Saturday, September 5, 2009

At 27, I Find The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Fascinating

Today, thanks to Topless Robot's Rob Bricken, I came across this story yesterday about how former "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" star Jason David Frank is going to potentially maybe think about starting to fight in an MMA league...or something. Honestly, I can't make heads or tails out of most fighting sport news, and what I do understand of it bores me to tears. But the odd news and the somewhat nostalgic response it inspired in a few bloggers got me thinking about the "Power Rangers" franchise, which for some reason has happened way too much lately.

Rewind to 1993: When "Power Rangers" first bowed in the U.S., I was in the sixth grade, and I thought it was total bullshit. At age 12, I was already a card-carrying member of the comic book fanboy nation, and beyond picking up a weekly slate of DC and Marvel books, dreaming of an awesomely awesome career in comics (ha ha, kid) and generally thinking about Batman a ton during science class, I also spent the majority of my non-football season afternoons watching "Batman: The Animated Series" and "X-Men" (once it went to weekdays).

So naturally, when Haim Saban's ridiculously-named team of stock footage-empowered stuntmen back-flipped their way into the Fox Kids lineup, I called shenanigans on the entire endeavor. Not only were the effects hokey and the music cheese-tastic with action scenes that made the WWF resemble HBO prize fights, the show's worst sin in my eyes was its stupefying plot and character work. The Power Rangers were good but dumb. The bad guys were bad but dumber. At some point a giant robot was employed to fight a rampaging rubber monster at the last minute. Someone learned a valuable lesson. The fat guy in a biker jacket got yogurt poured on his head. Rinse, repeat.

But for some reason, members of my peer group found this garbage entertaining. On the cusp of middle school and all the fake rebellion and pseudo-dating that came with it, most of us were about done with cartoons anyway, but in that last blast of sheer kid-dom more than a few seemed impressed by generic Japanese spandex suits and sparky, smokey explosions. I even distinctly remember arguing with some on the merit of Frank's own debut during the Green Ranger "mystery" saga where I proved unable to dissuade them from digging on a guy in "armor" seemingly made from the same material as my grandmother's davenport with arguments like, "You want a real epic? You should read fucking Knightfall." Anyway, after all of that debate, the Power Rangers show should have faded into hazy adolescent memory like "Mighty Max" and "Conan The Adventurer."

But here's the crazy thing: the Power Rangers just kept going. As even the nerdiest parts of me slid away from kids entertainment so I could spend time as a teenager feigning coolness and trying to pretend I wasn't terrified of girls, Saban's company (and later Disney) continued to regurgitate stock footage from Japan's Super Sentai Series all the while casting new batches of 20-something actors and amateur martial arts types fresh off the bus to Hollywood. While I was in high school and college, the Power Rangers bounced across several TV networks while flying spaceships, saving jungle animals, playing supercops, riding dinosaurs and this year getting involved in some kind of motorsport adventures.

While I'm pretty sure I was cognizant of the fact that this obviously cheap-to-produce spectacle continued on in one form or another, it didn't really hit me how hard the Power Rangers were still kicking until I did a year stint as a substitute teacher in 2005. Spending your weekdays passing out dittos to a blur of kids who insist on calling you "Mr. P" honestly wasn't a bad way to save up cash. Beyond the relative ease of the actual "work," hanging with little kids all day makes for great people watching, and over the course of my months bouncing between the schools in my hometown, I started to notice an army of 7 to 10-year-olds rocking Power Rangers gear from lunchboxes and book bags to t-shirts and tennis shoes.

At face value, realizing that the show was still around and still somewhat popular made a lot of sense. With the onslaught of superhero movies since the advent of the '00s, the idea that C-grade spandex type would hang on is a given. In a licensing sense, Power Rangers work a lot as a budget superhero brand both for the producers of the eternally brain dead TV programming and for parents feeding the insatiable desire of kids for useless crap. On the whole, Rangers product costs a lot less than even the lamest tchotchkes churned out for big budget Marvel movies, and I can easily see a parent seeing no difference or at least seeing the difference in buying a crap Bandai Ranger toy for a super-infatuated fourth grader as an reward for mowing the lawn while saving Hulk Hands for birthdays and Christmas.

But beyond all this arm-chair parenting, lately I've been thinking there's a dimension to the Power Rangers popularity that even the biggest super nerds like myself don't look at – or don't want to look at – and it involves our beloved comics medium. The biggest criticism that gets lobbied at Marvel and DC by folks invested in the artform but not in the ins and outs of comics continuity is that the publishers have done very little to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes in terms of recruiting new comics readers. Such complaints divide their anger between a lack of appropriate product (which I think is bunk) and a lack of sales channels to reach kids (which is a harder problem than anyone with a blog can solve). But some days I start to worry that the problem isn't one of availability so much as it is a problem of attachment.

To say it bluntly: maybe little kids just don't really give a shit about most of these characters. Surely, the heroes at Marvel and DC have survived so long because there are honestly compelling stories that have been built around them over the decades, and those stories have translated well to blockbuster Hollywood tent poll flicks. There's a reason all sorts of people in your family that could care less about comics of any kind were pumped to see "Spider-Man 3." But in terms of transitioning that popularity into readership for the actual comics – especially when it comes to younger readers – we've got to acknowledge the fact that most kids who roll out to summer camp in a Spidey t-shirt don't do so because they relate deeply to Peter Parker's plight. Mostly they just think a colorful character who flies while shit explodes around him is kinda neat. And whether those explosions happen around a comic character with decades of well told stories or around the entirely forgettable Power Rangers doesn't make much more of a difference to the kids of today than it did to my sixth grade classmates.

In their sales heyday, comic books were the best way for America's youth to get cheap, fun thrills. Today, that comes from TV and video games as much as anything else, and to expect that most of the fans of those media will follow characters to a reading platform without some built in "cool caché" (*cough*manga*cough*) is totally unrealistic. Those of us with a professional or personal investment to the idea of comics getting read by a new generation need to focus less on harping at DC and Marvel for "failing to capitalize" on their characters' mass media popularity and instead need to start identifying ways to best sell comics of all kinds to the types of kids already invested in reading more so than escapist entertainment.

With Disney's acquisition of Marvel this past week, it looks as though the superhero building blocks of our business are going to have a top spot in the minds of kids for a long, long time to come. As a side result of that, as far as I can tell, it also seems that the Power Rangers reign as America's biggest "budget" heroes may be ending. And though comics-based characters are now firmly entrenched in the mainstream, I'd much rather we ignored that when it doesn't directly affect comics publishing and instead focus on building the best kinds of kids comics we can before we all end up like this:


Ben Morse said...

Good read, man.

I had a buddy who stayed into Power Rangers well into junior high and dressed up for Halloween in a kid's size White Ranger costume and none of us could determine if he was being ironic or not.

I'd be curious exactly how many actors have been a part of the franchise at this point.

And apropos of nothing, Tommy does look pretty badass in that top MMA photo.

Rickey said...

Jesus, great post.
You get a chance, check out the first Power Rangers movie. It has that genuine kid-fun feel I think TMNT was missing (yeah, I said it).

CalebAndrew said...

You wrote this just to break my Power Ranger lovin' heart didncha?

Anonymous said...

Very well written piece. I believe I became entranced with MMPR because so few American shows back then featured martial arts and though surely those featured were like poorly done, imitation Hong Kong fare, it was still strong to me because of my love (and family's love) of martial arts. Not to mention, when I learned the actor who played Tommy practiced the same martial art as Chuck Norris (who my dad was a big fan of and who I saw many films and read many articles on), even my dad was up to looking over my shoulder when the character came on screen to fight. I stopped watching around the time I went to high school I believe; it was after 'In Space' which acted as the official end of the story that began in the first season where essentially everything was wrapped up to make way for Japan's method of making every season fairly independent of each other.

However, I actually came back to the show about a year ago. I caught a fight scene, perhaps on YouTube, that blew me away and I decided to check it out. The season at the time was Jungle Fury which was predominantly dedicated to martial arts (although the American version grouped everything under kung fu, the base program began with kung fu and went into other arts like karate and muay thai which you could tell by looking at the rangers' uniforms and fighting styles), which was right up my alley. I watched the whole season and it was really good (terrible acting, though, but it was obvious several of the characters were actual martial artists). I even watched previous seasons, most weren't that good but a few weren't bad.