|The opening credits|
In the early Eighties, a post-apocalypse children's TV show debuted on the airwaves: Thundarr the Barbarian. He would fight evil wizards, mutants, and robots for two seasons, with the help of his friends Ariel the sorceress and Ookla the Mok:
Created by Steve Gerber, the show was wildly imaginative and surprisingly dark and atmospheric for Saturday morning TV. Gerber had an eye for talent, and brought in artist Jack Kirby and writer Buzz Dixon to help develop the show.
I interviewed Buzz about his experience working on Thundarr, and he graciously answered my tome of questions. He's as awesome as the show he worked on!
I forget the exact point of origin of Thundarr as a show, but I know Steve and Joe Ruby had discussed a variety of ideas in the aftermath of a failed attempt to do a Marvel based show (and a good thing it failed, too; it was essentially The Avengers only they were all paired up with funny dogs). I know several other writers had a chance to contribute to the show as well, including Mark Evanier and Marty Pasko (who suggested the name Ookla based on his experience with French college students asking where they could get “Ucla” [i.e., UCLA] shirts).
I was told the show was going into active development and that I would be working on it. The first staff meeting for it was announced, and Steve said he knew a couple of artists whom he thought would be good for the show (Doug Wildey and Alex Toth had already done some basic design work for the presentation; this was to be more along the lines of production art).
|Team Thundarr: Ariel, Thundarr, and Ookla|
One by one the rest of the staff drifted in and, because they saw me already talking to John and the older man, they assumed we’d been introduced. The meeting started and I was floored by the incredibly sharp imagination the older man had, taking tossed off ideas from us and turning them around and expanding them into something much bigger and cooler. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew he was brilliant and I was delighted to have him on the team with us.
I went into Steve’s office (he was going to be the story editor on the series) and told him I was really impressed with the older guy but that nobody had ever bothered to introduce us.
“That was Jack Kirby,” he said.
My reaction was something along the lines of “THAT WAS JACK KIRBY?!?!?” Obviously I had heard of him and knew his work, but I had never seen a photo of him before that. Had I known it was him I would have probably been too flabbergasted and tongue-tied to have gotten two coherent syllables out!
So I tell people I was friends with Jack Kirby before I even knew he was Jack Kirby.
|Character design by Jack Kirby. Thundarr on the left for size comparison.|
Q: Thundarr’s one of the craziest animated shows to come out of the Eighties. It has such a distinctive, atmospheric setting. The Cartoon Network described it as Conan the Barbarian meets Planet of the Apes. Were there other points of inspiration behind the show?
Pretty much anything and everything that wasn’t nailed down. There used to be an ultra-cheap black and white tabloid called The World Weekly News. When other tabloids were reporting about the latest romantic shenanigans of movie and pop stars, they were running articles about mutant bat-boys and pits opening to the gates of hell in Siberia. It was wonderful, wacky stuff and we’d buy an issue each week and pass it around the office to spark story ideas.
Obviously there was a huge sci-fi influences. The Time Machine and World Without End were two movies that helped spark ideas, and I’m pretty sure Logan’s Run was an influencer as well. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears had been story editors on the live action Planet Of The Apes TV series and they had a lot of left over ideas they told us to put in shared with us.
Of course, with people like Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber working on the show (as well as writers like Roy Thomas and Mark Evanier and Marty Pasko and others) plus contributions from R-S own art department (in addition to the aforementioned John Dorman we also had the now legendary Jim Woodring, Thom Enriquez (who helped design Ghostbusters and a host of other movies], and a number of artists well known in the animation field working for us) there was no shortage of ideas flowing in.
Let me give you an example of how creativity works: I’d read a book on the Burgess Shale, a sheet of fossil rock found in Canada that contains thousands of fossilized remains of tiny sea life that has been extinct for over half a billion years. Among these was a little critter called the hallucigenia.
|Wizard lair. Looks like the Legion of Doom made it into the future.|
Well, that got me thinking, and I wondered to myself who in Thundarr’s world would want a train on stilts and why? And that backed me into a story where one of the last old steam locomotives was still being operated, and that backed me into a plot point that could get Ariel, Ookla, and Thundarr involved.
So some little bug 505 million years ago spawned a Thundarr episode.
|Hallucigenia: TV show inspiration at its finest.|
Q: Thundarr is a barbarian injected with noble ideals set loose on power mad Wizard Warlords. In that sense, his crew is like a post-apocalyptic A-Team, always standing up for the little guy. Wizards are invariably vainglorious, hungry for power and prestige. There’s one episode where a wizard is committing heinous acts specifically to impress The Council of Wizards, an exclusive club to which he’s applying. Thundarr defeats him and the wizard applicant's proud facade is stripped away and his naked want is revealed. Did you try and introduce a moral lesson with each show? Were the wizards meant to represent a particular flaw of character?
All stories have a moral of some sort; they wouldn’t be stories if they didn’t. Writing a story without a theme or moral is just writing a list of events.
Creators can’t help but to put a theme or moral to their story. It will come out in the way they choose to express themselves. R-S did silly short cartoons as well as action adventure shows, and even there you could see the difference in POV between one writer or artist and another.
Insofar as we were doing the show under the watchful eye of the network, and insofar as the network wanted to make sure our episodes espoused some sort of “pro-social value” (to use the phrasing of the time), we tended to have pretty stark right & wrong / good & evil themes.
|Every hero has to be captured occasionally. It's the law.|
We occasionally touched on that in Thundarr in episodes where we had antagonists who had been turned into mind-controlled slaves or werewolves, but the big villain was always depicted as evil through and through.
Q: What impact did Jack Kirby, creator of Kamandi, have on its direction?
Huge, huge, and even more huge. With an extra helping of huge on the side. As I said, Jack came in and just started peeling off ideas like a big spender peeling hundreds off his bankroll. More than once we’d toss out a throw away idea or gag, he’s take it, turn it around, expand on it, and hand us back something that we ended up building an entire episode on. (“Treasure Of The Moks” was one incident of that happening; he knocked out a few prop and locale sketches for another story that made us realize we had to do an entire episode set among the Moks.)
On occasion we might have to change something that veered too specifically into Kamandi territory, but that was basically like telling Jack, “make ‘em lizard guys instead of lion guys”. Always a specific visual, never a basic idea.
|The only recurring villain in the show: Gemini. |
He could turn his head around and be Mr. Nice Guy.
Q: The series is notable for having fun villains, from fire breathing wizards to egomaniacal, disembodied brains, and were occasionally complimented by incidental monsters such as the awesomely silly Grizzly Snake. Which was your favourite?
Though werewolves are an old idea, I think the story we did about a tribe of them preying on other humans was my favorite example of a specific monster I enjoyed writing. (We set the story in the ruins of the nation’s capital as a nod to a low budget horror movies called The Werewolf Of Washington.)
|Thundarr as primitive, barbaric werewolf. So the same, but hairier.|
Q: The world of Thundarr has always struck me as brimming over with possibilities for adventure, much like Mars in the John Carter books. It’s not as limited as many cartoons of the period were by recurring villains and one static setting. Gerber must have had this in mind when he created the show. Did he also have ideas on where to take the program if it were successful?
We toyed with several ideas that never came to fruition. One was a backdoor pilot in which three young women gain time traveling powers and, after an adventure in Thudarr’s era, go back in time to our era (sorry, can’t remember the episode title right off the top of my head; I’ve written hundreds of scripts and stories and am always thinking ahead to the next one, not the ones I’ve already done). We did an outline for a proposed Thundarr origin movie (the sunsword was a weapon that two galactic civilizations had been fighting over and caused the disaster that destroyed the planet when it fell to Earth; Thundarr eventually acquires it and wields it against all comers).
|Possible spin-off characters debut|
Joe, typically, could not decide which version to go with. I suggested doing all three versions: Thundarr and Ookla would help Ariel overthrow her evil wizard father, and since she had to stay to run the kingdom, Thundarr reluctantly decides to settle down with her.
|Hugs. Thundarr was the Anti-Seinfeld.|
Q: What was in the show’s bible? Did it flesh out the backstory of the characters much? Were there strict rules governing the behaviour or attitude of the main characters?
There was a show bible, but outside of the three characters and the general background of the world, there wasn’t a lot of detail. Doug Wildey, Alex Toth, and of course Jack Kirby did some preliminary art that gave some of the flavor of the show, but past that we were on our own.
|Early promotional image for the show. Very John Carter of Mars.|
The one consistent thing was that each show had to have some element that kids today could recognize from their world. For example, we turned an aircraft carrier into a floating village by somehow peeling the flight deck off the ship and putting it atop a raft made of huge logs.
|Pirate ship of the future: deck of an aircraft carrier, mounted on giant logs.|
Q: From an article by Adam Eisenberg: ‘Once a slave, (Thundarr) destroyed the evil sorcerer Sabian and set himself and his fellow men free. Now, in the mixed up world of the future, he travels in search of the other wicked members of the Seven Citadels, hoping to set the humans they too have enslaved free…’ What are ‘The Seven Citadels’?
I think Steve had some background idea of an over-arching series of villain who would have to be encountered and defeated in order for Thundarr to truly be victorious and save the world, but that was Steve’s comic book background. He was constantly thinking ahead, asking himself how we would pay off long running continuities that he’d like to establish.
The truth was, at that time nobody was interested in doing story arcs, much less multi-part stories in Saturday morning. The cartoons could be pre-empted for sports or local programing, when they went into reruns nobody would show them in the original order (not to mention a episode might be delayed because of production problems and so a latter episode moved up).
So while we probably would have come back to Steve’s idea if either the movie or Thundarr The King had gone forward, in the end it turned out to be just one of several hundred (if not thousands!) of ideas generated for the series and put on a back burner.
Let me give you an example of the difference between comic book and Saturday morning thinking: Joe took Steve Gerber with him to pitch the Avengers + funny dogs show to Fred Silverman.* Steve had written short bios of each superhero (including Captain America, Submariner, Thor, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Vision), so Joe asked him to describe the characters to Silverman.
Steve decided to start with the one he thought was easiest to explain: Captain America. He started by saying Cappy was a super-soldier in WWII but had been frozen and thawed out only recently, so he was in essence a man out of his time.
* Joe loved dogs, but his parents never let him have one as a kid. He and Ken created Scooby-doo, but after they were forced out at Hanna-Barbera, he spent the rest of his career trying to recreate that success by sticking a dog into everything he did (Ookla may have been a mutt in his mind). Once when his parents came to visit the studio, every writer and artist waited until they had a chance to speak to them alone and each of us asked the same question: “Why didn’t you let him have a dog?!?!?”
|UCLA smacks down rat-men. Must be near NYC for rats that big.|
Q: Post-apocalyptic fiction often criticizes, or satirizes, our modern day world. I remember watching Planet of the Apes when I was around seven or eight. It started out slow. Then all of a sudden you have half-naked humans being stampeded like animals, being beaten, whipped and shot by gorillas, who only pause to take trophy photos over the human corpses. It was terrifying stuff. As I grew older, I learned that Rod Serling was using the sci-fi format to comment on racism, Colonialism, and man’s general inhumanity to man. It was a very effective lesson. It didn’t traumatize me, but I can tell you I never forgot it. Nothing could justify treating people like that.
And then you have Saturday Morning Cartoons, which weren’t allowed to show someone hitting another person, or even depict a firearm. Indeed, Gerber had some harsh words for the Saturday morning competition: ‘The villains are all very nice people you’d love to have living next door to you, and the heroes themselves are such pansies that it becomes laughable.’ So combat in kids shows was fraught with peril, not for the combatants but for the writers. George Lucas made the villains in The Clone Wars mostly robots so his anti-droidite Jedi Knights could slice and dice them without worrying about censors. Obviously he took the idea from Thundarr, who similarly only cut limbs off robots. Gerber also had to make sure violence in the show was not ‘emulable’, which led to it being scaled up rather than down. Thundarr could throw boulders, for example, but not trip anyone. Yet Gerber intended Thundarr to be grittier than typical Saturday morning fare. Do you think he succeeded, or did the censors ultimately pull the program’s teeth?
Joe fretted over this since he felt we’d already watered the show down to the point where it was barely exciting. Steve suggested writing a second season opener that would be so violent that even after the network got through with it, we’d have enough left that in all future arguments over violence, we could point to that episode and say, “You let us do that, why not this?”
|Ranting studio executive.|
Since my episodes had been censored the most for violent content, it was decided I would write the season opener, “Wizard War.” I turned in the most action packed script I could devise. Steve Gerber later told people I was the only person he knew who could write a 45-page fight scene and not repeat himself once. Joe turned green when he saw what I had written, said, “We can’t show that to the network or they’ll cancel us!” and pre-censored the script before it went to them.
They still cut out about 2/3 of what remained but what they did allow gave us precedent for the rest of the season and so we were able to finish the show with the same level of action as before.
|Tentacled fortress of Octagon vs...|
ABC-TV kept a copy of my script and used it to test new applicants to their Standards & Practices department: If they couldn’t find at least 50 things wrong with it, they didn’t get the job.
I was used as ABC’s official bad example for the next ten years!
|...the wizard war machine of Skullus, the disembodied head.|
Interstellar Queen, anyone?
Q: I can’t help but note that Ariel would often cast non-violent binding spells around defeated opponents, much the same as Spiderman would wrap his enemies in harmless webbing. Although admittedly Spiderman spent a lot of time clobbering people. Are there a number of common tropes / solutions that writers for children’s shows fall back on to tell their stories without raising censor hackles?
Magic had to be some form of non-supernatural energy that theoretically anybody could use with proper tools and training. No lasting harm on living things (other than vegetation) was permitted. You could harmlessly bind someone, temporarily enslave or transform them, but nothing more than that. Genuine occult symbols and practices were strictly verboten. There were anti-violence censors on one side censoring that, and religious fundamentalists on the other chasing after spooks.
Q: Gerber’s approach to violence seems to occupy a pretty reasonable middle ground: ‘What I would have liked to have seen, however, is a character barbaric enough to be able to defend himself and perhaps even kill when necessary in order to stay alive or to protect his friends from a menace that couldn’t be dealt with any other way. The big thing that we’ve had to overcome is that the censors tend to treat children as if they’re not just morons, but lunatics, potentially dangerous creatures.’
Thundarr necessarily exists in a simplified moral universe. On the other hand, in rewatching Thundarr recently, it was refreshing to root for a hero who had a sense of moral certainty. Someone who wasn’t a narcissistic mobster, Machiavellian bootlegger, amoral drug lord, or constructively directed serial murderer. Has the pendulum swung too far, even when it comes to adult programming?
|Weird space gun battery and tiger men.|
This is actually a question that leads up to GI Joe, which Steve recruited me to work on. Because of the ridiculous restrictions put on Saturday morning TV, we welcomed the chance to do more hands on action in the Transformers and GI Joe series. We weren’t allowed to actually say we killed anyone in GI Joe, but I made sure in every story I worked on as either a writer or story editor that some main character got seriously hurt and that there was a reference to casualties (which Hasbro never realized referred to both deaths and injuries).
Before working on either Thundarr or GI Joe, I had been a big fan of Japanese animation, in particular the various giant robot shows. They never shied away from killing a character if the story deemed it, and their audiences never seemed unduly traumatized for it.
(Now, as a grandparent, I have to say there is a strong argument to be made for non-violent programming as an option for some kids. We have a granddaughter who has nightmares when she sees Power Rangers, so she can only watch funny non-frightening shows like Lazy Town or Barbie’s Dream House (both of which are surprisingly hip and funny even for adults!). But that is an option, not a mandatory default setting for everyone.)
|Converted cruise liner condos.|
Perhaps the single silliest example of network thinking re violence occurred not in Thundarr but a show we were developing that wasn’t picked up: Roxie’s Raiders. It was an Indiana Jones rip off inspired story about a young girl running a traveling circus and the various adventures she encountered.
One of the pieces of pre-production art Jack did for this series showed Roxie tied to a stake in waist deep water while the villain unleashed two giant snakes from a cage. The network said there had to be a big rock between the cage and Roxie that blocked the snakes’ vision of her.
See, if the snakes could see Roxie, then the villain was deliberately trying to kill her. But if he just released the snakes in the water and they had to swim around the rock before seeing her, well, that was okay because it wasn’t like he was intending for them to see and kill her…
|Roxie menaced by a deadly snake inadvertently unleashed by the well-meaning villain,|
who totally didn't know she was there.
Q: Did it strike you as ironic that Thundarr cannot punch anyone in a show that destroys human civilization, killing billions, in the opening credits? Personally I cannot think of a more epic program opening.
“One death is a tragedy, a million is statistics.” -- Josef Stalin
|The end of the world... billions die. It's a children's show.|
Q: Why the choice to have the world destroyed by a passing planet? At the height of The Cold War, was nuclear war considered too controversial?
Anything related to nuclear energy was verboten: The nuclear industry would complain about anything they perceived as a negative reference while the anti-nuke crowd would complain about what they perceived as a pro-nuclear message.
Clearly, in our minds we saw this as a post-nuclear holocaust world even if we could not say so directly. As mentioned, The Time Machine and World Without End and the Planet Of The Apes movies and TV series plus a host of other movies, novels, and comic books had planted the idea of a post-apocalyptic world in the public mind. The fig leaf we offered the network was that it was a natural disaster and not humans playing with thermonuclear toys that did it.
Q: The show usually starts with Team Thundarr encountering humans being oppressed by an evil wizard and his goons. They drive the villains off temporarily, and the humans explain the reasons they’re being tormented. The team then foils the wizard’s evil plans, freeing the humans to pursue life, liberty, and the post-American way. Did you have tightly structured acts set according to the commercial breaks? How many acts did the show typically have? Did you mix it up?
The network had two commercial breaks in the program, so we naturally fell into a three act structure, each act slightly more than seven minutes (There was about 24 minutes of actual show per half hour, but once opening and closing titles were removed, they left just a little more that 22 minutes of actual story.)
Structurally they were a fairly easy set up, and perhaps we were at fault for not being more conscientious about mixing thing up. The plots pretty much followed the formula you suggest: Introduce set-up, introduce heroes, plot twist that looks bad for heroes at the end of act one; more conflict ending with an even bigger plot twist at the end of act two; hopefully clever resolution of last plot twist followed by our guys triumphant.
We didn’t have that many episodes to do and only had to deliver one a week, so the structure didn’t leap out at us as readily as it did with shows like Transformers where we had to crank out 85 episodes per season and deliver them on a daily basis. With those shows it very quickly became readily apparent when you were repeating yourself too much, thus forcing you to do something different.
|Ah, wizard vanity... You just know the license plate reads WIZRD1|
Q: Ariel embodies education and sophistication as Thundarr does strength and black and white thinking. Ookla is emotion. Like Chewbacca, he’s a pet dog in humanoid form. Would that be a fair assessment? (TV Tropes is even more specific in identifying Ariel as SuperEgo, Ookla as Id, and Thundarr as Ego, leaving the egomania for the Wizards.) Do you break down characters in most shows along these lines?
I think we instinctively knew that but didn’t particularly over intellectualize it. Thundarr was very much like Conan insofar as Robert E. Howard once described his creation as too stupid to do anything except cut himself clear in the most direct method possible. Had we done either the Thundarr origin movie or the Thundarr The King series, we would have expanded on Ariel’s frustration with Thundarr’s hands on approach to things.
Q: What exactly IS a Mok? A mutated man, animal, or something other?
Ya got me, kiddo. In my mind (and I think Steve’s), Moks were human / animal hybrids created by some wizard. They’re mostly human (say 60%) and the rest is animal of some sort. I’m pretty sure everybody had a different idea, but so long as they remained big strong hairy folk who growled a lot, it didn’t affect the stories.
Q: The show travels all over North America. I believe it even goes as far south as Central America, with one episode featuring Mayan step pyramids. What location did you have the most fun with? Were there any that you wanted to get to but were unable to before cancelation?
It was decided to keep the series in North America since that was the initial audience area. We discussed going overseas but decided it would involve too much travel time. (Not that we would have shown the travel time, but a trip to Paris -- which we once discussed – would have implied a year long journey on foot or horseback.) Yeah, we could have magiced ourselves or used technology to do it, but that kind of went against the grain of what we were trying to do.
|Meso-American pyramids doubly abandoned.|
I mean, it was a fanciful show, but not that fanciful…
In the end I think it was basically Steve’s reluctance for the characters to travel outside of North America that kept us from using those locations.
Had we done the Thundarr movie, I was going to show football had grown from a sport to a literal religion in Thundarr’s time with a large coliseum turned into a cathedral, referees as priests, and cheerleaders leading cheers with a Gregorian chant cadence (“Rah-rah-sis-boom-bahhhhhh”).
Q: 'Lords of Light' is a catchphrase Thundarr throws around frequently. Was this a reference to Roger Zelazny’s novel “Lord of Light”? In that book, the crew of a spaceship set themselves up as false Gods, until they are eventually overthrown by a rebel named Sam.
Steve came up with that, so I don’t know if he was inspired by Zelazny or not. I tried introducing “By the rancid rubber rectum of Roosevelt!” as an alternative but they rejected that. (You see why I was the most censored writer on the show.)
|Guys with guns that don't look like guns. Because censors.|
Q: One episode happens at the Alamo, which is put under siege. The human inhabitants have access to powerful technology (very unusual for the progam) which they use to fight off the wizard Crom, who wants it back. They stole it from him when they escaped enslavement at his hands. The episode introduces Time Travel, our modern age, a young girl, an escalator trap, a put upon traffic cop, and a monster snake made out of automobiles. The episode crammed a lot into twenty-four minutes. The pace never lets up. How did you set about plotting these adventures? Were the shows ‘broken’ in the writing room by a group, before you wrote the final draft?
That was the busted pilot, if I recall correctly. I think there was some suggestion given to it being a two-parter but Joe nixed it and we boiled it all down to 22 minutes. It was tough shoehorning everything in, and huge hunks of character development and backstory were wacked off and tossed aside.
|The spinoff show trio: Charlie's Post-Apocalypse Angels.|
We didn’t have a room in the sense of a sit-com, where one writer or team is assigned the basic chores of writing the script but everyone is expected to contribute ideas, but we frequently kicked ideas back and forth.
|Our heroes contemplate the stolen property that defends the Alamo.|
Next week: Part II. Buzz Dixon talks about why post-apocalyptic literature is so appealing to young adults, restrictions on TV show merchandising you won't believe, what it's like to work day-to-day on an animated show, and his current projects.
The man is profilic!