Animation Block: Gargoyles

As animation blocks go, I almost avoided this one, mainly because I figured that surely everyone in the world has heard of Gargoyles and acknowledges its greatness. Still, 1994 was a long time ago, and getting the word out at all to anyone new is, to my mind a good thing. So without further ado, here goes.

Gargoyles was initially supposed to be a Disney series along the lines of Adventures of the Gummi Bears, but eventually, series creator Greg Weisman (who is one of my personal heroes) was allowed to take the show in a more serious direction, incorporating a complex continuity, deep character development, numerous references to mythology and Shakespeare, as well as a top notch voice cast and beautiful animation.

Gargoyles is a story that begins in Scotland, 994 A.D.  The gargoyle clan of Castle Wyvern is engaged in a series of battles with Vikings who seek to destroy their home and the humans within. Despite the fact that they have saved the humans time and again, most of the humans distrust the gargoyles; however, as creatures whose nature is to protect, Goliath, leader of the gargoyles (voiced with heft and majesty by Keith David), refuses to abandon the castle or its occupants. Due to a series of betrayals and misunderstandings, the Vikings are able to breach the castle defenses and destroy the gargoyles during the day, while they are stone. Only Goliath and a handful of others survive the betrayal, but they are met with misfortune of their own when the castle wizard turns them to stone permanently, a spell set only to end when Castle Wyvern “rises above the clouds.”

Flashing forward a thousand years, we meet billionaire David Xanatos (voiced by Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes), who has learned the legend of the gargoyles and wants to see them for himself. He uses his vast wealth and power to move Castle Wyvern stone by stone to the top of his corporate tower in Manhattan, which breaks the curse and revives the gargoyles. At first, Xanatos befriends the gargoyles and helps them acclimate to the 20th century. In addition, Goliath befriends a police detective named Elisa Maza. After Xanatos’s building is attacked, he convinces the gargoyles to go after the attackers, and shows them that one more gargoyle survived the attack that they were previously unaware of: Goliath’s long lost love, now called Demona (voiced by Star Trek’s Marina Sirtis). However, all is not what it seems. Goliath eventually learns that Xanatos and Demona are manipulating him and his clan for their own personal gain, leading to a battle during which Demona escapes and Xanatos is arrested by Detective Maza, who becomes the gargoyles’ only remaining ally.

From here, the show develops each member of the newly dubbed Manhattan Clan, each (except Goliath) named for some part of New York City (e.g. Hudson, Brooklyn, Broadway, Lexington, and Bronx), into likeable and realized characters. We are slowly introduced to a large supporting cast, most of whom are not purely good or evil. There are some who sit comfortably in the middle, like MacBeth (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), an immortal hunter with a code of honor. In particular, even the villains are quite realized and multi-dimensional. Xanatos is rarely cruel or spiteful, and instead simply pursues his own goals, which usually move ahead regardless of whether or not he appears to win. Demona, on the other hand, is hateful of humanity and considers Goliath and his clan to be traitors to their own kind, but her life is a terribly tragic one. When we learn her origins, it is easy to see that while she is at fault for the state of her life, she was driven to evil largely by loss, betrayal, and bitterness, rather than a simple desire to do wrong.

Halfway into the second season, Gargoyles moves beyond Manhattan and sends some of the cast on a world tour, expanding the mythos even more (it is said that Weisman had plans to create several spinoffs if ratings warranted). While it could be argued that this went on a bit too long, it did allow the world of the series to grow, and introduced the first female member of the Manhattan Clan, Angela. New gargoyles from all over the world were introduced, as well as magical beings such as faeries and mythological gods. King Arthur comes into play, and the mysterious Illuminati operate in the background.

It is not a stretch to say that Gargoyles is my favorite American animated series of all time. Sadly, despite massive critical and fan acclaim, its middling ratings against its high production values, not to mention the fact that it did not really fit in with the standard Disney lineup, led to its quasi-cancellation after two seasons. It was replaced with the mediocre Goliath Chronicles, a series made without Greg Weisman’s involvement. As if to add further insult to injury, Disney released the first season on DVD, but only half of the second season, citing low sales. However, there have been glimmers of resurgence here and there. In 2006, Greg Weisman wrote several issues of a Gargoyles comic series, which showed where he would have taken the series had he been allowed to continue it, as well as a few spinoffs. These were quite successful in terms of sales, though again the cruel hand of Disney struck, raising the royalties costs for Slave Labor Graphics to produce licensed comics, which led to the series’ cancellation.

I strongly urge everyone who has a love for animation, not to mention literature or mythology, to give Gargoyles a chance. Buying the DVDs may help convince Disney to release the rest of the series, though at this point that is a bit of a long shot. The series in its entirety is still shown on Toon Disney and can be found on Youtube, so there is no shortage of ways to see it despite that. The TPBs of the comics are available as well. I also encourage fans of Gargoyles to check out some of Weisman’s other animated series, such as Bionicle, Spectacular Spider-Man, and Young Justice. It may be too late for Gargoyles, but supporting a creative individual who truly cares about creating quality work and allowing him to make more is always a good thing.