Gargoyles Retrospective | Disney’s Dark Horse
Along with others in the Superversive movement, this author tends to highlight various writing techniques which are popularly seen in Japanese anime. Since writers in the Orient frequently make use of practices forgotten here in the West, this is only sensible. If one wishes to learn a craft, the best way to do it is to watch those whose expertise has brought them success. Plus, the animation is beautiful and the tropes – along with some of the conceits in various series – are exotic and often intriguing.
Not long ago, however, I started re-watching some older Western animated series from my childhood. This is due in part to nostalgia, since the shows were popular when I was young. It is also good to go back, occasionally, and see the stories that helped inspire one’s path as a writer. Measuring oneself against works from the past to see how one has progressed – and how far one still has to go – is a good thing, something which the series described herein will demonstrate.
In the 1990s Disney made an effort to compete with the popular show Batman: The Animated Series*. It did this with a series titled Gargoyles*, which won critical acclaim for its writing, artwork, and voice cast. Like Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer* and Firefly*, the series has become something of a cult classic, filling a niche in the pop culture mindset. Some people will recall the show if it comes up in a discussion, but outside of fan circles, it has largely been forgotten by the general populace.
Gargoyles’ focus is on creatures that sleep as stone statues by day but come to life at night. Nocturnal guardians, gargoyles are vulnerable to attack during the daylight hours in their stone sleep as their semi-magical nature means they can be smashed to pieces while the sun is up.
And a shattered stone gargoyle is a dead gargoyle.
While the details behind the series’ development are intriguing, this author wishes to focus on the show’s conceit of nocturnal heroes, its reliance on Shakespeare’s plays, and the underlying Beauty and the Beast romance. To tackle the first point, creatures that live and hunt at night have historically not been considered hero material. Going back to ancient, primeval times it has been understood that there are some things that prowl the darkness which ought to be avoided.
Dean Koontz* summarized this point in one of his poems: “But there are some mysteries which bite and bark and come to get you in the dark.” J.R.R. Tolkien* said it as well when discussing Tom Bombadil, who “knew the dark when it was fearless.” Human eyesight, even at its best, is not good enough to see everything which hunts the shadows during the night. And there are certain creatures – man and beast, power and principality – that find dirty dealings easier and more pleasant in the gloom.
These days, the trope of night-hunters being inhuman terrors all should fear has mostly been turned on its head. Vampires, werewolves, and the like are now portrayed as misunderstood heroes rather than irredeemable monsters. When written capably, these characters can be quite entertaining, and there is no question that Gargoyles is a good example of how to do the trope well. G.K. Chesterton said in one of his essays that gargoyles were added to Gothic cathedrals in part to acknowledge that things man considered ugly “in the morning of the world” (i.e. Ancient times) had their place in the created order, just as beautiful things do.
Gargoyles took that point, perhaps unknowingly, and ran with it. Although they are different, over time it is made clear that the titular gargoyles are less frightening for their alien appearance and more for the fact that they are people. While most human characters seize on their unearthly visages as cause to despise them (and that initial reaction is valid – being startled in the dark is no fun, even when one is surprised by a person or an animal he knows!), the fact is that this is not the sole reason for mankind’s fear. Gargoyles are naturally stronger than humans and they are active at night, a time when most humans are asleep. So the primeval distrust of the dark and all that hunts it comes into play.
Besides that, however, gargoyles are people – and people can be dangerous. One of the show’s villains, a gargoyle named Demona, encapsulates this point. Aggravated by humanity’s distrust of her appearance and nocturnal nature, she helps betray her own clan in the hopes of retaking their ancient home for themselves, while their human neighbors become slaves to marauding Norsemen. Unfortunately for her, this betrayal leads to the destruction of most of her clan, with the remaining six being turned to stone for a thousand years “til the castle rises above the clouds.”
Seeking vengeance by the very treachery she helped to perpetrate, Demona develops a victim complex that allows her to ignore her own part in the successively terrible events that continue to dog her. By the time she reunites with the remnants of her former clan, even her own mate does not recognize her. She has truly become a “she-demon,” embodying all the bad things humans have believed about her kind in an effort to avenge herself for what amounts to petty name-calling and (some) justifiable fear of the fact that her race is nocturnal.
This plays well into the series’ fascination with Shakespeare, who understood evil, madness, and guilt very well. Gargoyles uses the Bard’s plays, notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream* and MacBeth*, to build its wider lore and backstory. While the details do not always hold up under scrutiny, the overall effect is that these plays root the show quite strongly in reality.
Part of this is due to Shakespeare’s eloquent writing, which the dialogue respects and employs to its benefit, as well as to the advantage of its actors. Keith David, the voice of the main hero gargoyle (Goliath), can utilize his extensive vocal range thanks in part to the rhythmic, Elizabethan speech patterns which the series adopts and adapts throughout its run. Without his voice and the musical cadences imbibed from the Bard’s works, Gargoyles would not be nearly as impressive as it is.
Another area where Shakespeare’s works influence the series is that, by relying on a clear understanding of the reality of eternity, the show proves that a good tale can transcend time and space. Evil is evil, even when the person committing the act argues that they are doing a good thing or that they see reality more clearly than the heroes. Good is good even when it hurts so much the protagonists simply want to turn to stone, and cease to deal with the world.
To the final point, the underlying Beauty and the Beast romance in Gargoyles is exquisitely written. When this trope is used the male in question is usually at least half-human. A werewolf still has some humanity in him, as does a vampire. Wererider Herrel in Andre Norton’s Year of the Unicorn* is a man who can take on the attributes of a snow cat, and the titular Beast who started the trope wears the shape of an animal, with the added threat of becoming one completely if his curse is not broken.
With Gargoyles, the writers stepped beyond the customary bounds of this trope. Goliath, the hero of the series and Demona’s former mate, comes to love the human detective Elisa Maza. Born and raised in New York, the young woman discovers the gargoyles after they awaken and helps keep their secret. Accustomed as she is to looking past the surface, she is reasonably startled and frightened when she first encounters Goliath and the remnants of his clan.
That initial fear soon gives way to curiosity and a desire to understand, to get to know these nocturnal guardians as people. The writers took meticulous care to imply the spark and growing attraction between Goliath and Elisa, deftly weaving it into the visual scenes and dialogue of the series. No matter how one looks at it, the romance works beautifully even as it adds new depth to an old cliché.
Future writers, if you have an idea for a tale involving creatures of the night and/or paranormal romances that follow the general Beauty and the Beast line, then Gargoyles may be a series you will wish to study. While the third season is an unmitigated travesty, the first two seasons are well worth viewing. Any beginning author who wants to improve his craft would be hard-pressed to watch it and find nothing new to learn.
And who knows? Maybe you will find that there are creatures in your fictional worlds which are more than they appear. You probably just caught them when they were napping and didn’t realize it. 😉
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue. Her most recent piece is available in Planetary Anthology: Sol. Order them today!