It’s been almost a month since actor James Avery passed away. I’ve been meaning to write something about his work in cartoons here, but it’s taken me some time to sum it up properly.
When I was a kid, James Avery played The Shredder in the 1987 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When I was a teenager, James Avery played Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When I was an adult, James Avery was used as a piece of trivia (people my age were rather fond of asking “Did you know that The Shredder and Uncle Phil were the same guy?!”)
Avery’s depiction of The Shredder made a big impact on me. The character taught me a lot about how to write for villains.
Ever notice how when you’re a kid, you can’t always recognize the quality of children’s entertainment? Sometimes, you watch a childhood movie in your adulthood and you find yourself thinking, “I never realized how good these jokes were,” or “I never noticed how complex this theme music was.” But every once in a while, you noticed exactly how good kid stuff was while you were still a kid. When I was a child, I recognized that James Avery’s Shredder was the perfect Saturday morning cartoon villain.
What made 1987 Shredder the perfect (cartoony) villain? He had achieved the almost impossible feat of being equal parts frightening and funny. When he was angry, he was genuinely scary. When he was on the losing end of a joke, he was truly funny. True, Shredder would probably be scarier if he were never funny, or funnier if he were never scary. But he wasn’t going for extremes. He was going for balance.
Balance between fear and humor is difficult. Think of any cartoon villain you know and you can probably classify them as either funny or scary. Very few of them will fit in both boxes. (Honorable mention for Batman’s Joker – especially the Mark Hamill version – for being funny until it was scary. Not exactly the same as striking a balance, but worth a shout-out.)
Of course, crafting the perfect cartoon villain takes more than a good actor. There were two other parts to The Shredder’s success:
First is the tone of the story. How you set up your world and its rules are going to influence the characters. Obviously, the main antagonist usually has to match the story’s tone. Funny stories need comic-relief villains to keep them light. Serious stories need darker villains to keep the tension high. The 1987 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had committed to stories that were equal parts action and comedy.
***I’m going to go on a tangent here, but I’ll let you know when it’s over. Some of you younger readers may not be as familiar with the 1987 TMNT cartoons. If you’ve grown up with the 2003 4Kids version or the 2012 Nickelodeon version, the campy cartoons from my childhood probably look like a mockery of the more comic book-faithful versions that you know and love. If this sounds like you,  then let me explain something about 1987. Back then, most cartoons were only run on network television. There was no internet or video-on-demand, direct-to-video was too expensive, and not everyone had cable. And the networks were only interested in “safe” ideas – ideas for stories that were likely to catch on with the biggest possible audience. Wacky sci-fi fantasy action stories like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were not considered safe. But when it comes to drawing a large audience, humor is a powerful tool. As long as your jokes aren’t divisive (ie, offensive, obscure, gross, etc.) a comedy will usually grab the biggest number of followers. Turning up the funny on the Ninja Turtles didn’t automatically make it into a safe idea, but it made it safe enough for networks to give it a chance. The later versions of Ninja Turtles may never have been picked up at all if it weren’t for all the fame and good will that the first series garnered. Okay, tangent over, now back to The Shredder.***
The second element to creating a balanced villain was the writing – specifically the “writer’s bible.” Ninja Turtles writers understood their characters. They made it clear that The Shredder was clever, tough, well-trained in the art of fighting, and willing to break any code of ethics to get what he wanted. These were the qualities that could evoke fear and suspense. The Shredder also had qualities that made him funny. His desire for power and control was childish in it’s selfishness and he was prone to temper tantrums. On the other hand, he was also the only villain smart and wary enough to deliver dry, sarcastic one-liners about annoying heroes or henchmen. Basically, the writers came up with both funny and scary qualities for their character, made sure these qualities didn’t contradict each other, then used them consistently in their storytelling.
Of course, all of this ground work would have gone to waste without an actor who throughly understood who the character was and knew what the writers were trying to accomplish with him. Mr. Avery’s acting brought a very challenging character to life in the best possible way.
And so I salute the memory of James Avery. Your contributions to villainy were downright heroic.