On Strips: Thundarr Comic Strip

By | Friday, August 18, 2017 1 comment
The Thundarr cartoon is fondly remembered (by me at least) as one of the Saturday morning highlights of the early 1980s. My interest was no doubt fueled by some amazing talent on the show. Steve Gerber was the lead writer/editor, Alex Toth did the initial character designs, and Jack Kirby was brought on board to throw his amazing imagination at things. Show writer Buzz Dixon has thrown some major kudos Kirby's way in that regard.

Interestingly, despite doing the designs of the three protagonists of the show, Toth is only credited during the first season. He, along with Kirby and producer Jerry Eisenberg, are listed as character designers. In the second season, however, the only character design credit goes to Kirby. This has led to some to assume that Kirby was the primary designer of the show. After all, if Kirby is credited during every episode and Toth is not, it would stand to reason that Toth's contribution were isolated exclusively to the first season, thereby precluding his having been able to create the title character. Credits, though, are subject to office politics and I suspect there was some contractual arguing about how/whether Toth would receive credit well after having left the show whose look he helped define.

But we can use a comic strip to prove that it wasn't Kirby who designed the characters!

You see, Ruby-Spears tried to sell the idea of a newspaper strip based on the series to syndicates. Since they had a lot of comic folks already working on the TV show, it was almost a no-brainer to them! So they had Kirby come up with two weeks worth of sample strips to try to shop around. By 1980, though, the market for adventure strips was pretty well out. Comics were even then given so little space in the newspaper that it was difficult to tell an ongoing serial adventure; gag comics were largely the norm because cartoony characters required less linework and could be reduced in size without appreciably impacting their visual presentation. So despite some amazing artwork by Kirby, everyone decided to pass on a new comic strip based on a Saturday morning cartoon that hadn't aired yet.

What's note-worthy here, though, is that we have Kirby's own interpretations of the characters. Naturally any of his designs would get filtered and simplified somewhat by the studio producing the individual animation cels. But with the comic strip, we get to see Kirby's raw pencils on these heroes. The Jack Kirby Collector has printed some of these in the past; here's the second Sunday strip taken from that magazine...
While Thundarr and Ariel look remarkably like what appeared in the show, Ookla has a fairly different appearance. His body is considerably bulkier and shaggier, bearing a closer resemblance to The Heap than the cartoon's Ookla. His mane is much wilder, and his face has a more terrifying skull- or insect-like appearance.

(Amusing Tangent. Gerber was the one who named the character Ookla. Living in California, he would not infrequently get foreign tourists asking him, as a local, where they could get ookla t-shirts. He was confused at first, but eventually understood they were looking for UCLA t-shirts! They were speaking the school's initials as a single word. He liked the way it sounded and used their mispronunciation as a new character name!)

I've been studying and writing about Kirby's art for years, and one thing I learned a very long time ago is that he often had difficulty drawing characters that weren't of his own design. He could never get Superman's spit curl or S-shield quite right. Spider-Man's webbing always looked wrong when he drew it. I suspect it had more to do his approach to character design and how he rarely focused on details, rather than a strict inability to draw another character. I think that's why so many of Kirby's character designs feature bold, visually striking elements. They were easy to remember and, thus, draw.

Looking at Kirby's strip samples here, it's pretty clear that he never quite "got" Ookla's look. Like he looked at Toth's design for three seconds and said, "Big guy. Mane, sharp teeth. I can do that." The result is a drawing that gets the basic point across, but really doesn't reflect the actual character design very well. And I think helps to prove, if you didn't actually know precisely how Toth was involved, that these aren't Kirby's character designs.

Didn't think you'd be able to get that much out of a failed comic strip, did you?
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M. Place said...

Great insights, thanks.