Tuesday, July 4, 2000
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Posted on: Tuesday, July 4, 2000

Those Thundercats just keep on coming back

“ThunderCats Ho!” Lion-O and his friends, first seen on TV in the 1980s, still pop up on the small screen, and now on nostalgic T-shirts and in other contexts.

By Elizabeth Kieszkowski
Advertiser Assistant Features Editor

Muscular humanoids with feline faces, the superheroic ThunderCats captured kids’ attention in the 1980s — and now they’re doing it again.

The cartoon characters, invented by the late Honolulan Tobin Wolf, have been TV-syndication staples for nearly two decades. They’re shown sporadically on the Cartoon Network and have experienced another revival as a result of ’80s nostalgia.

What’s the attraction? Honolulu attorney Janice Wolf, daughter of the ThunderCats’ creator, gives some of the credit to the personas developed by her father before he "pitched" the team to its animators.

"We sat around the table creating the characters," Janice Wolf remembers, thinking back to the 1980s. "It was a morality play, with superheroes. ... Basically, the characters have survived pretty much as they were intended."

Cartoon-watchers of the ’80s will remember Lion-O, Tygra, Panthro and Cheetara, or perhaps the oft-repeated cry, "ThunderCats Ho!" Those too young or old to connect with the first run of the cartoon series may have seen it in reruns. Observant people-watchers will spot the characters on teen T-shirts around town.

Web sites are dedicated to these fictional figures. The appreciation for them seems unending.

The connection may well spring from the all-too-human attributes attached to the characters. Leader Lion-O, for example, is impulsive; the more wise Panthro must often come to his aid. "Wilykat" and "Wilykit," male and female juveniles in the ThunderCat pack, are more real than real. Character synopses developed in 1984 describe them thus: "They are mischievous, disrespectful to the older Thundercats, and though often brought up short by the elders, they are never totally repentant ·"

Tobin Wolf, who died last year, lived out the end of his life in Honolulu. His daughter, Janice (who worked at The Honolulu Advertiser from 1968 to 1982), has monitored the ThunderCats phenomenon from the Islands throughout. She still collects occasional royalties from the characters, for which her father shared a copyright with Telepictures Corp. Warner Bros. is the current syndicator of the series.

Tobin Wolf, it turns out, was a self-made man, on his own from an early age, a World War II veteran and an inventor who held several patents on industrial items. As if this weren’t enough, Wolf was also a toy inventor and cartoon-character creator.

In short, Wolf was one of those persevering, multitalented and creative types who helped build the (sometimes accurate) stereotype of the American man. He lived only for a few months in Hawaii, though now his industrial patents, sketches and collection of ThunderCats materials reside in the Islands, with his daughter.

"Ive got a whole stack of his patents," Janice Wolf said. "I was going to get them framed, but there were too many."

Tobin Wolf knew a thing or two about the dramas of battle and survival. He was born in 1922 and his father died when he was young, so he was sent to live with grandparents, who gave him up to a foster home at about age 10. Janice Wolf said her father soon moved out on his own, putting himself through high school and marrying at 19.

Wolf enlisted during World War II, and lost part of a leg during the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he studied mechanical engineering, then worked for Westinghouse, where he developed contraptions qualifying for several patents.

Eventually, Tobin Wolf struck out on his own as an inventor of toys. During this period, he invented the precursor of today’s ubiquitous portable stereo: a portable record player for teens, manufactured by Singer.

In 1981, Tobin Wolf sketched a cast of muscular, superpowered characters who combined both "superhuman" and "superanimal" powers. Telepictures Corp. of New York agreed to develop the series, and the program went into production in 1984. The series went on air the following year and played through 1987. In the process, the characters entered the consciousness of a generation.

The ThunderCats aired in the era of "He-Man" and "She-Ra" — Japanese-influenced cartoons that were marked by their focus on the strife between good and evil as well as their lack of subtext. These cartoons weren’t like the Warner Bros. classics featuring Bugs Bunny and crew; they didn’t pile on the inside jokes and double entendres, but focused on adventure, teamwork and notions of right and wrong.

Whether it happened because of or in spite of this focus, the ThunderCats made their mark. And now pop culture has anointed the characters as benchmarks of ’80s life, suitable for nostalgic reference in trendy clothing.

Cards poured in to Hawaii from around the world when Tobin Wolf died last year, Janice Wolf reports. Fans continue to exchange news about him and the ThunderCats via the World Wide Web. ("ThunderCats was my all-time favorite cartoon," proclaims the creator of one fan site. "Still is. Man, I lived, slept and ate the ThunderCats.") And the characters continue to pop on and off of TV screens, according to the whims of syndicators.

"Just when I think ThunderCats’ has given its last meow, here it comes," said Wolf. "I suppose all of us want to leave a legacy. I’m glad my father had that."

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