Saturday, October 30, 2021

Blackstar: "Lightning City of the Clouds"


The Overlord plunges all of Sagar -- including the Sagar Tree -- into permanent winter. The key to keeping spring forever locked away rests in Leelana, a Cloud City that possesses a literal key to the season.

Blackstar takes the key from the princess of the city, but must contend with Crios, an icy warlock who serves as Overlord’s minion.   Mara transforms Blackstar into an ice warrior capable of defeating the wintry troops.



“Lightning City of the Clouds” is another sort of by-the-book, or off-the-shelf episode of Filmation’s Blackstar.  The Overlord hatches an evil scheme, using a distinctive minion (here, one based on ice), and only Blackstar and the star-sword can stop him.  

Meanwhile, we get to see another kingdom on Sagar, meet another ruler (in this case a princess and get lots of appropriate wisecracks about the threat of the week.  The bad guy wants to put “Blackstar on ice,” and so forth.  This element of the episode gave me uncomfortable flashbacks of Batman and Robin (1997).

One can see how ideas on the series are starting to repeat, too. This week it’s Eternal Winter. Next week (in “Kingdom of Neptul”) it’s eternal rain.  

Of course, this is a series for children, but the storytelling is all superficial, and geared towards gimmicks.  Ice Warlocks, cloud cities, even Blackstar’s transformation, in the finale, into an ice warrior.



There’s nothing deep or consequential about the characters or their nature here, just a villainous plan to be stopped. As a child, this is fine, but on a re-watch, it feels shallow.  

A similar show, Thundarr the Barbarian (1980) featured an added (and adult…) layer of storytelling because of the post apocalyptic setting.  The interest for the adult was in seeing how the “new” world of magic was built on the ruins -- literally -- of our current world of science and technology. Blackstar possesses no such organizing principle, and vacillates between not-that-inspiring action-fantasy and lame humor (usually featuring the trobbits).

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Trick or Treat 2021: Halloween Kills (2021) and Devil’s Five (2021)


Halloween Kills 

 

David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018) was a great, perhaps even classic sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher landmark. The 2018 effort stands by itself as a bookend to that watershed, and that fact alone guarantees it a place of honor in the horror film pantheon. 

 

However, at some point, it was decided that the 2018 film would serve as the first in a new trilogy of Halloween films. 

 

This choice may have been a mistake.

 

The decision to go big and create a trilogy, more than anything else, explains Halloween Kills (2021).  Halloween Kills is a middle chapter, and thus a film with no real beginning and no real ending.  In short, nothing important really happens here, except for one death at film’s end.

 

This sequel basically marks time between the trilogy set-up of the 2018 film and the presumably gut-shattering climax of the long-lived saga that audiences will witness in 2022. The trilogy’s legendary final woman, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is mostly sidelined in the hospital, recuperating in Halloween Kills, while her nemesis, Michael Myers cuts a bloody swath to his old home in Haddonfield.  But the enemies don’t even meet face-to-face in this film. 

 

And neither of ‘em dies, either.  

 

It’s all prelude.

 

Certainly, some ‘middle’ films in trilogies have succeeded admirably. One can’t help but remember The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Godfather 2 (1974).  On the other hand, there are tiresome efforts like the overlong, under-plotted The Two Towers (2003), which grind on endlessly to little dramatic effect.

 

For the Halloween saga, the matter is even more problematic.  

 

This is a franchise built around a single night of the year, and an unstoppable killer who, mostly, eliminates characters violently.  There’s not a whole lot of room in that formula to grow a new mythology. And any new character in this Michael Myers cinematic universe is almost instantly undone by Michael’s knife.  The Halloween films are anti-world building in the strictest sense. 

 

No one can really survive long enough for the audience to get to know and love them.



But Halloween Kills is ambitious. It reaches back to an old Twilight Zone (1959-1961) episode called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” for inspiration and wishes to serve as a commentary on the mob mentality. Characters who we last saw forty years ago (at least in-universe), such as Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall), Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) and Nurse Marion (Nancy Stephens) all return only to become hardcore, weapon-toting vigilantes hunting Michael Myers during his murder spree.  

 

The problem is that these rabble rousers don’t much care who gets caught in the crossfire, and innocent people are harmed by their actions. Just the way Michael Myers harms innocent people

 

Get it?

 

This plotline is meant, no doubt, to suggest MHGA (Make Haddonfield Great Again) and remind the audience of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.  The mob chants of “Evil dies tonight” might as well be that tired old refrain:“Lock her up!”

 

It’s perfectly understandable why this imagery has bubbled up into our cinematic horror dreamscapes. January 6 was a terrifying day for this country. People died, including heroic police officers who defended our lawmakers and our public property from harm. The peaceful transfer of power, for the first time in over 200 years, was jeopardized by armed insurrectionists.

 

Certainly, I admire and seek out sub-text in horror films, but this “vigilante mob” plot in Halloween Kills is not effective sub-text.  On the contrary, it is ham-handed text. It feels obvious, belabored, and a bit of a red herring in the saga. It’s a time killer too. Time that could be spent with Laurie’s family, or with Michael on his journey, is wasted instead with the angry mob chanting in Haddonfield Hospital or chasing down an innocent suspect. 

 

So, perhaps, given the context of January 6th, this is the Halloween film we need right now. Our psyches demand a replay and parsing of what happened that day. As long as those who tried to destroy our country are allowed to escape responsibility for their treason, or play the riot down, that imagery is going to replay in our entertainment.  Over and over.  It is a boogeyman that demands to be exorcised.  As the late great Wes Craven often suggested in his horror films, things that are ignored and repressed re-emerge in scary ways.

 

And yet, despite its connection to our everyday lives, Halloween Kills doesn’t feel like the Halloween film we want right now.

 

These are films that should thrive on simplicity. The terror of Halloween is that white mask, that Rorschach Test for our subconscious. We can imprint our own fears on that shape, on that blank, emotionless visage, and we do so. Yet Halloween Kills, despite its intense violence, doesn’t really go for scares or suspense.  The movie got my blood pumping precisely once. In one scene, Michael dispatches with a Haddonfield posse in a playground, and there is just one survivor, Lindsey. She runs to escape him, and he follows, through the dark park. This scene gets the classic Halloween equation just right: a predator and prey in the dark, in a place where law and order can’t reach, where the mechanisms of modern society can’t save anybody.  There is only the law of the jungle, or the prehistoric law of the cave, perhaps.  

 

There are some memorable moments in Halloween Kills, including a gunshot death that points out -- in a jaw-dropping split-second -- the danger of irresponsible gun ownership, and another virtuoso scene in which Michael uses a stair bannister as a murder weapon.  There are some fascinating flashbacks in the movie too, that, to my heart’s delight, resurrect the great Dr. Loomis (and the equally great Donald Pleasence) without resorting to CGI.

 

But none of this material gets at the core fear of Halloweenthe fear of being chased in the dark by a relentless predator, one who will not stop, and who cannot be reasoned with.

 

Contrarily, some of the staging of the action in the film is laughable. My son loved Halloween 2018 but he burst out into hysterics during the firefighter battle at the start of Halloween Kills. To set it up, Michael emerges from Laurie’s house brandishing a weapon. The firefighters on the lot, without blinking an eye, grip their hatchets and go after him, one after the other.  

 

There’s not even an instant -- or a single shot -- of those fire fighters registering a ‘WTF’ expression when they see Michael. There is not the slightest pause for the firemen to consider their actions. Instead, they just grip their weapons and go lemming like, into battle, against Michael.  It’s ridiculous. Any sane fire fighters would have stepped back, not lunged mindlessly into battle. Consequently, a moment that should have led to a kick-ass action scene plays as unintentionally funny.

 

But my son was right about something else. When the film was over, he said he didn’t hate it. He observed instated that the quality and value of Halloween Kills won’t really be assessed until after Halloween Ends (2022).  If that film proves a great punctuation to this saga, Halloween Kills will be re-evaluated and seen as a bizarre, if ambitious and interesting middle chapter.  If Halloween Ends is terrible, the narrative will be that the trilogy lost its way with Halloween Kills, and just couldn’t recover from it.

 

Again, see how difficult it is being the middle chapter?

 

Halloween Kills didn’t slay me, but it didn’t entirely murder the mystique of Michael Myers, either.

 


 

Devil’s Five

 

Meanwhile…Devil’s Five (2021) is an ultra-low-budget independent horror anthology concerning a dark plot to summon Satan, dramatized across a series of vignettes. The film opens with a crime scene on a dark highway and depicts police detectives interviewing the mysterious perp at a local station. The officers then view a number of video files on thumb drives that provide a jigsaw-like puzzle perspective of the apocalyptic plot. 

 

One story in Devil’s Five involves a photo shoot gone wrong at an abandoned mental asylum (think Session 9 [2001]), and another involves a video blogger sharing decades old footage of stoners who attempt to summon Satan in the woods with the help of an evil book (think Evil Dead [1981]). This story features some sharp humor as the deadly serious blogger is interrupted by his mother, who vacuums the carpet in the background of a shot and punctures the self-important blogger’s narratives.

 

Yet another tale in Devil’s Five, “Choke” involves a married actress and a scene of auto-erotic asphyxiation that goes supernaturally wrong. This story represents the emotional highpoint of the film in some ways and could have been expanded to be even more effective and human.

 

The technical credits for the independently made Devil’s Five are solid. There are some sequences here that deliver the goods, at least from a purely visual perspective. I especially enjoyed one almost 360-degree shot of Satanists emerging from the sanitarium in pursuit of their prey. I remember all too well from my days of guerilla and independent filmmaking the thrill of executing a good shot like that one. And in “Choke,” split screens are utilized to good effect, suggesting a multiplication of a character’s shame, and regret. This choice of editing technique also ties into the film’s leitmotif, which is, simply stated, that the film’s audience --you and me -- is an integral part of the story (and the devil’s apocalyptic strategy).

 

At a running time of nearly two hours, Devil’s Five doesn’t sustain its visual ingenuity. And when the performances falter or fall flat, it becomes clear that the stories feel more like sketches than fully-fleshed-out narratives. In fairness, this is a difficulty shared by many low budget anthology horror films, including ones I’ve worked on, myself.

 

The film’s wraparound climax -- which explains that the Satanic apocalypse has been transmitted to the audience itself -- boasts a Carpenter-ian, In the Mouth of Madness (1994) vibe, and that is an admirable quality that might have been integrated more consistently throughout this independently shot and produced anthology.

Monday, October 25, 2021

25 Years Ago Today: Millennium (1996 - 1999)



Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), his wife, Catherine (Meghan Gallagher) and their daughter, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) move into a beautiful yellow house in Seattle.  

Frank, a former FBI agent who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, is now consulting with an organization of like-minded law-enforcement officials, the Millennium Group.  He helps the Group solve cases of an especially difficult nature utilizing his gift of “insight.”  Specifically, Frank becomes “capability,” seeing what the “killer sees.”

This ability, Frank notes, is both his gift and his curse.

Frank’s unusual brand of insight is put to the test almost at once, when a peep-show stripper is murdered by a deviant, poetry-reciting killer, “The Frenchman” (Paul Dillon). Frank tracks the killer, hoping to catch him before he strikes again.

But the Frenchman -- who is punishing sins against God in what he considers a Godless time and place -- commits another sexual homicide before he can be stopped.

As the case grows more difficult, Frank is distracted when Jordan contracts an unknown malady and is rushed to a Seattle hospital…


The pilot for Millennium (1996-1999), aired 25 years ago today, on October 25, 1996, represents, perhaps, Chris Carter’s finest writing contribution to television in the 1990s. With seemingly effortless grace and literacy, this hour-long drama sets up the three central dramatic pillars of the cult-TV series.  

These pillars are: Frank Black’s family and home life, his investigations into the most savage and monstrous of criminals, and, finally, the series’ social role as commentator on 1990's America.  All these pillars are interconnected, as you might guess.

The writing is unquestionably sharp in this pilot episode, but its edge is enhanced immeasurably by director David Nutter’s brilliant visualizations. 

Many times throughout the pilot, a central clue or connection is captured merely in terms of canny imagery, with no dialogue to support it. This visual story-telling represents one reason why Millennium endures and is so incredibly smart. Nothing is spoon-fed to us. But the clues are there for us to see, and the connections are there for us to make, just as Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) makes them.

There are two examples to consider, immediately, of this visual storytelling approach. One involves the clue, PESTE, which is written both on a casket and underneath a bridge. Frank connects the graffiti and the epitaph, but the dialogue does not. We are asked, ultimately, to make the connection alongside the investigator.

Secondly, the key climactic event of the episode involves nothing but a look -- and a momentary hesitation -- between protagonist and antagonist. Frank stumbles upon the Frenchman in police headquarters. He takes one look at him, and knows that he has found his man. Creepily, the Frenchman stares back and knows precisely whom he is facing as well.



A look passes between the two men, and then the conflict becomes physical, but again, there’s never a moment in which a character explains his thought process, or how, specifically, he knows or recognizes the identity of his opposite.  This is a powerful approach for two reasons.

First, it validates Frank’s brand of insight. 

He has been in the “head” of the Frenchman, so it makes sense that he would recognize him on sight, after a fashion. But much more frightening is the opposite recognition.  The Frenchman seems to recognize Frank not merely as an investigator, but as a kindred force or person.  He seems to understand, or believe – instinctively – that Frank sees the same things he does.  That means that Frank’s insight is right, but also that the killer possesses some level of insight as well. 

A simpler way to put this is, simply, that Frank has looked into the abyss (the Frenchman), and the abyss has peered back into him (Frank). 


Beyond these terrific visual moments, the episode is also punctuated by gruesome and shocking sights. We see the gay men cruising a park by night, and in the Frenchman’s view their eyes and mouths are sewed up. There’s a psychic jolt when these individuals loom from the darkness, their faces a mockery of what we consider a normal human visage.


Then there is the bracing moment, in the pilot’s prologue, wherein beautiful women strip and dance, only to be drenched in blood and fire.  The Frenchman says “I want to see you dance on the blood-dimmed tide,” and the episode makes that wish a reality, by adopting his (twisted and perverse) perspective. 

Much of Millennium involves what we understand to be reality (based on Frank’s view of the world), and an alternate, corrupted view of reality. That second perspective is how the killer sees the world, and Frank’s key to unlocking each mystery is to tap that horrible (but also imaginatively realized) viewpoint.  In many ways, this episode of Millennium is about the differences between realities, and the way that we all navigate them.

Consider the doomed exotic dancer, Calamity, in the teaser sequence. Before she strips for the killer, becoming his fantasy (or becoming trapped in his fantasy, perhaps), we get a harsh dose of reality. She is not the object of sexuality that customers believe she is. Instead, we see her calling her child on the telephone before starting her shift at the sex shop.  She’s a single mom trying to make a living.  Selling sex is what she does for a living, but sexual arousal is probably the furthest thing from her mind as she goes about her “work.”

The idea of image vs. reality in terms of the stripper’s world, and the killer’s world, also has one more corollary in the episode, in Frank Black himself. He has bought his family the “perfect” yellow-house, and wants to carve out a place in the world for his wife and daughter that is safe and happy.  He wants them to see only the sunshine, not the blackest night.


But Catherine -- a clinical psychologist -- knows all too well that Frank’s reality is constructed, and therefore fragile.  She tells him that he can’t protect them from the darkness.  His answer is that he wants her to pretend that he can.  In other words, he prefers, in this case, not to “see” the truth.  He constructs his reality of the yellow house and asks Catherine and Jordan to share that illusion with him, without acknowledging that it is an illusion.

Frank paints away the darkness with the yellow house, as Chris Carter told me in an interview in 2009, but he too -- like the Frenchman -- erects a world that isn’t quite real.

In terms of Frank’s family and the relationships between members, this pilot is the starting point for several story-arcs.  The first involves Catherine. She tells Frank, explicitly, that she can handle his job. What she can’t handle is him keeping secrets from her.  “I can handle imposition, Frank,” she says directly. “What I can’t handle is secrecy.”

Frank, however, is unable to be completely truthful and open with Catherine, despite her admonition that he should be.  Why?  I believe the answer is encoded in the reality he creates.  He will not be the one to shatter the sanctuary of the yellow house. If he tells Catherine everything he sees, everything he knows, she -- like him -- won’t be able to live in the world he has created.

The pilot also gives us the first instance of Jordan mysteriously falling ill or having unexplained wounds This plot device recurs on at least two other occasions in the series (“Monster” and “Borrowed Time.”) 

These dangerous events always remind Frank where his priorities should be, but also suggest that Jordan is incredibly fragile and not a “normal” child. As stories such as “Walkabout” suggest, she may possess Frank’s gift of insight…and something beyond it too.


In terms of the second dramatic pillar, Millennium’s pilot introduces to a killer who views others as sinners, and yet has sinned himself. He judges others, and condemns them to (horrible) deaths, without addressing his behavior.

The first time we see the killer in the pilot is in a rain-soaked, gray world, as he stalks it in near silhouette. 


The Frenchman is depicted under an arch, and the visual suggestion is that he is being crushed by the world; being crushed by his vision of the world, which he believes requires him to act. The world around him is dead, is slate gray, and the trees are devoid of life and color. 

He does act, to murder sinners, and Frank connects his crimes, in particular to “The Second Coming,” a 1920 poem by W.B. Yeats about, not surprisingly, apocalypse, and historical cycles. Specifically, Yeats apparently envisioned a doomsday coming roughly two thousand years after the death of Jesus Christ.

That would be right about 1996 -- the epoch of this story -- give or take a couple of years. So in some twisted way, the Frenchman is working on the assumption that he is living through Yeats’ apocalypse, which he sees as one of moral depravity. 


He talks about the “great plague in the maritime city,” and this reference may carry two meanings. The episode links the line from Yeats to AIDS, and the Frenchman’s victims. But given what we know of Millennium as a series, the “maritime” city of Seattle does suffer an outbreak in 1998, or a plague, in the two-part second season story “The Fourth Horseman”/”The Time is Now.’

Taken by itself, the pilot is the story of a sick serial killer who dwells in his own reality of judgment and wrath. But if we look at the series as a whole, we might even view him as one more person who seems “gifted” or “cursed” by an insight the rest of us don’t possess.  In this case, The Frenchman adopts the telltale “anticipatory anxiety” of Chris Carter’s 1990s programs, fearing that he knows what God’s judgment will be, come the turn of the century. Or, perhaps he knows what the Millennium Group is actually up to…

The third dramatic pillar I mentioned above is social commentary, and for me this is a key artistic aspect of Millennium. This episode points out the hypocrisy of those who judge others, and we certainly saw much of that in the 1990's.  But more than that, I think the episode gazes at people who walk among us and yet dwell in  their own separate realities.  Today, we are more divided, even, then we were in the 1990s.  

Frank’s answer to the anxiety he feels when reckoning with the real world is to create a sanctuary for his family. And that in a way is part of the problem. A sanctuary is a place to hide after all, not to engage the darkness.  A key aspect of Yeat’s The Second Coming is “turning inward,” and I think the episode demonstrates that in regards to both Frank and the Frenchman.  The episode encourages us to compare and contrast the two characters in terms of their world view, and their insight.

I’ve written this before, and I continue to stand by this assessment: Millennium opens with one of the five best pilots in TV history.  

One would be hard-pressed to pinpoint another premiere episode that achieves so much, so well. It is smart and literate, engrossing, and terrifying.

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. 

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