• Editorial: Just a Toy Ad?

    Instead of a comic review today, let's do an anticipatory thought. No, it is not about potential crossovers, though I find that top image a wonderful idea.

    The Guardians of Harmony comic is set for digital release tomorrow. Obviously, a big part of this comic is promoting the toy line.

    Which raises an interesting question. In a franchised built around a toy sales, is there such a thing as a bad pitch?

    This editorial will not feature spoilers for the comic itself, but will instead look back at past cartoons and franchises. This is an old dance, and we have plenty of examples. Click below to have a read!

    Hey now, Cheese! You know rubber chickens are in violation of the Geneighva Convetion!

    To set the stage, let's address a common back-and-forth with My Little Pony's season finales and other two-parters. At least several times, the criticism has rung out, "This was just an overblown toy sale!"

    You might love or resent these examples, but it's true that each has sparked this same debate.

    Others retort, "This whole series is a toy sale. Why is this any different?" This is a valid counter-point, which has led me to the main question. Is an over-emphasized toy sale a valid criticism?

    I don't consider the idea of a cartoon tied in to a toy series inherently bad. As a child of the 80's and 90's, many of my childhood heroes and heroines could be found on local store shelves. Companies operate on the assumption that–both then and now–children will want to buy products from their favorite shows regardless of relevance. Yet this all hinges on the idea that this show is one of their favorites. Was it because they liked the toys first? Let's take a look at a financial juggernaut.

    More Than Meets the Ad

    The Transformers toy lined offered kids an entire robot army to battle it out. Looking back at the old toy ads, it's interesting to see how kids were supposed to imagine these battles. It seems pretty self-explanatory. Two sides. Giant robots. Smash.

    Okay, this is sending me mixed signals. 
    Blaster and Soundwave look "happy" to see one another.

    But way back when, I wasn't just buying any old robot. I was gonna get Optimus Prime, the greatest leader of all fictional military. I didn't want Starscream because he would fight it out with Ironhide or Jazz. I wanted the treacherous little sneak to plan ways to topple Megatron off the top of my toy shelf. The show injected a vitality into these characters that wasn't necessary to push a toy. These were characters who had corresponding toys, not toys that happened to appear in a cartoon. It helped that the Transformers cartoon aired to match the toys' debut in 1985. Kids could have an idea of their favorites before buying.

    The show itself sometimes expanded beyond the advertised conflict. The Autobots waged their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons, but they also duked it out with Atlanteans, dragons, space monsters, an electric gremlin, and a British person.

    The gremlin, Kremzeek, would stick in fans' memories into adulthood. Now the fans are working for manufacturing companies and making sales themselves. So of course they were going to promote their nostalgia. Yes, characters that didn't have a toy in the 1980's are prized collectibles in this new millennium. The show gained this following not by settling for just pitching the toys, but building a galaxy of no-limits imagination (and absurdity) that drew kids as few shows could. Often times the threats were driven off, but not eliminated.

    Thanks to Seibertron.com's gallery for the photo!

    That's not to say that the show always rose to such heights. Season two featured legions of new characters with mixed affect. As an example, let's narrow the focus to two groups. The Aerialbots jet fighter squadron featured as the fist Autobot combiner team. Despite their two-part origin story, the real episode for these bots was War Dawn. Look up most top 10 lists for G1 transformers and you'll often find this episode in the mix. The funny thing was that while the Aerialbots were the focus for that episode, they were not detached from the rest of the cast. Much of War Dawn unveiled the start of the central war and Optimus Prime's origins. The newly-created Aerialbots were just learning this information, as were we the audience. These five gained a place in people's memories as guides to the larger conflict. They weren't replacing the core heroes, but they were enhancing the presentation.

    Their combined form, Superion, actually had kids saying a catch phrase after his debut.
    "Talk is cheap!"

    Contrast that against the next combiner team, the rescue vehicle-themed Protectobots. Due to staff miscommunications, the team never received an origin story and had token appearances throughout the second season. The only episode that gave even one member focus was season three's The Ultimate Weapon. Because of this, the team and their combined form often feel more like a set piece. It's hard to say if this influenced fans or parents' decisions on what toys to buy, but poking around Transformer community posts I get the impression that the team isn't as widely celebrated.

    "Hey Groove, you ever think we'll get promoted beyond Silverbolt's door bots?"
    "Groove? Is that my name? No one's ever said it before!"

    I think many will agree with me that Friendship is Magic's creation of Equestria inspired a lot of people's imaginations. Much like the Transformers, kids and older fans are drawn to specific characters to whom they relate or admire. Yet MLP has also introduced characters or elements who don't seem to expand the world or enhance the mane cast. Case in point:

    Compare that helicopter to the Friendship Express. The train has served as transport across multiple episodes and therefore feels more a part of the world. It's the signal for moving beyond Ponyville, and a convenient setting for long exposition conversations. I don't think we've seen a helicopter like that since Testing, Testing, 1-2-3. When it first aired I remember enjoying the brevity of that toy sale, but looking at it now I realize you could have swapped in a few pegasi and gotten the same affect.

    It's pastel, and soft, and heart-themed, but you know it's about to get real when this rolls on screen!

    So if anything, it seems a toy pitch can fail from too little a focus. It needs a sense of belonging to the larger scope. There's another series that serves as a better example.

    I Have the Promooooooo! 
    He-Man and Guardians of Harmony share a common theme in comic promos. Unlike Transformers, He-Man's figure line hit the scene in 1981, two years before the cartoon debuted. Without a show to promote the line, each figure would instead come with a mini-comic. Usually these were introductions to the character, outlining their origins and abilities. Heroes would come to He-Man's aid, or a villain would back our heroes into a corner before their eventual defeat. Predictable, but often fun.

    Yes, this was a thing back then. The 80's were weird and wonderful!

    Each of these comics guaranteed the character had an some kind of identity. It's no wonder that decades later a stand-alone collection became available. Yet this successful tool highlights how the cartoon series of both 1983 and 2002 made mistakes.

    Christmas is coming. Your parents or older friends might appreciate this.

    When He-Man featured a new millennium update, it received a greater emphasis on story, character development, animation, and my oh-so-treasured continuity. Sadly, it lasted only 39 episodes and was canceled due to–you guessed it–low toy sales!

    Where did things go wrong? Let's look to The Mystery of Anwat Gar. This episode introduced a new setting, new magical artifacts, and a new Master of the Universe. You wouldn't realize this at first, because much like the toy line, the focus is narrowed to just two characters. He-man and Skeletor acquired artifacts that bestowed invincible armor. This matched Mattel's tactic of choking already poorly distributed toy line with He-Man and Skeletor variants.

    I'm sure all evil doers tremble before He-Mans mighty pogo shoes!

    By episode's end, the artifacts were destroyed and the armor never seen again. Even before the series ended, I remember watching this episode and seeing the toys on store shelves. My reaction: "Is that it?" The land of Anwat Gar and its lone inhabitant, Sy-Klone, would also be forgotten. Putting the lead protagonist and antagonist in one-shot armor took all the focus and felt like a waste.

    "So can I be a main character now?"
    "Change your color scheme to a more sepia tone and we'll talk."

    It didn't stop there. The episode To Walk with Dragons had a single purpose: to introduce the "Dragon Walker". This bipedal tank was supposed to trick a swarm of predators into thinking they faced a real dragon.

    I can't tell the difference!

    And it worked. So... that was nice. The Dragon Walker would appear in the background of an Eternian army later, but its primary purpose had already been fulfilled. This is the problem that plagued a lot of He-Man stories. A new tool would serve a single purpose. A new threat would be put down permanently. There was nothing to carry forward. Nothing to invite the audience to dream new possibilities.

    The He-Man comics were honest. "This is a story about the toy you just bought. It's meant to show how this character adds to the world. Now go play!" The episodes I described and others were more misleading. "This episode has our characters, but it's about this toy. Now go buy it!"

    Buy my 23rd variant figure or I'll give you such a pinch!

    Back to the Ponies
    I could cite many other series that made similar attempts and mistakes. The Silverhawks, Zoids, the many generations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even a brilliant piece of satire from Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

    "Alpine Ice Climber Batman? How could you?"

    Instead, let's bring this back around to our essential equines. I don't doubt we'll continue to have people argue about an episode's role as a toy advertisement. Yet looking at what's come before, I think "this was just a toy sale" is an incomplete criticism. No matter how much we actually collect, we all bought into the sales pitch. That's because this is a world inhabited by six dynamic, relatable heroines who aren't content to just sit at home and frolic. They tend to animals, craft the weather, seek out and resolve problems in a magical world. They have circles of friends like RaRa or Zephyr Breeze, who give the lead ponies opportunities to show their best. They inspire memes, artwork, comics, fan fiction, animations. More creativity than I've witnessed in any other fandom.

    I think seasons four through six have made far better use of secondary characters than the first three seasons.

    Yet how many times must Celestia and Luna lose to establish a threat? Does the same tactic work for elevating Starlight to save the Mane Six? How does the Crystal Empire truly contribute to Equestria? Was Rainbow Power worth a nine-episode arc if the power is never used again? Questions like these stir arguments, which is not bad as long as we recognize the underlying issues.

    If there's anything I hope people take away from this editorial, it's that there's no value in resenting a toy sale. Instead, ask yourself how it missed the mark and how that could have been corrected.

    Why consider the correction? Because just as Transformers fans would grow up to produce Kremzeek toys and modern-day cartoons, some fans of Friendship is Magic will move forward to produce their own, original content. Hopefully asking questions like this helps offer ideas for even better tales and successful pitches.

    It's with this in mind that I'm going to be looking at Guardians of Harmony tomorrow. Maybe it will make the perfect pitch, maybe it'll be a hit-and-miss. We'll see.

    I'm Silver Quill. Thanks for reading!