This was a busy week for me, because I have not one but two new releases to announce.
For starters, issue 0 of New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine has just come out with fiction and non-fiction by Howard Andrew Jones, Brian Murphy, Milton J. Davis, Nicole Emmelhainz, David C. Smith, Dariel R.A. Quiogue, Remco van Straten and Angeline B. Adams, Bryn Hammond, J.M. Clarke, T.K. Rex, Robin Marx, editor Oliver Brackenbury and yours truly. The cover art is by Gilead.
My piece in issue 0 of New Edge is an essay about C.L. Moore and Jirel of Joiry. The electronic edition of New Edge No. 0 is free and the print editions are fairly cheap, so what are you waiting for? Get it here!
And while on the subject of C.L. Moore, two weeks ago I was on the Postcards from a Dying World podcast, discussing C.L. Moore’s debut story “Shambleau” with host David Agranoff and editor/author Greg Cox. You can listen to the episode in question here.
I also have an essay in Rising Sun Reruns: Memories of Japanese TV Shows from Today’s Grown-up Kids, edited by Jim Beard. My essay is about watching anime shows on West German TV in the 1970s and 1980s with a particular focus on the Captain Future anime show. Get the book here.
In other news, my Hugo win was mentioned in the alumni newsletter of the University of Bremen.
Meanwhile, my quest to get nice plastic recreations of all the heroes and villains of my youth continues with another cartoon favourite from the 1980s, Defenders of the Earth.
Now the Defenders of the Earth cartoon is a lot more obscure than He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power and other heavy hitters of the era, even though it featured an all star cast of classic comic characters, since the show had Flash Gordon, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Lothar and their respective kids team up to battle Ming the Merciless.
Nowadays, heroes teaming up to fight a villain who’s too powerful for one of them to deal with alone is common in filmic media and this is indeed how the Marvel Cinematic Universe was built. But back in the 1980s, crossovers and shared universes didn’t really exist in filmic media, not even in cartoons based on comics which had been doing that sort of thing for decades, because of the mistaken belief that too many heroes were confusing for the viewer. Even the various Marvel and DC based cartoons that were around in the 1980s and 1990s did not cross over with each other, even though the characters lived in the same universe and often the same city.
Defenders of the Earth really was a pioneer, since it brought together four of King’s Features classic newspaper comic heroes from the 1930s (plus a guest appearance by Prince Valiant). Of course, in my mind all the characters from all the media I consumed as well as my original creations already lived in the same universe and interacted with each other, but seeing this actually happen on TV was something of a sensation, if blunted by the fact that Flash Gordon and Ming were the only characters I recognised from the 1930s Flash Gordon serials, which I had watched a few years before and did not particularly care for, because they were really badly dated by the mid 1980s. I can now appreciate the 1930s Flash Gordon serials for what they are, but viewed from the POV of a teen in the 1980s who’d seen Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, they really were underwhelming, though Charles Middleton did make for a great Ming the Merciless.
I remember sitting in the living room, watching cartoons, when my Mom came in and asked me what I was watching. “It’s a Flash Gordon cartoon,” I told her, “Only that there are a bunch of other people in it as well.”
“Oh, it’s Phantom,” my Mom exclaimed and settled down to watch, because it turned out that she had been a fan of the Phantom newspaper comic strip decades before, when the local paper was still running comic strips. We eventually identified Mandrake as another vaguely remembered comic strip character from way back, though neither of us remembered or recognised Lothar from the Mandrake comic, probably because comic Lothar looked quite different. And by the way, can we celebrate for a moment how amazing it is that Mandrake the Magician could have a black best friend who was very much his equal in a comic that debuted in 1934? Yes, the way Lothar is drawn in the early comics is quite racist by modern standards, but the fact that we have a black superhero in the 1930s is amazing in itself.
Anyway, I quickly fell in love with the Defenders of the Earth cartoon, probably my last real cartoon love. There were many cartoons I liked after that – Miyuki, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gargoyles, the 1993 X-Men cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series, the 1990s Jonny Quest, The Simpsons, the night forgotten WildC.A.T.S. cartoon – but Defenders of the Earth was last one I was obsessed with, because I was ageing out of the demographic for western cartoons by that time. Indeed, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon premiered only a year after Defenders of the Earth, but while I watched it and liked it all right, it would never occur to me to buy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, because I had aged out of the target demographic by then.
As for why this particular cartoon, which was never all that popular, appealed to me so much, I guess it was the found family aspect I loved, because Defenders of the Earth is essentially the story of four single dads banding together to raise their kids and fight an alien invasion.
Which brings me to another thing Defenders of the Earth did way before any other western cartoon did it, namely kill a prominent character on screen. There is of course Bambi’s mother, whose death traumatised generations of children, but otherwise western cartoons didn’t kill off any characters before the 1990s. Defenders of the Earth, however, kills off Dale Arden in the first episode. And Dale isn’t just killed, Ming literally tortures her to death. There isn’t any blood, but by mid 1980s standards this was shocking stuff, because no one ever really died in cartoons. Anthony from Candy, Candy was the only other cartoon character I’d seen die on screen at the time and that was anime, where the rules are different. Transformers – The Movie killed off Optimus Prime on screen, also in 1986, but I did not see that film until much later.
Pretty much any cartoon or toyline that was popular during my youth has by now come back, usually in a much nicer form than back in the day. Of the heavy hitters of the 1980s, M.A.S.K. and Jem and the Holograms are the only ones which never really came back – I’ve even seen new Strawberry Shortcake toys around. Defenders of the Earth, however, was always a more obscure cartoon and so I expected the chances of ever seeing a revival and/or action figures were about as high as the chances of ever getting a Galaxy Rangers or Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors or Sabre Rider and the Star Sheriffs revival and/or toys, i.e. pretty low.
So imagine my surprise when I saw gorgeous action figures of Flash Gordon, Phantom and Ming the Merciless in their Defenders of the Earth look to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the cartoon in 2021. There also are versions of the characters that are based on the original comic strip look, but I prefer the cartoon look, especially for Ming, who looks way too much like the yellow peril cliché he started out as in his comic strip look.
I initially dithered because of the price tag and then considered getting just Phantom, who was always my favourite, but then I got a really good deal on all three Defenders of the Earth figures and pulled the trigger. Yesterday, they arrived and they look great:
Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless are fencing, which is only fair, because Ming did murder Flash’s wife. I had problems getting Phantom to hold his gun, so he’s just flexing his fists for now. Though I did get him a jungle friend in the form of a Schleich panther (Phantom’s daughter Jedda has a pet panther in the cartoon). I wanted to get him a wolf, too, since Phantom has a wolf companion in the comics, but the drugstore did not have a Schleich wolf. The little blue critter is Zuffy, who was the alien pet of Mandrake’s young son in the cartoon, but was packaged with Phantom for reasons unknown.
BTW, my Mom, who doesn’t even recognise or remember He-Man, in spite of being right there in the room with me, when I watched the cartoon, immediately recognised the Defenders, when I showed them to her.
The manufacturer NECA is also making Mandrake the Magician and Lothar in their cartoon look and they will join their pals as soon as they become available. I also really hope they’ll make the four kids, because the family aspect was one of the big draws of the cartoon for me.
In the women and motherless way of 1980s kids cartoons, the Defenders of the Earth were portrayed as four single dads. Flash was a widower and it was implied that Phantom was, too. As for Mandrake and Lothar, both were portrayed as straight in the newspaper comic, but the cartoon implied that they were a couple, which went completely over my head as a kid, but is very obvious when rewatching these cartoons as an adult. Indeed, 1980s cartoons are full of characters that are obviously gay, when you rewatch them as an adult, and also gave us plenty of examples of non-standard families. The usual busybodies were way too worried that those cartoons were trying to sell us plastic toys (well, they were and still do) and glorified violence to realise that those cartoons were also selling us positive examples of gay couples and non-traditional families along with plastic toys and those little safety tips and moral messages tagged on at the end. And yes, I’m certain that this was 100 percent intentional, so well done, cartoon studios.
However, as explained here, in my head canon, Phantom found a new love after losing his wife and is in a longtime relationship with Maud Daniels who looks a lot like She-Hulk, but is a character I created after buying a She-Hulk figure without knowing the character’s name or backstory. And since there’s currently a She-Hulk series running on Disney+ (more reviews of that coming soon), there’s also a very nice She-Hulk figure in the Marvel Legends action figure series, which matches the Defenders of the Earth figures in scale. So I ordered her and Phantom will soon be reunited with Maud.
In the meantime, I also had some fun having Flash and Phantom fight Ming over my Hugo trophy, which looks like something out of the original Flash Gordon comic strip: