For myself, and I suspect many others of my generation, a interest in fantasy was formed long before discovering Howard, Tolkien, or Leiber. Comic books played a part, but a lot of it was born in the ritual of Saturday morning cartoons. Before the rise of anime, before cartoons were slick, 30 minute commercials (even the toy tie-ins), there were a number of cheaply animated, sketchly plotted works of fantasy that captured our imaginations.
In 1981, Filmation brought Blackstar to CBS. Blackstar had a sort of sword and planet thing going. It was the story of astronaut John Blackstar who gets sucked through a black hole and spit out into "an ancient alien universe." Stranded on the apparently rather sparsely populated planet Sagar. He pulls on a fur skirt, jumps astride a winged, dragon horse, and swings the crystalline starsword in the fight for freedom. Fighting for freedom against the Overlord turns out mostly to entail hanging with the comic relief Trobbits--who are best described as part Seven Dwarfs and part Keebler Elves--and waiting for danger to find him. The cheap animation on Blackstar made Thundarr look like a Disney feature film, and the plots were thinner, if that's possible, but the exotic creatures and situations did have an appeal if you were 8 years old, which I was. Still, Blackstar only lasted one season.
Filmation struck again with a similar concept, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, in 1983. Masters of the Universe was, of course, a pre-existing toy line, but Filmation made some changes or additions for their animated version--which included adding a secret identity and making it generally more superheroish than the Donald Glut penned mini-comics that had originally described a more barbaric (dare I say, Thundarrish?) world. I was ambivalent about the changes as a kid, and my resentment has only grown over the years due to the relatively greater popularity of the cartoon with its pink-vested Prince Adam and comic relief Orko.
That same year--the same month, in fact--CBS gave us Dungeons & Dragons. TSR and Marvel Productions conspired to bring this to the small screen. It featured a group of kids transported to a fantasyland by one hell of a roller coaster ride (I assume their parents sued the amusement park). They promptly gained the accouterments and abilities of various D&D classes, a cryptic Yoda-esque mentor, and an evil nemesis. Tiamat appeared quite a lot, too, which was cool. I would suspect the cartoon helped get kids into gaming, but I've never met anyone that identified it as their gateway into the hobby, so I can't be sure. I know it influenced some of the adventures and early characters of my friends and myself, though.
There's kind of a lull in fantasy cartoons for the next few years until Visionaries, which was a toy tie-in and was in the era when that really began to matter. It was syndicated (like He-Man had been) and came on Sunday mornings not Saturdays in my market. Visionaries had an interesting backstory, though. It took place on an advanced world, where the age of magic suddenly returned and technology failed. As one would expect in such a situation, people immediately get divied up into heroic and villainous knights and start acting into a pseudo-Arthurian manner.
In the age before there were whole channels devoted to kids' programming, and before network Saturday mornings were given over to tweener programming and kid reality shows, gems like these--even the ones of lesser value--were things to be treasured. I can't claim they were of higher quality than what has come after--indeed, in many cases I'd agree they come up short in that regard--but there was a crazy inventiveness to some that slicker productions seem to have lost.
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