A while back I was asked if I wanted to do some paid freelance work for a popular funnybook website. Nothing came of it — due to ideological differences and the realization I didn’t want to turn a theraputic hobby into a another source of work-related stress — but I did make a handful of pitches before I sobered up from the effects of ego intoxication. One of the pitches was for a spin-off of sorts to Nobody’s Favorites where I’d examine the four-color detritus left by the licensed toy comic boom of the 1980s.
Though the concept of toy-based comics predated the Reagan Era by a good twenty years, the debut of Marvel’s ongoing G.I. Joe series cemented sequential ad-vertainment as an essential tool in toymakers’ marketing arsenals. The success of the G.I. Joecomic book can’t be overstated. Several issues were supported by animated TV spots meticulously crafted to appeal to kids’ “gimme” cortexes — unprecedented at the time and mindblowing to consider in light of the half-hearted insularity which passes for outreach by the present-day comics industry.
G.I. Joe‘s winning formula — itself a refinement on Mattel’s marketing strategy for the Masters of the Universe line — provided a template for a legion of hungry-eyed competitors seeking to carve out a sweet slice of the action figure market. Toys, comics, and (thanks to FCC deregulation) a syndicated animated series — these were the three legs of a tripod aimed at selling demand-driving cosmologies, marketing-vetted frameworks for the kiddies’ imaginations.
(How strictly the kids adhered to the supplied doctrines is debateable, as most of my pals chose to spin their own toybox narratives. That said, even the most heretical among us could quote the scripture verbatim.)
As a consequence, there were steaming shitloads of licensed toy comics on the shelves during the 1980s, with a distinct emphasis on ”steaming” and “shit.” When I came up with my abortive pitch to discuss these artifacts of the Golden Age of Action Figures, one franchise in particular stood out in my mind…
…Sectaurs, Warriors of Symbion (not to be confused with “Sex Tours, European Businessmen in Bangkok”).
Sectaurs were Coleco’s attempt to cash in on the action figure craze, a defensive action aimed at maintaining market share as Hasbro’s G.I. Joe and Transformers toy lines began to supercede Coleco’s biggest cash cow (or is that “Cabbage?”) in terms of popularity. The genesis of the insectoid heroes is pretty easy to deduce (“What do boys like? He-Man! What else do boys like? Crawly things! Right! Have the shlubs in the art department whip up some concept sketches before Friday!”) though the execution fell far short of expectations.
According to the Wikipedia article on the franchise:
The toy line did not do well partly because of the intimidating appearances of even the heroes and their companion beasts, and partially due to price points well above other action figure lines in stores at the same time.
Far be it from me to contradict what a friend once referred to as “The Great Aspergian Novel,” but I suspect the failure of the line had more to do with the fact it was an uninspired Johnny-come-lately attempting to break into a hopelessly crowded field already dominated by several powerful franchises. But, hey, if thinking that Sectaurs tanked because it was “TOO DARK AND MATURE” for the young-uns helps you sleep at night, more power to you. I reckon you’ll need it.
On the multimedia side of marketing equasion, Marvel pitched in with an eight-issue miniseries and a five-part animated epic detailing the trials and travails of the insectoid heroes. Though the company had struck gold with both the G.I. Joe and Transformers licenses, the reasons for these successes went deeper than simply “toy license + Marvel brand = winner.”
The Joe series was written by Larry Hama, who created the revised concepts for the franchise and continued to help shape it on Hasbro’s end while he fleshed out the mythos in the comics. Transformers, on the other hand, were an enormously popular property which attracted (and continues to attract) such a rabid fanbase that Marvel could have printed twenty pages of fecal smears and still made it into the respectable end of the sales charts. (To be honest, fecal smears would have been preferable to the actual published product.)
The Sectaurs comic had neither the creative vision nor fanbase to gild the mercenary lily, resulting in bog-standard heroic epic fare generated from a stock template:
(Location) is under threat from (title) (evil-sounding name) and his/her army of (evil-sounding minions) led by (really evil-sounding name). (Heroic name), heir to the (special role), is forced to put things right. He/she is assisted in this task by the power of (special thingamabob or mystic hoodoo) and a band of companions including (wise elder), (strong dude), (roguish smartass), and (token chick). Though they defeat (really evil-sounding name), the mystery of (more hoodoo) remains to be discovered.
Throw in an excess of puerile ”insectoid” pun-names (“Pinsor,” “Mantor,” “Skito,” “Krablouse”) buried in walls of indecipherable exposition and you’ve effectively experienced everything the Sectaurs comic had to offer.
Sectaurs may not the worst representative of the 1980s toy comic crop by any stretch of the of the imagination, but it perfectly embodies the stultifying, forgettable mediocrity which characterized so many of these efforts. A failure on both sides of the adver-tainment coin, the also-ran arthopods from Symbion have earned a place in the killing jar of Nobody’s Favorites.