Dragon Flyz 25th Anniversary

On Saturday, August 16th 1997, I experienced many firsts. First plane flight, first time in New York City, first visit to fabled toy store F.A.O. Schwartz, Statue of Liberty, and Empire State Building, and first experience meeting the creators of a cartoon that I loved. It was a thrilling weekend for a soon-to-be sixth-grader, and most definitely the highlight of that summer vacation.

Rewind for a moment to earlier that year, when my local television station was running a contest for viewers of “Dragon Flyz.” I had been a dedicated viewer of the show on Sunday mornings (it came on after Jewel Riders and Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic). It aired in a one hour block with its sister show Sky Dancers, and I ate them both up.

I’ve expounded previously on this blog about my love of Sky Dancers, and how like all girl toys it was a forbidden love for young Chris. But Dragon Flyz were boys’ toys, with a very similar flight mechanism, and best of all, a cartoon produced by the same animation studio who made Sky Dancers. I enjoyed playing with the toys, launching the “Dragonators” from their dragon bases. They launched into trees, second stories of my house, light fixtures at church, and more.

But if anyone knows me, they know that it takes more than a gimmick for a toy to keep my interest. I need story, characters, and a world to invest in. (Early child writer problems). And one of the things I most appreciated about Dragon Flyz was that there was greater synergy between the toys and the animated series than Sky Dancers. This was no doubt the benefit of being the second-produced toy line from Abrams-Gentile Entertainment after their stratospheric launch of Sky Dancers the year before.

The story follows four sibling Dragonators who are colloquially known as the Dragon Flyz – eldest brother Z’neth, younger brothers Summit and Peak, and sister Apex – as they ride their dragon mounts to collect amber crystals. These amber crystals serve as a power source for the floating city of Airlandis, the last known refuge of humanity that floats over the apocalyptic wasteland of Old Earth. The ground is ruled by the mutant Dread Wing from his dilapidated battleship called Warnado, and he does not take kindly to the Dragonators stealing “his” amber crystals. What follows is no less than an epic tale of humanity’s survival versus almost overwhelming odds against them.

The look of the show is gorgeous, perhaps what would come out if you put Moebius, Jack Kirby, and Frank Frazetta into a blender. Airlandis gleams in the sky in various shades of gold, Old Earth is alight in the glow of lava flows, swamps, and craggy rock. The color palette of the show can vary between moody and atmospheric to soaring and bright. It shouldn’t work together, but somehow it does. French animation company Gaumont Multimedia handles the animation, with show runners John and Anthony Gentile, Marty Abrams, and Savin Yeatman-Eiffel.

The idea of dragon riders who work to keep a world on the brink of apocalypse safe is not exactly a new concept. Dragonriders of Pern codified this concept in the late 1960s when Anne McCaffrey released Dragonflight, the first book in her long-running series. Dragon Flyz is more than a little inspired by this book series, a fact I find endlessly amusing since Jewel Riders was initially developed as an animated adaption of the Pern books.

The contest mentioned previously was a write-in campaign, where children could mail in responses to questions about the show that were asked on the air. Looking at the paperwork that my mom saved, I see now that this was put on by Columbia Tri-Star, the company that released the one VHS tape that Dragon Flyz received. Looking at the article in Billboard Magazine dated November 16, 1996, the contest was a marketing campaign for the VHS but I don’t think I ever realized that as a child; I always thought it was the television station.

When I sent my notecard in with my answers to the questions, I didn’t think much of anything would happen. My grandma was big on entering contests and drawings, so maybe a little of that rubbed off on me. Weeks or months later, when a Summit with Sky Fury dragon launcher arrived in the mail, my parents and I were really impressed and excited. A free toy just for writing in to a contest. How cool was that? Since I only owned Z’neth and Apex figures prior to this, I was extra excited it was a new character that I didn’t already own, and one of the Dragonators as well. (I was never hugely into the mutant/monster figures of the villains, I always preferred the gleaming heroes.)

Several weeks later, unbeknownst to me, my parents received a packet in the mail that said I had also been selected as a winner of one of the big prizes – a trip to New York City to meet the creators of the show. They did not tell me initially that we’d received this packet – as good parents, they investigated on their own to make sure it wasn’t a hoax before telling me, so as to not get my hopes up only to be dashed. But when I did find out, I was so excited! A free toy was the most exciting thing I could imagine; a trip was definitely not something that happened to people like us.

The Toys

Much like Jewel Riders and many other lines of the ‘90s, Dragon Flyz had various price points released for their toys. One of the advantages they had over Sky Dancers were that the characters themselves could stand alone as an action figure without the launcher base. Character decos that were close to the show were released as combinations with their dragons, and individual figures were released in different paint schemes, with even a few figures released individually that had no character/launcher combo produced, such as Dram. The deluxe releases were packs that included a character, launcher, and “gremwing,” a small flying figure that looked nothing like the gremwings from the cartoon. The gremwings were fun because of their light weight and small size, they could launch both higher and faster than the standard figures. The most deluxe of all releases was a special red and gold deco of Z’neth, a matching gremwing and a huge, articulated version of his dragon Riptor, which was also a launcher. I had this as well, received for a birthday present or Christmas. The wings could flap, the neck and mouth were articulated, and when you pulled back one of the hind legs the front claws could close and grab a figure. It’s a really cool set, and my only wish was that it matched the blue color of the show (I know, I know, I’m a broken record about loving screen accurate toys.)

That was all we seemed to get in the US, but materials from Galoob I’ve picked up over the years show many more waves, including light-up crystal versions, F.I.S.T. Force, new characters, and even another large deluxe set (with sparking feature!!). I wish we’d gotten these in the US, especially the Nocturna, Orak, and Zarcan! Even if they look very, very different from their cartoon counterparts.

Like Sky Dancers, Dragon Flyz had fast-food toys as well. Burger King in the UK released these great small figures. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like any of these were released in the US. Recently on eBay, I was also able to acquire production materials related to these toys!

Other Materials

In addition to the toys, Dragon Flyz also had a variety of ancillary materials released. First was a VHS tape from Columbia Tri-Star titled “The Legend Begins.” This was a combination of the first three episodes of the series – Dragon Dawn, Day of the Dragon, and Darkness Bound – into a feature-length movie with interstitial narration to bridge the episodes. This was the only home video release Dragon Flyz received during its original run, unlike Sky Dancers which had at least half the episodes released.

The UK had several other episodes released on VHS as well. The UK was also fortunate enough to get a few episodes on DVD. I personally revisited the show on Malaysian VCDs (my very first purchase off of eBay!), the first time I was able to see every episode of the show. While watching I actually kept a pad of paper alongside me, and took notes on terminology and the world of the show to make what I called “The Dragon Flyz Encyclopedia,” a document I would use and reference in 2012 as I wrote my novel-length Dragon Flyz fan fiction.

 

Dragon Flyz had several books released: five storybooks in the US with art much closer to the art used with the toys. The UK had four storybooks released by Ladybird, much closer to the look of the animated series. The UK also had a Panini sticker book and two coloring books!

Several other items were produced, including a kite, a spiral drinking straw, a battery-powered pen that had a spinning figure in the top, a pinball machine, a mug, and more. There was even a costume pattern for home sewing experts to make their own Halloween costumes!

The Trip

As my mother remembers it from the flight to NYC, I kept getting up to go to the bathroom, and kept drinking as much ginger ale as I could possibly get my hands on. When we landed in at LaGuardia Airport, we were met – like something out of a movie – with a man holding a card with our names on it. He drove us into the city, to our hotel. I don’t remember anything about that Friday evening, but the next morning we were picked up by a stretch limousine along with the other winners of the contest from across the US. The limo took us to the Abrams-Gentile offices, where we got to meet John and Anthony Gentile, creators of the toy and the show. The girl who was the Grand Prize winner actually got a piece of art from them of herself as a Dragonator, which I would kill to have now! I also remember the Gentile brothers were excited to show us their new show in development: Van-pires. A show about vampire cars draining gas? I wasn’t super interested, as I felt about most things vehicle-related (see also: Power Rangers Turbo killing my interest in the franchise for a long time). It was certainly not dragons and floating cities and apocalyptic awesomeness. The visit ended with goodie bags filled with Dragon Flyz related tchotchkes, and one all important item that I would cherish: a Dragon Flyz folder emblazoned with the logo, which inside contained key art for each of the main characters. This was pure catnip to young Chris, and a piece that I’ve cherished for years now.

I truly wish I had a photo with the Gentile brothers. Unfortunately this was the age of analog cameras and film, and my mom was a bit more excited about getting snapshots of the NYC classic landmarks. After our time with them, we were taken around New York as part of a tour (including a memorable, awesome stop at F.A.O. Schwartz) before being released on our own. Mom and I dashed out to the Statue of Liberty, up the Empire State Building, and ended the night having dinner at Planet Hollywood. The next day we flew home, the entire experience something like a dream.

Relaunch and the Future

But a dream that seems to have stayed with me nonetheless. Dragon Flyz, while fading into half-remembered memory for most people, has somehow stayed with me nearly as much as Jewel Riders. Perhaps it was the trip, searing the memory of the show into my brain. Perhaps it was the beautiful design work and interesting world. Maybe because it was a version of Sky Dancers, the thing I could never have as a child. Or perhaps, like most things, my memories congealed around this particular, oft-forgotten property precisely because it was seldom remembered. If not me to remember it, after all my history with it, then who?

By all accounts, Dragon Flyz did good business for Galoob and Abrams-Gentile. Millions in sales that while not reaching the stratospheric heights of Sky Dancers, were perfectly respectable. Of note, Dragon Flyz appears to never have suffered a recall the same way that Sky Dancers did.

In 2005, Play Along Toys re-released Dragon Flyz alongside Sky Dancers. I remember seeing these in stores. Interestingly, the figures are much less detailed, and feature black visors on their helmets (one suspects to avoid painting eyes on the figures). Z’neth, Peak, Summit, and Dread Wing were released, but no other characters, including Apex. Instead of sitting directly on the launcher, the figures now had what can only be described as a “helicopter backpack” that plugged into their back, and contained the spinning flying mechanism. The four characters were released with non-descript color-coded hand launchers in a lower price point, and with their dragons at a higher price point. Of note, each of the budget versions came with a packed-in DVD with cartoon episodes to help up the value. But sadly, much like the Sky Dancers relaunch, this failed to catch on like it had in the mid-‘90s, and Dragon Flyz quietly flew away again.

You can now find the whole series streaming on YouTube. I always wonder who remembers it, and who is delighted to find it once again as I was. I have Dragon Flyz to thank for being my first novel-length fanfic (to be followed by Heart Stone a year later), and for reviving my interest in writing. I got to give the story the ending I always wish it had, and tie up loose, interesting threads. Like so many things, I would adore a reboot of this series, but the series is probably just too niche to support it.

Check out this playlists from the JRA YouTube account to watch all the episodes from the show, as well as Intro/Outro and some fun advertisements!

 

I’ve reached out to the Abrams-Gentile offices from time to time over the last few years trying to get the Gentile brothers as guests for the Jewel Riders Archive Podcast, but no luck so far. They’re fascinating as creatives, developing so many interesting products and entertainment. I’d love to see if they remember developing Sky Dancers and Dragon Flyz, and especially if they remember the New York trip contest and having a bunch of kids and their bewildered parents invade their offices. I hope they do remember and feel some small satisfaction that an indelible mark was left on at least one of those kids. In some ways, that trip and the show behind it changed my life. Maybe I wouldn’t be pursing writing without the fan fiction I wrote for this show, inspired by the creative work so many hands put into it.

Like Airlandis floating over the clouds, I dream of the sky now, and it is always filled with dragons.

Chris

 

 

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