They've got it backward. Used to be, if a cartoon character became popular, marketers might jump on the bandwagon with a toy or T-shirt line.
Nowadays, some marketers want to be the ``creative force'' that artists and storytellers used to be. These merchandisers dream up their toys and T-shirts first, and the cartoonists tag along in second place - with stories that serve as extended ads for the products that inspired them.
Just ask He-Man and She-Ra, two superheroes billed as ``Masters of the Universe,'' by their promotors. They and their friends were launched as a Mattel toy line in 1982 and went on to success as a syndicated TV show. Seen on 125 stations across the United States, their adventures are devoured by more than four million viewers every day - most of them too young to have a clear idea of the difference between entertainment and advertisement.
Not satisfied with TV stardom, He-Man and She-Ra have now hit the theatrical circuit. Their live-action ``power tour'' is traveling around the US, toting its own circus-style arena - an ``Eternian Masterdome,'' actually - and a flashy collection of high-tech gadgetry.
It was once my lot to sit through a He-Man and She-Ra movie, patterned after their TV show, and I had an excruciating time. Boredom was part of the problem, since the plot and characters were simple-minded even by a ``Care Bears'' or ``Raggedy Ann'' standard. Worse was the thought that millions of children are exposed every day to the wretched drawings and machinelike ``limited animation'' that comprised the film's so-called visual style.
Catching the live ``power tour'' show at Radio City Music Hall, I was pleasantly surprised at its comparatively high quality. True, the plot is simplistic and the characters are one-dimensional at best. Still, the two-hour production gives an honest amount of splashy entertainment - not subtle or thought-provoking, of course, but more inventive and less monotonous than the drivel of a He-Man animation.
The spectacle begins with an uncredited nod to ``Star Trek,'' as the heroes are ``beamed'' to Earth from Eternia, their own planet. Then a singer named Songster (this isn't a subtle show, as I said) croons a few Eternian legends, introducing us to the history of his world - kind of an interstellar National Geographic special.
Trouble starts when the bad guys Skeletor and Hordak beam to Earth and start a fight with He-Man right there in Radio City Music Hall, or wherever you happen to see the show. This leads to a few bloodless swordfights and a predictable triumph by the Masters of the Universe, who didn't get their name for nothing.
The show is lively, and generous with special effects. You can almost forget that its inspiration comes not from artistic imagination, but from a merchandiser's idea of how to push the most toys and T-shirts.
Yet its mercenary origins can't be altogether hidden. Just before intermission, children in the audience are children in the audience are invited to wave their ``power swords'' and proclaim their loyalty to He-Man and She-Ra during the upcoming fight with Skeletor. Where do you get a ``power sword'' if you don't have one? In the lobby, where this hunk of molded plastic is available for five bucks.
Children and grownups seemed to have a good time at the ``Masters of the Universe'' show I attended. Unlike the awful He-Man and She-Ra cartooning I've seen, the live production has a good deal of variety and even builds a little real suspense.
The four million youngsters who see the ``Masters of the Universe'' on TV and movie screens would be better served if the cartoon edition were crafted this carefully and served up this lavishly.
Children would be best served, though, if cartoon stories and characters were once again concocted by artists who trust imagination rather than market calculations - like the denizens of the old Walt Disney and Warner Bros. animation studios, who created masterpieces by relying on their own childlike intuitions.