Gotta go fast
A little over eight years ago, a man by the name of Peter Fernandez passed away at the age of 83. Some old anime fans might recognize the name—but for those who don’t, Peter Fernandez played an essential role in the bringing Tatsuo Yoshida’s Mach GoGoGo—as well as Astro Boy and a number of other significant early anime—over to America, where it would come to be known as Speed Racer. Fernandez not only provided the voices for Speed Racer and his brother, Racer X, he was also the writer and voice director of the English dub.
Speed Racer is one of the earliest examples of a strange Americanization of Japanese culture—predating the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon. But, the bizarreness of Speed Racer is not solely the result of the the changes made from Mach GoGoGo. Instead, it mostly stems from the American franchise that it spawned, creating media separate from its Japanese origins. In total, there are about ten main pieces of American-produced original Speed Racer content, which is astonishing considering the Mach GoGoGo franchise hasn’t ventured far beyond the manga and two anime series. In a sense, Speed Racer ended up being bigger than Mach GoGoGo, pumping out Americanized products that demand to be chronicled.
Mach GoGoGo started in comics, and so too does the story of American-produced Speed Racer media, since almost a decade after the anime dub originally aired, Speed Racer would make its return in comic book format. The first American Speed Racer comic book series came out in 1985 from a now-defunct publisher known as NOW Comics, who also published comic adaptations of The Twilight Zone, The Real Ghostbusters, The Terminator and, weirdly enough, Married… With Children.
At this point in time, the rights for Speed Racer had moved from Trans-Lux to Alan Enterprises. They would retain the rights to Speed Racer until sometimes in the early 1990s, so it can be assumed that it was them who initiated and oversaw the NOW Comics series—though due to a lack of sources, confirmation of this is hazy. Regardless, the series was a huge hit—due in no small part to the art of Ken Steacy—and ended up going on for nearly forty issues, one of which revealed that Speed’s real name was Gregory Racer, because why the hell not.
The NOW comics were also popular enough to spawn a spin-off series starring Racer X as well as a crossover with Ben Dunn’s Ninja High School in the early 90s. However, despite this popularity, NOW’s Speed Racer comic series came to an end when the American rights to Speed Racer once again changed hands. The rights had shifted to the newly-established Speed Racer Enterprises, which was formed specifically to build a franchise out of Mach GoGoGo’s presence in America.
The New Adventures of Speed Racer
The first American production to come from Speed Racer Enterprises was an animated series by the name of The New Adventures of Speed Racer, which premiered in 1993. The series’ designs and art style fall somewhere in between a Hanna-Barbera action series and the 1989 Legend of Zelda cartoon, further matching these kinds of cartoons with a number of poorly animated sequences and cheesy Saturday morning morals. Honestly, it’s worth a watch just to see how of its time it truly was.
The New Adventures of Speed Racer didn’t last very long, as disputes with Warner Brothers—who had earned the live-action rights to Speed Racer at some point—ended up halting production, causing the series to end after only 13 episodes. However, during the show’s short run, it managed to spawn a comic book mini-series, which was once again published by NOW Comics.
Beyond this, The New Adventures of Speed Racer came and went as fast as the Mach 5, and it would be quite some time before more American Speed Racer content would come out, though the attendees of 1994’s San Diego Comic Con would be treated to a one-act Speed Racer stage play about Speed’s younger brother, Spritle Racer—because apparently anything went at SDCC in the 90s.
Speed Racer Returns
Speed Racer’s third comic series was published by Wildstorm Productions in 1999 and was simply titled Speed Racer. The miniseries, which spanned three issues, was written and drawn by Tommy Yune, who used an anime-inspired art style to capture the feel of the original series.
Along with the NOW comics, this miniseries was eventually collected in trade paperback form through IDW comics, which put out its own miniseries in 2008. Entitled Speed Racer: Chronicles of the Racer, the IDW miniseries bizarrely told the stories of four different Speed-Racer-like characters throughout history; Sprint Rackham of medieval England, Reed Saber, a pirate whose road was the open seas, Sleek Raven, a wild west bounty hunter and, of course, Speed Racer himself.
In 2007, in between the Wildstorm comics and IDW miniseries, there was yet another Speed Racer miniseries, a manga-styled comic from Seven Seas Entertainment written by Dwayne Alexander Smith with art by Elmer Damaso. Additionally Tommy Yune returned to Speed Racer comics in 2011 with Allegory Comics’ Speed Racer Circle of Vengeance.
The Next Generation
Comics aside, Speed Racer Enterprises’ major contribution to America’s Speed Racer franchise was a flash cartoon entitled Speed Racer: The Next Generation. The cartoon followed the children of Speed Racer and Trixie as they attended a racing academy. The series had some pretty neat ideas, and were the budget a bit bigger, it could have been a huge hit, especially since it brought Peter Fernandez back to play an older Spritle.
Strangely enough, this wasn’t the first attempt to make a series about the next generation of Speed Racer characters. Prior to the release of The Next Generation, Speed Racer Enterprises worked alongside Animagic and Heavensport to create the 2006 webseries Speed Racer Lives. Like The Next Generation, this series was animated in Flash and took place decades after the original anime, depicting the children of Speed and Trixie becoming racers themselves. Speed Racer Lives was intended to launch a new toyline, but neither the series nor the toys ended up being successful, and this entry in the franchise was more or less lost to time. However, you can still check it out on YouTube—which is worth it just to hear the banger of a closing theme song.
While Speed Racer Lives didn’t quite take off, Speed Racer Enterprises achieved some mild success with The Next Generation, which came out just one day after the premier of what is arguably the greatest piece of American Speed Racer media, the 2008 live-action film.
An Underappreciated Masterpiece
In 1992, Warner Brothers announced that it had plans to develop Speed Racer into a live action film, a project that would be in and out of development hell for over a decade. Before the Wachowskis were eventually brought onboard in 2006, the project went through some interesting phases. Julien Temple was attached to direct the initial production, which cast Johnny Depp as Speed Racer and offered Henry Rollins the role of Racer X—”Gimme Gimme Gimme” this potential film’s soundtrack. Unfortunately, this attempt at a live-action Speed Racer film never came to fruition, as both Depp and Temple dropped out of the project.
After going through a few directors and writers—one of whom was J.J. Abrams—the project gained some traction in 2004 with the help of Vince Vaughn of all people, who reworked the idea for the film and was cast as Racer X. Like the Julien Temple version of the film, this production also fell through, making way for the Wachowskis, who helped develop the live-action Speed Racer movie as a family film.
When the film was finally released in 2008, it was a critical and financial failure, losing around $26 million in the box office, and though WB would still benefit from toy and product sales, the reviews were nothing short of scathing, with only a few elements receiving mild praise. However, many believe that the film was ahead of its time—Medium called it a 2017 movie that came out in 2008—and in the last few years, the movie has gotten the praise it deserves, with a large number of articles and video essays breaking down its imaginative style and earnest themes.
The live action Speed Racer film is easily the biggest entry in America’s Speed Racer franchise, but it wouldn’t be the last.
The Last Car In The Race
Speed Racer Enterprises ceased operations in 2013 when the full rights to Mach GoGoGo, American or otherwise, returned to Tatsunoko following an ownership lawsuit. Before this, however, Speed Racer Enterprises put out one final, obscure piece of Speed Racer media, a straight-to-DVD flash-animated film entitled Speed Racer: Race to the Future, which followed Speed as he was thrust into the future via time-travelling technology meant to save racers from crashes—because apparently flux capacitors are cheaper than airbags in this reality.
However, this case of Americanization wasn’t solely American, it was actually a co-production with Indian company Toonz Entertainment, who had done work for The Next Generation. Despite having this outside help, Race to the Future barely moved the needle for Speed Racer Enterprises, and with the imminent lawsuit with Tatsunoko, it was the start of the company’s downfall, effectively digging the grave for America’s Speed Racer franchise as a whole.
The Last Lap
It’s not likely that we’ll see a new piece of American Speed Racer media any time soon—though Emile Hirsch has stated he’s down for a sequel to the live-action film, and WB may still have the rights—but the fact remains that Mach GoGoGo’s tenure in America was perhaps one of the most interesting examples of Americanization of Japanese pop culture.
While there were plenty of examples of bizarre and questionable choices made throughout the various pieces of American Speed Racer media, what makes this example of Americanization so fascinating is just how far things went—a relatively small Japanese franchise was blown up to Hollywood proportions. There’s not many examples similar to like Speed Racer in America’s history of localizing Japanese pop culture—Saban’s Power Rangers is the only one that comes to mind—and there may never be again, since these kinds of franchises predate our current relationship with Japanese pop culture.
Speed Racer epitomizes America’s early relationship with anime and manga, a time when localization was deemed necessary to bring Japanese media overseas and when that process could turn an unremarkable series into a media giant outside of its country of origin. The result, as in the case of Speed Racer, was a peculiar blend of Japanese and American sensibilities that was utterly unexpected and completely unique.