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Monday, June 6, 2016

Static Thoughts - Street Sharks

Edited by Robert Beach

I’ve been playing something of a game of catch-up with geek news lately after being pretty busy with other projects, so I know I’m quite late to the party on this particular news story: the Street Sharks. In case you’ve been as unconnected as me lately, the Street Sharks were recently at the crux of an Internet news story when some plucky cub reporter altered their Wikipedia page to suggest there was a female Street Shark to fill out the roster. 

The ‘twist’ of our story was how the entire Internet was taken in by this ruse and immediately misremembered the show as having a female member of the team, and we all shared a good belly laugh at the fallibility of the human mind (it’s a dark joke.) 

Putting aside the “haha, your mind can betray you at any minute” comedy/commentary of the gag, I think the whole thing brings up a pretty interesting subject that’s been on my mind for a couple of years now, which is the incredibly bizarre relationship nerds all seem to share with The Street Sharks. Rather than pointing and laughing at people remembering the show inaccurately, my question is this: why do we remember the Street Sharks at all? 

Before we dive in let me just say that I am as much a victim of the Street Sharks obsession as the rest of the Internet at this point. As I write this article, my writing space is adorned by 3 Street Sharks figures along with 2 figures from the spin-off show Xtreme Dinosaurs. Suffice it to say, I’m pretty obsessed with the Street Sharks too. 

What’s always struck me as weird about my own obsession is that I never watched the Street Sharks show. Most folks I know who are pretty obsessed with the Jawesome heroes didn’t either. If they did, they really didn’t remember much of the show itself, as evidenced by that hilarious Internet joke from the preamble. 

I grew up in the ‘90s, so I was certainly aware of the Street Sharks. They already passed into syndication when I reached TV-watching age, so I never managed to see the show when I was younger. Instead, I approached the show now. After all,  a lot of the '90s animated series hold up very well like Freakazoid, Pinky & The Brain, Animaniacs, Gargoyles, X-Men, and Bruce Timm’s Superman and Batman animated shows. Turns out, Street Sharks is not one of those ‘90s animated series that hold up well. 

If you’ve never seen it before, the show is about the Bolton brothers (there’s a name without any connotations nowadays; thanks, Game of Thrones.) The Bolton’s dad, Dr. Robert Bolton, is a geneticist who, alongside his obviously evil partner Dr. Paradigm, develops a means of splicing human and animal DNA. The two have a falling out, and Dr. Bolton gets mutated into a hideous monster that we never got to see in the show. 

Having turned his former best friend and partner into an abomination against God and man, Paradigm decides to mutate the Bolton brothers as well. Because when you’re a villain, it’s good to go all in on these things.  So the brothers turn to the Street Sharks: Ripster, the great white; Jab, the hammerhead; Streex, the tiger shark; and Big Slammu, a whale shark. From there, Paradigm convinces the city the Street Sharks are the real bad guys, even though he gets gene slammed himself and become Dr. Paranoid. 

The show followed a fairly standard format that was ripped directly from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the series that Street Sharks was trying to emulate as TMNT was quickly receding in popularity by the time Street Sharks premiered in 1994. 

The Sharks worked out of an underground layer in a bunch of vehicles that were designed to be toys, fighting a roster of animal/human bad guys like Slobster, Slash, and Killamari while teaming up with allies like Moby Lick and Rox. Even as TMNT knock-offs go, Street Sharks was more than a little subpar, especially compared to contemporaries like Gargoyles. The show’s big problem is that all the Sharks are ‘90s jerk-offs that advertising executives thought epitomized cooled during that decade. 

However, even as a fairly terrible cartoon, marred by disappointing voice work and terrible characterization, I can’t deny there’s something oddly compelling about the program. Part of that is the sincerity of the show, but sincerity for annoyance is still pretty annoying. Make no mistake, the sharks are staggeringly annoying on their own program. No, the charm of the Street Sharks seems to be curiously divorced from the quality or even content of their show almost completely and goes back to the series’ origin. See, Street Sharks, much like the various ‘80s cartoons that inspired it, didn’t start life as a series only to develop a toy line to go with it. It went the opposite route. 
Again, your awareness of this may vary depending on how clued up you are on toy-to-television franchises, but Street Sharks started life as a line of action figures with the animated series developed exclusively to sell the toys (this is according to most sources, though there are a handful of conflicting reports on the subject.) This type of thinking has been pretty common since the ‘80s when Reagan deregulated FCC rulings on the content of children’s entertainment. While it’s not as common now, it does still occur.  

So what’s my point about the Street Sharks’ toy origins? Well, quite simply, the Street Sharks are incredible toys. I’m being 100% serious here. As a professional toy designer, the Street Sharks are a triumph of design and implementation as toys. They’re most reminiscent of Mad Balls in that they’re built from the ground up to be hefty brawler toys with thick plastic that allows for a really detailed design. Above all, what makes them memorable toys is the unique fact that nothing else looks like the Street Sharks. 

This gets into one of the weird aspects of pop culture, especially the culture we collectively consume as children. There is a certain desire within our collective psyche for avatars of certain visual or conceptual identities. It’s a defiantly mercurial aspect of the popular subconscious that even if a piece of media isn’t particularly good, or we know nothing about a certain character. We still want those things around as due to their unique role.  A good example of this is The Purge, especially the popularity that emerged in the wake of the first film. 

The first The Purge movie is terrible, and most folks I know felt indifferent or disdained about it. Meanwhile, other friends just didn’t bother going to see it at all. Despite all of that, the idea of The Purge became a part of our collective psyche almost immediately.  The phrase became this instant element of the pop cultural lexicon as if it had always been there. Even though we weren’t aware of it, the need for something like the concept of The Purge had always been there.  No matter your feelings for the films, we as a people needed The Purge as a name to slap onto that idea and as soon as we had one we embraced it regardless of quality. 

The same is true of the Street Sharks (in a less conceptual and more visual sense). As I said, nothing else looks like the Street Sharks, and that is the crux of why we obsess over them. There have been other man/shark hybrids before, but nothing else blends the form in the unique way the Street Sharks do, certainly nothing we were exposed to at such a young age. It all comes down to the cartoony affect of the characters. 

The Street Sharks aren’t trying to look realistic, but they try to look definable and obvious. It’s the simplicity principle that they have to be broad enough to follow in chaotic action and clear enough for a kid to look at saying “ah, man/shark, I get it.” That’s why so many things like the Street Sharks, things that persist in the collective consciousness out of visual uniqueness, are usually born from cartoons or comics ingested from our youth. The best example of this is Howard the Duck. 

Most comic fans now, myself included, have probably never once cracked one of the original Howard the Duck comics. All of us, (again) myself included, tend to get really excited whenever he pops up in pretty much exactly the same way ‘90s kids get super excited whenever you mention or reference the Street Sharks. Whether it’s someone talking about the ’86 movie, his cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, or that new comic Marvel launched with him, Howard the Duck’s appearance always generates fan hype for essentially no real reason. 

No one can tell you much about his personality or history. If they can, his history or personality don’t end up reasons to like Howard. The big reason me and every other fan gets really damn into it when Howard the Duck shows up is that there really isn’t anything else that looks and sounds like Howard the Duck. Even though he’s drawn specifically to imitate Donald Duck, there’s something about the blend of whimsically gritty illustration that renders Howard a unique creation unlike anything else, even in a medium that includes Captain Carrot and Rocket Raccoon. 

I’m not really sure I have a point to be made here other than simply pontificating on my own theories of visual design and rambling about the Street Sharks for awhile. Even though I bashed their show, I do want to make clear that I think the Street Sharks deserve a degree of respect, certainly more than they’re commonly afforded. Whatever else you might say about them, they did find a way to burrow into the collective psyche of a generation. That's not a feat to be casually shrugged off. 

My point is that even though people don’t really remember the details of the actual Street Sharks show. The details were never that important, which is why we’ll probably still be fondly misremembering the Street Sharks well into the future. 

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