Welcome to the 25th installment of Nostalgia Snake, a look at 2000s revivals of 1980s properties, revivals now so old they’re also quite nostalgic (hence, the snake of nostalgia eating itself.) This week, we take a look at WildStorm’s third attempt at bringing the ThunderCats into the 2000s, now with a critically acclaimed writer onboard. And if you have any suggestions for the future, let me hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.
Recovering from “The Return”
In the days before Chew, John Layman was doing work for WildStorm (at this time, an imprint of DC Comics, following the studio’s exit from Image), picking up lettering assignments on various titles. This included the first two ThunderCats miniseries, written by Ford Gilmore, a fan with deep affection for the ’80s cartoon and, to be frank, not much of a resumé as a writer. Gilmore’s work on ThunderCats featured a wild shift from straightforward adventures that recycled villains from the show (so straightforward, the heroes rarely felt as if they were in danger, and didn’t seem to exert a lot of willpower or effort to find victory) to a controversial attempt to drag the ThunderCats into the land of the Grim and Gritty.
ThunderCats: The Return, the second WildStorm ThunderCats miniseries, introduced death, torture, implied sexual assault, and betrayal into the previously all-ages friendly reality. The story dramatized a hellish world, created during Lion-O’s five-year stint on an interdimensional sabbatical, that had the evil Mumm-Ra ruling Thundera and keeping the ThunderCats as prisoners and slaves. Amidst the grimdark, the team’s one-time kid sidekick Wilykat even betrayed his fellow ThunderCats, completing the heel turn required of all dark re-imaginings of children’s characters.
The miniseries read as an amateur attempt at imitating Alan Moore’s worst excesses of the 1980s. Darkening up beloved children’s properties was, at one time, at least a novel concept, but what followed the release of titles like Watchmen and Miracleman was an onslaught of uninspired material that made the adventures of once aspirational heroes a miserable slog to experience. (And Alan Moore was reacting against this industry turn since at least 1996, for what it’s worth, returning to the mainstream to create material that he hoped would inject optimism and creativity into a moribund industry.)
ThunderCats: The Return pleased the segment of fandom that wanted the ’80s property to grow up with them, and alienated the fans who wanted classic heroic adventures with the ThunderCats they remembered from their youth. Moving forward didn’t seem to offer any obvious way to go.
Now having earned some reputation as a writer, Layman was hired to script the third miniseries, joined by WildStorm artist Brett Booth, with WildStorm FX returning as colorists. While the opening miniseries had WildStorm wooing “name” artist Ed McGuinness away from the Superman titles, fan-favorite J. Scott Campbell returning to interior pencils for the preview issue, and choice members of their coloring department giving each page special love and care, the staff seemed content for this offering to look and feel as “generic WildStorm” as any other studio job. The ’80s revival fad was entering its second year, and arguably, the bloom was rapidly vanishing from the rose.
The opening issue of August 2003’s ThunderCats: Dogs of War is another jump for the timeline, advancing an additional 15 years after The Return. This means the comics are 20 years past the original cartoon’s continuity, a move that might additionally alienate fans who were showing up for the nostalgia and not much else.
In the years since we last saw these characters, the world of New Thundera (oddly, they’re back to using the “New” prefix, even though it was dropped in the initial miniseries) is now at peace. The once youthful and energetic Lion-O is aging at an advanced rate, thanks to the mystical after-effects of his time inside the Book Of Omens, and is looking to name a new leader for his kingdom. The aging Lion-O seems to be enduring not only the responsibilities of leadership, but also the demands of maintaining this look. Hopefully, the stylists of New Thundera are well-compensated.
Inside the palace, an adult Wilykit serves as guardian for two troublemaking kittens, Wilycub and Wilycat (bizarrely named after Wilykat, who betrayed their clan years earlier). The rest of the familiar ThunderCats don’t seem to have aged a day, a choice by Booth that hinders Layman’s attempts to sell the series’ core concept. One of Booth’s weaknesses in this era is the lack of variety in his characters, with so many of his figures turning up with spindly, awkward bodies and interchangeable faces. The result has some characters aged and nearly unrecognizable, but others as youthful as ever. Snarf does now wear a pair of tiny, adorable reading specs, however.
An adult Wilykat lives far off in the wilderness, allowing his friends to believe he’s dead, while he attempts to make amends for his actions in The Return. Out in the wastelands, Wilykat stumbles across the arrival of the War Dogs, alien canines who serve the ruthless Doberlord, a despot determined to conquer Thundera. Wilykat returns to the palace to warn Lion-O, but is denied entry. Adding insult to injury, Cheetara and Tygra don’t recognize Wilykat and immediately attack.
It’s not as if there haven’t been more gratuitous fight scenes in a comic, but Cheetara’s declaration that Wilykat’s there to assassinate Lion-O (a “traitor, and not above selling out [his] people to the highest bidder”) is odd, given she has no real evidence for this. To be fair, an earlier scene established that she’s having ominous-yet-vague visions of the future, but her reaction here still seems extreme. The scene’s also needlessly confusing, since the ThunderCats should view Wilykat as a turncoat, but Cheetara doesn’t recognize him at this point in the story, so she’s throwing out wild accusations against someone who could be a random tresspasser. Regardless, the fight scene delays Wilykat from delivering his warning, enabling the heavily armed War Dogs to launch their assault during a final-page cliffhanger.
Were Fans Prepared for the Menace of…the Doberlord?
To Layman’s credit, the series isn’t going with the Magic History Eraser button, even though that would likely be the simplest way to deal with the previous miniseries. The tone isn’t overly dark, and there are some moments of humanity that find a middle-ground between the cast’s simple portrayals in the ’80s cartoon and a more contemporary interpretation. The world of this advanced future is only vaguely defined, but there are small bits to humanize the characters, even if it’s a guard admitting to Wilykat that he took the job to make time with Wilykit, unaware he’s talking to her brother at the moment.
There could be an argument made that giving the ThunderCats evil, alien dogs (who serve a commander named “the Doberlord,” no less) to fight is just too dumb to be taken seriously. That gets to the heart of these miniseries, however, and a question that’s yet to be answered – how seriously should they be taken? Most of the ’80s revival comics found the sweet spot of honoring the source material and only “aging up” to the level of a standard Code-approved superhero comic. The WildStorm ThunderCats opened with such bland story material, then swerved so severely in the other direction, that the creators ran the risk of never pleasing either camp. Alien dog invaders might be the perfect compromise, or a severe misstep. As an introductory chapter, there’s at least enough going on to entice readers on to the next issue.