Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kid's Stuff, Part XIX, ThunderCats 0

While literally taking it on the chin, ThunderCats cough up a nasty looking hairball

ThunderCats was a 1985 Rankin/Bass Produced animated series that spun off toys and comics galore. The design for the ThunderCats was provided by Pacific Animation Corporation, a collective of Japanese studios that included the soon-to-be Studio Ghibli. Following the He-Man mold, The TV series was produced for syndication with a whopping 65 episodes in its first season. ThunderCats was another big bet that paid off.

ThunderCats got the go-ahead because the prior series idea, LighteningDogs, didn’t meet with test market approval. If ThunderCats had flopped in test markets, Rankin/Bass would have had to go with one of their third tier ideas: either PartlyCloudy-TurningCoolerParakeets or ScatteredShowersMice. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

*Ahem!* So the animated series got a feature length movie in 1986 and 20 episodes each for seasons 2, 3 and 4 before finally losing its ninth life. 

As for toy figures, a company by the name of LJN produced various lines of 7 inch (more or less) figures from 1985 until the series end in 1987. Each figure had weapons and an “action” feature of some kind. Like Lion-O’s head would light up when you pressed a special ring into his back. LJN’s consistency in detail on the line of figures was rather suspect, leaving a lot of modern collectors complaining about which version of a figure is “correct” or “best”. 

Other ThunderCats merchandise released included a board game, TV trays, lunchboxes, apparel and a couple of comic book runs.

The first comic run took place at the same time as the first TV series. Marvel put the book out and it got a nice 2-year run. In the UK, Marvel had better success, birthing a series that ran 129 issues over a three year period. After disappearing in 1987, DC’s Wildstorm took over the license in 2002, releasing several minis and one-shots in 2003. Notably the ThunderCats got a crossover with Superman and Battle of the Planets. 

A five issue mini series stated in 2003 as well and from the looks of issue 0, it had some troubles right from the start.

To begin with, the zero issue was penciled by J. Scott Campbell. Campbell is best known for being the co-creator of Gen13 and Danger Girl. I’ve read the Danger Girl series, and Campbell’s art in it is right on target. Mainly because he’s drawing exaggerated feminine figures in tight fitting clothes. It’s sexist but it is well drawn. 

Not so with ThunderCats 0. 

Campbell’s style makes many of the ThunderCats look garishly ugly. His tendency to distort the facial characteristics on males makes for many key scenes with our heroes looking oddly misshapen. I noticed he did the same thing in Danger Girl, but only to the villains. Here he uses that ability to make the ThunderCats look worse than any ancient mummy or freakish mutant. Take a look at Lion-O on the cover up there to see what I’m talking about.

At least Campbell was only slated to pencil the zero issue. That makes his problem solved when Ed McGuinness takes up the chore in issue 1 as the regular on the title. A more pressing concern is writer Ford Lytle Gilmore. Granted his zero issue makes it hard to judge how he would do in a long-term story arc. The issue is short, with most of the back half going to pinups by various artists and a few words from the author. It’s these brief paragraphs that get me worried. Tell me what sounds odd about the following excerpt. Pay special attention to the bolded statements:

“The heroes did all this martial arts fighting, and each of them had their own special weapon. Moreover, the cats were specifically adept at hand-to-hand combat and each had their own special weapons which they used in battling their enemies – as a kid in the 80s, these were like super-cool ninjas, giant cat-men with nunchucks, flashbombs, and all sorts of other cool weapons. I knew whenever I’d come home from school and turn on the cartoons, I’d see tons of awesome action and fighting.”

There’s something awkward about the above sentence structure. I can’t quit put my finger on it. If I read it all the way through, I suddenly imagine Gilmore talking in an oriental accent. Maybe the run-on sentence in the middle or the fact that use of a Thesaurus is optional. Definitely the odd focusing on the weapons right down to the identical phraseology is kind of off-putting. I wouldn’t worry so much about these five pages, except this is the writer of the book. And you know, a writer should be good with making the word stuff go good in the order that sounds like it’s good scripted. 

Hell, now he’s got me doing it.

As for Gilmore’s actual story in this issue, it is one-ply tissue paper thin. Basically WilyKat and Lion-O sit on a log and talk. WilyKat wants a weapon just like the other ThunderCats and he gives an example of each character using their various talents via flashback. The issue ends with Mumm-Ra having been privy to this conversation and believing he can use WilyKat’s desire in his upcoming plans. So essentially nothing happens. Nothing except some decently drawn panels sitting next to some terrible atrocities. Take a look at Lion-O’s musculature and lumpy hand in this panel.

I know they are suppose to be cats. I get that he’s wearing that claw/shield thingy. Buy why are his arms like massive clouds of mashed potatoes again? I’d love for this to be my only problem with the book, this “worked out at the gym too much” body problem. Unfortunately Campbell has that “face” issue showing up on page 2. Meet Lion-O and the Joker’s love child.

That huge chin is wholly a Campbell addition. For reference, here’s what Lion-O should look like:

Astoundingly, the elongated chin is reduced in the next panel. This time the combination of it, the facial expression and the massive biceps/quadriceps he’s sporting makes Lion-O look like a cross between Ronald McDonald and Hulk Hogan. 

The basic premise up to this point is WilyKat wants a sword like Lion-O’s. So he proceeds to tell him how important each ThunderCat’s weapon (uh oh) is by virtue of flashbacks. First up is Panthro, who would have been lost without his BattleSticks. Panthro starts the battle looking close to his animated incarnation.

But by the ending panel has morphed into a hideous blue-gray demon-beast. It’s like Campbell was trying to draw the Green Goblin from the SpiderMan series. The worst part of this is the lack of consistency between two panels.

Moving right along, WilyKat relates a story where Tygra and Cheetara stole some kind of bracelet from Castle Plun-Darr…wait! Seriously, who names a castle a pun on the word "plunder." It’s like naming your car “Wrecked” or your cat “Dogmeat”. I know it’s from the series, I’m just saying that it’s not right.

Anyway, since we have one of the few female ThunderCats being shown I fully expected Campbell to pull his usual oversized boobs, wasp waist, posed for sex pin-up model panel. He shows remarkable restraint instead.

She looks pretty normal. Normal for a Campbell comic anyway. Her waist looks like she’s corseted under that unitard, but she’s not flashing her butt, boobs or va-jay-jay at us. Maybe he’s trying to keep this an all-ages book. For that I’ll applaud him and his giant chin drawings. Sadly Tygra is getting the Campbell chin treatment in the few panels he’s visible. What is up with this guy and male lower jawlines? Just as I’m getting used to the non-porn Cheetara, suddenly Campbell throws me a shot that makes me double-take.

Right there! BOOB! Huge BOOB! 

Wait! That’s no boob. 

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Chewie get us out of here!

Campbell draws Cheetara’s knee in the exact same position as a giant hooter would rest. I think I even see a little nipple on that knee. Now I’m torn on whether I can recommend this book to children or not. All because of one knee/knocker. With a nipple. Oh they beat the bad guys, but not before Tygra’s chin stretches out again.

Heck, they’ve even stolen some of the Joker’s backgrounds for that panel. Gah! Last up is Lion-O’s final battle with Mumm-Raa. He makes his sword grow and then attacks him. What’s up with the totally phallic imagery of having Lion-O’s sword get bigger when he fights people? Are they trying to say that he gets off sexually by hurting others? Anyway, this is suppose to be from the tv series season finale, but I don’t think it’s a faithful reproduction.

Did the network censors really let Lion-O impale the bad guy? If so, glove clap to them. Not that Mumm-Raa seems that deserving of the fate, just thanks for letting a cartoon character with a sword actually connect with another character. Most of the time they use their steel cutting up scenery, breaking enemies various weapons and brandishing the blade menacingly. Good show, Cat-dude. Too bad Campbell had to screw up your victory scene with this picture of your mug. Lion-O, you look worse that Mumm-Raa. And he’s been dead for thousands of years.

WilyKit finds the boys now and breaks up her brother’s ramblings about wanting a sword. Meanwhile Mumm-Raa has been watching all of this transpire and makes some plans while wringing his hands and twirling his mustache simultaneously. This issue is a zero in all ways that count. A story that really isn’t, artwork that exposes the limitations of the artist instead of playing to his strengths and the final 8 pages pin-ups by better artists surrounded by the ramblings of what appears to be an 13-year-old fan.

ThunderCats writer Gilmore did a couple of other series after the 'cats wrapped up. Other writers handled the crossovers and few one-shots. DVDs of ThunderCats were released about three years ago and are still being produced. A reboot tv series in 2011 wasn't as successful although praised by reviewers, bringing in only 26 episodes before it was dumped into the litter box.

If you want a fix of Lion-O and crew, I suggest you “ThunderCats HO!” yourself over to Amazon instead of cruising the comic bargain bins. What you find in the cheap longboxes may need to be put to sleep.

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