2 years ago
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Beautiful Ruins: Sifting Through the Wreckage of Thundarr the Barbarian (1980)
When Thundarr the Barbarian finally made landfall on the shores of the 1980 Saturday morning cartoon lineup, the accompanying shockwave upturned the nation's cereal bowls.
Thundarr the Barbarian was the glorious mash-up of Robert E. Howard's Conan (hey, the word "Barbarian" is right in the title!), classic 60's Hanna-Barbara sci-fi adventure fare (Space Ghost, The Herculoids, Birdman, etc.), Star Wars (don't dare call Thundarr's "fabulous Sun-sword" a light-saber) and Planet of the Apes/Damnation Alley (or whatever scorched-Earth post-apocalypse title works for you) that I didn't realize I was waiting all my life for.
A Ruby-Spears production, Thundarr the Barbarian was the fortunate son of three Dads who could definitely beat up your Dad: writer Steve Gerber (Howard the Duck, Man-Thing), and legendary comic book/animation artists Jack Kirby and Alex Toth (a collective legacy too rich to enumerate here).
Thundarr's back-story, told in the quickly edited opening sequence, is merely the destruction of modern civilization as we know it, a global catastrophe of massive tidal waves, volcanoes, and earthquakes caused by a close call with a runaway planet in the too-far-away-to-fathom year of 1994. Fast-forward two-thousand years later, and life on Earth has become an anachronistic hodgepodge of Medieval barbarity, futuristic technology, and mutated life forms resembling mythic monsters, extra-terrestrial aliens, and everything in between.
Thundarr was an unapologetic fighter, eager to slice first, ask questions later (...or never). After one particularly impressive demonstration of swordplay protecting a village from flying monsters, a gawking villager asks, "What kind of man are you?"
"Free!" Thundarr barks in reply.
Is it okay to swoon now?
His traveling companions are Ariel, a self-sufficient magic-wielding Princess (princess of what, we're never really sure) who acts as Thundarr's guide (she's learned about the ways of "old Earth" from her father's library) and Ookla the Mok, a tall, growling lion-man, clearly modeled after Chewbacca, who provides both muscle and the occasional comic relief.
But these were dramatic adventure stories, not comedies, a refreshing dose of seriousness when so many cartoons of the day relied on gags and canned laughter.
That these adventures of "savagery, super-science and sorcery" play out across the wreckage of "old Earth", often in the shadow of real-world landmarks, adds a layer of poignancy, a constant, bitter reminder that the world we know has ended in tragedy.
Below are selected images of the beautiful ruin that is old Earth.
New York ("the ruin of Man-Hat") from S1E1, Secret of the Black Pearl.
The backgrounds weren't all doom and gloom. Sometimes the animators would slip in pop-culture references or in-jokes (in one episode you can just make out a sign for "Westwind Steak House Restaurant"... Westwind was the name of the studio that handled production layout for the show).
Here's a Jaws sequel reference (S1E1) that predates the one in Back to the Future II by almost a decade:
A reference to the forthcoming Star Wars sequel, still titled "Revenge of the Jedi" when this episode aired in November 1980, and another Jaws reference, from S1E5:
Thundarr the Barbarian can be purchased on a 4-DVD set as a Warner Archives Collection MOD release.