Recommendation — Gargoyles

Gargoyles: Disney.

Allow me, if you will, to get this bit of pedantry out of the way first.

None of the gargoyles from Gargoyles are, in fact, gargoyles.

By definition, a gargoyle is specifically a carved monster that also functions as a water spout to direct water away from the building to protect from water damage.

A statue that is just a decorative monster is properly called a grotesque.

That being said, for the vast, vast majority of people “gargoyle” does simply mean “architectural monster.” Very few people are aware of the distinction and even fewer people will actually care.

Still, now you’ve learned something about medieval masonry…

A birdlike gargoyle on an old building.
Photo by David Henry on

With that out of the way, let’s get to Disney’s 90s cartoon Gargoyles, which I’ve been getting re-acquainted with thanks to Disney Plus.

It’s funny, I remember Gargoyles — I had the action figures of all six of the main Gargoyles, I remember the theme music, I remember playing the Sega Genesis video game where I couldn’t get past the first level, because I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing — but re-watching the show for the first time since about 1999, I’m amazed at how little I remember about Gargoyles.

I remember the six gargoyles: there’s the leader, the veteran second-in-command, the cocky one, the big one, the nerdy one, and the, uh, dog one. I remember that they end up awakening in New York after a thousand years as statues. I remember the bad guy’s goatee and ponytail.

A scene from Disney's "Gargoyles", depicting the six gargoyle characters and human character David Xanatos.
Our heroes, seen here with the implicitly trustworthy David Xanatos.
Gargoyles: Disney.

But, clearly, I’ve forgotten enough of the plot of the show that I’m basically experiencing it all for the first time again. I did not remember why the gargoyles spent a thousand years as statues, for example.

I’m only partway through the first season, but I’m liking what I’m seeing so far.

I’d especially forgotten the fact that the characters are using actual guns, rather than clumsily-implemented, poorly-explained, or haphazardly-edited lasers.

A generic villain from "Gargoyles" firing a gun.
Figure 1: Not a laser.
Gargoyles: Disney.

That was shocking to see for the first time in about 20 years, largely because I can only think of exactly other one example of a kids’ cartoon with actual guns — in Captain America’s World War II flashbacks in The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, everyone is using real-world, more or less period-accurate firearms (my understanding is that the censors gave the writers the choice of having Cap fight Hydra with real guns, or fighting real Nazis with lasers).

Long story short, I’m pretty surprised that a 90s cartoon managed to get away with giving its characters real guns.

Though it does become a plot point; early in the first season, the main human character ends up getting shot by accident and the whole episode becomes a valuable and unflinching lesson about guns.

To the show’s credit, the message is more nuanced than simply “Guns are bad; don’t do guns” and comes across more as”Guns are dangerous; don’t treat them like toys.”

I haven’t got very fair through the series yet, but even only partway through the first season, I’m constantly surprised by how deep, thoughtful, and occasionally dark Gargoyles consistently manages to be. I can’t really remember another cartoon I’ve watched recently that manages to do that.

Also notable, especially a 90s cartoon, is the fact that the human lead is not only a woman, but a biracial African-Native American woman.

I feel like that character would be a hard sell to the studio even in 2021, so I’m especially impressed Gargoyles was able to pull it off nearly 30 years ago.

Also, she’s pretty badass She’s an NYPD detective, so she’s got physical ability and a lot of intelligence and guile.

"Gargoyles" character Elisa Maza waving.
Yeah, hi.
Sidebar: She also kinda looks like Carmen Sandiego
Gargoyles: Disney.

There’s also the show’s recurring bad guy (voiced by the guy who was Riker on Star Trek), who is surprisingly nuanced and realistic for a Saturday morning cartoon villain.

For one thing, he’s not really evil, so much as Machiavellian and primarily focused on always coming out ahead. He’s essentially an Iron Man-esque billionaire industrialist whose primarily goal is to maintain his business interests.

He isn’t even really a villain, so much as merely an antagonist to the gargoyles because he has conflicting goals and methods, though he does have lines he won’t cross. Even while in conflict with the gargoyles, he still respects them and honours his deals with them.

Now, cartoonishly evil supervillains with zero nuance do have a place (especially in, you know, cartoons), but I do enjoy an antagonist whose motive is something other than “be as evil as possible, just because.”

Straightforwardly, simply evil characters can be interesting and enjoyable, but I do have a soft spot for pragmatic, goal-oriented villains — it’s why Cao Cao is my favourite Dynasty Warrior.

Look, I don’t want to turn this into a whole “My childhood was better; there hasn’t been a good cartoon since 1997, etc, etc” nostalgia-laden rant about the long-vanished glory days of children’s entertainment. I haven’t really been keeping up with enough children’s entertainment to be able to make that call.

Though, for what it’s worth, my assessment of the whole “My childhood was better” thing is that no, no it wasn’t — you were just younger and dumber and didn’t know any better.

A gargoyle at Notre-Dame de Paris overlooking the Paris skyline.
Photo by Jean Pierre on

Gargoyles is a good show.

But you can recognise that it’s good without being smug and insufferable about the current state of cartoons. There’s a lot of good writing and keen insights from the writers here.

Also impressive is the amount of research the writers have done into real-world history and mythology.

The gargoyles get their start in 10th-century Scotland, end up frozen until waking up in 1990s New York, then fight and/or befriend various immortal historical figures and mythological and folkloric characters and monster.

And while the writing does occasionally play fast and loose with the details of those characters and monsters, it’s clearly the result of the writers deciding to play only as fast and loose as they need to move along the story.

I can’t quite decide if they’re getting the details right and ignoring the broad strokes, or getting the broad strokes right and ignoring the details…

Either way they clearly did their homework, but they also clearly recognise that a functional story takes priority over accuracy to obscure folkloric details.

A close-up of Goliath from "Gargoyles" in his stone form, posing like Rodin's Thinker.
Auguste Rodin called. He wants his pose back.
Gargoyles: Disney.

Now, Gargoyles is nearly 30 years old (man, that’s a lot to take for someone born in 1991…), and it’s clear that animation has come a long way since then.

That’s not to say it’s badly drawn or animated — though I’m pretty sure they reused the exact same footage of the gargoyles busting out of their stone forms every night each episode. But it’s a very noticeable how much clearer and cleaner current animation is.

Of course, for what it’s worth, current animation feels almost too clear and clean and came come across as lifeless and sterile.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is don’t get turned off by it just because it’s old. Of course, if you’re old enough to have watched it the first time around, you’re probably nostalgic enough to want to watch it anyway.

All that is to say, go watch Gargoyles. Even though none of them actually are technically gargoyles…

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