I don’t know why, but many people really seem to want kids’ entertainment to get re-imagined in a dark and gritty way. That’s one of the main complaints people seem to have about the upcoming ThunderCats reboot, which looks sillier than the original. While adult clamor for a darker version of ThunderCats (often ignoring that the awesome 2011 reboot was more mature and didn’t last more than one season), it’s worth noting that there is danger in going dark just for the sake of getting grim and gritty.
The ThunderCats franchise serves as a good example of why “more mature” often isn’t and why dark and gritty doesn’t necessarily make for better storytelling. See, the early 2000s had a ThunderCats reboot of its own in comic form. The resulting miniseries, ThunderCats: The Return is probably one of the worst comics I’ve ever read.
I don’t like to suffer through bad comics alone. So let’s take a look at this train wreck together, shall we?
The Long Slog of Issue #1
The first issue of this five-part miniseries starts with two big problems. First of all, the first character we see is Snarf, who represents all that is annoying about the ThunderCats franchise. Snarf serves as Mr. Exposition here, which leads to the comic’s second sin: a multi-page infodump intended to bring readers up to speed instead of showing the action that led up to the events of this series.
To quickly sum up Snarf’s three pages of exposition, Lion-O took advantage of Mumm-Ra disappearing for a while so he could enter the Book of Omens and train to be king of New Thundera. Lion-O was only supposed to be in the book for a day, but Mumm-Ra cast a spell to trap him there for about five years instead. Then he ran an army of mutants through New Thundera and slaughtered almost all the ThunderCats. 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.
Now, you know what would have been better than telling us that? Showing us that!
It’s a pain in the butt to have the narrative grind to a halt for about 20% of an issue, especially considering the short form of comics. It’s especially bad when the backstory that gets dropped via exposition is way more interesting than the main story that we’re getting turns out to be.
That’s not even touching upon bigger questions, such as 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. Apparently the plot suddenly demanded that he become competent, which is funny because he proceeds to be nothing but annoying and stupid in this series.
But 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. Once he’s freed from the Book of Omens, Lion-O’s role in this series is mostly listening to Snarf’s warnings about how powerful Mumm-Ra can have. Essentially, the story tries to take a shortcut to making Mumm-Ra a threat by expositing about how dangerous he is without actually providing any evidence to back it up. And when we do finally see what Mumm-Ra is up to, we’re instead treated to furry porn.
Yes, that’s Wilykit and Wilykat, two kids from the old show who now serve as Mumm-Ra’s slaves and have inexplicably turned into fanservice characters for this comic. I know America loves oversexualizing teenagers, but stuff like this seems more disturbing than most. The original Wilykit and Wilykat were basically audience insert characters – kids could put themselves in those characters’ places and pretend they were part of the action. So this is basically taking the audience as children and turning them into sex slaves. And the comic only gets worse from here.
Stupid Gratuitous Violence
It’s worth remembering that ThunderCats was popular with kids. That doesn’t mean an adaptation can’t get violent or have mature themes. It does, however, mean that the core of the show’s appeal was that it was uplifting, fun, and even silly. Unfortunately, many modern comics seem to judge any story that a kid could enjoy to be a failure. That certainly seems to be the case with ThunderCats: The Return.
To drive this blind adherence to grimness and gore home, issue #2 of ThunderCats: The Return has Lion-O return from his sojourn into the Book of Omens to find a bleached white skeleton hanging from a ruined wall with a message from Mumm-Ra written in blood underneath it. Lion-O then finds out that the majority of his people are dead and that his friends have been mostly enslaved. Thus our optimistic, good-hearted protagonist from the TV series proceeds to go on a killing spree.
Lion-O sets out to save Panthro, whom Mumm-Ra enslaved into service in his minds. In doing so, he kills one of the mutants by breaking its neck. You would think doing something so violent and so beyond the level of violence he’s used to might have an impact on Lion-O, but we don’t have time for silly things like emotions and character development in this series.
Surrounded by mutants, 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, Mumm-Ra speaks to the Ancient Spirits of Evil, revealing that he killed one of them and is now in control of their relationship. This leaves me wondering why he’s not Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living all the time. But any speculation gets cut off because we must all now stare at Wilykit’s butt.
I get that comic books draw a significant percentage of their audience through titillation, but there’s no need to be so blatant about it. Not even showing the character’s face is just flat-out admitting that you’re drawing softcore porn. And again, all of this hyper-sexualization is directed at a character who the audience knows best as an underage girl.
Anyway, whatever success Mumm-Ra had in the years prior to this series has apparently left him bored and looking for a challenge. He reveals that he deliberately let Snarf find the key to free Lion-O, essentially admitting that he’s planting the seeds of his own destruction.
Mumm-Ra’s admission here makes this story extra useless. First, the heroes didn’t actually accomplish anything themselves – they only get as far as they do because Mumm-Ra allowed it. Secondly, Mumm-Ra basically admits that he’ll always lose. Even when he wins, he’ll get bored and screw it up. So again, nothing has any stakes and we’re all along because the creators of this comic needed an excuse to age up Wilykit and show us her butt.
What Could Have Been (Actually Was)
I’ll cover the rest of this miniseries next time, but it’s worth noting that the setup for ThunderCats: The Return is very similar to the awesome 2011 series that I love so very much. In both stories, 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 2011 series shows us the action as it happens. It takes the time to establish the characters and their relationships, then tears it all down. It builds Mumm-Ra up as a credible threat instead of somebody who will inevitably ruin his own plans. And it makes the heroes work for their victories. When they accomplish something, they earn it, rather than having it handed to them by an idiot villain.
Despite similar premises, the 2011 series is infinitely better than ThunderCats: The Return because it shows instead of tells, develops its characters well, and has a sense of drama and importance. The only thing that this comic does well is turn child characters into sexual objects, and that’s not something to be proud of.
And we haven’t even hit the worst parts yet.