9 Comics and Cartoons From the 1980s That Found Inspiration in That Decade’s Video Game Revolution
1. “One More Blip… and You’re Dead!” The Flash #304 (DC, 12/81)
Is it even possible for today’s kids to wrap their heads around just how much everything changed in the blink of an eye? While the Microsofts and Apples of the world were busy placing computers on every flat surface they could find, millions of freshly minted arcade games and home systems gave athletically challenged kids (ahem) their own chance at achieving peer adulation. The massive appeal of Pac-Man and Space Invaders to their core audiences was not lost on the comic editors, who responded to this new competitor for kids’ pocket change in the same way they responded to TV’s debut back in the ’50s: by riding that bandwagon to hell and back. Sometimes, that meant publishing magazines specifically for video game fans (like Marvel’s short-lived Blip), and other times it meant bringing the games themselves into the plotlines, with varying results. This Flash story is an early example, with a new super-villain who is literally a walking computer. Colonel Computron is a disgruntled toymaker out for revenge after his boss made millions off of his electronic game and didn’t share the wealth. But really, the set-up doesn’t matter as much as the final showdown, which shows Flash’s molecules zapped into a hostile computer game (don’t bother asking how he gets out; it’s the usual “absolute control over my molecules” doubletalk that always gets the Flash out of these bizarre situations). “My body’s been subjected to a host of weird transformations over the years… but this is unthinkable!” our pixelated protagonist thinks at one point. No, I think the time he turned into a puppet is still the weirdest.
2. “Videoman,” Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (NBC-TV, 1981)
Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends didn’t just sneer at storytelling logic; it dragged it home, chained it up, and left it in a crawlspace to rot. (For starters: why didn’t Aunt May ever hear the whirring of computers and crime-fighting equipment disappearing into the walls of her house every time she was standing outside Peter’s bedroom
door?) It’s best not to get too worked up about it, though — the show came along at a time when plot wasn’t a major concern for superhero animators. Still, it’s hard not to get annoyed by “Videoman,” an episode in which arch-Spidey foe Electro unveils his latest eeee-vil scheme: to create and distribute a popular arcade game that, when commanded to do so, unleashes a life-sized version of the game’s main character to do Electro’s bidding. Oh, and the machines can also suck living beings into its circuitry, just like Colonel Computron’s gizmo. Just because, that’s why. Putting aside the fact that electricity (Electro’s shtick) is not synonymous with electronics, how do you suppose this plan sounded inside Electro’s head? “First, I’ll invent a machine that can turn video game characters into slaves to do my bidding. Then, after I’ve invested millions in producing, marketing and distributing the game to arcades, military bases and homes of wealthy trust-fund brats, I’ll use them to… um, steal enough money to get back what I’ve sunk into these machines. Brilliant!”
3. “Dark Machine!”, Team America (Marvel, 09/82)
No one, including the members of this titular team of heroic stunt motorcyclists, gets sucked into a video game in this story. Which is a darn shame, because that would have been a far more preferable sight than watching comatose runaways getting shoved inside the game cabinets to have their brains sucked dry! I am completely serious. The plot of this story is that a couple of crooked arcade operators are kidnapping young runaways and using their brainwaves to boost the computing power of their games to make them seem “almost alive,” in the words of one fan of the Magic Light arcade. But the crooks run afoul of Wolf, Team America’s resident, er, lone wolf, who’s on the trail of a missing boy from his old neighborhood. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in a lot of things, but I’m pretty sure the penalties for kidnapping, forcibly confining, and murdering young children (the computers fry their brains on a regular basis, making it necessary for the bad guys to keep refreshing their stock) are pretty severe in most U.S. states — at least severe enough to make most people think twice about committing those acts just to boost profit margins at an amusement park arcade on the edge of town. If Doctor Doom himself walked into that place, even he would be like, “Jeee-zus, man! They’re freakin’ kids!! And Doom thought Doom was pure evil!” This is one of the few comics that still gives me the heebie-jeebies every time I pick it up.
4. “Video Mania/Mind Games,” Wonder Woman #295-296 (DC, 09-10/82)
Between video games sucking us into virtual worlds and crooked arcade owners sucking our brains dry, it really is a miracle that any kid survived the ’80s. And just when we thought we were safe, we played a game that turned us into the hypnotized slaves of an evil genius (insert your own Gates or Jobs joke here). This two-part story begins at the mall where Wonder Woman just happens to be shopping when an angry mob is tearing the place apart after hearing that the hot new video game, Commander Video, is sold out. That crisis averted, Wondy later learns a hypnotized general at the Pentagon is a thrall of General Electric (snicker), whose dastardly plans for world domination will not be thwarted by some chick in star-spangled hot pants. Using his mind-numbed minions to overpower our hero, General Electric (snicker) then forces her to play his insidious game — a game that, once a player beats the final level, opens the player’s mind to General Electric’s (snicker) complete mental control. No prizes for guessing how this battle of wills shakes out; I’m just bummed the writer didn’t take the opportunity to sneak in a little corporate humor, maybe have Wondy say that this General Electric (snicker) doesn’t “bring good things to life.” At least we can get a chuckle out of a warden’s decision to give the defeated super-villain access to electronic equipment in the prison workshop as a way of rehabilitating him. Can’t see how that could possibly go wrong.
5. “Violence in Video,” The Mighty Thor #328 (Marvel, 02/83)
Shortly before Walt Simonson took over Thor’s title in the mid-80s, Marvel’s resident Asgardian was paired up with a long line of unimpressive adversaries that rarely took more than five minutes of the thunder god’s time. Megatak would not break the pattern. He started this story as a corporate spy out to steal the top-secret circuitry behind the next great video game before its creator can demonstrate it at a trade show. With only 20 minutes before showtime, the spy pays for his procrastinating ways by getting electrocuted via the unlikely method of holding live wires while standing inside the oversized arcade game at the exact moment the power is turned on… resulting not in the horrible death that one might expect, but in his “very life essences” converted into “a raw state of sheer energy” and then “sucked into the very machine he sought to plunder.” And of course, his escape from his silicon cell causes him to say things like “I am power! I am all!” while using his new “electro-kinesis” power to bring hundreds of shooting and chomping video game characters to terrifying life. Not the worst super-power a fellow can pick up on the fly, but when your power is manipulating constructs made out of electricity and the local god of thunder and lightning shows up to lay down the law… well, you can see the problem here.
Mandatory depiction of cutting-edge game graphics:
6. “Vid Wars,” Marvel Two-in-One #98 (Marvel, 04/83)
Marvel Two-in-One was a team-up title starring the Thing and anyone who needed a little copyright-renewal action that month. The phrase “going through the motions” comes to mind here. This book near the end of the title’s 100-issue run finds the Thing taking young Franklin Richards to an arcade, where he makes the requisite grumbling about these new-fangled video games that only the kids can master. No time to dwell on the Thing’s inadequacy issues, though, because a scientist soon shows up at FF headquarters in search of Reed Richards, hoping the FF’s leader can help him market a video game he created based on strange radio signals from outer space. Before you know it, the Thing, Franklin and the scientist are teleported across the galaxy to a planet where the game’s Pac-Man-like creature is all too real, and the natives mistake the game’s hero, “Space Saver,” as their only hope against the voracious gobbler. And so the three Earthlings, including the surprisingly versatile Scientist (“Thank goodness Mother insisted I take those pilot lessons,” he says while piloting an alien vessel) save the day by doing in real life what they were supposed to do in the game. I can’t decide which is more hilarious: the fact these highly advanced aliens pulled a Galaxy Quest and assumed a video game character on Earth was a real live monster fighter, or that the scientist called his hero “Space Saver,” which makes me think of a line of Tupperware containers every time I read it.
7. “The Video Victims,” Super Friends (ABC-TV, 1983)
Quoth the Wikipedia: “Bizarro creates trouble by zapping several of the Superfriends into an arcade game reminiscent of Pac-Man and Bizarro is in control of the hungry muncher.” Naturally, this raises questions. Where would Bizarro, a simple creature often depicted as incapable of finding the floor without directions, get himself a super-magic video game? What kind of lame-ass security does the Hall of Justice have that super-villains like Bizarro can just teleport themselves and their latest evil devices into the building whenever they feel like it? Why would simulated kryptonite inside a video game affect an electronic version of Superman? How does transforming into a tornado allow Samurai to “reroute the speeding electronic messages” and free all three heroes trapped in the game? Isn’t it maybe a little racist that the Japanese member of the team is the one who saves them all from the giant video game trap? Doesn’t Samurai ever get cold in that get-up? Finally, is it “Superfriends” or “Super Friends,” and should we keep the Internet open late until we decide this once and for all?
8. “Afterlife,” The Transformers #24 (Marvel, 01/87)
If you don’t know Optimus Prime, all you really need to know is this: he’s the noble leader of the Autobots and he’s all about sacrificing himself for a noble cause. In fact, he did it twice in ’86: once in the first act of the animated Transformers movie that scarred every child of the ’80s, and once in this issue of Marvel’s Transformers comic. At least in the movie, he took Megatron down with him; in this story, he kills himself over a freakin’ video game. Long story short: the Autobots and Decepticon armies show up at a research facility at the same time to secure a new energy device, and they get ready to fight when a programmer named Ethan points out that a full-out battle would likely destroy the object they’ve come to get. His solution: hook the ‘bots into a virtual reality program so they can do battle inside his “Battleworld” video game. Megatron agrees with one condition: that he and Prime stuff their bodies with explosives so that whoever loses the game gets blown up in real life. The Decepticons cheat (I know!) and almost get the drop on Prime, but he isn’t so easily defeated; unfortunately, the Decepticons’ cheat results in Prime accidentally killing some inhabitants of the video game, and because he refuses to make a distinction between real and virtual life forms, he demands Ethan push the button that destroys his body. And that’s not the weirdest part; at the end of the story, readers learned that Ethan saved Prime’s mind on one floppy disk, which back in ’86 could hold a sweet 1.44 megabytes of information. Just for comparison’s sake, all the images on this page take up about that much space. So if you’ve ever wondered why Prime seemed to lack space in his programming for a decent sense of self-preservation, now you know.
9. “He’s Into Video Games,” Heathcliff #28 (Marvel, 11/88)
Oh, I get it — he’s into video games, meaning he likes playing them and he’s fallen inside a bunch of them. Ha ha! America’s second-favorite comic-strip cat had a pretty decent run in his Marvel title (1985-91), outlasting the Star imprint that originally published his felonious four-color antics. This particular issue finds Heathcliff disobeying his human friend’s warning to stay off his computer, and instantly the cat is zapped inside the console, flitting from one video game scenario to the next. In one sequence, he’s protecting a princess on a distant planet; in the next, he’s having a picnic in the country and fighting to protect his food from the cyber-ants surrounding him. At the end of the story, he destroys the computer to show his disapproval of his record-low score, which will no doubt endear him to the kid he lives with. Did any of it really happen? Was Heathcliff really drawn into the games, or was it just a fanciful product of his overactive imagination? Maybe the result of a catnip trip gone bad? The world may never know… or care, come to think.