To understand the complex and subtle world of Thundarr the Barbarian, you must understand the interaction of two great and opposing cosmic collectives: “The Lords of Light” and “Demon Dogs.” This will be important later, but for now, just scribble it down in your “Vital-Facts” notebook you were all issued when you consented to read this review. If you were not able to get one, any bar napkin will do.
Thundarr the Barbarian was, as any geek would know, a two-season long animated show, that appeared back in those heady days when Ronald Reagan was just elected, and we all assumed some kind of armageddon was nigh. Maybe not “right on top of us” nigh, but pretty darn close. Keeping with that theme, the show is a bleak view of a future post-apocalyptic world, tossed with mega-science and sorcery, and stuff that looks like sorcery, but is just more mega-science. Except for the sorcery stuff. And the Science stuff, too.
The show itself has some great heritage points to its credit. It was created by Steve Gerber, who also created Howard the Duck. That’s Howard the Duck, the original comic book: The first volume, back in 1976. I mean that particular volume, which was good because Marvel Comics let Steve Gerber do whatever he wanted, and not Volume 2, which sucked. Any alleged movies will not even be discussed here. The point is, Thundarr was created by an odd-ball genius, and also enjoyed fantastic character designs by none other than comic book great, Jack Kirby. For Saturday morning cartoon in the 80s, it was still pretty fun.
If you’re not a slavish devotee, let me break down the concept for you. In the year 1994, a rogue planet zooms through space, passing between the Earth and our Moon. Not only does it break the moon with the force of its passing, it grabs Earth’s atmosphere too. Things get so bad with natural disasters, the landscape starts to look like the cover to Dianetics. Then take a second, the credits tell us, because in 2,000 years, life on Earth is reborn into all sorts of bizarre life-forms. most of whom look like people (It’s also notable, Science Fans, that the bisected moon still holds its basic shape). The atmosphere is back too, and although 3994 is crawling with beasts, sorcerers, monsters, barbarians and such, there are heroes like Thundarr, along with his companions Princess Ariel, the whiny sorceress, and Ookla, the Mok, who's kind of a combination of the faithful animal side-kick and the presumed “ethnic” character.
A product... or a by-product of its time, Thundarr owes some allegiances to the Star Wars movies, what with Thundarr’s “Sun Sword” of mysterious light-energy, or his bestial pal who one day dreams of being a Wookie. It would certainly help his vocabulary. To be fair to Thundarr, though, most Science Fiction back then was trying to be like Star Wars. It was a thing.
One of the nice, if utterly unrealistic touches is how the episodes are set in famous cities where, despite the aforementioned 2,000 years of neglect, entropy, rust, and the downfall of our civilization, everything is still recognizable for where they are supposed to be. To wit: San Francisco’s Chinatown, where the “Battle of the Barbarians” is set, is still recognizable as San Francisco’s Chinatown. Drawn without great visual referencing, but still basically San Fran. You know... Dragon Gates, wrecked Cable Cars, and stuff. Other episodes featured locations in the U.S., London, England, and Central America.
In this particular episode, the evil wizard Kublai (who dresses like a Mongol and rides a flying boat) is tearing through post-doom San Fran, looking for the “Golden Scepter of the Yantzee.” This is the only item that can threaten his power and he’ll spare nothing to find it. Once he has it safe, no one will stop him, etc., etc. He also wields a beam from his helmet that can disintegrate whole buildings, so I’m not sure why Kublai needs all the robot help. When Thundarr as his companions hear “sounds of destruction and humans in danger!” they come to the rescue of the poor, ragged people that always form the supporting cast of townspeople du jour. They drive off the evil Wizard, who then hires another barbarian, Zogar, to take out Thundarr and his companions. Hence the title “Battle of the Barbarians.” Also, at one point Kublai turns a building into a dragon with his hat. Again – why does he need the robots or even Zogar? Oh right, can’t have a “Battle of the Barbarians” with just one barbarian.
Like many cartoons of the era, Thundarr employs that “no one gets killed” style of violence. This means that bad guys will be knocked down, but only weapons and robots get destroyed. People spend a lot of time throwing themselves at each other. The demons and monsters just sort of disappear or revert to non-magical forms when they are defeated. Robots get smashed or explode. It’s rough on the robots. Parents’ Anti-TV Violence groups didn’t care about robots.
Though not a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, it certainly employs those styles of exposition, written large and set to loud sound-effects and a caffeinated orchestral score. If you like The Herculoids or the original Space Ghost, you’ll be right in your comfort zone here as well. Oh, and that bit about “Lords of Light!” and “Demon Dogs!” being important later? I lied. It's not all that important. It’s just that they are the only two things Thundarr ever says when he gets excited. They're about as good as "Jinkies!", right?
Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals. He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.