ’90,” which remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.
But in 1984, I was seven years old and would rush home to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe on WNEW Channel 5 (which would later become WNYW Fox 5) and at some point, the video show Hot! began airing at 4:30 and for whatever reason, I didn’t change the channel. Hot! (which sounds like a title thought up by someone who was marketing neon-colored trinkets to teenage girls) was a bare bones production counting down the … well, the hottest videos of the week.
While this clip only shows bits and pieces of videos, there is enough from the introductions from Claude Mann to let you know what the show was like. And he was enough of a “generic 1980s white guy” to be the type of host of this show–all he had to do was give a little bit of information and then play the videos because that’s what the kids watching after school were there to see. There were a few segments with interviews from artists, such as the one with Ray Parker Jr. about the “Ghostbusters” video (a song that even I was hip to in 1984) in this clip:
One other aspect of the show was its viewer contributions. People could write in with their favorite videos and send a picture of themselves and the producers might put that picture on the air–I can imagine that seeing your picture and name was kind of like waiting around for the end of Romper Room when the host would hold up the magic mirror and you were dying to hear your first name (I rarely did). That took some effort, too, when you think about it, because people like Scott Womack of Burbank, California, had to take the time to figure out what Van Halen video he thought should be at number one, then write a letter, get his picture taken, take it to Fotomat, wait a few days, get the pictures from Fotomat, put everything in an envelope, take it to the post office, and hope that by the time Hot! got his letter, that Van Halen song was still cool. Oh, who am I kidding? Scott knew that Van Halen song was still cool.
Anyway, MTV would perfect this viewer voting technique in 1986 with Dial MTV, their own daily countdown show, which had viewers call 1-800-DIAL-MTV to vote on their favorite videos. That number, of course, would be used to much bigger success in the late 1990s when Total Request Live took over the channel, and that particular show had its own huge impact on popular culture, which included the use of online voting in a huge way.
But in 1984, there was Hot! and whatever else kids could get their hands on, and with the exception of the “Thriller” video, which my parents taped off of Showtime before they cut the cord on that, this was the only place I saw music videos, at least for a few months. Hot! didn’t last very long on WNEW–another cartoon, probably Voltron or She-Ra, replaced the show and Channel 5 would air Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life at 5:00 and 5:30 for most of the rest of the decade. So while I went back to my cartoons, toys, and other things that dominated the life of a second/third grader, the small amount of time I spent watching Hot! was enough of a glimpse into the culture of older kids, something I clearly wasn’t ready for at seven, but would be sooner than I realized.
I dip my toes into the independent comics waters with Robotech: The Macross Saga #21. Join me as I spend time with Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes as they get stuck in the depths of the SDF-1 for a few hours (bottle epsidoe, anyone?). Then, I talk about teaching podcasting and past summer enrichment program experiences.
Kraven meets his end in the penultimate chapter of Kraven’s Last Hunt as I take a look at “Thunder” from The Amazing Spider-Man #294. Plus, I spend 15 minutes talking about ice cream.
Oh, and as a bonus, here’s the Carvel commercial from the second half of the episode:
In the mid-1980s, one of the seminal anime series to ever cross over to American television was watched by children across the country. Combining mecha with a love story and an intergalactic war, Robotech was a sweeping saga that makes it one of the most memorable series of the decade. For this episode, I sit down with Donovan Morgan Grant (The Batman Universe, The Next Dimension, Questions No Answers) to talk about The Macross Saga, and then I come back and take a brief look at the Masters and New Generation sagas.
Here’s some bonus stuff for you to check out.
First, my 2010 blog post about the Jack McKinney novels, “Mecha, Minmei, and a Decade-Long Fight for the Future.”
The original (1980s) intro to the cartoon, featuring images from all three series:
The Toonami intro (h/t to Donovan for sending me the link):
The current intro to The Macross Saga (as seen on Netflix):
The current intro to the New Generation (as seen on Netflix):