Gargoyles Was the Most Important Cartoon of my Pre-Intellectual Black Childhood

I have a complex about people thinking I’m stupid. I look for judgment from others when I share an idea, I expect most things I say to have at least a degree of stupidity, and I live with the Imposter Syndrome that waits on the front porch of anyone who writes, or records, or expresses themselves in any way that leaves them vulnerable to condescension. And it’s because of it that I’ve always been keenly aware – even as a child – when someone was talking down to me. It means they thought I was stupid. I hated feeling stupid. And as much as I loved cartoons, I felt a lot of them spoke to us like we were stupid.

Then there was Gargoyles.

Gargoyles

One thousand years ago superstition and the sword ruled, yet two decades ago – yeah, it’s been 21 years – we met Gargoyles, and I was given one of the deepest, most progressive and thoughtful series I had ever seen. And while it might seem on the surface that it’s a regular action cartoon, Gargoyles proved itself each episode as a program with a message. That message was simple, yet profound in its rarity among its peers. It took off the kid gloves, put both hands on your shoulders, and said, “You’re old enough to handle this.”

The story followed an intelligent, nocturnal species called Gargoyles that turn stone during the day and awaken at night. Their bond with humans was one of protection – they lived alongside us safeguarding ancient castles and families for hundreds of years, until they were betrayed by humans in 994 AD and frozen in stone by a magic spell that would only break when their castle “rises above the clouds.” Everyone in their clan was murdered except 5 Gargoyles who weren’t destroyed, awoken in modern-day New York City, seemingly the last of their species.

Whoa. That’s already heavy for a 9-year old, but Gargoyles was just getting started. Not for shock or awe, but because this series had a few things to say. It took the dice and made the gamble: Gargoyles would discuss mature themes… using complex story arcs… all hidden in the guise of an action cartoon. When a battle-scarred Demona turned Manhattan to stone and started crumbling bodies down 5th avenue? People died, yo. Nine people, on a kids’ show! She saw a woman carrying shopping bags and said, “Here, let me help you with those packages,” AND SHOT HER WITH THE CANON. SHE BLEW OFF HER ARMS, FAM. A couple was turned to stone nearby and she blasted them too! AND LAUGHED! Demona had no chill. Demona had me memorizing Latin spells, talking about:

Omnes conspecti, omnes auditi,
in nocte usque ad saxum commutate
dum caelum ardeat

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 3.09.23 AMScreen Shot 2015-12-23 at 3.14.57 AMScreen Shot 2015-12-23 at 3.11.51 AM

I remember the first time I realized Gargoyles was different, one of the earliest episodes when Broadway shot Elisa and nearly ended her life. The small pool of blood under Elisa, the emotion that followed, his lasting hatred of guns? This wasn’t a regular show.

Broadway 1Broadway 2Broadway 3

And the person who raised their castle above the clouds? David Xanatos: my earliest introductions to complex villains, one for whom “villain” is perhaps too thin a word to accurately describe him. In a decade of Dr. Robotniks, Queen Beryls, and Shredders, David Xanatos was an antagonist whose motivations evolved and whose character changed over an entire series. Often he did terrible things in the name of profit or science, while other times he showed the character of a hero. Watching David Xanatos was the first time I learned to judge actions outside of a character label, because watching him begged you to think – I mean really think – about a person’s actions separate from their reputation. “Good” people weren’t always right, and “evil” people weren’t always wrong.

Xanatos and Fox

A skilled strategist, scientist, and businessman, Xanatos was unlike most villains I had ever seen before. He wasn’t on a singular quest for world domination; he already had wealth; he thought revenge to be foolish; he saw emotion as distracting and valued logic over all; yet he would still do anything to protect his family. I can’t even lie, Xanatos became my fucking hero. I wanted to think like him, I wanted to be as clever as him, I pictured a dark jacket and ponytail when I schemed pre-adolescent schemes. I learned to play chess because it’s something Xanatos would be an expert. When you boil it down, David Xanatos, while being the “bad guy,” was actually a positive role model in quite a few ways — most notably his intellectual curiosity.

No character has ever taught me a love of learning as much as Xanatos, because man, he made it look so badass. So unique was his character that there’s a TV trope in his honor, “the Xanatos gambit,” referring to his ability to make any plan work out in his favor, whether they went accordingly or not. A Xanatos Gambit is a plan for which all foreseeable outcomes benefit the mastermind creator — including ones that superficially appear to be failure. You fight me, I kill you, I win; you fight me, you kill me, the people demonize you… I still win. He was the personification of every motivational quote about one’s attitude and circumstance. There was no such thing as losing with Xanatos, no such thing as failure… there just “was,” and that would always serve his goals.

Xanatos Gambit

Antagonist aside, Gargoyles still forced child viewers into maturity from its core. It challenged us with plot continuity, moral quandaries, even the topic of guns when Broadway went from loving to hating them. The show even introduced Shakespearean drama – literally – with Macbeth as an integral and ongoing character. You don’t hear me. It wasn’t just a guy named Macbeth. It wasn’t a fluke episode, written at face-value to add shallow education to an action cartoon. No, this was Shakespeare’s actual Macbeth, spiritually tied to the tragic life of Demona after she lost everything you could ever fear losing – your lover, your family, your culture, your faith – bound together throughout history for centuries.

Demona Macbeth

Gargoyles was filled with family-oriented love and tragedy, far deeper than most casual viewers would know to give it credit for. Macbeth? The Pack? Coldstone? Angela? And Avalon? Motherfucking Avalon?! Before The Dark Knight or Daredevil, before “dark and gritty” become commonplace and synonymous with “good,” we millennials were watching ground being paved before us with Gargoyles’ success.

More than anything else, race and xenophobia were themes on the forefront. Craftily woven throughout the series, tolerance, courage, and integrity were taught simultaneously through the story of humans’ relationship with the Gargoyles, and more subtly through Elisa and Goliath themselves: the pair who you wanted so bad to become lovers, but they couldn’t, they wouldn’t – this is children’s TV, they could never – you knew in your heart they would never be. Until they were. Until they did. Until Gargoyles went there in the mid-nineties with two Black leads and zero gliding fucks.

Goliath and Elisa 1Goliath and Elisa 2

Salli Richardson-Whitfield was the voice of Elisa Maza, and she was perfect in every way. My first crush, Elisa had a Black mother and Native American father, and was one of the best Black female leads you could find in the decade. She was smart, charming, loyal, tough, funny – she was a dynamic character who stood out as the moral compass of the show, even when we thought that job belonged to Goliath. She is, to this day, as close a mold of the perfectly written character as I can image. And she was a Black woman.

Opposite Elisa was the star of the show and leader of the clan, Goliath, voiced by Keith David. An amazingly talented Black actor with the voice of God, Keith David gave life to a character whose appearance struck fear in the unknowing, but whose masculinity lied in his emotion, vulnerability, and struggle. How familiar does that sound? Goliath’s journey was one in search of love and acceptance after betrayal and pain. He was lost – literally, for one season, lost for months through the mysteries of Avalon – yet Goliath found that it would always be a journey, it was always be a struggle, and that the best way forward is with truth in your heart and trust for those you love most. It didn’t always work out – it doesn’t always work out – and Goliath was dealt his deal of terrible emotional pain, but he decided it was worth it. Gargoyles was years ahead of its time.

Goliath and Elisa Outside

Race, betrayal, trust, motives, relationships, Shakespeare… Gargoyles challenged me more than any other network cartoon dared try. This was one of the most thought-provoking and entertaining cartoons on television, and was able to challenge young viewers while never talking down at them – an incredibly difficult feat, and an accomplishment for which I’ll always remember it. More than anything, Gargoyles gave me the intellectual curiosity to unpack adult themes, to think them through, and to actually enjoy the quandary.

Gargoyles trusted me with matters that were above my age. Gargoyles gave me a Black couple in an animated series, and made me see the perfection in their flaws. Gargoyles had a message and told me I was mature enough to handle it. And so I was.

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Jordan Calhoun About Jordan Calhoun

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  1. Draper on December 23, 2015

    Yes! To all of this! Gargoyles also ran during the same time period as TNG. I remember being fascinated by the contrasts between Xanatos/Riker and Demona/Troy. The writer, Greg Wiseman, is still molding generations with his work on Young Justice and now Star Wars: Rebels.

    • Brynne Chandler on December 26, 2015

      I am so glad that you enjoyed the series! But, Greg Weisman was not “the writer”. The show as it aired was developed by Michael Reaves, fresh off of writing and Story Editing “Batman: the Animated Series”. That’s why “Gargoyles is so dark. Weisman’s original concept was basically funny animals, as he has often pointed out himself. So, while he produced the series, he did not actually write any of the episodes until the miserable third season, if I recall correctly.

      • Janelle on April 21, 2017

        Actually, Greg Weisman had nothing to do with the 3rd season except for the first episode.

  2. justinwoo on December 23, 2015

    I absolutely loved this show as a kid. I remember the first thing Xanatos said that blew me away – “Pay a man enough, and he’ll walk barefoot through hell.” ON A KIDS TV SHOW. AT 4 IN THE AFTERNOON ON A SCHOOL DAY. That was almost too much truth for my tiny young brain to handle.

    Also, I have an old friend at Disney whose pet project is convincing someone, anyone at Disney to make a Gargoyles video game. No luck yet, but a man can dream.

  3. Noel on December 23, 2015

    You have inspired me to re-watch this show I loved as a kid, and to show it to my son :)

  4. One on December 23, 2015

    Bravo

  5. Lyonside on December 23, 2015

    I’m a teensy bit over the Millennial age group (Gen Yish), so I was a young teenager who saw previews for Gargoyles at a Star Trek Con (Yes, with Frakes and Sirtis pimping it hard). Goliath and Elisa are still my go-to power couple, and the show captivated high school me as much as kid-you. Thank you for the feels. Didn’t know the connection to Rebels, but that makes sense – my kidlet, age 8, loves Rebels, so I think it’s time to introduce her to Gargoyles too (we tried years ago but she was too young).

  6. Roscoe Burnems on December 23, 2015

    Yo this genuinely brought me to tear reminiscing and thinking about the complexities of this show and how it helped mature me. Thank you for this.

  7. Rita on December 23, 2015

    Best cartoon ever!! I am also just a tad bit *ahem* older than the millennial generation, but still watched it each morning!

  8. Matt Jones on December 23, 2015

    This was a really great article. I hadn’t given much thought as to why this show resonated with me so deeply. This was a perfect articulation of what made this show so special.

  9. RAMEL HILL on December 23, 2015

    Really loved this show for all the reasons mentioned above and more.

  10. SunshineAsomugha on December 23, 2015

    Yes yes yes to all of that! I show this to my class at lunch and I’m about to purchase the DVDs if I can find it! ?

  11. Jared W. Bolton on December 23, 2015

    YEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSS

    They absolutely need to bring this show back.

    I loved this show as a kid. This is what made me want to be a writer.

    THIS SHOW right here…… Come back to us, Gargoyles!

    I await your return as as Demona once did.

    Where is the movie?

    Forget Avengers. Forget Star Wars. Forget DC movies…..

    Bring Disney to the forefront. FOR REAL.

  12. Timothy on December 23, 2015

    there is a gargoyles video game on Sega Genesis me and my brother used to play it all the time lol

  13. Ana Steuart on December 24, 2015

    Gargoyles was the reason I studied Latin, read Shakespeare, Named All The Things, and became a huge fan of Tony Stark in the Marvel movies.

    Now that I own the series on DVD, I’m going back and re-watching it and being amazed by the subtext. I may not have understood everything on the show, but the lessons stayed with me.

  14. M. Haynes on December 24, 2015

    Absolutely fantastic. I actually wrote a blog post a few months ago saying a lot of the same stuff: a lot of 90s TV (Gargoyles especially) treated kids like they actually had brains. I appreciated that.

  15. Tatiana on December 24, 2015

    Never thought about Gargoyles beyond just finding another action series to love.

  16. Multi-Racial Misfit on December 24, 2015

    Ah, this is definitely one of my favorite “cartoons” ever. I used to watch this with my father, and we would oftentimes discuss the deeper issues the episodes explored. This was an awesome and accurate post.

  17. Brian LaFond on December 24, 2015

    Jordan you have said it all. My daughter and I were constant viewers of Gargoyles and I am an ADULT. Thanks for your comments.

  18. Frank Roper on December 24, 2015

    I watched the show as a 25 year old, 21 years ago and thought this show is great, I hope the kids get it.

  19. Cydney on December 24, 2015

    This was a wonderful article! I adored that show and thank you for reigniting that love!

  20. William Phillips on December 25, 2015

    I was a teenager when this came out, but it was highly intelligent and thought provoking. I mean, what cartoon talked about the Illuminati? From a lot of the historic references to folklore of different cultures across the globe. The show was an amazing spectacle of animation and story. I have the complete series on DVD and my 8 year old really enjoys it. I admit, I’m a bit of a retro nerd but it’s always good to explore your nostalgia. I also found the Gargoyles Sega game and played it on my retro Sega station and it was quite fun until I cleared…but all in all Gargoyles will always have a special place in my mind.

  21. PVR on December 25, 2015

    Man oh man this articles was so on point. This and Batman the animated series were my no holds bar cartoons as a kid. I sometimes wonder if cartoon creators today could have the same latitude to provide intelligent, thought provoking art that still entertains. Only thing that has touched me in a similar way but still not on the same level was Avatar the last Airbender. Man this article reminds me why I love being a black nerd.

  22. Marty on December 25, 2015

    It was probably the best animated program I encountered in my entire childhood – something I will treasure and pass on to my children. I think Gargoyles and Batman, the Animated Series really hit the mark back in the day.

    Minor Aside, the castle was sacked in 994 A.D., not B.C.. You didn’t have Scotts and Vikings back before the Romans. 😉

    • Michael on December 25, 2015

      Forgive me for replying but the message-board window won’t load an this is the only way I can leave a message. For those who might be interested: Greg Weisman, creator of Gargoyles, briefly continued the story in comic book form before the series was canceled. His work has been collected in two trade paper backs: “GARGOYLES CLAN BUILDING – VOLUME ONE” and “GARGOYLES CLAN BUILDING – VOLUME TWO”. There is also a third trade paper back, “GARGOYLES BAD GUYS” containing material from a spin off series that was also unfortunately canceled. “BAD GUYS” is kind of the Gargoyles universe equivalent of the Suicide Squad.

  23. Abigail Davis on December 25, 2015

    I remember enjoying this show.
    I just didn’t remember why.

  24. Jay on December 26, 2015

    It warns my heart to hear how important Gargoyles was to kids watching. As an adult watching it, I hoped that as many kids who could watch it would do so. It’s great to see how profoundly it affected so many of you. To my mind, it was the best animated series EVER!

  25. Brynne Chandler on December 26, 2015

    Jordan, thank you so much for this thoughtful and beautifully written article. I loved every second of working on this series (as writer and Story Editor) and it touches me beyond words to know that people still take such pleasure in it.

    • Shadow Kat678 on January 6, 2016

      I know I certainly still do. In fact, I need to go back and rewatch. I just realized how perfect our favorite main villain would be as a springboard idea for one I’m writing. But man, I thank you for participating in my childhood! *tips nonexistent hat*

  26. Max Akhidenor on December 27, 2015

    Gargoyles Season 2 episode 43 Future Tense is in IMHO not only the best episode of the whole series, but one of the best single cartoon episodes of all time.

  27. Pingback: Around the Tubes | Graphic Policy 28 Dec, 2015

    […] Nerd Problems – Gargoyles Was the Most Important Cartoon of my Pre-Intellectual Black Childhood – Who else was a […]

  28. Bryan Cook on December 28, 2015

    Great read Jordan. You inspired me to rewatch.

  29. Pingback: Co-Hosts Wanted for Star Wars Review Podcast » PKSullivan.com 30 Dec, 2015

    […] parties already. I want people who view the world differently from me because articles like this retrospective on Gargoyles are awesome. I also grew up with Gargoyles and it remains one of my all-time favorite […]

  30. benmech on December 31, 2015

    I still want my Owen Action Figure

  31. Joseph Assasin Thomas on January 10, 2016

    One of the best articles written on this site. respect.

  32. Ale Allegranzi (@aallegranzi) on January 26, 2016

    Incredible show. I loved all the Shakespeare/Arthurian elements.

  33. Sharae Allen Martin on February 6, 2016

    I loved loved this show. Thank you for the memories!

  34. Isaac on February 8, 2016

    Well written friend. This show taught so much during an awaking part of my life.

  35. Pingback: Top 5 Series That Need A Proper Reboot/ Continuation – Fan Fest | For Fans, By Fans 8 May, 2017

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