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Gargoyles was nearly the center of a vast Disney Cinematic Universe

Plus: How OJ Simpson helped kill the show, and much more from creator Greg Weisman

Graphic grid with six images from the 90’s TV series “Gargoyles” Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

When Disney Plus launched in November 2019, The Walt Disney Company focused its promotional efforts around original shows like The Mandalorian and legacy content, from its animated classics to the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe features. But for a lot of longtime fans, one of the platform’s most exciting offerings was one of its least promoted: the entire run of the 1994-1997 animated series Gargoyles. For American animation buffs, Gargoyles was a true revelation back in the 1990s: a fantasy show with deep worldbuilding, an epic expanding story, rich characters, and above all, a developing narrative.

It may be hard to remember these days, when long-arc animated stories are the norm, but when Gargoyles launched, most American animated TV shows were designed for syndication, meaning they might air or be watched in any order. So every episode was meant to start and end with the same status quo, with nothing changing. Gargoyles creator Greg Weisman says that thinking “made it difficult for me to get work back in the day,” because studios knew he specialized in serialized storytelling. I’m like, “Well, yes, but I can do other things too,” he tells Polygon. “They were like, ‘Yyyyyeah, sure you can. We’re going to go with someone else.’”

Weisman and his team, including writer/story editor Michael Reaves, were ahead of their time with Gargoyles. Weisman has had a successful career in TV animation, as the creator of shows like DC’s stellar superhero series Young Justice and Sony Pictures’ The Spectacular Spider-Man, and as a writer-producer on Star Wars Rebels, among many other shows. But his attachment to Gargoyles is particularly clear. Since the show went up on Disney Plus, he’s been using social media to engage with fans, encouraging them to binge and share the show, in hopes that Disney will take notice of the franchise and revive it.

And it’s certainly ripe for further development. The series, about a race of creatures who turn to stone by day and live as flesh by night, started out in 1990s Manhattan, and initially focused on a small group of gargoyle survivors of a massacre in medieval Scotland. The series drew on a number of cast members from Star Trek: The Next Generation, including Marina Sirtis (as the human-hating gargoyle outcast Demona), Jonathan Frakes (as rich industrialist and gargoyle ally/enemy Xanatos), and Brent Spiner (as the mischievous Puck). But eventually, the series traveled around the world to touch on enclaves of gargoyles in many other cultures. Weisman maintains a lengthy FAQ detailing all the worldbuilding that went into the series, and the many planned spinoffs that never came to fruition. In a long, frank talk with Polygon, he talked about his hopes for the future of Gargoyles now that it’s finally available on streaming, explained why the third season of the show is so different from the first two, revealed how OJ Simpson helped kill Gargoyles, and much more.

A promo image shows the animated cast of Gargoyles. Image: Disney Television Animation

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

What’s your emotional relationship to the series? It’s been 25 years, and you’ve done so many other shows in the interim. How are you feeling about Gargoyles these days?

Gargoyles is still my baby. I don’t own it. I don’t get a dime off of it being on Disney Plus. And yet I’m so thrilled that it is, I’m thrilled that it represents a chance — even if it’s a slim chance — to bring it back. I’ve always wanted to do more. I’ve got a timeline for the show that’s 315 pages long. I’ve got notebooks and comp books full of ideas for it. Spinoff notions and all sorts of things. Literally nothing would make me happier than to go back and do more Gargoyles.

A lot of those proto-ideas for spinoffs are listed on your FAQ. If Disney Plus came to you tomorrow and said, “We’ll do any one of these, but only one,” which would you grab first?

The problem with a question like that is that nothing truly exists in a vacuum. If I really had my first choice, I’d be like, “More than anything else, I just want to take Gargoyles and pick up where it left off, set in 1997, and do this period piece.” But odds are, any discussion along those lines would have parameters: Walt Disney Television Animation or whoever would be like, “Hey, this is what we’re doing.” Or “This is what we’re interested in.” So I could definitely see doing Gargoyles 2198, which launches the story into the future, and has this clean, fresh start. I could see doing TimeDancer, which features one of the breakout characters of the show, Brooklyn, which would allow us to touch on a lot of stuff. Although production-wise, that would probably be one of the harder ones. Really, I’d be thrilled to do any of it. Bad Guys was the actual spinoff that got the furthest.

But my guess is that we’d wind up just doing more of the show. And frankly, my guess is that they’d want to reboot it, just as they’ve done with Duck Tales, to great success and great effect. And that’s not my first choice. I’m not saying I’d refuse, but I’m really proud of the work we did, and I don’t think it needs a reboot. I just think we’d like to make more. And in a world with a streaming service, where you’ve got 65 episodes, I’d just view it as Gargoyles season 3. But those are never decisions I get to make.

Fans of the show back in the 1990s were very aware of the personnel switch going into season 3, and were vocal about not liking the massive tonal switch. But now it’s available to a completely different generation of people, who are just going to see it all as one big unit on Disney Plus without knowing the history behind it. What are your concerns there?

I have tremendous sympathy for the people who did season 3. They had a really difficult schedule. They didn’t have time to learn the show. There were a lot of talented people who worked on that season. But for me — I wrote the first episode, but did not produce it. Someone even re-edited my script after I was gone.

I’ve seen that episode a few times, but the other 12 episodes, I’ve seen exactly once, because they’re honestly painful for me. If I had my way, completely selfishly, they wouldn’t have put Goliath Chronicles, what’s considered season 3, on Disney Plus. The characters behave out of character. There are moments here and there that are probably decent, but in the back 12 episodes, there isn’t a single one that feels right to me. Among the hardcore fandom, we just don’t consider that canon. It’s like the Marvel Comics version of Gargoyles, where they were off doing whatever they wanted. I tried to guide them, but they didn’t really listen too much. It’s almost like fan fiction.

So I’d ignore or write around those 12 stories, and not think about them much. I guess I’d watch them all one more time, to see what problems they might or might not cause for us, since it’s been literally 24 years since those aired. But they’re very disappointing. So yeah, I have always wished they didn’t exist. Which is a horrible thing to say about someone else’s work, but it just doesn’t feel like Gargoyles to me. It feels like another show where our characters were plastered in.

Three of the characters from Gargoyles wear costumes on Halloween, with glowing pumpkin lights dangling behind them. Image: Walt Disney Television

The first season was 13 episodes, and the second was 52. How did that happen?

It definitely wasn’t me! [Laughs] It was Buena Vista Television, which was our distribution arm at the time, the syndication arm of the Walt Disney Company. We’d done 13 episodes on a 10-month sliding schedule, which means you’ve got 10 months for each step, and they overlap. So you’ve got 10 months to write 13 scripts, 10 months to board 13 scripts, 10 months to animate 13 scripts. And all those 10 months aren’t consecutive, they overlap with each other, so there’s a point where all these steps are going on simultaneously. When we did the first 13 episodes, we asked for a season 2 pickup, for another 13 episodes. And they said, “Well, we’re not going to pick you up yet, we don’t know how this is going to do. But you can write six more scripts, we’ll invest that far.”

Then the show went on the air, and was a legitimate huge hit for that first season. I wouldn’t call it a grand slam, but it was definitely a home run. It was only on once a week, and it did really well. For a year, the toys were the number one boys’ toy in the United States. And that’s significant, because at the time, toys paid for an animated show to be made. So Buena Vista came to us and said, “We want to strip the show” — meaning that instead of it just being once a week, they wanted it to be five days a week, the following year. In that meeting, I said “That’s not possible. We did 13 episodes in 10 months. We can’t do 52 in 10 months.” And they were very unhappy.

So they said, “Well, how many could you do?” I said, “I know we can do six, because we’ve got six scripts in the works now. I’m pretty confident we can do 13. That’s what we asked for originally. And if we pushed it, I think we could do 18.” They wanted them all in the fall quarter. You have to remember what TV was like in the ’90s. It was all about fall premieres. For animation, you would do all your new episodes in the fall quarter, and then you would rerun them across the next three quarters, with new animation again in the following fall. You might save one or two episodes for the spring sweeps. I haven’t heard anyone mention sweeps in ages, I don’t even know if that kind of thing still exists. But at the time, there were fall sweeps and spring sweeps.

They wanted all the episodes in the fall — 52 episodes, and 10 months to do it. They said, “All right, if we can’t have 52, just do six.” So we went into pre-production on those six episodes. And then two weeks later, I got the call saying, “Hey, you said you could do 13, right?” And I said, “That was two weeks ago, but I still think we can do 13 if we get started now.” And then two weeks later, they called and said, “You said you could do 18!” I’m like, “That was a month ago! You’ve cost us a month!” “Well, you said you could do 18!” “Okay, we’ll manage, we’ll do 18.”

And then two weeks after that, they called and said they wanted 52. And I said no again, and they just overruled me. So we set about — I’m not exaggerating here — quadrupling our staff. We’d already lost six weeks on our schedule. So we went from having one story editor, the amazing Michael Reaves, to four story editors — him and Brynne Chandler, who at the time was Brynne Chandler-Reaves, and Cary Bates, and the late, wonderful Gary Sperling.

We expanded the world of the series, and we went from stories set in Manhattan to stories set all over the world. We added in more gargoyles, and other clans and other locations around the world. And that dovetailed with a meeting I had with Michael Eisner, at the time the chairman of the Walt Disney Company. I was at a meeting where he wanted to buy Marvel Comics. This was in the mid-1990s. And he was talked out of it in the meeting, which is still wildly ironic to me. So he said, “Well, Warner Brothers has DC Comics, we need to have an action universe like DC or Marvel.” And he turned to me and said, “Could we use Gargoyles as the launching pad for a Disney action universe?” And I said yes. So we began to develop all these spinoffs and backdoor pilots, like the New Olympians and the Pendragon episode, and others that we put into the second season.

But when it would have been time for a third season, a couple things happened, and one of them was that all my bosses vanished. [Disney president and CEO] Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash, which set Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and Michael at war with each other. Jeffrey left to found DreamWorks. My bosses, Gary Krisel and Bruce Cranston, both went to DreamWorks. All the people I’d worked for who were the big Gargoyles champions were gone. Initially, I include Eisner in that, but Roy Disney forced him to — he was accused of being a micromanager, so there were things he gave up doing, and one of them was choosing the animated series. Prior to that, he’d always been the first, last, and final word on which series we did. That’s how Gargoyles became a series, was because Michael said yes to it, ultimately. Suddenly, Gargoyles became an old-regime show, and the idea of using it to create a Disney action universe completely fell away. It was a great moment that didn’t pan out, but it was a great moment.

Did that personnel change lead to the show being turned into an ABC Saturday-morning cartoon?

Yes and no. The main problem we had was, they wanted 52 episodes in the fall of 1995. We managed to do 31, so from my point of view, I was a hero. But from their point of view — they had forgotten that I told them it was impossible, and they were mad. Then we had a couple of other problems. The OJ Simpson trial meant we were constantly being preempted for trial coverage, because we were on syndicated stations, and syndicated stations still primarily lived off local news in the 1990s. Every day it ran, we were being preempted, and in any given city, people were missing episodes of Gargoyles, and falling out of the habit of watching it.

The second big problem was Mighty Morphin Power Rangers coming to the United States. That show was a blockbuster. So in season 1, we were the number 1 show in our afternoon slot, and in season 2, we were consistently number 2. We weren’t a failure, but we’d gone from being a home run to being a double. Power Rangers was the big news and the home run. Our toys fell off. So there wasn’t much thought of doing a season 3. The viewership was fractured. It sounds bizarre that OJ Simpson helped destroy Gargoyles, but it’s true.

So there wasn’t going to be a season 3 at all. And then Disney bought Capital Cities, which included ABC. And they said ABC Saturday morning needed a boys’ action show, so they said “Let’s do Gargoyles.” But they had then these weird notions of creating some separation from the afternoon show. So they called it The Goliath Chronicles. They had different S&P standards than we had in syndication. And they lost almost everybody, creatively, on the show. They came to me and asked me to take a demotion from producer to story editor, which was, as you can imagine, a less-than-exciting prospect. I said, “Give me the weekend to think about it.” And they said, “Sure.” And when I came back on Monday, they’d already hired my replacement. So they weren’t too eager to keep me around.

They ended up doing the show at Nelvana. They told me they were going to do it at DIC, which was not a high-quality studio back in those days. That was one of the reasons I hesitated to stay on, because it seemed like it was going to a lower-quality studio. And they were giving us very little time, and literally an entire new staff of people making the show, almost without exception. That’s all what contributed to Goliath Chronicles existing at all, but also being so different from the other two seasons.

For a lot of people, Gargoyles was their first experience with American animation having long-form story arcs, and characters who evolved over time. Animators on later shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender frequently cite Gargoyles as crucial to their development. Do you have favorite “Gargoyles inspired me” stories?

The character of Elisa Maza, played by Salli Richardson, seems to have made a huge difference to a lot of people. In terms of long-form storytelling, I wish I could say, “Oh yeah, the creators of this show or that show say they never would have done their show if it wasn’t for Gargoyles.” No one’s done that. [Laughs] You’d have to pick a show you think was influenced by it, and then go ask their creators if Gargoyles means anything to them.

You know, we were heavily influenced by Hill Street Blues, which to me is the beginning of modern television. This Golden Age we’re in all goes back to Hill Street for me. But from a cartoon standpoint, I do think Gargoyles was — I think I can say this in all modesty — ahead of its time. When the Young Justice revival was announced, our boss here at Warner Brothers, Sam Register, said to us about the first few seasons of Young Justice, “You created the perfect binge-watching show, you just did it five years too soon.” Which just means Gargoyles was the perfect binge-watching show, created 25 years too soon. [Laughs] I like to think Gargoyles was a positive influence on creators, but I don’t have any good stories there.

Lead gargoyle Goliath explodes out of his stone shell at dusk. Image: Walt Disney Television

It sounds like Disney Plus didn’t contact you in any way. There wasn’t any conversation about the show being part of the service?

Yeah, they just didn’t. It’s not like they owe me a call. I’m thrilled that they did it. I knew a couple months ahead of time that it would be part of the service. That surprised me, when I found that out, because I had been told the opposite, that they weren’t going to put it up there. I was thrilled when they decided, “Well, we got it, we might as well put it up there.” Because I do think it represents a slim shot at bringing the show back. If enough fans binge the show over and over again, if we can prove to Disney that the fan base is out there … There have been times over the years, I don’t know how serious they were, but discussions about maybe bringing it back in some way or another.

And all those discussions got derailed when Disney bought Lucasfilm and Marvel. And you can see why. Why take a chance on what they viewed as an obscure 1990 show with a cult following, when you can just do a Spider-Man cartoon, or a Star Wars cartoon? Why take a risk on a huge-budgeted Gargoyles live-action feature that might bomb, when you could make another Marvel movie? I understand that. But I also think Gargoyles could do great stuff for Disney.

Would you want a live-action Gargoyles?

I’d love to, especially if they let me write and produce it. Obviously no one wants a bad version of Gargoyles, and if it sucked, that would be horrible. But even if it sucked, it might be high-profile enough to let us do more Gargoyles comics, or more of the show. That’s a deal I’d take. I don’t earn any money off of Gargoyles. Disney owns it 100%, but I obviously feel territorial about it. And I’d love to see the property be able to grow. As long as nothing is being done with it, that’s impossible. But if something is done with it, and I think being on Disney Plus counts as something, there’s at least a shot at allowing us to tell more stories in that universe. That would be huge for me, emotionally.

What would live-action bring to the story?

In and of itself? Nothing. Just the prestige to let me do more in animation. I don’t know that it would be better in live action, and God knows it could certainly be worse. But you could have Keith David play Goliath. You could have Marina Sirtis play Demona, because those would be CGI characters in a live-action world. You could really bring that show to life in a way that I think would be really cool. We had some pretty astounding, startling, wonderful visuals in the animated series, and seeing them in a live-action setting could be just badass. It’d just be another way to let the show live and breathe again. I wouldn’t mind taking the risks.

You mentioned Detective Maza being an inspiration for viewers. Was that primarily because she was a woman of color and a female lead in a position of authority? Was there more to it?

I think it’s all those things. She was a female lead who wasn’t a damsel in distress. We tried to make sure that for every time Goliath saved her life, she saved his. We made her competent and funny. We made her sexy without sexualizing her. She was bi-racial — half African-American, half Native American — and she was played by a woman of color. She felt pretty real. She had parents, she had siblings, she had a cat. She had a life before she met the gargoyles. We had a great Beauty and the Beast love story in her slow-burning relationship with Goliath. So I think she became, for a lot of people, an aspirational character. Not in a pedantic way, but in a real way.

At the time, I didn’t even think about it. I just wanted more diversity. We’re doing a story set in Manhattan, I wanted Manhattan to reflect the multi-ethnic, multi-racial Manhattan I knew. I didn’t even think about how unusual Elisa was in a 1990s cartoon, to not just be the hero’s girlfriend, but to actually have her own agency, her own strengths, her own flaws. She wasn’t perfect, but she was heroic.

Is there any aspect of the show that you think plays differently for a 2020 audience?

Well, the cell phones are much bulkier. I mean, really, the one thing that dates the show, honestly, is the cell phones. The lack of them in the first place, and then when you do see Xanatos with a cell phone, it’s the size of a brick. I keep telling my kids that as the iPhone just keeps getting bigger and bigger, pretty soon we’ll be back to those brick-size cell phones we used to have in the early 1990s. But mostly, the show is rather timeless, and it still works the same way for an audience. Are there things I might change a little here? One thing I’ve talked about with fans is that character of Lexington, one of the gargoyles, was gay. But of course in those days, we couldn’t say that. So we just tried to write him consistently as a gay character, so that if someday, when the world was a different, better place, we could acknowledge it and it wouldn’t seem like it was out of left field.

I’ve been through the same thing on Young Justice, where in the first two seasons on Cartoon Network, we weren’t allowed to be objective about our LGBTQ characters. Now, on DC Universe, in seasons 3 and 4, we can be, most of the time. It always felt a little cowardly to me to not have Lexington be out, but it’s not like I had the power to say “We’re doing this.” If I had insisted, I just would have gotten fired. If anything, knowing what I wanted to do, they would have gone out of their way to make it clear that Lexington was [comedically deep, butch voice] absolutely as heterosexual as he could possibly be. So I don’t want to take much credit for not championing something beyond my ability to champion it. But we tried at least to lead the way, or guide the way, so that if down the road, things got better, we could do more with it. So if we got a new season of Gargoyles, I would hope that in this day and age, they’d let us be more open.

Photo: Walt Disney Television

The Xanatos Gambit has become a recognizable TV trope, and it’s still heavily quoted and referenced. What went into developing that particular aspect of his personality, the “All my defeats are secretly victories” attitude?

We didn’t call it the Xanatos Gambit back in the day. We called them Xanatos tags, because it was always a tag at the end of an episode. It tickles me beyond belief that the trope is named after us. I have no idea whether we created it — there must be somebody before us who did it — but we definitely honed it. [Laughs] Part of it was in discussions with myself, Michael Reaves, and [supervising producer] Frank Paur. We didn’t want our villains to decay. We wanted Xanatos to be smart in a way that we hadn’t seen villains be in the past. I didn’t want him to be petty, that was the main thing. I didn’t want him to be vengeful.

We sometimes would play into the notion that Xanatos was trying to take vengeance, and then we’d do a twist on it, you’d find out it wasn’t him after all, and the real Xanatos didn’t give a damn about vengeance. There’s a moment when he’s got the gargoyles pinned down in a deathtrap, and he’s like, “This is my first real attempt at cliché villainy. How am I doing?” The idea was that he had his goals, and if the gargoyles got in the way, they were expendable. But all else being equal, he’d rather keep them alive, because you can’t exploit something you’ve killed. And Xanatos was all about this exploitation, all about preparation. So he would have a plan A and a plan B. And then we did one episode where he has plans C, D, and E.

That idea of keeping him smart, and saying “I’m going to feint left, because what I want here is to the right, and if I get the left and the right, that’s great, but at minimum, I’ll get the right” — that notion became an essential part of his personality. One of the things I’m proudest about in the show is that Xanatos and Demona, who are very different, feel like truly original villains, of a kind I just don’t think had been seen on TV up to that point. There have been more like them since then, but back then, I think they were pretty unique and special.

As you’ve said, this is a bingeable series, and the episodes work best in the context of a developing narrative. But even so, do you have favorites that you wouldn’t want people to miss?

Yeah, I think our original five-partner is really strong. Obviously it’s the best place to start, it’s our pilot. I think it turned out really strong. The animation, by and large, is really gorgeous. The story is strong, the characters pop. If I had to pick a single favorite episode, there’s one called “The Mirror,” which to me is the ultimate Gargoyles episode. Our multi-parters are strong and great, particularly the first one, “The Awakening,” and the last one, “Hunter’s Moon.” But if you had to pick one 22-minute episode that I think is emblematic of the strength of the series, it would be “The Mirror.” It’s got romance, lots of humor, a great action story. It’s got pretty kick-ass animation and great character work. It shows the Shakespearean influence that’s heavy in the show. There are a couple of fun revelations in there. So if I had to pick one episode to sell the series, that’s it.

I’ve read that the Shakespeare influence primarily came from you. Why so much Shakespeare in the show? How did that happen?

It begins with me being a huge Shakespeare geek. I mean, just like a fanboy. The way some people are about Batman or whatever, I am about the plays of William Shakespeare. Particularly back then, before I had kids, I would chase Shakespeare everywhere. We went to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We’d go down to Orange County or down to San Diego to see Shakespeare there. I was just obsessed with Shakespeare. I still am, but I’m too tired to chase it everywhere. [Laughs] That was a fundamental fact of who I was back then.

When Michael Reaves, Frank, and I were developing the Gargoyles character that would ultimately become Macbeth, we started with this notion of wanting a physical adversary for Goliath, someone who didn’t have superpowers, but was a great warrior, and used tech. We were thinking in terms of Batman, if he were evil. I wanted to have the character have some resonance with Goliath, so we said, “What if he was from Scotland, like Goliath? What if he were a medieval Scottish King, and they were from the same era?” Making him Macbeth gave him some name cachet.

Then Michael and I went to town on that, bringing in Puck and Oberon and Titania. We did a story that paralleled Othello, we brought in the Weird Sisters and all sorts of other elements. Some of that was me, without a doubt., and some of it was the writers working on the show, realizing that if they threw Shakespeare into a script, it would make me happy. And I’d be more likely to say yes to it. They were just pandering to me, honestly. I was aware of it, but it worked anyway. [Laughs] Because I really was that big of a fanboy.

It just continued to blossom. We decided at some point, “Let’s just lean into it,” because it did bring us a lot of resonance. We had plans to do stuff with the characters from The Tempest, and in the comic series I did for Slave Labor Graphics. I really leaned into the stuff from Henry IV and Henry V, with Falstaff and Doll and Quickly, and all those characters from the history plays.

There was a rumor back in 2018 that Jordan Peele was interested in doing a big-screen Gargoyles. Have you spoken to him?

I think it’s accurate that he was interested, but I can’t speak to how far those conversations went. I touched base with him on Twitter, just saying, “Hey, I don’t know if you know who I am…” And he’s like, “I do know who you are!” That was gratifying, but that’s as far as it went, you know? I don’t want to overstate it, it was like, he’s Jordan fucking Peele, and I’m Greg Weisman! My understanding — not inside information, just my understanding — is that he expressed an interest in the property. And Disney didn’t say no. But by not saying yes, that answers the question. You know, they didn’t want to say no to Jordan Peele, but they also didn’t want to say yes to Gargoyles. So it just didn’t go anywhere. I’d like to think — I don’t know this, I want to make that clear — that he’d still be interested in doing something with it if a new opportunity arose. I can’t say for sure if that’s true, I have no idea. But I would hope so. I’m a huge fan of his. Should he read this article, I would love to work with him. But I don’t know how realistic that is.

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