In the 1970s, soap opera strips such as On Stage were dying off. Newspaper readership fell as audiences migrated to television. Starr ended his strip and took over the simpler, more cartoony strip Annie. This left Starr with spare time, so he decided to try writing and drawing for the new media. He wrote TV specials for Rankin/Bass -- creators of animated Christmas shows such as Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
In March 1984, Jules Bass received a proposal for a new show about cat people from outer space (combining the success of Star Wars and Cats) but didn't know what to do with the idea. Bass called Starr and asked if he would take a crack at developing the program, including inventing the characters and plot lines that might be extended into a series.
The result was the hit show ThunderCats which began in 1985. The series was so successful that it spun off other shows, comic books, computer games, and worldwide product lines. It is reputed to have generated a billion dollars in revenue.
In a later interview with Jim Gauthier, Starr recalled how he came up with the series:
What came to me immediately was Egypt, because of their ancient animal gods-- jackal, cat, etc. It could also bring in mummies, tombs, things that twigged me when I was a kid..... So I said I'd give it a shot, did it the next day, just a few pages, pretty much a précis of what the first show would turn out to be, the imminent destruction of Thundera, their Exodus and so on. Jules had wanted a team of Cats so I added the other Tcats, their specific weapons, Snarf for comedy relief, named them, also the bad guys, Slythe, Monkian, Jackalman, etc, I called them "mutants" because it was a word that resonated with kids as bad guys… Mumm-Ra the Immortal…no, the Everliving because "immortal" had a benevolent sound to it, anyway, as the overarching evil that awaited them on Third Earth, which was what remained of Earth after two nuclear holocausts.Bass loved Starr's ideas and asked him to come in the very next day. Starr recalls:
When I got there Jules had had a "Deal Memo" prepared, specifying a certain sum for agreeing to the Memo, another for completion of a "Bible" which is a basic format for a series of 65 half hour shows for other writers to base their scripts on, another sum in the event of commencement of production, a price for each following script, a specific percentage of any merchandising revenues, all else to be further defined in, quote, "a more formal and complete contract now in preparation."Starr told Bass that if he was going to put everything aside and develop such a major project he wanted residuals. He recalled, "Jules said we'd work that out when we did the formal contract. " There was no time for formal contracts just then; the important thing was to meet the tight deadlines. Starr jumped on the project and worked day and night to get the first shows out. He wrote and rewrote the scripts. The show became a smash hit but unfortunately, the promised "formal contract" never appeared.
When the first show aired, Starr was upset to discover that his credit had been reduced to "head writer" instead of "developed by."
It was important to me was that my credit should have been "developed by" in addition to "head writer." I asked Jules about it, he said they had to do it that way. Why? He shrugged as if he didn't really know himself, it was out of his hands.Starr also drew a map of the world he envisioned for the ThunderCats:
Rankin/Bass took that map and had it redrawn by a Rankin/Bass artist without any credit or acknowledgement to Starr:
If you'll notice, the resemblance between the two maps was uncanny:
|Starr original version|
A suspicious Starr asked Bass, "has that 'formal contract in preparation' been prepared yet?"
"Look,"says Jules, "If you want to sue us, sue us. It'll cost you a lot of money and you'll lose."So Starr sued but as Bass predicted, got nowhere because he did not have a contract. He only received what he was owed under the "preliminary" Deal Memo. Starr reflected,
"I didn't realize that 'A formal and complete contract now in preparation' turned out to be one of those complex legal terms that translates as 'Up yours.'"Looking over the legal papers, it's clear to me that Starr never had a prayer against the corporate armies of Rankin/Bass. He later recounted, "I mostly remember being disgusted, that such a fascinating, frustrating, exhausting, exhilarating, ultimately successful venture should have come to such a shabby end. ...These stories are Legion in that business. "
A lot of things changed as the comics industry evolved over Starr's lifetime. The business went from soap opera strips drawn in india ink on strathmore paper to television to multimedia global entertainment. But some things in the business remain the same. As the wise David Sims said, "No comics publisher will ever pay an artist enough to sue the publisher successfully."