Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lords of Light! A Thundarr retrospective





Remember Saturday morning cartoons? 

If you do, then you are likely covering your gray hair as I am.  But that was when the best cartoons were on.  There was no VCR for me during those years so I actually had to make a point to wake up for the shows.  The number of cartoons I watched and the hours I devoted to this activity were plentiful.  I couldn't even begin to give you a comprehensive examination.  Instead, I will focus on my favorite Saturday morning cartoon of all-time.  It was a show with no toys to sell (action figures of the characters weren't even made until 2004!!), no movie to promo, and overall no agenda save to entertain and sell ad time.  It was a noble effort.

It was Thundarr the Barbarian!  Masterpiece of animation!

Ahem.  Excuse me.  Think back to 1980.  Star Wars was the biggest entertainment juggernaut the world had yet seen.  Ruby-Spears animation wanted in on the sweet action.  They wanted their own cartoon that was set in the same mold.  Smartly, they went straight to comic books for further inspiration.  They tapped legendary talent, namely chief writer Steve Gerber, Jack "King" Kirby and Alex Toth.  Toth was the creator of Space Ghost, another Saturday morning cartoon while Kirby created...well geez, it would probably take less time to say which characters Kirby didn't have a hand in creating.   These men would enact the pre-production work on what our humble world would come to know as the miracle that was Thundarr the Barbarian.  Ahem.  Excuse me again.

So what was it all about?  Behold the intro to each cartoon episode...

The year: 1994. From out of space comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction! Man's civilization is cast in ruin!
Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn...
A strange new world rises from the old: a world of savagery, super science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous Sunsword against the forces of evil.
He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!

That's right folks.  Apocalypse now!  Actually, more like "apocalypse 18 years ago" but no one ever accused Ruby-Spears of being psychic.  What's more, a recent article described what the actual result would be of the Earth losing the Moon a la Space 1999 and it turns out it would be both more dramatic and duller all at the same time. 
Anyway, the society we know now is all but gone.  In ruins.  A wasteland.  Only the merest burned-out husks remain to give us any kind of bearing as to our location in the episode.  Yes, it varied for Thundarr and his companions were nomadic.
Who was Thundarr exactly?  As one might imagine, this Saturday morning cartoon didn't spend a whole lot of time on character development and backstory.  Thundarr himself owes more than a little bit to Conan the Barbarian, the creation of writer Robert E. Howard.  There was also a quite long running Conan comic book series from Marvel, further bringing in the comics influence.  In fact, you can also see quite a bit of Thor in Thundarr.  Suffice it to say, when you mixed ingredients like that together, you come out with a muscular hunk of a man's man clad in animal hides and wielding quite a weapon.

Wow, I just realized how gay that last sentence sounds but what can I say?  The dude was ripped.  In order to appeal to a more "modern" audience than Conan, Thundarr was given a Sunsword as a weapon.  The sword is normally just a hilt but when Thundarr presses a button, a beam of light extends from it as a blade.  Oh yeah, it's basically a lightsaber.
Of course the Star Wars comparisons don't stop there.  Rumor has it that the "powers that be" demanded that Thundarr have a hirsute, moschate, gruff-but-loveable animal sidekick.  Someone who would be the Chewbacca to Thundarr's Han Solo.  Therefore, Ookla the Mok was created.
It's not entirely clear what a "Mok" is other than one of the strange mutated races that arose after the apocalypse and is a transparent stand-in for a Wookie.  The creatures appear to be bear, dog, cat, and ape all at the same time.  Just as in Star Wars, Ookla communicates in grunts and growls that only Thundarr seems to understand.

The other of Thundarr's companions was Princess Ariel.  Now, call me all kinds of pathetic, but I can't think of a single cartoon chick hotter than Ariel.  Yeah, yeah, you've got your whole Disney brood out there, but Ariel kick their collective ass blindfolded.
Ariel was a sorceress.  Not much is known about her other than she is the stepdaughter of an evil wizard, a wizard who held Thundarr and Ookla as slaves.  She is also extraordinarily well educated.  It is often Princess Ariel who serves as guide and interpreter to old Earth history as Thundarr more often than not is not interested in anything he can't eat or smash.  Just what Ariel is a princess of or how she came to be so learned is never revealed.  I like to think that she was born and raised inside a sophisticated shelter after the apocalypse, something like Kirby's Kamandi.  But I digress...

So just who faced the furious wrath of Thundarr and his sunsword in episode after episode?  More often than not, it was a wizard.  It appears that the apocalypse re-awakened the ability for human beings to work magic.  Sadly, not everyone was like Ariel and those who were especially adept at wielding magic often enslaved the rabble that were surviving humans in the wasteland.  Among my favorite villainous wizards was Mindok, a disembodied brain that survived armageddon and thawed out NASA scientists to help build him a robotic body.  There was also Gemini, a recurring, also slightly robotic-looking, villain whose outward countenance was an obvious riff off of Kirby's notorious villain Darkseid from DC Comics.




In addition to magic, there was high technology everywhere.  Except that is for the common wasteland wanderer.  The technology was mainly in the hands of wealthy warlords, mutants, and wizards.  Guess William Gibson was especially prescient in saying that "the future is here, just isn't evenly distributed."  That inequity gets even worse in Thundarr's time.  You'll see amazing devices but very little indoor plumbing.

In the end, why do I love Thundarr so?  Well for one thing, there was great nobility in the title character.  As my mother once asked me while she washed dishes from breakfast, "Why do they call him a 'barbarian?'  He's very principled."  Yeah, I didn't have a normal childhood.  More than anything, the cartoon was just a mash-up of everything I found fun.  Yes, even at age nine I could see the similarities to so many other popular properties but that was part of the appeal.  I liked seeing how these different "samples" if you will came together to form a unique whole.  Most of all, Thundarr was not a thinly-disguised, 30 minute ad for a toy line.  Thundarr stood on its own.  It was just plain made of awesome.

We'll likely never see something of its kind in television cartoons ever again.


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