The 1980 series Thundarr the Barbarian is good. It’s really good, and it has no business being so. No offense to any of the artists who made them, but the state of American cartoons in the late ‘70s was complete butt. Just a horrible mess of tired retreads of earlier hits combined with short-lived series you’ve never heard of. I mean, it’s not like The Super Globetrotters or What’s New Mr. Magoo weren’t good or anything, but… Japan was absolutely destroying us; Gatchaman, Space Battleship Yamato, and Mobile Suit Gundam all premiered in the last three years of the decade. For comparison, 1979 was the year Scrappy-Doo made his debut. America was hosed.
Or at least it should have been. Animation was very expensive and before President Reagan allowed toy companies to effectively advertise directly to children in the form of cartoons, shows were lucky to get 20 episodes. Hanna-Barbera had revolutionized the TV cartoon in the ’60s using its patented limited movement style; generally the characters would only perform one motion at a time in a stationary background. It looks very stagnant by today’s standards, but it allowed for dozens of cartoon shows to reach the TV. Many of those shows, like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Super Friends, were so popular they’d get retooled and relaunched time and again.
Thundarr the Barbarian is very similar to the old Hanna-Barbera shows, but it isn’t one. The series actually hit screens from Ruby-Spears Productions. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were longtime Hanna-Barbera writers of shows like Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and Scooby-Doo. By 1979, the pair had branched off to create their own studio; their first series was the highly Scooby-derivative Fangface. They followed that with The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show and Heathcliff and Dingbat.
In all of those first few cases, the Ruby-Spears shows held to that light comedic tone that had plagued—yes, I said plagued!—the American cartoon landscape for so much of the 1970s. Not that they were all bad by any means; they were just all so painfully the same. Even the DC Comics series Plastic Man was more comedic than adventure. In order to bring action cartoons back, Ruby-Spears turned to a comic book legend. Steve Gerber.
Gerber began writing for Marvel Comics in 1972, with a whopping four titles in which he wrote or co-wrote hitting stands in December of that year. On top of runs on big superhero series like Iron Man, Daredevil, and Sub-Mariner, he hit his stride with more offbeat names. His signature series was a run on Man-Thing, and he’s one of the co-creators of cult favorite Howard the Duck. And his idea for an action cartoon was just as high-concept.
As the opening narration tells us, in the year 1994 (our old future), a rogue planet hurtled through Earth’s atmosphere, cracking the moon in half and setting off natural disasters that destroyed civilization. 2,000 years later, the radiation has created strange mutations and ushered in an age of “savagery, super-science, and sorcery.” Our hero, the titular Thundarr, is a former slave (probably a forced gladiator) who breaks his bonds and sets out on a series of globetrotting adventures along with his two sidekicks. First is Princess Ariel, a young sorceress with a great knowledge of “Old Earth” customs and geography. The second is Ookla, a giant bear-and-lion beast from the species Mok.
The general idea is a really wild one. It mixes high-fantasy with tech-based science fiction; most of the villains are “wizards,” who usually take the form of organic-machine hybrids who have harnessed some kind of super-science. For instance, Mindok the Mind Menace, a scientist who lost his body in the cataclysm 2000 years earlier but whose brain has remained alive thanks to artificial means. In addition to wizards, Thundarr and company also take on a tribe of werewolves; a vampire alien; amphibious amazon warriors; and evolved ape-men.
The concept is outstanding, and each episode features our heroes traversing a different post-apocalyptic Earth city. We see the remnants of San Francisco, London, Hollywood (a few times), New York, and St. Louis. Personally very amazing was the episode “Stalker of the Stars,” about the space vampire, which takes place in the wreckage of Denver’s Lakeside Amusement Park. I grew up in Denver and I can tell you, Lakeside didn’t need 2,000 years to look post-apocalyptic.
But look, Gerber had a great idea, but animation is a visual medium. They didn’t have the money to create really fluid and dynamic movement, so they required some excellent design. To create the look of our three heroes, Gerber only enlisted the legendary Alex Toth; Toth is the longtime comic book artist whom Hanna-Barbera tasked with creating some of its most iconic heroes, like Space Ghost and Birdman. Thundarr in a lot of ways looks like a typical Conan-esque barbarian, and Ariel has interesting clothes; Toth’s big contribution was Ookla, who sufficiently brought in enough Chewbacca energy while still adhering to the future-fantasy aesthetic. A really great design.
Ah, but sadly Toth was unable to create more than that. So who else would Gerber get to create all the many creatures and villains? Oh gee, just Jack f***ing Kirby. That’s right, the creator of all the best comic book characters and the man who did all the best artwork of comics to that point has his fingerprints all over Thundarr the Barbarian, and it’s all the better for it. The look of each wizard is distinct, the monsters scary but identifiably Earthbound (for the most part). The derelict cities and mechanical hodgepodge castles are stunning.
If there’s any downside to Thundarr it’s that the dialogue is very much a ’70s comic book come to life. And why wouldn’t it when along with Gerber the writing staff included comics legends Roy Thomas, Buzz Dixon, and Martin Pasko? Most lines are shouted declarations, a lot of catchphrases (Thundarr exclaims “Lords of Light!” and “Demon Dogs!” at least once each per episode), and almost no subtlety. Princess Ariel, with a knowledge of “ancient” Earth, brings a surprising amount of winking humor, which is a nice treat. But Thundarr is all heroic business; the wizards are all mustache twirl. This is only a hindrance coming from a 2021 standpoint, of course. It wouldn’t have rung false at the time.
I thought I had seen this show in the nascent days of Cartoon Network, when it was all (or mostly all) classic Hanna-Barbera shows and their contemporaries. But I think I was actually remembering the earlier series The Herculoids which had similar design. Thanks to Warner Archive’s recent Blu-ray release of all 21 episodes of Thundarr the Barbarian, we can all now see the show for the awesome example of high-concept, post-Star Wars science fantasy it is.
And mentioning Star Wars, it’s a shame that Thundarr arrived when it did; if it had been a few years later, it might have lasted more then 21 episodes. You see, Star Wars was an enormous hit in 1977 (obviously), and it influenced everything for years to come. We see a bit of it in Thundarr; I mentioned Ookla’s resemblance to Chewbacca, but Thundarr himself wields a “Sunsword,” a hilt which emits a radiant, unbreakable blade of light. Star Wars toys also made a boatload of money, and with Reagan allowing direct-to-children marketing, toy companies created lines in tandem with animation companies. The toys begat the shows which begat more toys. And because of that, the most popular lines lasted forever.
Though the official story is that Mattel had been in development of the toyline that eventually became He Man and the Masters of the Universe since the mid-70s, there’s no denying, to my mind anyway, how much the 1983 Filmation TV series cribbed directly from Thundarr. Mattel began a comic book series prior to the cartoon…in 1981. Conan the Barbarian the movie is usually the agreed upon antecedent, but that movie came out in 1982, and there’s a lot more alien and technology in He-Man than in Conan. I’m just saying, it might be a mix.
In any case, Thundarr enjoyed only a 13 episode first season in 1980 and an 8 episode second season in 1981. 21 glorious episodes which mixed adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror into a strange mélange of magic. One of the few series of the era to attempt more complex storytelling than teenaged antics and talking dogs. And only just barely did it miss the window where action-adventure cartoons sold toys by the truckload. Thundarr the Barbarian; truly a diamond amongst the dross.