This weekend the wife and I were slumming around a few ratty record shops and antique shops in Baltimore, the word “antique” being a bit of a misnomer. These are really just junk stores with some overpriced lamps for good measure. My favorite store has what appear to be slop troughs, set up in the front and brimming with junk: random door knobs, promotional plastic cups, baby doll heads, and swizzle stick sets from somebody’s beach vacation in 1988. That’s where I found a couple of sealed Skeleton Warriors action figures for just four bucks each.
Skeleton Warriors? Never heard of it. The figures were dated 1994 and made by Playmates. Right away I could tell this wasn’t just any old crappy action figure line. Playmates was the manufacturer behind the much-respected Ninja Turtle and Star Trek toy lines. And these strange skeleton toys were extremely detailed and fully-realized. The backs of the cards advertised a full slate of figures and assorted weapons. The figures were even individually numbered for the true collector. And yet, I didn’t have a clue about it.
I quickly went through the first three stages of random obscure toy-finding: mild amusement, feigned disinterest, and then questioning. What the hell was this amazing spider-skeleton thing?
I looked to the back of the card for help: “The peaceful world of Luminarie becomes the final battleground for the forces of light and dark. When Baron Dark attempts to steal the legendary Lightstar Crystal, he causes the all-powerful stone—”
Blah blah blah. I was lost at convoluted stolen crystal plot. But seriously. WHAT THE HELL IS THIS AMAZING SKELETON-SPIDER THING?
I rapidly approached the advanced stages of toy-finding: hastily searching on the eBay app, showing to the wife for no visible reaction, experiencing gnawing feelings of need, and bargaining with the wallet. Then finally, there was acceptance. Acceptance that I would buy this crap and live with it for next fifty years of my life.
Now it was time to do some digging, toy archaeology style.
The gist of it is this: we’re somewhere in outerspace known as Lumenaire. The power source for the whole city is some crystal. It gets stolen by some bad dudes and turns them into evil skeletons. Some good dudes are trying to get the crystal back. It was a science fiction 1980s-throwback cartoon in the style of Masters of the Universe and Bravestarr. The creators even saw it as a sort of modern-day Bonanza.
In a 1994 article, the Chicago Tribune proclaimed “Skeleton Warriors Ready To Hit It Big.” On paper, the show looked like a hit with the support of several major powerhouses. It was produced Landmark Entertainment Group, the company behind the Ninja Turtles Coming Out of Their Shells Tour and the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. They had a multi-million dollar deal signed with Playmates to produce the toys nearly a year ahead of time. They landed a sweet time slot on the CBS network at 8:30am on Saturday mornings. They couldn’t lose.
The Tribune wrote, “if the toy line retains the look and craftsmanship of what we saw at Toy Fair, it’s going to be one of the top contenders for a 1994 Golden Toy Award for Best New Line.”
But Skeleton Warriors aired just one fleeting summer in 1995, lasting just thirteen episodes, nine action figures, a video game, a comic book, and a trading card set, before disappearing into obscurity and yard sale piles. What went wrong?
On the face of it, maybe it was the fact that Skeleton Warriors was only the second cartoon ever to be named after the bad guys, the first being the 1986 Inhumanoids. Kids like to support the heroes, but in this case, the heroes were somewhat bland humans with generic and forgettable names: Prince Lightstar, Talyn, Ursak, and Grimskull. It was like some weird conglomeration of He-Man, She-Ra, GI Joe, and Transformers.
And even then, if kids did want to buy an action figure of one of the heroes, they were no where to be found. Playmates had released the evil skeletons first. By the time the good guys were released, the show was in cancellation and the toys were already being slashed to the clearance section. One of the major good guy characters, Talyn, never even made it into production.
Still, evil skeletons, right? Maybe the show was too dark for kids. The beginning of each episode featured a introduction by a disembodied skull floating in the air with flaming red eyes and wearing a viking helmet. The effect is creepy and every bit as strange as it sounds.
One look at that creepy-ass floating viking skull and kids crapped their pants and changed the channel. If this was supposed to be my replacement for the Ninja Turtles, I’ll just be over here curled up in fetal position, thanks. It wasn’t that we forgot this cartoon because it only lasted one season, it’s that we collectively BLOCKED IT OUT.
But I watched a few episodes of the cartoon this weekend, and it’s surprisingly not bad. It may smell of a cartoon designed by committee, but there was true artistic intent at heart. Looking at some of the pre-production artwork, Skeleton Warriors wouldn’t have felt out of place in the heavy metal crowd.
I think the major downfall was that it was a cartoon out of time, clumsily sincere in an age of detached irony, an age of Ren & Stimpy, Beavis & Butthead, and The Simpsons. Even the themes of good vs. evil felt Reagan-Cold-War-era outdated.
1980s kids subsisted on cartoons that existed only to sell them a line of toys. 1990s kids were smarter and hipper—and so were cartoons like Animaniacs and Bobby’s World, winking and nudging back at the audience. The 1980s were about unbridled materialism. A front-loaded line of action figures didn’t dazzle 1990s kids into years of submission. The 1990s were about scoffing, albeit not out of any political ideals, but simply because we scoffed at everything back then. It was the grunge thing to do.
I liked what I watched of the cartoon. I found it highly-watchable and enjoyable, convoluted crystal plot and all. It’s a show about evil skeletons, and one skeleton wears a boa of other skeleton heads around his neck. DID I MENTION THERE’S A SPIDER SKELETON?
If anything, take a minute to watch the introduction on YouTube. It’s mind-meltingly awesome and may or may not have the power of a religious conversion. This weekend I discovered Skeleton Warriors, but in the end, I just may have discovered myself.