email thomas










By Thomas Wheeler

Every so often, it's fun to take a look back at some of the toy lines from years past, and the concepts that spawned them. Indeed, one comment that is often heard in the collecting community these days is, "It's not the 1980's anymore". This is generally a comment said with a mixture of remorse, chagrin, and a sort of longing. And it's certainly understandable.

Sadly, long gone are the days when you could walk into a Toys "R" Us and find two lengthy double-sided aisles loaded with massive supplies of all of the most popular action figures, their vehicles, and a wide range of accessory products. Back then, it wasn't so much a matter of whether you could find a given item, although particularly popular individuals and items could be in scarce supply, but whether you had enough money to afford a reasonable portion of what you saw in front of you, and if you did, if your vehicle was large enough to accommodate it all. Especially if you had other items taking up space in your vehicle. You know, wife, kids, groceries, that sort of thing.

Of course, in the 1980's, there were the "Big Three" -- G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Masters of the Universe. They all had monumental action figure lines and animated series. G.I. Joe and Transformers also had comic books backing them up. Masters never fared quite as well in this regard. But there were certainly other concepts. One of them was -- THUNDERCATS!

Largely the creation of a man named Ted Wolf, ThunderCats was produced by Lorimar/Telepictures. But ThunderCats was, arguably, the first truly anime series that didn't initially originate AS a Japanese series presented in the United States. Although both G.I. Joe and Transformers used overseas studios and in some respects -- Transformers especially -- had a certain anime feel to them, ThunderCats featured a level and consistency of animation that was nothing less than astounding, and right from the hyper-kinetic opening credits of the show, you knew there was something special going on here. Between the fluidity of the animation, its sheer speed, and the amazing level of detail, ThunderCats put it self on a distinctly higher level than most of the fare being offered at the time. Out of nearly 130 episodes -- also extremely impressive as far as sheer quantity is concerned -- only a handful seem a little "off". It no doubt helped that a lot of the personnel working on the show having worked on the legendary "Macross" movie before turning their attention to the felines. The series holds up well even today, and is available in boxed DVD sets, which I highly recommend.

ThunderCats told the story of a group of feline humanoids from a planet called Thundera. They had evacuated that world, it having been ravaged beyond the point of salvation by the various enemies of the Thunderian race, who were in hot pursuit of those who essentially comprised the "royal family" of Thundera, and were known as the ThunderCats.

The group settled on a new world called Third Earth, which featured a wide range of life-forms and characters for the ThunderCats to interact with and, when necessary, fight. The team included leader Lion-O, a young hero physically matured at an accelerated pace. Certainly heroic, but lacking somewhat in life experiences, he was a capable leader who nevertheless sometimes came up a little naive at times. As one might expect, he resembled a humanoid lion, with golden skin (one has to assume that the Thunderians probably had a layer of fur), and a great red mane of hair. There was Tygra, a tiger-like humanoid who was one of the most visually dynamic characters and who had considerable martial arts skills; Panthro, a somewhat burly character who was also the team's engineer and mechanic; Cheetara, a female warrior with martial arts abilities and astounding speed; and two youngsters named Wilykit and Wilykat. Somewhat less easily defined to any specific feline species, they gave the team a couple of characters that kids watching could relate to.

The show did well enough to encompass multiple seasons and a wide ranger of characters, including various enemies, and later on, three new Thunderians (for whatever reason they did not designate themselves as ThunderCats), which included Bengali, a white tiger-like being; Lynx-O, an elderly and blind Thunderian who nevertheless had the skills of a ninja; and Pumyra, a new female character who was not to be underestimated in a fight. Their greatest enemy throughout the series was unquestionably Mumm-Ra, a strange, mummy-like being who could transform himself into a massive, muscular warrior for a limited period of time. Mumm-Ra was plain and simply evil.

There was a toy series, of course. It was produced by a company known as LJN. They're no longer in business, and interestingly, they're generally best known for a fairly lengthy series of WWF wrestling figures, which tended to be around 8" in height, and were solid lumps of plastic. These figures were so well known that when Hasbro added professional wrestler Sgt. Slaughter to their line-up, they actually made a compatible Sgt. Slaughter figure as a mail-order offering, and more recently, Jakks Pacific, the current holder of the WWE license, has added the occasional LJN-style figure to its massive repertoire of action figures, featuring characters that never got the treatment the first time around, such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.

But, LJN also made the ThunderCats. The line was extensive and, for its time, reasonably well-made. Although the figures lacked the articulation of, for example, G.I. Joe, the line was well-made and well-received enough to endure for several years, including the addition of the later characters.

And on a recent clean-up in one area of my apartment, I came across a couple of them, specifically WILYKIT AND WILYKAT, and I thought they would make for a good flashback review.

There were technically two versions of these characters in the ThunderCats line, but the first versions are hardly worth mentioning. These were unposeable mini-figures that were packed in as little more than character accessories with some of the standard figures.

However, later in the line, both WilyKit and WilyKat got proper figure incarnations, sold in two-packs along with various representatives of the Berbils, who were, as strange as it sounds, robotic teddy-bear like creatures. Cross an Ewok with a Droid and you've about got it. What's really strange is that they weren't the weirdest life-form on Third Earth. There was a third figure made around the same time, Snarf, who was essentially Lion-O's nursemaid in his younger days, and in the series was the unfortunately obligatory comedy relief that kept the show from being "too serious", I'm sure. Basically he was the show's "Orko".

Characterwise, WilyKit and WilyKat bordered on comedy relief, but didn't quite cross the line, at least not too often. They were a couple of kids in a world of grown-ups, and no doubt a little jealous of the fact that Lion-O, who had previously only been slightly older than them, was now not only distinctly more grown-up, but pretty much running the team, while they had a hard time being taken seriously or going on any extensive adventures. It probably didn't help that they were occasionally refered to as "ThunderKittens", and thought of as "cubs", which at least doesn't sound quite as insulting as "kittens", but still didn't go over very well with Kit and Kat.

However, they were not entirely comedic. Both of them had reasonable combat skills, were highly agile and quick, and not someone that you really wanted to pick a fight with if you could help it. Each carried weapons, small explosive spheres, were consummate acrobats, and rode these flying boards that made the hoverboard from "Back to the Future II" look pretty pathetic in comparison.

Visually, it was clear that whatever feline species they might have represented, which was far more vague than most of the adult ThunderCats, they were of the same species. And honestly, they looked closer to Lion-O than anyone else on the team. They had pretty much the same color skin, a sort of yellowish-gold that was very similar to Lion-O's, with paler color around their faces and hands. Both had manes of red hair, although WilyKat, the male of the two, had whitish fur close around his face and tapering around the back. I don't believe this was intended to represent any notion that WilyKat was any older than his sister -- in fact I believe they were fraternal twins -- it was just the color of his hair/fur.

One distinctive feature that both had that Lion-O did not was a black streak in their hair. WilyKit's was a thick black stripe right up the middle, while WilyKat's were two black stripes up the center of his head, somewhat jagged, almost like two narrow lightning bolts.

Their greatest visual difference, other than their gender, were their clothes. WilyKit usually wore a light blue top with a little pinkish-purple detail at the shoulder, a somewhat jagged-ended skirt that was half-blue and half-pink-purple, and leg-bands, one in blue and one in pink-purple. WilyKat, on the other hand, wore a tunic that was half orange and half dark brown, with a bitof red trim, and brown boots with orange trim. About the only thing these outfits had in common was the ThunderCats symbol that all of the characters wore.

So, how are the figures? Well, not too bad -- for their time. Both are somewhat pre-posed, WilyKit especially, and somewhat limited in articulation, amounting to the usual five points of head, arms, and legs.

However, both are very neatly sculpted and very well-detailed. It's been my observation that some of the later figures in the ThunderCats toy line seemed to be better detailed and more accurate to their animated counterparts than the earlier versions. Whether LJN was being more careful since the line was an apparent hit, or hired different sculptors, I really don't know.

Color-wise, WilyKit is right on the money. WilyKat -- well -- here's where I have to offer an explanation. WilyKat just wasn't as well-colored. Now, I know he looks it in the photograph, but you have to understand that you're looking at a figure that I have somewhat customized, and after all these years (and all that work when I first got him), I wasn't about to strip the paint off of him.

When LJN made WilyKat, somebody at LJN got lazy. And they did it to the far less-impressive non-poseable stand-up figure, too. They molded WilyKit in the same color as his tunic, and left him that way. This was not only inaccurate, it looked ridiculous. It's odd enough wondering whether this boy has any pants on underneath that tunic even when the color scheme is accurate, without making his skin or fur or whatever the same color as the tunic... Additionally, they painted the detail around the face, and the fur around his mane, the same sort of yellowish-gold that his skin SHOULD have been. So, I distinctly recall when I got WilyKat that I wasted little time in a very careful customizing job to make him appear more show-accurate.

About the only negative thing I can say about the characters is that in the animated series, in what I have to regard as an annoying dose of political-correctness, WilyKat -- the boy -- more often than not came across as a moderately short-tempered bumbler who wasn't as bright as he should be, and WilyKit -- the girl -- was the more even-tempered and intelligent one who pulled his fur out of the fire. And this on a show that was rather clearly directed to BOYS. Wonderful life lesson right there...

So, what's the present status of ThunderCats? Several years ago, DC Comics, through its WildStorm imprint, revived the ThunderCats for a couple of mini-series. One of these, which postulated distinctly into the future beyond the series, was regarded as somewhat controversial by longtime fans for taking a few too many liberties. But there were more traditional tales, as well, including some interesting team-ups, one with Superman, and another one -- a pretty peculiar one -- with an anime icon of the 1970's, the characters from Battle of the Planets.

And there ARE fans of the ThunderCats to this day. The toys, especially the scarcer ones, like the latter Thunderians, can fetch rather impressive prices on the secondary market. I'm honestly not sure what Kit and Kat are presently worth, but I'm not inclined to sell them anyway.

As to the future? Who knows? There hasn't been an animation revival, and the original series would be hard to top anyway. There hasn't been a toy revival, probably due to a large part that LJN no longer exists, and there has been some dispute about the rights to the show and the characters and the various parties involved. Two questions would have to be asked here. One would be -- would the ThunderCats find a new market if the concept was overhauled to a new audience? Maybe, but you'd tick off a lot of traditionalists. Secondly, would a new toy line based on the original incarnation of the ThunderCats be viable? With the proper marketing, I think it would be. Unlike G.I. Joe or Transformers, the ThunderCats basically dropped off the map twenty years ago from a "mainstream media" point of view. Put the cartoon back on the air on a decent channel and a decent timeslot, and it's all new to a whole new generation. A generation that's ALREADY into anime, I might add. Get a Marvel Legends-level toy line out there and it'll appeal to adults and kids alike.

Sadly, there are no such plans. Only memories of one very cool concept called the ThunderCats. And for a few of us -- who probably need to do a little more housecleaning -- the occasional cool toy discovery, like WILYKIT and WILYKAT here. And I hope you've enjoyed this retrospective look at them, and at the THUNDERCATS in general!