The 1980s were years of faceless corporatism, and this echoed and rippled in the decade’s cartoons.

Who made He-Man & Masters Of The Universe? Nobody knew. It appeared on your TV set once a week, by magic. You knew the studio: millions of grownups still have conditioned Pavlovian reactions to the Nelvana bear, the bouncing DIC ball, the “Filmation presents…”.  But it was easily forgotten that human beings created the show. No kid could name one of them.

This changed in the 90s. A fad for creator-driven content meant networks began branding shows around their lead creative personnel, and every kid knew The Simpsons was “made” by Matt Groening, and Ren and Stimpy was “made” by John Kricfalusi. Properties became inseparable from their creators. You were supposed to think your favorite cartoon was made by one guy doodling alone in an artist’s loft.

This creator-driven approach could easily backfire. Sometimes “creators” turned out to be self-destructive assholes, or hacks who’d fluked into (or stolen) their one good idea. Associating a show with a person meant the brand could easily become toxic: attempts to restart Ren & Stimpy now face the obstacle of John Kricfalusi’s personal life, and The Simpsons‘ wholesome “stick it to the man” satire becomes a rougher laugh in light of Matt Groening’s (alleged) executive-class flights on the Lolita Express.

But it was still an exciting era that rewarded strong personalities and odd perspectives. None of the tentpole shows of the 90s (Beavis and Butthead, South Park, Daria, King of the Hill) could have existed in the 80s, and although they were derided as juvenile toilet humor at the time, the reverse was actually true: it was the decade when TV animation grew up.

In other words, the 90s should have been Ralph Bakshi’s moment.

You have heard of him. X Rated cartoons? Rotoscoping? Blaxploitation? He’s one of animation’s great auteurs, and his work is suffused by a violent, turbulent energy that elevates the lowbrow material. Ralph Bakshi isn’t always good, but he’s always Ralph Bakshi.

Although he’s a titan of 2D animation, it’s easy to slip into past tense when discussing him. His classic films all date from 1972 to 1983, and by 1990 he hadn’t made anything good for a very long time. Was he still relevant?

His 1992 film Cool World was a devastating misfire. A jokeless, plotless, idealess nothingburger featuring bad animation and bad live action film composited in a bad way. Cool World marked the final death rattle of the adult animated film, with rubbish such as Heavy Metal 2K being the final rigor mortis of the medium’s cadaver.

Adult animation, it was believed, still had a future on the silver screen, where the stakes weren’t so high (and failure meant the studio took a bath of a few hundred thousand, rather than tens of millions). And in the mid 1990s, HBO gave Bakshi a shot at redemption.

He “redeemed” himself with Spicy City, a sci-fi anthology show hosted by an Elvira ripoff called Raven. In classic Bakshi fashion, most of the budget was evidently spent drawing very large breasts. Truly, he is to boobs what Robert Crumb is to asses.[1]62.5 hours were spent workshopping a joke about the irony of a man called “back-she” being more interested in womens’ front sides but one of our financiers backed out, saying it was … Continue reading

The show (which was laughably advertised as the first “adults only” cartoon) failed miserably. It was a one season wonder, cancelled after six episodes. But that means nothing, in and of itself. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Let’s find out.

I exhaustively deep-dived into Spicy City. Which means I watched three episodes that someone uploaded to Youtube.

Tears of a Clone

An eyeless detective is hired to track down a human blob’s missing “daughter”.

…Or, as the show relates the plot: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah? Blah blah blah.”

Holy fuck, this is the talkiest cartoon I’ve ever seen. Where’s the action? The dialog scenes go on and on. I want to go back to nineteen-twenty-whenever and throw Max Fleischer’s  Phonofilm sound equipment in the Potomac in the hope that cartoons remain silent. Maybe it would help if the characters occasionally said things that weren’t cornball detective cliches. “There’s just the small matter of my fee…”

That brings me to another issue: Spicy City’s setting.

The show aspires to an edgy cyberpunk aesthetic (like Gibson’s Sprawl). But 59-year old Bakshi had no natural affinity for high tech worlds (or desire to learn) so he said “screw it” and went with film noir.

Think of the hackiest noir cliche you know: it’s here. A PI who’s down on his luck? A dame in trouble? Smoke-filled clubs filled with sleazy characters? Fashions that consist of trenchcoats, fedoras, zoot suits, cocktail dresses, and pearl necklaces? All here.

Welcome to the future. We dress like this.

Bakshi’s cyberpunk world looks suspiciously like a 1940s Hollywood filmlot, with story choices to match. It’s so dated and old that it’s jarring when a character uses a computer. Yes, cyberpunk draws on noir. But Spicy City does so excessively, and the sci-fi plots (cloning, virtual reality, and cyborgs) are tonally incongruent with Bakshi’s world.

In short, nonsensical setting, weak story, twice as much dialog as necessary, and hideous character design. Fuck finding the girl, this guy needs to find his missing eyeballs.

Mano’s Hands

A bongo player called Mano Mantillo is the hottest thing in town. That’s Spicy City worldbuilding for you: a cyber-metropolis where everyone’s crazy over bongos.

Mano’s hands made him a star, but they have a life of their own. When mob enforcers cut them off for nonpayment of debts, they begin strangling people.

Here we see Bakshi’s lifelong fascination with black and latino culture, mixed up with the trope of the demon-possessed musician (Robert Johnson, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Soul Music, Rock & Rule, and so on). In effect, it swaps one set of cliches for another.

I didn’t love “Mano’s Hands”. It has less dialog and it’s certainly gruesome enough, but the premise is dated and lame. Is this really what we’re doing with the “world’s first adult cartoon show”? Ripping off EC Comics and The Addams Family?

By the way, Mano is Spanish for hand, thus the episode’s title is “Hand’s hands”. I wonder why his surname isn’t Martillo, which is an eighth-note bongo pattern. Mantillo simply means “mulch”.

“Love Is a Download”

Same setup as “Tears of a Clone”. A private investigator is hired to track down a missing girl. However, the client is clearly an abusive stalker, and the PI develops feelings for the girl.

Here the action takes place in virtual reality. Essentially, it’s Baby’s First Cyberpunk Plot: “what if virtual reality was better than real life?” The detective’s an obese slug in reality, and the girl’s a battered victim. But in cyberspace he’s a buff stud, and she’s a…helpless geisha? Empowering stuff, ladies.

Here, Bakshi’s cultural references finally leave the 1940s. The stalker Jake (who appears as a shark in the VR game) is dressed like a Miami Vice extra. Again, it doesn’t quite work in a cyberpunk setting, but at least it’s not ridiculously off.

I was confused by the choice to make the woman gorgeous in real life. Shouldn’t she be ugly, like the male detective? I guess she had to be attractive for Jake to have an interest in controlling her, but he could have easily had a different motive (maybe financial). I don’t know. In a show about the gritty side of life, it’s strange that woman aren’t allowed to be unattractive.

I have mixed feelings about “Love is a Download”. The main problem is that the virtual reality sequences are incredibly long and overwhelm the episode. I think this is because they’re barely animated and must have cost virtually nothing to create. It’s like watching a slideshow.

So that’s my taste of Spicy City. 

Maybe I saw the three worst episodes. Unlucky. I’ve now watched 50% of the show, and probably won’t bother with the other 50%.

It has no spark to it. It wants to be the edgiest thing on TV but it comes off as dated, lame, and “OK boomer”. The basic plots are all 20-50 years old. Raven is excellently animated but the rest of the show is just barely acceptable. The adult content seems tame next to, say, South Park, or even less famous fare like Crapston Villas. As a sci-fi drama it doesn’t even reach Aeon Flux’s knees.

But I don’t regret watching it, because I had an epiphany about Bakshi.

He’s not a creator. He’s an enhancer, and an adapter.

Fritz the Cat is Robert Crumb.

Wizards is Vaughn Bode.

Lord of the Rings is JRR Tolkien.

Fire and Ice is Frank Frazetta.

In all these cases, Bakshi acts as an amenuensis, an artistic midwife, adapting the art of someone else into film. He does a creditable job, capturing what’s great about the original and infusing his own style and personality. But he’s not building castles in the sky: he’s working from a foundation already established. That’s what he’s always been good at. You do not allow him to create something from the ground up.

He’s like a podcast host who can “riff” hilariously in a room full of funny people, but who could never carry a solo comedy act. Spicy City demonstrates what that looks like: a dull, derivative slog with plentiful boobs but no clear sense of what it is.

Bakshi fans in 1997 had no idea of the drought that was about to follow. The lone and level sands stretch far away.

References

References
1 62.5 hours were spent workshopping a joke about the irony of a man called “back-she” being more interested in womens’ front sides but one of our financiers backed out, saying it was “tasteless” in light of the “war in Ukraine”. We don’t understand the connection but regret any offense.
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In movies and shows from the 50s/60s, the standard handwavium explanation for how the superhero got his powers was “nuclear radiation”. Around 2000, it became “genetic engineering”. But in the 80s and 90s, it was “vat of toxic waste.”

As a kid, I kind of assumed that there were barrels of green goo lying around all over the place, and that if I fell into one my life would radically change. I probably wasn’t wrong.

The “green goo” trope is found everywhere, from The Killing Joke to The Toxic Avenger to CHUD. It even worked its way to children’s shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Secret Life of Alex Mack. Pick three random Goosebumps titles: at least one will have green goo on the cover. Nickelodeon game shows traditionally ended with the loser getting “slimed”. The most cliche’d videogame baddie – facing stiff competition from the Spider(tm), the Bat(tm), and the Skeleton(tm) – was the Sentient Pile of Green Slime(c)(tm)(r).

Usually we weren’t told what the green goo actually was. Medical waste? Phlegm? Minced-up Dubliners? The true answer was always “a barrel full of glowing green Plot Device”, and attempts to be more specific always backfired. Andy Sidaris’s 1987 shlockfest Hard Ticket to Hawaii involved a snake “infected with deadly toxins from cancer-infested rats.” That’s a real line from the movie.

In truth, if you see a barrel of green chemical waste, it’s probably hexavalent chromium.

Also, you now have cancer.

Hexavalent chromium is one of the worst substances on Earth. It’s toxic and carcinogenic in almost any quantity, and through any route of absorption. You cannot drink it, breathe it, or get it on your skin. It causes blindness, asthma and cancer; ulcerates mucus membranes and skin; and damages germline DNA, so have fun reproducing.

A common gag in cartoons is that the supervillain throws the hero into a laughably overkill deathtrap (like a lake of boiling lava filled with spikes and flame-retardant sharks). Hexavalent chromium is the chemical version of that deathtrap: no matter how dead you are, you are still not dead enough for chromium-6.

From the British Health and Safety Executive:

Chromium (VI) can enter the body by:

  • Breathing in dust, fumes or mist
  • skin contact with solutions or solids
  • Swallowing it, through handling food when you have chromium dust on your hands
  • Health hazards:

Single exposure to hexavalent chromium compounds can cause:

  • irritation and inflammation of the nose and upper respiratory tract if such compounds are in the air;
  • irritation of the skin with skin contact – and for chromic acid, burns to the skin, possibly leading to ulcers;
  • eye damage from splashes.

Repeated exposure to hexavalent chromium compounds can cause:

  • damage to the nose, including ulcers and holes in the flap of tissue separating the nostrils (the nasal septum);
  • inflammation of the lungs;
  • allergic reactions in the skin and respiratory tract;
  • kidney damage;
  • cancer of the lung;
  • based on experimental data, concerns about potential effects on reproduction, in both male fertility and the development of unborn babies.

I don’t recommend bathing in hexavalent chromium. Consider using one of the many other fine elements on the periodic table instead (like lead or mercury). The HSE fact sheet doesn’t say whether you can boof hexavalent chromium, but that’s likely a bad idea too.

Chemically, it’s chromium in a highly oxidized +6 valence state. Its highly reactive nature makes it helpful for certain industrial applications, such as electroplating, anodising, and dye production. It can be alloyed with steel to increase its hardness. Mixed with sulphuric acid, it’s a powerful cleansing agent, but disposal of hexavalent chromium is so difficult that it’s typically not used for this purpose.

The aerospace sector is a big consumer of the stuff, proving the truth of the aviator’s aphorism: “if it’s good for the airplane, it’s bad for you.” Aluminium by nature corrodes easily, and hexavalent chromium (in conversion coatings and primers) is known as a “sacrificial anode” – essentially, a super-reactive skin that oxidises instead of the aluminium underneath. However, increasing regulations mean that “chrome-free paint” is now something of a selling point.

Everywhere in every industry, hexavalent chromium is being phased out wherever an even slightly viable alternative exists. It used to be far bigger. Tens of thousands of tons of it were manufactured per year in the 80s, and fortunately, many of those tons were disposed of correctly and legally. When they aren’t, things start to read like a Simpsons episode.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — — Alberta Tillman stepped into her basement one day last November and discovered 1 1/2 feet of water. She flicked on the light and noticed that the water practically glowed a fluorescent yellow-green. Like many residents of this gritty industrial town across the Hudson River from New York City, Tillman learned only recently that, for more than four decades, she, her husband and their neighbors have been living next door to, down the street from or, in some cases, on top of toxic chromium waste.

[…]

“We called them chemical mountains,” said Thomas Burke, a Jersey City native and deputy commissioner of the state’s department of health. “I remember as a kid playing on them and jumping on them.” Companies discovered that they could dispose of the chromium slag by using it as landfill and in building foundations. The city and state did not object because chromium residue cost nothing, and state officials marveled at how it killed troublesome rodents.

Infectious, deadly toxins from chromium-infested rats.

Hexavalent chromium was the waste at issue in the famous Erin Brockovich case. Due to its extreme horribleness, chromium-6 leaks are associated with immense fines, and corporate decisionmakerrs going to prison. I have a new goal in life, by the way: to not ever be described as the “‘green ooze’ company chief” in a news article.

Incidentally, hexavalent chromium is not really green. It forms compounds that range in hue from lemon-yellow to orange to dark red. When waste is a dramatic neon green color, it usually means that the EPA is tracing a leak.

As a plot device, the green ooze is like radiation and genetic editing: lazy shorthand that says something about our cultural anxieties. But often, the anxiety is justified. Those Nickelodeon “sliming” shows always seemed pretty unfair. But believe me, if you were covered in green slime, you would richly deserve social ostracism. That stuff just isn’t it.

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Luca Turilli is an Italian “shred” guitarist known for playing symphonic power metal: a fact you might not guess from reading his Wikipedia page.

Having always declared to love music at 360 degrees, Turilli has dedicated himself to multiple musical genres, ranging from trance and electronic music of his first compositions to symphonic metal inspired by the world of soundtracks and also to modern pop and piano compositions of his current productions.

I like how you find, quietly inserted in the middle, the thing that encompasses 95% of his work and the reason he’s famous. It’s like describing GW Bush as an “artist, author, philanthropist, public speaker, bicyclist, politician, and dog-lover”. There’s burying the lede, then there’s putting it in a lead-lined coffin. I respect not wanting be constrained by expectations, but give me a break: nobody hears “Luca Turilli” and thinks “trance music.”

Turilli isn’t the only power metal musician to enroll himself in the witness protection program (heard anything good from “heavy rock” artist Jorn Lande lately?). It’s an uncool style of music to make or listen to, particularly Rhapsody of Fire’s brand of it. Look at it this way: they have fourteen albums, which have a total of eleven dragons on the covers. That’s just too many dragons. Their Dragon-to-Cover ratio is 11/14, or 0.785, one of the highest ever reported.

Rhapsody of Fire was a great band, but also a punching bag. To many, their songs symbolized all the worst traditions of European power metal: riffless, orchestra-layered “conceptual” cheeseballs about a cave troll called Trarg. Luca Turilli was definitely the bandmember who chafed the most under the “flower metal” designation (as well as the D&D fantasy-style marketing enforced by their various  labels), and when he became a solo artist he couldn’t throw that stuff in the trash fast enough. Luca Turilli has seven solo albums, zero of which have dragons on the cover, giving him a D-t-C ratio of 0/1 and 0%.

But that’s what I find interesting about Turilli: the fact that such an important pillar of the power metal scene does not particularly like power metal. Maybe that’s the reason I enjoy him: he’s not Hammerfall or Dream Evil, turning the crank, producing bland genre worship until the day he dies. He wants more. He wants to progress.

Prophet of the Last Eclipse is a solo record he recorded in 2002. It’s possibly his masterpiece. It’s wildly original, filled with hooks, imagination, and a sense of wonder. There’s nothing wrong with it. The musicianshp

The electronic and film score elements are the first thing. Carmin Burura meets The Matrix vocals of “Aenigma,” or the pulsating glitched-up take on Italian operatic pop (?!) found in “Zephyr Skies Theme”. Nothing sounded like this in 2002.

Most of the album is fast, with “Rider of the Astral Fire”, and “Age of Mystic Ice”, and “New Century Tarantella” rampaging along like Rhapsody of Fire in full speed mode. Even here, there’s curveballs. “Rider of the Astral Fire” has a comical a-capella vocal section that sounds like a Danny Elfman soundtrack, and “New Century Tarantella” does for Italian folk music what Angra did for Brazilian tribal music.

Those are the worst songs on the album, by the way.

“War of the Universe” is an arresting and immediate opening track, with great melodies and a propulsive feel. Turilli likes writing epics, but he never goes wrong when he writes for the 4:00 minute mark, either.

“Demonheart” is savage and corroded, almost industrial metal in places, but with tons of speed and an addictive chorus. Olaf Hayer turns in another great vocal performance here.

“Prince of the Starlight” is the fastest song, and the second most formally elaborate. Helloween-style dual harmonies exist alongside Baroque cadences, electronic flutters, and a progressive jazz-sounding piano part. Often, Luca’s guitar parts are treated with phaser effects, and seem to needle and drill like laser beams bracketing a target. Alien-sounding, yet accessible.

But none of these are the greatest composition Prophet has to offer. That would be the 11-minute long closing track, “Prophet of the Last Eclipse”. After an eerie vocal intro, Turilli hits the afterburners hard, with fragments of shouted Latin (in mezzo-soprano and tenor vocal parts) swirling like leaves in the wake of drummer Robert Hunecke-Rizzo’s double-bass blast. The song is relentlessly heavy and crushing, delivering agitated verses and an immense chorus, before an extended guitar solo section, and then a final implosion into neotonal free-time music. I don’t know if this is the best song Turilli ever wrote. I do know that no better one came to my mind before I finished this paragraph. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis. 

The limited edition of the album from Limb Music is worth getting. “Caprice in A Minor” is just filler – cool if you’re into classical music, I guess.  “Autumn’s Last Whisper” is an Icelandic neofolk ballad (with vocals from Rannveig Sif Sigurðardóttir) that sounds like it wandered in from a CD in a totally different aisle. But then there’s “Dark Comet’s Reign”, which is a monster of a track. It could have easily swapped places with one of the lesser uptempo songs on the main album release.

If you’re in the “power metal fan who’s becoming bored and jaded” group, this is (and has) everything you could possibly want. It’s over two decades old but still sounds fresh and forward looking. It’s as monumental and as well-constructed as an aircraft carrier: even in the lesser songs you’ll marvel at how tight and punchy the snare is, for example. I find this album infinitely more interesting than the post-Luca Rhapsody albums, or horrendous ripoff bands like Twilight Force. Who knew that trance musician Luca Turilli was capable of something like this?

 

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