Welcome to the 10th installment of Nostalgia Snake, a look at 2000s revivals of 1980s properties, which are now so old they're also nostalgic (hence, the snake of nostalgia eating itself). This week, it's Battle of the Planets (aka Gatchaman), a series that was conceived for Japanese audiences in the early 1970s, aired throughout the 1980s in the United States, and received its own nostalgia reboot in the 2000s. And if you have any suggestions for the future, let me hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.
Following the massive success of the early-2000s revivals of G. I. Joe, Transformers, ThunderCats and Masters of the Universe, it was clear a market existed for modern takes on beloved afternoon action-adventure properties. And while most of these revivals came from relative unknowns within the industry, it certainly doesn't hurt to have a big name attached to your project. And however much you might think superstar painter Alex Ross likes the imported anime Battle of the Planets, you need to multiply that number by five.
How Japan's Gatchaman Became Battle of the Planets in America
Top Cow's entry in the not-quite-classic cartoon revivals for comics looked back a little further for inspiration, as Battle of the Planets aired original episodes in America from 1978 to 1980 (and continued in reruns until 1985), after debuting in Japan in 1972 as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Created by anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida, Gatchaman starred five young superhero ninjas who worked for the International Science Organization to fight the terrorist organization Galactor. The show leaned heavily into environmental themes, as the villains were attempting to control Earth's endangered natural resources.
American TV producer Sandy Frank was convinced an audience for the series existed in America, following the release of Star Wars in 1977. It wasn't the superhero element that convinced Frank of the property's commercial value; Gatchaman's robots, futuristic vehicles and sci-fi technology drew his eye. Frank's reimagined title, Battle of the Planets, was itself a play on Star Wars. While most of the original Gatchaman episodes were earthbound, Battle of the Planets had its heroes traveling to numerous alien worlds that looked an awful lot like Earth, because that's where the locales were intended to be in the anime.
The reimagined Battle of the Planets casts the five heroes as G-Force, referencing the force of gravity and not specifically Gatchaman. Its members are the even-tempered leader Mark, hotheaded rebel Jason, an independent female ironically named Princess, the husky comedic relief Tiny, and the kid brother of the team, Keyop. Known as the mischievous Jinpei in Japan, Keyop received the adaptation's most drastic overhaul, becoming a genetically engineered clone child with an unusual speech impediment that caused him to stutter and make whirring noises. He was portrayed by Alan Young, Disney's longtime voice of Uncle Scrooge.
G-Force is overseen by Dr. Anderson, the team's founder and chief of security for the Intergalactic Federation. He gives G-Force their missions, and is depicted as someone genuinely concerned for the safety of the teens in his care. Much of his mentor role in the original anime was removed and given to a new character, 7-Zark-7, a robot introduced for American audiences. 7-Zark-7 provided voiceovers that smoothed over any of the scenes cut from the U.S. airings (often due to the original's violent content) and some kid-friendly comedic relief. His visual evoked Star Wars' R2-D2, while his personality was similar to C-3PO's. New animation was created to insert 7-Zark-7 into the episodes, but fans have noted it doesn't match the quality of the original anime.
The revamped mission of G-Force is to protect Earth from outer-space threats, such as the masked overlord Zoltar from the planet Spectra. Zoltar receives orders from "the Luminous One," who appears to him as an ethereal floating head. In his Gatchaman incarnation, the original interpretation of Zoltar could adopt numerous female forms, an element dropped from the American version.
Gatchaman's Merchandising, Sequels & Rebrandings
The art of merchandising cartoons for toys, comics, sticker books, records and everything else hadn't quite been perfected when Battle of the Planets debuted. And Federal Communications Commission guidelines had yet to be de-regulated under the Reagan administration, which would have prevented Battle of the Planets from being explicitly sold as a mass-merchandised property. Gold Key did publish a 10-issue comics adaptation, however, and a few inexpensive toy guns from budget toymaker Henry Gordy were sold at grocery stores with Battle branding.
In 1986, Gatchaman was re-worked yet again for American viewers as G-Force: Guardians of Space by Turner Program Services, the syndication division of Turner Broadcasting. G-Force: Guardians of Space restored many of the scenes cut from Battle of the Planets, and attempted to follow the original anime more closely. A new voice cast was also used to distance the show from Battle of the Planets. It's speculated the series only broadcast as a contractual fulfillment. TBS aired the series for one week before replacing it with Gilligan's Island reruns.
Two of the anime's follow-up series, Gatchaman II and Gatchaman Fighter, received another rebranding for Western audiences in 1996 as Saban's Eagle Riders. Much like G-Force: Guardians of Space, the show didn't catch on in the United States, although it was paired in syndication with Dragon Ball Z.
Alex Ross & Top Cow Teamed for a Battle of the Planets Comics Revival
Although Battle of the Planets didn't have much of a life in the United States after 1985, a cult following did exist. One kid of the era who never forgot the show was Alex Ross, who by the early 2000s had become one of the most acclaimed artists in comics. Teaming in 2002 with Marc Silvestri's Top Cow Productions, Ross served as art director for Battle of the Planets' first appearance in comics in more than 20 years. Orders for the first issue, according to Top Cow's press release, were double what the company expected.
To build anticipation for the relaunch, Top Cow released Battle of the Planets #1/2 through the fanzine Wizard, with art direction and covers from Ross, a story by Munier Sharrieff, and art by Wilson Tortosa and Edwin David. Colorist Shane Law of Udon Studios added an anime flair with Udon's trademark style, although it's actually fairly restrained when compared to the later Street Fighter comics.
The #1/2 issue acts as a prequel to the rebooted Top Cow series. The cast is introduced by a General Tomak, who deeply resents Dr. Anderson's claims of impending alien invasions and the child army he's grooming. Tomak is interviewing Dr. Brenden Meara, who was G-Force's psychologist until he was fired six years earlier by Dr. Anderson. He details the team's training, going back to when they were young children, introducing G-Force with individual segments.
The Dr. Anderson presented in these flashbacks is no kindly father figure; instead; he's ruthless and cold, training G-Force like a demented Professor Xavier in a truly deadly Danger Room. Princess, for example, is forced to handle live explosives during her sessions.
General Tomak believes he's been given enough dirt to destroy Dr. Anderson's career, but the final scene reveals Dr. Meara is actually a plant from Anderson, who wishes to draw Tomak's attention onto him -- and away from G-Force. Whether Dr. Meara was telling the truth about Anderson's horrific training program, we actually don't know (although it seems to be a harsh deviation from the source material that Ross likely wouldn't condone).
Battle of the Planets #1/2 Also Featured Alex Ross' G-Force Sketchbook
The rest of the issue includes Ross' sketches and notes about the series; amusingly, some of them are on old-school Marvel stationery. His logo treatments also indicate perhaps the series was close to being called G-Force instead of Battle of the Planets.
The comic foreshadows Top Cow's take on Battle of the Planets. There's care to keep the cast on-model, right down to their 1970s fashions and hairstyles. The interiors have an obvious anime influence, with a bit of contemporary superhero comic rendering thrown in. The alternate covers instead have Top Cow artists portraying the cast in their studio style, with thin, detailed rendering lines covering the team's uniforms.
The true standout visually are the Alex Ross covers, which merge his photorealistic style with the show's anime designs. His color choices are remarkable, and he somehow makes these cartoony images seem very much three-dimensional. Ross had already earned his reputation as the "Norman Rockwell of comics," but these images were the earliest indications of his impressive ability to stretch his style. If there ever is a CGI-animated Battle of the Planets or Gatchaman film (something that's been talked about for years but has been stuck in development hell), it would be a shame if it didn't resemble Ross' work.
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