Last time, we scratched the surface of an ill-advised attempt to make the ThunderCats franchise darker and edgier. The sexism, gore, and terrible storytelling of the first two issues pales in comparison with the final half of the miniseries. As always, I must share my pain, so let’s explore issues 3-5 of ThunderCats: The Return.
The Nadir of the Series
The good news is that it doesn’t get any worse than issue #3. The bad news is that the issue opens up with a scantily-clad Wilykit bathing a naked Mumm-Ra.
Do I need to repeat that? I think I need to repeat that.
The issue opens up with a scantily-clad Wilykit bathing a naked Mumm-Ra.
See, the cheesecake, even the overtones of hebephilia, I can understand. There really are people out there who just want to spend their time ogling anthropomorphic cat boobs. But who on Earth wants to see Mumm-Ra bathing, and how do those demographics cross over?
And 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.
Speaking of 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 Cheetara? 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. Despite this horrible situation, the art serves as fan service, emphasizing Cheetara’s figure and enlarging her breasts.
So this comic took a character who had probably been repeatedly gang raped and presented that situation as something designed to give the reader an erection. This story has exactly two female characters. They’ve both been sexually assaulted and the trauma of those crimes is depicted as sexy.
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. All it serves to do is make sure that Cheetara is entirely defined by the way men see her. Rather than standing on her own as a character, she’s either the object of lust (to the mutants), the girlfriend (to Panthro), or the bitch (to Lion-O).
We go back to Mumm-Ra, hasn’t done anything besides laugh and exposit for three issues now. 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.”
The Padding Issue
Many, many modern comics have the problem of being too obviously written for a trade. Even good comics sometimes have an issue where the plot doesn’t really move forward because a tale that would be best told in four parts needs to be five. In a poorly-executed comic like ThunderCats: The Return, the problem becomes more pronounced.
In issue #4, it’s time for padding. As bad as the comic’s opening three issues were, they at least progressed the plot in some way, getting the original ThunderCats (minus the kittens) back together. But now the team is assembled and the big fight with Mumm-Ra has to wait until next issue. So it’s time for this story, such as it is, to tread water for a while.
This includes a lot of stuff that we’ve seen before. Wilykit finds her voice and talks back to Mumm-Ra and gets zapped for her troubles. The resulting convulsions give the reader an improbable profile shot of her breasts while simultaneously 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 rehashes her scene of being mad at Lion-O for not showing up and saving the day sooner. When Lion-O counters by pointing out that he couldn’t have left the Book of Omens without somebody on the outside finding the key, she slaps him again. Panthro pulls her away, and the story continues its job of showing Cheetara as incapable of doing anything useful unless directed by a man.
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. Because we definitely can’t have that poor woman accomplish anything meaningful in this story.
The issue ends with Mumm-Ra apparently killing Wilykat (but not really, as we’ll see below). Then the ThunderCats go 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, it’s hard to believe that this cliffhanger is going to mean anything other than more dead mutants at the start of the next issue.
A Story that Accomplishes Nothing
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 that happens is that Mumm-Ra frees Wilykit for some reason. Maybe that’s supposed to suggest that Mumm-Ra has some actual feelings for Wilykit, but that only makes his treatment of her more disturbing.
The ThunderCats 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.
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 this whole miniseries and any future follow-ups 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’s an idiot.
This whole series plays out with all the formulaic boredom of the worst episodes of the 1980s series, but adds a bunch of gore and sexual assault to make things even worse.
The Impact of Bad Storytelling
Let’s not pretend that the original ThunderCats was an example of great storytelling. It had plot holes, weak characterization, and an incompetent villain. 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. Not only are they criminally misused as characters, but they’re the victims of the most explicit violence in the series.
It’s not like the some of the elements of this series couldn’t have formed the basis of a better story. As I mentioned before, the 2011 ThunderCats reboot had a dangerous Mumm-Ra who overthrew Thundera, but the story took the time to show the action and build characters.
That reboot even had Cheetara as part of a love triangle, but it still had her contribute meaningfully to the story. She did things independently of the men in the group, and her actions moved the tale forward. She was as three-dimensional a character as anybody else in the series and didn’t need to be gang-raped to make her a meaningful character.
I’m not saying that ThunderCats Roar! will be a good series, and I admit that the art style doesn’t do it for me. However, don’t make the mistake many fans make and think that ThunderCats needed to become dark and gritty. The franchise needs good storytelling, no matter what the tone. Adding “mature” content just for the sake of making something edge leads to terrible products like ThunderCats: The Return.