Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Getting Over the '80s: Springfield on My Mind

Words: Zack Smith

Last night, I dreamed of Springfield.

It was not the Springfield of yellow-skinned Simpsons and three-eyed fish from the nuclear power plant; it was the other one, where I learned that city streets held dark secrets and your neighbors could be a menacing army of fleshy glop.  It was where the themes of Patrick McGoohan, Franz Kafka and basic existentialism first took root in my head.

I was five years old, and watching a show about action figures.

“There’s No Place Like Springfield” was a two-part episode of G.I. Joe, broadcast as the last two episodes of the show’s first extended season on Dec.12 and 13 in 1985.  It remains one of the most unusual and disturbing episodes of G.I. Joe, or most children’s cartoons, for that matter.

It is an episode that tells us, quite simply, that nothing is real, nothing is as it seems, and the nature of reality is malleable. And sometimes, you can’t even trust your parrot.

The two-parter was written by Steve Gerber, a supervising story editor on that season and one of the great subversive comic book writers.  Before passing away in 2008, Gerber helped bring an intellectual, philosophical edge to many a book for Marvel, DC and other companies.

Though his greatest creation, Howard the Duck, was sullied by an unworthy film project to which he held no connection, plenty of Gerber’s other works remain in high esteem in both comic and literary circles.

Gerber’s great strength as a writer was to take the structure of a traditional comic book story and spin it off in any of a hundred oddball directions.

In Man-Thing, the titular swamp monster’s adventures involved a psychedelic candle and a barbarian leaping out of a jar of peanut butter; in Omega the Unknown (co-created with Mary Skrenes, and hommaged a few years ago by Jonathan Lethem), he mostly set the superhero to the side to focus on a teen thrust into Hell’s Kitchen.

(Said teen had just found out his “parents” were robots.  This was the sort of thing that might have prepared you for “There’s No Place Like Springfield.”)

In the early 1980s, Gerber, like many of the best comic writers of the previous decade, worked in animation, most memorably as creator of Thundarr the Barbarian for Ruby-Spears.  In his work on such shows as G.I.  Joe and The Transformers, the sheer weird brilliance of his comics had a way of surfacing when you least expected it.

“Springfield” was, in Gerber’s own words, his favorite work for the show, and it’s the one where you can see his subversive humor most on display.  That is, if you’re not scarred for life.

“Springfield” opens with Shipwreck and Lady Jaye landing on an island to rescue one Professor Mullaney. Their quest proves easy; the good doctor quickly hacks his way out of the underbrush, machete in hand, white hair down to his shoulders, clothes in tatters.

Wide-eyed and mad, the good professor explains how Cobra kidnapped him and forced him to work on a formula that could turn a body of water into a massive explosive.  Luckily, he held back one ingredient, which he then implants in Shipwreck’s head by slapping a device onto it that “inputs the formula electro-chemically.”

We are less than four minutes into the show, and one of the major characters has been brainwashed by a crazed refugee with an H-bomb secret.  This is going to be good.

Shipwreck takes the formula being locked in his subconscious in stride, though the Professor gives Lady Jaye a code word that will cause him to recite it (“Like muck I will!” declares Shipwreck in a line that somehow made it past Broadcast Standards and Practices).  But soon Cobra has attacked with their usual off-by-30-degrees laser cannons!

A subsequent escape renders the Professor again lost and Shipwreck hurtling to the bottom of the ocean in his flying sub that he ironically refers to as a “hunk of substandard plastic.”  As one who owned the toy of that sub, I most commend his statement as terribly accurate; in the bathtub, it proved nearly as leaky as its onscreen counterpart.

Then things get good.

Shipwreck wakes up (his name oddly revealed to be “Hector Delgado,” despite looking and sounding as white as Swiss cheese), only to find it’s six years later and there’s poorly-animated gray in his beard.
He’s living a suburban life, and apparently fell off a roof while putting up a satellite dish.  And he’s apparently married to a genetically-engineered mermaid from a previous episode (don’t ask) and they have an adorable daughter.

Ohhh yeah.  This is going to get weird.

The ex-mermaid, Mara, then narrates an extended flashback explaining how G.I. Joe finally beat Cobra six years ago.  Given that these were the last two episodes of the season, this might have been a way for the writers to do an “ending” for the Joe/Cobra conflict, and this doesn’t disappoint.

The U.S.S. Flagg sinks into the ocean!  Shipwreck battles his way into Cobra’s headquarters!  In a moment that’s apparently edited out of the first part but appears in Part Two’s recap, he tackles Cobra Commander and sends his helmet flying, his face still unrevealed!

And if you’re buying any of this, have I got a bridge for you!

Soon, Shipwreck is back at “Number Six Village Drive,” a sign of danger that five-year-old me didn’t get.  Yes, a show designed to sell toys has made a straight-up reference to The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cult 1960s series about an ex-spy abducted to a surreal community called “The Village,” where he is “Number Six,” and must fight off their efforts to extract his secrets.

It was highly unlikely the intended audience for G.I. Joe had even heard of The Prisoner.  Nor was it likely that those who remembered the series would be watching the show.  And yet, there it is.

Shipwreck’s barely home (where his parrot’s still somehow alive, and Scarlet has her old crossbow as the hood ornament to her car), when his parrot turns on an oddly throbbing lamp that sends him into a seizure, just in time to have a nightmare about being abducted to a car wash and tortured by Cobra.
Again, the main character is being subjected to horrifying nightmares and being made to doubt his sanity.  This is a kid’s show.

Shipwreck’s nightmares, with Cobra demanding Mullaney’s “information” (another Prisoner homage), are downright terrifying, with all sorts of fisheye lens angles.  In the climax of Part One, Shipwreck is attacked by his former friends, who turn into glop when he punches them, then completely smother his body.

By now, I was screaming.

Hallucinations and mutations proved popular throughout this season of Joe.  Whether it was gas contained in Cobra Commander balloons or a mosquito in a parallel universe dominated by Cobra (long story), the Joes tended to have horrible things flash before their eyes on occasion.

In one case, their hallucinations even came to life thanks to a “MacGuffin Device.”  It was a terribly effective argument for “Just Say No,” even before they introduced a drug-themed villain in the show’s later years.  But as “Springfield” proved, the show was capable of presenting plenty of weirdness with or without the aid of chemical substances.

There was an episode where a Joe mutated into a giant killer whale, one where a rogue fashionista stole women’s faces, one where a bunch of Joes were de-aged to children (and still kicked ass), an episode dealing with some Lovecraftian creature beneath Destro’s family home, and G.I. Joe: The Movie, which explained Cobra was really run by a hidden civilization of mutants whose leader was covered with crab-like armor and had a giant pod below his waist concealing a snake tail.

“Springfield,” though, was perhaps the most terrifying of these episodes. The idea of being smothered by some vile flesh-like substance ate its way into my head.  I could not help but be tormented by dreams of what it would feel like, of being unable to breathe, of it enveloping every inch of me as I cried out for help…

It was a long 24 hours until Part Two.

After a recap that takes up nearly 20 percent of the show, “Springfield”’s conclusion begins with the much having congealed into a large amoeba (another Prisoner homage) as Shipwreck continues to hallucinate his friends and foes. At this point, you even have the parrot muttering “Phase one complete!” to a stone-faced Doc.

 It’s only a few minutes before we’re outright told that this is a fake town set up by Cobra Commander to glean Shipwreck’s secret, and Shipwreck is subjected to a psychedelic light show that recaps his origin and threatens to destroy his brain.  His interrogator is his nurse, really a trainee in Cobra’s Crimson Guard.

Wearing the traditionally masculine outfit, she leaps up on his chest and straddles him as pale heads of Joe and Cobra members float above him, looking vaguely sperm-like.  It’s days like this I wish I had a degree in psychology.

Of course, this doesn’t even cover the eeriest part of Shipwreck’s predicament: Everyone around him is a synthoid, artificial creatures created by Cobra in a previous two-parter.  Perhaps most unnerving is that the synthoids retain the personalities of their real-world counterparts.

The synthoid of the compassionate Doc (who, earlier in the series, had elected to stay in the Cobra-dominated parallel universe, another long story), actually protests Cobra’s interrogation of Shipwreck, concerned for his welfare.  For his trouble, the Crimson Twins (who loved finishing each other’s sentences), melt him into synthoid glop.

Efforts at getting the code word to reveal the formula prove unsatisfactory to Cobra Commander (who, in a hilarious animation error, is hooded in a close shot, then wearing a helmet in a long shot, then hooded again). He then foolishly allows Shipwreck’s latest sedative to wear off.

Remarkably, after everything else he’s been through, all it takes for Shipwreck to finally catch on is for him to splash some water in his gray beard, and see the dye run.  Even more remarkably, Shipwreck’s real parrot shows up to save him from his attacking fake parrot. Shipwreck correctly guesses that Cobra kidnapped him and his parrot…apparently followed him all the way to the Cobra headquarters and found a synthoid-melting device.

Just roll with it.

In a thrilling climax, Shipwreck manages to fight his way through the Cobra island (melting the hair off a scientist in the process), and finds his parrot knows the code word  of…”frogs in winter.”  Yeah, your guess is as good as mine.

But it gives him what he needs to complete the formula and blow Springfield off the face of the Earth by pouring it down the drain.  The secret ingredient he needs is clearly labeled and on the shelf right next to the formula and a jar of water.  We call that “expediency.”

Said explosion signals the Joes (who’ve rescued the hapless professor in the meantime), and sets into motion the saddest moment in the entire history of the series.

Shipwreck, for everything he’s been through, still thinks his wife and daughter are real.  And he rushes home to save them, only to find they’re as evil as anything else.  In fact, his little girl is pointing a bazooka at him and proclaiming, “Daddy, you’re a real drip.”

Yes, a six-year-old girl is pointing a bazooka.  On TV.  Apparently, this was edited out of some reruns.
The parrot saves Shipwreck, who’s devastated to realize his family were synthoids.  He stumbles into the wreckage as Flint and Lady Jaye show up to rescue him.  And there’s this final exchange:

Lady Jaye: “Shipwreck, what’s wrong?  Was there something important in that house?”

Shipwreck stares at the wreckage, flames reflected in his eyes.  “Nah, nothing important.  Just a dream or two.  Come on, let’s go home.”

 Fade to black as suburbia burns.  Not even a “Knowing is half the battle” spot could bring you up after this one.

It had been years since I saw this episode all the way through, but I never forgot it.  The nightmares were evidence of that.

It was not until a decade or so later that I saw The Prisoner, and discovered Gerber’s comic work, and finally put the different elements together to realize that many different things I had enjoyed later in my life had been planted in my head, like Professor Mullaney’s formula, by a simple two-part episode of a show about toys.

(I also realized that voice actor Neil Ross did Shipwreck as an impression of Jack Nicholson, which made my viewing Nicholson’s sailor role in 1973’s The Last Detail quite the curiosity.  Had the producers of the show made a conscious decision to base a major character in Joe on an anti-authoritarian figure in an existential drama renowned for its literate and extensive use of the F-word?)

Though animation, even that for children, has ostensibly become more complex since the toy-saturated days of the 1980s, “Springfield” remains profoundly unusual. Not only is this a story that almost entirely focuses on just one member of a large and rotating ensemble cast, this is a story where the main character spends most of his time drugged, screaming and/or strapped to a table.   And it’s a tale where by the end, he’s still barely sure where reality begins and fantasy ends.

Springfield was also featured in the better-remembered G.I. Joe comic as Cobra’s home base, but this two-parter made a far deeper impression on me.  It asked questions that most cartoons didn’t ask: What is real?  Who can you trust?  And how do you know you’re even yourself?

A few months before he died, I got to interview Steve Gerber.  We had a very good time and planned a follow-up with Mary Skrenes on Omega the Unknown that we never were able to schedule.  At this point, he’d been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, but was still in good spirits, joking about the disease that would later claim his life (“Buy this book or this writer will never breathe again!”).

And he talked about the existential quality of his work, and how it gave him this platform for discussing the big themes that meant a lot to him, whether it was trying to comprehend an absurd existence or just finding a way to live a good life, no matter what hand you’ve been dealt.

And I realized that even with all the nightmares of melting synthoids and horrible hallucinations, I was grateful to “There’s No Place Like Springfield,” because it showed me that even in a cartoon designed to sell toys of a flying submarine and the Crimson Twins, you could still tell a story that made your audience think.  And so, after the interview, I took the opportunity to thank him for writing that story.

He chuckled.  “I get that a lot,” he said.

I hope I’ll sleep better tonight.

Comics journalist Zack Smith has been featured on Newsarama, Back Issue magazine, and USA Today's Pop Candy column. He can be reached at