Saturday, October 16, 2021

Blackstar "Spacewrecked"

In “Spacewrecked,” John Blackstar’s lover, Katana follows his trajectory by tracing the photon vapor trail from his ship.  It leads through the black hole, and on the other side of the phenomenon she is reunited with him. They make plans to leave Sagar together. The Trobbits are heartbroken.

Their joy is short-lived, however, because The Overlord wants to possess the spaceship -- a “time ship capable of multi-verse travel” -- for his evil plans. Overlord captures Katana and hypnotizes her into stealing the star-sword.

But the Overlord hasn’t reckoned with the greatest power in the universe: “love.”

Filmation’s Blackstar focuses on Sagar, and the battle between the human astronaut and the Overlord. But in the case of “Spacewrecked,” audiences get to see a bit more detail about Blackstar’s personal life, as well as the hierarchy he operates under. 

The episode starts with Katana communicating via radio to her home base, as she contemplates a trip through the black hole.  

And the episode ends with the promise that she will return to help Blackstar.  She communicates again with Earth, and tells mission control “I’ll need the entire fleet for my mission. I’m going back there to help him.”

Unfortunately, Blackstar was canceled after one season of just 13 episodes, and audiences never saw Katana’s return.  It’s certainly possible, however, to imagine a final episode in which the cavalry from Earth comes over the hill (through the black hole...) so-to-speak and defeats the Overlord once and for all. Indeed, that would have been a great note to go out on, though the Trobbits would have been sad, in any regard, to see John Blackstar leave Sagar.

“Spacewrecked” is likely a candidate for “best episode” of the series primarily because it reveals that Earth has not forgotten about John Blackstar, and reveals that its technology is coveted by the Overlord as a great weapon, even though he typically relies on magic.  

Finally, we meet the love of Blackstar’s life and thus can start to fill in some gaps about his background and history.

Friday, October 08, 2021

A Look Back at Bandai's Qonto Toys of the 1970's: An Interview with Bruce Handler

In 2008, I posted here on the blog about my Christmas morning in 1978, and the amazing gift of Qonto, a small toy robot.  

My parents bought me this pint-sized robot, his flying-saucer like spaceship, and the Eagle fighter.  The only Qonto toy I didn’t get (and which I have sought ever sense…) is the large God Phenix spaceship. I kept all of these toys (after playing with them) and shared them with my son when he was little.

So, in the Muir house, Qonto survived two childhoods!

Some of these toys may be recognizable from Message from Space (1977) and Battle of the Planets, but in America, they were all part of Qonto's 'verse.

Just a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a gentleman named Bruce Handler, who served as the graphic designer for the Bandai America Qonto die-cast line of toys in the 1970's. He very graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about Qonto, and his career in the toy industry.


Q: Please tell us a little bit about your background and education, and how you came to be a graphic designer.


A: I was born and raised in the Bronx, NYC and lived in the projects until we moved to Co-Op City. As far as I can remember, I was always drawing or copying pictures from American History, comic books and Mad Magazine.


Living in the projects, you tend to stay inside a lot because it’s safer and you stay out of trouble and to take up the time, I volunteered for all the painting assignments in school, like stage decoration, lobby paintings for various subject matter or events like the holidays. Junior High School was tough, so I used to draw nude girls for the gang members in school and they left me alone. After getting reported by a teacher, I was sent to the guidance office in school, and they asked me to stop drawing the pictures but encouraged me to try out for the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. 


My art teacher was my mentor who reviewed with me what I needed for a portfolio and other requirements for testing at the art school. I was accepted and that was the start of my career. I had other school mentors and the high school had many professional artists to help me decide where my strengths were, and I went into graphic design. 


I was accepted in 1971 to Parsons School of Design and did my degree work at the New School for Social Research. My parents and grandparents were always very supportive, and my dad would always ask people he knew if they might help me to get art supplies. To help my family, I was also working odd jobs and selling artwork since 1968. 


After graduating Parsons in 1974, my first job was as package designer at Doyle Dane Bernbach. DDB was the agency that started the creative revolution in advertising with the “Think Small” ad for VW.


Q:    You worked for Hasbro, on Hungry Hippos and Superman and Batman board games.  Can you tell us about your work on each of those projects, and what you contributed to them?


A: Every year Hasbro would assign an agency to design that year’s toy line. I just got a job at Werbin and Morill and handled many packaging projects, including Hasbro. This was always a group project with a few other designers, but I was lead designer. We created the “arrow” graphic that started at the top of the package below the Hasbro logo and went down the right side of all boxes.


Being a good packaging firm, the graphics and photography were well done. You have to understand, toy packaging assignments had tiny budgets and the worst designers started in that field. We would get a written briefing from Hasbro product managers about each toy, the problem/concerns, and redesign according to the brief. 


On Superman and Batman, they were redesigns of the older board games and the bad guys, graphics, art were upgraded to be more exciting and the game itself was changed to be exciting. Similar to updating a food package. Make it appeal to kids. I also designed Terron for the Action Team, part of GI Joe line. That was fun, and I did some work on Charlie’s Angels tree house and accessories. 


Q:    In the late 1970’s you began to work for Bandai. What was your experience with the company?  What were your tasks as graphic designer and marketer?


A:  I was freelancing and looking for a full-time job when Sue Motsumoto (Design) offered me a 6-month freelance job for $18,000. I agreed and I started redesigning all the toys for LJN Toy Co. On a side note, a low budget toy named Silly Sammy the Seagull became a cult type toy for some reason. Nobody knows that the box art was done by the great cartoonist, Jack Davis. I don’t have the toy, but I still have the artwork from Jack Davis. 


Bandai approached Sue to work on Bandai’s line of new products to be introduced under their American distributor, Bandai America. They included Bandai Electronics, and some other children’s games. In my portfolio are some sell sheets of the toys. Most were for 5 and up children. 

The fun project was QONTO. First, this project extended my contract with Sue and the toys were cool. I knew nothing about Sci-Fi or robots, or their history. We were given toy samples of the Japanese market toys which were written in Japanese, and the assignment was to design them for the American market as a “collectible” toy. I loved the idea and started to come up with designs that would project the toy to the consumer as premium, collectible, and you must have it. 

The work was started in 1977 and introduced in 1978. The line consisted of Qonto, Qonto in a spaceship, Eagle, and Phenix God (Birds). 

Then we designed the blister cards for little Qonto. Today, the graphics looks dated but back then it was cool-looking, and we also worked with small budgets. The photography budget was $150 for each toy, and I designed and hand-lettered all the logos. I used a silver ink for the premium look and blue matched all the toys. I felt black was an easy solution for a color. The border in yellow framed the toys and became a graphic for the panels, and the back panel would show off the toy and the benefits of why you should buy it. Basically, how the toy works and what’s included. 

The big disappointment is after sending all the art to Japan to be printed, the printer changed the artwork. You can see that in the width of the borders, or they deleted the border on the top of Qonto. Sadly, nobody cared, and that was one reason I didn’t like the toy business. It was done with little supervision to make sure production was done properly. This was common during that time. Asian production was very cheap, and nobody wanted to upset the bottom-line profit.

Qonto was a big success in the collectible/investment market. Looking back, maybe Bandai could have introduced the good guys vs. bad guy robots so they could expand possibilities of action fun and make it less boring for kids. Star Wars came out in 1977. Maybe Bandai should have learned from the movie and toy line. Also, make Qonto into a cartoon show or movie. Toys support the TV cartoon show and the cartoon show encourages new toys and sales. Why not? That’s where they fell short. 

Qonto was just another package design assignment from Bandai and they didn’t make a big deal about it. It seems the toy companies invested in their best ideas for children’s toys at different age levels and hoped for a winner to pay for the entire line. The big money in toys was when a toy company won the bidding to make the toy line for a movie. That was a crap shoot because you bought the rights before the movie aired. LJN Toys was asked to by the rights for all toys for Star Wars and turned it down. Yikes!

Q: As marketer and designer for the Qonto products, did you have a “universe” or story in mind for Qonto and his associated products (the ships, for example?) Did you imagine things like enemies, and allies, capabilities, and storylines?

Honestly, I had a small time period to produce so many toys, mock-ups for Toy Fair and mechanicals for printing that we knocked them out day and night. It was exhausting and we took direction from the product managers and sales folks. Looking back, Qonto could have been a lot more then it was. Sometimes, I think Japan assumed American kids knew about the robots and their exciting toys and would love to own Qonto and the few toys in the “investment” collection. 

Q:  How did you see your mission in selling Qonto to the world?

A: To design the graphics that would make the toy the hero in the box. The black inner plastic “clamshell” would hold the toy and make it pop out of the package. It’s always easier to look back when you have more time to think it through. 

Q:     Did you have the actual toys and what did you think of them, in terms of quality?

A:    I had the entire line and sold them to Forbidden Planet in NYC in the 1980s. We needed the room and I sold off all my toy samples. Wish I saved them!  The quality was excellent! The original Japanese market Qonto worked. The missiles fired off the chest plate and there were more movable parts. A 1970’s law forbade toys from shooting stuff because of child safety. I had a collection that I sold recently of nearly all the Mattel cap guns that shot plastic bullets. Can’t produce that toy today.

Q:    Was the toy line successful? Any thoughts about why, or why not?

A:    It was a success but without adding new toys and “Bad guys” to cause a war or something, it becomes dull and fades away.

Q:    Were there any plans to expand the Qonto line to new robots/characters or ships, after the first round?

A:   Nope. Just a one-time collectible toy. 

Q:  After Qonto, what other toy lines did you work on? 

A:  After Qonto, I worked on Bandai Electronics. Those are the first handheld computer games. Mostly sports games and one space fighter game.

Q:  For this author, Qonto is a beloved toy and memory from childhood. How does it feel to know that there are many folks out there, like me, who are nostalgic for these imaginative toys you worked on?

A: Short answer, love it. I designed so many products since, in different industries, and can walk into a supermarket, gun store, toy store or pharmacy and see packages I designed. But I’m still a kid at heart and collected comic and Mad Magazine artwork so my heart is into toys, and it means a lot.

Q: Is there anything I haven’t covered that you would like to share with readers of the blog?

A:  First, thank you for the opportunity to have a voice on my short-lived Qonto experience and to everyone who loved playing and collecting the toy-line. Toy packaging has come a long way since I started designing toys. All toy packaging today looks great and is well-designed even though the toys are less exciting to play with then back in the 1950s - 1960s. As a kid, if your parents bought you a playset, you could play all day creating battle scenes in your room or backyard. There’s less imagination in toys today, and less toys. The market is smaller and forget board games. Times change and everything changes with it. 

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Blackstar: "The Quest"

This episode of Blackstar (1981), "The Quest" sees a trobbit, Poulo, in danger. While fishing, he falls into the water and is infected by by the "poison of the pond."

An effort is made to cure him using an ice potion, but it fails to bring down Poulo's terrible fever. The Trobbits and Blackstar realize that only a legendary healing stone -- in the possession of the "Desert Dwellers" -- can save him.

Blackstar and Klone travel to the desert and help the dwellers stave off an attack by deadly gargoyles. In return for their courage in battle, the dwellers loan Blackstar the healing stone for "six moons."

But a minion of the Overlord, the Emerald Knight, steals the stone, and takes it to Overlord, in his heavily-guarded ice palace.

Blackstar, Klone, and Mara travel to the ice palace, confront the Emerald Knight, and launch a battle to re-acquire the healing stone for their trobbit friend.

"The Quest" is an exciting episode of Blackstar, with a nice, didactic counter-point between heroic and villainous characters.  

The Emerald Knight, we learn, is a woman who has been given the gift of eternal youth by Overlord, so long as she wears her helmet and serves him.  So she has sacrificed her soul, basically, for herself; for her own vanity. She remains young, but serves evil.

And then we have John Blackstar, a hero who fights gargoyles, travels a great distance, and risks life and limb to save a friend, Poulo, who suffers from "the poison of the pond." He is a man of his word, both curing Poulo and returning the healing stone to those whom he borrowed it from.

There's still plenty here to second-guess.  Klone still shows no personality. He's just a walking story-device: shape-shifting.  

And for the second time in four or five episodes, Mara shows up at an appropriate time to save the day, and help her allies. She's like Blackstar's secret weapon, always showing up at the last second, apparently by surprise, to kick some bad guy ass.00

Overall, however, "The Quest," is a strong episode of this Filmation series, especially because it contrasts the selflessness of Blackstar with the selfishness of the Emerald Knight. It's nice too that she sees the error of her ways, and becomes a friend, proving she isn't evil...merely misguided.  We all make mistakes, and we can all be forgiven.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Blackstar: "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea."

In "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea," the Trobbits gather together a shipment of "power fruits" and "knowledge nuts" for the Mermanites of the Red Crown Reef.  

They sail to the reef, but find that the gentle water dwellers have been attacked by a phantom ship and minion of the Overlord called Captain Typhod.

Typhod wants the shipment of fruits and nuts for himself and his master, and transforms the Mermanites into savage sea serpents. 

Fortunately, Blackstar, Klone and Mara come to the rescue...

In this episode of Filmation's Blackstar (1981), audiences meet Typhod, another colorful minion of The Overlord. He's a nasty sea captain or pirate with a powerful ship at his command. The phantom ship can cloak during battle, and also fire teleporting beams at prey.  In other words, the ship's mast-had (shaped like a dragon), opens its mouth, and a beam comes out that captures victims, like the Mermanites.

Blackstar goes up against that beam in "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea," and I don't know if I've mentioned it before in these reviews, but his star-sword makes a bionic sound effect when in use. 

Specifically, Blackstar re-uses the familiar sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978).

"The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea" also begins to explain why the Overlord places such a premium on controlling the Trobbits and their tree.  Their tree produces "power fruit" -- which enhances physical strength and power, and the humorously named "knowledge nuts," which augment intelligence.  So the tree is not just a home to the Trobbits, it is a source of power and energy.

This is an enjoyable episode of Blackstar; one which develops the world and inhabitants sufficiently. For example, there is a nice flashback in the episode showing the crew of the golden galley defeating Captain Typhod in the past, and defending the Mermanites. 

About the only negative quality I can tag about this episode involves Klone.  He has a prominent role, but the writers do nothing to develop his character.  Is this shapeshifter a one-of-a-kind like Deep Space Nine's Odo?  

From a race that lives on Sagar?  

Why is he allied with Blackstar and Mara?  

The character, while useful for his changeling abilities, has no depth at this point. We know nothing of his people, his personality, or even his governing philosophy (like Vulcans and logic, for example).  

Monday, September 13, 2021

Guest Post: Respect (2021)


By Jonas Schwartz


There's a tantalizing movie inside the brick wall that is Respect, the new biography of Aretha Franklin. But due to poor direction, poor writing, and incoherent editing, it's impossible to penetrate it. Jennifer Hudson is volcanic singing the role, but it is impossible to track the character presented because of narrative issues, so the audience loses interest in the story of this musical genius. 


Respect follows Aretha from her childhood, as the daughter of a controlling Baptist minister (Forrest Whitaker) and an estranged mother (Audra McDonald). Aretha suffers both the wrath of her father and the sexual abuse of a congregant (who fathers two of her children according to Wikipedia, but that fact was cloudy in the film itself) and jumps at the chance to escape her repressive family home with a man (Marlon Wayans) just as manipulative as her father. At first, Aretha flounders as she can’t find her distinctive style, but the musical phenom discovers her voice and creates a catalog of monster hits like “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, “Think”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.'

The script by Tracey Scott Wilson (story by Callie Khouri, Oscar winner for Thelma and Louise), follows every bio cliché, without adding any dazzle to keep audiences invested, but also clutters the story so that it’s unclear of the facts that led the young girl to sprout into the iconic diva. The film skips around ferociously. One moment, a predatory family friend is locking himself in the bedroom with adolescent Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner), and then she has children. There’s no conversations about a 12-year-old being raped and having a child at that age. She just all the sudden has children running around the house. Later, Aretha scores a huge comeback with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” but the audience never sees anything from the moment she revamps the song in her unique style with her sisters (back-up singers) forming her version of the already popular Otis Redding song to performing at Madison Square Garden. How does she feel when the song comes out, when her years of being ignored have ended?  I’m not sure. I’ll have to look it up on Wikipedia because the script doesn’t care. 


There are a few scenes the script gets perfectly. First, an argument in a dressing room with family friend Dinah Washington (Mary J Blige) that sets Aretha on her course of finding her groove. Second, the moments that demonstrate the creative process are effective. The scenes at the Alabama studio where — under the eye of her producer, Jerry Wexler (Mark Maron), the studio founder Rick Hall (Myk Watford), as well as her hot-headed husband — Aretha and the band of southern Caucasians turn a bland song into the hit “I’ll Never Love a Man (The Way That I Love You)” are riveting.  Also observing Franklin and her sisters restructure “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” into the blockbuster it became is exhilarating.  But those scenes are few and far between. 


Director Liesl Tommy, who comes mostly from Broadway and episodic television, is directing her first major motion picture and her direction on the film lacks the epic scope required for the subject matter of this caliber. The movie drags, mostly because every scene seems lifted from a TV-Movie biopic you’d find on Lifetime. There are no surprises in store for the audience OTHER than THAT VOICE.


It's no wonder Franklin personally picked Jennifer Hudson to play her. Hudson sells a song like she’s expelling a deadly toxin from her body before it eats her alive. Her intonation, her vocal heft, her kindness towards the lyrics, exemplify a master Diva. She can act a tune and make the audience feel every emotion flooding from her. Her acting in book scenes, though, is fair. She’s not a poor actress, but her caliber while singing far surpasses her depth when speaking for the character. Her Oscar® for Dreamgirls was mostly due to “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing” — NOT for her dialogue. And for those two songs, she deserved every ounce of the gold.


The rest of the cast give fine performances, particularly Whitaker, but the script gives them little on which to chew. Audra McDonald, a multi-Tony-winning dynamo (she could walk across the stage and still win a Tony), is wasted in the underwritten role of her mother. She shines in her moments interacting with young Turner, but the audience should get to spend more intimate moments with the two. 


Respect features an outstanding soundtrack, with Hudson owning all the songs that made Franklin a star. But the film itself makes little sense. It feels like the film canister accidentally mixed the reels and left two or three in the trash. Aretha Franklin deserves more RESPECT. And so does Jennifer Hudson. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Blackstar: "The Lord of Time"

In “The Lord of Time,” the third episode of Filmaton’s sci-fi/fantasy cartoon Blackstar (1981), a minion of the Overlord called a Time Lord -- where have I heard that title before? -- attacks the Trobbits.

In particular, the villain named Kadray uses his time scepter to revert the magnificent red tree to an acorn. Because the Trobbits “will be done for without the tree,” Blackstar attempts to prevent the Lord of Time from collecting the acorn.

Unfortunately, he fails on his first attempt, and the Lord of Time plans to drop the acorn into the fountain of fire: “a source of great evil” located in the Castle of the Devil Spirits.

“The Lord of Time” is a fun episode of this series that sees a minion of Overlord with an amazing power.  He can use his time scepter to send age or de-age any object.  He not only turns the Trobbit tree into a big red acorn, he evolves a Sagarian insect to turn into a giant, buzzing menace.  The episode is very creative in its use of the specter. 

For instance, the Time Lord discovers that the Fountain of Fire is guarded b peaceful sprites who won’t do his bidding.  Therefore, he reverts them to a prehistoric form, as savage, cruel warriors who will do his bidding.  Quite a weapon.

The other intriguing element of this episode is that it attempts to imbue John Blackstar with a bit more in terms of distinguishing personality.  He wise-cracks a lot in this episode, which is new. “It’s time for a rewind,” he jokes.  Or “my how time flies,” he observes. 

While these moments may sound goofy, in fact they go a bit towards making him a larger-than-life hero.  In the previous two episodes I noted that Blackstar, while a great fighter, doesn’t have much personality or drive.  In fact, Mara seems a far more important “rebel” in “City of the Ancient Ones,” and “Search for the starsword.”  Through his bad punning here, Blackstar begins to take on some color, at least

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Blackstar: "The Search for the Starsword"

In “Search for the Starsword,” a volcanic eruption rocks Sagar, and monstrous Lavalocks -- fierce minions of the Overlord – emerge to steal the Star Sword, interrupting a picnic between Mara, Klone, Blackstar and the Trobbits in the process.

The Lavalocks attack the Trobbits and get the sword, but Blackstar isn’t out of the game yet.

We learn a bit more about the characters and world of Blackstar (1981) in this second episode of the series.  

For instance, John Blackstar is categorized as a “rebel who stands against the Overlord,” suggesting that the Overlord represents established authority.  The Overlord is not merely a factional leader of outcast from society (as Skeletor might be described on He-Man.) Rather, he is the Establishment; the real power on Sagar. 

Another scene also suggests this fact. We briefly see the Overlord in a room surrounded by a menagerie of creepy life-forms or aliens. These are his retainers, one might conclude, and he is holding court.

We also learn that the Overlord’s over-arching quest seems to be to unite the two pieces of the Star Sword – Power and Star.  If he does so, we must assume he would become incredibly powerful.

We see, as well, in “Search for the Star Sword” that one of Mara’s many powers involves “the power of prophecy,” to see what is bound to happen. She is very reminiscent of Ariel on Thundarr: The Bararian (1980 – 1982).

This episode also finds a lot of action for the Trobbits, and the little red-skinned, white haired denizens of the planet. It is intriguing to realize that The Smurfs (1981-1989) were introduced on Saturday morning the same year as were these little tree hobbits, but that the Smurfs took off in the pop culture.  Blue gnomes won out over red ones!

Blackstar "Spacewrecked"

In “Spacewrecked,” John Blackstar’s lover, Katana follows his trajectory by tracing the photon vapor trail from his ship.  It leads through ...