Every generation claims they had it better than the current one. In my day kids played outside! Movies were rented not streamed! Don’t swipe, flip through the pages! And the classic: They don’t make them like they used to!
But with cartoons, I think the children of the 1980s might have a point. With top notch animation, sharp writing, an unstoppable merchandising machine, and the catchiest theme songs, the cartoons of that decade are arguably the best around. (“…Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down.”) From He-Man to Transformers, from The Real Ghostbusters to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, from My Little Pony to The Disney Afternoon, nothing has come close to that decades’ overwhelming animated success.
This past weekend at San Diego Comic Con, writers from a wide range of the biggest animated hits of the 1980s came together for the panel Nostalgia-Ganza: A Look Back at Animated Series From the ‘80s. Panelists included Eric Lewald (Rescue Rangers, Winnie the Pooh), Len Uhley (Adventures of the Gummi Bears, DuckTales), Marv Wolfman (Transformers, G.I. Joe, Superman), Karen Willson (G.I. Joe, She-Ra), Craig Miller (The Real Ghostbusters, The Smurfs), Brynne Chandler (He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Marc Scott Zicree (The Real Ghostbusters, The Littles).
To kick things off, each panelist was asked to talk about their favorite and least favorite experiences working in animation. Eric Lewald perked up and sang the praises of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: “The character development and the world that they created… the voice recording, and the voice actors were all world class.” Len Uhley agreed, saying: “To this day, Winnie the Pooh was probably the best production in my experience. They truly made it a little feature every week. Those were really special.”
While everyone on the panel seemed to sincerely enjoy their time working in animation, the group also empathized with each other on their least favorite industry experiences. Eric Lewald remembered a show called Popeye and Son where Popeye was not allowed to fight his arch nemesis Bluto or even hit any enemy for that matter. What was all the spinach for then? Karen Willson spoke of not being allowed to let He-Man use his sword to fight bad guys; he could only deflect and chop ropes.
On the flip side, Craig Miller’s favorite series was The Real Ghostbusters, because they “were allowed to do animated versions of the movie where they could tell adult stories that were spooky and funny.” But even though Miller had a great time on Ghostbusters, he could understand the others’ whacky studio run-ins. He worked on the last season of The Smurfs, when studio executives suddenly wanted to change the concept of the series to have the Smurfs become time travelers.
Marv Wolfman’s craziest experience writing for animation was on one of his favorite shows: Transformers. After the Transformers animated movie premiered and featured the death of the beloved Optimus Prime, the toy company got an unbelievable amount of hate mail. Marv was given only two days to write a two-part episode that not only had to bring Optimus Prime back to life but feature every single Transformer character that hadn’t been seen on screen in over a year… totaling 450 characters. To this day he doesn’t know how he got it done, but he did.
Wolfman also recalled an instance working on the Superman animated series. In one episode, Superman was fighting an army of giant robots, but the studio wouldn’t allow Superman to actually punch said robots. Instead, the man of steel had to land on the robot’s back, reprogram it, and then the robots were allowed to punch each other. Talk about a work-around.
The group next spoke about writing on shows that began as toy lines first, before they were adapted into animated series. Craig Miller shared a humorous tale explaining why the green castle in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was called Castle Grayskull. It turns out the playset photos that the toy company sent the writers were all in black and white, and they just assumed that the skull castle was colored gray!
But who wants just photos? What’s the point of working on a toy-based show if you can’t play with the little pieces of plastic yourself? Brynne Chandler reminisced about being a kid again and playing with the toys to spur ideas. She said the writers would get down on the floor with the action figures and vehicles and block out story points to work through the plots.
Overall the panel was a fun, fascinating, and intimate chat with some of the biggest names behind the most beloved cartoons of the 1980s. All of the insightful and zany stories of the animation biz had the audience enthralled and doubled over laughing. Kids these days don’t know what they were missing.