In 1972, inspired by imported Dinky toys based on Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, the Japanese toy company Popy decided to put out a licensed figure of the anime character Mazinger Z. Unlike most Japanese toys of the period it eschewed tin in favour of a mix of diecast metal and ABS. It was so successful that Popy followed it up with a string of other super robots licensed from popular kids cartoons, the range becoming known as Chogokin after the fictional alloy Mazinger Z was constructed from.
The series was still going from strength to strength in the late seventies when American toy giant Mattel came across them after some success importing Godzilla toys and licensed a batch of figures from the line for their domestic market in late 1979. Various characters were licensed in three inch and five inch sizes, plus two-foot tall hollow vinyl robots from the Jumbo Machinder spin-off line. They named the line Shogun Warriors, but promoting the figures proved difficult. Tie-in media was still in its' infancy but the runaway success of Star Wars showed the potency of the concept.
Licensing cartoons was basically impossible as it would involve buying in numerous series which would only feature one robot a time anyway, each Warrior being the star of their own cartoon in Japan (an anthology of some of the shows would appear in the eighties under the name Force Five, but this was entirely unrelated to the long gone toyline). Instead Mattel turned to Marvel Comics, who were already making Godzilla - King of the Monsters to support the company's merchandise.
The same creative team of writer Doug Moench (creator of Moon Knight) and artist Herb Trimpe were assigned to the comic. However, as media rights had not been part of Mattel's deal with Popy, Marvel had to arrange these rights separately. For financial reasons they were limited to just three Shogun Warriors - Combattra (taken from Tadao Nagahama's Chodenji Robo Combattler V), Raydeen (from Brave Raideen) and Dangard Ace (of Leiji Matsumoto's Wakeusi Robo Danguard Ace). This made good sense for Mattel - Combattra was made up of five vehicles sold separately in US stores, while Raydeen and Dangard Ace had five inch figures featuring simple transformations, part of the Shogun Warriors 2-in-1 theme; Raideen had been first released in Japan in 1975 and was possibly the first production toy to possess such a feature and thus likely the first sold in America too.
Moench set about crafting a backstory for the robots to exist in the Marvel Universe (a given for most of the company's output at the time, including the Godzilla comic, their title based on Mego's Micronauts figures and the then-new series pushing Rom the Spaceknight for Parker Brothers). He came up with the idea of the Followers of the Light, a race of benevolent aliens who defended prehistoric Earth from the vicious Myandi in a conflict called the Great Chaos War. The Myandi, users of dark sorcery, were defeated and became dormant under a volcano in Asia (handily keeping them geographically clear of much of Marvel's other characters), with four Followers kept as guardians in the technologically advanced Himalayan Shogun Sanctuary, using suspended animation.
A volcanic eruption wakes the Myandi and their leader Maur-Kon, which in turn revives the Followers. While Maur-Kon sends the demonic monster Rok-Kon (there are lots of hyphens in the series ) the Followers collect a trio of humans they have selected as pilots for the Shogun Warriors robots. Quite why none of the Followers can pilot the things or why they decided to wait until Maur-Kon attacks something before even contacting their prospective students are questions the comic valiantly ignores. The three selected are wiseguy American stunt driver Richard Carson, Japanese jet pilot Genji Odashu and Madagascan (no, really) oceanographer Ilongo Savage. None of them make much of an impression beyond Carson's need to make a smart remark every time anyone says anything and the sheer weirdness of Ilongo having such an interesting job while looking like a blaxploitation hangover and having such a preposterous name.
The first three issues cover most of this backstory around the trio trying to stop Rok-Kon while also laying out the facilities and technology of Shogun Sanctuary in painstaking detail; regular lectures from the senior Follower Doctor Tambura break up the action with tedious results. However, the mix of American comic sensibilities with those of a Japanese cartoon are curious and not entirely without success with the sheer oddness creating an awkward, alien style little else of the period would manage.
The second arc sees Maur-Kon decide that pure sorcery can't match the Warriors. Instead he orders his techno-mages (why a man with no previous use for technology has techno-mages on hand is again something we're plainly not meant to ask about) to build a mechanical monster christened - in an explosion of imagination - the Mech-Monster. Interestingly this development contains another strong nod to super robot anime - the bad guys sending a succession of progressively more powerful robots or monsters against the heroes, a pattern that would be the clear inspiration for - eventually - Neon Genesis Evangelion and then Pacific Rim.
Anyway, Maur-Kon's obligatory treacherous lieutenant Magar believes his boss is wrong in abandoning sorcery and tries to destroy the Mech-Monster but only succeeds in somehow magically coating it before it sets out to fight the Shoguns. Partway through the fight Genji breaks off to investigate the volcano and gets herself and Combattra captured but then there's a huge anticlimax as Richard and Ilongo blow the Mech-Monster up easily and Maur-Kon's piloting of Combattra proves to be rubbish. The captured Shogun's head module is destroyed in the battle but thankfully Tambura just flies in with a spare. Ouch.
Next up is a brutal eight issue storyline where the trio go back to civilian life and face the consequences of being suddenly snatched - Carson gets the third degree from his stuntwoman girlfriend Deena, Ilongo's research programme is in disarray and Genji is put on trial because the prototype jet she was piloting went with her. On top of these rather dull personal issues the trio are targeted by a big villain and have to have their robot beamed to them - Raydeen drawing the robotic Cerebus and its reconfiguring head, Danguard Ace being challenged by Starbeast and Combattra getting The Hand of Five (all correctly guessing their opponent's name too). The problem is they're attacked sequentially so there are silly scenes where Richard and Deena are squabbling over a meal while apparently fully aware Genji is fighting for her life in Tokyo.
The gang reassemble to divert a meteor away from Earth and discover a huge base hidden behind the moon. This contains Dr Demonicus, a Moench creation who had previously engineered monsters to bother Godzilla. He is swiftly revealed to be behind both the trio of attackers and the meteor but after a long build up the Shogun defeat his creatures (and a few more he had just hanging around his implausibly huge secret space station) with absolute ease, divert a second meteor and drop the mad doctor off with SHIELD (Dum Dum Duggan, who got a lot of limelight in Godzilla, makes a cameo). This time the anticlimax is even worse because the story takes so long to get anywhere while also hinging on the Shogun simply triple-teaming each threat. Demonicus would later bother the Avengers (well, the West Coast ones) and get skin cancer. Nineties comics were like that.
There's then a quick fill-in issue from Steven Grant; this is typical of that sort of thing, an amiable intentionally inconsequential story where yakuza kidnap and replace Carson in an attempt to steal Raydeen. It does prove to be a little bit of a welcome break from Moench's overblown style, however. When the regular team return there's the first hint of trouble for the book when a mysterious being destroys Shogun Sanctuary and kills Dr Tambura and whoever the other three Followers were. Which is surprisingly brutal for a toy title at the time while also initiating a format change. From now on the pilots have to hide the huge robots near their homes - this, along with the question of how they maintain the things, is quite implausible and it's probably for the best the title won't linger for too long.
There's an issue where a kid finds Combatra's hiding place and takes off in the thing and then one where they fight another of the mysterious alien's robots that's notable for two reasons. Firstly the robot is called Megatron a good four years before Transformers existed. It's a real word so it might just be a coincidence but EiC at the time was Jim Shooter, who would later do some of the early work on Transformers before handing the project over to Bob Budiansky, and it's also more than likely that the latter read Shogun Warriors as a toy-based robot comic as part of his prep anyway. What's more of a coincidence is that Megatron clasps its' hands together to form a gun, as the live action version of the Decepticon leader would in the 2007 film.
The other is that this is all but the last appearance of Raydeen and Danguard Ace. Just before being defeated, Megatron issues a shitlist that includes SHIELD, Tony Stark and the Fantastic Four. Thus Richard, Ilongo and Genji jump in Combatra and fly to Four Freedoms, Plaza just in time to team up with Marvel's first family. It's clear by this stage that the comic was fishing for sales but it would seem that this was without success. After helping save the Baxter Building from another giant alien robot (during the fight Reed and Sue pilot the Combatra modules with ease - the F4 generally piss all over the Shoguns in the crossover) they all follow it into space where the aliens are revealed to be unwitting dupes of none other than Maur-Kon, who gets a page of "shit, last issue " exposition hurriedly claiming he was behind everything. It all makes for a limp final arc, especially as it's Sue Richards who discovers Maur-Kon. Several plot threads revolving around the key characters - such as Genji's court martial and Deena's jealousy - are left unfinished, though I doubt many cared.
Comic sales were probably only part of the reason for the cancellation. The toyline never really took off; prices were too high considering the high cost of importing the heavy diecast figures from Asia with sales too low to compensate. Also around the time the line was on the shelves an American kid managed to kill himself with a (Mattel-produced) Battlestar Galactica toy after firing the launcher down his throat. Rather than assigning this to Darwinism the American industry instead opted to introduce their choke tests restricting the size and power of springloaded toy launchers. The cost of reworking the figures was prohibitive.
The comic and the toys stopped shipping at what seems to be about the same time, so it's likely Mattel pulled the plug. However, contemporaries Rom and The Micronauts would both continue for some years after their respective toys had disappeared, which would hint that Marvel were happy for it to stop (though the series' more complex licensing requirements would have made it harder to do so for Shogun Warriors).
A short while after the cancellation Moench landed a fill in issue of Fantastic Four and used it to effectively seal off the Warriors as a someone finds a fourth Warrior - the Samurai Killer, not based on any toy - among the ruins, and destroys the trio's robots. The pilots then go to the Four for help and the villain is beaten. Carson, Genji and Ilongo then decide heroing isn't for them and return to their normal lives with minimal ceremony. All three robots are only seen at ankle level or otherwise obscured, aren't named and even the title Shogun Warrior isn't mentioned, so it's clear the licence has already lapsed. It's quite sad in both ways that this was the swansong for three characters and their mechs that had been the stars of their own book for nearly two years.
As an overall read the book has more negatives than positives. On the plus side the book doesn't actually make a bad fist of blending anime with comics, turning out big silly tokusatsu style brawls in the USA. The robots themselves come off well and Herb Trimpe's art is great at capturing their size and their oddball powers. The trio of leads also aren't bad when the title steers clear of soap opera too. On the downside, Moench's wacky fantasy backstory and the tiresome schoolteacher presence of the Followers drags the book down early on by breaking up the action. When they recede there's firstly the aforementioned soap opera and then the poorly planned format change; the Chaos War stuff is a poor origin the series never really recovers from and thus Moench paints himself into a corner straight away. Every storyline ends in an anti climactic fashion and there's never a feeling that any thing's been planned in terms of overall direction meaning there's little to savour after the comic's finished with; even the oddness of blending three different properties has been superceded by Banpresto's Super Robot Wars.
The rights issues mean Shogun Warriors has never been reprinted and this is unlikely to change unless Disney buy out the Japanese studios, and even then there's probably minimal demand. So you can decide for yourselves I've uploaded the run in a bundle. The scans are quite low quality and not mine - I did own the whole run and attempted high resolution scans but the general ageing of the comics meant they looked terrible and the endeavour simply wasn't worth the time.