Hasslein Blog: GUEST BLOG: Cubing—Gargoyles


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, December 13, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Cubing—Gargoyles

And now, we turn the conch over to writer Duy Tano, of The Comics Cube!, a popular blog covering the comic book industry. Duy has graciously shared with us an article about Gargoyles, a science fantasy cartoon series created by Greg Weisman that aired from 1994 to 1997.

I sometimes wonder, were I a writer or a creator, would I rather have a mass hit that's big when it's out and forgotten as the years pass and subsequent products take its place in the public consciousness, or would I rather have a cult hit that's moderately successful, kept afloat by a devout group of fans, and be kept alive long after it's done because of that adoration. Of course, ideally, you'd have one that's a mass hit and will live on forever, but if I had to pick one of those two, well, I dunno which one I'd choose for sure, frankly. But I'd like to think I'd choose the latter.

The '90s saw a revolution of sorts in the field of animated TV shows, or what humans like to call "cartoons." Led by Batman: The Animated Series, cartoons were slowly trying to be more sophisticated than they were in the '80s, employing different voice actors and encouraging them to truly act out their characters as opposed to working with stock voices, and some cartoons, such as X-Men or, going earlier, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, incorporating long-running story arcs to their shows.

Created by Greg Weisman and run by Disney, Gargoyles was one of the cartoons in the middle of that movement. It ran for two seasons (and had a spinoff that was basically its third season, called The Goliath Chronicles—Greg Weisman left that after one episode, so we will ignore it and focus on the two seasons), and even though Wikipedia says it was "only moderately successful," its following was so dedicated that it still has 242,081 likes as of this writing on Facebook, despite having been off the air for 15 years (Batman: The Animated Series only has about 20,000 more).

As perhaps a more important measure of the devoted nature of its fans, The Gathering of the Gargoyles, an annual convention held across America to celebrate the show, discontinued only in 2010. That's one convention a year for 13 years, friends. I think we can all agree that that's much more than we'd expect one cartoon to actually get people together on an annual basis. And to this day, people say they want to see more. "More Gargoyles," say they, or, I should say, "say we," because I'm definitely one of those people.

Unfortunately, it's the very things that made Gargoyles special that probably would make it difficult to bring back, even if Disney were so inclined.

Gargoyles wasn't the first cartoon to use expanded story arcs, but it was the first notable one to do it with something that resembled a mythology, a complexity. So much of Gargoyles was already planned out before the show even started, and now with the show done for 15 years, so much of it had still been planned out by Weisman, if tentatively.

Gargoyles starts off in the year 994, in a Castle Wyvern in Scotland. Then, Gargoyles and humans lived, not harmoniously, not without prejudice, but with enough of an understanding to strike a bargain: The Gargoyles would protect the castle at night from intruders, while the humans would guard the Gargoyles during the daytime, when they involuntarily transform into stone. The Gargoyles are betrayed, however, and all but six of them are destroyed. The castle's Magus then curses them to be stone forever, until Castle Wyvern rises above the clouds.

In the year 1994, David Xanatos, a ruthless businessman whose laid-back and cavalier charm prefigures, in a way, Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark, learns of the curse and uses his immense wealth to break it, hoping to ally with the Gargoyles. His methods aren't very altruistic, however, and the clan, led by Goliath, breaks off on their own and ally with a policewoman named Elisa Maza. Along the way, they find out that one of their number, Goliath's former mate, now named Demona, had been the one responsible for the destruction of their clan, and that she was alive, and had been so for 1,000 years.

That's the premise of the five-part opener, "Awakening," and is the springboard for the rest of the series, and while not every episode is a winner, most are stand-alone episodes that nevertheless contribute to the growth of the characters as well as the natural progression of the overall Gargoyles story arc. Succeeding episodes focus on Lexington and Brooklyn (Gargoyles do not have names, save for Goliath because the humans named him, and this clan who woke up in Manhattan took on the names of various landmarks in New York when Elisa tells them that they need to have names) trusting various characters only to be betrayed, making them more wary of trusting people in general and of the Pack and Demona in particular. Broadway has a bad incident with a gun and is wary of holding firearms again. These episodes aren't referred to explicitly each time one character shares a scene with their respective antagonist, but it's clearly there in the creators' minds whenever such a confrontation occurs, adding texture and a layer of tension to the scene, even if you missed the episodes that explained it.

Little touches like these, the kind that don't get addressed like a sledgehammer but are there, lying underneath the surface of the story, help make Gargoyles special. It is never stated, for example, that Hudson is Broadway's father, but there's enough of a resemblance there (both are rotund) that your reaction when you read it in an interview or on the FAQ sections of Gargoyles websites isn't "Well, that's out of the blue," but "Huh. That makes sense." There are no long monologues about how Elisa is Goliath's anchor to goodness and humanity, but it's there to anyone who's looking, since he loses it every time he feels their connection is in danger. The secret of Xanatos' assistant, Owen Burnett, seems to come out of nowhere when finally revealed, until you watch the relevant episodes again and realize the hints had been there for a long time. You think that the show telegraphs who the heroes and villains are by naming the evil female Gargoyle "Demona," and then you realize that it was a name given to her as a compliment (she "fights like a demon"), while Goliath was named by the humans in the 10th century after the Biblical warrior, who was also a bully and a thug—it's not a compliment. There's a lot of thought that went into each episode and each detail of Gargoyles, and more, the show was subtle enough about it not to call attention to most of it.

It did call attention to it, waving a bright flag and everything, with the literary and mythological references, however, and it is here that the show also exhibits a lot of effort, trying to take what would be the interests of high-schoolers and older people and translate it into what is ultimately a kids' cartoon. From Macbeth (who is equal parts Shakespeare's version and the historical version) to various legends, such as Anansi and Cuchulain, the Irish Wolfhound, to mythological figures such as Odin, to characters from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, such as the Puck and Oberon, Gargoyles took them and then tried fitting them with genuine backstories to advance the growth of the characters, while still dressing them up and giving them powers in such a way that they could conceivably be made into profitable action figures.

And then there was the world-building. Gargoyles frequently employed flashbacks to show that yes, there was a history for their kind a whole millennium before the show even started, notably with the four-part "City of Stone" cutting back and forth between the past and the present to show Demona's history and her actions while Goliath and the clan were asleep. By showing different points of view and utilizing the animation to have the characters "act" (for example, by closing in on Demona's face during a rare moment of compassion, before she had turned fully evil), we the viewers get involved and have to fill in the blanks ourselves. It's a truly rewarding experience, even if it is, on some level, a time commitment that may have been a bit of a chore in the days pre-DVD.

Gargoyles was moderately successful, but after 66 episodes, Weisman had nothing more to do with the show and it was cancelled soon after. I consider the 65th episode, the third part of "Hunter's Moon," the true ending of the series, as it brings the entire story full circle, wraps up a lot of loose ends, and provides a fresh start for many of the characters. Personally, I ignored it the entire time it was on the air, discovering it only in 2006 thanks to a friend from college, and then falling in love with it.

It doesn't succeed 100% in trying to balance out its literary and artistic aspirations with being a revenue-generating show for children, although I'm not sure if it was those aspirations that were alienating (it may have very well been that on the surface, they do not look like heroic characters), but the effort is there and the show should be applauded for that effort. And ironically, it's probably the tightness of the story, the comprehensiveness of the history, and the definition given to each character and the world that would prevent any new treatment of Gargoyles (not that Disney is inclined to do any more, or to sell it).

There is no way to "remake" the show, because the story, with all its twists and turns, is an essential part of it. It's not like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, where multiple interpretations are possible, because such a cartoon is driven by only the characters. There's too much in Gargoyles to start over, and the only way to do it is, really, to continue. They tried it with a comic book series from Slave Labor Graphics, but it just wasn't the same. Since they defined these characters by their voices and their mannerisms, it's difficult to go take those away. Unfortunately, it seems like what we got of Gargoyles is all we're going to get, though I wouldn't mind a direct-to-video movie every now and then.

Gargoyles was a watershed moment in the history of animation, which is more impressive when you consider the fact that it came at the same time as Batman: The Animated Series. It incorporated literary and mythological aspects, while never forgetting that it was a children's cartoon and still strived to deliver fun, action, and an overarching story about goodness. It achieved a cult following, and its fans will still talk about the characters and the developments to this day. It deserves a wider audience, and when people note that cartoons are held to a higher standard today than in the '80s, they should note that among the cartoons that they should thank for raising that particular bar is Greg Weisman's Gargoyles.

Duy Tano is a popular Internet blogger and comic book expert. Check out his 
blog, The Comics Cube!, at www.comicscube.com, which tackles all sorts of different topics for all sorts of different forms of sequential art. Superhero comics, indie comix, komiks, manga, BD—you name it, it's a valid topic for discussion.

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