Celebrating the Toys, Cartoons, and Comics of 1984

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1984 is perhaps the most pivotal pop culture year in memory. So many of the movies, music, and television series debuting that year had an incredible impact, and their legacy continues to this day. Rarely has a confluence of circumstances resulted in so much memorable pop art happening all at once. And that was perhaps most true in the world of cartoons, toys, and comics—three mediums that often intermingled. Here, we celebrate the iconic properties that debuted in ’84, from Transformers to Ninja Turtles, and explain how they all still live on decades later.

Marvel Comics/Hasbro/Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird

Transformers

The original 1984 Generation-1 Transformers toys, and promo art from the Transformers cartoon.
Hasbro

Under Ronald Reagan’s presidency starting in 1981, his FCC chairman pick Mark S. Fowler changed the rules that didn’t allow children’s programming to advertise directly to kids. By 1983, the airwaves were flooded with cartoons that were literally 30-minute toy ads. Shows were featuring everything from Pac-Man, to Smurfs, to 1983’s “Big Two,” He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe. The “Big Two” cartoons continued to dominate as 1984 began, but another iconic brand that arguably dwarfed them—the Transformers—joined soon after.

The cover for Marvel Comics' Transformers #1 by artist Bill Sienkiewicz
Marvel Comics

Toy company Hasbro licensed transforming robot toys from the Japanese company Takara, which had already existed in that country since 1980. But in America, Hasbro wanted a whole mythology to go with the toys, something they didn’t have overseas as Diacolone or Micro Change. Hasbro hired Marvel Comics—specifically former Batman writer Dennis O’Neil—to develop the American names and personalities of Optimus Prime, Megatron, and the rest.

In the spring of 1984, the rebranded toys hit the shelves. In May, Marvel’s Transformers #1 also arrived, billed as “a 4-Part Limited Series.” The Transformers‘ catchphrase “More than meets the eye” became something every kid knew, overnight.

The Continuing Legacy of Transformers

The poster for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts features: Airazor, Arcee, Optimus Prime, Optimus Primal, Cheetor, Bumblebee, and Mirage.
Paramount

Transformers was such an instant runaway success with kids, that the comics expanded from limited series to ongoing and ran until 1990. Then, the animated series arrived that fall, sending the brand into the stratosphere. The three-tiered approach– toys, comics, and cartoons—worked like gangbusters. The “More than Meets the Eye” robots from Cybertron became household names, and totally kicked the butts of their counterparts, the Go-Bots. Although the brand quietly went dormant in 1990, in the later part of the decade it returned as Beast Wars. From that point on, the brand became perennial, and a live-action movie franchise that has grossed billions of dollars followed. The biggest toy debut of 1984 is still as ubiquitous as ever decades later.

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars

The cover for 1984's Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #1, and a 1984 ad for the action figure line.
Marvel Comics/Mattel Toys

Speaking of toys and Marvel Comics, their other big success that year was both a Marvel Comics series and an action-figure line. Interestingly, one was far more influential than the other. In the early ‘80s, Mattel Toys got the Marvel Comics license. They wanted their upcoming action-figure line to have a big comic book event to push it, so Mattel, after doing focus groups on kids, discovered their target demographic of little boys loved the words “secret” and “wars.” Thus, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars was born. And then-Marvel EIC Jim Shooter took it upon himself to write the series.

Secret Wars was the first crossover event series between all of Marvel’s biggest titles, except for the grittier Daredevil and Doctor Strange. The story was simple enough. A cosmic being called the Beyonder gathered the best heroes and the worst villains to fight it out on an artificial planet called Battleworld, deciding what is more powerful, good or evil? Older readers scoffed at the story, but younger kids ate it up. Secret Wars sold better than any Marvel Comic in 25 years, and the “company-wide crossover” event was born. The next year, DC would do the same with their own Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The Continuing Legacy of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars

The logo for Marvel's 2015 reboot of Secret Wars, and the title treatment for the sixth Avengers film, also called Secret Wars.
Marvel Comics/Marvel Studios

Secret Wars as a toy line petered out after two waves, likely because of lack of big-name characters. The comics also launched the much-disliked Secret Wars II a mere two years later. But the original series introduced very important elements to the Marvel Universe, like Spider-Man’s black alien costume, which later became Venom, a character who is now one of Marvel’s most popular heroes. The ’90s Spider-Man: The Animated Series adapted the first Secret Wars, and it got a reboot/sequel of sorts in 2015, by writer Jonathan Hickman. That series will serve as the basis for the upcoming Avengers sequel, also titled Secret Wars. The pop culture legacy of this one comic book event series has truly lasted far past 1984.  

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles artwork from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird

Cartoonists and buddies Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird started Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a small print black and white comic on a lark. Interestingly, this happened after Eastman randomly doodled a turtle with a mask and a sword. From this one image, a full comic arrived soon after, which was meant to be a one-shot. That comic soon became a phenomenon. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 was a parody of popular Marvel heroes, poking fun at Marvel’s mutant X-Men, and the ninja world of Daredevil. The first issue debuted at a Comic-Con in May 1984, and had a limited print run of only 3,275 copies. It blew up and an ongoing series was next. They couldn’t keep this black and white series of anthropomorphic turtles transformed by toxic waste into formidable warriors off the shelves.

Much like Superman in the ‘30s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a pop culture staple almost overnight. Within four years of their 1984 debut, Ninja Turtles became an animated series, a live-action movie, and a massively successful line of action figures from Playmates. In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, you simply couldn’t escape Turtlemania. It was everywhere. Of course, all of this kid-oriented entertainment was far more family-friendly than the original comics by a significant amount. But the core of Eastman and Laird’s idea was still there in this more mainstream version. And it all started with that 1984 comic book that was the sleeper hit of the century.

The Ongoing Legacy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Mutant Mayhem the turtles in action
Paramount Pictures

The Turtles remain a perennial brand to this very day, never leaving the zeitgeist for very long. They had three live-action films in the ’90s, one TV reboot after another, and even more movies. The “joke” comic became as popular, if not more so, than the comics it once mocked. And with the animated film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem hitting theaters recently, it’s an IP that shows no signs of slowing down. Soon, that film will have its own animated TV spin-off. Their peak of the ‘90s may be long over, but they are still a beloved part of popular culture.

Voltron

The original Matchbox toys for Voltron, along with images from the original 1984 anime series.
Matchbox Toys/World Events

Much like Transformers before it, the animated series and toy line Voltron: Defender of the Universe doesn’t exist without Japanese origins. In 1981, Beast King Go-Lion aired in Japan, with a companion series airing later, Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. Both series featured several giant robots which combined to form one even more gigantic robot, who fought all manner of kaiju-like creatures on the planet Arus. Beast King Go-Lion were lion robots, naturally, and Armored Fleet were vehicles. Aside from that, the two series were not really connected.

American company World Events Productions—which bought both series—re-dubbed them, edited them for content, and combined them together as Voltron. This was done to meet the episode order needs for daily syndication. (Robotech would pull this trick a year later.) The series first aired on North American weekday afternoons in September of 1984, and it was an instant smash. Voltron instantly launched a franchise of toys, games, merchandise, and comic books. In 1986, World Events commissioned the Japanese studio Toei to combine both Voltron teams into one for a movie, despite neither series having anything to do with each other in their native Japan. For much of the ’80s, Voltron ruled the weekday afternoon airwaves.

The Continuing Legacy of Voltron

Promo art for 2012's Voltron Force, and the 2018 series Voltron: Legendary Defender.
Nicktoons/Netflix/Dreamworks

Voltron was very much a child of 1984, but it continues to resonate in popular culture. There was a ‘90s, reboot, another reboot in 2012, and Voltron: Legendary Defender, which aired 78 episodes over 8 seasons on Netflix. Work also continues on an eventual live-action Voltron for the big screen. Heck, the word “Voltron” has even become a verb in the Urban Dictionary. It means “to combine or assemble individual things (which may function individually) made separately into a common meta-product where they all work together synergistically for a common goal.” How about that for longevity? All of this ensures that the legacy of Voltron will extend way past its original expiration date.

Super Powers

DC Super Powers toyline promo art, the cover of Super Powers #1 by Jack Kirby, and the title logo for Super Friends, the Legendary Super Powers Show.
Kenner Toys/DC Comics/Hanna-Barbera

Super Friends, the cartoon version of DC Comics’ Justice League, had existed on Saturday morning TV for over a decade by 1984. But the ‘80s was all about tying your cartoon with a larger toy and merchandise brand. When Mattel got the Marvel license and produced Secret Wars, Kenner Toys got the DC Comics license. They created a new line of 5” action figures, vehicles, and playsets based on the DC heroes, called Super Powers. Unlike Secret Wars, however, the first wave came out with all the DC heavy hitters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. It was an instant hit with kids, who loved how each figure had a special “action feature.”

Because of the new toyline, Super Friends on ABC Saturday Mornings was rebranded as Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, and took on storylines and characters that reflected the action figure line. In the toy’s storyline, Darkseid and his minions from Apokolips were the main villains, and the show now reflected that. Marvel Comics legend Jack Kirby even illustrated two Super Powers tie-in comics series. The only time he ever drew DC’s Justice League heroes. The toy and merchandise line ran for three years—an eternity for any toy line at the time. All the merch surrounding the toys was from famed comic book illustrator José Luis García-López, whose renditions represented the DC heroes at their most iconic.

The Continuing Legacy of Super Powers

McFarlane Toys' modern iteration of the classic Super Powers action figure line.
McFarlane Toys/DC Comics

The legacy of Super Powers is pretty significant, even decades later. The idea of Darkseid as the League’s main villain stems mainly from Super Powers and Super Friends, as he’d barely fought the Justice League in the comics at that point. This is something that has stuck in the main DC continuity for years since. If you ever bought a “retro” DC t-shirt, chances are it used art from the Super Powers era.

In the last few years, McFarlane Toys has brought back the Super Powers line, with updated versions of the classic toys. In many ways, even forty years later, the Super Powers version of the DC heroes remains their most iconic.

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract

Original artwork by George Perez for the Teen Titans story The Judas Contract.
DC Comics

In the 1980s, New Teen Titans was DC Comics’ biggest-selling series by a country mile. Yet, the Marv Wolfman/George Perez comic book was constantly compared to Marvel’s hit Uncanny X-Men. Both series had a lot in common, as they were reboots of 1960s teams that weren’t terribly popular in their day. But Titans writer Marv Wolfman decided to use the comparisons to their advantage with a story that would run for two years and culminate in the team’s greatest epic—The Judas Contract. The storyline ran through summer 1984’s Tales of the Teen Titans # #42–44 and Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3.

Marvel’s X-Men introduced readers to Kitty Pryde in 1979, a spunky sarcastic teen who would become a fan favorite. In response, Titans introduced Terra, a.k.a. Tara Markov, a 15-year-old wisecracking brat with earth-controlling powers. She’d get comparisons to Kitty Pryde almost right away. Then, Marv and George pulled the rug out from readers a year into her being a Titan. Tara was actually a sociopathic spy sent by the team’s mortal enemy, Deathstroke. He sent her to gain their trust and learn their secrets, after which Tara and Deathstroke would attack the team. Everything came to a head in the 4-part finale of the story, The Judas Contract. Terra would die trying to kill her former teammates. This included Beast Boy, who was in love with her. Perhaps most importantly, Dick Grayson would graduate from Robin the Boy Wonder into the adult hero Nightwing in this saga.

The Continuing Legacy of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract

The 2003 Teen Titans' Slade and Terra, the cover artwork for the Teen Titans: The Judas Contract Blu-ray movie, and Nightwing fighting Deathstroke in the live-action Titans series.
Warner Bros.

Forty years later, Nightwing is one of DC Comics’ most popular heroes. The Judas Contract storyline continues to be adapted in various media. The 2003 Teen Titans animated series gave us a (very toned-down) version of the story. The 2016 animated movie Teen Titans: The Judas Contract adapted the story in a more mature fashion, as did the live-action Titans series (only with Ravager substituting for Terra). And while no one behind the scenes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has ever mentioned it, The Judas Contract storyline was clearly an influence on that show’s third season, particularly the character of Faith. Whatever media form the Titans take in James Gunn’s DCU, be certain they will adapt The Judas Contract.

Long live these iconic properties that spawned toys, comics, and cartoons that still resonate with us today.



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