Tuesday, March 28, 2006

New grown-ups love old '80s cartoons

Matt Friedman
Columbia News Service

Not long ago, a 26-year-old woman went wild when she met Samantha Newark, the voice of a glam-rocking cartoon character named Jem who captivated little girls in the 1980s in the show "Jem and the Holograms." The fan jumped up and down. She laughed.

"She actually started to cry," said Newark, now a singer/songwriter in southern California. Newark is getting used to evoking strong emotions from many former little girls--and some former little boys--who grew up in the last great age of cheesy TV cartoons, before children got networks of their own with fancy production values. "Pretty much every person who finds out that I was the voice of Jem flips out," Newark said.

As today's young adults leave college or toil away at jobs with uncertain futures, many are retreating to the familiar bosom of childhood nostalgia. As this new generation--not quite X, not quite Y--comes of age, their obscure pop culture heroes are beginning to inch aside the baby boom favorites that still dominate America's cultural conversation.

Fans in their 20s are spending big bucks on their childhood fixations, buying out-of-print "Jem and the Holograms" DVDs for as much as $100. They're hosting conventions dedicated to their favorite cartoons. Writers are dropping references to '80s characters into the new shows they're creating for the Cartoon Network, knowing they will strike chords with the young guys (mostly) who tune in.

At Love Saves the Day, a store that sells retro collectables in Manhattan, you can still find Elvis lunchboxes and Daffy Duck toys. But another bunch of posable figures that might draw a blank with the boomers are ever so gradually claiming shelf space.

Here are the ThunderCats, a team of part-cat, part-humanoid aliens who fought evil on a planet called Third Earth during their syndication from 1985 to 1987. He-man, a Norse-looking prince who first aired in 1983, looks poised to jump off his shelf and resume battling the evil Skeletor. And don't forget She-ra, He-man's sister from another dimension who fought on behalf of the 10-and-under female demographic in 1985 and in reruns for many years after. In a store that's sort of a retirement home for kids' shows, these figures are its youngest senior citizens.

Kevin Stecko feels the '80s cartoon wave coming on strong. The 28-year-old from Adamsburg, Pa., runs the 80stees.com Web site. He began in 2000 by selling only He-Man, ThunderCats and Transformers T-shirts. Now, he sells more that $3 million worth of shirts each year that feature '80s cartoon icons, including My Little Pony and GI Joe. Stecko himself was a huge He-man fan as a kid.

"When I watch it now, it's absolutely horrible," Stecko said of the show, a mix of corny dialogue and cheap animation. "But something about it captured my imagination." And now, he said, "It's basically a way back to a simpler time."

The rediscovery of the cartoon heroes was fueled by the DVD releases of "Transformers" in 2002, "Jem and the Holograms" in 2004 and "ThunderCats" in 2005. The first "Jem and the Holograms" annual convention was held last year in Minneapolis.

Jean Marie, a 26-year-old sales clerk at a comic book store in Manhattan, often gets together with friends to celebrate '80s nights. They watch DVD cartoons and popular kids' movies like "Labyrinth" from 1986, featuring David Bowie as the Goblin King. Marie says her mother threw out most of her childhood toys, but now she collects original and reissued action figures. She has about 1,000, including ThunderCats and She-ra.

Marie likes to buy doubles. "When I have kids I want to give the other one to my child," she said. She has about 13 crates packed full and piled high in her bedroom. "If there was an earthquake, she'd be trapped," said her friend, Meaghan Curran, 20.

Alex Weitzman, a 23-year-old recent college graduate and aspiring voiceover actor from Orange, Calif., considers the late '80s and early '90s to be the "second renaissance" of animation. During that period, there were huge movie hits, including "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." There were also memorably well-drawn television shows, including "DuckTales" and "Batman: the Animated Series."

But many of the shows that garner affection lacked technical elan, to say the least. He-man, She-ra, ThunderCats and Jem were created in part to hock toys. Jem, for instance, went off the air after Mattel released a rock star Barbie to compete and Jem dolls stopped selling. Perhaps 20-somethings still cherish most what their parents scorned.

Weitzman says he is like many of his friends, uncertain about his job prospects and security. He says he enjoys the cartoons because they take him back to the times when "your mom brought back the food." He added, "You didn't need to worry about getting a house because you just had a house."

Matt Thompson, the co-creator of "Sealab 2021," a quirky cartoon series that currently airs at night on the Cartoon Network, knows the appeal of retro cartoons to his audience. He's currently working on a new show called "Frisky Dingo," which he says will reference '80s cartoons to appeal to his prime viewing demographic of young males.

"I'm pulling a lot of references from GI Joe, and I'm doing it on purpose," Thompson said. "I'm constantly watching what I think the next generation watched."

But it's far from certain that kids' shows from the '80s and '90s will have the same staying power as those of earlier generations.

Before cable television, when there were fewer channels, family members watched the same programming. "Even if (a show) wasn't aimed at you, you saw it," said Bob Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television and no relation to Matt Thompson. "Everyone was feeding from the same cultural trough."

During the childhood of today's 20-somethings, cable television entered a majority of American households for the first time. Parents and children, Bob Thompson said, were more likely to watch different shows.

Nevertheless, the sheer size of what some call the "echo boom" generation means that their longing for childhood favorites will be fed by nostalgia merchants for years to come, according to writer and cultural historian Thomas Hine.

"You're a member of the largest generation since the baby boom," Hine said. "You're getting flattered for that reason."

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