We've all had impossible loves. As RoboCop romped across the Valentine's weekend silver screen, I was reminded of an earlier android amour of my own. For years, I have kept his identity, like my unquenchable ardor for him, locked in my heart. He was my secret obsession, my guilty pleasure, but it's time I confessed. His name was Tobor the 8th Man and he was my first great romance. That's right. I admit it. I was in love with a cartoon superhero robot and I don't care who knows it.
Like all great first loves, Tobor would have a profound impact on my romantic relationships, laying the groundwork for future attractions. But my beloved came with a history: Tobor was born as the Japanese manga 8 Man, the creation of illustrator Jiro Kuwata and writer Kazimasa Hirai. He became a television series in 1963 which was redubbed into English (with character name changes) for American TV in 1965. In subsequent decades, episodes of Tobor the 8th Man would reappear on U.S. TV, a black and white anomaly among the living color cartoons. It was there he was fated to find me in all his irresistible eight shades of grey. Just one look at the monochromatic heartthrob and I fell. And when you're five, you fall hard.
So my first crush was a cartoon. Is that so wrong? To my kindergarten classmates, it was a step down from dolls. (Heathens.) Even their imaginary friends didn't believe in him. "He's not even in color!" my classmates claimed they shouted. "Shut up you invisible freaks!" was all I managed at the time. It was a clear case of the transparent pot calling the kettle black and white. Whoever thought imaginary friends could be so unimaginative? You'd think they of all people would know love is blind. (Gah!) But my affaire d'anime would have to overcome something even more shocking than animation, something my infatuation-fogged mind had repressed.
It was right there in the perky theme song, "Call Tobor the Eighth Man..." from back in the day before networks sold their souls to advertising and had time for perky theme songs..."Faster than a rocket. Quicker than a jet. He's the mighty robot. He's the one to get..." There it was, hitting me over the head like a great big toon anvil, inducing a ring of chirping birds overhead, all singing "Call Tobor, the Eighth Man. Quick call Tobor, the mightiest robot of them alllllllll!"
He's a robot? (Gasp.) How did that get by me? I must have dismissed it as some prepubescent irrelevance, only to black it out as an anatomical inconvenience when I got older. The clues were everywhere, as my spelling-bee-champ sister proudly proclaimed, "Tobor" is "Robot" spelled backwards. (Showoff.) But how was I supposed to know that? I wasn't spelling backwards. I was five. I wasn't spelling forwards! I was still working on "house." (Who put that "u" where the "w" should be?) Anyway, what is that? Some sort of "Paul is dead" thing? Play the record backwards and the secret message is revealed? (Pop music illiterati: see "Strawberry Fields Forever.") Way to mess with a little tyke's pigtailed head. Not since the Montagues dissed the Capulets (and vice versa) has there been a union so fraught with foreboding. It was a dangerous liaison. It was forbidden fruit. It was the love that dare not speak its name backwards!
Worse yet was having to face the prejudiced taunts of my playmates. "You can't love a robot!" they chided in their high-pitched sopranos. "Watch me!" I countered, and they did. It looked a lot to them like I was doing nothing, but I knew how I felt! "So let me get this straight: You're okay with the cartoon superhero boyfriend thing, but robot's the deal-breaker?" (Philistines.) Despite the public condemnation of my diminutive peers (there may have been some "na-na na-na-ing" involved) my devotion for Tobor never wavered. Perhaps the reason the whole robot thing didn't compute for me was because I'd never seen the first episode, one that may have been lost at the time of my Tobor's TV tenure. It's there that the 8th Man's origin story unfolds:
Special Agent Peter Brady is brutally run down by dastardly gangster Saucer Lips. His doomed body is retrieved by Professor Genius who saves his mind by transferring it into a robotic body with preternatural powers. Apparently P-Gen has tried this trick seven times before to no avail. With the eighth time the keeper, the newly minted cyborg superhero wears his serial number on his chest. Able to take the form of anything he sees (he's got a plastic-skin coating that's really good at recycling), he retains the appearance of his former human self as an alter-ego renamed Detective Tobor. Fighting crime under Chief Fumblethumbs for the Metropolitan Crime Prevention Agency, the 8th Man gets the bad guys who killed him and saves me - uh - I mean, the girl, Jenny Heartsweet, in the process.
Missing this backstory, it's no wonder I thought Tobor was the secret identity of 8th Man, when in truth, it was the other way around. (Besides, Brady spelled backwards is Ydarb and, really, what good is that?) I'd always wondered why the resurrected Peter Brady didn't simply keep his original name along with his looks. Now I know. The human was just an illusion. The robot was who he was all along. "More human than human" was the motto of Bladerunner's replicant manufacturer. It could have been Tobor's mantra.
Tobor's new, improved robotic body could do more than just morph. He had a quick-calibrating brain, supersonic speed and reflexes, super strength, hearing and vision, and could fly. All in all, a handy guy. But by far my favorite superpower was when the chief would ask, "What happened?" and rather than recount the details, Tobor would say, "Look, I'll show you!" Then he'd stare at a wall on which his eyes would beam the scene he remembered, like a projector. With his memory recording visuals like a camera, the guy could show movies with his eyes. (Way cool!) It's no wonder I grew up to become a screenwriter. After all, writing movies is just daydreaming on paper. In the world of film fantasy, if I can't live it, I can write it, inventing entire universes from nothing more than my own imaginings (so that, with any luck, a director can then film it and talk about his "vision"). If Tobor couldn't come to life, maybe I could come to him.
To that end, I spent a season as the in-house writer at the Klasky Csupo animation studio, punching up series pitches with jokes and storylines for potential characters created by their gifted artists. But alas, while I always wanted to be a toon, I remained unillustrated, and so was forced to seek my cyborg sweetie in other dimensions. The closest I came was at a movie premier where RoboCop posed for pictures with partygoers smiling at his side. When my turn came, I leapt into his arms and fainted as, to his chrome-suited credit, RoboCop struck his best rescue pose. The surprised cheers we won were rewarding, but it wasn't enough. (I knew 8th Man. I played with 8th Man. You, sir, are no 8th Man.) There's just no replacing the original.
Is it any wonder that my relatives think I have unrealistic expectations? Whenever I see them, I'm inevitably bombarded with the pseudo-compliments that greet the non-conformed: "You're so pretty. Why aren't you married?" (For the modesty record, all families think their relatives are pretty and if they don't, they lie.) My patented facetious answer, "Who, pray, shall I decorate?" is meant to expand their expectations. Shouldn't something more be required of me, and aren't I entitled to the same from a mate? One of the points of growing up is learning the difference between preferences and priorities. Pretty is a preference. Intelligence, integrity and imagination are priorities, and Tobor had them all in spades.
He also had leading-man looks reminiscent of Gregory Peck circa Spellbound (yum!) which were outlined, groomed and suited with a few simple strokes. Finer details shaded his 8th Man incarnation, but both were photogenic enough to impact my formative years. Perhaps that's why I spent the better part of graduate school dating my fellow-models. (Oh, come on. Like you wouldn't?) They were tall and tight, with cheekbones you could cut glass with and other chiseled parts. ("More robot than robot.") Superhero, supermodel, same diff.
After spending some time with one, my visiting father once asked me: "Twenty years from now, you going to want to have a conversation with this guy?" He had missed the point. "I don't want to have a conversation with him now," was my smartass response. Alas, as it turns out, I do like a good conversation, among other things. If he can also rescue me in unforeseen times of peril, bonus! And, oh yeah, he has to be Jewish. That's right. You heard me. I need a cartoon superhero Jewish robot. What, it's L.A. You think I can't find one?
Happily, with my male-model phase behind me, I stopped focusing on looks and concentrated on more lasting things. There's nothing like a great voice and Jerry Burke gave Tobor his, spoiling me for all sounds to come. But even I eventually learned to look beneath, because when the day is done, true love is finding a safe place to be yourself. It's in that safety that you will find your own inner superhero. Mine is being a writer. My superpower? Well, they do say the pen is mightier than the sword. It's what empowered me to take on the moniker Renaissance Girl for my columns commenting on all things cultural.
The fact that Tobor wouldn't reveal his 8th Man alter-ego to Jenny Heartsweet should have told me something. Unlike most toon babes of the time, Jenny had dark hair and a job, and Tobor was always there for her. I thought she was just a stand-in for me (as opposed to the pesky kid Skip who I assumed was a stand-in for pesky kids), but her love went unrequited. Instead, maybe I was Tobor, in the way Cathy in the thrall of a love so uniting declares "I am Heathcliff!" (I refer here to the star-crossed lovers of Wuthering Heights, not the eponymously entitled comic strip girl and cat, because that would be icky.) It's not so farfetched. In one episode, Tobor, going undercover, actually morphs into Jenny.
But if you can't reveal your true self to those you love, can you truly be loved fully? 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, but therein lies the rub. After all, I'm anatomically correct and Tobor's well, metal, and toon metal at that. (Maybe I didn't look beneath enough.) As Gertrude Stein would say, "There's no there, there," and even a woman romantically attracted to animation has to draw the line somewhere and for me, that line is, well, there.
Did I mention he shows movies with his eyes? (We all have our priorities.) Still, I like to think my Tobor could morph into all of Brady's best parts and spring up to meet any need that might arise (because that's one Jewish part I'm unwilling to part with). And I'd take care to keep him from overheating (much) which is 8th Man's Kryptonite. That said, I would trust Tobor to know what was suitable viewing for the Chief and best reserved for our own private screenings. I would trust Tobor with my life.
But could I trust him with his own? Tobor smoked, and I don't date smokers. For one thing, I like air. For another, I prefer men who like themselves enough to want to live as long as I do. If the most precious gift you can give a lover is yourself, what's it say when you give them something you don't cherish? But the 8th Man's cigarettes weren't evil. They were "energy boosters." (Wait for it...) Just one puff off a cig from the pack on his belt and he'd burst with supersonic speed! As "herbal" as that sounds, perhaps Tobor could get a charge from nicotine-free e-cigs instead, the way Steven Spielberg changed guns into walkie-talkies for the re-release of E.T. Better yet, if Tobor agreed to kick the habit, I'm sure we'd find some other way to deal with his oral fixation. Come to think of it, with his Eastern origins, the idea of a Tantric Tobor is intriguing...breaths singing in tune...hearts beating synchronously...(Quick call Tobor, the sexiest robot of them alllllllll!) Wait. Where was I?
Oh, yeah. Cyborg fantasy sex aside, if the origin story is to be believed, Tobor doesn't have a heart. Apparently Professor Genius didn't save any of his organs. ("Genius" is an anagram for "Suing" with an extra "e." What? "House" has one, too. That word just doesn't make sense at all.) Friends now tell me Tobor's movie-playing eyes are just my mixed-up childhood memories combining his morphing and infrared night vision powers. (Troglodytes.) They're just jealous. It appears my love, like the 8th Man, was ahead of its time. With its clever Japanese mobsters-meets-sci-fi storylines, coated in camp American, tongue-in-cheek humor, the series transcended all ages to become a cult classic.
These days there's places where those caught in the torrid throes of fictional passion can go, like ComicCon, and online support sites like this one. (Hi. My name's Devra - sob - and I'm an 8th Man addict!) Most council reality, or at least something closer to it. As my mother would say, "Reach for the stars, but look right and left." But who is she to talk? She landed my dad, a superhero if ever there was one, so why should I settle for lesser stars? What if "a prehistoric monster who came from outer space, created by the Martians" needs vanquishing? (Sheesh.) After all this Tobor-obsessed time, maybe Renaissance Girl needs a Renaissance Man.
Lately, I've been seeing them everywhere. Last month, I joined fellow screenwriters in a visit to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The field trip of Writers Guild members, organized by USC's Norman Lear Center, featured insights into the missions of interstellar spacecrafts, as well as the heroic research being done by the brave scientists trying to rescue our own planet from the diabolical threats of climate change. (I also got a really cool hat! It's got an emblem of the Mars rover "Curiosity" - a superpower de rigueur for any writer worth their salt.) Meanwhile, across the country in New York (in a related weather event), a noble neighbor was using his state-of-the-art snowplow to dig my folks' home out of its storm-encased snowglobe, without even being asked. It turns out real-life Tobors are everywhere and I intend to date all the single ones until I find one that clicks.
Still, I'll always be grateful to Tobor the 8th Man for being my first love and giving me a safe place to be myself. And while I know I have to let him go, I also know I need to broaden my horizons for all the wondrous and varied things real men can be. So I've started reading Greek mythology. After all, I'm more open-minded now. But don't get me wrong. I haven't lowered any standards. I just have better vision. I see now the thing I loved most about Tobor was his humanity, an attribute some would do well to acquire. It's what makes us creators, and colors us with kindness and charity. But I'm not picky. Because I know somewhere out there, there's a cartoon superhero Jewish robot who shows movies with his eyes just for me. And when he finds me, I'll be ready, because I'm his superhero. I'm Renaissance Girl. And I'm right here, baby.
Watch the "Tobor the 8th Man" opening sequence and hear his theme song here. To learn more about climate change and NASA's other missions, go here. For an ode to first kisses in film, go here. For romantic dances in movies, go here. To read about love on the Writers Guild strike lines, go here. For more on Tobor and other comic book superhero alter-egos of baseball, go here. For more about the author go to www.Devra Maza.com.
Artwork credits: All "Tobor the 8th Man" TV animation by Kiyoshi Onishi after original illustrations by Jiro Kuwata, courtesy of ABC Films. Photo of "Devra Maza rescued by RoboCop at the Hollywood Colonnade" courtesy of Orion Pictures. "8 Man" manga panel detail by Jiro Kuwata.
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