Editor’s Note: This was one of my favorite cartoons as a young adult. I would watch this show in the break room at work while eating my breakfast before heading to the sales floor. I was amazed by the storytelling and when I gave the call to the CultureMass.com community to gain my fellow writers’ nostalgic cartoon moments, M. Glenn Gore sent in the most loving (and longest) moment that had to be a post on its own. Enjoy! ~ Angel Collins
In 1992, Warner Brothers forever altered the face of children’s television in America when Batman: The Animated Series premiered to overwhelming praise from viewers and critics alike. And while it didn’t single-handedly do away with the disposable and oftentimes saccharine cartoons-by-committee that had long dominated Saturday Morning, it did challenge the notion that a few then-daring concepts long thought to be impossible could, in fact, succeed. It proved that cartoons (in America anyway, where we continue to struggle with this) could not only be more to kids but also to everyone else. They could be more mature, they could be more intelligent, and they could and should tackle subjects more nuanced and provocative than world domination.
Sensing a welcome change in the landscape, Disney, Warner’s chief rival at the time, responded to Batman: TAS with an equally-moody contender of their own. It was called Gargoyles. Brooding yet hopeful, this ambitious and deftly-executed action/drama followed the globetrotting adventures of a band of winged creatures from 10th Century Scotland who were turned to stone by a magic spell only to be reawakened a thousand years later in New York City. Aided by a stalwart as well as ethnically groundbreaking (her mother was Nigerian and her father was Native-American!) female NYPD detective, these mythical protectors set about the arduous task of acclimating themselves to the 21st Century while simultaneously safeguarding the Big Apple – and later the world at large – from dangers both foreign and domestic. No kidding. The titular heroes did battle daily with everything from robots and clones to aliens and gods!
Created by Greg Weisman (Young Justice, Spectacular Spider-Man) and spearheaded by master animation scribe Michael Reaves (Dungeons & Dragons, The Real Ghostbusters) almost as if to prove to anyone who might doubt it that he was still the best game in town, Gargoyles (1994-1996) remains one of the most important cartoons ever to air on American television and the single most inspiring animated series this writer has ever seen. While the thirteen episodes of its debut season were mostly standard after-school fare, Gargoyles’ second season, which contained fifty-two meticulously-plotted episodes, would take American TV animation’s much-beleaguered status quo out behind the proverbial tool shed and put it down like a rabid dog.
At the time, networks rather foolishly believed children would reject a long-form narrative. This is the reason almost all cartoons up until that point consisted primarily of standalone episodes. Whatever perils the cast encountered that day had to be completely resolved by the 22-minute mark. By the time the closing credits rolled, the slate had to be wiped clean and the clock had to go back to zero. Injuries (when there were any) had to be healed and anything lost (including memories) had to be fully restored. Sometimes, it even felt like the things the characters learned in that day’s episode had to be forgotten in order for them to be able to do it again tomorrow. Gargoyles, thankfully, would have no part of that tired tradition.
Featuring a host of prominent and capable female characters both righteous and unjust, heroes who were often imperfect, sympathetic villains who believed in the need for the atrocities they committed, and a brazen acceptance of the grey gulf that dwells between absolute good and absolute evil, Gargoyles tested my youthful views on right and wrong. Characters frequently made poor choices, the mental and, yes, even physical scars of which would stay with them for the remainder of the series. Death was not uncommon, and while redemption was always within reach of those courageous enough to seek it, just as many characters were swallowed up by their own thirst for power or, worse, lost forever to the intoxicating elixir of revenge, never to truly be saved.
There isn’t sufficient space here to properly cover the labyrinthine and Machiavellian machinations of series’ antagonist David Xanatos, the ruthless thousand-year grudge between the Gargoyles and the Hunters who at all times sought their extermination, or the truly, truly heartbreaking story of Demona, which is a series highlight and possibly the greatest story arc the show got to tell, so to attempt doing so would be an injustice. Besides, watching those complex storylines unfold on your own a few episodes at a time is a reward of which I wouldn’t dare rob you.
Perhaps most surprising to me as a teen was how deeply the series drank from the well of Shakespearean literature, Arthurian legend, and world folklore/mythology. Never thinking so little of you as a viewer that it tried to hold your hand throughout the ordeal, the writers essentially said, “Oh! You don’t know who Macbeth is, or Oberon, or Coyote the Trickster? Well, that’s too bad. You better go grab a library book or three and catch up ‘cause we’re not going to wait for you.” And I did. And I loved them for it. I had never known a cartoon to treat me with such respect while also expecting so much of me. It was an honor and a compliment.
I won’t sugarcoat my immense adoration of Michael Reaves. He once said that if you grew up watching cartoons in the ‘80s, he probably had more to do with raising you than your parents. He was right. He’s still right. My moral compass was fixed, set in stone by his writing. I re-watched the 2nd Season of Gargoyles recently (they’re finally all available on DVD) and couldn’t believe how well the stories held up, to say nothing of how significant they remained. If anything, they are more important now than they were twenty years ago. In a world where a cynical Superman solves his problems by snapping an enemy’s neck instead of finding a way to outsmart him, and in a time when too many “heroes” are just pale shadows of Watchmen’s Rorschach and The X-Men’s Wolverine, it was legitimately moving to be reminded that saving a villain from themselves is a far greater act of valor than pummeling them into submission, and that there is a fundamental difference between justice and vengeance.
Gargoyles, while occasionally melodramatic, was never cloying. It was only ever sincere, which is something I think we’ve lost and desperately need to rediscover in the stories we read, watch, and tell. The show believed that goodness lives in everyone, and making the effort to search for that goodness is beneath none of us.