L-r: Cheetara, Lion-o, Tygra, from the cover of a British Thundercats comic book


Original medium: TV animation
Produced by: Rankin/Bass Studios
First Appeared: 1985
Creator: Ted Wolf
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Fantasy adventure in TV cartoons ranges from simple superheroes like Birdman taking a few minutes to bash a villain, to fully-realized worlds with an ongoing storyline that …

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… has a beginning, middle and (if the series lasts long enough) end, like Pirates of Darkwater. Thundercats, a syndicated daily cartoon that debuted in 1985, was toward the latter end of the spectrum.

The world in question was a planet called Third Earth, where a band of refugees from the destruction of their home planet, Thundera, set up housekeeping as part of the series back-story. They were cat-like folks, but in a funny animal sort of way — that is, they had perfectly human bodies with a few cat-like features, mostly in the face. They were led by Lion-o, a young warrior who was actually even younger than he looked — because of a malfunction in the time suspension device they'd used to cut short the dreary years of travel, he was physically an adult but had none of the maturity that comes of actually living in real time (tho he did grow up some during the course of the series). Lion-o wielded a magical weapon called The Omen Sword, which was small and kept out of sight most of the time, but when needed would become large and useful in action. (Sexual symbology is no-doubt in the mind of the beholder.)

Second in command was Tygra (no relation) (her too), who could turn invisible, and whose awesome weapon was The Bolo Whip. It was Tygra who designed their headquarters, The Cats' Lair. Cheetara was the token female, who had female-type super powers (an intuition-like ability to sense things not perceptible through normal means), as well as the speed of her namesake species. Panthro was the mechanical genius, who built vehicles and suchlike. Jaga was Lion-o's predecessor as leader. He died in transit to Third Earth, but hung around like Obi-wan Kenobi to dispense advice from the spirit world. Snarf wasn't a regular member of the team, but as Lion-o's nursemaid, was also available to dispense advice (to the scorn of most young viewers). There were also a couple of Thunderkittens, Wilykat and Wilykit. A few more cat-like characters joined the group in the second season.

There were various bad guys, but the most frequently seen were Mumm-Ra and his band of mutants (Slythe, Monkian, Jackalman, Vultureman, and Rataro, who resembled the species suggested by their names, Slythe being reptile-like). They were constantly trying to steal The Omen Sword so Mumm-Ra could rule the Universe forever.

The series, and all the characters in it, were created by writer Ted Wolf, who saw it as a morality play with human characters in strange bodies. His creativity manifest itself mostly in inventions, and he made the bulk of his living from patents. This is his only known credit in animation — in fact, in film in general. The show was produced by Rankin/Bass Studios, which is probably best known for Christmas specials starring Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It debuted in an hour-long special on January 23, 1985, and the series began in September of that year.

Lion-o's voice was done by Larry Kenney (Count Chocula), Tygra's by Peter Newman (Quicksilver, no relation, in Silverhawks), Cheetara's by Lynne Lipton (also heard in Drawing Power), Panthro's by Earle Hyman (mostly a face actor), and Snarf's by Bob McFadden (Milton the Monster).

Aside from a whopping 130 half-hour episodes, the Thundercats characters were made into a line of action figures that are highly prized by today's collectors, and into a role playing game that's still sometimes played. Marvel Comics licensed the property for its "Star Comics" line (Royal Roy, Wally the Wizard), which was aimed at younger readers. Twenty-four issues were published between December, 1985 and June, 1988.

Eventually, the series ran its course, but instead of simply fading away, it got a genuine ending. Thundera was de-destroyed (since death means about as little in animated cartoons as it does in comic books) and the characters got to go home.

Interest in Thundercats remains high — to the point where, as recently as 2002, it was licensed for comic books again. DC Comics' Wildstorm imprint (Astro City, Tom Strong) has done a couple of specials and mini-series, as well as a regular series about them. This version maintains continuity with the cartoon, being set on Thundera a few years after the return. It even did a crossover with another TV cartoon from about the same time, Battle of the Planets.

In one venue or another, Mumm-Ra and his mutant minions will undoubtedly continue trying to carry out their nefarious plans for a long time to come.


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Text ©2004-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Ted Wolf and Rankin/Bass.