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"The Herculoids: A Violent Game of Dominoes"

by on July 8, 2011

If you’ve ever played with action figures—and if you’re reading this, you probably have at some point—you’ll probably like The Herculoids. It’s been quite a while since I touched an action figure, but watching this show awoke several-year-old memories of lying on the floor and constructing immensely complex battles between good and evil. Admittedly, the limited animation you’d expect from a Hanna-Barbera production means the resemblance is at times a little too uncanny: the fights that I hosted were, in my mind, much more aesthetically similar to one of those big climatic battle scenes from One Piece or Teen Titans, but this show, more than any of those, strikes close to the heart of the playing. That’s not to say, mind you, that watching Herculoids is literally like watching a kid playing with action figures. It’s just much closer, I think, to what kids imagine while they’re doing the playing.

“Somewhere out in space” live the Herculoids: a trio of Tarzan-esque humans and a bunch of monsters: “Igoo, the giant rock ape! Tundro the tremendous! Gloop and Gleep, the formless, fearless wonders!” This ridiculously slipshod team—it’s like the creatures were pulled out of a toybox at random and unceremoniously placed on the side of good—together defend their planet from invaders, which seem like whatever monster Alex Toth happened to draw on that particular day. So each segment “plot” consists merely of a drawn-out battle between the Herculoids and the monster of the day. But what the show lacks in technical merit, it makes up for in this beautiful simplicity. This is a show where an even BIGGER monster showing up after the main monsters get destroyed is a shocking twist. Characters are set up like dominoes and to be knocked over each in turn. This very lack of complexity, reinforced by the monotonous voice work and the repetitive (though very memorable) music, helps it capture the righteous, dry, tactical nature of action-figure play-acting very well, and it’s charming in a way that another show, one with greater emphasis on character or story, could never be. We care about the characters and want them to win, not because they are relatable or even likable, but because in the intentionally simple world the show creates, they are unquestionably the good guys.

But spareness of conceit alone wouldn’t be enough to make this show as fun as it is. Herculoids dramatizes its happenings just enough to make them worth drawing and animating, instead of leaving on the carpet. Toth, more famous for his later work on Superfriends, was one of many creative men behind the show. As a character designer, Toth is a true beauty: all the monsters in Herculoids are inventively drawn and, if not expressive, at least fun to look at. More amazingly, so are the humans; Toth had a talent for drawing humanoid figures in a variety of poses which often eluded other artists. Everything has just the right weight and form. The animation, as I’ve mentioned, may be limited, but if I had to make an action show with limited animation it’s Toth I would want to design my characters, to make sure there’s no discrepancy between the characters and what is expected of them. It’s hard to tell from the online images, but I suspect the Herculoids line of action figures is among the most well-designed of the lot. Backgrounds are used effectively as well, being very evocative and suggestive of the kind of the barren but vaguely quirky planet that perfectly fits the theme of the show. A sort of “Seuss meets Frazetta meets a blank white space” type of place, if you will, where lots of violent, primal fun can be had.

Herculoids is the latest in a series of second-tier Hanna-Barbera series to be released by Warner Home Archive, a practice I continue to approve heartily of. This release is a cut above the previous releases I’ve seen from this division of the company because it comes with an extra—a little featurette with various figures in the animation industry (including Jerry Beck and Doug TenNapel) talking about the show’s history, its influence, and Alex Toth in general. It’s disappointingly short, not quite as in-depth as one might hope, and seems rather hastily thrown together, but it’s nice to see an effort being made all the same.

There aren’t too many people I can imagine actively disliking this series. It’s got a timeless quality to it, and I imagine today’s violent little warmongers will be just as impressed with it as those of the 60s.

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