Sensor Scan: Gargoyles

During the decade roughly spanning the years 1985-1995, Western animation, previously seen as something of a washed-up embarrassment of an industry that only produced patronizing throwaway entertainment for particularly dumb children, underwent a widespread creative and commercial renaissance. One of the pioneering studios of this period, which animation historians have imaginatively dubbed “The Renaissance Age of Animation”, was Disney, whose new CEO Michael Eisner (whom longtime readers will recognise as the former chief of Paramount who worked with Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek Phase II) sought to reverse the company’s ailing fortunes by doubling down on creative quality control. For inspiration, Disney’s animators looked to (in some cases copied) the style of Japanese anime, which was at its zenith in the mid-80s, and in particular the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The initial result of this was Adventures of the Gummi Bears, a high-profile Saturday Morning Cartoon Show that revitalized the block and genre by emphasizing high production values, tight, quality storytelling and a strong focus on fantasy action and adventure narrative. Adventures of the Gummi Bears was an international smash hit, singlehandedly ushered in a brand new age for animation and forced Disney’s competitors to follow suit to keep up.

There was also an animated Broadway musical of sorts a few years later about some fish people that gets credit for turning the industry around, but it’s not quite as historically important as Gummi Bears.
Fast-forward to 1994, and we’re in the twilight years of the Renaissance Age. Disney, which deserves so much credit for bringing the era about, arguably had its creative peak of this cycle about two years prior to now. Gargoyles is a good case study for this, because while it’s as acclaimed as the rest of Disney’s other output from the previous decade and remains a cult favourite to this day, it very clearly also demonstrates that the studio is now in the business of following trends rather than setting them. The trend in question here would be Neo-Gothic superhero fiction and urban fantasy, and the series is very obviously and deliberately evoking the Art Deco Noir of Warner Brothers’ legendary Batman the Animated Series, even down to a Manhattan setting.
Batman, which follows on thematically from the contemporary Tim Burton movies, had been critically acclaimed for not just its eye-catching and unforgettable art style, but also for its mature and sophisticated storytelling. At its best, Batman‘s episodes were like mini Greek or Shakespearean tragedies: Sympathetic character studies of flawed and vulnerable people whose combination of poor choices and poor lot in life led them down a path that culminated in them becoming supervillains. And that’s sort of the key to Batman the Animated Series: Though praised for its unpatronizing character-based storytelling and in spite of its alleged “darkness”, Batman remained a staunchly idealistic and surprisingly optimistic series. It had a strong conception of good acts and evil acts (nothing amazingly preachy, just stuff like the somewhat defensible “urban terrorism against innocent civilians is probably a bad idea”) and put Batman himself in the position of being a compassionate healing figure, who fights nonviolently to stop people from hurting themselves and others (this had the unfortunate additional side effect of all too frequently making the villains more fleshed out and relatable than Batman, but that’s beside the point).

Continue Reading