Kamandi Challenge no. 9

Cover by Mark Buckingham & Steve Buccellato

“Ain’t It a Drag?”
Writer: Tom King
Artists: Kevin Eastman & Freddie Williams II
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr & Dan DiDio

I’ve heard Tom King’s name a lot lately, in connection with projects like The Vision and Mister Miracle; according to one acquaintance, King is the best writer currently active in comics. But I hadn’t gotten around to reading much of his work yet. I don’t read everything, so until reading “Ain’t It a Drag?” in Kamandi Challenge no. 9, I knew King mainly by his reputation. On the basis of this one story, I have become a believer.

The plot of “Ain’t It a Drag?” is simple, almost schematically so, and is a departure in style and format from the previous chapters of this ongoing serial. The detailed, monochromatic art by Kevin Eastman (who has plenty of experience with talking animals as co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Freddie Williams II combines with King’s dialogue to create a story that unfolds elegantly, like a fable. In broad strokes it could take place anywhere or to almost any character, but in its details it shows off what makes Kamandi and his world distinctive.

Kamandi awakens in an enclosed, cave-like room with a number of other people, or rather the anthropomorphized animals who are Earth A.D.’s primary inhabitants. Kamandi has only a vague memory of the sea serpent that menaced him at the end of last issue, but at some point he was captured and taken to this place.

Periodically, over a period of months, a door opens and an alien-looking robot (or something) enters, grabbing one inmate and dragging them away: where or to what fate is unknown, but everyone has varying opinions. Herbert, a friendly elephant, is optimistic and describes everything as “awesome.” Maybe the visitor is taking people away to somewhere awesome, and it’s so great nobody wants to come back? Could that be why no one has returned to describe it?

Other animals react in their own way, in fear or acceptance. A mother kangaroo pleads “Not my baby!” every time the dragging begins, until she is herself taken. A small bird spends time writing a story about the cave and what might lie beyond it. Kamandi, for his part, occupies himself building his strength and making plans to attack the robot, each time failing to even slow it down. Ultimately, after everyone else is gone, he too is taken, and the cave is empty except for the slab-like bench that was the cave’s only furniture, now clearly a symbolic coffin.

The most obvious interpretation of this story is to regard the door as death, the fate to which all of us are eventually dragged and from which no one has returned to describe the experience. No amount of strength, preparation, or pleading can put it off when it’s your time, but it is ultimately part of the rhythm of life, a fact to be accepted as best one can. Herbert’s faith in something “awesome” beyond the door is a comforting religious belief. Others live in denial, escaping into nostalgia or fantasy, or maintaining a “stiff upper lip.” One inmate, a moss-covered turtle, has seen generations come and go in the cave, and decides that it is his time; he steps forward to meet his fate, only to be ignored (although he is later gone, so I guess he eventually was taken). How much easier it must be to make one’s peace with the end when friends and family are already gone, no works left undone.

Kamandi’s single-minded attempts to defeat the intruder, to escape from the cave, to defend the other inmates, are both one common reaction taken to extremes and a perfectly apt behavior we would expect from an action hero. In his more conventional adventures, Kamandi is perpetually escaping and throwing off impediments to his freedom. He is often described as “pugnacious,” and here we see what that really means in the face of impossible odds: fighting until the last, refusing to submit. “All we know about what they’re going to do is . . . what they’ve done,” Kamandi tells Herbert, explaining why he fights so hard. “And those kinds of people, who do this . . . they don’t take you someplace nice or awesome. They just don’t.”

Of course, this is still part of an ongoing narrative: Kamandi refers to his past, relating all of the crazy stuff the previous authors have put him through, and while the ending is barely a cliffhanger, we can trust that Kamandi didn’t literally die at the end of the story. The metaphor only goes so far. It’s not a coincidence, I am sure, that the characters’ place of imprisonment is a cave, the Platonic symbol of an illusory reality. The various expressions of fear, regret, pride, and acceptance the inmates display are just coping strategies for a situation over which they have no power except in their own attitude. As easy as it may be for prisoners to identify the cell as their entire world, there is clearly something beyond the door in this story, and I have faith that the next authors will give Kamandi a chance to escape.

But that’s the problem with faith, isn’t it? By definition it is an expectation without a concrete foundation. I imagine that readers in 1978 had faith that Kamandi would continue to be published after issue no. 59, but the industry-wide collapse that led to the “DC Implosion” and the book’s cancellation put an end to that, much more quickly than anyone could have expected. I have faith that I’ll be around in October to read Kamandi Challenge no. 10, but an errant nuclear missile, or a careless driver, or a dislodged blood clot in the wrong place could cut off that possibility. If that happens, then Kamandi’s story will have ended here, at least as far as I’m concerned.

That belief that the story, both in the sense of a constructed narrative and in the sense of life itself, will continue is an essential assumption, however. Without it, only despair and inertia are possible. Kamandi, in the dialogue of this story, makes an observation that gets to the essence of storytelling, particularly of the serial variety: “It all just leads to the brink of something horrible. And over that brink, you go over. And you’re back to . . . everything. . . . And that goes on . . . it just keeps going on.” Kamandi says these words in a moment of existential despair, overwhelmed by the flood of oncoming events that is perpetually his life. Herbert the elephant, ever the optimist, replies, “Yes, exactly. I bet that’s exactly right. And isn’t that awesome?”

“Ain’t It a Drag?” is preceded by a quotation from Blaise Pascal (“I know not whence I came. I know not whither I go.”) and ends with one from Jack Kirby, one that contextualizes Herbert’s search for awesomeness and reinforces the notion that this shadow play is concerned primarily with mortality, with one’s place in the universe and the unknowability of it all. Kirby, who would have turned 100 in August, was most at home balancing the intimacy of character with the sprawling canvas of the cosmos, microcosm and macrocosm, and he rarely favored subtlety. Humanity, to Kirby, is no less powerful and dramatic than the greatest forces in the universe, because those same forces are at home in the hearts and souls of men and women. If King, Eastman, and Williams have distilled the essence of serialized storytelling and of the character Kamandi, they have also placed it in a context befitting the master world-builder and “King of Comics” himself, and touched on the power from which Kirby so liberally drew. In placing Kamandi in a narrative as conceptually audacious and formally inventive as those Kirby himself favored, they have created one of the most powerful tributes to him that I have yet seen in this, his centenary year.

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Medleyana: Year Four

I’ve been thinking about Dungeons & Dragons lately: specifically, the period in the mid-1980s when I was most obsessed with the game. (This is a periodic thing for me: I don’t play anymore, but once or twice a year I get the itch to relive past glories.) I’ve been reading some of the adventure modules and other materials from that era, and one thing I remember is how much time I spent as a kid just reading those same books, poring over the pictures and the endless statistics and rules (well, the rules I mostly skimmed) and regretting that I didn’t get enough serious playing in. I felt like I was missing out. I’ve since heard from many D&D fans who in fact never played the game at all, either because they didn’t have friends who were interested, or they weren’t allowed to play by strict parents, or they just didn’t have enough free time.

I am certainly familiar with the daily ritual of examining gaming materials that would never see a round of melee combat, but my situation was a bit different: in those days, the writers at Dragon and Polyhedron (and, I dunno, White Dwarf I guess) put an awful lot of emphasis on the importance of developing your campaign. “Campaign” was the word for the ongoing game over the long haul, and in particular the interconnected skein of events, personalities, and long-term goals that transformed a series of disconnected sessions and small-stakes adventures into a sweeping epic like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Amber. A properly developed campaign was, it was hoped, the stuff of legends, the kind of immersive collaborative storytelling that years later would make players wistful as they recalled together, “Do you remember that night in Shanar, the one with the Halfling assassin?” “Ah, yes, I remember it well.” Sighs of contented reminiscence all around. It’s no wonder that the word campaign itself was borrowed from military jargon by way of wargaming: were not a group of players bonded together over time and shared experience in a manner akin to veteran soldiers?

Equally important, at least in the pages of Dragon, was your campaign world. It was fine to play in the World of Greyhawk, the default setting of most of the early published adventure modules (replaced later on by The Forgotten Realms and a number of other prefab settings), but it was assumed that you would only be satisfied with that for so long, and that at best such supplements were to serve as a springboard for your own Great Work, the Magnum Opus of any Dungeon Master: your own individual campaign world, one that you created, and sown with seeds for adventure derived from the unique geography, history, and culture(s) that you came up with. It all sounded very compelling, and just as importantly designing your own world from scratch gave you something to do during that time when you weren’t playing but you were leafing through the rulebooks anyway.

In middle school, I had a lot to learn about worldbuilding, Dungeon Mastering, and storytelling, but that’s not the point of this. No, the main thing I remember about my campaign, set in the world of Ix-Nay, was how it got harder and harder to get all four (and later three) players, including myself, together, until finally we were playing maybe once a year. No wonder Ix-Nay never had the breath of life in it! In roleplaying games, a setting isn’t really a world until it has been set in motion and players have been given a chance to explore it. So I felt that I was missing a key experience in any serious gamer’s career (and as you can tell, I took this calling very seriously indeed).

But here’s the thing: even though my campaign with my custom-made world and handpicked players withered on the vine, in retrospect I played D&D quite a lot. There would be random pick-up games with kids who would come and go, most of these sessions one-shots with characters who were never seen again. There was even a Dungeons & Dragons club at my middle school, held in the art teacher’s room. Sometimes I was the DM and sometimes the player. Sometimes you would be playing with people you didn’t even particularly like. The game experiences I had ranged from total party kills at the hands of rigorous (to a fault) DMs who had strong ideas about the integrity of the game, to freeform fantasies that included guest stars like Bon Jovi. I have a lot of memories of playing D&D (or the mutated offshoots of it we came up with ourselves). Yet at the time, snob that I was, I didn’t think those games “counted” because they weren’t part of my campaign. They were, at best, pre-season or exhibition games (to use the parlance of sports with which I was hardly conversant at the time).

It wasn’t until much later that I renewed my acquaintance with the Devil’s game from the player’s side and experienced some truly excellent Dungeon Mastering. I learned that developing a campaign is a two-way street, built upon the contributions of both Dungeon Master and players, and most of it all it requires regular care and feeding with weekly or biweekly sessions (ultimately I just didn’t have time for that kind of commitment, but I kept it up for a few years). Perhaps that helped put my youthful gaming in perspective: I could stop beating myself up about my “failed” campaign and embrace the fun and growth I had experienced in the “unofficial” side quests. They really hadn’t been so different.

All of which brings me to the changes I’ve gone through in the last year and how that has been reflected in this blog. This weekend marked four years since I began Medleyana, and as I always do at this time of year it’s time to set down a few thoughts about what I’ve done with it and where it’s going. I’ll be the first to admit that writing hasn’t always been the first thing on my mind this year: my work as a musician and teacher has kept me busy, and even “free time” doesn’t always equate to writing time if I really just need to recharge my batteries. (I won’t deny that the dreadful state of our politics has gotten me down as well.) I’ve also noticed that the majority of my blog posts have become reviews: it’s much easier to get the words flowing in response to a movie or a book or comic, and it makes it easier to stop when you reach the end of that topic, as opposed to the open-ended ruminations that Medleyana started out as.

At the same time, however, when I look back at the past year, I’ve actually done a fair amount of writing. Although there were some gaps in posting, I’ve averaged about two entries a month, and I can be proud of what I’ve written (revisiting my first year, it strikes me that many posts were filler, born of self-imposed deadlines). Among other things, I also completed the draft of a novel earlier this summer, an undertaking of at least the last four years or so (another one of those “small” projects that grew bigger as I went); it’s still in need of complete rewriting before it will be fit for any kind of public consumption, but being able to write THE END on it, even in the state it’s in, has been a real relief, and is perhaps one reason I can look at what I’ve published this year and be okay with it.

Ultimately, just as I learned when playing D&D, there is little difference between what I see as my “real” work and what I produce in the mean time: it’s all part of the process, and it takes just as much focus to write a good blog post as it does to complete a novel, the only difference being the length and the relative challenge of sustaining that focus over the long haul: the difference between a one-off adventure and a campaign, if you will.

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc.

Criminologist Stephen Chandler is a haunted man: after the deaths of his colleagues Allison and Thornton, he is now in the sights of the mysterious killer known only as “the Ghost.” Even the nearness of his adult daughter, June, and the watchful police officers that surround his estate cannot reassure him. Even Dick Tracy himself, on his way from his headquarters in Washington, D.C., cannot guarantee Chandler’s safety, for who could possibly be on guard against an invisible man?

Yes, at his secret headquarters, with the assistance of mad inventor Lucifer, the Ghost plots to strike. The mask the Ghost wears hides his identity should he be spotted, but it is with the “contact disc” he wears around his neck that he truly lives up to his namesake. With the twist of a few dials on Lucifer’s console, the Ghost fades from view, with only an eerie whistling sound to indicate his presence. And it is in this form that the Ghost sneaks past Chandler’s guard and into his study, shooting him dead. By the time Tracy arrives, it’s too late.

It should be clear from this opening chapter (a chapter that also includes a plot to destroy New York City by dropping depth charges on a hidden faultline) that Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc., the fourth and final Republic Dick Tracy serial, has left Chester Gould’s comic strip behind and is content to dwell full-time in serial land. It is most similar to the first Tracy serial from 1937, but even that serial, with its flying wing and personality-altering surgery, didn’t commit to anything as fantastic as invisibility, and it occasionally slowed down for mundane police work, which Crime, Inc. has little time for.

It is the humble finger print, however, that provides a hint to the nature of the Ghost and his vendetta: the only prints left behind after Chandler’s murder belong to “Rackets” Regan, a criminal executed at Sing Sing a few years before. Chandler and the first two victims had been a member of the secret Council of Eight, a group of influential citizens united to stop the scourge of organized crime. It was the Council of Eight who, along with Tracy, brought down Regan, and since the Ghost is Regan’s surviving brother (as he reveals to Lucifer in one of those “as you know” monologues that once lubricated all kinds of genre narratives), the motive for his killing spree is clear: revenge first, and resuming Regan’s criminal regime, nicknamed “Crime, Inc.”, later.

Of course, Tracy and his colleagues don’t know all that at first. In fact, they don’t even realize they’re dealing with an invisible man until nearly the last chapter (for a while, everyone who realizes the Ghost’s secret winds up dead before they can tell anyone else). But the seeming return of “Rackets” Regan leads to a reconvening of the surviving members of the Council; Tracy’s regular meetings with the group and the Ghost’s gradual reduction of their numbers, And Then There Were None-style, forms the spine of the plot. And not surprisingly (if you’ve seen more than a few of these serials), it is soon apparent that the Ghost is secretly a member of the Council himself! Once Tracy realizes that, he goes on the offensive, feeding the Council information with which he hopes to trap the Ghost and discover his identity.

Since Tracy, having been promoted at the end of Dick Tracy’s G-Men, is now based in Washington, he has an all-new supporting cast. Billy Carr (Michael Owen) fills the role of Tracy’s partner/sidekick, replacing Steve Lockwood. June Chandler (Jan Wiley), daughter of the man murdered in Chapter One, sticks around to assist Tracy, help run Council meetings, and later turns out to have her own scientific skills as a “sound expert,” helping Tracy analyze the whistling sound that accompanies the Ghost’s crimes (before they understand that he is invisible). June is more involved and gets more screen time than Gwen Andrews did in the earlier serials, but it would still be a stretch to refer to her as a “love interest” as Max Allan Collins does in his commentary. In my opinion she fits the category of “strictly Platonic, but the only major female character in the film,” but without his comic strip paramour Tess Trueheart around, Tracy is married to the law alone. (Of course Ralph Byrd is still in the title role, making him the only cast member to appear in all four serials.)

On the villains’ side, the Ghost gets his own credit, keeping his identity secret from the audience until the end. His main associate Lucifer is played by John Davidson, the cadaverous character actor with the sepulchral voice, whom we have encountered several times before in this series, and who almost always appears as a heavy. Other henchmen include Anthony Warde (who played the main bad guy in Buck Rogers) and Stanley Price, who makes an uncredited appearance in only one chapter, but whose intensity (imagine a teleporter accident fusing Peter Lorre and James Cagney) is always welcome.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is a mixed bag: the emphasis on unrelenting action makes for some ambitious and boisterous fight scenes, with actors and stuntmen really throwing themselves into it. A knockdown-drag-out between Tracy and a henchman impersonating a butler in Chapter Two is typical, and one gets the sense that each chapter’s fight is meant to top the last, with more men fighting and each location more dangerous. On the other hand, there are quite a few shoot-outs with men blasting at each other from behind walls, and lots of car chases, which I just don’t find that exciting, no matter how much the black sedans squeal their tires or fishtail around tight corners. Several perils are lifted from previous Tracy serials; in some chapters that means there are actually two big action set pieces, which would have been more impressive if I hadn’t seen them before.

However, the Ghost’s invisibility is a gimmick that lends itself to atmospheric effects, bringing back elements of suspense and horror not seen since the 1937 serial. Simple devices like doors and windows that open by themselves, characters disturbed by a bump or stray gust of wind from an unknown source, or the disembodied voice of the Ghost himself (“I’m in the room even though you can’t see me. . . . Now you know why I’m called the Ghost. . . .”) are quite creepy, and (lest we forget) are always accompanied by the spooky electronic whistling of the invisibility mechanism. When the Ghost strikes, his weapon, be it a gun or knife, floats in mid-air; the Ghost’s clothes or other accessories aren’t visible, but the terrifying sight of a gun, seemingly pointing by itself, is enough of a spectacle that the filmmakers weren’t going to let logic stop them from using it.

Finally, the Ghost’s invisibility inspires an equally audacious countermeasure, matching pseudoscience for pseudoscience. In the final trap Tracy lays for the Ghost, he uses a special “infra-red X-ray” light that not only renders invisible things visible, but inverts the spectrum, making everything look like a photo negative. It’s a satisfying and memorably strange ending to one of the G-man’s weirdest adventures.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (Republic, 1941)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Doom Patrol” (Chapter Three). Nothing to do with the wild DC comic of the same name, of course, but an exciting, evocative title for a chapter that ends up recycling footage from earlier Dick Tracy serials. (At least there is no economy chapter, so nothing is repeated from earlier chapters.)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Thirteen (“The Challenge”), Dick Tracy has spotted the Ghost, momentarily visible but still masked, in the halls of the Ambassador Hotel. After a chase, both end up on the roof, where a fight ensues. While grappling, the Ghost pushes Tracy out over the ledge; Tracy grabs at the Ambassador’s sign, pulling the A off accidentally so we get a good sense of how far down it is to the sidewalk below. Eventually, Tracy is clinging to the sign, which pulls away from the wall under his weight. The sign plummets to the ground, surely taking Tracy with it. . . .

Sample Dialogue: “That explains a lot of things.” –Dick Tracy, after discovering that the Ghost can make himself invisible in Chapter Fourteen (“Invisible Terror”)

The Dick Tracy serials ranked, best to worst:
1. Dick Tracy Returns (1938)
2. Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939)
3. Dick Tracy (1937)
4. Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)

Points of connection: Crime, Inc. was the last Dick Tracy serial and the last Tracy outing from Republic. Between 1945 and 1947, RKO would produce four Dick Tracy feature films, leaning into the darker elements of the character’s setting and spotlighting grotesque villains like Splitface and Gruesome. Morgan Conway played the title role in the first two films, but then Ralph Byrd came back to portray the character with which he was most identified. After several live-action and animated television series, the next big screen outing was the 1990 feature film starring and directed by Warren Beatty, who realized a long-held dream by putting his stamp on the character. As of this writing, Beatty still holds the movie rights to the comic strip and insists he will one day make another Tracy film.

What Others Have Said: “The times are changing–note the swing music coming out of jukeboxes–and the next time Byrd plays Tracy, the innocent serial world of Republic will be traded in for the film noir universe of RKO, but in 1941, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is sheer, serialized fun.” –Max Allan Collins, in his introduction to the VCI DVD

What’s Next: That wraps up “Fates Worse Than Death” for the summer, but I have a few serials on DVD I didn’t get to this year, so I may or may not wait until next summer to cover them. Keep watching this space, and thanks for reading!