Saturday Morning Cartoons: Ghostbusters and Other Knockoffs

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When assorted manbabies were losing their minds two years ago over a version of Ghostbusters they deemed fraudulent, my first thought:

Some film studio is making a live-action movie adaptation of that weird cartoon with the gorilla?

The original Ghostbusters came to theaters in 1984, but as a ’90s kid, I didn’t see the movie or its sequel until a few years after watching the animated The Real Ghostbusters. But why was classifying it as real necessary?

Well, the identifier made more sense when one holiday season, I flipped through the pages of the Sears Wishbook and noticed action figures labeled “Ghostbusters.” Only, there was no Egon, nor Dr. Venkman, nor Winston, nor Slimer.

In their place were a Fred-from-Scooby Doo wannabe, some dude dressed like a World War I fighter pilot, and a gorilla. Yes, a gorilla.

Just look at that fedora. I’m now wondering if the online mob that an all-women’s Ghostbusters bothered so much actually wanted this Ghostbusters produced.

Anyway, it’s odd enough that the Wishbook was still hocking toys for the bobo Ghostbusters in the early 1990s, at least a half-decade after the cartoon ended production. That two entirely unrelated series with the same name and similar concepts existed was mind-blowing.

I never actually saw an episode of the cartoon until much later, when it surfaced on YouTube in the platform’s early days.

How could this clearly inferior product be legally allowed to capitalize on the name of a beloved brand like Ghostbusters? I was no less baffled some 13 or 14 years later than I had been in my childhood, so I did some research — and learned that the “real” Ghostbusters had, in fact, come almost a decade after the Filmation version.

Although the widely recognized franchise featured much different characters and original storylines, Columbia Pictures purchased rights to use the Ghostbusters name.

In fact, this ironically fits a trend among less-recognized quot-unquote knockoff cartoons of the 1980s.

Another brand of the era that existed to me only as an outdated product in the Wishbook were Gobots. Gobots live in pop culture as the quintessential example of inferior copycats attempting to ride the coattails of a successful competitor; in this case, Transformers.

Imagine my shock to learn that the Gobots cartoon series debuted in 1983, while Transformers launched in 1984. This is roughly equivalent to if Megaforce had predated Star Wars.

Likewise, Garfield was a well-established icon by the time I remember first watching cartoons. My brother owned dozens of books; mostly collections of the Jim Davis comic strip, but also special editions such as Garfield: His 9 Lives.

His 9 Lives demonstrates Davis’ creative abilities, both as a storyteller and artist, in a manner that strongly contradicts the memes lampooning Garfield today. Really, the anthology series is more comparable to the adult-targeted comic books that became en vogue in the 1980s than it is the newspaper strip. The humor in a few of the stories is lewd, and the artwork in other stories can be downright disturbing.

While my brother pored over Garfield, I loved watching the animated Heathcliff, weekday afternoons on WGN. The catchy theme song still plays in my head from time-to-time.

Scott hassled me about my enjoyment of an obvious knockoff of his beloved Garfield. And he seemingly had a point: Both focused on the misadventures of overweight, striped, orange house cats.

It wasn’t until much later in life I learned the Heathcliff comic strip actually predated Davis’ iconic piece of Americana by four years. Davis hadn’t sought out to create a knockoff, though, as the first half-decade of Garfield strips focus much more on Jon Arbuckle. The below video offers an excellent breakdown on the evolution of the comic.

Though not approaching the status of Garfield, another fondly remembered cat of the 1980s was Lion-O. Hollywood’s rush to capitalize on nostalgia not yet leading to a Thundercats film might be the upset of the 21st century — though rumors seem to surface every few years.

A Thundercats live-action film seems like a genuine possibility, if not an inevitability. The same cannot be said of Silverhawks.

Silverhawks was yet another 1980s cartoon knockoff I discovered later in life; 2001, to be exact. In my last semester of high school, once I decided I would not play basketball in college and thus didn’t need to train after classes, my afternoons were spent eating mini corndogs from Schwann’s food trucks and watching Cartoon Network’s Toonami.

Silverhawks aired in the block alongside Dragon Ball Z, Tenchi Muyo and Thundercats, the last of which Silverhawks was essentially a carbon copy.

That’s no coincidence. Unlike other titles referenced in this commentary, Silverhawks was produced by the same company as the property after which it was patterned. What’s more, Silverhawks followed Thundercats, with Rankin Bass aiming to capitalize on the latter’s popularity.

Silverhawks followed the same premise almost to the letter, with many of the same voice actors; an ensemble group of heroes; and a lead villain capable of changing his form. Notable differences were limited to the Silverhawks being patterned after birds rather than cats, and an outer space setting rather than a single, somewhat medieval planet like Thundercats.

Silverhawks is enjoyable enough, but ultimately feels pointless with as closely as it parallels Thundercats. Everything is been-there-done-that, only not quite as good. Exhibit A: the theme songs.

Maybe nostalgia’s clouding my judgment, but there’s an almost endearing quality to these lesser-known, less popular counterparts. While retreads inhibit creativity in general, memorable media spawned from these relationships.