In the early 90’s, Fox cornered the market when it came to television shows for young demographics, particularly boys in that 7-12 age group. They had hit shows with Batman The Animated Series, X-Men, and Power Rangers and their Saturday morning programming was unrivaled. Batman, in particular, ushered in an era of cartoons where the writers didn’t feel like they had to dumb-down the show to please its audience. The stories were mostly grounded within the fantasy world the show created, while X-Men wasn’t afraid of creating serialized episodes that asked more from its viewers. These weren’t stand-alone episodes with the same throw-away clichés prevalent in most children’s programming. And while the shows were, first and fore-most, children’s shows they didn’t make adults feel like idiots for watching.
Disney, by contrast, had seen its viewership decline. The once popular Disney Afternoon programming was mostly content to keep things the same. Duck Tales and Tailspin were successful early on, and Darkwing Duck was Disney’s own answer to Batman but with a comedic core. If Darkwing Duck was supposed to reel in Batman viewers then Disney missed the point. Putting a cape and mask on a character and having him fight crime isn’t what people tuned into Batman for. Those viewers wanted to see the show take itself seriously, present real threats, and overall just make it a credible show. Disney needed a show that matched Batman’s tone and not his costume, so they turned to comic book writer Greg Weisman and from that relationship came Gargoyles.
Gargoyles could be described as modern fantasy mixed with Greek tragedy. Stylistically, the show is reminiscent of the aforementioned Batman and X-Men with similarities to contemporary cartoon Jim Lee’s Wild C.A.T.S. The color palette is muted with lots of deep violets and blues and plenty of black. The first season has a split setting between modern-day New York and turn of the first millennium Scotland. The gargoyles, lead by the hulking Goliath, are a humanoid, bat-like race that spends the daylight hours encased in stone and owns the night. In 994 Scotland, they’re protectors of a castle inhabited by humans that, for the most part, view the gargoyles in an unfavorable light. When the gargoyle clan finds itself betrayed by those it trusted, most are smashed to death during the day while the few survivors are magically encased within stone until the castle they inhabit rises above the clouds.
The existence of the extraordinary gargoyle race is all but wiped away from history, but one noted wealthy individual by the name of David Xanatos, is well-aware of their past. It is he who purchases the castle along with the gargoyles and moves them to Manhattan where he places it atop a massive skyscraper, thus ending the spell placed upon them. The rest of the first season deals with the gargoyles coming to terms with what happened to them a thousand years ago and finding a way to relate to this new, modern world and find their place in it. Themes of tragedy, isolation, trust, family, and acceptance help frame the show. In this there are many similarities to X-Men as both the gargoyles and mutants find themselves as unwelcomed protectors of humanity. Their isolation, seemingly alone in this world with the exception of their one human ally, Elisa, helps evoke the Batman similarities.
The remaining gargoyles, now known as the Manhattan Clan, are a small group of varying personalities. Goliath is the unquestioned leader. He’s noble, proud and a bit stubborn at times. He’s always learning and isn’t immune to mistakes, but he does everything with purpose and conviction. Hudson is the elder statesman of the clan and its former leader. He prefers to stay on the sidelines and leave the fighting to the younger gargoyles. Brooklyn, Broadway, and Lexington are the younger members of the clan and rookery mates, which is gargoyle speak for siblings. Brooklyn is a curious sort who seems to model himself after Goliath while Lexington is consumed by modern technology. The gluttonous Broadway is sometimes relegated to comic relief though the show mostly avoid slapstick and jokes. Rounding out the clan is the dog-like Bronx who is the only gargoyle incapable of speech and lacking in wings. Detective Elisa Maza is the sole ally of the gargoyles in season one. She’s a strong-willed character who is able to give the gargoyles leads on the goings-on of their enemies while also sometimes acting as almost a mentor to Goliath.
Much like the clan itself, the rogues gallery for the show is kept fairly compact for the first season. It’s dominated by Xanatos, who poses as an ally early on to the clan but is soon revealed as duplicitous and self-serving. His main weapons are cunning and money, but he also possesses some high-tech weaponry including his own cybernetic army of gargoyles. He splits time as the main foe for the clan with Demona, Goliath’s former lover who was complicit in the destruction of their clan a thousand years ago. While her intentions were without malice, her persona is consumed with a bloodlust for humanity as she blames them for their near extinction. She is the Magneto to Goliath’s Charles Xavier. Other villains include the sportsmen MacBeth and the television actors turned criminals The Pack, a group of men and women who fashion their personas after wild canines.
The show opens with a very ambitious five-part mini-series titled “Awakening” (it was also released direct-to-video as Gargoyles: The Movie) that sets up the series. Right from the start, viewers are able to get a sense of the large-scale story-telling the show is aiming for while also being able to take in the peak of the show’s production values. The animation quality is a grade above the usual afternoon cartoon fare, making it possibly the best looking cartoon of the mid 90’s. The score is also exemplary and the voice acting contains notable actors such as Keith David (Goliath, various voices) and Edward Asner (Hudson) as well as numerous vets of various Star Trek programs. Following the five-part debut, the show mostly settles into stand-alone episodes that also call upon happenings in previous ones. Each gargoyle, with the exception of Bronx, is basically given his own episode to star in which helps the viewers get better acquainted with each one individually. It’s similar to the tactic utilized by X-Men in season two and is an effective way to flesh out an ensemble cast. There are thirteen episodes in total for season one, and pretty much all of them are good. Some standouts include “Deadly Force,” which stresses the importance of gun safety without being ham-fisted (possibly created because main character Elisa is shown wielding realistic weaponry as opposed to fantasy, laser type devices). “Her Brother’s Keeper” helps define what family means to the gargoyles and how it’s not so different from what it means to humans. “Reawakening” is the bookend for the season and is a satisfying conclusion for the show’s first major arch.
What I appreciate most about the show is its commitment to realism. This is a show starring unreal creatures but it takes them very seriously. Their culture is defined as is their biology when Goliath points out early on that they can’t fly, merely glide on air currents. As previously mentioned, Elisa is armed with a realistic handgun as are most of the police force. Many of the villains do use lasers and other such fantasy fare but they come across as credible, in part due to a willingness to throw around phrases like “Die!” at their targets. And when it’s called for, the show is not afraid to show blood which helps add severity to a scene. The show also wasn’t afraid to be a little progressive as it’s revealed (casually) that Elisa is of mixed-race, having a white father and black mother. And if you’re a fan of keeping movies and television as they were, you’ll be happy to know that the numerous shots of the New York skyline have not been edited to remove the twin towers. Recent shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Beware the Batman have mostly empty city streets and lifeless scenery, it was refreshing to watch Gargoyles with its fully realized and very much alive New York.
The DVD release for season one is fairly basic. There are animated menu screens depicting the gargoyles emerging from their stone prisons accompanied by music and sound effects. The transfer is of good quality for this type of release and the case is a standard DVD case with a hinged insert for the second disc. Bonus features include the original show pitch by Weisman which is worth a look just to see the original designs of the gargoyles. There’s also a brief feature on The Gathering of the Gargoyles, a convention that used to be held in the US for fans of the show, that I suppose is worth a look though it’s basically just a bunch of fanboys and girls gushing over the program. There’s also audio commentary on the fist five episodes, but I have yet to check it out (and probably won’t as it’s just not my kind of thing).
Gargoyles felt overlooked during its hey-day and today feels kind of like a forgotten series. This is due, in part, to Disney’s stubbornness over releasing the entire series on DVD. Season one was released in 2004 with the first half of season two following in 2005. The rest of season 2 was in limbo until recently when it was released quietly as part of the Disney Movie Club. Still remaining are the thirteen episodes from the abbreviated season three, rebranded as The Goliath Chronicles . While fans would likely appreciate having those thirteen released, all but the season premiere were done without Weisman and thus are not considered canon by him for the show’s storyline, which lived on in comic book form for a short while following the show’s cancellation. Unlike many cartoons from my youth that I have chosen to revisit, Gargoyles still holds up and impressed me a great deal. I would love to see Disney revisit the show with Weisman for either a short fourth season or direct-to-video movie to provide additional closure. Expect to see more of Gargoyles from me as I make my way through both volumes of season 2.