As adults, I think most of us have come to accept that the shows we loved as kids were maybe not as perfect as the haze of nostalgia made them seem. The nature of kids’ shows is that they tend to be pretty clumsy with their metaphors, absolutist with their portrayals of good and evil, and hesitant to address any concepts that are too “complex.” My last Throwback Thursday looked a 90’s show that was virtually unwatchable, even for nostalgia’s sake: a bland, shallow, under-developed money grab, cruising along on the wakes of better action cartoons of the era. All the way at the other end of the watchability scale is the show Gargoyles, a childhood favorite of mine that has more than stood the test of time. If you ignore the third season and forgive the bad Scottish accents, Gargoyles was about as perfect as a cartoon of its era could possibly be. It thrived on tough subjects and determinedly defied convention to make a truly exceptional show.
I didn’t actually realize until I started writing this article that Gargoyles was produced by Disney. Although the animation quality is comparable, its dark, somber tone is so distinctly unlike other Disney animated series that I never would have made the connection. The story follows a group of six living gargoyles who turn to stone during the day but reanimate at night. In 10th century Scotland a large group of gargoyles formed an alliance with Scottish nobles, but the humans betrayed them and destroyed all but those six, who were away or hidden during the massacre, but the few who survived were cursed to remain stone until the castle they guarded stood “higher than the clouds.” In 1994 a rich dude named David Xanatos incorporates their ancient Scottish castle into his skyscraper, and the surviving gargoyles wake up in Manhattan, presumably the last of their species.
So in the very first episode you’ve got a pretty-large scale genocide happening in no small part because of fear and prejudice. In spite of a mutually beneficial relationship and perfectly amicable behavior on the part of the gargoyles, humans are freaked out by the way they look and respond by calling them “beasts” and objecting to them being allowed indoors or near children. There is a lot of unapologetic race commentary here that hits the ground running and carries through the rest of the series, underpinned by the fact that the two lead voice actors are Black and the female main character is Black and Native American. Modern humans react equally negatively when they encounter the gargoyles, which is an ongoing source of very well-explored emotional pain for all of them. In spite of being very aware of how they are perceived, the gargoyles choose again and again to help the ordinary people who despise them instead of working with the brilliant, but unscrupulous, megalomaniac who respects them.
Other fans have analyzed the race angle in depth, and with good reason, but how the gargoyles react to this prejudice is written exceptionally well. Goliath, the enormous, terrifying leader of the gargoyles, is humble and compassionate almost to the point of being an outright pacifist. In spite of losing his entire species and suffering countless injustices at the hands of humans, he sincerely believes that they are fundamentally good and worth saving. He can react violently out of grief or anger, but kindness remains fundamental to his character. It’s rare to see a male main character—and a huge, action hero one with a baritone voice, at that—wear his emotions so openly and be so powerfully compassionate. He even cries actual tears on screen in a way that doesn’t reek of manpain. Goliath’s pain is always genuine, and it is never a lazy tool to give him motive.
On the other hand, his wife Demona, who was believed dead after the massacre in Scotland, was always reactive and quick to anger; she holds grudges, and after surviving the massacre her grief turns to vengeful hatred. None of this is presented as part of that exhausting “sexy firebrand” cliché; Demona is genuinely unstable and dangerous, her hatred is born of real, understandable trauma, and the relationship she and Goliath have in their new world as adversaries is complex and heartbreaking. The show even manages to have a meaningful love story between Elisa Maza (aforementioned mixed-race female lead) and Goliath. In spite of Elisa being a mere tiny human amongst super-powerful flying dragon people and an evil genius billionaire, she is never used as a damsel and never made into a contrived, sassy “girl power” cut-out. She can’t kick down walls, and the show doesn’t pretend that she can, but she is a trained detective. She has access to a lot of information that is critical to the gargoyles remaining hidden from the public, and she is always level-headed, determined, and capable in the face of danger. She has her own life, motives, and opinions that make her much more than just a human bystander caught up in the adventure.
Although I tend to staunchly take the “death of the author” stance when it comes to creator “intent,” one of the show’s creators revealed several years after the show ended that he intended from the start for one of the gargoyles, Lexington, to be gay, but was never able to sneak hints into the show. Intent doesn’t count as representation, obviously, but evidently he was so determined that he tried repeatedly to canonize Lex’s sexuality in the follow-up Gargoyles comic, but that only ran for twelve issues. There is a lot to be said for the progressiveness of this decision, even if it never came to fruition. It reinforces the fact that the other progressive writing choices evident in the show were not accidental or insincere.
If you re-watch one nostalgia series from your childhood, make it this one. This show has not only stood the test of time, but has remained culturally relevant. There is no condescension or pseudo-intellectualism to be found, and even the characters named for Shakespearean characters are surprisingly thoughtful and appropriate references. There are Biblical references, and definitely not the ones you would think. There are elements of this kids’ show that require me, a twenty-five-year-old who minored in English Literature, to mull them over a while. Just don’t watch Season 3, trust me.