For every innovator, there is a legion of imitators seeking to carve themselves a juicy slice of the cash cow du jour, and Marvel’s success with adapting Hasbro’s G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises into funnybook form triggered a minor tsunami of toy-based comics.
Recapturing that advertainment lightning in a bottle proved to be a far more difficult proposition, though it did little to stem the tide of licensed drek foisted on an apathetic public during the mid-to-late 1980s. Capitalizing on a hot-sellling and successful property is one thing; attempting to hothouse a mediocre and derivative unknown quantity is another matter entirely, and one that the marketers and editors tended to overlook in their eagerness to cash in on a trend more perceived than real.
Comics, like the syndicated cartoon infomercials made possible by the relaxation of FCC regulations under Reagan, were viewed as another essential weapon in the toy manufacturers’ marketing arsenal as the action figure wars of the era escalated to a fever pitch.
Even as staid a firm as Tonka — synonymous with such traditional playthings as toy fire trucks and steamshovels — felt obliged to throw themselves into the character-and-world-building fray with a haphazardly localized line of figures and vehicles licensed from Bandai…
…and presented to the moppets of America as Spiral Zone.
While the requisite short-lived cartoon series (written in part by the guy who did the Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire novel, so you know it’s a rare work of quality) has retained a furtive little following, the same cannot be said of the 1987 four-issue DC comic series based on the franchise, which lacked the benefit of a bitchin’ theme song…
Welcome to the grim future of 2007! Overlord, an EVIL scientist with a malformed upper lip, has taken control of most of the planet using a will-sapping disease spread by “zone generators!”
His plague empire is named the “Spiral Zone!” (Which sounds more sports bar than sinister, but who am I to judge?) He enforces control over his subjects — who have been transformed by the disease into jaundiced Prince Charming-era Adam Ant impersonators — with the help of his EVIL minions, the Black Widows!
Opposing their heinous schemes are the heroic Zone Riders, a crack team of broad stereotypes led by the stalwartly blonde Commander Dirk Courage!
The Zone Riders have special “Neutron-90″ suits that protect them from zone contagion! They ride around on goofy motorcycles and have adventures involving exploding robot duplicates, EVIL giant statues, and parachuting into the Overlord’s Chrysler Building hideout with the help of a hippie Vietnam War vet!
Did I mention the terrorized Eskimos? Well, there are some of those in there, too!
None of it made a lick of sense, but that was beside the point. The purpose of the comic book was to sell action figures and playsets to impressionable kids, a task in which it failed with the wrong-footed panache of a true Nobody’s Favorite.