Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. Dedicated miners of this fecund seam begin to notice the same names cropping up, again and again, as if their whole career was based on a principle of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. What’s more, it isn’t all one-season failures and unsold pilots, there’s genuine gold to be found amongst their hoards; these men are surely the Titans of Telephemera!
Formed as DIC Audiovisuel in France in 1971, Diffusion Information Communication began as the production arm of Radio Television Luxembourg but found Jean Chalopin had his sights set beyond Francophile Europe and made a deal in 1981 with Japanese animation studios Tokyo Studio Shinsha. They helped to produce and distribute Japanese shows to Europe such as Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold, but there were still territories to conquer and in 1982 DIC enterprises was established in Los Angeles by former Hanna-Barbera staffer Andy Heyward.
Heyward’s initial aim was to translate DIC’s products into English for sale to the US market but in 1983 they made their first cartoon primarily for American screens, Inspector Gadget. DIC partnered with companies such as Atari, Kenner, American Greetings, and Hallmark, and they soon had a string of shows filling the Saturday morning schedules, although they gained a reputation in the industry for cutting corners and enforcing anti-union policies, leading to DIC becoming shorthand for Do It Cheap. DIC’s history stretches into the 2010s but it is a story about the cartoons they produced (and the things that happened along the way); we kicked off last time with the 1980s so let’s travel back to 1990 and pick up the story there…
Wish Kid (NBC, 1991): DIC started the nineties with five new shows on the docket, including adaptations of The Wizard of Oz and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros 3 for ABC and NBC, respectively. They also had three shows out in syndication as videogame tie-in The Power Team (renamed Video Power for its second season), body horror-lite Swamp Thing, and the Earth Day shenanigans of Captain Planet and the Planeteers all began their runs. In 1991, DIC delivered their first show for the Fox network with the further animated antics of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures, had Where’s Waldo? on CBS, and gave the world – and ABC – Hammerman. Chip & Pepper’s Cartoon Madness was put in syndication, but the lion’s share of the studio’s output was for the Peacock network.
Sports show Pro-Stars and videogame bonanza Super Mario World made their bows, along with a show that warned of the terrible portent of Macauley Culkin being given magic powers. From an idea by Andy Heyward, fleshed out by cartoon script veteran Jeffrey Scott, Wish Kid starred Macauley Culkin as Nick McClary, a child who owned a baseball glove that – for some reason – was able to grant him wishes after it was struck by a meteor. Culkin not only provided the character’s voice and acted as a model for Nick’s design, but he also filmed live-action sequences to top and tail each episode, introducing the stories we were about to watch.
All Nick had to do to activate his glove was to punch it three times and he shared his secret with his best friend, Darryl Singletary. The two used the glove to enjoy all manner of adventures and escape the attentions of neighbourhood bully Frankie, restricted by a limitation of just one wish per week (and not knowing when that wish would expire, which was usually at the worst possible time). All in all, it was low stakes stuff and the show’s thirteen-episode first season passed without much notice, although it was considered for a second season in 1993 on The Family Channel.
Just about the most interesting thing about Whiz Kid is that, after the first season had initially aired, subsequent re-runs were given a new theme song due to its similarity to The Big Bopper’s 1953 hit, “Chantilly Lace.” Culkin played Thomas in My Girl the same year, breaking hearts of iron everywhere as he succumbed to beestings and left best friend Anna Chlumsky alone, eventually growing tired of acting in 1994 after starring in Richie Rich, retiring to go to school, only returning to the screen in 2003 as a world-weary twenty-three-year-old, How different it could have been if only he’d had a magic baseball glove to punch three times…
Double Dragon (syndication, 1993): 1992 had been quiet for the studio, with just three new shows making an appearance, as they teamed with Ruby-Spears to make Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa for ABC, inexplicably showcased Super Dave: Daredevil for Hire on Fox and had Stunt Dawgs in syndication. 1993 was busier, with Madeline debuting on The Family Channel for Disney, Sonic the Hedgehog and All-New Dennis the Menace for ABC and CBS, respectively, and a pair of shows in syndication. You can read about soccer-themed mystery show Hurricanes in part four of 1993’s The Telephemera Years when it arrives but, for now, let’s turn our attention to a pair of brothers out for revenge…
The Double Dragon videogame was released into arcades in 1987, porting to the Nintendo Entertainment System a year later. The original game told the story of twin brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, who must fight their way into the turf of a rival gang, the Black Warriors, to rescue Billy’s girlfriend Marian. As the TV show opens, Billy and Jimmy have been separated at birth, raised by rival martial-arts masters. Billy’s plan to open a school for local youths is interrupted when he is kidnapped by Jimmy on the orders of the Shadow Master, only for Jimmy to turn on his evil foster-father and pledge to fight alongside his brother for the forces of good.
The series was developed by Phil Harnage, who’d been with DIC since 1987 having earned his stripes working on Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and Challenge of the Go-Bots. Although the Marian subplot was dropped from the origin story, she does appear throughout the show as Billy’s girlfriend, but the rest of the cast of characters are otherwise original creations by Harnage and director Chuck Patton, a former DC Comics artist who had created many of the characters from Justice League of America’s infamous Detroit era.
Billy and Jimmy fought their way through the Shadow Master’s Shadow Warriors – evil mutants created by high levels of electro-magnetic energy generated by Metro City’s ancient underground power grid – across two seasons of thirteen episodes each, earning a reverse adaptation into the videogame Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls in 1994. There were also a series of action figures released by Tyco in 1993 and a live-action movie, also released in 1984, produced independently of the TV show and starring Alyssa Milano.
Street Sharks (syndication, 1994): One of only three new DIC shows on the 1994 TV schedules (alongside Bump in the Night on ABC and the well-remembered Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? For Fox), Street Sharks was another Phil Harnage show that, this time, used a toy line from Mattel as its inspiration. Created by Joe Galliani and David Siegel of Joe’s Really Big Productions, the eponymous carcharhiniformes were introduced at the 1994 Toy Fair by a young Vin Diesel and the syndicated show debuted on September 7th 1994 with a thirteen-episode first season designed to whet appetites for the toys’ 1995 release.
As imagined by Harnage and co-developer Martha Moran, the Street Sharks were the four sons of Dr Robert Bolton, the inventor of the Gene Slammer, a device which could combine aquatic and human DNA. In an accident caused by his secretly evil lab partner, Dr Luther Paradigm, Bolton is transformed into a monstrous creature and runs away. Searching for their father, his sons also fall victim to the machine and are transformed into shark-human hybrids. Their new lives? Stop Dr Paradigm at every turn while trying to keep hidden from the society at large which believes them to be monsters!
The first season was such a success that a second season of nineteen episodes was put into production, in order to keep the toys flying off the shelves. New characters were introduced, and the sea dogs helped to save the President of the United States, met their ancestor Sir Shark-a-Lot, and help save the city from a wave of Wolverinepedes, causing enough of a star that a third season was ordered, this time on ABC. The third season introduced the Dino Vengers, Mattel’s new dinosaur offshoot toy line, and by the end of the season the two teams were sharing top billing, with the sauropods emerging into their own show for the 1997 season as Extreme Dinosaurs.
With Street Sharks and Carmen Sandiego both bona fide successes, DIC went into 1995 with a swagger, having landed the contract to provide English dubs of Sailor Moon for Cartoon Network, as well as four new shows of their own. With the GI Joe action figure line winding down its new releases, Hasbro decided to reimagine the twelve-inch line that inspired the smaller 1980s figures by using Action Man, the name the toy had used in the UK in its heyday, and DIC provided a syndicated show that mixed animation and live-action to sell it. Disgusting dog What-a-Mess debuted over on ABC and DIC reached back into their history for the syndicated Gadget Boy & Heather reboot, but it was an animated superhero show for the USA Network that caught the eye from that year’s offerings…
Ultraforce (USA, 1995): In 1993, flush with the success of having helped Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and the gang launch Image Comics, California publisher Malibu Comics decided to create its own universe of superheroes with the express intention of competing with the traditional big two, Marvel and DC. Dubbed the Ultraverse, the Malibu characters were novel but not always exploited to their full potential, especially when they were grouped together in imitation of The Avengers or JLA as Ultraforce. Led by Hardcase, the first of the new heroes to go public, Ultraforce debuted in the first issue of their own title in August 1994, vowing to protect the public and police the other “ultras” that had emerged in Malibu’s new world.
It’s difficult to explain just how crazy the comic book business became in the early 1990s but needless to say there were people willing to throw money at anything that might become a hot property and Ultraforce was no exception. As well as a line of action figures produced by Galoob, the concept was licensed for an animated series, with DIC winning the race to produce the show. Rushing into production just months after the comic book had introduced the team, the Martha Moran-helmed project was sold to the USA Network for a December 1994 release.
Just as in the comics, the team was led by Hardcase and also included the Superman-like Prime (who was secretly a child in his everyday life), the armoured Prototype, warrior queen Topaz, zombie hero Ghoul, illusion punk Pixx, and the mysterious Contrary. Together they faced such adversaries as Atalon, Lord Pumpkin, and the vampiric Rune, finding time to introduce the world to other Ultraverse heroes such as Night Man and The Strangers along the way.
The thirteen-episode first season was well received but, by the time it entered syndication in September 1995, the Ultraverse was undergoing a change. Dubbed Black September, the event upset the status quo and introduced the Marvel Comics character Black Knight to the Ultraverse, with Malibu having been purchased by their rival in November 1994, before the animated series had even begun airing. With properties of their own as a priority (and a rumoured complication over rights in the contracts signed by Ultraverse creators), Marvel downplayed the line and then dropped it all together, meaning no more Ultraforce comics and certainly no more Ultraforce cartoons.
Ultraforce, Action Man, and the rest of DIC’s 1995 slate were followed by just two new shows in 1996, as they became an official part of the Disney empire, having been partnered with ABC since 1993. Future tiger bait, Siegfried & Roy: Masters of the Impossible debuted on Fox, with the – spit! – educational show Inspector Gadget’s Field Trip turning up on the History Channel. That series was retooled as Gadget Boy’s Adventures in History the following year, and 1997 also saw the studio produce Extreme Dinosaurs and The Wacky World of Tex Avery for the syndicated market. Extreme Dinosaurs was joined in syndication by another action show, one four-thousand years in the making…
Mummies Alive! (1997): In ancient Egypt, while the pyramids were still in everyday use, an evil sorcerer named Scarab kidnapped Prince Rapses, the son of the Pharaoh, in an attempt to become immortal. Scarab was entombed alive for his crimes but revived in the modern era where he begins a search for the reincarnation of Rapses, still seeking that everliving state that eluded him (although, did it? Really?)…
This is the backstory behind Mummies Alive!, DIC’s second syndicated action show of 1997, produced hand-in-hand with a wave of action figures from Hasbro. The mummies of the title are Rapses’s four bodyguards, reviving at the same time as Scarab to prevent him harming twelve-year-old Presley Carnovan, the modern-day incarnation of their precious Prince. Each of the mummies has the power of an Egyptian God, with their leader Ja-Kai able to transform himself into a falcon, backed up by snake magician Rath, golden giant Armon, and the cat-like Nefer-Tina.
Initially intended to strike a more mature tone similar to Gargoyles, with writers Eric and Julia Lewald having worked on that show for Disney, the show evolved during production into a more child-friendly affair, quite at odds with its origin tale involving being buried alive and subsequent story beats that included sucking the life out of homeless people, the return of ancient gods ambivalent to the lives of everyday people, and the constant threat of a twelve-year-old boy being murdered. The end result was a mix that satisfied neither master and just forty-two episodes – a full season is either thirteen or sixty-five – were produced, airing between September and November 1997. Still, the show retains a following, especially in Europe where the full series has been released on DVD, with English and German audio included.
DIC finished the nineties with the same curious mix of action and children’s shows that had supported them since their inception, with Pocket Dragon Adventures their sole new show for 1998, 1999, however, brought four new arrivals, as Sabrina: The Animated Series debuted on UPN, Fox had Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, Archie’s Weird Mysteries was made for the short-lived PAX channel, and Sonic Underground was put into syndication. Many at the studio, however, felt that their output was being stifled by their association with Disney and in November 2000, backed by venture capitalists, Andy Heyward bought DIC back into independent ownership, going public in 2004. Despite some minor hits in the 2000s, they could never quite recapture their former glories and in 2008 they merged with Canadian studio Cookie Jar, effectively ending DIC’s almost forty-year history.
Next time on The Telephemera Years: It’s a return to our journey through the golden years of US television, and we wash up in 1989!
Check out our other Telephemera articles:
The Telephemera Years: 1966 (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: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1982 (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: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
The Telephemera Years: 2000 (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: 2008 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen
Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)
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