Kamandi Challenge no. 6

Main cover by Andy Kubert and Brad Anderson

“The Insides-Out Adventure”
Writer:
Steve Orlando
Penciller: Philip Tan
Inker: Norm Rapmund
Colorist: Dean White
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

At the conclusion of last month’s Kamandi Challenge, Kamandi had fallen into the clutches of Dr. Vokolo, a lemur physician in possession of a 3-D “bio-printer.” Vokolo was willing to sacrifice Kamandi for the sake of saving potential lives in the future, a process that entailed removing the still-living Kamandi’s internal organs to be scanned. Alas, there was no plan to put them back when Vokolo was done with them, so things looked bleak for our hero. The tiger man Raja Maccao (“Mack”), whom Kamandi had earlier been traveling with (and who was already searching for Vokolo in hopes of finding a cure for a plague of “weeping pox” elsewhere), burst into Vokolo’s lab and was greeted by a sight out of an EC horror comic.

“What have you done to Kamandi?!” Mack demands as Kamandi Challenge number 6 gets underway. The good doctor explains what is happening, finishing with the ominous promise that “The only thing keeping your friend alive . . . is me.” So to motivate Vokolo, Mack shoots him in the gut, forcing him to use the “bio-printer” to save himself and Kamandi. Well, actually, it takes seven hours to print the regenerative “gene therapy” that they eventually find in the computer’s records, but Vokolo estimates that he has only three hours to live after being gut-shot, so in the end he gets what was coming to him, and only Kamandi lasts long enough to benefit from the gene therapy.

After Kamandi awakens, good as new, Mack chooses to stay behind and look for a cure for weeping pox among the late doctor’s resources. To help Kamandi continue his search for his people, he directs him to an old friend, a superhuman scientist named Renzi. Renzi is a character from Jack Kirby’s original Kamandi series, but his appearance here is largely a cameo. The pair are shown traveling by high-tech hot-air balloon just long enough to establish that Renzi possesses a “cyclo-heart,” an atomic energy source that allows him to change his body to a metallic substance for short durations, before they are shot down over an unknown source of intense heat. Renzi assumes his steel form to protect Kamandi, but both black out in the crash; they awaken in chains, the prisoner of intelligent bears. Renzi is separated from Kamandi: the bears have use of his cyclo-heart.

Kamandi is brought face-to-face with Groznovo, the “Alpha of Alphas”; Mishkingrad, the “God-Commune of the Bears” is a high-tech Soviet collective (because bears, get it?), and Groznovo wears a crown that receives and tallies the collective decisions of the commune’s inhabitants, which he interprets and executes. His status as a channel for the will of the people is quite literal. Kamandi challenges Groznovo’s position, telling him that by being subject to the constantly shifting demands of the people he has merely chosen a different form of slavery, and is free of the burden of ever making his own decisions. Groznovo accepts this idea surprisingly quickly, and in fact lets Kamandi know that he has been tiring of the demands of duty for some time. If ever there was an opportunity for him to break free from the commune’s collective rule, Kamandi has presented Groznovo with it; the bear promises to lead Kamandi to where Renzi is being held.

Throughout their flight through the city, Kamandi notices strangely anatomical references that go beyond the usual discussion of a city’s “bones”: the transit system is referred to as “vascular,” and so on. Near the end of this chapter we see just what Renzi’s atomic-powered heart is being used for: the “God-Commune” is a giant, self-contained city, but it is in the form an enormous, autonomous bear, and with Renzi’s heart as its reactor, it can generate enough power to get up and move about freely. Ultimately, Groznovo has been playing Kamandi: the bear truly wants to be free, but he will not betray the commune’s ideals. He has led Kamandi away from the furnace in which Renzi is being held captive. Kamandi accuses Groznovo of using him, and the pair fight as the bear-shaped city plods along, leaving flames in its wake. Groznovo makes it clear that in a choice between loyalty to Kamandi and his own people, he will always choose his people, and he reluctantly throws Kamandi overboard.

“The Insides-Out Adventure” moves at a quick pace, first resolving the cliffhanger of Kamandi’s vivisection, then getting him into the balloon with Renzi, and finally dropping both of them into the city of the bears. Without the colorful dialogue that tempered the pace of Bill Willingham’s contribution last month, and with four full-page splashes (including an impressive two-page spread of the city coming to life), the effect is an adventure that feels a bit rushed. In particular, Kamandi’s debate with Groznovo on the nature of free will, which seems to be the central theme writer Steve Orlando wants to convey, doesn’t have much tension; Groznovo’s abdication of his crown is a nearly foregone conclusion. (The real twist comes at the end, when he refuses to help rescue Renzi and dispenses with Kamandi.)

Communism (or a high-tech iteration of it) comes off as something of a straw man here, but that is hardly surprising: like most American comic book heroes, and particularly characters who inhabit lands as savage as Earth A. D. (After Disaster), Kamandi’s ideals of freedom and self-determination are particularly American in form: the freedom to go where he pleases, and to bow to no man (or bear) are central. Furthermore, Kamandi has occasional traveling companions, but no tribe: the idea of submitting his own will to a greater good is quite out of place in the lawless kill-or-be-killed wilds of the future. (As in previous installments, comparisons are drawn between the mute, sheep-like humans the bears have penned in captivity and the boy who will not be silenced; as in Planet of the Apes, “This is what happens when a human thinks for himself!”)

Recalling the first chapter, Kamandi was brought up in a sheltered simulation of a typical small town, so one imagines that his schooling included American Government or Civics: like any student who has left school to strike out on his own, part of Kamandi’s story has been his disillusionment upon discovering that the world isn’t what he thought it was, and his subsequent discovery of his own power. His encounter with the communist bears is a test of his beliefs, but one too brief to really challenge them, and in effect the God-Commune is just another cruel domain ruled by an Other, an animal race that has taken one trait of human civilizations (collectivism) to an extreme.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy (1937)

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Late at night, a band of disparate, seemingly unrelated men board a train and gather together in a private compartment, summoned by the one man they all fear–all but one! Korvitch swears that he bows to no man, and doubts that their master is even onboard the train. But then they hear it: shuffling, uneven footsteps, the steps of the criminal mastermind known only as the Lame One, whose mark is the Spider. The Lame One appears at the compartment’s door in shadows; Korvitch fires his gun, but the Lame One only laughs. Later, Korvitch wanders the empty streets, a haunted man, as behind him those uneven, shuffling footsteps pursue him relentlessly. When Korvitch’s body is found the next morning, a look of terror is frozen on his face, and branded on his skin is the mark of the Spider. Only one man can unravel this mystery and stand in the way of the Spider ring’s other crimes, and that man is Dick Tracy!

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We quickly join Tracy and his team at the Federal Office Building with Tracy answering phone calls and giving terse answers. “I think you’d better take that up with Anderson’s office. Yes, he has my report on it. . . . Well, I know all about that.” Et cetera. “You’re about the busiest man I ever saw,” Tracy’s visiting brother Gordon observes. The “Spider mark” cases are occupying the bureau’s attention, and Tracy remarks on the curious fact that each victim found with the mark has turned out to be a well-known criminal. On this day, Tracy’s birthday, Gordon and Tracy’s assistant Gwen try to drag Tracy to the estate of Ellery Brewster, who has set up a carnival, complete with circus performers, to entertain the children from the orphanage. Brewster was one of the men summoned to report to the Lame One on the train before, and when he too is murdered and left with the Spider’s mark, a day of pleasure turns into business for Dick Tracy. The murder is solved, but it was committed by an expendable underling, of course: the Spider ring remains as mysterious as ever.

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Gordon recalls receiving a sealed envelope from Brewster before his murder, which may have information about the Spider ring, but when he drives to his office to retrieve it, he is run off the road by more of the Spider’s men. Injured and taken to Moloch, the Lame One’s hunchbacked scientist, Gordon is operated on, with dramatic results: by “a simple altering of certain glands,” Moloch changes Gordon’s personality so that he does not know right from wrong and enlists him as a criminal associate. (In fact, it changes him so much that Gordon before and after the operation is played by two different actors!)

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All of this, and more, takes place in just the first (extra-long) chapter of the 1937 Republic serial Dick Tracy. With a drastically changed appearance and a dead-eyed stare, Gordon effectively becomes the “spearhead villain” of the serial, conceiving and executing plots in each chapter on behalf of the Lame One (whose identity of course remains secret until the end). The other men seen in the train compartment at the beginning each take a turn, and the range of crimes is broad, whether it’s destroying a bridge, hijacking a gold shipment, or stealing an experimental aircraft for a foreign power. This “case of the week” format with a long-term arc that connects them all is not unusual for a serial, and it makes the middle chapters feel particularly episodic: with this format, the serial could be ten chapters or a hundred, and it’s not hard to see how later television series picked up this formula and ran with it.

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Written and drawn by cartoonist Chester Gould, Dick Tracy had been a smash success since its first appearance in newspapers in 1931, and began a radio series in 1934. It was only a matter of time before the famous detective made an appearance on film. 1937’s Dick Tracy was the first of four Republic serials, all starring Ralph Byrd in the title role, and there would later be four RKO feature films starring Morgan Conway and Byrd again, not to mention the 1990 film starring and directed by Warren Beatty. Although later famous for its grotesque villains and gimmicky gadgets, the newspaper strip was at first notable for its realism, both in the level of violence portrayed and in Tracy’s reliance on cutting-edge police techniques. While strongly influenced by the “hard-boiled” writers of the 1920s, Dick Tracy was one of the first police “procedurals,” influencing not only comics but television and prose detective fiction to come.

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A panel from Dick Tracy’s first adventure in 1931

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In fact, Max Allan Collins (Dick Tracy‘s writer after Gould retired, and a commentator on the disc I watched) makes the point that much of the grotesquerie and spy-fi for which Dick Tracy was later known is strongly present in the serials of the ’30s, and may have influenced Gould. While the famous two-way wrist radio wouldn’t appear in the comics until 1946, the 1937 film is full of the scientific wonders that serial viewers had come to expect, such as a disintegrator that used high-frequency sound vibrations to destroy buildings; a stratospheric “flying wing” airplane and a different high-speed plane; and even a special radio-equipped belt that allowed Tracy to communicate with his team while undercover. Contemporary technology, while now appearing quaint, also plays a part: a few chapters hinge on recordings made with phonographs, for example. There is also a strong element of the grotesque: while the Lame One’s infirmity and hideous appearance is a disguise, Moloch’s hunch back is the real thing. And once he has been turned to evil, Gordon Tracy (Carleton Young) makes for a striking, creepy villain: scarred, dead-eyed, and skunk-striped.

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Of course, some changes came with the adaptation to the serial format, as was almost always the case, but readers of Dick Tracy at least found a hero in the serial that they would have been able to recognize. Rather than a plainclothes detective, Republic’s Dick Tracy was a G-man, working for the FBI’s Western Division, and instead of Chicago he operated out of San Francisco. Gone was Tracy’s perennial love interest Tess Trueheart (there is, in fact, no romantic angle at all; the only woman in the serial is Tracy’s lab assistant Gwen, a purely professional relation). Tracy’s supporting cast is made up of typical serial character types: Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) is a reliable tough guy and pilot; Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) is the comic relief; Junior (Lee Van Atta, seen in Republic’s Undersea Kingdom the previous year), as in the comics, is an orphan allowed to tag along and help Tracy (and occasionally get himself into trouble).

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Ralph Byrd is more baby-faced than the hawk-nosed Tracy of the comics, but that’s typical of leading men in general in the 1930s, who often seem a little soft in comparison to today’s standard; most lean or craggy character actors got typed as villains in the serials. Byrd fits the role in most other respects, though: he’s energetic, projecting a can-do magnetism but with enough warmth that it’s easy to see why his friends remain so devoted to him. And the serial itself gives him plenty of opportunities for heroism and detection, with most chapters combining furious action with slower-paced scenes of discovering and analyzing clues. Dick Tracy adheres to a common formula, but it executes it with such energy and flair that it could be taken as a model for producer Nat Levine’s ambitions for Republic; along with its able cast and well-paced story, it boasts impressive effects, exciting music, and a smattering of comic relief (in addition to Burnette, stuttering hillbilly comics Oscar and Elmer show up for a couple of scenes). The result is a very enjoyable serial and it is easy to see why it generated so many sequels.

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What I Watched: Dick Tracy (Republic, 1937)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection from VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Rides the Sky” (Chapter Four)

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Best Cliffhanger: Dick Tracy includes several classic cliffhangers, including plane crashes (and the crash of a burning zeppelin!) and boat crashes (the ending of Chapter Three, “The Fur Pirates,” finds Tracy trapped between two giant steamers, threatening to crush his boat as they move closer; another chapter finds Tracy pulled into the water by a rope attached to a departing submarine). However, my favorite cliffhanger comes at the end of Chapter Twelve, “The Trail of the Spider,” an otherwise unremarkable recap episode. Tracy and his team have brought together witnesses to some of the events from earlier in the serial, prompting flashbacks to those scenes. (The only remarkable development in this chapter is that Tracy finally learns of Moloch’s operation on his brother Gordon.) After the flashbacks, the Lame One himself enters their headquarters and, after removing a fuse to black out the lights, shines the “spider signal” on Tracy and shoots him! At least, he appears to; viewers in 1937 had to wait a whole week to find out if Tracy got out alive.

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Sample Dialogue:
Moloch (stroking black cat): “Brother against brother. One good, one evil. Ah, I wonder which will win?”
The Lame One: “We shall eliminate the G-Man!”

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What Others Have Said: “Chester Gould produced a contemporary knight in shining armor who was ready, willing, and able to fight the criminal with, if necessary, the criminal’s own weapons, to fight the toughs with equal or even greater toughness. Chester Gould created Dick Tracy to meet the desperate need of the times. Dick Tracy’s job was to regain the almost vanished respect for the law and to be the instrument of his enforcement. As Gould once said in an interview, ‘I decided that if the police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I’d create a fellow who would.'” –Ellery Queen, “The Importance of Being Earnest; or, The Survival of the Finest”

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What’s Next: There are three more Dick Tracy serials, but I intend to space them out rather than plow straight through the series. So my next update will be on the 1948 Superman serial, starring Kirk Alyn!