Kirby's Thundarr Villains

By | Thursday, April 25, 2024 2 comments
Today we’re taking a look at the villains from the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon. The show was conceived by Joe Ruby in anticipation of the still-a-year-out Conan movie. Once the show was approved, Alex Toth was asked to design the main characters of Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla while David High designed the world and their environment. Steve Gerber was hired as one of the lead writers. When Toth was unable to continue work on the series, Jack Kirby was brought in to design most of the villains.

Designing characters for animation is a little different than designing them for comics. Jack only needed to draw these characters a few times before passing them off to animators who would create the actual drawings used for the show. But he needed to keep in mind some level of simplicity so that animators could draw them quickly enough to be used in a Saturday morning cartoon. Interestingly, Jack’s ability to create this incidental iconography for his comic characters which I’ve based this column around proved to be equally useful in animation.

The closing credits of the show cite Alex Toth, Jack Kirby and Jerry Eisenberg as the character designers. Eisenberg was the show’s producer, and had also worked as a layout artist and character designer in animation since the early 1960s. We know Toth did the three protagonists, so we’re forced to guess who the remaining characters were designed by. In watching the show, however, it becomes quite clear where Jack’s fingerprints are.

The first season’s episodes generally followed a similar story progression. The three heroes would stumble across a group of humans being tormented by a band of mutants/savages. Thundarr and his companions would save the humans, who would thank him and tell of the evil wizard who commanded their attackers. Thundarr would take the fight to the wizard, battle through some more mutants/savages and finally defeat the wizard himself. He’d then return to the humans and be given a warm welcome.

What’s striking here is how often there’s a huge difference between the design styles of the wizards and those of their henchmen. The wizards generally have a very Kirbyesque look about them -- they’re dynamic and powerful looking and, not infrequently, have some unusual design elements embedded in their wardrobe. The front of Gemini’s tunic, for example, has a wavy line that is almost unmistakeably Kirby. The henchmen, by contrast, are comparatively bland designs and could’ve been dropped into almost any episode of Scooby-Doo or Jonny Quest without upset.

The curious exception to the forgettable henchmen in the first season are the monks from “Raiders of the Abyss”. While at first glance, they also appear relatively banal-looking background characters wearing a simple hooded robe, they reveal a decidedly Kirby influence once they remove their hoods. Each character sports a pair of odd black tattoos each in the shape of a squiggle that runs along the sides of their temple. It looks like a fairly standard Kirby flourish, but the episode’s artists seem to have read it as a specific design element and included it on every one of the monk characters, regardless of what angle they were being shown from.

Most of the background human characters, too, seem to wear non-descript outfits. Pants are simply drawn as slacks without folds or seams, and shirts are not decorated in any way. Hairstyles are flat and accouterments are non-existent. Again, they could be folded into nearly any other Saturday morning cartoon without notice.

The wizard characters, by contrast, stand out remarkably from the backgrounds. They all feature unusual adornments: irregular piping along their boots, complex belt buckles, elaborate headgear, etc. The contrast against the rest of the characters from the series is striking and the design elements strongly suggest Kirby’s influence on all of the villains of the series. Again, Gemini is a prime example with his stylized boot and glove cuffs, tunic design and, unforgettably, his rotating headpiece.

It seems as if Kirby’s influence over the show increased as it progressed. Towards the end of the first season, notably in the “Battle of the Barbarians” and “Den of the Sleeping Demon” episodes, additional characters show up with typical Kirby hallmarks. The heroes-in-training Shara and Merlic look like they would fit in quite comfortably on Akropolis, as do all the extras in the tavern where Zolgar is found. That almost indefinable Kirby aesthetic is decidedly more pronounced than in earlier episodes with each character, no matter how insignificant, looking as if he had a wealth of stories behind him already.

The show on the whole takes on a new tone with the second series. While the basic premise remains intact, the show largely retires the repetitive plots from the first season, the expository dialogue is integrated into action scenes and the new characters are far more distinctive.

The first new episode, “Wizard War”, drops Thundarr into the middle of a territorial battle between two sorcerers, both trying to expand their respective power bases. More significantly for this column, the design of the wizard Skullus is essentially a giant disembodied head in a jar on wheels, marking him as the first significant character that wasn’t presented as a humanoid. It’s hard not to look at Skullus and see Kirby’s hand in creating him. The unusual goggles and neck-base are almost uniquely Kirby; Skullus also has a multi-cleft chin not unlike the ones Kirby had given the Skrulls back in Fantastic Four #2.

Furthermore, more interesting and dramatic camera angles are used throughout the story. No longer is everything seen strictly horizontally from eye level, but there are camera tilts and up-shots and generally more dramatic posing of the characters overall. As Kirby isn’t credited with storyboarding, it’s unclear if he had a direct hand in that aspect of the show, but the stories become much more akin to what a reader might find in a Kirby comic.

The credits for the show at this point change as well. Gerber is promoted as the only “Story Editor” and Kirby is given the sole “Character Design” credit. Toth’s name is absent, and Eisenberg is no longer even listed as the producer. It’s worth noting, too, that Kirby, along with other folks who worked on Thundarr such as series writers Mark Evanier and Buzz Dixon, found themselves contributing to Gerber’s Destroyer Duck comic not long after the cartoon ended.

Back to the character designs, though, the second season has some decidedly interesting visuals compared, not only to the first season, but to all Saturday morning cartoons for years on either side of Thundarr’s original airing. In “City of Evil” the ruler of the miniature pyramid city presents himself as a floating face (not a head, mind you, just a face) with heavy shadows that almost seem reversed from what one would expect. Gemini, the only villain to appear in more than one episode, shows up in “Last Train to Doomsday” trying to disrupt a supply shipment. While Gemini’s design had already been established, the people seen on the train all wear complex Kirby-fied outfits, highlighting crowd scenes as groups of individuals instead of a generic mass of people.

Perhaps the most elaborate episode of all, with regards to character design, is the series finale, “Prophecy of Peril.” The story opens in the midst of a battle between the protagonists and an army of green robots -- simple designs, but vaguely reminiscent of Doombots. The wizard Vashtar bursts onto the scene with an outfit that must have frustrated the animators on the show. His arms and legs are both encircled by large bands between which are an irregular series of square and rectangle patterns. Then there are the three women of the titular prophecy. Maya sports an ensemble loosely modeled off an ancient Egyptian priestess and is considerably more intricate than what JoAnna Cameron wore as Isis a few years earlier; Cinda the Barbarian does wear an outfit similar to Shara’s but with much more elaborate gloves, boots, tiara and belt; and Valerie Storm switches from a fashion runway evening dress to a brightly colored tunic that evokes the ancient Greeks.

I feel I should point out, too, that Jack did work on about two weeks worth of newspaper strips for a Thundarr comic that was never ultimately published. There’s very little by way of character design -- really just a tank gunner -- but it’s curious to see his interpretations of the protagonists. Ookla, in particular, looks like almost a different character. But despite the stylistic differences between Toth’s original characters and Kirby’s antagonists, they blended together well, thus only making some of the ancillary characters from season one come across as out of place. (I wrote about that all in more detail here.)

The main villains in Thundarr, while not actually drawn by Jack on the animation cells, still evoke much of his style. Sitting through and watching the episodes, it’s fairly easy to pick out which characters were his and it’s especially entertaining in the second season when he did so many background characters. Characters that most people wouldn’t even bother designing. But I like to envision Jack happily sketching away while Joe Ruby was explaining the basic idea, and then handing over a dozen or so characters before Ruby was even finished.
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kenny c said...

Gemini is my favorite thundarr villain not only for the obvious Kirby influence but the voice actor who I think did fred flintstone at some point.

Yes, Gemini was voiced by Henry Corden. He wasn't the original voice of Fred Flintstone but he voiced the character from 1977-1997.