THUNDARR THE BARBARIANMedium: TV animation
Produced by: Ruby-Spears Productions
First Appeared: 1980
Creators: Steve Gerber and Alex Toth
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There are barbarian toons set in the past, when we know barbarians to have existed, such as Arak, Son of Thunder. There are barbarian toons set in the present, but far away, such as Galtar. And there are barbarian toons set in the future, when they're likely
to exist only as a result of a world-wide catastrophe of some sort, such as Mighty Samson. (Some people think Groo the Wanderer is that kind, and the thing on his chest that all his straps are tied to is the plastic cover to an electrical wall outlet.)
Thundarr the Barbarian was one of the future ones, and the catastrophe that made it possible for him to be of that demographic was particularly catastrophic. Each half-hour episode began with a planet-size comet careening between Earth and the Moon, shattering the latter and reducing most of Earth's surface to rubble through gravity-induced tectonic stress. This event was said to have happened in 1994 (14 years in the future, for Thundarr's earliest viewers), and the series took place 2000 years later.
For a barbarian, Thundarr owed a lot to Star Wars. He wielded a glowing weapon called a Sun Sword, reminiscent of a light saber. His sidekick, Ookla the Mok, had a lot in common with Chewbacca the Wookiee. His other companion, Ariel (who was clearly in love with him, tho he was oblivious of her charms), was addressed as "Princess", tho it wasn't clear what, if anything, she was princess of. And of course, the dramatic event paraded across the screen in the opening sequence had points of similarity with the destruction of Alderaan.
Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel got together when Ariel, step-daughter of the evil wizard Sabien, helped Thundarr and Ookla escape from Sabien's prison, setting slaves free as they did. They then embarked on a life of adventure, toppling oppressors and righting wrongs wherever they went. They started doing so on October 4, 1980, when ABC began broadcasting the show, and continued for 21 episodes, shown and re-shown over a two-year period.
Thundarr's creators mostly started out in comic books. Writer Steve Gerber (Howard the Duck, Son of Satan) came up with the concept, and the three main characters were designed by Alex Toth (who had been in animation since designing Space Ghost and Birdman, but had previously worked for Dell Comics, DC and other publishers). When ABC needed to see additional artwork before making a decision, Toth wasn't available, so Jack Kirby (Captain America, The Incredible Hulk and much, much more) designed the backgrounds, complete with ruined cities, the incidental characters and everything else that went into the show's distinct look.
The producer was Ruby-Spears Productions (Heathcliff, Plastic Man) — not, as a lot of people seem to think, Hanna-Barbera, tho producers Joe Ruby and Ken Spears did work there before going into business for themselves. The voice of Thundarr was provided by Bob Ridgely (who, like Buster Crabbe, played both Flash Gordon and Tarzan, tho Ridgely did only their voices). Ookla, whose semi-articulate grunts were understood by Thundarr but not Ariel, was Henry Corden (Paw Rugg in Hillbilly Bears, Fred Flintstone). Princess Ariel (no relation) was Nellie Bellflower, also heard in The Last Unicorn and Rudolph & Frosty's Christmas in July.
Thundarr never moved out into comic books, Big Little Books or other media, but an attempt was made to sell it as a newspaper comic strip. Kirby (whose credits also include the newspaper comic Sky Masters) drew a couple of weeks' samples, both daily and Sunday. The strip was never syndicated, but the samples were later printed in Jack Kirby Collector magazine.
Thundarr commanded a very respectable audience. The show may well have gone into a third season if ABC's internal politics hadn't impacted the Saturday morning schedule, filling it, at least temporarily, with animated versions of live-action shows such as Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. The 21 episodes were rerun on NBC during the next two years, but new ones weren't made. Then they were syndicated, but eventually faded into obscurity.
But Thundarr still has devoted fans — so many, in fact, that it spawned a new toy line as recently as 2002. And even today, the show sometimes turns up on Cartoon Network or Boomerang.