BraveStarr, with its internal capital and double-r, is the story of a lone Native-American lawman from (maybe) the planet of New Texas, with his small coalition of friends, opposing an outlaw gang headed up by Tex Hex, who’s best described as a sort of Zombie Cyborg Cowboy. The fearsome crew of idiots and screwball villains wielding big boxy space-guns spent their time ‘terrorising’ the citizens of Fort Kerium, which is a giant mechanised city (buy all our playsets and toooys) made to protect the Prarie People and their Kerium mines.
I feel that when it came to these 80s Merchandise shows, you’d often have details about the creators seep into the work. Part of what made M*A*S*K so remarkable was that there was so little there there, a story that just sort of farted out. If you looked at shows like GI Joe or Silverhawks, there was always a tiny drop of something going on there, an ideology you could point to and use to inform the work at large. It isn’t just something that a work is trying to say: creative people’s values and ideas become part of their work even subconsciously.
These subconscious biases are to me more interesting than a lot of intended messages: Especially when you’re dealing with media primarily designed for fast, forgettable consumption, the pulp of an era, people often don’t have the time to make media that has A Message. Bravestarr was a series that wanted to be a western, with a cool Native American protagonist who channelled nature spirits, espoused environmental and social consciousness, and protected the poor Prarie People of New Texas. That is to say, this story is about a Native American Cop protecting the Colonial invaders while they exploited the small, hairy subhumans who can’t talk properly.
There’s a historical context here – and like it or not, thirty years ago is actually history. Not that the atrocities against Native Americans or the racism in media isn’t longer lasting than that, but the 80s as a creative period were a time when those symptoms of oppression and marginalisation were being expressed differently to now. Now, you present a Native American character poorly and there’ll be an angry online presence making its feelings known. That’s not to say that this tension gets things fixed, but there’s a reaction. There’s an easily recognised, publically searchable, clear reaction to this kind of thing, the sort of thing that results in a Criticisms And Controversies entry on a Wikipedia page.
For these works of the 1980s, though, we didn’t have that. It took a surprising amount of effort for fans to have a direct impact on shows and that effort was mostly isolated to people with the free time to do it. Even the classic Women In Refrigerators was an early internet list, and the 90s Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team still relied on people sending actual physical letters to comic creators. What’s more those were both very entrenched fans working hard – not the pre-teen Bravestarr ‘fans’ who probably were also equally entrenched in six other franchises that gave them reasonably similar or comparable toys.
There’s your historical context: Complaints about Bravestarr were not widespread, not because they weren’t legitimate or real, but because nobody with media platform space was asking questions and nobody was writing down the answers. This is not the same thing as being uncontroversial. It means that we weren’t listening.
At the same time, the 80s were definitely into that period of Native American presence in media (that some say ended with Disney’s Pocohontas) that treated them as just important enough to be magically otherised and also probably not actually whole people.
BraveStarr is noteworthy because Marshall Bravestarr himself is a Native American, or is ‘meant to be’ a Native American. We see glimpses of his childhood, moments where he was living in a situation best called Cartoon Tribal. We hear the story of Shaman the Shaman, who quotes some very Not-Native-American lessons translated backwards (‘to truly understand someone, one must walk a mile in his moccasins’). There’s a clear desire to have some sort of connection to Native American culture, but either by being too cautious to identify anything (unlikely) or genuinely believing that most Native American culture was airy-fairy and indefinite, it very much comes across as being ‘Native American’ culture, like a big broad sticker you can put on things.
Ultimately, BraveStarr earns itself a very white You Tried sticker from another white person. Someone involved in this production wanted to do something with the idea, wanted their silly space cowboy show informed by westerns they liked and space-faring science fiction they liked and also to include an oddball cast of alien-looking villains that included at least one Australian shape-shifting dingo. It’s fascinating that this series tried to do something, that it tried something, but it tried really stupidly.
It serves as an example of how you made an effort isn’t always a good enough excuse to be satisfied with a result.