Lessons Learned from "ThunderCats: The Return"

Jeremiah Massengale

2011 saw the reboot of the classic show, ThunderCats, on Cartoon Network. But an earlier ThunderCats reboot, in comics, holds lessons for uncovering good from bad reimaginings.

While the Cartoon Network ThunderCats reboot fared well, many people fail to remember that the beloved ThunderCats originally returned in a daring wave of comicbooks in 2003 under the Wildstorm imprint. The most noteworthy of these miniseries was surely the not-so-cleverly titled ThunderCats: The Return.

Picking up where the debut miniseries Reclaiming Thundera left off, The Return sees Lion-O emerge from the mystical world of the Book of Omens after years of training to claim his rightful place as Lord of the ThunderCats. Thwarted by circumstance, he finds his planet of Thundera enslaved by the evil Mumm-Ra. Most of the iconic ThunderCats are scattered, held prisoner, enchained, or otherwise in need of rescuing.

And, undoubtedly, many of those who remember that five issues of The Return recall it only in disgust. The plot and the themes were dark. Much darker than the original television series. I cannot escape remembering. Shockingly one heroic feline’s dead body was left on grim display with a nearby warning from Mumm-Ra, written in blood. The miniseries also gave fans a completely grown-up WilyKat and WilyKit (odd enough by itself). And then filled pages of the two siblings being unnecessarily scantily clad while working as Mumm-Ra’s slaves. The language was much coarser and hinted at some bizarre forms of abuse. Was this ThunderCats fanfic at its worst?

However, with sight beyond sight, I see things a little bit differently.

The miniseries was worthwhile for longtime fans of the original series. In mainstream comic book industry, not unlike the film and television industries, there are certainly plenty of reboots, sequels, prequels, and various other reimaginings. However, there are three things any reboots or sequels can learn from ThunderCats: The Return.

Take risks. While The Return made some missteps in its attempt to be more adult, but it made readers feel something. Good or bad, it forced a strong reaction. Mature themes abounded. There were plenty of plot twists, unexpected moments of dialogue, and even an updated, more modern costume for Lion-O. Additionally, the villainous mutants like Slythe were bigger, stronger, and more of a legitimate force to be reckoned with.

Popculture scholar John Cawelti argued that in popular culture there are conventions and inventions. To oversimplify, conventions are elements that the audience expects, while inventions are fresh, original ideas. The Return had enough inventions, audacious or otherwise, to keep things from feeling bland. It wasn’t simply a recycling of an old TV episode you’d already seen with printed panels replacing animated cels. I’ll take unsafe over predictable storytelling any day. Without major continuity changes or growth, stories can often feel stale. (This was one of the reasons Image Comics was founded by frustrated artists like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee; remember?). If you recall, in the first episode of the TV series, a young Lion-O, not liking behind told what to do says, “I don’t want to be safe. Safe is boring!” My thoughts exactly.

Know who your audience is. Was the audience for The Return seven-year-olds or twenty-seven-year-olds? Even at a glance, the answer is obvious. Apparently in 2003, several parents who had grown up watching ThunderCats, bought their small children issues of The Return only to be rightfully shocked by the contents therein. Perhaps the comic industry will always fight the misconception that comicbooks are mostly for children. However, writer Ford Lytle Gilmore and artist Ed Benes, knew that more mature fans could welcome these more mature themes.

Older fans like me, while a little frustrated at some needless panels, were glad to see that our ThunderCats had grown up. Not grown up in the sense that they were worried about paying their mortgage, but in the sense that the stories were weightier. For example, Lion-O deals with blame and responsibility as he faces the fact that several of his friends have given up on him. Cheetara expresses disgust, distrust, and disappointment in a leader that unknowingly left her oppressed. Panthro lectures about persevering in difficult times and never giving up hope. The problems in the miniseries were more difficult than a cartoon show, and thereby more resembled the world we live in.

Don’t abandon everything. Indeed, things were quite different in these five issues. The ThunderCats team had never appeared so strong or so weak. One ThunderCat betrays the others. Mumm-Ra is so powerful and so evil that the ancient spirits of evil now serve him instead of the other way around. And as like I mentioned earlier, the ThunderKittens were now adults.

Yet, Lion-O still holds the Sword of Omens aloft and says, “ThunderCats Ho!” WilyKat still travels by hover-board and Snarf still strolls that fine line between nurturing and annoying. In spite of everything that changed in The Return, the ideals that have always made up the Code of Thundera, truth, honor, loyalty, and justice, remain in tact. At its heart, The Return is ultimately about good winning over evil and Lion-O’s remarkable ability to rise above doubt and tragedy along the way. If you’re reinventing a mythology, that’s fine. But maybe, whether you’re dealing with the Lord of the ThunderCats or not, the timeless meaning that made the original worthwhile should remain timeless.

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