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The Best of the 1980s: ‘M.A.S.K.’

Welcome to the first in a series of articles about the classic cartoon franchises of the 1980s. For cartoons (and, in many cases, the associated toy and merchandise lines) the eighties was a period of unbridled gluttony. Every year, new franchises arose to tempt children out of their pocket money and annoy parents with the request for yet another line of toys, while others died and were consigned to fond memories and half-remembered glories. Some of the franchises survived the test of time. G.I. Joe and Transformers are probably the best known, having blossomed in the 1980s and are still going strong to this day through comic series, television shows, toy lines and even commercially successful films (even if they aren’t exactly critical successes).

This first article is dedicated to M.A.S.K. – where Illusion is the Ultimate Weapon!

MASK Logo
Illusion is the Ultimate Weapon. Also, so is a bloody big rocket launcher.

I was going to start off with a different franchise, but something amazing and serendipitous happened instead. Last week IDW Publishing announced that it was launching a new ongoing comic series in November based around the M.A.S.K. franchise from the 1980s. And for those of us that remember M.A.S.K. (you have to spell it with the initials) that was a pretty big deal. M.A.S.K. was one of the classic eighties franchises combining both a toyline and a cartoon series which was essentially used to advertise and sell the toys. Debuting in 1985, M.A.S.K. was created by Kenner Products (manufacturers of the original Star Wars figures) and pit the heroic forces of M.A.S.K. against the villainous criminal organization known as V.E.N.O.M. Each team was equipped with powerful masks that gave the wearer a variety of powers like the ability to shoot fire, fly, fire corrosive poison, or negate gravity. Both sides also had access to combat vehicles that transformed from everyday cars and bikes into combat-ready assault vehicles. Think a combination of G.I. Joe and Transformers and you get the basic idea.

M.A.S.K. stood for Mobile Armored Strike Kommand, an acronym that convinced an entire generation of children that the letter “K” was cooler than the letter “C” and probably caused a little consternation in schools as teachers had to inform pupils that “command” wasn’t really spelled like that. M.A.S.K. was a quasi-official law enforcement agency with loose ties to the Peaceful Nations Alliance which is presumably the United Nations with the serial numbers filed off. V.E.N.O.M. – the Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem (more fun with acronyms and initials) – were a group of criminals-cum-terrorists without any real agenda apart from possibly amassing more wealth for themselves. In the comic books at least, V.E.N.O.M. were tied to a higher criminal organization known as Contraworld. Both teams had a number of operatives with unique uniforms and color schemes to easily tell them apart.

Characters

M.A.S.K.

MASK Complete Series
Giant versions of Matt Trakker and Miles Mayhem watch Thunderhawk and Rhino flee from Switchblade.

Matt Trakker is the leader of M.A.S.K. and a multimillionaire philanthropist (pretty sure this will be upgraded to billionaire because what billionaire can resist using his fortune to fight crime?) who funds the organization. Originally, Matt and his younger brother Andy designed and built the M.A.S.K. vehicles alongside Miles Mayhem until Mayhem betrayed the brothers and took half the vehicles and masks for himself, killing Andy in the process. This was never addressed in the cartoon series but was mentioned in the comic books. Matt usually wore the Spectrum mask which had a variety of abilities including firing sonic waves, lasers, different vision modes, limited free fall flight, or anything else the plot demanded. He piloted Thunderhawk, a Chevrolet Camaro that turned into a gull-winged jet fighter. Since Matt was the titular hero of the line, his character was endlessly released with new toys and masks for the entirety of M.A.S.K.’s toy run. Matt raised his adoptive son, Scott, on his own. Scott also has a robot companion (because this was the eighties and every franchise generally had to have an annoying companion of some sort) named T-Bob. According to some sources, T-Bob is short for Thingamabob.

The M.A.S.K. team was full of covert operatives who had day jobs to contend with because saving the world on a weekly basis presumably doesn’t pay the bills even when funded by a multi-millionaire. At the start of an adventure, Matt would ask the computer to select the best agents for the mission ahead – each agent wore a special M.A.S.K. watch that beeped when they were needed and they would drop everything to respond. Literally in some cases.

Bruce Sato is the Confucian-riddle spouting toy designer of Japanese origin who is the team’s mechanical engineer and design specialist. He was forever getting called on to assist M.A.S.K. while in meetings or while testing his new toys. How he maintained his job was a mystery unless the company he worked for was owned by Trakker. Bruce was the usual driver of Rhino, a Kenworth semi-tractor that converted into a mobile defense platform. He wore the Lifter mask which produced anti-gravity fields.

The British (and therefore awesome) Alex Sector serves as the team’s computer and communications expert. He owns an exotic pet store and is also M.A.S.K.’s zoologist and naturalist. Alex said a lot of typically British things like “tally ho!” and got away with saying “bloody hell!” on television in 1985. He was usually found co-piloting Rhino and wore Jackrabbit which gave him flight capabilities.

Dusty Hayes is the team’s auto and marine stunt driver. He works as a pizza cook and seems to have never completed an order in his career. Remember the comment about dropping everything when M.A.S.K. called? Dusty would literally drop pizza dough while tossing it in the air while in front of a customer. It’s a wonder he stayed in business. Dusty’s mask was Backlash which fired kinetic blasts and his main vehicle was Gator, a Jeep CJ7 that contained a boat.

Gloria Baker is the sole woman on the team, a racing champion and a black belt in kung fu. Her mask, Aura (or Collider in some material) produced an energy absorbing shield and conformed completely to her head and neck presumably to let viewers know she was a woman. One of the burning questions was how did she take the mask on and off? Her main vehicle was Shark, a Porsche 928 that transformed into a submarine although she was often relegated to co-pilot of various vehicles in the cartoon series.

Brad Turner is the motorcycle and helicopter pilot on the team. He is also a rock musician who walked out on so many gigs and rehearsals that he was probably pilloried by fans and the subject of press intrusions into his personal life. He would probably have a few million fans on Twitter these days. His main vehicle was Condor which was a motorcycle that became a helicopter, and his mask was Hocus Pocus which was capable of producing holographic images.

Hondo McLean is the weapons expert and strategist. He is also a history teacher in the real world with a habit of walking out of classes when M.A.S.K. called which probably made him universally loved by his pupils and hated by his superiors. His vehicle was Firecracker, a pickup truck that became a mobile weapons platform and his mask was Blaster which, y’know, blasted stuff.

Buddie Hawks, master of disguise and intelligence specialist, doubled as the chief mechanic at M.A.S.K.’s Boulder Hill base. His unfortunately named mask was Penetrator … which allowed him to phase through solid objects. He was most often used as Firecracker’s co-pilot.

Later recruits joined the team as their toys were released, and some were unfortunate stereotypes. Calhoun Burns (architect) is the team’s demolition expert. He drove Raven, a Chevrolet Corvette that converted into a seaplane and submarine. His mask was Gulliver which enlarged or shrank objects. Jacques LeFleur (lumberjack) was a French or probably French-Canadian natural disaster specialist with a heavy accent. He co-piloted Volcano, a monster truck that turned into an attack station, and used the Maraj mask which created an invisibility screen. Julio Lopez (doctor) serves as M.A.S.K.’s languages and cryptography expert. His mask, Streamer, produced a variety of chemicals including glue, fire suppressant, and oil. His vehicle, Firefly, was a dune buggy that turned into a jet. Ace Riker (hardware store worker) is a former NASA test pilot who pilots Slingshot, a white van that hides a jet fighter launch ramp. His mask, Ricochet, fired an energy boomerang. Boris Bushkin is a Russian M.A.S.K. agent who pretended to initially join V.E.N.O.M. and used a mask called Comrade (really?) that fired red energy stars that disoriented opponents. He operated Bulldog (renamed Bulldoze in Europe), a semi-tractor truck that converted into a half-track tank. American Indian Nevada Rushmore drove a flatbed tow truck named Goliath II that doubled as a command station and launch platform and wore the Totem mask that fired – wait for it – totem pole shaped explosives. Indian team member Ali Bombay drove Bullet (released as Bandit in Europe), a bike that turned into a hovercraft and he wore Vortex which created whirlwinds.

V.E.N.O.M.

MASK characters
M.A.S.K. characters from left to right: Dusty Hayes, Brad Turner, Bruce Sato, Matt Trakker, Miles Mayhem, Cliff Dagger, and Sly Rax.

Miles Mayhem is the leader of V.E.N.O.M. He possessed a truly epic mustache, and had a tendency to retreat at the first sign of trouble. His main vehicle was Switchblade, a helicopter that became a jet plane and his mask was Viper which shot corrosive poison. Like Matt Trakker, Mayhem received several toys in the M.A.S.K. toy line where he was paired with new vehicles and masks. Mayhem was initially joined by a handful of V.E.N.O.M agents along with a number of generic underlings. Sly Rax, a con artist who sounded like Jack Nicholson operated Piranha, a motorcyle, and sidecar where the sidecar became a submarine. His mask was Stiletto which fired stiletto darts. Demolitions expert and general goon Cliff Dagger drove Jackhammer, a Ford Bronco that became an assault vehicle. His mask was Torch which produced flames. Espionage and intelligence specialist (and sole female) Vanessa Warfield piloted Manta, a Nissan 300ZX Z31 that converted into a plane. Her mask was Whip which fired energy whips and caused a generation of adolescent males to have unrealistic expectations. Vanessa suffered from the same problem as Gloria Baker in that her mask perfectly contoured to her head and neck leading to children wondering how she put it on.

Later V.E.N.O.M. agents included mohawk-wearing “kidnapping specialist” (is that even a thing?) Bruno Sheppard. He drove the Pontiac GTO Stinger which transformed into a tank and wore Magna-Beam that affected metal targets. Nash Gorey was a bootlicking henchman who posed as a new M.A.S.K. recruit in order to serve as a mole for V.E.N.O.M. in the comic. He was the co-pilot of Outlaw, a tanker truck that converted into a mobile command center and howitzer launcher. His Powerhouse mask increased his strength in a classic fulfillment fantasy. Lester Sludge possessed an annoying laugh and Iguana, an off-road vehicle that became a mobile attack vehicle with a buzzsaw. His Mudslinger mask … can we make an educated guess here? Biker and forger Floyd Malloy wore Buckshot that fired ball bearings and rode Vampire, a motorbike that transformed into a flying bike. Finally, Miles Mayhem’s twin brother, Maximus Mayhem was the Buzzard co-pilot. He wore the Deep Freeze mask and sported a rather spiffing monocle. He also wished he stuck to bank-robbing.

As expected, the good guys got a fair amount of characterization while the bad guys didn’t. No reason to empathize with the bad guys now is there?

Toy Line

MASK Argos cat
A page from a British Argos catalogue showcasing M.A.S.K. toys. I had all of them.

The M.A.S.K. toyline combined the classic popularity of action figures with the new hot gimmick, transformation. The first wave of toys was released in 1985, concurrently with the cartoon series. The initial wave was five M.A.S.K. vehicles and the Boulder Hill playset and three V.E.N.O.M. vehicles. Despite both M.A.S.K. and V.E.N.O.M. introducing a female operative in the cartoon series early on, no toy of either Gloria Baker or Vanessa Warfield was available in this first wave of toys – or even for a long time after. Many fans spent fruitless hours scouring toy stores for nonexistent toys of Gloria and Vanessa reasoning that that had to exist since they were in the cartoon. Toy makers take note: boys wanted female figures! If for no other reason than to complete our collections! It was deeply frustrating to never be able to attain a full set of toys and act out our own adventures.

A second wave of toys followed in 1986, adding new vehicles and characters but still devoid of any female representation. Europe also got a number of “Adventure Packs” which were usually one or two repainted figures on a blister card along with some equipment. The third wave of toys was released in 1987 and followed on from the cartoon’s second series which introduced a racing theme to the show. Along with the new sets and characters, Kenner released M.A.S.K.’s first female figure – Vanessa Warfield in Manta. Many rejoiced, and the search for Gloria and Shark intensified as fans believed that since Kenner had released a Vanessa figure, then Gloria must be out there as well! Sadly, she was not.

The last wave of toys was released in 1988 and was subtitled “Split Seconds” and featured a new gimmick. Each toy could split into two vehicles and each were piloted by a character and a holographic duplicate. Each duplicate was transparent to identify them easily. None of the vehicles released in the fourth wave featured in the cartoon since it had long since ended by this point. The one bright spot to the line was the release of a Gloria Baker figure! But Shark was nowhere to be found. Instead, she was in a vehicle called Stiletto. Shark was apparently never released. Rumors abound that a Shark toy had been produced and was available but there was little substance to it. Back in the days before the Internet, if a kid told you his brother’s friend’s cousin had Shark, then you believed him because there was no easy way to double-check. The urban legend of a Shark toy is still told to this day with occasional phonies showing up on eBay.

Cartoon Series

The M.A.S.K. cartoon first aired in 1985 on September 30 with a full spread of sixty-five episodes which was enough to guarantee syndication. It was produced by DiC Entertainment who produced many of the 1980s best loved cartoons. As with all cartoons produced in the eighties, it had a rocking intro theme tune. I dare you to not bask in the glory of the theme song. The episodes were broadcast almost daily starting with The Deathstone over the course of the next few months, ending on December 27. Episodes followed a similar format: V.E.N.O.M. acquired something that led to either a greater prize or promised to help destroy M.A.S.K., prompting M.A.S.K. to assemble a team of the best agents suited for the mission to oppose them. Somehow, Scott Trakker and T-Bob would invariably get involved in the adventure and would either worsen the situation, or help in solving it. M.A.S.K. always won and V.E.N.O.M. vowed that next time would be different. It never was.

A second series of ten episodes were released in 1986 and changed the format of the show to a racing theme. M.A.S.K. and V.E.N.O.M. competed in races for prizes, or as distractions as V.E.N.O.M. tried to pull off one nefarious scheme after another. By this point, V.E.N.O.M. were aware of the identities of the M.A.S.K. team whereas they had been kept secret in the first season. Each episode ended with a PSA about the dangers of certain activities, like being aware of the depth of water before diving, looking both ways when crossing the street, or not hitchhiking because the drivers could be V.E.N.O.M. agents or child molesters (I am not making this up. The exact words were used). These were delivered in character by various members of the M.A.S.K. team and even some by V.E.N.O.M.

Among the writers of the cartoon during the first season were noted author Barbara Hambly and Chuck Lorre, now known for producing such shows as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.

Comics

M.A.S.K. comics were first produced by Kenner themselves and were included in the first run of toys. DC Comics attained the rights shortly after, and published a four-issue miniseries and then a regular run that lasted only nine issues and two annuals.

M.A.S.K. fans in the UK got the better deal on comic stories. Originally the DC material was reprinted in Christmas Annuals (a regular British tradition was that any franchise making money at the time got a nice hardback annual with stories, cut-outs, and activities) along with original prose stories, but Fleetway produced a weekly comic magazine that lasted for eighty issues and featured all new stories in a separate continuity with the biggest difference being that V.E.N.O.M. knew the identities of the M.A.S.K. agents from the beginning. The comic was then merged into the revamped Eagle comic until its cancellation.

The Future of M.A.S.K.

MASK IDW Comic

Following the final wave of toys in 1988, the M.A.S.K. franchise was seemingly dead, remembered fondly by its fans and living on through fansites on the Internet. The resurgence in popularity of franchises from the 1980s gave M.A.S.K. fans hope that their time for a reboot or re-imagining would come.

Kenner Products was bought out by Tonka in 1987, which was in turn acquired by Hasbro in 1991 giving Hasbro control over the M.A.S.K. line. The franchise languished for many years until 2008 when a “Specialist Trakker” figure was released as part of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toy line. The character’s filecard revealed the probable future of the M.A.S.K. franchise: Specialist Trakker heads a secret unit within G.I. Joe called M.A.S.K. who had developed a series of combat vehicles that disguise themselves as ordinary vessels. They were opposed by V.E.N.O.M. who were a similar unit created by Cobra.

Hasbro also unveiled a re-imagined version of M.A.S.K. at the 2011 New York Comic Con under their Unit:E line. A new team still led by Matt Trakker battled corruption in a near-future Detroit. Trakker was now a policeman who had discovered a cache of advanced technology left by the League of Ancient Wheelmen (Get it? L.A.W. No? I’ll see myself out.) All the other members of the team were new characters and they had no clear enemy beyond the corruption affecting their city.

After the release of the first two G.I. Joe films, the character of Specialist Trakker was rumored to appear in a potential third film. In December 2015, M.A.S.K. was one of the Hasbro properties along with Micronauts, Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, and Rom that would be used to create a shared universe alongside G.I. Joe. Apparently this shared universe thing had worked for Marvel so now any company with franchises to exploit decided to hop on the bandwagon. How they intend to link Visionaries of all properties into this universe is probably the most fantastical idea in the entire concept.

Amidst all the rumors and speculations and promises of future M.A.S.K. adventures, there was finally a true glimmer of hope. IDW Publishing’s M.A.S.K. ongoing series will be released in November and is written by Brandon Easton with art from Tony Vargas. Tommy Lee Edwards will be providing cover art. IDW already publishes a number of titles based on Hasbro products including several highly acclaimed Transformers comics (seriously, go check out More Than The Meets The Eye), G.I. Joe, Micronauts, Jem & The Holograms, and Rom. The new series aims to maintain the feel and qualities of the original source material but update it for the modern era to present a contemporary version of M.A.S.K. to introduce to new fans to the franchise and to make it appeal to the fans that loved the series while growing up. Finally, M.A.S.K. fans are getting a bit of the reboot action.

Do you remember M.A.S.K. as fondly as I do? Or is this first you’re hearing about it and are now intrigued by the concept enough to check out the IDW reboot? Tweet us and let us know!


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