Apr 182014
 

HomeNews has broken this week about an upcoming DreamWorks Animation film, “Home.” Scheduled to be released this fall (on Thanksgiving weekend), the film’s plot, according to Indiewire:

When Earth is taken over by the overly-confident Boov, an alien race in search of a new place to call home, all humans are promptly relocated, while the Boov get busy efficiently reorganizing the planet. But when one resourceful girl, Tip, (Rihanna) manages to avoid capture, she finds herself the accidental accomplice of a banished Boov by the name of Oh (Jim Parsons). Equally stubborn and set in their ways, these two fugitives realize there’s a lot more at stake than intergalactic relations as they embark on the road trip of a lifetime. Good thing they have a flying car.

As noted, the film’s human star, Tip, is an African-American girl voiced by singer Rihanna. While other CGI animated films have had African-American supporting characters, such as Frozone in “The Incredibles,” as well as other minorities as stars (such as Russell in Pixar’s “Up”), this marks the first time I can recall that a major theatrical CGI animated film’s had an African-American star.

Of course, there’s various detractors online (and the usual trolls, etc.) trying to dismiss this casting relevance, most of them claiming along the lines of: “there was already a Black character starring in an animated film, ‘The Princess and the Frog’!” While true that film featured an African-American cast, the comments:

  • Assume that there’s not room for more than one film starring African-Americans. Which basically sounds like: “you already had your race star in a cartoon film five years ago, so quit complaining!”
  • Ignore that “Princess” was a 2D animated film, not a CGI one, which is what dominates theatrical animation these days. As much as I want to see more 2D films return to theaters, if CGI’s going to be dominant, then seeing more diverse characters in such films as stars (not just supporting cast) is important, too.
  • Assume the “default” stars should be Caucasian characters.

Either way, seeing more diversity in casting for animated films is important and relevant.

As for the film’s chances at the box office, being released stateside at Thanksgiving should help. In terms of quality, so far all we have to go on is the preview animated short released recently, “Almost Home,” starring the film’s aliens.

Apr 172014
 

This week’s minorities in cartoons entry is a double one this week: Thunder and Lightning, a pair of superheroine sisters who’re the daughters of superhero Black Lightning.

Thunder

ThunderThunder (real name: Anissa Pierce) is the older of the Pierce siblings. Thunder possesses the ability of increasing her body’s mass while keeping her size the same, thus increasing her density. This allows her to become immovable and invulnerable, as well as generate shock waves by stomping her foot.

Anissa promised her father she’d wait until she finished college before taking up superheroics, which she did, becoming Thunder after graduation. As Thunder, Anissa had various superhero adventures, including joining the superhero team the Outsiders. There, she met fellow teammate Grace Choi, who becomes her close teammate and eventual lover.

Thunder first appeared in “Outsiders” (volume 3) #1 in August 2003. She was created by Judd Winick and Tom Raney.

Lightning

LightningLightning (real name: Jennifer Pierce) is the younger of the Pierce siblings. Like her father (and various other African-American superheroes), Lightning possesses the usual electrical-themed superpowers, including the ability to fly. After seeing Thunder’s more covert/less-than-mainstream superhero team (and the rough experiences she had there), Black Lightning decided his younger daughter needed a more formal training in her powers/becoming a superheroine, and had her join the Justice Society. There, Jennifer met and befriended fellow younger JSAers Stargirl, Cyclone, and Jakeem Thunder.

Lightning first appeared in the Elseworlds/possible-future set story of “Kingdom Come” in 1996, and was created by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. She entered mainstream present-day continuity in “Justice Society of America” (volume 3) #12 in March 2008.

For both Thunder and Lightning, the 2011 New 52 reboot saw their father Black Lightning reduced in age like everyone else (in the name of “younger and hipper”), thus preventing the superheroine sisters from existing. It remains to be seen if we’ll ever see the two again (and if so, in what form).

Outside of comics, the Pierce sisters and their father appeared in a pair of “DC Nation” shorts on Cartoon Network. Thunder was voiced by Cree Summer, Lightning by Masasa Moyo, and Black Lightning by Blair Underwood. Both shorts are available on YouTube: Short #1 / Short #2 In the shorts, Thunder and Lightning are cast as a teenager and a pre-teen (respectively), while Black Lightning seems fairly young looking. This would seem to disprove the need for the de-aging/rendered nonexistence of their New 52 counterparts.

Mar 272014
 

Misty KnightThis week’s minorities in cartoons entry is Misty Knight, a detective and crime fighter who appears in various Marvel Comics. “Misty” (her real first name’s “Mercedes”) was first mentioned in “Marvel Premiere” #20 (January 1975), and first appeared in the following issue. She was created by Tony Isabella and Arvell Jones.

Misty’s backstory states she was an officer with the New York Police Department. One day, she was severely injured while preventing a bomb explosion, forcing an arm to become amputated. Refusing to take a desk job, however, Misty resigned from the force, and decided to open a private investigation agency with her friend, Colleen Wing (who Misty had befriended/saved during the above bomb incident). The new agency, “Nightwing Restorations Ltd.”, saw the duo investigate various missing persons cases and other crimes, with the two using their combined martial arts skills (earning them the nickname “Daughters of the Dragon”).

Misty also gained a bionic replacement arm built by Stark Industries, offering her limited super-strength (in that arm). Years later, the arm would be upgraded by Stark to perform other feats, including the ability to dissolve adamantium, Marvel’s fictional super-tough metal (what Wolverine’s claws are made from).

The “Daughters” soon met Luke Cage (a.k.a. “Power Man”) and Iron Fist. Misty and Iron Fist soon began dating extensively.

Like other Marvel characters, Misty’s been involved in Marvel’s multitude of crossovers, including “Civil War.” She’s also headed a later incarnation of Luke Cage’s team “Heroes For Hire.” ” Misty also was on the most recent (as of this writing) incarnation of the superhero team the Defenders.

Misty’s also made a few appearances outside of comics. Misty appeared in an episode of “Super Hero Squad,” where she was voiced by Tamera Mowry (Tamera from TV’s “Sister, Sister”). She’s also appeared in a few video games: a non-speaking cameo appearance in “Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3″ (Iron Fist’s ending sequence), and in the MMO game “Marvel Heroes.” The latter sees Misty voiced by Cynthia Kae McWilliams, an actress who’s appeared on Fox’s “Prison Break” and BET’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood.”

Feb 272014
 

"The Real Ghostbusters"This week’s minorities in cartoons entry is yet another 80s pop cultural item: the animated series “The Real Ghostbusters.” Running from 1986 to 1991 on ABC, the series was based on the popular 1984 movie “Ghostbusters” (and its 1989 sequel “Ghostbusters II”).

The series continues the adventures of the quartet of heroes (Egon, Ray, Peter, and Winston) from the original film, as each episode sees them deal with some particular supernatural threat. The writing of the series managed to be fairly strong for its time, which aided its success; J. Michael Straczynski of “Babylon 5″ fame served as story editor.

Since it was a TV series, there was also room to give more of a backstory for each of the characters, including African-American Ghostbuster Winston Zeddemore. As the series went on, we learn (among other things): Winston’s father runs a construction business; Winston enjoys reading mystery novels; and that Winston’s the reincarnation of an ancient African shaman (who’d fought an also-ancient evil spirit).

After the end of the series, Winston and the other Ghostbusters remained unseen for some years (merchandise aside), until 1997′s “Extreme Ghostbusters.” “Extreme Ghostbusters” ran for 40 episodes in syndication, and was meant as a “next generation”-style 90s update of the original series. In this series, we learn that the original Ghostbusters have all disbanded (since they ran out of ghosts to bust), and went their separate ways. When New York’s threatened by a new batch of supernatural spirits, Egon (now a college professor) assembles a new group of Ghostbusters, using the few students in his class (all resembling “next generation”-style analogues of the original cast): Kylie Griffin, a goth student interested in the supernatural; Eduardo Rivera, a cynical Latino student who only took Egon’s course for an “easy grade”; Roland Jackson, an African-American student who maintains/upgrades the Ghostbusters’ tech; and Garrett Miller, a disabled student (Garrett uses a wheelchair) who’s the resident jock and quite enthusiastic about ghostbusting (and sports). The series finale sees Winston, Ray, and Peter return for a reunion, which ends up in a Justice League/Justice Society-style team-up with the younger Ghostbusters for a mission.

Various parodies of “Ghostbusters” have made note of Winston being the only non-White cinematic Ghostbuster. For instance, 90s animated series “The Critic” saw Jay Sherman on board to write a sequel to his world’s version of “Ghostbusters” in the episode “L.A. Jay.” When Jay asks the casting staff who’s back from the original cast: “uh…the Black guy!” “But we only have him for two days…he’s also playing the Black guy in ‘Batman 3′.” Later, one of the directors Jay interviews (a Spike Lee parody) notes: “your first problem is you’ve got a White ghost! How come there’re never any Black ghosts?!” For the record, there’s Bill Cosby’s “Ghost Dad” movie some years back; also, Nickelodeon currently has a sitcom called “The Haunted Hathaways,” about a family of African-American ghosts sharing a house with a mortal family.

Winston’s animated self was originally voiced by Arsenio Hall. Live-action “Ghostbusters” actor Ernie Hudson had tried out for the part of his own character, but for some reason, the studio favored Arsenio. After a few seasons, Arsenio was replaced by Buster Jones (the voice of Black Vulcan in “Superfriends”) for the remainder of the series and in Winston’s cameo in “Extreme Ghostbusters.” Hudson, however, finally got to voice Winston in the 2009 video game “Ghostbusters: The Video Game.” Set some years after the events of “Ghostbusters II,” we learn that Winston definitely has a doctorate, like his fellow Ghostbusters, though it’s not clear when Winston earned it. (Quote from the game: “That’s Doctor Zeddemore to you!”)

Finally, here’s the opening credits to “The Real Ghostbusters.” If you’re wondering why the “Real” part of the show’s name: Filmation (the studio behind “Fat Albert“) had made an unrelated-to-the-movie series with the plain name “Ghostbusters,” to cash in on the movie’s success. (Filmation had also produced a live-action series titled “The Ghost Busters” in the 70s; the 80s series revived the same characters.) Thus, “The Real Ghostbusters” name is a jab at their one-time rival show.

Feb 202014
 

Mr. TThis week’s minorities in cartoons entry is, like Jem last week, another 80s pop cultural icon, though one even more famous: Mr. T, the star of the 80s action TV show “The A-Team,” “Rocky III,” and, yes, a few cartoons. Mr. T (real name: Laurence Tureaud) and his tough guy image during the 80s became famous enough that he started to make appearances in the world of animation, often voicing animated versions of himself (or parodies of himself).

1983 saw the debut on NBC (home of “The A-Team”) of Mr. T’s own self-titled cartoon. In this Ruby-Spears produced series, Mr. T was the coach of a children’s gymnastics team, with the entire group getting involved in solving various mysteries each episode. Mr. T would demonstrate his toughness in the way, well, only an 80s cartoon could demonstrate: for instance, the title sequence shows him swinging an alligator over his head. Also being the 80s, the gang’s pet dog had a mohawk. Other voices included Phil LaMarr, later of “Static Shock” and “Justice League” (as John Stewart) fame. 30 episodes were produced, with the series airing through 1986. A DVD of the show’s first 13 episode season was released through the Warner Archive in 2011, but the rest of the show doesn’t seem to have been collected.

Mr. T also put in a cameo in 1983′s debut season of “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” appearing in the series’ very first episode, “The C Team.” In the episode, Mr. T helps the musical trio deal with a group of bullies. The Chipmunks’ show, like Mr. T’s, was also animated (at the time) by Ruby-Spears, and aired on NBC.

Years later, Mr. T voiced the occasionally appearing character “Mr. T-Rex” on the 90s series “Eek! and the Terrible Thunderlizards.” The Thunderlizards’ half of the show featured two bumbling cavemen and the also-bumbling (20th century-like) dinosaurs tasked by their government to eliminate the humans, before they can evolve and displace dinosaurs for global dominance. Mr. T-Rex (a Tyrannosaurus rex with gold chains and a mohawk) was an expert tracker and soldier tasked with helping the Thunderlizards carry out their task, though he wasn’t much more successful. (To a giant Venus flytrap: “You wanna play games with me, you photosynthesized fool?!”; to the Thunderlizards, after “disciplining” them: “Now fools, let’s go hunt some humans. I pity the humans!”)

Mr. T also has appeared as a cameo in Cartoon Network’s series “Johnny Bravo.” The episode “T is for Trouble” sees Mr. T try to teach self-defense to Johnny. This was in response to a letter Johnny sent as a child about a school bully picking on him; apparently Mr. T answered his letter a few decades late.

More recently, Mr. T voiced a police officer in the 2009 film “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” though its sequel saw Mr. T replaced by Terry Crews, an African-American football player-turned-actor.

Feb 132014
 

Jem and the HologramsThis week’s minorities in cartoons entry is “Jem and the Holograms.” Airing in first-run syndication between 1985 and 1988, “Jem” featured the adventures of a rock group called the Holograms.

The overall set-up of the series: Jerrica Benton is the owner and manager of both Starlight Music and Starlight House (the latter a foster home for girls), both inherited from her deceased genius father. Her father also left Jerrica with his greatest invention, “Synergy,” a powerful audio-visual computer with holographic capabilities. Synergy’s verbally controlled or communicated with via the use of special “Jemstar” earrings Jerrica wears. Along with various holographic illusions, Synergy also allows Jerrica to create her “Jem” identity as a hologram projected over herself. As Jem, Jerrica serves as the lead singer for the Holograms. Episodes would often see the Holograms travel the world, giving concerts and having assorted adventures, similar to Josie and the Pussycats 15 years earlier.

Other members of the Holograms include:

  • Kimber Benton, Jerrica’s younger sister. Kimber is the main songwriter for the Holograms, and also performs various instruments.
  • Aja Leith, the band’s lead guitarist and back-up vocalist. An Asian-American woman who, along with the other Holograms, grew up at Starlight House.
  • Shana Elmsford, an African-American woman who plays the group’s bass guitar, synth drums, and backup vocals.
  • Carman “Raya” Alonso, a Mexican-American drummer and backup singer for the group.

The main nemesis/rival to the Holograms in the series is the fellow rock group “The Misfits,” who seem reasonably popular in their own right, but not as popular as the Holograms. Episodes often revolve around the Misfits’ glory-hound (or outright dangerous) tactics to gain fame at the expense of (and sometimes risk to) the Holograms. The Misfits often relied on the aid of their sleazy manager, Eric Raymond, the former co-owner of Starlight Music. The third season saw a second rival group, “The Stingers,” introduced.

“Jem” ran for three seasons with a total of 65 episodes. Each episode featured various song numbers, often in the form of a music video—per MTV’s raging success back when they actually played music videos. The usual tie-in toys, etc. were also released.

Since the series ended, however, there’s not been much sign of the Holograms, save in 80s nostalgia references. “Jem” aired for awhile on The Hub a few years ago—the first time it’d aired on TV in decades. (Wikipedia claims “Jem”‘s last TV broadcast before that was in 1993 on USA Network, by which time the show must’ve already seemed dated.) However, the entire series is now available on Netflix. “Jem” has also been recently released to DVD, both in a “complete series” format (with the usual extras, interviews, etc.) and as individual season sets.

On a final note, here’s the opening title for “Jem,” in all its 80s glory:

Feb 062014
 

Pete JonesThis week’s minorities in cartoons entry is Pete Jones, a supporting character on the 1969 Saturday morning cartoon series “The Hardy Boys,” based on the classic children’s mystery/adventure novels.

In this Filmation-produced animated series, the Hardy Boys and their friends—Pete, Chubby, and Wanda—would travel the country as a rock group. Pete served as the group’s drummer. Similar to their source novels, the Hardys and company would inevitably get involved in some mystery or crime that needed to be solved. The half-hour show featured two separate 12-minute episodes, plus a live-action set of opening and closing credits. Similar to Filmation’s previous season’s hit “The Archie Show,” there’d be a musical number in each episode by the animated Hardy Boys band.

“The Hardy Boys” ran on ABC during the 1969-70 season, and again in reruns the following season. While this is an early entry in the “kids solving mysteries/fighting crime” genre, the show’s extremely stiff competition is probably what led to its short run: NBC’s “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” and, moreso, CBS’ “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” Yes, this was also the debut season of “Scooby-Doo,” which was the biggest hit of the 1969-70 season. Scooby, of course, would go on to become one of Saturday morning’s most popular cartoon characters, remaining popular right to this day.

“The Hardy Boys” is also known these days for another thing: Pete’s the first African-American recurring character in an American TV cartoon! Before this point, African-Americans in cartoons were either non-existent or (in theatrical animated shorts) shown as some form of degrading, offensive stereotypes. Pete marked the first time viewers (of all races) could regularly see a Black animated cartoon character that looked and acted like a normal person, and was treated with respect by his peers. The following few TV seasons would see more African-American cartoon characters, including Valerie Smith (the first African-American female TV cartoon character), “The Jackson Five” and “Harlem Globetrotters” cartoons, etc.

Outside of animation, Pete also appeared in the Gold Key “Hardy Boys” comic tie-in, which ran for four issues.

Pete’s animated self was voiced by Dallas McKennon. While some sources cite a Byron Kane as Pete’s voice, McKennon seems the more correct voice. McKennon did a fair amount of voices for Filmation at the time, including Archie, Mr. Weatherbee, and Chuck Clayton. His live-action self, however, was played by Bob Crowder, a session drummer who performed as such for various R&B musicians in the 70s.

Finally, YouTube has the live-action opening credits for the series, complete with Pete on the drums.

Jan 302014
 

Friday FosterThis week’s minorities in cartoons entry is the early 1970s comic strip (and its star) “Friday Foster.” Friday was created by writer Jim Lawrence and artist Jorge Longaron.

“Friday Foster,” debuting in 1970, was the first mainstream newspaper syndicated comic strip to star a non-stereotyped African-American woman. The strip focused on the adventures of Friday Foster, a former model who became the assistant to a world famous fashion photographer. Early installments of the strip focused on Friday’s background and family in Harlem, but the strip eventually shifted to a soap opera/romance format. The writing shift also saw Friday traveling the world, with stories taking place in Paris, Hong Kong, and London.

“Friday Foster” came to an end in 1974. Dave Karlen’s blog suggests it ended due to the logistics of producing the strip (Longaron was a Spanish artist living in Spain) and a decline in popularity.

However, the comic strip did see a few media spinoffs. Dell (of “Four Color Comics” fame) published a one-shot comic book of Friday in 1972. A few online sources claim it was Dell’s final published comic, but that’s incorrect, as Dell continued to publish comics for another year before going under in 1973.

In 1975, a live-action feature film debuted, with actress Pam Grier playing Friday. The film had the usual “blaxploitation” elements of the era.

In 2009, a line of Friday Foster dolls were produced, suggesting that there’s people who still fondly remember Ms. Foster. While there doesn’t seem to be a reprint collection of her comic strip/book, perhaps that’ll change in the future?

Jan 112014
 

Not Invented Here: Runtime ErrorFor awhile, I’ve been reading some popular webcomics. While they’ve been enjoyable, I noticed a lot of the most popular ones tend to not be much better at diversity than their newspaper strip counterparts. In a lot of webcomics, one seems more likely to see a space alien or robot or whatnot before someone who looks like me. (I won’t go into finding a webcomic that doesn’t star someone in their twenties, isn’t a gamer, and/or doesn’t occasionally use language that’d embarrass the “South Park” kids…)

Thus, I’ve recently searched for examples of African-American characters who’re the main characters or stars of webcomics. While a few of the strips are either defunct or haven’t been updated in awhile, here’s some examples I’ve found:

Not Invented Here

Updated daily, “Not Invented Here” (started in 2009) features the daily lives of a small company of programmers. “Not Invented Here” is created by Bill Barnes, Jeff Zugale, and Paul Southworth.

Among the characters include the strip’s stars, Owen and Desmond (the latter African-American). Several other minority characters also appear in the strip, including a female one.

The Interplanet Gazette

This webcomic, written and drawn by Eric Merritt, revolves around a group of individuals who work for a tabloid newspaper about the supernatural. One of the main characters, amusingly named “Crest Colgate,” is African-American.

Joe!

Joe!,” a webcomic by Michelle Billingsley, focuses on the life of a 10-year-old African-American boy and his somewhat extensive family. The strip’s not been updated in awhile, however.

Unshelved

Another webcomic from Bill Barnes (of “Not Invented Here”) and Gene Ambaum, “Unshelved” focuses on the staff of a public library. One of the staff is an African-American female. However, this would be one of the strips that seems to not have been published in awhile.

If anyone has any other examples of webcomics featuring or starring African-Americans, feel free to list them in the comments.

Dec 262013
 

RamoneThis week’s minorities in cartoons entry is Ramone, a supporting character on the PBS Kids’ cartoon series “Peg + Cat.”

The series focuses on the various adventures of a young girl named Peg and her pat cat named, well, Cat. Each episode sees the two try to solve some type of problem (herding 100 baby chicks, getting teenagers to help wash farm animals, etc.), which they solve using basic math skills.

Ramone is one of the show’s supporting characters. He’s often seen doing activities that suggest he’s quite the “renaissance man”—er, kid: building inventions; playing music; flying his own spacecraft; etc. Ramone will usually give Peg and Cat a math-related hint on how to solve the problem in question.

Ramone is voiced by Thamela Mpumlwana, a child actor whose only other animation voice credit as of this writing is a role on “Arthur.” He’s also appeared in a live-action role: in 2013′s “The Warrior and the Savior,” Mpumlwana plays a South African orphan who moves to the United States.