This was probably the darkest cartoon in Ruby-Spears’ library. Hell, it was probably the darkest on Saturday mornings at the time!
|Ghosts of a fallen civilization.|
Created by comic book writer Steve Gerber, Thundarr the Barbarian combined a liberal dose of sword and sorcery with a good measure of Star Wars. The series was set in the future circa 3994, 2000 years after a runaway planet destroyed the moon and caused massive earthquakes to flood Earth and destroy civilization as we know it (this destruction kicked off in the not-too-far-off year of 1994). The planet was reborn as New Earth, with humanity reduced to a form of savagery with some limited science remaining. A legion of powerful evil wizards had used their magic to conquer various parts of New Earth, often terrorizing the simple people and mutated creatures there.
|Model sheet of Ookla, Thundarr and Ariel.|
The titular Thundarr (Robert Ridgely) was a barbarian in the vein of Conan who travelled across the land by horse, along with his friends Princess Ariel (Nellie Bellflower) and Ookla the Mok (Henry Corden), a beastly humanoid with fangs and yellow eyes. Thundarr was the typical barbarian character, once a slave of the wizard Sabian until Ariel, who was his stepdaughter, freed him. He wielded an energy sword called the Sunsword that was capable of deflecting magical and energy attacks. The sword’s magical nature meant only Thundarr could use it, but their link could be broken. Ariel was a powerful sorceress in her own right; however, her magic became useless when her wrists were bound together. She spent a lot of time in Sabian’s library learning about Earth’s history. Ookla was a character mandated by the network, likely to appeal to the Star Wars crowd based on his similarities to Chewbacca in appearance and the fact he used a crossbow. His name was based on UCLA, coined by Gerber’s friend Martin Pasko when they were passing the campus one day after discussing the character. Thundarr and Ariel both understood Ookla’s growling communication.
|There's still some life left in the old girl.|
Thundarr the Barbarian debuted on ABC on October 4, 1980. The series was written by Pasko, Buzz Dixon, Mark Evanier, Ted Pedersen, Christopher Vane, Roy Thomas, Bill Wray and Jeffrey Scott with music by Dean Elliott. Gerber served as story editor for the first season, with Pasko taking over the second. Initially, Alex Toth was contracted to design the look of the show, but had to bow out of the production after completing the main characters. At the suggestion of Gerber and Evanier, legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby was brought on to design everything else. In fact, ABC was on the fence about buying the show until Ruby-Spears had Kirby do several large presentation pieces that ended up convincing them. That, in turn, led Ruby-Spears to contracting Kirby to become a permanent part of their staff and giving Kirby a new source of income outside of the comics industry that had been constantly mistreating him. The series’ animation was done by XAM! Productions (formed by eX-Ahern-Marshall employees), who snuck their initials onto various backgrounds, and Dong Seo Animation.
|Some of Jack Kirby's work on the series.|
Thundarr scored respectable ratings, earning high enough to justify two seasons. In fact, it could have gotten a third. However, ABC wasn’t a fan of the show and moved it around their schedule. A lot. Therefore, it was no surprise when the network jumped at the opportunity to eliminate it in order to clear up room on the schedule for Laverne & Shirley in the Army. As Garry Marshall had three major hits on the network with Happy Days and its two spin-offs, they were all too happy to free up the time in order to expand upon that success via Saturday morning.
|Evil wizards aplenty.|
Not much merchandise for the series was released during its initial run. Kirby illustrated two weeks’ worth of comic strips for potential syndication, but the project never went forward as one-off gag strips were more favorable in the limited space available. One of the Sunday strips was later printed in The Jack Kirby Collector. Similarly, Ruby-Spears partnered with Gold Key Comics to publish a comic book series. Unfortunately, at that time Gold Key was undergoing a change in ownership and distribution methods, as well as being renamed Whitman. By the time things settled enough to resurrect the Thundarr comic, the show had already been cancelled and Whitman scrapped the idea (according to Evanier, Whitman had several issues ready for publication and just never did anything with them). Golden Books, which shared an ownership with Whitman, did succeed in publishing a coloring book in 1982, and Milton Bradley also released a board game. In 2003, among a wave of nostalgia for older cartoons, Tonyami released action figures of Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla, as well as I-Men figures of Thundarr and Ariel (interestingly as part of their Hanna-Barbera Superstars line).
|Ooklah, Ariel and Thundarr in live-action on NBC.|
Once the series left ABC, it moved on to NBC for a series of reruns beginning in 1983. As part of their Saturday morning preview special for the year, dubbed the 1st Annual Yummy Awards (where faux trophies full of ice cream were given to Saturday morning winners), live-action actors dressed up as the Thundarr characters to receive their award. From 1994-2004, the series aired on Cartoon Network, as well as its sister station, Boomerang, beginning in 2002. In 1986, Worldvision Home Video released the first episode to VHS, as well as a 5-episode collection from season two entitled Escape to the New World. In 2010, Warner Home Video released the first episode as part of the compilation Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s Volume 1, which was then re-released as part of the complete compilation collection in 2018. The complete series was also released in 2010 as part of the Hanna-Barbera Classics Collection.
Thundarr managed to leave a lasting impression on its audience; something that was explored as they got older. A band in New York named themselves Ookla the Mok after the show’s character. Death metal band Morbid Angel’s album, Kingdoms Disdained, was inspired by the series. The episode “One Watson, One Holmes” of the CBS series Elementary referenced the show and it factored a bit into the story. In the short-lived Image comic book series Fairlady by Brian Schirmer, Claudia Balboni and Shari Chankhamma, three characters in the third issue were directly inspired by Thundarr’s main characters.