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.
Episodes would often start in media res, right in the middle of an action sequence whose beginning we never saw, and could feature anything from pirates to robots, wizards, werewolves, giant insects, helicopters or hover boards.

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.
Space shuttle carcass at a ruined NASA Space Center, S1E3 Mindok the Mind Menace. This episode predates the first space shuttle launch by almost six months.
Empty streets and a crashed ocean liner from S1E4 Raiders of the Abyss.
WWII-era plane and hangar, S1E5 Treasure of the Moks.
The remnants of Mt. Rushmore, S1E6 Attack of the Amazon Women.
The Capitol Building, a fallen Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Institute, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, and the White House. From S1E7 The Brotherhood of Night.
Fremont Street, downtown Las Vegas. S1E8 Challenge of the Wizards.
This is not an actual castle, but a crumbling movie set on a studio backlot in Hollywood. S1E9 Valley of the Man-Apes.
An old church covered in snow. S1E10 Stalker from the Stars.
An amusement park from the same episode.
The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas. S1E11 Portal Into Time.
Chinatown, San Francisco. S1E12 Battle of the Barbarians.
Artifacts from the old world, embedded in rock. S1E13 Den of the Sleeping Demon.
Abandoned hospital and operating theater, from the same episode
Skeleton of a swingset.
The remnants of the St. Louis Arch, Missouri, from S2E1 Wizard War.
Corpse of a Hyundai. S2E2 Fortress of Fear.
All the time in the world. Big Ben, London. S2E3 Island of the Body Snatchers.
Two freeway exits and Logan Airport, Boston. S2E4 City of Evil.
Abandoned zoo. S205 Last Train to Doomsday.
Beverly Hills, California. S2E6 Master of the Stolen Sunsword.
Eternal Pasture Cemetery, Hollywood, CA. S2E6.
Hollywood sign. S2E6.
Hollywood Magic Palace, S2E6.
Los Angeles parking garage and poolside wreck. S2E6.
Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles. S2E6.
Welcome to Atlanta, Georgia. S2E7 Trial by Terror.

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.