Film Rants: Thundercats, No!
I have got to stop doing Google searches.
As I raved about before, the new Thundercats TV series on Cartoon Network is a thing of beauty. It captures the wild imagination of the original while cutting out the bad dialogue, cheesy moralizing, and poor quality control that made the old series a secret shame from my childhood for so many years. Because the show is awesome but only airs once a week (Friday nights at 8:30 EST – watch it now!), I decided to look and see what else I could find about the franchise’s more modern offerings.
In my searching, I found something called Thundercats: The Return, released a few years ago under DC Comics’ Wildstorm imprint. The choice of product line seemed an odd one, since Wildstorm was one of DC’s “grim and gritty” imprints, but a comic seemed to be a good way to improve the franchise. The original cartoon sucked mostly because of poor quality control and its episodic nature that prevented Mumm-Ra from becoming a threat. A comic book could fix that. And at the very least, it couldn’t be worse than the old series, could it?
Well, yes it could. Apparently, this comic is an attempt to make Thundercats appeal to a more mature audience. Rather than just make the storytelling more intelligent like the Cartoon Network series is doing, the Wildstorm version of “maturity” seems to be ultraviolence, necrophilia, and furry porn. The result makes me want to bleach out my brain.
Oh, but I’m not going to be alone in my suffering. Let’s take a look at this trainwreck together, shall we?
So the comic starts off with my least favorite thing about Thundercats: Snarf. And yeah, he’s just as annoying in print as on TV, because I can’t get that damned voice from the cartoon out of my head every time he punctuates his words with “Snarf!” On the bright side, he seems to have gone batshit crazy and is doing the Gollum thing of talking to himself. Unfortunately, he’s really talking to the Book of Omens, which has apparently been Snarf’s only friend for three years, implying that the world has gone to Hell since the TV show went off the air.
It turns out that Lion-O has been pulled into the Book of Omens to train to be the king of New Thundera. Apparently, the Book of Omens functions like the Room of Space and Time in Dragonball Z, where a person disappears into it for years of training but only one day passes in the real world. But something went wrong, and Mumm-Ra “probably” cast a spell to keep him there for five years instead of just a day. We then get what I consider to be a storytelling no-no: four straight pages of exposition, explaining that Mumm-Ra invaded New Thundera with an army of mutants and destroyed the entire race. Snarf escaped with the Book of Omens, found the key after years of looking, and is now there to bring Lion-O home to save the day. You know what would have been better than telling us all that? Showing us all that! Especially in the short format of comics, it’s a pain in the butt to have the narrative grind to a halt for about 1/5th of the book. The bigger thing on my mind, though, is how Mumm-Ra, an incompetent villain who never used more than a handful of villains at a time, suddenly became smart enough to raise and army and defeat all of the Thundercats.
Ah, whatever – storytelling issues aside, we now have the premise for the story. Mumm-Ra took over, and Lion-O has to free his friends. So let’s get going!
Nope…let’s stop and do nothing for a while longer. The next three issues are spent with Snarf telling Lion-O how powerful Mumm-Ra has become and how nothing can beat him, blah, blah, blah. Again, more telling instead of showing. On the storytelling front, this comic is shaping up to be about as bad as the TV series. The entire first issue passes with absolutely nothing happening. In this 5-issue series, they’ve wasted a full 20% of their storytelling time with a recap. You’d think that maybe you could spend the first issue showing this new improved badass Mumm-Ra and the destruction of Thundera, but no, we’ve got to have it all recounted by fucking Snarf. Oh yeah…there needs to be furry porn, too.
Yeah, that’s Wilykit and Wilykat, the two kid characters from the old show. They’re now Mumm-Ra’s servants. And yeah, it’s been five years, so it makes sense that they’d be young adults now instead of teenagers like in the series, but come on. This is ridiculous. You’re taking two kid characters and sexualizing them for no damned reason. Is that really the audience this comic was trying to reach – the folks who had sexual fantasies about cat-children but who couldn’t get their porn fix without being busted by the feds? And it’s only going to get worse from here.
The odd thing is that in terms of just events, issue #1 of this series is pretty much the exact same as the new TV series that I love so very much: Mumm-Ra leads an army against the Thundercats, destroys Thundera, and forces the survivors into a massive “Us against the world” scenario. The difference is that the TV series actually shows this happening – we see Thundera, we see the kingdom get overthrown, and we even see that Mumm-Ra is too much for Lion-O to take down alone. The comic, by contrast, just gives this all in the form of a long paragraph punctuated by some pictures. Not only is that boring, but it gives everything to the reader right off. The new TV series still has some mysteries to it because we’re not sure what Mumm-Ra is ultimately hoping to accomplish, what other survivors there might be, and more. By showing instead of telling, not only do you engage the reader better, but you can leave some things open to be explored later.
Okay, storytelling lesson is over. Now it’s time for more crappy comic book.
Issue #2 kicks off with Snarf talking to the Book of Omens about how bad things are (again) and also drives home one big problem with not only this series but comics in general: the medium can’t ever just be fun or appealing to kids. You’d think that a Thundercats comic would be targeted toward kids, but then Lion-O finds a bleached white skeleton hanging from a ruined wall with a message from Mumm-Ra written in blood underneath it. So if it wasn’t clear before, we’ve now established that this comic is going to be the grim!dark version of Thundercats.
One of my biggest peeves about comics fans is how they seem so resistant to the idea that their beloved medium could be seen as kids stuff. Yes, comics can be used to tell serious, dark stories. But there’s a time and a place. If you’re going to try to lure me into 1980s nostalgia with Thundercats, I’m expecting to revisit my childhood, not to see the characters from that show brutalized and murdered.
Lion-O is out to save Panthro, who has been a slave in Mumm-Ra’s mines for years. In doing so, he kills one of the mutants by breaking its neck. Again, this comic based on a kids’ franchise? Not for kids! Shortly after that, though, Lion-O busts out the classic, “Thunder…thunder…thunder…Thundercats, ho!” line from the series. And…no. Sorry. It doesn’t work. You can’t just have a character snap a guy’s neck and then use the catch phrase from the kids’ show he originated on. It’s like showing He-Man and Teelah having anal sex and then having He-Man yell, “By the power of Greyskull!” (Okay…that would actually be pretty funny, but my point stands.)
In the ensuing battle, Lion-O, Panthro, and Snarf lead a slave uprising and kill a bunch of people. Yes, even Snarf cuts people with his claws. In the meantime, MummRa is talking to the Ancient Spirits of Evil (his old bosses from the TV series, although I guess the tables have turned now, since he killed one of them and seems to be the guy in control) about how he’s toying with Lion-O. Yeah, even though he became a successful villain, he’s still holding the idiot ball, having deliberately ensured that Snarf would find the key to the Book of Omens and free Lion-O, all so Mumm-Ra could have a challenge again. Meanwhile, he’s being waited on by Wilykit and Wilykat, and while the cheesecake/beefcake portion of the comic seems to be mostly equal opportunity (with adult Wilykat being shirtless with his bodybuilder physique and Panthro running around in just a loincloth), when it comes to a gratuitous ass-shot, it’s Wilykit who gets it. I don’t mind fanservice, but it bugs me that this book is taking characters that their readers know as kids and sexualizing them like this – whether they’re drawn as adults or not, in the back of their minds readers are still seeing them as kids, particularly since they have shown no personality that identifies them as adults yet.
Issue #3 opens up with a scantily-clad Wilykit bathing a naked Mumm-Ra.
Do you need me to repeat that? I think you need to repeat that.
Issue #3 opens up with a scantily-clad Wilykit bathing a naked Mumm-Ra.
See, the cheesecake, even the overtones of hebephilia, I can understand. In this sad world of ours, there are people who really do just want to ogle anthropomorphic cat boobs. But who on Earth wants to see Mumm-Ra bathing? Is this comic supposed to appeal to necrophiliacs as well? Why does Mumm-Ra even bathe? He’s a decaying corpse! What’s even more baffling is that after his bath, he has Wilykit and Wilykat to dress him in bandages again. So this guy has conquered an entire planet, but spends his time dallying with a teenage girl and getting dressed in moldy bandages. Jeez.
Speaking of sexual depravity, it’s time to meet Cheetara in this story. Before this comic book turned Wilykit into a sex object, Cheetara was what passed as Ms. Fanservice in the old TV series. So obviously, she’s going to be highly sexualized here. Unfortunately, the writer uses her introduction in this series to introduce rape into the Thundercats franchise.
“She’s not as friendly as she used to be,” says Mumm-Ra. “But, then, after what those slovenly mutants have been doing to her, I guess it’s understandable.”
What have those mutants been doing to her? Well, it’s heavily implied that she’s been repeatedly raped for the past three years. She’s chained to a pillar, her clothing torn, mutants making sexual advances on her.
Gee…I wonder why women don’t read comics. Could it be stuff like this, where there are precisely two female characters and they have both been sexually assaulted? Naaa…let’s just ogle the picture of cat-boobs.
To be clear, there’s no actual mention that Wilykit or Cheetara have been raped. But if you have half a brain, you can put the pieces together.
Wilykit has been enslaved by a mummy who apparently desires her enough that he forces her to bathe him and refuses to have anyone else in the room (only calling for Wilykat after he’s done). She’s also dressed like a harem slave.
Cheetara is chained to a pillar and fending off the sexual advantages of mutants (because apparently lizardmen and vulture-people like…um, pussy pussy). She’s also been prisoner for three years, meaning that this isn’t the first time and there isn’t much of a chance that she’s been able to resist them all this time.
What cracks me up is when people call this stuff “realistic,” or, even worse, “comics for grown-ups.” The term “realism” applied to a comic book about talking cats is ridiculous, and the idea that it’s “kid’s stuff” if it doesn’t have rape and murder is mind-bogglingly stupid.
Going back to the story, Lion-O, Panthro, and Snarf rescue Tygra and then save Cheetara, who immediately kisses Panthro and slaps Lion-O. As to the latter, she blames Lion-O for this mess…not logical, but the girl has been through some serious issues and is probably messed up in the head. As to the former, she and Panthro are an item now. The reason for their relationship is never given, it is never brought up again as significant to the plot, and it does not change the story or add to the characters in any other way. Why is it even mentioned? I don’t want to throw out the sexism card, but I think I’ve got to in this case. The only female characters here are extremely sexualized, abused, and are apparently emotionally dependent on men – Wilykit being an unquestioning slave to Mumm-Ra, and Cheetara’s entire existence in this comic defined by her relationship to men. She doesn’t get to stand on her own as an independent character; she is either the object of lust (to the mutants), the girlfriend (to Panthro), or the bitch (to Lion-O).
Again, I have to compare this to the much better new series. In that show, there is a budding love triangle between Cheetara, Lion-O, and Tygra. However, the relationship is so far pretty subtle, Cheetara has been able to do stuff on her own without being defined by men, and the whole thing is being used as a way of developing the characters. Lion-O needs Cheetara’s support because he wants validation that he’s being a good king, Tygra feels that Lion-O is undeserving of what he has been given, including Cheetara, and Cheetara herself might not be interested in either of them beyond close friendship. But no, that TV show is kids’ stuff, while this grim, dark, grim, gritty, and grim bullshit is for adults. Maybe if the cartoon had Cheetara running hot and cold all the time and being useless when men aren’t around, it might be worth the grown-ups’ time.
Anyway, we go back to Mumm-Ra, who is now three issues in and hasn’t done anything besides laugh maniacally. Mumm-Ra tells Wilykat that if he betrays the Thundercats, he and his sister will be set free. Wilykat agrees, and it looks for a moment like Mumm-Ra actually has a plan. Too bad that plan is, “let the heroes show up in my lair and kick my ass.”
So as we head into part 4 of 5 in this pathetic ho-down, Wilykat prepares to betray his friends while Wilykit challenges Mumm-Ra over his actions. Her rebellion is short-lived, since Mumm-Ra zaps her with lightning and sends her into convulsions that give the reader an improbable profile shot of her breasts while simultaneouslyat the same time spreading her legs and giving the audience a look at her tiny slave-thong. And once Wilykit gets zapped, she goes back to being mute and pathetic, turning the whole scene into the equivalent of Mumm-Ra giving Wilykit a magical pimp-slap.
Meanwhile, Cheetara is still being a bitch to Lion-O, blaming him for not coming out of the book and saving the day. Lion-O actually asks a valid question which we never get a satisfactory answer to: why didn’t anybody get the key and bring Lion-O out when he hadn’t returned? Cheetara doesn’t like this “logic” thing messing with her puny female brain and slaps Lion-O, ultimately getting pulled away by Panthro, which immediately ends her outrage.
Wilykat shows up and tells the Thundercats where Mumm-Ra’s lair is, while Mumm-Ra prepares an ambush of mutants to take out the Thundercats. And when the Thundercats show up and Wilykat asks for freedom for him and his sister, Mumm-Ra laughs and says that he lied. Shock and horror! The villain who lies with every breath told a falsehood to gain an advantage! Whatever shall we do?!
Oh yeah…Wilykit has now gone into full Slavegirl Leia mode and is on a chain held by Mumm-Ra. Cheetara tries to free her, but Mumm-Ra says, “Stand down, woman,” and zaps her. In case it isn’t obvious yet, Cheetara is useless in this book. She is apparently only here for spank material by folks who like furry rape fantasies.
Mumm-Ra actually does something useful in seeming to kill Wilykit, and then we gear up for the final confrontation, with the Thundercats going up against Mumm-Ra only to fall into a mutant ambush. However, considering that the Thundercats have spent the last few issues killing mutants left and right, I don’t see how this is going to pose much of a threat to them.
The good thing about issue #5 is that it’s easy to summarize: there’s a big fight, and the Thundercats win. The only really notable thing is that Mumm-Ra frees Wilykit for some reason, possibly suggesting that he has feelings for her…and that just adds to the creepiness factor. The cats beat up the mutants, then Mumm-Ra does his “Ancient Spirits of Evil” thing and transforms into his ever-living form. Again, they add in the once-an-episode incantation from the TV series, but with everything else that has occurred so far, it’s really out of place. You can’t have blood, gore, sex, and children’s nostalgia. It just doesn’t work.
Anyway, remember how Snarf went on for multiple pages about how unbeatable Mumm-Ra is? It turns out that he’s not so unbeatable when Panthro joins the fight, allowing Lion-O to defeat him and turn him into a pile of ash. And that’s it. Cheetara magically forgives Lion-O, and the Thundercats walk away.
Then Mumm-Ra reappears, saying that he’s happy to have a challenge again. And he shows that Wilykat isn’t really dead, but is instead going to be part of Mumm-Ra’s next plot. The comic ends with a cheesy “The End?” narration box, but the truth is that future comics just don’t matter. As in the TV series, Mumm-Ra is a worthless, stupid villain. It’s even worse here, since at the start of the series he actually had achieved victory, only to deliberately throw it away because he got bored. So no matter what happens down the line, he’s going to screw things up for himself in the end because he just can’t accept victory.
To borrow the catch phrase from Atop the Fourth Wall, these comics suck!!!
Let’s not pretend that they’re messing up something classic, because the old Thundercats series was pretty bad. It had plot holes, weak characterization, and an incompetent villain. This comic has all of that, too. But one thing the old series did have was imagination. Part of the reason for its popularity was its blend of fantasy and sci-fi elements, dealing with myth and magic as easily as robots and ray guns. These comics strip that imagination away, boiling the story down to one big slog that builds up to what anybody reading the issues has already seen a million times before: a Lion-O/Mumm-Ra fight. Moreover, the storytelling is weak, with no depth to the characters and a very bad case of telling, not showing.
Worst of all, in a misguided attempt to make the franchise something “adults” could appreciate, we get a lot of gore and sexual situations that are just creepy. If furry porn is your thing, that’s your business, but I draw the line when it starts going into necrophilia and rape fantasies. The book is downright misogynistic, with the two female characters being completely useless to the plot except to provide cheesecake to the readers. They’re basically made to be useless without a man around (Cheetara’s only contribution is arm candy to Panthro and a token bit of bitchiness toward Lion-O, while Wilykit is just an object for Mumm-Ra and Wilykat to fight over) and are the victims of the most explicit violence in the series.
The only good thing about this series is that a compare and contrast shows how good the new animated series. It succeeds in every way the comic failed by actually treating the audience like they are intelligent human beings. Rather than try to stake a claim as “mature” by using gore and sex, it introduces complex moral situations and keeps the explicit stuff to a minimum, enabling it to be enjoyed by kids and adults.
Most importantly, the animated series doesn’t have this mad-on against women that Thundercats: The Return does. I’m not saying that the creative team hates women, but they certainly lack any sort of imagination and would have done better just to leave the female characters out of this entirely. People in the comics industry lament time and again that there aren’t many women reading comics. You know why women avoid comics? Because shit like this series gives the whole medium a bad reputation. When you can’t think of anything to do with your female characters but rape them, it’s time to get out of comics and go write snuff films instead.