Before Sonic the Hedgehog decided that he had to go fast, before Starfox did a barrel roll into our hearts, before Loonatics Unleashed were completely erased from memory, there was Bucky O’Hare. Funny animals in epic space adventures would never be the same again.
When I was thinking of initially writing about Bucky O’Hare, I was going to postulate that it was directly influenced by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The show, Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars, first showed up in 1991. A green anthropomorphic animal in an action setting, with a crew that seems to be made to be manufactured in toy form?
The Turtles may have been a factor that led to the project being greenlit. The character, though, is far older. Bucky O’Hare appeared in indie comics far earlier… 1984. Given the space setting (and the show’s full title), it seems that its most obvious influence is the just concluded Star Wars trilogy. But, as it turns out, the character is even older than that. Bucky O’Hare was developed under DC Comics way back in 1977. (So … at the beginning of the Star Wars trilogy.) Company woes kept the comic from publishing the title.
It is partially my goal, though, to prove that there is some Bucky O’Hare influence making its way back into Star Wars… specifically the prequels. Do you want to take a guess as to what this show was called in Canada? How about … Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Menace.
Bucky O’Hare’s comic creators were Michael Golden and … wait a minute … that can’t be right…
Larry Hama. Actor. Comic book writer. Best known for his epic run on the GI Joe comics. Also, Vietnam War vet. Hama was a firearms and explosives expert. This funny animal cartoon, about a green space bunny who commands a ship called the Righteous Indignation, was co-created and written by a man who had actually experienced war. Let me tell you something, reader, my enthusiasm in revisiting the series just went way up.
Animation was handled by Sunbow Entertainment, i.e. the folks who did every cartoon you watched in the 1980’s. Sunbow often partnered with Marvel Production and was known as Hasbro’s unofficial animation arm. GI Joe, The Transformers, Jem, My Little Pony… all Sunbow. These shows featured a familiar style: a little stiff, samey line-work, animation rife with errors, but detailed enough to spark kids’ imaginations… all in the service of getting them to buy toys. The style was derided back in its day as “cheap animation,” but there is definitely a unique look to it that many look back upon with fondness. It’s animation that looks like a comic book.
In the early 90’s, Sunbow attempted to diversify. Its biggest success was The Tick, but it also developed animated shows based Conan the Adventurer and today’s subject.
Bucky lives in a world where Toads, who are under sort of a mental spell by a central computer called KOMPLEX (voiced by… hot damn! Long John Baldry! Dr. Robotnik himself!) KOMPLEX is a little like Ultron. He exists everywhere and can form a body out of spare parts at will. Mostly he exists on screens boss his subcommands around, though. The Toads begin to conquer system after system and using their Climate Converters to transform each planet into swamplands … uninhabitable to anyone except the Toads and maybe other amphibious races. (The Toads are very racist against Mammals.)
The public face is the Toad Air Marshall, a bumbling appointed official who acts a little bit like the prequels’ Nemoidians. His assisted by the Toad Borg (a faceless metal-bodied war machine who is the clear inspiration for General Greivous) and Al Negator (a Cajun-speaking bounty hunter who is the clear inspiration of Chef Paul Prudhomme). They’re assisted by an army of Toad Stormtroopers who, like in many Sunbow productions, drive in ships that are equipped with ejector seats so they can be shown to escape to safety when their rides blow up.
When we begin the series, Bucky has just escaped an attack. He meets with a council of animals to be granted a battle fleet. Now, I way joking before with some of the Star Wars prequel jokes, but here is where I come closest to proving my theory. The ineffective council demands that they have evidence of the Toads and their invasion. They literally pull a Chancellor Valorum and ask to defer his motion to allow a commission to explore the validity of his accusations.
Bucky is aided in his adventures by a loyal crew: Jenny, a competent first mate with a secret superpower; Dead-Eye Duck, a four-armed pirate with a lust for gold; Blinky, an annoying robot; and Bruiser, a berzerker ape. There was also a ship’s engineer named Bruce, Bruiser’s brother, who dies — I mean, becomes “one with the Aniverse” — in the first episode.
Replacing Bruce is our kid-appeal character: a human boy named Willy DuWitt. He was developing a science project… a freaking photon accelerator (!) Blonde haired kid appeal character who’s good with machines, huh? Hmmmm… Activating the machine creates a portal to the Aniverse in his closet. Bucky O’Hare is down an engineer, and Willy is eager to help. He does, however, have to be back home in time for school. Jenny hands him an amulet so the crew can call him every time the Righteous Indignation experiences a problem, which is often.
Normally I would not have patience for such an obvious kid-appeal character. I grant a special dispensation for Willy, though, as he is part of Hama’s stories. He also isn’t that annoying. The first few episodes feature a subplot where, on Earth, he is being tormented by skateboarding bullies who are at least a head taller than him. Willy has finally had enough and he challenges them to meet him in the study hall for a confrontation. Here’s the catch, though. Willy says it’s his choice of weapon, and he chooses … science fair projects! So he helps the bullies develop the raddest skateboard around.
That’s just too wonderful.
The female characters on this some show come off pretty well. I’m going to have to credit that to writer Christy Marx, who is best known for being the creator of Jem. Unlike the one-dimensional Dead-Eye and Bruiser (which, frankly, is a great name for a morning zoo crew), Jenny could easily be the show’s lead. I mean, Bucky’s fine, but he is basically your stalwart, clean-cut space hero type. Jenny, on the other hand, is multi-dimensional. She’s quite powerful, but keeps her Jedi-like abilities in check because it’s considered a secret for her people. Even so she typically dismantles enemy robots with ease. In a particularly baller episode, she absorbs all the powers of her people to defeat a gigantic space demon. It’s hella metal.
Jenny is never the damsel in distress. Even the title of the final episode, “The Taking of Pilot Jenny”, is intentionally misleading. Yes, she is captured… but there’s more going on than meets the eye.
Uncomfortably, Jenny is often shown giving Willy a smooch on the cheek. Stop that! This is uncomfortably close to Padme and Anakin! (Or more so. She’s portrayed as older. She even has her own padawan apprentice.) At least she has the excuse of never encountering a human before and perhaps not knowing that Willy hasn’t reached adolescence yet. I mean, what kid invents a photon accelerator? That would be a stretch, wouldn’t it?
There’s another character, a fox by the name of Mimi LaFloo, who is a make-no-excuses take-charge character. She originally dismisses Bucky as a wash-up who can’t live up to his legend. While he’s the hero of the show, Bucky seems like he’s been making missteps whole Mimi is making the right decisions. (Bucky gets captured pretty easily, for example, and for the longest time we’re led to believe that it’s because he was sloppy.) As they team up, though, they soon grow to respect each other’s abilities. Bucky treats her as a worthy equal. Heady stuff for early 1990’s children’s cartoons.
Marx has six of the thirteen episodes credited to her. She isn’t the only notable writer on this show. The show employed several comic book writers. (It’s must be nice when the creator is Larry Hama.) Episodes were also written by Batman writers Doug Moench and Neal Adams, Superman writer Martin Pasko, and Lobo co-creator Roger Silfer. While the characters sometimes look silly and the ships can at times look like giant plushies, the writing gives a series an epic scope that perhaps its doesn’t deserve. We get a sense of a network of starship captains and hidden Lovecraftian secrets spread out in corners of the universe.
But make no mistake, this show never takes itself too seriously. There’s a whole ship staffed with all species of fun-looking dogs in visors. The a bee gunner whose catchphrase is “buzz buzz.” An entire planet of koalas. Toads that are defeated by jumping on them, after which they make a croaking sound. If anyone can pull of this balance between the cartoonish and the bombastic, it’s Sunbow… the same company that created a Transformers movie that had both a planet-destroying Transformers god and robots dancing to a Weird Al song. It’s a good balance, too. I’ve turned off series because the showrunners cannot understand that the very concept lends itself to fun. Bucky never forgets.
A running gag is Toad TV, which lets the show engage in some social satire. KOMPLEX has, in fact, conquered all of Toad society through television. Before he gained sentience, he was envisioned as an entertainment system. Hence, television plays a huge part in Bucky O’Hare. No Toad is ever far from the TV. We’re treated with parody snippets reminiscent of ones on RoboCop. Several of the shows-with-a-show feature frog puns. On promo is for a Twilight Zone-request show: “A tale of horror and mutant transformation!” It turns out it’s The Frog Prince.
Then there’s the topical humor. A victim comes out of his brainwashed trance, and in a slam directed at the current Vice President he quips: “I feel like I’ve been subjected to nine months of Quayle speeches.” That was a really odd quip to insert in a kid’s show. I supposed he could’ve said “quail speeches”, since this is the Aniverse and all, but that makes even less sense. I’m going to have to ask writer Doug Moench about this some day.
It’s telling, though, that the Toad Empire feels somewhat of a parody of Reagan-era America. Its citizens living in a blissful retro-50’s idyllic existence reinforced by the fantasy television while wars all over the galaxy are spun as triumphs for their people. (Or “fake news,” in modern parlance.) You could see Star Wars‘ Galactic Empire as being a critique of a civilization different from our own (Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, take your pick), but the Toad Empire is essentially the United States.
Bucky O’Hare lasted a whole thirteen episodes before being cancelled due to low ratings, Hasbro released a toy line, but the low sales meant that they cancelled a potential second wave. The show did end on a nice note, though. The Toad War wasn’t over, but Bucky and the crew score a major victory that ends with happy civilians. The glory is not the defeat of the villain, but in the assurance that people were now free.
For the longest time I was certain I was the only person on Earth who remembered that this show existed. As it turns out, though, Bucky has a pretty faithful internet fandom. Even more surprising: independent toy manufacturer Boss Fight Studio created a bunch of Bucky O’Hare toys recently, including the figures that would’ve been included in the second wave. (The crown jewel: Jenny, who never got a toy released from Hasbro since she was part of that canceled second wave. Allegedly.) I don’t know if they’re hot sellers or anything, but it’s heartening to know that someone online had faith in the good memories people had of this show.
And a fine show it is! Many of the kids shows in its day were aggressively trying to talk down to its audience. One character always has to be a California surfer dude. There’s got to be a junk food that everyone’s trying to scarf down. Bucky O’ Hare, on the other hand, harkens back to classic space adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The crew is highly competent at what they do. They’re not bickering teens. They’re a military unit that acts like adults… even the kid character. I imagine a lot of this is Larry Hama’s influence. Shoot, it’s a little bit like GI Joe (another cartoon that’s more clever than most people give it credit for). Being great at your job and working as a team always gets results.
And now for the biggest unanswered question: who came first, Bucky O’Hare, or Star Wars‘ own green bunny, Jaxxon?
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!