Nerding Day: Skeleton Warriors 🌭

The ’90s were, as you know, the most extreme decade of all time. The day-glo colors and hair metal of the ’80s pupated and metamorphosed into in-your-face, gross-out, over-the-top action, giving us the ascendance of Nickelodeon, Power Rangers, and the X-Games. So what do you get when an experienced producer and the director of the Masters of the Universe movie launches a new transmedia franchise squarely in the middle of the ’90s? You get Skeleton Warriors, a property about evil, animate bone monsters and the milquetoast fleshy heroes who oppose them.

Created by industry veteran Gary Goddard, Skeleton Warriors launched in 1994, with the toys coming out a little before the 13-episode TV series. According to some sources, Goddard claims that he was inspired by the Conan the Barbarian live show at Universal Studios, in which the titular beefcake does battle with skeleton warriors. Hm, Goddard must have thought, skeleton… warriors… that gives me an idea!

Like the previously-discussed Van-Pires, Skeleton Warriors is named after its antagonists rather than its heroes. Unlike Van-Pires, its antagonists aren’t lame gas guzzlers but fucking cool demonic skeletons who look like the ancestors of Da Share Z0ne. The property started with the toys, developed as a line of skeletal abominations that stood out amongst the GI Joes and other standard fare of the time. And seriously, these guys looked sick.

It wouldn’t be a ’90s kids property if there wasn’t a cartoon to bolster toy sales, and Skeleton Warriors received a 13-episode run depicting an epic battle between good (which is dumb) and evil (which is skeletons). There is nothing about its intro that isn’t completely sweet:

The show opens with a giant golden CGI skull talking directly into your face, which would be badass enough, but the skull is also voiced by Tony fucking Jay. Having your cartoon open with the voice of Megabyte from ReBoot and the Elder God from The Legacy of Kain games spitting vague exposition about the nature of good and evil at the viewer is a gutsy move, and if anything it sets the bar a little too high. It kind of makes you wish the whole show was just a CGI Tony Jay skull ruminating about the balance between light and dark. Sadly, the skull dips out for most of each episode and only reappears at the end, to offer some kind of summation of what we’ve learned.

When Skeleton Warriors begins, we learn that the king of Luminicity has disappeared on an expedition, leaving eldest son Prince Justin in charge. His younger brother, Joshua, is pretty ticked off about this. In his frustration, he turns to a guy named Baron Dark, who ropes him into a plan to gain access to the Lightstar Crystal in the castle that powers the city. Really, Josh? This makes Joshua seem like a pretty gullible asshole, but to be fair to him, this is a fantasy world. Maybe dudes are named stuff like Baron Dark or Duke Crime all the time. Maybe it’s normal to be called Baron Dark in the Skeleton Warriors world.

Anyway, Baron Dark betrays Joshua because of fucking course he does. He tries to steal the crystal for himself, but it splits into two in the process. The Baron’s half turns him into a living skeleton monster, while the other half empowers Justin, Joshua, and their sister Jennifer. Each of the three gains unique powers, while the Baron becomes basically immortal and able to turn those with darkness in their hearts into unkillable skeletons like him in a process the show straightfacedly calls “skeletonizing.”

He immediately transforms his goons into a boney band of evildoers and lays siege to the city, which is already in pretty bad shape thanks to the loss of the Lightstar Crystal, which was apparently powering their entire civilization. No contingency plans for us, our easily-accessed magic crystal will keep us going forever! The party’s never going to end!

The three royal siblings flee to their uncle’s place, where he gives them all cool new nicknames and β€” oddly β€” skeleton-themed outfits. This always struck me as kind of strange, even as a kid. If you’re fighting skeletons, why are you dressing up in gear with skulls and bones all over them? Like, are you trying to reclaim skeletons from the living bone monsters who want to exterminate humanity? I guess we’ve all got skeletons inside of us, so maybe there’s something to that.

Justin is dubbed Lightstar, with the power to shoot energy beams from his hands. Jennifer, who has gained the power of flight, becomes known as Talyn. And Joshua, who can teleport from shadow to shadow and also has a fucked up zombie face because the Lightstar Crystal apparently detected that he was kind of a dick, receives the moniker of “Grimskull.”

Hey, “Grimskull” sounds kind of like Grayskull from He-Man, doesn’t it? Weird. Probably nothing.

With their uncle, who Justin decides to call “Guardian,” the three royal siblings form the Legion of Light. Together, they fight back against the Skeleton Warriors in a series of battles that involve a lot more hovercycles than you might expect. Seriously, a huge part of Skeleton Warriors is people flying hovercycles around or getting into hovercycle crashes. Again, it was the ’90s, the decade that brought us Renegade, so you can’t be too surprised that they took one of the most x-treme forms of transportation and found a way to make them even more In Your Face and To The Max.

The Skeleton Warriors cartoon is actually pretty good for what it is. Most episodes revolve around the heroes desperately struggling to gain an advantage against their unkillable adversaries while also dealing with internal strife within their ranks. One episode features the people of Luminicity wanting to execute Grimskull for his role in, you know, ruining their entire society. Another depicts the trauma of a normal man who faced the Skeleton Warriors in battle and later became one, the cowardice in his heart enough for Baron Dark to make him into one of his deathless minions.

Having your villains be essentially indestructible, able to reform themselves after each defeat, was a pretty good call narratively. It sidesteps the need for faceless rank-and-file goons like Power Rangers’ Putties, since the heroes can blow the named skeleton warriors to pieces and they can just keep coming back.

And Baron Dark’s crew has some real choice weirdos, too. There’s Shriek, the token evil lady who maintains her crush on Lightstar even post-skeletonization; Doctor Cyborn, who I was disappointed to realize is not called, as I thought, “Doctor Cyborg”; and Aracula, a man-spider who we later learn is a member of a whole race of man-spiders who hate humans. There’s a lot going on in the Skeleton Warriors world.

Midway through the series, the Legion of Light learns that they can de-skeletonize people. Some are glad to be freed of Baron Dark’s control, but his core minions, when reverted to flesh and blood, crave a return to their skinless state. And why shouldn’t they? They have skeleton parties where they dance and feast β€” whether they get anything out of the latter act or if it is merely a grim parody of life is left to the viewers’ imagination. Skeleton Warriors really wants you to know that while being magically stripped of your skin and organs is agony, being an evil skeleton freed from both flesh and the limitations of human morality feels fucking great. And must we not endure pain to taste true pleasure?

The whole thing is brought to life by some solid voice acting, too: Jennifer Hale (Commander Shepard from Mass Effect) is Talyn, Jeff Bennett (Dexter’s Laboratory, Gargoyles) is Lightstar, and Philip L. Clarke (Doom 3) is Baron Dark. You kind of wish they’d gotten Tony Jay to voice Baron Dark, but maybe he was too busy menacing Mainframe at the time. The point is, we flesh-users really blew it by ignoring this show.

And Skeleton Warriors wasn’t limited to just a TV series and action figures, oh no. Like the creator of Balloonatiks, Gary Goddard was dreaming big β€” though that’s perhaps understandable, considering he was peddling living skeletons instead of balloon superheroes. There were Skeleton Warriors comics, trading cards, lunchboxes, t-shirts, housewares. There was a Skeleton Warriors video game for the Saturn and PlayStation 1, which featured CGI graphics closer to the look Goddard had wanted for the show itself and a soundtrack by none other than Tommy “I Was On MTV Cribs” Tallarico. And yes, there was a Skeleton Warriors float (though that word might be generous here β€” it was a little rocket-shaped car) in the 1994 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, alongside other pop culture icons of the era like Sonic the Hedgehog, Lamb Chop, and Kenny G.

At this point you might be like, “Ok, Merritt, Skeleton Warriors was a minor footnote in ’90s pop culture history. It seems fine, and certainly a lot better than the crap you normally cover here. So why are we talking about it?” Well, remember what I said about the character Grimskull earlier? That his name sounds an awful lot like Grayskull, the name of the castle in He-Man? I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

See, Skeleton Warriors wasn’t Gary Goddard’s first rodeo. He co-founded Landmark Entertainment Group in 1980, and it was a pretty successful operation, creating a number of rides for Universal Studios. Goddard also created a few other shows, including the ’80s series Captain Power. He even has a directing credit to his name. What movie did he direct? Why, the live-action adaptation of a massively popular ’80s cartoon and toy franchise β€” the 1987 box office flop Masters of the Universe.

For those who aren’t familiar, Masters of the Universe tells the tale of the heroic He-Man (alias Prince Adam) and his endless battles in the techno-magical world of Eternia with the villainous Skeletor, who, as his name suggests, has a skull for a face. So we’ve got a prince fighting an evil skeleton man in a world of technology and magic. Sounds a lot like Skeleton Warriors, huh? Or much worse, if you’re going by number of skeletons, and you should be.

Here’s my theory: Goddard got a taste of Masters of the Universe and didn’t want to let go. After the movie failed to recoup its budget, he was likely out of the running for any future MOTU projects. Besides, the franchise had basically run its course by the end of the ’80s and mostly laid dormant until the early 2000s. But Goddard still had the industry pull to do his own thing. He had the resources to realize the dream of many a geek: he could make his fanfiction real. And that’s essentially what Skeleton Warriors is: a “what if” scenario in which Skeletor gets the secrets of Castle Grayskull in the first episode and destroys the kingdom, forcing He-Man and his allies to fight a hopeless guerilla war against him.

Don’t believe me? The Skeleton Warriors theme song says of Lightstar, β€œhe has the power!” You know who else went around saying β€œI have the power?” He-Man.

Not enough? Just look at Man-at-Arms from Masters of the Universe and Guardian from Skeleton Warriors, both of whom are wise, older soldier/inventor types with weird helmets and facial hair. Goddard didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here. “Oh, I was inspired by a Conan the Barbarian live show I saw one time.” Bullshit. You wanted another shot at He-Man. This is He-Man with extra Skeletor and nothing else.

So why didn’t Skeleton Warriors succeed when its undeniable inspiration was such a cultural phenomenon? Maybe the focus on the villains left the human heroes feeling limp and uninteresting. Maybe the toys were too edgy for concerned parents, who were fine with their kids playing with violent superheroes but drew the line at the undead legions of the night. Or maybe the ’90s were just an oversaturated entertainment market and there were bound to be losers in the war for kids’ attention and parents’ money.

But at least Gary Goddard went on toβ€” hang on, I’m being told that Goddard was a close collaborator of disgraced director Bryan Singer and was accused of sexual assault throughout the 2010s by a number of men who worked with him when they were minors, and that he “took a leave of absence” from his design firm, the Goddard Group, in 2018, which then changed its name to Legacy Entertainment. Ah well, nevertheless.

This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Cerril, whose very flesh is a skeleton prison.

9 replies on “Nerding Day: Skeleton Warriors 🌭”

The degree to which I enjoy Merritt K articles is itself evidence of dark powers at work. Skeletonize my funny bone, bold 90s archeologist!

Fuuuuuck, I was just about to say how I wanted someone to buy me the rights to use as the vehicle for a Harryhousen-esque live-action reimagining but the car crash ending has taken with it my dreams.

When I was a kid I stole my friend’s Skeleton Warriors skeleton warrior toy because it was so super badass and i wasnt allowed my own. Sorry Andrew.

I say we need a reboot of Skeleton Warriors. But to bring it up to date, it’s 13 22-minute episodes of people beating Gary Goddard with random large bones.

For an article about fleshless skeleton monsters striving to cast their world into eternal darkness and slavery from which none can escape it got real dark at the end.

I absolutely love the off the wall bangers Merritt comes up with here. I know I look forward to the strange finds pulled from the weave of history.

I had a couple of the action figures as a kid. Thank you for informing me about where they originated; I had no idea!

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