A look back at BraveStarr
Readers of this here blog know I’ve had the Weird West on my mind for the past few weeks. Well, arguably I’ve had the Weird West on my mind since I first started writing Zombie Ranch, but I’ve been thinking on it lately even more than usual. One particular bit that kept hazily surfacing was the remembrance of a drawling narrator declaring the following couplet over a background of “Magnificent Seven”-style music:
“Then one day, a lawman appeared…
… with powers of hawk, wolf, puma, and bear…”
This week I’ll be starting my 38th year on the Earth, which means I grew up solidly as a child of the 1980s and all of the cartoon offerings that are now being mined up as feature films (“Transformers”, “G. I. Joe”), attempts at animated reboots (“Thundercats“), or just continuing toy lines that don’t even need a cartoon tie-in anymore to coast on the nostalgia factor — it seems like every year at San Diego Comic-Con they’re still lining up for the latest He-Man figures.
In the 80s it was often the case that any engaging storylines and characters that might have happened in the cartoons tended to be a result of happy accidents or writers somehow slipping stuff through the maze of “we have to show fighting without anyone getting hurt” and anvilicious Aesops. Seemed like most every cartoon back then had to form itself around a moral message, and it wasn’t enough to just present that as part of the story, we had to have an out-of-continuity PSA at the end where the musclebound fantasy barbarian or special forces operative lectured us on the power of friendship. Heck, the ones from the G.I. Joe cartoon were so infamous that an entire series of parody videos using the old footage made their way onto the Internet. It was cheesy stuff that I remember rolling my eyes at even when I was ten. Yes, man with big gun and no shirt, I know how to look both ways before I cross the street.
I won’t lie… despite the nostalgia factor, going back and trying to watch these shows nowadays is often a real chore, even if you’re trying to do it with some sense of ironic detatchment. But there was certainly a potential in the settings and worlds dreamed up, an imagination to them that may not have shown through in the trite dialogue, formulaic plots and stock footage animation of most episodes, but functioned as something beyond just a framework to sell toys with.
BraveStarr is a classic example of this. It was made, like all the other Filmation cartoons of the day (and most cartoons besides that), to sell toys. There are analyses out there of why it failed to grab the audience He-Man and She-Ra did, including once again the spectre of the Western just not resonating anymore with youngsters of the post-1960s, no matter what other cool elements you stuck onto it. And from my opinion? The concept here is actually pretty damn cool. Call it a “Bat Durston” if you must, but then check out the opening:
But, as I mentioned before, the show itself is dragged down by all those “requirements” of 80s cartoons, where it seems like the writers either give up trying or go completely insane: for example, we can’t have people actually injuring each other with their guns, so the “lasers” encase people in blocks of ice, or in one memorable case, conjure flying lamprey things out of thin air that then go attack our heroes. What seemed like it was going to be a high-noon shootout between BraveStarr and the evil Tex Hex proceeded with Tex Hex conjuring a weird snake dinosaur he poofs onto the back of and uses to menace the Marshal.
Then there’s the natives of New Texas, the “Prairie People”, who have voices so annoying that they’ll not only be having you pine for the dulcet tones of Orko and Snarf, they’re almost entirely unintelligible to the audience. Although I do like the fact that the outlaw one, Skuzz, is a chain-smoker… something you probably wouldn’t see on a cartoon nowadays, even in villains, except perhaps with a Very Special Episode.
No, it’s all very 80s and often rough for an adult to sit through in any state of sobriety. Nor does the setting necessarily make any kind of logical sense… but man, that intro still is cool. I know it’s cool because Dawn had never heard of the series and when I fired it up she spun around to watch it with wide, sparkling nerd eyes, wondering what it was. Unfortunately, the episode that followed lost her interest almost as quickly as the opening grabbed it. It doesn’t help that Netflix appears to have the episodes completely out of order and several as DVD-only, so that if there is any kind of narrative arc to be had, it’s jumbled beyond recognition.
On the other hand, there’s just so much of the crazy that’s wonderful. BraveStarr’s pard, the cyber-horse Thirty-Thirty (nice shout out to the Winchester rifle, there), is both his best friend and his mount, and transforms between quadraped and humanoid… in the latter case toting a gigantic gun he calls Sarah Jane. His appearance is also based on contemporary rock star David Lee Roth. Uber-villain Stampede appears as a skeletal head looming out of dark clouds, drawing comparisons to the hell-cattle of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (or perhaps Nicodemus from “The Secret of Nimh”, but hey, Nic woulda made one creepy villain). Tex Hex, as one reviewer pointed out, looks like Skeletor if Skeletor were played by Lee Van Cleef… and much like Skeletor, he might be presented in the cartoon as a buffoon with a funny voice, but his appearance could easily be the stuff of nightmares.
I would love to see at least an attempt at rebooting the concepts involved with the show in a more modern, adult-oriented offering. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) remakes are uncalled for, or fall short of whatever magic the original possessed (sometimes it ain’t just nostalgia), but I can’t think of any reason not to give it a go with “BraveStarr”, aside from economically. Maybe people might get up in arms about Native American stereotypes, but you’ve already got this weird slippery logical slope where we’re talking being one with the land somewhere that’s parsecs away from America.
Seriously, this happened with G.I. Joe already and was awesome. I’m not talking about the movie, I’m talking about “G.I. Joe Resolute“, which I believe you can still find for free online and is well worth the watching. A similar treatment applied to BraveStarr could be incredible.
I don’t know that it would ever happen… even in its debut BraveStarr was never a popular cartoon, so there’s not that huge reservoir of nostalgia fuel that powers other properties of the era. Plus I just got done talking recently about how Hollywood has gone gunshy of Weird West properties after “Cowboys & Aliens” failed.
But I watch that intro, with its moody, almost Heavy Metal style imagery, and promise of frontier adventure ”in a distant time, and far away place”…
And I dream.