Remember Saturday mornings in the 1980s? For me they involved eating C-3PO cereal while sitting on shag carpet, too close to the old wood cabinet Quasar TV. The family cat hovered nearby, looking to steal the leftover milk. Saturday morning cartoons were the only things that overpowered the lure of the Atari or the Sega consoles, which was saying a lot, since I thought Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Wonder Boy and Altered Beast were pretty much the greatest things ever.
At least, the greatest things other than Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Voltron, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and M.A.S.K. I wasn’t much into “girl shows”, though I did watch She-Ra with my sister, and I liked Jem and the Holograms… I think because it had just enough science-fiction elements for me to be interested. Back then, if something didn’t have an alien, a robot, or magic in it, I wasn’t interested. Fortunately, there was plenty of all of those things, both on Saturday mornings—The Real Ghostbusters was another favourite—but also thanks to after-school syndicated shows that ran five days a week. It was a golden age of cartoons for kids.
Of course, these shows had villains that people still remember today: Skeletor, Hordak, Mumm-Ra, Pizzazz, Megatron, Cobra Commander, Destro, and… okay, M.A.S.K’s Miles Mayhem’s outfit was a straight up Cobra Commander rip off, but the real stars of M.A.S.K. were the vehicles.
If I didn’t name your favorite 1980s cartoon villain, don’t worry: there were plenty I left out for brevity. There were so many larger than life bad guys back then, they could fill a whole book. It was a great time to be a villain, and those villains were great to the kids who watched them. They powered some of the silliest, greatest, ongoing cartoon plots ever.
I don’t think there’s any way to precisely zero in on what made these baddies special, but I think a large portion of it stemmed from Darth Vader. Vader was one part wizard, one part samurai, and one part “why does that guy have a bucket on his head?” Fortunately, back in those days, kids didn’t ask those sorts of questions. We just accepted the awesome and whacked each other with cardboard wrapping paper tubes we pretended were lightsabers.
I think the growing influence of Japanese media also had a part to play. This was very obvious with properties like Transformers and Voltron; Prince Lotor was way too pretty to be a western villain. With other franchises, the desire to be “not-Vader” caused toy companies to pull from everything from Conan the Barbarian to Speed Racer to separate their baddies from the Sith Apprentice. Of course, Star Wars itself was inspired by various films by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, so these two influences on 1980s cartoons overlap a lot.
The second-last major contributing factor, at least in my mind, was the goal of creating cheaply made cartoons with a lot of characters designed to sell toys. It was very different from the requirements on cartoon creators today: networks now want a much more limited cast of characters and absolutely no moral or educational relevance. Back in the eighties, new characters got introduced far more frequently, and villains like Skeletor were required to introduce horrendously stupid characters like Faker, Moss-Man, and Stinkor into episode plots.
Of course, I say “horrendously stupid” as a compliment. I still love Stinkor.
You could never make a character like Stinkor today. Some annoying network executive would ask some fun-killing question like “how do you create a skunk man?” Other fun killing questions may include “how does Skeletor speak without a soft palate or tongue?” and “should you really name your hero’s friends things like Fisto and Ram-Man?”
Never mind the ethical ramifications of a kid who with the physique of a well-muscled young cat man like Lion-O, or the fact that the Transformers worship an inherently virtuous set of computer code. Also, why are the Holograms okay with Jem never really hanging out with them outside of work?
We didn’t ask those questions back then, except in fun. We sort of understood, even as kids, that this stuff had an element that was dumb. By the eighties, kids had a few decades of comic book stories with those sorts of “don’t ask” elements, like Superman hiding his identity with a pair of glasses. Super Friends was also still running on TV, and the absurdity of Silver Age comics was a big part of what made them fun for kids. Back then, Dr. Doom, The Joker, and Lex Luthor weren’t scary. They were more like bad guy wrestlers… in those days, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling wasn’t referencing a sex tape.
It’s surprisingly difficult to write a compelling villain who isn’t terrifying, and I think that eighties cartoon creators don’t get enough credit for that feat. Science fiction and fantasy creators don’t do that anymore, because the 1980s were also the decade when comic books went dark. In 1987, DC Comics published Watchmen, an anti-superhero limited series by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. It changed comics, and comics inspired media, in ways that these men didn’t intend. Battles between good and evil became gritty and disturbing, superhero cartoons went the Batman: The Animated Series route, and kids programming lost its great original villains. The only immediately recognizable new cartoon TV villain I can think is the Ice King from Adventure Time. You can’t really call Squidworth from Spongebob Squarepants a villain; he’s just a grumpy boss.
I think this is a loss. You can’t have heroes without villains, and you can’t have cartoon villains that terrify kids. Some of the fondest memories I have are from when I was six years old, when my friend Vera Horseman and I beat the crap out of each other pretending to be Lion-O and Mumm-Ra. If it weren’t for Star Wars and DC and Marvel comic book characters created decades ago, kids today wouldn’t have that. As much as I like seeing kids pretending to be familiar superheroes, I think it’s sad that this generation of kids doesn’t have their own roster of Skeletors, Mumm-Ras and Cobra Commanders, because the older I get, the more I appreciate that zany, safe, “Curse you He-Man!” form of villainy.