Monday, January 19, 2015

Thundarr the Barbarian: Interview with Buzz Dixon Part II

Journey back to 1994, when the world ended. Did you miss it?
An interview with Buzz Dixon, lead writer on Thundarr the Barbarian. See part one here.

Q: Did you pitch show ideas, or did Gerber give you a general scenario to flesh out?

Typically we’d pitch story ideas to Steve, who would take the ones he liked to Joe. Rarely, Joe would have an idea he’d want included so we’d build a story around that.

Q: What episode changed the most drastically during development? Were there any major crisis points for the program during its run?

That’s hard to say at this point; as I said, I’m a forward looking sort and once I’m done with something I tend to put it behind me and move on. The busted pilot certainly had the most stuff cut out for time constraints. Occasional network fiats would cause drastic but pointless re-writes. There were no real crisis points that I recall.

More of Jack Kirby's fantastic concept art.

Q: In 1980, 1995 must have seemed impossibly far away. It’s now almost twenty-years ago, and there’s still no rogue planet. Humanity continues to plod forward, inventing iPods, pants that don’t need ironing, and new TV shows. What odds do you give the survival of human civilization?

Humans are a social species; there will be something that serves as a civilization that will survive as long as we do. Right now I’m afraid we’re entering into a very ugly period in which corporations and individuals who have amassed wealth intend to protect that wealth regardless of what it does to the society around them. I’m less anxious about natural disaster (including global warming, which is going to flood several coastal cities and drive millions of people inland) than I am about the oligarchy creating an ungovernable situation by sabotaging our ability to make long term plans and projections based on pragmatic reasons.

Airport of the future. Flying more fun than ever!
Q) From The White Mountains (Tripods) and Z for Zacharia to The Hunger Games and Divergent, Young Adult fiction is brimming over with tales from the post-apocalypse. Teenagers just devour the genre. What do you think makes it so popular with the age group?

The popular appeal of all post-apocalyptic fiction is roughly akin to desert island stories: The fantasy to start anew and get it right this time without having society (read parents) breathing down our necks.

I’ve got a YA desert island book coming out soon (Poor Banished Children Of Eve) that touches exactly on that: A group of Catholic school girls being evacuated from the Philippines on the eve of WWII are shipwrecked on a desert island while the war rages around them. There is a novice nun among them who tries to keep them in line, but her efforts to keep them “civilized” are undermined by just the basic challenge of staying alive.

Ariel and Ookla ride to town on a 'light highway'.

Where post-apocalyptic stories add to that basic appeal is the ability to add a layer of social criticism or satire to the proceedings. I’m not a huge fan of Steven King’s The Stand, but he clearly suggests that it’s the sheer inertia of the size of our civilization that keeps the worst predators at bay, and once those societal constraints are removed then it becomes a more direct face-to-face challenge between the forces of evil (sociopathy) and virtue (empathy).

Drug use was rampant among writers in the Seventies.

Thundarr the series kept its tongue firmly in its cheek and took delight in sending up contemporary mores and behaviors (viz football as a religion above).

Q: Was Thundarr really cancelled because cynical executives felt children would just as happily watch reruns as new episodes?

Boy howdy!

Cool wizard digs under a busted moon.
Q: You worked during The Golden Age for Saturday Morning Cartoons, an era that saw the creation of classic characters such as Scooby-Doo, which you also worked on. It also saw the introduction of the first television shows based on a toy line. That was a stroke of absolute, almost insidious, marketing genius: not only does the program push the product, but other advertisers paid for commercial slots inside the greater half-hour advertisement. It’s brilliant. You worked on G.I Joe, which many people have fond memories of, and was also a toy line. Was it more difficult to work on such a show, for a writer? On the up side, it would have provided the program with a steady, well funded backer invested in keeping it on the air, meaning more stability in a very unstable industry.

The toy / cartoon connection is a bit convoluted, so let me lay it out:

There had always been a connection between comic strips and later animated cartoons with merchandising. The great newspaper comic strips of the 1920 and 30s were crafted with that merchandising train in mind: The ambition of every struggling cartoonist was to get successful enough to hire somebody else to write and draw the daily strip while they cashed the royalty checks.

The first TV shows based on toys (as opposed to toys being made about TV shows) were in the 1960s. Hot Wheels was the one that got the attention of parents and the Federal Communications Commission. They cooked up a rule that animated shows could not be based on toys or other merchandising but had to be either wholly original content or based on a pre-existing literary or theatrical property.

Smurf tchotckies.

Jump ahead to the late 1970s when the Smurfs were being sold as toys, keyrings, and other tchotckies in the US. People wanted to do a show based on them but were stymied by the FCC ruling.

However, when they learned the Smurfs had originally been a Belgium comic book, that provided Hanna-Barbera with the fig leaf they needed to produce the series.

Soon everybody was rushing to created “literary” precedents to their proposed toy lines. Strawberry Shortcake was the next one out of the chute; she had greeting cards as her pre-existing property. (Dungeons & Dragons got a pass because they were based on games found in books, not toys.) Then Mattel licensed a He-Man comic book mini-series from DC and officially spun the Filmation show off of that (there is virtually no resemblance between the two other than character names and designs). Hasbro followed suite with Transformers and GI Joe by first doing comic books with Marvel then animated series on their own.

At that point the FCC decided syndication did not have to play by the same rules as Saturday morning and even the fig leaf was torn away. With cable and satellite and now Apple Box and Netflix and Hulu, there’s no Saturday morning animation block anymore.

Ruins six pack.

Q: George Lucas once said, “I’m very much akin to a toy-maker. If I wasn’t a film-maker, I’d probably be a toy-maker.” Was merchandising much of a consideration when writing Thundarr, even though no toy line ever emerged? 

I have to explain a bit about the convoluted financial history of Ruby-Spears. Joe and Ken were at one point ABC-TV’s hand picked team of trouble shooting story editors; they would get dropped in on live action shows that were in trouble with instructions to turn them around. ABC was willing to fund them as live action producers but they turned it down, preferring to do cartoons instead (yeah, I know, I asked them if they were crazy, too).

When they started producing TV shows, they were funded by a procedure known as deficit financing. Basically the network would offer them $X to produce a show that cost $2X to make. Most animation companies would acquire the budget by either borrowing (rare) or entering into a business relationship with a distributor or larger studio that would then take a share of the show’s profits if it was successful enough to enter syndication and / or have merchandising appeal (I think only Filmation ever found a way of making their shows cheaply enough to be done without deficit financing, and boy, did they look cheap!).

Filmation characters... standing about. Uncannily like the animated version.
Although I have soft spot for their Flash Gordon...

R-S went through a series of business partners who were having financial problems of their own, and were frequently acquired by entities that assumed they would just be pouring money into their coffers without any effort. As a result, there was never a single business entity toy makers could go to in order to get a quick deal on any of our characters; the best we saw were coloring books based on model sheets that we had produced in house!

Early drawing of Thundarr; note he still has a steel sword.
Emasculating sun sword comes later.

As a result, Joe and Ken could only stand by and watch as the big merchandising trains pulled out of the station. They were offered a chance to do Transformers; they turned it down to do their own teenager-turns-into-a-car show, Turbo Teen. They acquired the rights to various video games to turn them into TV shows then proceeded to abandon everything about the games that made them unique and turn them into knock offs of the Archies and Happy Days and other shows (Gary Greenfield and I did a presentation for Q*Bert that would have used the game’s constantly changing directional orientation to do essentially a 4-D version of the Road Runner and Coyote; Joe literally threw out presentation into the trash unread and told us he wanted to do the show as the Archies).

When they failed to sell any shows on their own, either originals or licensed characters, they had to go begging to Hanna-Barbera to find work just to keep the doors open. They did the dreadful animated Mork & Mindy and Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley TV shows and that pretty much sealed their fate. Hanna-Barbera used them as a stand by shop in case their production arm was over taxed, nobody came to them for new shows, no toy manufacturer wanted to speak to them because Hanna-Barbera would always nix the deal.

A few years ago some collectable toy company made Thundarr, Ariel, and Ookla action figures but these were for older collectors, not rough and tumble actual kid play.

Mindok calmly discusses transplanting his brain into a buff cyborg body.
But you just KNOW he's super excited.

Q: How did the collaboration between the writers and the artists work? Would you describe a monster or environments and then allow them leeway in designing it? Did that then reflect back on the script, inspiring changes?

At the time, writers were expected to hand in precisely written scripts with everything spelled out right down to specific cuts and angles. A 22 minute script typically ran 45 pages or thirty seconds per page (live action scripts would run a minute a page). As a result we did a lot of “directing on paper” in which we broke down each scene shot by shot, calling for close ups, specific angles, etc. (Filmation, on the other hand, would give you a big notebook filed with storyboards of existing stock footage and would tell you to write your script using as many “same as” scenes as possible!)

Thundarr takes on the mutant descendants of the Sons of Anarchy.

Freelance writers tended to write their scripts, drop them off, then go their merry way. Many of the regular staff writers rarely ventured into the artists’ warrens, and so would write stuff that was impossible to animate as written (I went into John Dorman’s office one time to find him and Jim Woodring and Thom Enriquez pounding on their desks and literally cursing the name of a writer who had sent them an impossible draw series of actions for Turbo Teen).

I took the time to get to know the artists, to understand their various specialties and responsibilities, and tried to write my scripts with their requirements in mind. For example, if I knew I wanted my characters to find something hidden in an old suit of armor at the end of the script, I made sure to mention that in the first scene description. If somebody had to make a complex course correction, I’d have them skid off frame then come back in the opposite direction, thus sparing the animators the trouble of having to turn them.

Thundarr kicking-ass in the gladiatorial ring. Ookla hitting other stuff in background.

As a result, not just for Thundarr but the other shows, I’d have artists suggest ideas for gags or bits of business that they knew they could do easily but make look good.

This gave me a bit of an unfair advantage because at R-S the storyboard crew was run by the late John Dorman, a genuine wild man, and the bull pen referred to themselves as The LA Bastards. Nobody else in the studio wanted to deal with them except when absolutely necessary and as a result left them alone, much to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. I was the only writer who took time to get to know them and befriend them and as a result they conferred on me the title of “Honorary Bastard”. Because of this, my scripts were written in a way that they could easily execute them, and as a result of that got more lavish attention than the scripts of others (such as the poor sod who wanted them to draw Turbo Teen climbing a high dive tower, jumping off the diving board, and swimming over to a boat and climbing in while in automobile form).

When studios began to do 85-episode daily syndicated shows, however, the writing and storyboarding jobs changed. As a result the scripts became much shorter and written more like live action scripts: No specific shots or angles, just a master scene that the storyboard artists would then break down.

Giant cyborg wizard Mindok with scientist minions.
Too few super-villains have scientist minions. Has there been degree inflation?

Q: Which industry did you prefer working in: comics or animation?

The most creative control I’ve ever enjoyed was when I was running my own book packaging company and writing scripts for my own line of graphic novels. I could easily write a 90 – 120 page graphic novel script a month, or a regular 22 page monthly comic every week. I’ve never found a market that can keep pace with my output.

Q: Are there programs you find inspirational today, in terms of originality or execution?

I was delightfully astonished at just how well written the Barbie’s Dream House series is. It’s meant for younger girls but the jokes fly so fast and furious that they get a lot of sophisticated material in it. I enjoy a lot of the more character oriented anime series on Netflix, though Kill La Kill is probably the wackiest of the new crop.

Kill La Kill. Note the sword smeared with blood. Now this is a kids show.

But I don’t watch a lot of new TV for the simple reason that I’ve been in the business too long and I see the gears turning. If a character makes a casual reference to a seemingly unimportant item in scene one, I know that’s going to be crucial to the resolution of the story. My wife loves English cozy murder mysteries but I usually have the whole thing solved by the midway point (and on those rare occasions when I’m wrong, my solution is usually better than the one they present).

Lincoln memorial in the far off future of 1994. 

Q: What are you working on now?

Poor Banished Children Of Eve is my YA desert island novel; I describe it as “a WWII Lord Of The Flies with Catholic school girls.”

The Most Dangerous Man In The World: The Lost Classic GI Joe Episode is a upcoming novel based on my version of the origin of Cobra, an episode that had to be scrapped when Hasbro introduced Serpentor, the Cobra emperor.

The Rustlers Of Rimrock is a modern day YA western about four teenage girls saving a herd of wild horses; I’ve finished the first draft and will start soon on the re-write.

The Serenity Christian manga series of stories will be continuing, albeit as prose novels and not graphic novels.

Past that I have a dozen projects in active development, and twice as many more on the back burners. If I never come up with another idea, I’ve still got enough to keep me occupied for the rest of my life!

Off into the sunset...
Thanks so very much for taking a look at these questions. You’re making my inner 10 year old very happy.

I’m glad to hear that, Gene. It means something to us to hear positive feedback from our audiences of long ago!

For more Wisdom of Buzz, check out his website here

For more on Thundarr the Barbarian, visit the Thundarr Wiki.

Next week: The Post-Apocalyptic Nostalgia Tour revisits Planet of the Apes. The original! Don't miss it.


  1. Nice interview, Gene. I never saw Thundarr - maybe it never reached the UK, I don't know - but I've really enjoyed reading about it.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. I watched it in The Long Long Ago, in The Before Time, when you had to watch a show at a specific time, on one of three channels. Not sure if that era of morning program got across the pond.

    It's been hard to find since then. A DVD set was released a few years back, but not retail. Have to order it. A few episodes can be found online, of varying quality.

    It's a really fun show, Kirby's influence can be felt, and although my view is heavily tinted by nostalgia, I think it was one of the best programs to hit Saturday Morning TV.