"Thundarr the Barbarian" Complete Series: When Reality is Better Than Nostalgia
The number of times a nostalgic childhood favorite doesn’t live up to adult sensibilities makes it all the more precious when one does. It’s even rarer to find something that you like more as an adult than you did as a kid, so it’s a special treat to re-discover Thundarr the Barbarian thanks to the complete series set released recently by the Warner Archive burn-on-demand service.
On one level, the 21 episodes of the 1980’s series are typical of the output of the Ruby-Spears studio: formulaic and repetitive with almost appallingly limited animation. However, the series also does far more with its ingredients than many other similar shows, and mixes a quirky, distinctive, and borderline insane approach to genre kitsch with a charming trio of leading characters. My curiosity about the series was piqued after watching the first episode on the Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980’s collection, and the rest of the series turns out to be equally enjoyable.
Thundarr the Barbarian is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth 2,000 years after a planetary apocalypse in 1994 (comfortably 14 years in the future when the show first aired). The title character is a brawny slab of beefcake slamming and slashing his way through a strange world where remnants of the 20th century stand alongside strange new super-science and sorcery. He is aided by his semi-mystical Sunsword and a pair of traveling companions: the sorceress Ariel and the brawny Ookla the Mok. In almost every single episode, Thundarr and friends pop up somewhere, discover a wizard stirring up trouble, kick his butt after a few setbacks, and then ride off into the sunset. The dialogue is mostly action-film clichés, and there are more than a few head-scratchers in the writing as characters blithely ignore the obvious and seem to carry forward little to no prior experience as the show progresses. On the surface, at least, there doesn’t seem to be much to recommend Thundarr to a modern audience that has no nostalgic attachment to the title.
What sets Thundarr apart from his more forgettable contemporaries boils down to one word: style. I credit this largely to the contributions of Steve Gerber, the series creator and story editor, and Jack Kirby, who provided the design of the show after Alex Toth did the three lead characters. The show’s high concept means that the writers could throw pretty much anything they wanted on screen and get away with it, and this allowed for a remarkable creativity and self-topping. An attack by a magically animated Statue of Liberty? No problem. Vampire spider aliens kidnapping terrestrial life as snacks for a trip home? Sure, why not? Man-apes building a giant robot gorilla to attack a village of midgets? Must be Tuesday. Crocodile-man police officers and a redneck sheriff stealing oil so a wizard can power his giant death ship? Is that the best you can do? A civil war between aquatic Amazon women, involving a shark-witch whose assets include a squid that shoots lasers out its tentacles, a giant spider, and a nuclear weapon? That’s not weird, that’s just episode 6.
Gerber had a real talent for knocking old-hat concepts just slightly askew to make them seem quirky and original, and his outlandish ideas are brought to vibrant life by Kirby’s designs. Even if it feels like he’s recycling a bit from his Kamandi work for DC, recycled Jack Kirby is still fresher and more original than almost anyone else, as he can toss off the memorably bizarre with ridiculous ease. Even if the Earth of 3994 seems to have a preponderance of evil wizards that all have Evil Fred Flintstone voices and Jack Kirby eyebrows, after a while this becomes part of the show’s charm rather than something to hold against it. The fact that the show plays all of this with a resolutely straight face reminds me of the kind of crazed insanity of G.I. Joe, and it’s not a coincidence that Gerber served as story editor on the regular series there as well.
It also helps that Thundarr (as a show and as a character) possesses the same kind of muscular sensibilities that elevated Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels above the disposable pulp trash that surrounded them. It might be tempered a bit for the Saturday morning cartoon set, but it’s not hard to see the DNA of the prose Conan and Tarzan in Thundarr. It’s certainly easier to see its roots there than in what we kids at the time assumed was a rip-off of Star Wars (which, one must remember, had its first sequel released only a few months before Thundarr premiered on ABC and had not yet turned into the insular, juvenile product we get today). At heart, Thundarr is an extremely simple character driven by little more than a love of adventure, a faithfulness to his friends, and an intense hatred of the tyrannical wizards that oppress much of the Earth’s populace. He’s also interesting because he’s incredibly arrogant without ever becoming unappealing. As an example, when Thundarr realizes that a wizard’s magic is ineffective on him, he immediately starts trash-talking, mocking and taunting the wizard before declaring what a royal ass-whipping he’s about to hand out. Frankly, he’s also a bit of a meathead, happily leaping before he looks and repeatedly treating Ariel like a fragile porcelain doll despite her protestations and demonstrations of her prowess. However, one never gets the impression that Thundarr is stupid, especially since he comes up triumphant so often in those battles. I’m not sure whether to credit the writing or the delivery by Robert Ridgley more, but it’s all hilariously funny and charming rather than being off-putting (as, say, Ben Tennyson can be).
Princess Ariel is a fine foil to Thundarr: brainy where he’s brawny, and complementing his more primal survival instincts with an education. She is also every bit as competent and capable as he is, though. If the show ever plays the “damsel in distress” card, it’s always to communicate what a real threat they’re facing, and she saves Thundarr and Ookla’s bacon as often as they save hers. She also often serves as the voice of the audience, noting the Earth landmarks and customs as she understands them (with sometimes unreasonable accuracy), and also as the voice of reason, making sensible suggestions and contributing worthwhile ideas when confronted with a new foe—though these are usually followed by a dry one-liner as Thundarr ignores her to leap in with gleeful abandon. Reportedly, Ookla the Mok was forced on the show by network executives and it kind of shows because he’s the least appealing of the three. While he’s not as egregiously bad as many other executive-mandate characters, the show does play the “Ookla breaks something” gag a bit too often, and his role as the muscle of the trio is often undermined by inconsistent writing and the show’s insistence on playing him as clumsier and slightly goofier than his friends. Still, he’s fun more often than not.
After revisiting Thundarr on the Saturday Morning 1980’s set, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the series was coming out on the Warner Archive label rather than through the regular Warner Home Video line. Like all Warner Archive releases, this means that clean-up and remastering is minimal, bonus features are non-existent, and even chapter stops are limited to one per episode, planted square at the halfway point. This latter point (a particular pet peeve of mine in TV on DVD) is especially annoying considering the lengthy opening credits sequence. It also would have been nice to have the short Thundarr documentary on that earlier compilation set carried over to this one, although I suspect that DVD capacity ruled it out. The show is definitely showing its age, with some episodes looking particularly bad, but I’m sure that Warner is working with the best material they have available, and a poor Thundarr set is still better than no Thundarr set.
Thundarr the Barbarian is still quite enjoyable on its own merits despite its age and its relatively poor animation quality. In fact, series writer Mark Evanier has stated that the idea had been floated to re-do Thundarr with the same scripts and voice tracks but better animation, and I think that alone could form the foundation of a pretty good Thundarr revival, kitschy dialogue and clichéd plots and all. Like Evanier, I’m fairly convinced that a modern-day revival of Thundarr could build quite fruitfully on the original, as did Tad Stones and (from Stones’ report) at least one person at Warner Bros. Animation. Both Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby got a lot of creative mileage out of sheer audacity in concept and execution, and putting the two together on Thundarr yields something much more memorable than it should be. In concept, I’m leery of most 80’s revivals, but if properties like Transformers and G.I. Joe can re-invent themselves successfully for a modern audience, the episodes on these DVDs are proof enough that Thundarr really ought to get his shot too.