John Rambo was first introduced to cinema audiences in 1982’s First Blood, based on David Morrell’s novel of the same name. Sylvester Stallone starred as a Rambo, a mentally scared war veteran, clearly suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. His fractured mental state, along with a spate of bad luck, leads him to ultimately commit acts of unacceptable violence.
It is a film with no real heroes, a deep mistrust of authority, and a supporting character who dies of cancer because of extended exposure to Agent Orange. It is not, what you would call, a barrel of laughs.
So of course, they made a kid’s cartoon of it.
This isn’t that unique. R-rated movies being adapted into a Saturday morning cartoon is one of the more curious phenomena of the 1980s and early 90s. It also happened with RoboCop, Highlander and most bizarrely, Troma’s The Toxic Avenger. The Rambo show – Rambo: The Force Of Freedom, to give it its full title – ran for one full season in 1986, spinning out of the popularity of the second Rambo film. It wasn’t particularly successful, but it was enough to spin off some merchandise, including a toyline, and in the UK, an annual for Christmas 1987.
That’s right, for Christmas 1987, you could get an annual based around a violent post-traumatic stress disorder sufferer to put under the Christmas tree for your son or daughter. Look…
Not to be confused with annuals in US comic books, UK annuals are likely a memorable part of many of our childhoods. They’re large-sized hardcover books, printed in the run up to Christmas, which are designed as easy stocking fillers for desperate parents or lazy distant relatives.
Probably the most iconic annuals are those of The Beano and The Dandy, bumper collections of extended adventures for Dennis The Menace and Desperate Dan, but these days they are produced for virtually anything that will appeal to modern kids. Recent years saw ones for The Avengers, Doctor Who, WWE, Hunger Games, football teams, and One Direction – generally licenced property that appeals to children aged about 5 to 12 – taking up shelf space at WH Smiths.
In 2014, multimedia conglomerates are very protective of their characters, but a quarter of a century ago, you sense that they didn’t have quite the same stranglehold. And the further down the food chain you go, the more they seem to be able to get away with. By the time it comes to merchandising that’s licenced out to other territories, it’s hard to know who’s looking after it. When comic books and annuals of US properties are created for the UK market, it’s just repurposed content from American sources (there are several decades’ worth of Marvel Super Heroes annuals that just reprinted random issues of Captain American and the Hulk), but sometimes they’d be forced to create their own content.
Occasionally, this leads to semi-interesting alternate continuities, for example, in the case of the UK comics for both Sonic The Hedgehog and Transformers (both of them still have a cult following online). But usually it just led to weird, off-model stories, that even as a kid you knew were wrong.
The 1988 Rambo annual definitely falls into that latter category.
Googling the cartoon series and the toy line, it doesn’t even seem like any of the generic artwork used to promote them has been used in the annual. Usually the territories would receive a load of approved, readymade artwork to use – but it seems like in this Rambo annual, everything has been originally created. Somewhere in the mid 80s, bored, desperate British writers and artists where churning this out, probably clueless as to what the whole thing was about.
It’s a wonderful, unique item, and a gaze into a bizarre parallel version of an iconic character. I’m obsessed with it. I found it in a charity shop, and it’s in mint condition – it hasn’t been chewed or drawn on or anything. The juxtaposition of one of the most violent characters in cinema history and children’s colouring activities is endlessly fascinating. So are the attempts to bend the adult characters and situations into something suitable for eight year olds.
The first few pages of the book are a primer on the cartoon (based on the film based on the novel) that the annual is based on.
For the animated series, John Rambo has been recast as a member of a shonky GI Joe knock-off team of generic action heroes. Colonel Trautman is the only other character to make the crossover from the big screen, and he basically takes the Professor X or Splinter role, telling them to go on missions whilst he stays at home out of danger. The profile of Rambo in the book makes no mention of the events of either First Blood, or Rambo: First Blood Part 2, only that he joined the Force Of Freedom “after a successful military career with the US Army.”
While we might not get the exact details of John Rambo’s military career in First Blood, I think we can ascertain that ‘successful’ would not be an accurate word to describe it.
Also in the team are KAT and Turbo, a ‘master of disguise’ and a ‘weapons expert’, both taking up two roles that were on every generic 80s and 90s action team. And because it’s a kid’s cartoon, they are a woman and a black guy respectively, to give the illusion of diversity (though of course, the series still focuses on a white male). Rounding out the team is potentially the most exciting character: White Dragon, who’s a white ninja, in of that he’s a Westerner who dresses in a white ninja costume. It’s a recurring concept of 80s VHS era ninja films, from Franco Nero in Enter The Ninja, to Michael Dudikoff in the American Ninja films. Strangely, and disappointingly, he doesn’t actually appear in any of the comic strips in the annual (characters being randomly absent is a recurring feature of lazy localised comics), although he does pop up in the text stories.
The Cobra to the Force Of Freedom’s GI Joe were a handful of generic bad guys called S.A.V.A.G.E. There are profiles of them as well. None of them are particularly interesting, apart from a guy called Gripper who has an incredibly lame looking claw instead of a hand. He even has a really sad expression in his portrait in the profile, limply holding up his claw, trying to look menacing. I genuinely feel sorry for him. They also have their own ninja, called Black Dragon, who is a ninja who dresses in black. It’s absolutely not anything like Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow from GI Joe. Not at all. In GI Joe, Snake Eyes was the good guy, and he was the ninja that dressed in black. In Rambo: The Force Of Freedom, the good guy ninja dressed in white. See, it’s completely different.
All these profiles also weirdly list the guns each of them carry in worrying detail. I get that Turbo would carry guns, but listing that “his favoured weapons are a Walther pistol [and] a .30 cal machine gun” in a book for kids just seems a bit weird. Especially considering this is British, and we definitely don’t have the US’s gun culture. There’s even colouring-in pages, where instead of colouring Rambo or Gripper or whoever, kids can colour an AK-47 Assault Riffle (“The cheap and reliable gun of choice for both terrorists and freedom fighters” – TIME Magazine), an AGS-17 Grenade launcher, or a 25mm GE Anti-Aircraft Gun.
Apart from a board game (a board game from a book based on the cartoon based on the sequel to the film based on the novel by David Morrell about a violent man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder), the rest of the annual is filled with comic strips and prose stories. As you might expect, they are simple, lightweight stuffed aimed at about the cognitive level of an eight year old. What I wasn’t expecting was the level of politics in them.
The Rambo series, while obviously action films on their most basic level, have always had a degree of current international political substance to them. First Blood was obviously a post-Vietnam story, and he returned to ‘Nam in the sequel. By the third one all of the integrity of Morrell’s original novel might have been shed, but it’s still highly politically charged, just in a completely different way – it’s a Commie bashing piece of jingoistic propaganda where Rambo basically teams up with the Taliban. The belated third sequel even turned it’s focus on the then-current situation in Burma.
While you wouldn’t expect the violence of the movies to be transferred to a book for children (and it doesn’t), you equally would expect the politics to be shorn as well. But you’d be wrong. So Rambo The Force Of Freedom was a rather obvious GI Joe rip-off. Yet in GI Joe, Cobra Commander’s schemes were always about two steps divorced from reality – like forming an evil glam metal band or hosting an evil telethon. What’s the first mission for The Force Of Freedom in the annual? The US covertly manipulating regime change in a South America country. Yeah.
The first comic story in the book, ‘Custrel’s Last Stand’, focuses on the fictional country of Galliard (there’s a lot of fictional Latin American and Middle Eastern countries in this book). The unnamed President of Galliard has turned to Col Trautman to help, as his cousin Hector Custrel has threatened to overthrow him within five years (a weirdly specific time frame, but whatever). He’s nearly reached the fifth anniversary of his presidency, so The Force of Freedom arrive just as Custrel forcibly takes over the state radio station.
This all happens on the first page. Let’s break down what this is telling us. One dictator is being supported over another, and a second world nation is being manipulated by white westerners, for seemingly their own ends. There is no information given about why the President is more valorous than his cousin, we are just told he is. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t want to go off on an anti-American rant or anything, but those who are inclined could compare this to any amount of shady CIA goings on over the last 50 years. And Custrel’s first act of aggression? Take over the local state controlled media. All things considered, that’s a pretty solid plan of action. Again, this is heady stuff for a book for eight year olds, even if the story ends with Rambo juggling with a bomb, like Adam West in the 1966 Batman film.
But the most dubious rhetoric comes in the penultimate story in the annual, a prose tale entitled ‘Killing Ground’. The basic plot (not that there’s any depth to the plotting) revolves around S.A.V.A.G.E. trying to infiltrate the official opening of “Centura, City of the Future.” The story is just some weak espionage claptrap, but the description of Centura is fascinating. Col Trautman is very complimentary about it’s founder, President Ranath, for “hauling his [unnamed] country out of the dark ages in just one generation.” Turbo, the weapons expert cypher-character, pipes up, asking him why’d they build a city in the middle of the jungle. Trautman’s response is baffling stuff for a children’s book.
“Ranath’s idea is to expand the country’s economy as fast as possible. His aim is to develop the country’s interior as far as Centura by the end of the century. Centura may be in the middle of the jungle now, but in twenty years’ time he hopes it will be at the heart of one of the world’s leading nations.”
Snake Eyes clone White Dragon then asks him why they are having such a big opening event.
”Ranath doesn’t have the funds to finance the whole deal… The oil finds off to the east paid for the building of Centura, but he’s going to need heavy foreign investment to put the rest of his dream into operation. Centura will show the superpowers he means business.”
Remember when everyone criticised George Lucas for opening the Star Wars prequels with an opening crawl about trade agreements? This is about a million times worse. Let alone thinking about the dubious ecological messages (that jungle ecosystem isn’t going to last long) and the terrible grasp of city planning. Had Rambo: The Force Of Freedom continued into the mid 90s, I’m pretty sure Rambo would have lead an elite tactical squad to topple Ranath because the west took a fancy to Centura’s oil.
But enough about politics – does the annual provide much Rambo-based excitement and bad-assery? There’s a text story called ‘Castle Of Dogs’, which I had high hopes for. There’s a great splash page of Rambo wrestling an Alsatian, and I really hoped it was just going to be six pages of Rambo battling rabid attack dogs. Which would have been awesome. Sadly, it’s not really – they just run around and bark a bit, though Rambo does hit one of them with a big stick.
There is the awesomeness I was hoping for in a comic strip entitled ‘Gun Run’ though. It opens with a guy carrying the coffins of his deceased relatives through a checkpoint of yet another fictional country, this time called Pradslava. However, when he gets through, it turns out the coffins are actually full of smuggled guns. In the single best moment of the whole book, Rambo then bursts out of one of the coffins and attacks the gun-runners, revealing he’d been hiding all there all along. He even shouts out “Who were you expecting…. Dracula?”
However, his plan doesn’t really seem very thought out. He gets trapped in their compound, lamenting “Getting here was the easy bit… getting out is the problem.” If you’d known that they were smuggling guns over the boarder, wouldn’t you have just intercepted them so you could make sure they never got to their intended destination, and cause harm, as opposed to some frivolous coffin-based antics? It would have been a lot simpler as well. It’s fine, though. Rambo blows up a boat and escapes.
So yeah, that’s the Rambo Annual 1988. It’s pretty crazy. Apparently there was also a 1987 annual, which Googling shows had a much more realistic looking picture of Stallone on the cover. I have no idea what was in that. But there’s probably less about city planning…
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