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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 would 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.
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.