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How the Real Ghostbusters Jumped from Cartoons to Comics

Welcome to Adventure(s) Time’s 147th installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, the very first continuation of 1984’s Ghostbusters film, and the comic it inspired. And if you have any suggestions for the future, let me hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.

Debuting on September 13, 1986, The Real Ghostbusters animated series required “real” as an adjective due to animation studio Filmation’s claim to the term “Ghost Busters.” The film began production in 1983 without clear rights to the name, due to Filmation’s live-action kids’ series The Ghost Busters from 1975. (Following the success of H. R. Pufnstuf, Filmation attempted its own low-budget live-action shows aimed at kids.)


While shooting the movie, alternate names for the paranormal investigators had to be used, including “Ghoststoppers,” “Ghostbreakers,” and “Ghostsmashers.” Ghostbusters was deemed the best choice, however, forcing the studio to strike a deal with Universal, which owned the Ghost Busters rights.

WHY THE GHOSTBUSTERS CARTOON WAS CALLED REAL GHOSTBUSTERS

The Ghost Busters cast

Filmation exploited the movie’s success and launched its own animated adaptation of their forgotten 1970s Ghost Busters series in 1986. To distinguish between the shows, the film’s cartoon adaptation for ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup was dubbed The Real Ghostbusters, a title that stuck with the merchandising for years.

Reportedly, Filmation was eager to do a licensed cartoon based on 1984’s hit Ghostbusters, only to lose the bid to DiC, an animation company that scored numerous licenses in the 1980s thanks to its quick turnaround and cheap budgets. Filmation turned Ghost Busters into a competing cartoon, but the show disappeared quickly. The Real Ghostbusters ran for over 100 episodes and stayed in reruns into the 1990s.

RELATED: Ghostbusters: Afterlife Figures Reveal Original Team Suited Up and a New Demon

DiC’s The Real Ghostbusters featured the film’s lead characters — the acerbic Dr. Peter Venkman, deadpan scientist Dr. Egon Spengler, the childlike Dr. Ray Stantz and the down-to-earth Winston Zeddemore. Joining them were aloof secretary Janine Melnitz, and one of the more memorable spirits from the movie, “Onion Head ghost.” That’s what he was called onset, at least. The film gave him no official name, but the cartoon popularized Slimer as the doughy green ghost’s name.

Allowing the Ghostbusters to keep a ghost mascot is possibly the show’s most significant deviation from the film’s lore. A Season One episode, “Citizen Ghost,” flashes back to the immediate aftermath of 1984’s Ghostbusters, explaining how Slimer escaped capture and befriended most of the team. Venkman openly despises Slimer, who raids the team’s refrigerator and leaves green goo everywhere, which is one of the show’s running bits.

WHO WAS IN THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS?

Fans of 1980s animation should immediately recognize most of the voice cast. Frank Welker, who voiced everyone from Scooby Doo’s Fred to Super Powers’ Darkseid, plays Slimer and Ray Stantz. Maurice LaMarche, who later voiced the Brain on Pinky and the Brain, does an impressive caricature of Harold Ramis’ voice as Egon. Although Egon is the most film-accurate voice, his character model is by far the most divergent. It was decided, bizarrely, to change his hairstyle into a platinum blond blend of a mullet, rat-tail and pompadour.

Ernie Hudson auditioned to play his character from the movie, but Arsenio Hall beat him out for the role of Winston. Hall was a few years away from hosting his talk show, and he was replaced by actor Buster Jones in the fourth season after it took off.

The show’s best lines go to Peter Venkman, of course, who is voiced by Lorenzo Music, with the same dry delivery he gave for years as Garfield the cat. It’s difficult to ignore the synchronicity of Music voicing one of Bill Murray’s characters in the 1980s, only for Murray later to voice Music’s signature character in the 2000s Garfield movies.

It was decided two seasons into the show, however, that Music didn’t sound enough like Bill Murray. He was recast with Full House star Dave Coulier with the third season. Coulier even went back and dubbed his voice with Music’s for reruns of the show’s earliest episodes.

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THE REAL TALENT BEHIND THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS

Regarding the actual 1984 film, the episode “Take Two” establishes that movie as a fictionalized account of the cartoon characters’ previous adventures. In terms of tone, the show is faithful to the movie’s feel. It’s a blend of humor, science fiction, and horror — all elements present in the film but rarely seen on Saturday morning. The show was allowed some leeway in regards to “disturbing images” though. The movie had already established a precedent for the ghost antagonists’ horrific looks (many designed by comics great Bernie Wrightson), so the cartoon was allowed to push the boundaries of kids’ TV censorship.

Many of the show’s ghosts were designed by Everett Peck, the cartoonist who would go on to create the adult comic/animated series Duckman. The earliest episodes contain memorable demons like the Boogieman, a hooved beast with a 1980s New Wave hairstyle, a rogue Sandman determined to put all humanity to sleep for 500 years, and the spirit of Halloween, who wants to make the holiday last all year.

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These designs are fantastic, and the animation is the highest quality found on 1980s American TV. DiC began life as a partnership between a French producer and legendary Japanese animation studio TMS. Not every Real Ghostbusters utilizes the studio — some feature embarrassingly cheap animation, to be honest — but numerous episodes have an impressive anime-esque look to them.

Real Ghostbusters also featured no shortage of talented writers. J. Michael Straczynski was the show’s original head writer, joined by noted animation writers like Michael Reeves and J. M. DeMatteis. Many of the early episodes feature intriguing character conflicts or high-concept plots. If for nothing else, it’s interesting to see the writers find some way to add drama to the inevitable fate of that episode’s villain. Since the antagonists are ghosts, the heroes have permission to blast away at them (the typical Broadcast Standards-approved fisticuffs don’t apply here.) The movie established this as an easy means of dispatching the ghosts, so every episode has to create some complication to maintain the story’s conflict.

THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS COMICS

The show was an immediate hit, spawning various tie-in products. Two of these included a cereal from Ralston Purina, and Slimer’s Ecto-Cooler Hi-C drink, which was so popular that it long outlasted the show, sticking around until 2001. Caputo Publishing, Inc., a company founded by Tony C. Caputo, helped with the branding. Caputo also happened to be the owner of NOW Comics, a rising independent comics publisher in the ’80s. NOW launched its Real Ghostbusters comic book in 1988. Rather than starting anew with yet another take on the 1984 film, the comic was specifically set in the world of the cartoon.

NOW released its earliest titles in 1986 and was the third-largest publisher in comics by 1990. The company’s success was reliant on scoring recognizable properties and releasing comic adaptations with superior production values. Some of NOW’s licensed titles included The Terminator, Married… with Children and The Green Hornet. NOW utilized a sturdier paperstock not seen in Marvel and DC’s mainstream lines, in addition to an innovative coloring technique that enabled painted colors over the artwork.

The early Real Ghostbusters covers from Ken Steacy are the best those designs ever looked. Steacy’s color design and angular linework add a new dimension to the cartoon models, drawing in any fan of the show. The interiors, however, can’t quite match the cover’s promise.

The comic’s opening arc is from writer James Van Hise (a longtime veteran of comics fandom) and artist John Tobias, who was only 19 at the time. Real Ghostbusters has become an odd footnote in Tobias’ career — he’s far better known today as the co-creator of the Mortal Kombat franchise. Tobias plays up the cartooniness of the show’s designs but doesn’t stray too far from what you could expect from the source material.

The initial two-parter establishes its own Monkeywrench in the Ghostbusters’ simple “shoot and trap” status quo. After capturing the ghost of Captain Nemo, the team’s ghost-trap is stolen by four mysterious youngsters from the future. A future where fashions have returned to the late 1960s, oddly enough. The time-travelers send each Ghostbuster to an alternate reality where they face assorted ghouls.

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A slug-like creature called Sl’g arrives to help the team, claiming to be the alien mentor of these rebellious future hippies. After aiding the Ghostbusters, Sl’g ultimately reveals that he’s in fact a ghost — albeit a time-traveling, extra-dimensional one — who lied in order to gain their trust. He returns to the future with the ghost Captain Nemo, who he admires as a scientist and spirit.

The story takes advantage of the ongoing continuity a monthly comic provides, but it all seems fairly arbitrary. The dialogue isn’t a sharp as the show’s, and there isn’t much of a character hook for any specific Ghostbuster. There’s nothing egregiously bad, but it reads as something that might interest only a hardcore completist.

The rest of NOW’s Real Ghostbusters is usually of similar quality, but there are standouts, like Evan Dorkin writing and penciling the fourth issue, with Ken Steacy along for inks. The NOW run was out of print for decades, but IDW did produce a reprint series in its Omnibus format. For those not content with the full DVD sets, this might scratch a desperate Real Ghostbusters itch.

KEEP READING: Ghostbusters: Afterlife Director Explains How the Film ‘Expands’ on 2016 Reboot

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