Charles over at Eclectorama and Eric at Toyriffic recently proposed a little blogging crossover event in honor of everyone’s favorite maniacal mercenary, that master of disguise, and all around mysterious meanie, Zartan.   As a toy in the 3.75″ G.I. Joe Real American Hero line he is probably one of the more memorable for his weird hood (which I always thought was Hasbro’s awful attempt at long hair as a kid) and because he had one of the oddest, yet most interesting features in that his exposed flesh turned blue when it came into direct contact with sunshine or heat.  As a character in the Marvel comics he was important for secretly setting off a feud between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes (at Cobra Commander’s behest), as well as being the guy who finally kills off the insufferable Serpentor (“This I command…” indeed.)  In the Sunbow cartoon series Zartan is the go-to guy for Cobra Commander, leading the kind-of-British punk Dreadnoks and taking on all of Cobra’s crazy outsourced missions in exchange for piles of gold Krugerrands.  According to the toy’s file card, Zartan is a paranoid schizophrenic who becomes so entranced with his disguises that his original personality is virtually buried deep within his chaotic psyche.  One thing I can say for certain is that the man has an infectious laugh (provided by Zack Hoffman and some great post-production work by Sunbow.)

So who’s taking part in this epic crossover event?

Eric, who writes Toyriffic

Charles, who manages Eclectorama

Dan, who curates the Toy Museum

Mario, who counts down to A Year of Toys

Philip, who is testing out his Battlegrip

Darius, who is narrating his Adventures in Nerdliness

JBoy, who is getting Revenge From the Cosmic Ark

Reis, who preaches the Geek Orthodox

…and, well, me.  So if you enjoy this special All-Zartan edition of my column Cartoon Commentary, make sure to click through to these other fine sites so that you can get your wicked blue sunburn on!

For this Zartan Zaturday event I’ve decided to take a look at one of the goofiest, yet also one of my favorite episodes of the G.I. Joe cartoon, Cold Slither, which originally aired on December 2nd, 1985.  The episode was written by Michael Charles Hill, an alumni of many animation studios including Sunbow (also worked on Transformers), Ruby Spears, and Mirage (working on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon), as well as having editing gigs at Warner Brothers, Disney and DC comics.   First off, and most importantly for this crossover, the episode heavily features Zartan and the Dreadnoks.  In particular we get a closer look at his rickety old hideout in the middle of the Florida Everglades, but we also get a chance to crack open Cobra Commander’s head and to see how the relationship between the two villains works.

One of the aspects of the G.I. Joe cartoon that I always felt that the writers really nailed was developing believable and fun connections between the various characters in the series.   Because there’s like 2.3 million different guys and gals running around in the Joe mythos, I think an important first step to getting kids interested in the characters, as well as giving some dimension to these personalities was to come up with friends and enemies that really play off of each other.   For laughs we had the constant antics between Bazooka and Alpine, the branch rivalry between Wet Suit and Leatherneck, and the imaginary love triangles between Shipwreck and any of the couples on the show (Duke and Scarlett or Flint and Lady Jaye.)  We also had the diametrically opposed spirituality vs. honor battles between Spirit and Storm Shadow, Lowlight and Lifeline’s debate between big guns and non-violence, and the back-biting and in-fighting between Destro and Cobra Commander.   So in this episode we get a chance to see Cobra Commander at his worst with the Crimson Twins foreclosing on all of his loans, the Joes beating Cobra at every turn, and in all of this strife there’s one man he can turn to, Zartan.  You can really hear this in the dynamic between CC, the Baroness, Destro and Zartan as they enter his hideout in this episode, and how the Baroness scoffs at Zartan’s digs (where she’s really berating CC for his poor leadership choices…)

In a nutshell, this episode revolves around the apparent downfall of Cobra and how this ends up effecting Joe team, both in terms of complacency and morale.  After capturing a secret stockpile of gold, jewels and art, the Joe team decides to make a final strike on Cobra’s remote mountain fortress only to find it deserted, covered in dust, and hilariously enough, up for sale by the Crimson Twins.   After a hilarious montage featuring in-uniform Cobra troopers standing on the unemployment line and Cobra Commander making some hollow threats via a television broadcast standing in front of an army of cardboard cutouts, we learn that the terrorist organization had been reduced to it’s last dime.   In a feeble attempt to regain its prior wealth, Cobra Commander, Destro and the Baroness hatch a scheme to take over the world through subliminal messages placed in popular music.   Cobra Commander gets a hold of a shaky million dollar loan and uses it to bribe Zartan and the Dreadnoks into posing as a heavy metal band called Cold Slither.  All they have to do is to look tough and pretend to play while Destro’s subliminal audio device does the rest (seriously, listen for yourself…)

What I love about this episode, and consequently what I’m sure most fans hate about it, is that it’s totally off-the-grid in terms of your basic G.I. Joe story.  Whereas the writers were encouraged to stray a bit from the harsh reality of realistic warfare and to turn to elements of fantasy to make the series a bit more dynamic, from time to time this freedom to explore led to some wacky story concepts.  But these diversions go a long way to defining the tone of the series, and they inadvertently serve to make the show more interesting.  In the Sunbow universe we can spend an entire episode trying to solve the mystery of the deadly looming visit from the Viper, only to have the payoff be a joke riffing on a misunderstood character accent.  These silly episodes help flesh out the playful aspect of the G.I. Joe universe, giving the stories a comedic style that believe it or not has an important effect on developing young minds.  When I think back to where I picked up my sense of humor I can pretty much trace it back to a handful of sources (the first five years of Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, Garbage Pail Kids, Freddy Kruger one-liners, the Kids in the Hall and Sunbow cartoons.)

The humor in this episode is also pretty layered.  One the one hand you have the goofy antics of the Cold Slither band, with Zartan in one of his least convincing disguises in the series.   As a quick aside, there are typically two types of cartoon disguises, the perfect cheat disguise, and the “we’re-all-in-on-the-joke” fumbled disguise.   Usually Zartan falls into the camp of the perfect disguise because of his skills as a master special effects wizard (utilizing holographic technology, prosthetics, and an arcane ability to mimic voices and sounds.)  This style of disguise tends to come off as a bit of a cheat because they’re just too-perfect, and they often result in poor situational writing traps like having to decide between real and fake characters (which typically ends with the same joke, the lucky punch-out with the inevitable punchline, “What-da-ya-mean-ya-didn’t-know-it-was-me?”)  So it’s kind of neat to see him, for all intents and purposes, in disguise with only a wardrobe and wig change.   Like no one would notice his iconic King Diamond inspired face under that Sideshow Bob wig?

Getting back to the humor, just as we have the in-your-face silliness of Cold Slither (including a Three Stooges musical homage during the Dreaknoks dressing room scene), we also have some more adult allusions to the at-the-time downturn in real world military activity with the visual gag of having the Cobra troopers on the unemployment line.  There’s also some other subtle hints of more adult humor in some of the other scenes as well.  In a bit of Hollywood-related social commentary Cobra Commander throttles a union lawyer complaining that it’s time to wrap up the production of a music video.   In another scene we get the three main Joe ladies (Cover Girl, Scarlett, and Lady Jaye) undercover dressed as loose groupies waiting for the Dreadnoks backstage.   There’s no way an eight year-old would get the connotations behind that gag (and rightly so.)  There’s also a subtle play on the absurdity of the aforementioned perfect disguises which Cobra usually employs in a scene where Cobra Commander and Firefly are trying to hide their identities while meeting up with a mob boss.  They’re decked out in the most absurd disguises, matching trench coats, fedoras, and aviator sunglasses over their normal outfits (including CC’s silver faceplate.)   On the surface the joke is silly, but when you consider how a normal episode plays out, it’s almost as if Michael Hill was poking fun at his own show…

Even though this episode strays into the sillier realm of the Sunbow universe, it never goes so far as to betray any of the characters or to deny the audience of fun action and adventure.  At the end of the day, no matter how far a writer strays in terms of the typical story concept, there are still rules and loglines that can’t be deviated from.  An episode of G.I. Joe has to feature energetic cliffhangers at the two act/commercial breaks, it has to provide some action, and a writer can’t break a character at the expense of the story.  Characters come first, and we see that in how Hill handled Duke.  After a handful of Joes go AWOL (brainwashed by Cold Slither), and the rest seem pretty complacent in the apparent absence of Cobra, Duke sees right through the ploy.  Earlier, when the Dreaknoks are in the middle of shooting a music video, true to character, they get bored with all the work and they feel the need to cause some mayhem (Zartan included) so they all of a sudden step back from their instruments, pull out their weapons and they start destroying the stage.  So we’re getting all of the fun craziness we expect from G.I. Joe even in a story that doesn’t really call for it.

Wait, did I just make an argument about how Hill doesn’t break any of the characters?  Maybe I spoke too soon as the end sequence of this episode bends the Joe characters, in particular Scarlett and Duke, to the snapping point.  If there’s one bit that’s hard to sit through, it’s the introduction of the Average Joe Band featuring Footloose, Rock ‘n Roll and Duke on guitar, Shipwreck on drums, and Scarlett, Cover Girl, and Lady Jaye on backup vocals.  They sing an awful rendition of the G.I. Joe theme song that has to be heard to be believed

All in all, though it’s not one of his finer moments, this episode does delve a bit deeper into Zartan’s character, and if nothing else we get to see him in through the haze of a glam rock filter.  Could have been worse; it could have been disco…