Ah, the 70’s and 80’s – when paper was cheap, you didn’t have to pay royalties, and audience expectations were nice and low.
Comic book tie-ins were a popular way to roll out a line of… well, everything. You name it: movies, TV shows, toys; properties the powers that be at DC and Marvel – usually Marvel – had short term licenses on. The majority were very forgettable, short-lived garbage written by hacks; or people who dared to show up drunk to a staff meeting; or people who lost a bet to Stan Lee. I’m Rob Bradfield, and I take four-color bullets so you don’t have to.
Team America!!! FUCK NO!!! (Part one)
The worst… best… a great example…
There was this Marvel series from the 80’s called Team America. [Not to be confused with the Trey Parker and Matt Stone puppet movie.] The series only lasted twelve issues, with the cover of the final issue reading “Because you demanded it – the death of Team America.” So I guess Jason Todd might not have been the most hated character in comics after all.
I bought the first issue on the stands when I was eleven or twelve. In a hash-induced frenzy, and after finally getting rid of some collector blight on eBay, I bought the rest of the run of this abortion because I’m masochistic that way. The Venezuelan child I adopted through Sally Struthers – and her crummy village – would have to wait for a week, or two.
All those wonderful toys
Motorcycle toys were big when I was a little kid. The best ones were self-propelled. However, it didn’t matter how strong you were, tricks sucked when the velocity of your bike was dependent on your weak, little kid arms. Two popular types were motorcycles that you revved up by running along the ground in front of you, until you let it go; and ones that worked with zip cords.
But the type you really wanted had kind of a crank mechanism mounted to a handle, so you could plant yourself on the ground, thus putting a little power behind it while you cranked the handle like a character in a silent movie. Once you built up enough revolutions, the cycle would disengage, sending it barreling at breakneck speed to do whatever psychotic stunts you had planned out for it. These kind of bikes were fast and accurate – the best of both worlds. Pretty much every toy manufacturer did one. My brother and I had a Scare Cycle from Ideal ™ – Dracula.
The granddaddy, kickass motorcycle toy of them all, the one that stands out in the minds of me and many, many people from my generation, is the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. Kind of like a GI Joe, it was pretty much a Barbie for dudes. In other words, if your parents loved you enough, or you threw a fucker of a tantrum, there were shitloads of accessories to buy as well. And if you had the crank from the initial motorcycle toy – there were even more vehicles you could mount to it. TWO different kinds of Rocket Cars!!! One of them had a parachute!!! A PARACHUTE!!! He had a camper too. Everybody had campers in the 70’s – action figures and real people alike.
Things Fall Apart: Putting the “Evil” in Knievel
Everybody knows the recipe for redneck favorite, Grandma’s Slow-Cooked Asshole:
Take one redneck; stuff with money; baste thoroughly with undue praise (and bourbon!); bake in an oven of delusion for a couple years, and voila!
Who really knows what went down in Casa Knievel? Except for son, Robbie. And his wife, whatshername. And the rest of Evel’s family. And his manager. And Sheldon “Shelly” Saltman, the writer he and his manager approved to tail Knievel so he could write a book about what the daredevil was “really like.” Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…
So Shelly took documented legal clearance as a mandate to actually write the truth about what Evel Knievel was really like. Sure, it‘s kind of quaint in the rearview mirror, but he apparently abused his wife and kids and was addicted to pain killers. Since he was such a beloved personage (and lucrative franchise), a lot of people read Evel Knievel on Tour. The book came out while he was healing from injuries sustained from jumping the Pacific Ocean, and… Among these injuries were two broken arms.
Incensed, Knievel flew to California to confront Saltman. [Presumably, not using his two broken arms to fly, but the man was clearly nuts, so who knows?] This confrontation took place outside the commissary on the 20th Century Fox lot, where Saltman was also an exec of some kind. One of Knievel’s cronies held the bewildered scribe, while Evel beat him senseless with a baseball bat (remember, with two broken arms). In addition to sustaining several cracks to the ol’ head and face, Saltman’s arm was fractured in three places.
Evel Knievel served a couple months in jail and three years’ probation. Saltman was awarded $13 million in damages. However, he never received it because Evel Knievel declared bankruptcy before there was a judgment in the civil case.
And then, Star Wars changed the face of toy buying forever…
And, Like a Phoenix…
It’s not like motorcycle toys weren’t being manufactured 1977-1981. They’re one of those things that a lot of toy companies perpetually manufacture. It’s just that nothing had the punch of a tie-in with a universally loved marketing juggernaut, like a guy in a red, white and blue jumpsuit (and cape) who had a roller coaster named after him at Six Flags.
In the early 80’s, Ideal™ started producing a line of toys that were strikingly similar to the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycles, keeping the patriotic color scheme and dubbing the line Team America. There were two motorcycles/figures at first: a generic team dirt bike, and “The Mysterious Marauder” trick bike. Eventually, they incorporated a “Dirt Buggy” and “Dirt Scrambler,” but gone were the Rocket Cars, and the camper.
But the thing they couldn’t replicate (or buy from the Remco™ Toys’ going out of business sale) was the personality that drove the initial wave of stunt-bike toys – The Babe Ruth of the Intensive Care Ward, Evel Knievel. Each toy had a different, yet less distinct, figure. All but the Marauder (who dressed in all black, and drove a black motorcycle) wore some variation of red, white and blue. And unlike Evel Knievel, they weren’t posable action figures, nor could you take off the helmet. They had no faces, no personalities, and no potential for any adventure beyond what stunts you could make them do.
This is where Marvel Comics came in. Excelsior, true believers!
Nothing to Nothing Leaves Nothing
Team America had a couple things going for it – namely a couple guys who knew their way around a good comics script: J.M. DeMatteis and Bill Mantlo. Even before he went on to re-launch DC’s then-dead flagship title, Justice League in the late 80‘s, DeMatteis was at Marvel, writing Captain America and The Defenders. Mantlo was sort of the Jerry West of comics – known for being able to crank out a fill-in issue at lightning speed in a clutch. Another thing Mantlo was known for was creating two comic series that lasted longer than the toy franchises they were associated with – Micronauts and Rom: The Space Knight.
So why wasn’t Team America a slam-dunk? The basic premise goes something like this:
In the high tech, anything goes world of Unlimited Global Class Racing, a team of intrepid, independent, All-American cyclists – who apparently don’t like each other at all – defy the odds, and the best of the best, to become not just a team, but a family… all while battling the forces of HYDRA.
The result? A string of hackneyed comic book tropes, clichés, and “pulled from the headlines” bullshit that plays out like Bill Mantlo throwing a dart at the newspaper, and saying “Hm. Those video game arcades are popular with the kids…” He probably had his mental space reserved for the two good books he was working on, when Stan Lee came into his office and told him those four words none of us want to hear: I have the pictures.
Play by play
Captain America #269 is the debut of the team – not the origin. At least not yet. No, instead, it’s a disposable, inane “team-up” in which Captain America and Team America “battle” the Mad Thinker, who has been kidnapping notable smart folks so he can transplant their brain waves into android copies of them. He’s already made copies of notable eggheads like Socrates and Albert Einstein – but their knowledge is limited to what he can program into them from their collected works.
Everybody knows that Nobel Laureates love motor sports, so naturally, one of them is kidnapped during a Team America exhibition. But not before Captain America, at the urging of a security guard, takes a page from the Superman playbook and jumps over the team as they take their bows, then hogs the spotlight during an encore. However, the team couldn’t be more ecstatic about a person who hasn’t learned the routines to speed around the track, including death defying loop-de-loops, with them. What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t know. Decapitating a national hero?
From there, it’s pretty garden variety Team America adventure. Although the three members of Team America (and Cap) are transported to an undisclosed location, they escape with the help of the perennial 11th hour save: a “mystery man” riding a chopper, who wears all black clothing down to the scarf that covers his face called “The Marauder.” This occurs in EVERY issue of the series.
Issues 1 & 2 is more or less an “origin” story. I mean, kind of. We don’t get the actual origin until the final issue. Did they not know? Did Mantlo sit in his office with the toys and a bottle of Old Granddad and say to himself “What the fuck have I done with my life?” There’s no origin, but there is a sort of half-assed reason the first three members – Honcho, Wolf and R.U. Reddy – get together. Well, see, um… they were just at the track on the same day together, when each one of them is attacked by an agent of HYDRA.
The Irish guy [“Reddy” because he has red hair, get it True Believers?] alludes to a note he received that told him to go to a garage at the Florida Speedway on the first day of Unlimited Class Racing.
Honcho (the boss…) is ex-C.I.A. – and much like Nobel laureates, “spooks” love motocross. He too gets a note. Unlike Reddy’s note, which we don’t see, Honcho’s note tells him that “all of them have to succeed as one, or fall together” and other shit lifted from Breaking Away. At this point, however, Honcho doesn’t know these guys, nor does the note tell him where to go to be part of the team.
The former biker gangbanger, Wolf, [How do you say “token” in Spanish?] is simply mysteriously drawn there.
They fight HYDRA (who is in Florida to explore the possibilities of taking over the world with an experimental motorcycle debuting at the race), blah blah, blah. Just as the chips are down, Marauder steps in, blah, blah.
“We should be a team!”
“Good! I have racing uniforms in my room!”
“That’s not important. Do you want to be a team or don’t you?”
The next issue rounds out the team with Cowboy and Wrench. Wanna take a guess at what their shtick is? Wrench is deeper than just being the tech guy, though. He’s also black. That is what wrench does. He is the tech guy and he is black. He’s got the coolest name, the coolest gig, but is given very little to do, other than look like a jealous prick because his Yoko-esque girlfriend, Georgianna, is hanging out with Cowboy behind his back.
Oh yeah – and Georgianna does her best Sondra Locke impression by almost getting gang-raped by Wolf’s gang. Former gang. Wolf can put up with murder and robbery, but he draws the line at rape. It’s good to have values.
A quick word about the HYDRA operatives in Team America: they suck. That’s right – the concept was so thin, that they couldn’t find a single hack in the Mighty Marvel Bullpen to invent a villain like “Cyclor: The Man with a Motorcycle for an Arm,” or something like that. Nor do we even get the cool, scary doomsday-cult-with-an-agenda from the Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D comics. What I gather from the HYDRA appearances in this book is that it’s a bit like Amway. The agent assigned to assassinate Team America turns out to be a housewife, whose husband is a fallen New York firefighter, who took the job because the city cut off their health insurance. We were a couple years into the Reagan administration then. I can buy it.
Mary Michelle’s folks are HYDRA agents, too. Don’t worry. We’ll get to Mary Michelle. But alas, my supply of illicit substances is running critically low. Shall we pick this conversation up next week, True Believers?