Before Their Time, Gargoyles
One thousand years ago, superstition and the sword ruled. It was a time of darkness. It was a world of fear. It was the age of gargoyles. Stone by day, warriors by night. We were betrayed by the humans we had sworn to protect, frozen in stone by a magic spell for a thousand years. Now, here in Manhattan, the spell is broken, and we live again! We are defenders of the night. We are GARGOYLES!
So begins Gargoyles, some of the best animation on television in 1994. I loved this show so much that when it finally came out on DVD in 2013 I was afraid to revisit it. After all, I remembered loving She-Ra: Princess of Power, jumped at the chance to rewatch it on Hulu, and regretted it almost immediately. Childhood is treacherous that way.
I’m happy to report that Gargoyles still merits a spot alongside Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men as a well-executed and rewatchable 90’s classic. In addition to complex characters and plot arcs, the series boasts terrific animation (including some killer fight sequences) and fabulous voice talent (an assortment of Star Trek alumni make appearances of varying duration). Gargoyles also represented my first encounter with a starring woman of color, more than one fully developed female character, and sympathetic villains. Of course, Disney cancelled it after only two seasons; ABC ran a third season called The Goliath Chronicles, but…let’s just say there’s a reason it’s not out on DVD.
The series premiered in 1994 as part of the Disney’s syndicated after-school cartoon block. It shared several writers and directors with Batman, including Michael Reaves, Brynne Chandler Reaves, and Frank Paur, and they brought a similarly brooding sensibility to Gargoyles. Like most of the short-lived shows I love, Gargoyles opened strong and just got better and better until its untimely demise. The pilot clocks in at five episodes, cutting between the gargoyles’ history in 994 AD and their reawakening in 1994. Considering it aired before DVR was even a glimmer in some startup’s eye, and that it couldn’t count on the character recognition of comics-based shows like Batman or X-Men, a five-episode pilot was pretty damn ambitious. As if that wasn’t daring (or dark) enough, Gargoyles opens with a genocide; before the show even gets going, its titular characters face a breach of trust that exterminates nearly their entire clan. The remaining gargoyles – Goliath (Keith David), Hudson (Ed Asner), Brooklyn (Jeff Bennett), Broadway (Bill Fagerbakke), and Lexington (Thom Adcox-Hernandez), along with watchdog Bronx (Frank Welker) awaken in a world ten centuries and an ocean removed from the one they knew.
Although the surviving clan from Goliath all the way down to Bronx get rich characterizations, histories, and performances, I was always captivated by three of the supporting characters, two of them villains. My favorite character was Elisa Maza (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), the NYPD detective who discovers the gargoyles while investigating a disturbance at Xanatos’ skyscraper. She guides the clan through the new world and protects them from discovery. Perceptive, resourceful, and trained in hand-to-hand combat, Elisa was the first major animated character I ever saw who looked remotely like me and the first heroine who did the rescuing.
The first person she saves our heroes from is David Xanatos. Jonathan Frakes voices him with an oily suavity that channels Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark but is more grounded, amoral, and dangerous than either of them. Xanatos understands that has earned a kind of medieval debt-loyalty for relocating and reawakening the gargoyles, and he wastes no time exploiting this for his own ends. When he can no longer use Goliath’s clan, he develops technology to replicate their abilities, forcing them to face off against a series of robots, cyborgs, and clones. His brand of villainy – elegant, elaborate, and nearly unbeatable – lends its name to the Xanatos Gambit.
Xanatos reunites the clan with another member they’d believed lost in the sack of their castle: Goliath’s lieutenant and mate, Demona (Marina Sirtis). Demona possesses a Machiavellian single-mindedness; she resorts to magic, treachery, and brute force in the pursuit of her goal to exterminate humanity. Much like Magneto, she’s convinced that humans will never coexist peacefully with gargoyles, and once you’ve witnessed the distrust and cruelty that precede the destruction of her brethren, this logic almost makes sense. She’s gotten this far on a series of Faustian bargains and a heady cocktail of rage, survivor’s guilt, cognitive dissonance, and loneliness, but her conviction masks a longing for everything that might have been – for her, for Goliath, and for their lost clan. An object lesson in the dangers of revenge, Demona is no less tragic for being irredeemable.
Goliath, Elisa, and the clan battle Demona, Xanatos, and a series of other adversaries (not all of them dispatched by Xanatos) in sequences that showcase thoughtful character design. I love good fight choreography, and the hand-to-hand in Gargoyles never ceases to amaze me. The airborne combat sequences are particularly mesmerizing, combining dogfighting and midair grappling, but the earthbound stuff is no slouch either. Most kids probably wouldn’t have noticed if the gargoyles fought like large humans, but the animators make good use of their talons, tails, and wings, especially all the ways these things change the gargoyles’ relationship to gravity.
While the first season (13 episodes) follows the clan’s efforts to adjust to modern Manhattan, the second season (52 episodes) takes Goliath, Elisa, and Bronx on a “World Tour” which starts with a visit to the enchanted isle of Avalon. Referencing anything that happens after Avalon would be spoiling some neat surprises, but I can tell you that the series travels through a collection of places, times, and mythologies that would make Neil Gaiman blush. As you might have guessed from the introduction of Avalon, these episodes reference Arthurian legend and Shakespeare (mainly Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) liberally, and I have to tip my hat to anybody who can make Oberon and Titania’s marriage make sense.
Gargoyles united many of the elements that made Batman and X-Men so compelling, especially the darkness of the former and the xenophobia of the latter. But the show grew to more than the sum of its parts, its heroes and villains alike the products of complex and often surprising histories. If you loved it then, know that you can revisit it now without fear of disappointment. And if you’ve just learned about it here, know that Gargoyles is rendered beautifully, visually and auditorily. I defy you not to be seduced.
HOW TO WATCH: Seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD. Season 2 is divided into two parts. All 3 DVDs are available on Amazon.
MUST WATCH: “Reawakening,” the final episode of the first season, features Michael Dorn as a resurrected gargoyle inhabited by three different souls. “Bushido,” the Japan episode of the World Tour, is a touching reintroduction of the trust between humans and gargoyles.
FAVORITE LINES: “Lot to go through for a piece of lawn sculpture.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Making sure you weren’t being ambushed.”
“Man, you guys are paranoid even for New York.”
“Someone had to make sure those comic book rejects didn’t find you.”
“And they say the Middle Ages were barbaric.”
“Flabby as I am now, I probably wouldn’t last a second in a Central American war.”
PAIR WITH: Jalapeños
LISTEN FOR: Everyone, but especially for anyone who ever starred in a Star Trek show. You already know about Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis, but Michael Dorn, Brent Spiner, Kate Mulgrew, Nichelle Nichols, Avery Brooks, LeVar Burton, and Colm Meaney all make appearances. Notable non-Star Trek voices include Clancy Brown, John Rhys-Davies, Sheena Easton, Tim Curry, Diedrich Bader, Tony Shalhoub, Charles Shaughnessy, and Roddy McDowall. Seriously, everybody was on this show.
ODDS & ENDS: The magic spells sprinkled throughout the show are actually quasi-functional Latin. They are collected and translated here.
Gargoyles’ characters and plots mostly hold up today, but much of the first season’s storyline is only possible without cameraphones. Every time the gargoyles wind up in a populated area I find myself waiting for the cut to the YouTube footage.
Every gargoyle has a battle cry, equal parts growl, roar, and avian scream, which is as awesome and terrifying as it sounds.
It would have been more in character for Elisa to wear her hair short or tied back, but flowing Disney princess locks seem a small price to pay for being able to take somebody out even when you’re on crutches.
In closeup shots Xanatos appears to be rocking some serious guyliner; somehow this seems appropriate for a character voiced by Jonathan Frakes.
AFTERWARDS: The Goliath Chronicles are not available on DVD, and I strongly advise you to accept this as a sign from the TV gods, because ABC took over the show with an entirely different writing and animation staff, and it shows. Disney did approve two comic book runs, one by Slave Labor Graphics (SLG) and the other by Marvel. Both are out of print and I can’t vouch for either, but I do know that Greg Weisman, one of the show’s creators, worked on the SLG run, and that lots of fans consider it the canonical third season.