Welcome to the 11th installment of Nostalgia Snake, a look at 2000s revivals of 1980s properties, now so old they're also quite nostalgic. (Hence the snake of nostalgia eating itself.) This week, WildStorm's second attempt at a ThunderCats miniseries… the one that caused some fans to declare their childhood had been ruined. And if you have any suggestions for the future, let me hear them. Just contact me on Twitter.
Whatever you wish to say about WildStorm's 2002 introductory ThunderCats miniseries, Reclaiming Thundera, it certainly wasn't controversial. Writer Ford Lytle Gilmore was a dedicated fan of the property, setting the story within the continuity of the original animated series, and artist Ed McGuinness produced a refreshingly modern take on the cast while also remaining loyal to their 1980s roots. Even if some readers were disappointed superstar artist J. Scott Campbell (who produced a brief ThunderCats preview comic and some striking promotional images for WildStorm) didn't draw the actual miniseries, most fans recognized McGuinness' bold melding of manga and Jack Kirby as an exciting take on the characters.
In retrospect, the initial miniseries wasn't nearly as bold when it came to the story. Gilmore presented a series of one-issue battles that had the heroes barely breaking a sweat against the evil Mumm-Ra's cronies. This wasn't a major impediment to fans' enjoyment, nonetheless. Kids of the '80s were buying the comic to see their familiar heroes engaging in familiar situations, presented with the highest production values of the era. In that department, WildStorm delivered.
Why the Thundercats Sequel Was So Dark
The final issue of WildStorm's initial miniseries did hint at a darker direction for the rebooted ThunderCats, however. After several issues of low-stakes battles, saintly leader Lion-O was forced to kill their enemy Grune, an act that was treated as a rite of passage by his ethereal mentor, Jaga. Having declared Lion-O now an adult, Jaga viewed his work as done and dissipated into oblivion. The young hero, mindful of his responsibilities as king, was determined to prove himself worthy of Jaga's trust. The miniseries ended with Lion-O traveling within the mystical Book of Omens for a five-year period of training… and believing that he'd rejoin his teammates after being gone for but a moment.
2003's ThunderCats: The Return follows up that story, with Ford Lytle Gilmore returning as the writer, penciler Ed Benes and inker Rob Lea providing the art, and colors once again coming from WildStorm's in-house coloring department. We also have future Chew creator John Layman returning as the letterer, for those keeping score. The opening pages indicate Benes, a creator best known for mimicking the stylistic excesses of Image's founding fathers, can actually draw a rather charming rendition of the team's pet sidekick, Snarf. The cartoony mascot's dialogue, however, suggests something strange is happening.
Snarf, perhaps now mentally ill, is treating the Book of Omens as his lone friend. His one-sided conversation has Snarf (who's only recently discovered a key Mumm-Ra had buried in the desert) arguing that it's time for Lion-O to be released. Lion-O must return to Thundera to rescue his subjects, and in spite of the Book's (likely imaginary) taunts, Snarf's convinced their king hasn't forgotten him at all. He unlocks the Book of Omens with that key, causing Lion-O to materialize… and debut his new costume.
It's the mildest of the series' redesigns, as we'll soon discover. Snarf reveals to Lion-O that Mumm-Ra's magicks caused Lion-O to remain unaware of the passage of time while inside the Book. In those five years, Mumm-Ra has overwhelmed Thundera with his Mutant army and conquered the colonists summoned by the ThunderCats to repopulate their new planet. Their once-proud headquarters now stands in ruins, and Snarf lives in hiding, half-convinced Mumm-Ra thinks so little of him that he isn't worth chasing down.
The Adult Makeover of the Thundercats Was Way Too Mature for Kids
Where are the heroes we remember from 1980s afternoon syndication? Panthro now works in Mumm-Ra's mines. Cheetara and Tygra are captives in the Mutants' lair. Bengali's bones are left on display in the remnants of the team's headquarters, as a warning to any potential rebels. And the twins WilyKat and WilyKit today serve Mumm-Ra as his personal slaves. And, well, they've adopted a new look.
As many readers have noticed, WilyKat and WilyKit were likely under the age of 13 before this five-year gap, making their appearance here even creepier when you do the math. Not helping this is Gilmore's tendency to cut back to Mumm-Ra when he's being serviced by WilyKit, who's referred to explicitly as his "concubine" in a later issue.
Lion-O sets out to reform the ThunderCats, unaware Mumm-Ra is watching from afar. After killing one of the Monkians guarding the Thundrillium mines, and accepting that many of his fellow Thunderarians will sacrifice their lives to cover Lion-O's escape, Lion-O rescues Panthro.
Cheetara and Tygra are then freed from the Mutants' clutches, yet Cheetara (who we meet chained up by the Mutants in provocative fashion) doesn't hide her antipathy towards Lion-O. He's the one who declared that his training not be interrupted, which prevented the ThunderCats from calling on their leader during Mumm-Ra's initial attack.
The Thundercats Sequel's Big Battle Was Bonkers - Here's Why
As the heroes attempt to rebuild their bond, Mumm-Ra makes his next move — offering WilyKat the twins' freedom if he lures the ThunderCats into Mumm-Ra's trap. The corrupted ThunderCat agrees without much soul searching, leading all of the characters together for a climactic fight sequence.
In the last issue, Mumm-Ra finally transforms into his monstrous form, apparently kills his loyal WilyKat out of spite, and reveals he doesn't really care about any of this, he just wants Lion-O's mystic sword. In order to give the rest of the cast something to do, Mumm-Ra commands the Ancient Spirits of Evil to power up his loser flunkies, the Mutants. The resulting fight isn't any more intense or challenging than anything fans witnessed on the animated series, however. And while Benes does a fine job on the mummified version of Mumm-Ra, his rendition of the villain's hulked-out, monstrous form feels lacking.
Lion-O, who's apparently been humbled throughout all of this and now willing to call on his friends for help, defeats Mumm-Ra with Panthro's aid by punching the villain in his chest emblem. Mumm-Ra disintegrates, for some reason, then reappears the second the ThunderCats leave his lair. He announces his intentions to make Wily-Kat his new general, a final-page tease for the next WildStorm series.
The Thundercats Sequel Has a Controversial and Divisive Legacy
The Return was released during a period of numerous '80s revamp projects, and to some extent, got lost in the shuffle. ThunderCats fans, however, had mixed responses to the miniseries, and over the years it's become rather notorious. Rendering the once-wholesome ThunderCats as implied sex slaves, one of them a character the audience previously only knew as a child, is going to provoke some kind of response from the readers. Ed Benes is the artist who later penciled Justice League, never missing an opportunity to contort the female cast members into Playboy-worthy poses. Social media backlash to comics like Benes' Justice League seems to have pressured the major comics companies into severely de-sexualizing their female heroes. ThunderCats: The Return is lucky it was released during a different era of online fandom.
Is The Return a story strong enough to survive its more off-putting elements? Plainly, no. The quality of the writing isn't nearly sophisticated enough to match the desolate world the story's created. Events such as Wily-Kat betraying his family, or the revelation of Snarf's perilous mental state, are rushed through with no real dramatic weight, leaving the reader with no connection to all of this alleged tragedy. Large portions of the miniseries read as a juvenile attempt at cramming the ThunderCats into a Miracleman-era Alan Moore plot.
Critics have grown increasingly hostile toward Moore's use of sexual violence in his work, yet his output is of course still viewed as significant and worthy of study. The Return is worthy of review, if only for how it represents the era of its conception. In the days of Wizard magazine and early online fandom, creators wanted to imitate the more daring aspects of Moore's work (as he remained the most acclaimed writer in comics), and were far freer to do so in non-Comics Code Approved imprints like Wildstorm. They did this, however, without Moore's careful characterizations or ability to truly sell a scene.
Perhaps the 1980s Alan Moore would've done some of these twisted things to the ThunderCats, and fans would've had a right to feel uneasy…but at least he would've made an effort to craft a real story around the bleakness. Moore himself has stated he regrets inserting such adult themes into children's properties, but his qualms over that earlier work did little to slow projects like The Return. It has the shock value, but not too much else to offer.
KEEP READING: ThunderCats: How the Cartoon's Heroes Roared Into the DC Universe
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