From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Saturday Morning Cartoon: Mighty Max

Mighty Max was of the not-so-rare breed of cartoons spawned from a toyline–in this case, a series of toys modeled after the popular Polly Pocket fad, only for boys. What distinguished Mighty Max from 21-minute commercials like He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and yes, even Transformers, were its somewhat sophisticated plots and unabashed geekiness, all disguised in the bright colors and humor of a kiddie show.

Mighty Max aired on UPN from 1992-1993. Though it only ran for two seasons, there are many gems among its forty episodes. The premise casts Max (voiced by Rob Paulsen, familiar to many as Yakko Warner on The Animaniacs) as the “the Mighty One,” who possesses a magical baseball cap that allows him to open portals scattered all over the world. It’s a convenient way of hopping from one exotic location to another in the course of their adventures; he’s often referred to as “the Capbearer,” which is perhaps a less impressive title. Virgil (Tony Jay), his 10,000-year-old Lemurian advisor (who resembles a talking chicken), has ancient maps that chart the connections between portals: thus, a portal in Max’s local supermarket might take him to Australia, where another portal leads him to Italy, and so on. Though Max is a hero of prophecy, destined to save the world, he’s still just an 11-year-old boy, so he’s accompanied on his missions by a huge Viking bodyguard named Norman (Richard Moll, the huge guy on Night Court), who has played several roles over the centuries, including Thor and Hercules.

A hero needs a villain, and what sounds more villainous than “Skullmaster”? Skullmaster wants the key to the portals–Max’s cap–which will free him from his underground prison and grant him supreme power. Skullmaster is so evil, he could only be voiced by Tim Curry. Interspersed with their battles against Skullmaster are a host of other enemies and one-off adventures.

Some episodes involve Max’s friends from school and his mother–the coolest mother in animated television. Sure, she leaves him home alone all the time and brings back dangerous artifacts, but she’s raising the kid on her own and pursuing a career in archaeology. Interestingly, nary a word is ever said about Max’s father, which possibly sets this show apart from the majority right there.

But what really makes this series special are all the episodes that draw on popular science fiction and fantasy, admittedly for a slightly younger audience. There are zombies (“The Mother of All Adventures”), aliens (“The Brain-Suckers Cometh”, “Out in the Cold”), werewolves (“Werewolves of Dunneglen”), and so on. The structure of the show (and the freedom of animation over live action) meant they could take the show pretty much anywhere. Episodes often ended with a short instructional piece linked to the episode, such as a geography or history lesson, thereby fulfilling its educational requirement.

What might be most surprising about this show, aside from the storylines, the single mother, and its liberal borrowing from the entire history of SF, fantasy, and horror–not to mention religion and mythology–is how dark the show is, especially for kids. Though Max wisecracks a fair bit (he’s practically required to quip and pun his way through his adventures, like a true hero), a lot of people die in this series, including, most shockingly, two of the main characters. Hope I haven’t given too much away, but you can probably figure out who I mean since there are only three main characters…

The series also has an ending, of sorts. Some consider it a cop out, but I think it’s pure genius. In the two-part final episode, when Skullmaster actually seems to win, Max manages to reverse time all the way back to the first episode. Time paradox? Maybe. But what does foreknowledge of the future matter when you’re following a prophecy anyway? I think this storytelling device works amazingly well for a syndicated series–it’s the perfect explanation for endless reruns, since everything just loops back to the beginning!

Needless to say, this show is so good it’s not yet available on DVD. Unless you’re me, and managed to archive the whole thing on VHS, you’ll probably need to track down files online. Fortunately, you can find some of them available on YouTube. I give you the first episode of one of my favorite childhood cartoons, “A Bellwether in One’s Cap”:

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