14 April 2019

FWS Topics: What Happened to 1986 YOUNG ASTRONAUTS Cartoon?

There are some mysteries that compel a global audience to seek out answers like if there really is a Bigfoot roaming around the darkforests of the world, or what lives in the murky depths of Loch Ness, or are there pyramids on Mars, or what really crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947? Mysteries like these have fueled countless TV programs, books, and internet entries. But, not all mysteries are as grandiose as the quest for proof of aliens visiting Earth. Some are small and personal, but no less compelling. In this latest installment of FWS, we will be attempt to explore and explain a mystery of my childhood...just what happened to the teased The Young Astronauts cartoon from 1985/1986?

The Mystery that is The Young Astronauts Cartoon
How I learned of this enigma of Saturday morning cartoons called The Young Astronauts back in 1985 was adverts in the pages of Marvel Comic books. These were blanketed through the comic book ad pages of the time and I was curious about what this new show coming on the CBS Saturday morning lineup was going to be about. The advertisement, along with other TV related publications, promised that the new lineup would be starting on September 14th, 1985. While some of these cartoons aired indeed on CBS in September of 1985, The Young Astronauts did not...and that was seemingly that. Given the time period, there was no internet, as we understand it today, to ask just what the frak happened to this space-themed Saturday morning cartoon series on internet forums. This question was not just limited to the cartoon. Marvel also had plans to roll out a complimentary young-orientated comic under the same title under their "Star Comics" kiddie comic imprint much as they had done with Droids, Inhumanoids, and Silverhawks. Once again, there was press about this incoming title via official Marvel Comics News Magazine called Marvel Age. In issue number 37 that was printed in April of 1986, there was a two page spread, from pages 13-14; we got the most detailed information on The Young Astronauts comic and cartoon. There was much smoke about The Young Astronauts brand, but as 1986 dragged on, no fire caught...and then it all ended with seemingly nothing said about these cancellations. So, what the hell was The Young Astronauts cartoon and what the hell happened to it?

The Plot and Setting of The Young Astronauts
The Young Astronauts name represents several entities all housed under a single banner to promote young people of the mid-1980's to seek out a future in science, space exploration, and science-related fields of study that had been established by the Reagan Administration in 1984. According to court documents, there were two arms to the Young Astronauts organization: the Council and the Young Astronaut Management Corporation. The Council or “YAC” was a non-profit charged with the “objective of encouraging American children to study math and science by using the United States space program as a catalyst.” The other, the YAMC, was a for-profit organization that was charged with providing funding streams for YAC, like the business deal with Marvel Productions. With the aim of getting kids excited about the newly invigorated manned space program via the NASA Space Shuttles, the newly established Young Astronaut Council attempted to reach 1980's youth via the then-current means: comics, Saturday morning cartoons, and models. The spearhead was to be the Toei Animation Saturday morning cartoon and the accompanying Star Comics series that was under the direction of Marvel Production with the YAC having input. Yes, you read correctly. None other than the hallowed Toei Animation studio of Japan was going to be the animators for The Young Astronauts cartoon. 
 While nothing survives of the cartoon, save for one single cel of animation, we do have some press on the Star Comics series that informs on the TV cartoon as well. In the Marvel Age article from 1986, we learned that The Young Astronauts is set in the 21st century onboard the Terran transport starship Courageous captained by Kelly Hampton with her husband Jason, three kids (Wendy, Mikey, and Rick), a robot named Retro, and the cat Rascal being the main characters.  At some point during each episode of The Young Astronauts, there would have an “Astro Minute” in which some element of real science would have been explained by possibility an former or current astronaut in live-action format. In the Marvel Age article, series head, Danny O'Neil describes the first issue showing the kids living on the Courageous and getting into trouble when the cat, Rascal, takes off an one of the shuttle craft of the Courageous. The kids decide to rescue the cat while avoiding their parents...and the misadventure starts there. One interesting note about the comic series was June Brigman was going to draw the comic. Back at this time, June Brigman had helped establish the look of the youth-aimed Marvel superhero comic of Power Pack. This was one my favorite comics of that time and the only "superhero" comic I collected. That this is only part of the storyline that we have and nothing else has come to light since for either the comic series of the CBS cartoon.  

The Historical Context of The Young Astronauts
Space exploration has been used by governments to excite and propel students to reach for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It was this way after the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and while the trend died during the lackluster NASA manned space program in the 1970's, it roared back to life in the 1980's. With the Cold War at another apex and the computer revolution underway, the Reagan Administrative used this public engagement to create the Young Astronauts Council in 1984. If you were a kid like me in the 1980's that was excited about the prospect of becoming an astronaut, you were living in a great time. It seemed that everyone was jumping on the train of space exploration and advanced technology....hell, even Tom Swift had a space-centered sci-fi series of books that I read back in the 1980's! My school library had all manner of books on space exploration, the Space Shuttle, and the incoming technological revolution. Every where you seemed to turn at this point, and you would see high-tech items like robots at Radio Shack, Photon centers, personal computers. Hell, I was ready for the future to get here!
Also keeping the flames burning were publications like Odyssey magazine for kids about space exploration, technology, astronomy and the adventures of the Ulysses 4-11 robot along with the TV program Beyond 2000. Not to mention the real-life Space Camp founded in 1982 in Alabama along with the completely misguided SpaceCamp movie from 1986. Everything at the time appeared to be pointing to the success of the Marvel Productions venture into generating excitement about outer space via the Young Astronauts emerging franchise…then came January 28th, 1986.

The Marvel Productions and the Young Astronauts Council Connection
When it comes to the motive for the cartoon never airing and the Star Comics series being shelved, it lays with the complex and tense relationship between Marvel Productions and the YAC/YAMC. Marvel Productions and the YAC entered into two contracts in 1984 for Marvel Productions to be the exclusive representative for deals concerning licensing of the YAC brand and mission along with Marvel to create a cartoon and comic based around the YAC mission statement. Proof of this relationship could be seen early on when Marvel created these wonderful in-comic full page ads for the Young Astronauts Council featuring Captain America and were widely seen in comic books in 1985 through 1986. It was also around this time that the ads for the incoming cartoon series on CBS started to run, promising a fall of 1985 premier. In addition, Marvel was teasing the Star Comics title in comic ads, comic publishing schedules, and interviews in Marvel Age. By March of 1986, YAC wanted to terminate the contract with Marvel Productions and this was made official on June 30th, 1986. This was not the end of the story; Marvel Productions filed a lawsuit against YAC in July of 1988 that ended in a judgement on August 1st, 1990 by the US District Court of New York.

What Happened to The Young Astronauts?
The majority of online articles concerning the fate of the stillborn Young Astronauts CBS cartoon and the Star Comics series rest it solely on the 1986 Challenger Disaster. While it is true that part of the reasons does indeed rest with the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger some 73 seconds after liftoff and the loss of the ship & crew, it is only part of the story. Marvel Productions and YAC did not see eye-to-eye on the aim of the cartoon/comic series. YAC wanted it to be scientifically accurate as possible, while CBS/Marvel wanted an exciting space kiddie show with the backing of NASA. While the show was slated for the fall of 1985 for its premier and the beginning run of the original 13 episodes on order, the conflict between YAC and CBS/Marvel differing points-of-view delayed the development of the show itself for the reminder of 1985. 
This caused CBS to postpone The Young Astronauts until a meeting could be held to refocus with CBS who had stating that a scientifically accurate show would be dull for the intended audience. Given the loss of inertia and the market campaign that had promised the cartoon incoming by Fall of ’85, YAC decided to grant CBS the freedom to make the show they wanted and get the ball rolling. That meeting between Marvel, the YAC, and CBS was held on January 27th, 1986. The next morning, the Challenger spacecraft explodes, killing all seven heroes onboard and calls into question the future of NASA’s manned space flight mission. The next day, according to court documents, CBS called the YAC and Marvel, and formally canceled the cartoon project. But was that the fate of the Star Comics series as well? 
During the FWS investigation, the dates simply did not match up. In the Marvel vs. Young Astronauts Council lawsuit documents from the summer of 1990, the dates are crystal clear. The article in issue#37 of Marvel Age that came out in April of 1986, the project was still moving forward with the Star Comics series. Some of the adverts for the comic series tied it to the “hit television series”, and one of these adverts ran in the 38th issue of Marvel Age that came out in May of 1986! 
This was after YAC had asked to end their relationship with Marvel some two prior and one month before it became official in June of ’86. Given the historical context of the time period, it is likely that we are talking a month delay between when the Marvel Age magazine was in production and when it was seen on the newsstands. Still, you think that Marvel would have pulled the ads for the Young Astronauts comics give that YAC had asked to end the contract. Maybe Marvel leadership had hopes that they could move forward with the comic book project? Even after the contract was terminated in June 30th of 1986 that was not the end of the story…Marvel would sue YAC to recover payments in July of 1988. Marvel would learn that YAMC may have been double dealing behind the backs of Marvel and their contract. 
In the court papers, Marvel wanted their share of deals that YAMC had made with Pepsi, Coleco, and McDonald’s. Hundreds of Thousands of dollars have been generated via the “deals” made with these three companies during the time that Marvel Productions still had their contract in place. All three of the deals bore fruit in one way or another. Pepsi via their deal that was signed on July 9th, 1985 got a can of their inferior cola on a Challenger shuttle launch, McDonald’s had Young Astronauts branded Happy Meals in October of 1986, and Coleco had signed a contract with YAMC on July 1st, 1986 that included $275,000 advance. This is one day after the end of the Marvel contract. This contract smelled to the legal department of Marvel and it was likely that YAMC had been talks with Coleco prior to the end of the Marvel contract. 
That contract between the YAC and Coleco in summer of 1986 was realized with the STARCOM: The US Space Force cartoon and toyline that featured the YAC logos and mission. This is the only piece of a Young Astronaut cartoon that ever aired. Finally, the court case was settled by District Judge of New York Robert L. Carter on August 1st, 1990 with the ruling in favor of Marvel for YAC to pay the comic book company $185,547.40 in back licensing fees for the YAC deals with Pepsi, Coleco, and McDonald’s.     

The Surviving Pieces of the Young Astronauts/Marvel Project
For many of us that were alive and aware of the Young Astronauts cartoon and comic book, we’ve wondered if anything survived from the failed project. For most of us, the only thing we saw of the proposed show was that little advertisement image of the boy in a spacesuit drifting out near Luna with a robot companion. Some read the Marvel Age article from April of 1986, and it is believed that some may have even seen a pilot for the show...if the rumors are true. We know that art and possible a full first issue of The Young Astronauts comic was mocked up, but never released. The open page of the comic was released in the Marvel Age #37 article along with draws of several of the characters. This is the most complete picture of the show that we have to date. In addition to that, there was a one-page announcement in some Marvel comics of the Star Comics (version or adaptation?) of the Young Astronauts cartoon series that is the only released image of the Courageous transport starship, and the main characters. It should be noted that the art for the Star Comics ad does not seem to match the art style of June Brigman. These comics and scan of them survive to this day. A signed full page splash of the first page of Young Astronauts #1 is currently up for sale on comicartfans.com for $50. This is only piece of the comic that features the characters' dialog and the full credits. In the court papers from the 1990 judgement allowed us to determine the progress of the cartoon. It seems that the lawyers for Marvel Productions informed the court hat Marvel had paid $1.2 million towards the production of the cartoon in which included scripts, the series “bible”, storyboards, and some production (which included animation) had begun on the first episode prior to the January of 1986 CBS termination of the cartoon.
The only surviving element of Toei Animation studios work on the series was a single animation cel that is in the hands of private animation collector who presumed that it came from the aborted series. At present, it is the only piece of the work that Toei Animation did on the cartoon that has come to light. Oddly, the spacesuit equipped lad in the cel does not resemble any of the main characters seen in the Star Comics teaser or article. One unconfirmed piece of information came from a comment on a blogpost about the cartoon, who stated that the pilot episode was indeed finished and was screened. The most outlandish claim of this person is that the pilot episode was actually air on CBS. I doubt this person honestly. They gave an outline of the basic plot which was not similar at all to the outline given in Marvel Age#37 and while I could believe that some portion of the pilot was finished and put onto VHS and screened to CBS/Marvel personnel, there is simply no way it was completely finished and aired on TV in 1986. There is no proof or evidence of this. Thinking there maybe something to this, I dug into some archives and found nothing to it.
Another surviving piece of the Young Astronauts franchise was the model kits issued by Monogram along with adverts in noted publications of the day, like Boys' Life of a 1986 contest associated with NASA/YAC. Anyone familiar with modelling knows about Monogram and they had partnered up with YAC and presumably, Marvel Productions, to put an extensive line of space-themed model kits that may have numbered greater than a dozen. The vast majority were centered on actual historical space vehicles. However, Monogram did import a few space-themed kits from Japanese model kit marker Hasegawa's space war theme "Operation Omega" series. One that came to my attention was a Lunar hopper vehicle with an Space Shuttle mounted to its back. This very kit was sold under the Young Astronauts brand being called the "Eagle Lunar Lander". It seems that Hasegawa will be reissuing this kit very soon.    

The Young Astronauts Today
With Generation X taking to the internet to locate and rediscover historical elements of their rich childhood of the 1980’s, the mystery of The Young Astronauts made it into various sites over the years.  Most of the articles are only a few lines or a brief mention. While all of the information is there on the internet, few sites have put the entire narrative together, but what greatly helped the investigation of The Young Astronauts was the scanning of old comic books. Some also remember the YAC for its iconic ads in those mid-80's comics, its connection to STARCOM: The US Space Force, and possibly the Monogram model kits.