Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Gargoyles

Image from D. Taina's Gargoyles Imagery Resource

Gargoyles, now, Gargoyles is interesting because, firstly, it doesn't create that particular emotional resonance that a lot of these works will have. Its plot, themes, and ideals don't "speak" to me on that individual level, but simply are the things that any decent person or series would believe in. However, Gargoyles is just so damn good that it ceases to matter.

In Gargoyles, everything just comes together to form a beautiful picture. Not flawless, of course, but close enough that it can inspire poetic waxing if I'm in the right mood. The characters, the stories, the voice acting, the music, the animation, the design, the world-building…it's just gorgeous.

Okay, so, in the past, humans knew of, and had dealings with, a species of winged humanoids called gargoyles, who, along with gargoyle beasts, turn to stone during the day. The last survivors of a decimated Scottish clan were frozen in stone by a spell that would last until their home castle "Rose above the clouds". "Fortunately" for them, a rich man named David Xanatos did exactly that, took apart and rebuilt the thing atop his building in the New York of 1994, and the gargoyles awaken to the modern day and a new storyline.

Gargoyles blends science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and history, with a strong vein of Shakespeare running throughout. Unlike many cartoons, these unrelated genre elements blend seamlessly, and make the series feel like it's strong enough to tackle a wide variety of motifs.

The cast of heroes begin as a set of clichés that anyone who watches American action cartoons would feel familiar with: The Leader, the Old Guy, the Young Guy, the Fat Guy, the Little Guy, the Pet, and even the obligatory human female. However, each member of the Manhattan Clan grows and changes in this new world, becoming well-rounded characters.

Goliath and Elisa's relationship is particularly noteworthy. While there's little to say with the Beast and Beauty trope anymore (and it's never as progressive as people think it is), Gargoyles makes that relationship work. It takes a realistic but uncommonly-depicted amount of time to for their bond to develop, and Goliath and Elisa must confront what they could never give each other. Their differences, in short, are given weight, which makes for more effective storytelling than the strangely effortless fantasy-xenophilia we see elsewhere.

It's the most satisfying if Goliath and Elisa never change their species and never have a biological child, both of which canon has dictated. It tests these characters' love if they can deal with such a situation and come out together without scars.

But it is the villains who are the most striking. My personal favourite is Demona, who has so much power but never has the strength to confront the truth about herself. She is driven by a destructive hatred she refuses to let go of, and becomes all the more compelling for it. Her long relationship with Macbeth is probably the best story in the series, all the greater because Demona, when she allied with Macbeth and he was crowned King, had a second chance to get the world, but lost it again because of her hatred and paranoia.

I think Xanatos is as cool as everybody else does, I just don't feel that emotional attachment to him. He's smart, he's suave, he always stays one step ahead of everyone, but also becomes a family man, challenging the notion that characters who take on adult roles can be boring.

Further challenging common television "wisdom" was the seamless and natural introduction of Angela, Goliath and Demona's biological daughter, reminding television viewers of how strange it is that new cast additions are considered gimmicks rather than an organic party of a story that's growing.

While the characters are not given equal development, and some smaller roles can be one-note, I can't think of a one that I dislike. The only possible exception is Brooklyn, whose failed romances provoked more sympathy from the rest of the fandom than from me. Thankfully the show was wise enough to realize these things were Brooklyn's fault instead of casting him as an innocent victim. Most of my dislike for Brooklyn actually comes from the way the fandom treats him, rather than how the character actually is.

(I always root for Broadway and Angela—it's a pairing that suggests certain awful clichés, but it works for the individual characters involved)

The titular gargoyles are one of the most fascinating things about the series. They are developed more than most cartoon fantasy races, given an alternative parenting still and a well-defined collectivist culture. Their designs are also great, with a seemingly endless array of faces, sizes, shapes, and colours, especially the unsung background characters. Unfortunately, there was less diversity among female gargoyles, but that is changed a bit in the comics.

That's not to say there aren't a few hiccups. Not all episodes are created equal (I hardly ever watch "Vendettas", f'r instance), and even though the animation usually tries for fluidity, not all of it is great, either. It also seems like there was a bit of a communication breakdown when it came to telling the audience that gargoyle parenting was not supposed to be considered damaging, but that problem is equally on the viewers' end.

The "World Tour" arc is also a mixed bag. I support the controversial decision to split the cast off and focus primarily on Goliath, Elisa, Bronx, and Angela being sent to places around the world. But not every episode is good—some have an obvious moral of the day and become trite, while others are just a little dull. Many episodes were designed to expand the Gargoyles universe, but that means little if there isn't an entertaining story to go along with them. Even so, most of the world "World Tour" episodes are good, and none of them are unwatchable.

I'm not including The Goliath Chronicles in this evaluation. Like Greg Weisman, like almost all fans, I've disowned this sequel/re-invention. I sat through a few episodes as a I can't sit through a single episode of Chronicles because it feels so stilted and unnatural, changing a grand series into warmed-over pap.

I've read the canon comics and I love those: it's still a crime that we never got more. While David Hedgecock's pencils were ugly, the story shone through, and it was interesting to see long-held ideas finally come to print. The non-canon Marvel and Disney Adventures comics, printed when Gargoyles was new, were entertaining when I was a kid, but now they look terrible to me. They just didn't "get" the show, and the art usually sucked, too.

And maybe Gargoyles is a hard thing to "get". Many people were involved in the making of Gargoyles, but there is a sense of some overreaching vision that makes the series hang together, one that was the product of the original team. Hats off to Greg Weisman and all of them, who couldn't be replaced.

It's unfair, maybe, to give any weight to the extensive background material this show has accumulated, but right now it's impossible for me to separate myself from it. If you've never read up on Greg Weisman's future plans and exhaustive gap-filling, now's the time. Please visit the "Ask Greg" Archives and go from there.

All in all, one great show. It's one of the few things I think should be brought back—maybe not remade, but there are so many spinoff ideas that have already been conceived, one of them could work. Gargoyles 2198, for example. But even if nothing more happens with Gargoyles, its quality is assured. It may be strange in some ways to say it, but it is my favourite American-produced animated show.Gargoyles is just that good.


  1. Another great essay, as always.

  2. Gargoyles, to me, is a series that crafts an awesome whole out of less consistently awesome individual parts. When its on--its core villains, its long term storytelling-- it's unparalleled, even seventeen years later. When it's not on, it feels a lot like the videogame Pitfall--yes, it may have invented the platforming genre, but videogames have evolved beyond that and it no longer has anything to say that others haven't said better. As actual animation, for example, it has very little to offer beyond the twenty or so Japan-animated episodes. And even though they're main characters for much of the series, I find the trio consistently uncompelling—they work far better separate from each other. On a similar note—although this is more of a Weisman thing than something particularly specific to this show—the show at times feels detrimentally hyperefficient: there's a consistent feeling that every scene is animated to advance the plot, to a stifling degree; I long for scenes where the characters can just be, without any drama attached. But maybe that's just me.

    And yet, once you take a step back, stop talking about individual aspects and start talking about the gargoyles universe, that's when the show becomes most valuable, to me. Creating universes is hard work, yo, and the fact that the show got as far as it did in less than three years in creating one that just begs for exploration and questioning is a testament to the creators' skill (of course, it helps a lot that even cancellation hasn't stopped it from expanding). Even if the stories that were told weren't to my liking, there's the feeling that there are still a million awesome stories waiting to be told.

    I share your frustration with Brooklyn, although for me it waxes and wanes depending on what story he's involved with. I find him most intolerable during the first three fourths of the SLG book, where he spends literally every scene he's in moping about the fact that everyone seems to have found love except for him. Fortunately, he improves immeasurably by the time he takes the spotlight.

    As you note, The World Tour gets points for sheer gutsiness if nothing else—not only for the split, but because for its duration the regular cast was one where the women outnumbered the men (depending on how one counts Bronx, anyway). I'm especially interested to see how many of the episodes pass the Bechdel Test, as my memories of the arc are unreliable, and it's not an era of the show I rewatch terribly often.

    And yet, even as progressive as the show could sometimes be (hello, Elisa), it also makes the problematic moments rather more glaring. “Revelations” is especially bothersome, as are “Heritage” and to a slightly lesser extent “Cloud Fathers”, and I sometimes wonder if and how those episodes would be handled differently if Weisman had a chance to do them all over again.

    In the end, it's the sort of show that fills that same space Robotech does: it's not my favorite, but it's great fun, and I can appreciate what it does and its place in history.