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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: 1981, part 4

Written By:

Alan Boon
Spider-Man, 1981

Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. They hit the schedules alongside established shows, hoping for a long run, but it’s not always to be, and for every Street Hawk there’s two Manimals. But here at STARBURST we celebrate their existence and mourn their departure, drilling down into the new season’s entertainment with equal opportunities square eyes… these are The Telephemera Years!

1981-82

The TV junkies must have been absolutely salivating at the new Fall season line-up in 1981, including as it did such treasures as The Fall Guy, TJ Hooker, Cagney & Lacey, Falcon Crest, and Fame! They joined a schedule already dominated by Dallas, The Dukes of Hazzard, and M*A*S*H as American TV continued through one of its truly golden eras. There were goodbyes to be said to Mork & Mindy, The Incredible Hulk, and Lou Grant, but network TV was in a very good place with the top nineteen shows all averaging over twenty million viewers per episode.

The only one struggling was NBC, continuing a ratings slump that had begun in six years before and would continue until Bill Cosby, Michael J Fox, and Mr T dragged it out of the mire a few years later, although Late Night with David Letterman did make its debut in February 1982. For genre fans, the final seasons of The Incredible Hulk and Mork & Mindy were joined by a new arrival called The Greatest American Hero on ABC, as well as single-season classic Police Squad!, but those are the shows that the grow-ups were watching – what about the kids? This is the story of 1981’s new cartoons…

Blackstar (CBS): John Blackstar is a stranger in a strange world. An Earth astronaut catapulted to the planet Sagar after being sucked into a Black Hole, he must help protect the planet from the evil Overlord, gathering allies in the form of the Trobbits (think trolls meet hobbits), Warlock the dragon, Mara the enchantress, and the shapeshifting Klone.

Arriving two years before He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and from the same Filmation studio as that blockbuster show, Blackstar never quite hit the heights of its famous younger brother but that doesn’t take away from a superb piece of world-building in its own right. Indeed, it could even be suggested that parts of Blackstar’s story were absorbed by the later show, not least of which the twin magical weapons, the Starsword and Powersword.

Blackstar, 1981

Unfortunately, Blackstar didn’t have the action figures for kids to play along at home. Well, it did but when they finally arrived in 1983 from Galoob, the show had been off the air for over a year. The cartoon market had only just begun to adapt to the relaxed rules forced through by Strawberry Shortcake a year before and wasn’t ready for a full assault on kids’ imaginations and parents’ wallets.

It’s a shame, because there’s a lot to like about Blackstar and it’s become a bit of a forgotten gem, with just a hardcore of fans keeping its memory alive, unavailable on DVD and not currently streaming anywhere. Many of those fans will have come to it late, shown alongside He-Man in 1983 to capitalise on that show’s monster ratings, somewhat ironic given the He-Man’s obvious debt to its older sibling.

The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam! (NBC): Alongside Blackstar and a remixed continuation of its Tarzan block, Filmation also debuted this curious mix of adapted and new superhero cartoons for eager cereal addicts in September 1981. The show was built around golden age Superman clone Captain Marvel, his adventures here – as in the DC comic books and the 1970s live-action show – given the name of his magic word to avoid issues with DC’s rivals, Marvel Comics, and their character of the same name.

Captain Marvel had been created in the 1940s by CC Beck and Bill Parker, the star of a Fawcett Comics line that sold so well that DC Comics took legal action to remove it from the market, latterly absorbing the character into their own line of books. His strange world of kid heroes and odd villains was a perfect fit for kids from the 1940s to the 1980s but Filmation chose to hedge their bets by throwing in their band (literally) of teen superheroes, just in case.

The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!, 1981

Second feature Hero High was set in a high school where super-powered youngsters learned to use their powers and fight crime, much like Marvel Comics’ original X-Men concept. Led by the blond-haired Captain California and also including Brat Man, Dirty Trixie, and Misty Magic, amongst others, the teens of Hero High were originally intended to be Archie Andrews and pals from Riverdale, who occasionally enjoyed their own costumed alter-egos, but Filmation’s rights to use the characters expired and new analogues were swiftly created.

Alongside their cartoon adventures (which would also occasionally feature characters from Shazam!, including Isis, created by Filmation for a live-action show in the 1970s set in the same universe), the Hero High teens would also appear in live-action in short comedy sketches and as a pop band, with the good Captain on lead vocals, Punk Rock on lead guitar, Rex Ruthless on drums, and the rest of the group pitching in to create a sugary sound.

Despite being nominated for Best Show at the Young Artist Awards, where Rebecca “Glorious Gal” Perle picked up Best Young Actress in a Daytime Series, the show lasted for just one season of thirty-eight episodes, with the twelve Shazam! stories and twenty-six Hero High adventures recycled throughout. None of the cast went onto bigger things, with Perle and Johnny “Punk Rock” Venocour later turning up in “ooh, isn’t Linda Blair mature now!” schlocker Savage Streets, Jim “Weatherman” Greenleaf “starring” in sex nerd comedy Joysticks, and Jere “Misty Magic” Fields playing the wife in a Rick James music video, although Maylo “Dirty Trixie” McCaslin was in Bibleman so it’s difficult to make a sweeping statement about Hero High’s post-graduate record…

Trollkins (CBS): While Filmation had just three new shows hit the air in Fall 1981, rivals Hanna-Barbera enjoyed five new arrivals, including The Smurfs, Laverne & Shirley, and The Kwicky Koala Show. Probably least remembered of its quintet was Trollkins, possibly because – at first glance – it looks to be nothing more than a clone of Peyo’s famous blueskins.

Blitz Lumpkins and Pixlee Trollsom are good-natured troublemakers, very much inspired by Beau and Luke Duke, albeit if Luke was a cute pink-haired girl. The son and daughter of the Mayor and Sheriff of Trolltown, respectively, Blitz and Pixlee ride around in their souped-up dragster, accompanied by pet something Flooky (voiced, as were most non-human characters in animation, by Frank Welker).

Trollkins, 1981

Trolltown appears to a slightly chaotic place, not helped by the irascible Mayor Lumpkin and its incompetent police department, who fail to deal with Blitz and Pixlee’s shenanigans and just can’t get a handle on the Troll Choppers, a gang of bikers  led by Bogg (who had the hots for our girl Pixlee). Each half-hour episode contained two stories, the titles of which were often based on popular movies, such as “Escape from Alcatroll,” “The Empire Strikes Trolltown,” and “Raiders of the Lost Troll.”

Despite an unusually southern flavour and a solid voice cast that included Jennifer Darling, Alan Oppenheimer, and Paul Winchell alongside Welker, Trollkins failed to move out of the shadow of its blue-skinned cousins and lasted for just a single season, a similar fate to most of Hanna-Barbera’s other non-Smurfs properties that debuted that year. With no merchandise to speak of, and only a couple of episodes uploaded to YouTube, it’s one of the truly telephemeric shows of its era and you can’t help but think Blitz and Pixlee deserved better.

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (NBC)/Spider-Man (syndication): Fans of Marvel’s humanly flawed brand of superheroics could already consider themselves fortunate as the 1970s turned to the 1980s. The comic book adventures of Daredevil, The X-Men, and Shang-Chi were either in the middle of or about to enter legendary runs by seminal creative teams, and there was a slew of TV adaptations, including the live-action Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, and animated shows featuring The Fantastic Four and Spider-Woman.

It only got better in the Fall of 1981, when TV watching Marvelites not only got the final season of The Incredible Hulk but were also treated to two new animated Spider-Man shows, one shown on weekdays in syndication and one on Saturday mornings on NBC, although quite why there were two new Spider-Man shows is lost to history. Both shows were produced by Marvel Productions, a new animation studio established from the ashes of DePatie-Freleng Enterprises when Fritz Freleng returned to Warner Bros, and they share an animation style and a voice cast that – the role of Spider-Man himself apart – makes them pretty much indistinguishable from each other.

Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, 1981

It’s been suggested that Marvel were already in the process of developing a standalone series as a sequel to the 1967 Ralph Bakshi cartoon, with the adventures of Peter Parker in college alongside his superheroics, when NBC suggested that they create a super-team show to rival ABC’s Super Friends. Keen to find work for the nascent studio, and seizing the opportunity to sell Spider-Man six days a week, Marvel opted to go ahead with both projects, choosing a Spider-Man-led team possibly as a labour- and money-saving device.

Joining the webslinger in his Amazing Friends were the X-Men’s Iceman (currently between engagements as a Champion and a Defender) and the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. However,  rights issues with the latter that had already seen him removed from the FF’s 1978 animated show forced the creation of a new hero with similar powers; the mutant Firestar also adding a female character for any girls who might have been watching, becoming popular enough that she was eventually introduced into the comic books, eventually becoming a member of The New Warriors and The Avengers.

Spider-Man got a single season of twenty-six episodes, attention turning to an Incredible Hulk series on NBC the next year that spun out of an episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. The team returned for a second and third season, although its second outing added just three new episodes – all telling the origins of the principals – before a third season of eight episodes took the total run of that show to twenty-four. In the season three episode “The Origin of the Super Friends,” Stan Lee narrates the story of how the team came together, including footage from the syndicated show which some have theorised places Amazing Friends as happening after that show concludes, forming the third part of a trilogy with the Bakshi show.

Next on The Telephemera Years: We sally forth into 1999 when the fear of Y2K was assuaged by… Battle Dome!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: pre-1965 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1967 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1970 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1974 (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1978 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1981 (part 1, 2, 3)

The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1983 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1989 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1998 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2002 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2006 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 23, 4)

The Telephemera Years: O Canada! (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen

Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: DIC (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft

Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Ruby-Spears

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