New book explores the awesomeness of '80s cartoons

Matthew Lane • Nov 26, 2017 at 2:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Growing up in the ’80s, kids got a chance to experience a golden age of cartoons. I should know. I was one of them.

Not only did we get to enjoy reruns of such classics as “Tom and Jerry,” “Bugs Bunny” and “Scooby Doo,” but we also got to witness firsthand the majesty of “G.I. Joe,” “The Transformers” and “The Smurfs.”

Every day after school, and especially on Saturday mornings, I, along with millions of other Gen Xers, would plant myself on the floor in front of the television and soak up the adventures of He-man and Lion-O, the antics of “Alvin and the Chimpmunks” and the drama of “BraveStarr.”

These and other cartoons defined our generation and helped mold us into the adults we are today. Well, not really, but they were a blast to watch at the time.

So when I found out someone had written a book about the greatest cartoons of the 1980s, I knew I had to find out more.

The book is of course titled “Totally Awesome — The Greatest Cartoons of the Eighties.” It was written by Andrew Farago, the curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum.

In this treasure trove of a book, Farago takes an inside look at the art and history of some of the most popular cartoons of the decade as told by the writers, animators, voice actors and other creative talents who brought life to some of the era’s most enduring animated shows.

I reached out to Farago, who graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the book, the research that went into writing it and his favorite ’80s cartoons.

What prompted you to write this book?

“My first project with Insight Editions was a complete history of the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ It was a fun project, and my editor, Chris Prince, wanted to work together on another book right away. He suggested a history of animation in the 1980s, I put together a pitch and that was that.”

Discuss your research process for the book

“Ten solid years from 1980 to 1989 planting myself in front of the TV from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday, with a couple of hours of cartoons after school every weekday for good measure. Probably about 20,000 hours of research in that decade alone.

“Honestly, though, that number’s probably not far off. I decided at the outset to focus on shows that I knew and loved, since I wouldn’t have to start from scratch and I knew I’d have a connection to all of these shows and a genuine interest in researching their histories and interviewing all the writers, producers, artists, and voice actors for each series.

“I’m not sure there are any other books quite like this, really, since I covered so many different shows in depth, from so many different studios. The book’s coming out about a year later than we’d initially planned so that we could track down additional artwork and square away all the rights and permissions to include as many different shows as we could.”

What are your favorite ’80s cartoons?

“Early in the decade, my Saturdays revolved around ‘Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.’ The stories, the character designs, the animation, the guest stars, the voiceovers by Stan Lee ... I loved everything about that show.

“Mid-decade, I lived for the shows from Sunbow Productions: ‘G.I. Joe,’ ‘Transformers,’ plus ‘Jem.’ The characters really hooked me, and I felt really invested in all of them (and as my mom can attest, we got invested in the toys, too. We always had G.I. Joe and Transformers under our Christmas tree in the mid-’80s).

“ ‘Jem’ was a fun, MTV-inspired series that had compelling characters, drama and plenty of soap opera elements, and I’m still knocked out by the show’s title sequence. That’s a well-choreographed, inventive piece of animation.

“By the end of the decade, I was aging out of the Saturday morning target audience, but shows like ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ kept my interest, and once in a great while, something completely nuts like ‘Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures’ came along. For one brief, shining moment, the executives at CBS decided to let Ralph Bakshi, then best known for his X-rated cartoon ‘Fritz the Cat,’ based on the comic by Robert Crumb, reinvent ‘Mighty Mouse’ for weird kids and burned-out adults. A lot of the most influential shows of the ’90s, like ‘Ren & Stimpy,’ had their roots in ‘Mighty Mouse.’ ”

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about a cartoon while writing this book?

“It was fun learning the origin stories behind all these shows, although many of them started out with ‘a toy company wants to hire us to make a show about this to help them sell more toys,’ so it was kind of a novelty when that wasn’t the case.

“Case in point: ‘Ghostbusters’ was the biggest movie of 1984, an absolute blockbuster. The animation studio Filmation owned the animation rights to the name ‘Ghostbusters’ since they’d done a live-action show in the ’70s called ‘The Ghost Busters,’ and they put a series into production that would debut in the fall of 1986, starring animated versions of the characters from their 1975 series.

“The producers of the ‘Ghostbusters’ film didn’t really want to get into animation, but they wanted to protect their franchise and didn’t want to leave money on the table, so they reluctantly agreed to produce a cartoon series of their own, pointedly called ‘The Real Ghostbusters.’ The Filmation series quietly went away after a year, while ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ enjoyed a very successful seven-season run.”

What are your thoughts about current cartoons and how do they stack up to the ones in the ’80s?

“Nearly every cartoon in my book has been reinvented at least once since the ’80s, in part because the characters and their stories were so fun, so enduring and really connected with the kids who watched them. And more often than not, it’s the original versions that fans keep coming back to. Every once in a while, though, there’s a show like ‘Voltron: Legendary Defender’ that seems to give us the best of all possible worlds, paying tribute to the past while feeling completely modern and contemporary.

“That being said, there’s so much great animation being produced today that I can’t keep up with it all. I don’t envy the kid that’s going to be writing the history book about the greatest cartoons of the 2010s 30 years from now, because she’ll probably have 40,000 hours of cartoons to wade through.”

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