Fates Worse Than Death: Adventures of Captain Marvel

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Deep in the rugged mountains between Siam and Burma, the Malcolm Archaeological Expedition has reached its destination, the Valley of the Tombs, in the shadow of Mount Scorpio. Despite warnings from local tribesmen that the Valley is taboo, John Malcolm is determined to open the sealed inner tomb, unlocking the “lost secret of the Scorpion Dynasty.” The expedition’s translator, native Tal Chotali, reads an inscription: “Let what reposes behind this stone remain hidden from the eyes of mankind for all time.” A terrible curse is about to be unleashed! The youngest member of the expedition, Billy Batson, wants no part of tomb raiding, so he leaves the room. The expedition members open the tomb without him, uncovering a fabulous scorpion-shaped idol holding a series of lenses in its claws. As soon as they move the lenses to line up with a beam of sunlight, it releases a burst of energy that shakes the earth and traps the men inside the chamber.

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Meanwhile, Billy wanders into another chamber of the tomb; to his shock, a previously sealed tomb opens, and an impossibly old man steps out! Because he did not desecrate the tomb, Billy Batson is to be given the mantle of Captain Marvel to protect the innocent from the power the scorpion idol is about to unleash. Captain Marvel combines the virtues of six mythological figures: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. The initials of these six names combine into the magic word “Shazam” (also the name of the wizard), with which Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and back again. He is put to the test immediately, becoming Captain Marvel to rescue the explorers who have been trapped in the cave-in.

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Once everyone is outside and reunited (and Billy is himself again), the members of the expedition learn just how powerful the scorpion idol is: sunlight focused through its lenses in the right order can turn ordinary rocks into gold, or generate an incredibly powerful ray (later it is referred to specifically as a “solar atom smasher”). Recognizing that the idol is too powerful for one man to control, and that it would be a target for theft, the members of the expedition divide the lenses between themselves, each man to guard and keep one safe; the power of the idol will never be used unless it is by the assent of the entire group.

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That night, the expedition’s stockade is attacked by native tribesmen on horseback, led by a hooded mastermind who calls himself “the Scorpion.” The Scorpion claims to speak for the tribe’s god, and his goal is to reunite the idol with its lenses and use its power for conquest. During the assault, one of the expedition members is killed and the idol stolen. Billy Batson goes into action as Captain Marvel once again, routing the attackers, but unbeknownst to him the tribesmen have also planted dynamite beneath the bridge leading from the encampment: will the expedition’s retreat be thwarted by the explosives, or will Captain Marvel save the day? All of this occurs in the first (double length) chapter of the classic 1941 Republic serial, Adventures of Captain Marvel!

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Captain Marvel, co-created by Fawcett writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck, was one of many superheroes who appeared in the wake of Superman’s success, and among the most popular, even outselling Superman himself during his heyday. Much has been written elsewhere about the lawsuit National (later DC) filed against Fawcett alleging copyright infringement, and the long legal battle that followed (I have touched on it here). Ultimately, Fawcett ceased publishing Captain Marvel comics in 1953, exhausted by the legal battle and faced with declining sales, and the hero was licensed by DC in the 1970s as “Shazam” (the name “Captain Marvel” having been claimed by Marvel Comics in the interim) and bought outright in 1980; a live-action Shazam movie is scheduled to be released in 2019 as part of DC’s ongoing film universe.

 

As of 1941, however, Captain Marvel was riding high, and became the first comic book superhero to make the leap to the big screen (ironically enough, Republic tried to make a deal to adapt Superman first, but it ultimately fell through and Superman first appeared in theaters in a series of animated cartoons; the hero would be a latecomer to the film serials, not appearing in live action until 1948). In reading about Adventures of Captain Marvel (no “the”), I was struck by the way it follows typical serial procedure in adapting its source material, tying the hero’s origin to its villain and putting the scorpion idol and its lenses at the center of the story. I assumed that it was another case of Republic adapting the source material “in name only” as they would later do with Captain America, so it was a pleasant surprise to see how faithful to the comics the serial was in many other respects.

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The biggest difference is the serial’s connection of Shazam to the Scorpion tomb, but otherwise Captain Marvel’s origin in the comics was similar: in Whiz Comics no. 2, Billy Batson, an orphaned newsboy (an actual boy, unlike the boyish young adult Billy played by Frank Coghlan, Jr. in the serial) was led to the wizard Shazam in an abandoned subway tunnel, and he was given the assignment to protect humanity as an ongoing mission rather than a specific task. But the magic word, the mythological connections, and Captain Marvel’s powers are all there. What’s more, the serial Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) looks a great deal more like his comic book counterpart than the serial versions of Batman or Captain America do, wearing a good-looking uniform and even appearing to fly through the air.

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All of the effects in this serial, by Republic’s stalwart team of Howard and Theodore Lydecker, are top-notch, including those convincing flight sequences and many of the miniatures (sorry, “scale models”) for which the Lydeckers are famous. The illusion of flight was achieved by a variety of techniques, including a papier-maché dummy strung on a wire for the long shots, cut together with shots of Tom Tyler (or his double, legendary stuntman Dave Sharpe) leaping into the air from a hidden trampoline or coming in for a landing in slow motion. (Sharpe was also responsible for Captain Marvel’s athletic moves during fight scenes, including an amazing, back-flipping kick in the first chapter.) The wires are visible in some of the shots of Tyler suspended in mid-air, clouds whizzing by, but they are easy to overlook if you are as fascinated by practical effects as I am, or if, like the young and young-at-heart audiences to which the serial is directed, you’re so swept up in the story that you don’t even notice them. The flight effects look good “for their time,” but even now one has to appreciate the ambition it took to attempt them in live action (recall that the same effects in the later Superman serials were achieved with animation). And like the best cinematic fantasy, the story, in its surging forward motion, demands belief as the price of admission where scenes viewed in isolation might provoke skepticism.

Another contrast with the comics is its tone. Captain Marvel’s adventures in the comics (mostly written by pulpsmith Otto Binder) were fantastic exercises in whimsy, often to the point of silliness, held together with fairy-tale logic or wordplay. Captain Marvel traveled to exotic foreign countries and even other planets; he fought mad scientists and magicians (his most famous recurring nemesis, Dr. Sivana, was the former); he added the growing “Marvel family” to his supporting cast, including Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., and even “Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny”; he even made friends with a talking tiger who became his roommate! And all of this is balanced with the fantasy of being a boy but living independently (after being a newsboy, Billy Batson held down a job as an announcer for radio station WHIZ). Binder’s fanciful stories were a perfect match for Beck’s clean, simple drawing style, and the nuttiness of the plots is comparable to the mischief William Marston’s Wonder Woman would get up to over at National, but without the marked gender play (in fact, Captain Marvel is a notably prepubescent fantasy, as the hero would become nervous and shy around women, resisting the overtures of Dr. Sivana’s daughter Beautia). As Matt Singer notes (in his essay accompanying the Kino Lorber Blu-ray), the brilliance of the Billy/Captain Marvel divide was that it “fused hero and sidekick into a single figure.”

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By contrast, the serial’s tone is serious, if not downright grim. Gone are Dr. Sivana’s whimsical schemes (in fact, gone is Dr. Sivana), gone are the talking animals and such fanciful locations as the “Rock of Eternity” (the heaven in which the late wizard Shazam now dwells in spirit form). Instead of being matched against other superpowered beings, Captain Marvel wastes an army of generic fedora-wearing henchmen (and I do mean wastes: writer Tom Weaver points out that Captain Marvel kills more people than the villain in this serial, throwing them off buildings or turning their own guns against them). Animation historian Jerry Beck rightly compares Captain Marvel in his scenes to a Universal monster, breaking down doors and pressing forward in the face of gunfire that bounces off of him harmlessly (at least the thugs don’t try the last-ditch effort of throwing their empty guns at him, as seen so often in the Superman TV series), his smile “more like an animal bearing its teeth.” Once the Scorpion’s men know what they’re up against, their reaction is one of sheer terror.

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Other ingredients that contribute to the serious tone are standard serial fare: the archaeological expedition, as well as the curse that followed the opening of the tomb (inspired by the supposed curse of King Tut’s tomb), were common features of serials in the 1930s (and a prime inspiration for the Indiana Jones series, of course); the serial begins and ends in the Valley of the Tombs (propped up with footage from earlier movies), even though the rest of the action takes place in America. Of course the Scorpion himself, the hooded figure of evil derived from the Grand Guignol theater and the mystery novels of Edgar Wallace, is a key element of the serial vocabulary, as is the Scorpion’s methodical elimination of the expedition members, collecting their lenses one by one, even as he himself is secretly one of their number. Only in the last chapter is the Scorpion’s true identity revealed; in fact, his lines are spoken throughout by uncredited actor Gerald Mohr, just to make sure we don’t guess prematurely. (The need to avoid spoiling the surprise leads to some amusing decisions: in one chapter, the members of the expedition abandon a sinking ship and make their way to land by rope; Betty, the story’s lone female character, goes to her cabin to retrieve something, only to be knocked unconscious by the Scorpion–in costume–and left to sink with the ship. It should be obvious that the Scorpion has no reason to hide his identity from one he believes will soon be dead, and that sneaking around in costume increases the risk of being caught, but the costume is for the benefit of the audience, not the Scorpion’s victims.) Even at the end, when there are only two suspects left, and one shoots the other, revealing his true identity, the scene is filmed in shadow, the voices disguised, so as to preserve the delicious moment when Captain Marvel can pull off the captive Scorpion’s mask himself for all to see.

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Still, the mood is not too heavy, leavened by swiftly-moving action and dialogue and a rapid-fire change of scenes. Coghlan’s Billy, as well as his youthful friends Whitey (William Benedict) and Betty (Louise Currie), are a big part of that, striking a “gee whiz” attitude midway between the kid-oriented comics and the deadly serious business of the Scorpion. Adventures of Captain Marvel is frequently held up as one of the best serials of all time, and it is easy to see why: all of the technical resources of Republic are working at their peak, from the Lydecker brothers’ fantastic effects to the direction of serial superteam William Witney and John English and the stirring music by Cy Feuer. A solid script provides plenty of opportunities for the cast (including, in addition to the leads, such frequently-seen character actors as John Davidson, who plays the enigmatic Tal Chotali) to develop their characters (within a framework primarily defined by action and intrigue, of course).

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Furthermore, while I have sometimes expressed boredom at the formulaic nature of Republic’s later serials in comparison to the wild and weird serials of the 1930s, at the sense that they run too smoothly, Captain Marvel strikes a very satisfying balance between technical precision and characters who still act human, who are capable of surprising. (It probably helps that Republic was not yet at the point of recycling entire cliffhangers, so the situations flow organically from the story.) Betty is a good example of this: when taken captive by the Scorpion’s men, several times she sees opportunities to attempt escape and takes them rather than waiting around for Captain Marvel, even desperately grabbing the Scorpion’s own gun and attempting to shoot him. (This leads to a sequence in which Billy believes the Scorpion has an injured hand and tries to flush him out by gathering the expedition members together.) In addition to lending an unpredictable realism to the proceedings, Betty’s actions (and similar unexpected actions by other characters) drive the story forward: neither the Scorpion nor Captain Marvel have everything their way all the time.

Finally, I have occasionally noticed a generational divide in how the fanciful comic books of the Golden Age and its related media are received, and the commentary on the Blu-ray provides an illuminating example: Tom Weaver, a self-described Baby Boomer, mentions going back to read some of the original Captain Marvel comics (for the first time, as an adult) and his disgust at their silliness is palpable. “The comic book is so juvenile,” he reports, “that I can’t imagine who read it and thought ‘This might be good for a Republic serial.'” He complains that Otto Binder’s Captain cracks corny jokes while fighting, as if that weren’t something common to almost every superhero before the 1980s. For him, and for many viewers like him, the seriousness of the serial is a step up, a necessary refinement of material that is otherwise not worthy of consideration. By contrast, younger viewers and readers, especially those who may have already encountered Captain Marvel in reprints or through one of his post-1970s television iterations at a young age (and that may be the real key, the “Golden Age” being twelve years old and all that), readily accept the childlike fantasy inherent in the character. (On the Blu-ray it is the hosts of the podcast Comic Geek Speak, children of the 1970s and ’80s by the sound of it, who represent this point of view, but I have encountered it among comics fans younger than myself as well.)

Perhaps the balance of light and darkness is the reason Adventures of Captain Marvel continues to be held in such esteem: it convincingly brings to life the power fantasy of the comic book superhero, without treating it as a joke or cutting corners, and satisfies those who like their heroes “grim and gritty,” at least in contrast to the source material; at the same time the line between good and evil is boldly drawn, the characters larger than life, and it is still full of the wonder and excitement of the serial medium and marvelously entertaining in its own right.

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What I Watched: Adventures of Captain Marvel (Republic, 1941)

Where I Watched It: Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release from 2017. As mentioned above, this edition has an informative commentary track including ten speakers (thankfully not all at once: each individual or group gets a chapter or two to themselves) and Matt Singer’s essay. It is, as I have mentioned in the past, exactly the kind of package the serials have long deserved and is highly recommended. However, as I don’t have a Blu-ray drive on my computer, I have once again taken pictures of the screen for screenshots (rest assured that the Blu-ray picture quality is much higher than these pictures show).

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Death Takes the Wheel” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Several of the commentators on the Kino Lorber release take issue with the idea that anyone would be fooled by a cliffhanger that appears to put the invincible Captain Marvel in jeopardy: wouldn’t an audience of kids in 1941 know that something as trivial as gunfire, electric shock, or even molten lava wouldn’t hurt “the world’s mightiest mortal”? Well, yes, and like the later Superman serials, Adventures of Captain Marvel solves this problem by putting supporting cast members in peril instead for most of the cliffhangers. Still, almost any serial cliffhanger assumes that the audience will play along, even if experienced viewers are well aware that the hero is going to get out of whatever jam they’ve been put in: suspension of disbelief applies here just as it does elsewhere.

More importantly, from a narrative perspective, the limits of Captain Marvel’s powers and invulnerability aren’t entirely clear at first, and the serial’s early cliffhangers serve to demonstrate just how strong he is. My favorite cliffhanger is one of these: in Chapter Two (“The Guillotine”), the Scorpion has his henchmen abduct Dr. Carlyle, one of the expedition members, and threaten him with an automated guillotine in order to extract the location of Carlyle’s lens. Captain Marvel trails the thugs to their hideout and breaks up the interrogation. However, during the fight that follows, he trips into the electric eye that triggers a subduing electric charge and starts the conveyor belt that will carry him, unconscious, to the waiting guillotine, a high-tech variation of a classic peril. The resolution illustrates the difference between typical serial protagonists and this new kind of cinematic “super” hero: instead of having Captain Marvel wake up or the conveyor turned off just in time, the next chapter begins with the blade falling onto the hero’s neck, only to break harmlessly against Captain Marvel’s invulnerable skin. I’ve complained in the past about “walk it off” resolutions to cliffhangers in which the hero is simply unhurt, but here the shot of Captain Marvel waking up beneath the shattered blade speaks for itself. Like the scenes of henchmen futilely shooting at Captain Marvel, the bullets bouncing harmlessly off, it announces that this hero plays by an entirely different set of rules.

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Stanley Price Sighting: Stanley Price is included in the full cast billing that begins each chapter, but he really only has one standout scene, as one of the group of henchmen who abduct Betty after she trails them to one of their hideouts on the top floor of a parking garage. It is here that Captain Marvel engages them in the rooftop battle in which he throws an engine block at one thug and throws another off the roof. Knowing that he’s outgunned, Price flees in the elevator, only to have Captain Marvel pull the descending car back up by the cables, a feat borrowed from his comic book appearances. Price’s anxious expressions while standing alone in the elevator are, well . . . priceless (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

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Sample Dialogue: “The Scorpion has triumphed and all the white infidels will be sacrificed to celebrate the victory, even the mighty Captain Marvel. . . . We need fear him no longer, for he is only Billy Batson. . . . Perhaps it’s a powerful drug or some other device which Batson uses to transform himself into Captain Marvel. . . . I must learn the secret of his transformation.” –the Scorpion, Chapter Twelve (“Captain Marvel’s Secret”)

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What Others Have Said: “The saving grace is the near absence of what many serial devotees most like about Republic serials–the stuntwork fist fights. Captain Marvel was too superpowerful to take more than one punch to subdue an ordinary mortal. The screen time had to be filled with something other than punches. This serial had time for plot and characterization, as well as action. The result was what may be the world’s mightiest movie serial.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I return to the subject of “Yellow Peril” with Drums of Fu Manchu!

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Fates Worse Than Death: Red Barry

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China is at war! In the headquarters of General Fang, the elderly Wing Fu, known in the United States as a humble importer of Chinese goods, prepares to undertake a covert mission: he carries with him two million dollars in bonds, with which he is to secretly buy airplanes for the Chinese war effort (illegal under American neutrality laws). He takes with him the dedicated young Captain Moy, but it is clear that the mission will be dangerous: the Chinatown crimelord Quong Lee has already murdered three of Wing Fu’s associates, and all that stands between Quong Lee’s gang and the bonds is police detective Red Barry, “possibly the cleverest detective on the force,” already on the case of the Pell Street murders.

Meanwhile, Detective Barry has his own problems: although his immediate superior, Inspector Scott, considers Barry a great detective, the covert nature of many of his assignments make others suspicious: the police commissioner wants to take Barry off the Chinatown case and replace him with Valentine Vane, a foppish, glory-hungry “scientific detective” on loan from Scotland Yard. Barry tries to follow orders and stay away, but he keeps getting pulled back into the action, which first takes him to a theater in which a Chinese secret service man (disguised as an acrobat) is murdered, leading Barry to the ship on which Wing Fu and his bonds are to arrive in America. Also at the theater is someone else after the bonds: Natacha, a Russian dancer, swears that the bonds once belonged to her father and were stolen from him. She and her Russian cohort are determined to get back what is rightfully hers. Before the ship even pulls into port, the bonds are stolen from Wing Fu, leading to a fight on the docks with Quong Lee’s henchmen! That’s a lot of set-up, but it’s an indicator of just how much plot is stuffed into the thirteen chapters of Universal’s 1938 serial Red Barry!

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I’ll confess I wasn’t familiar with Red Barry before I started watching and researching this serial: like many of the serials, it was first a comic strip, which were a frequent source of film adaptations, just as comic books have proven to be in the last few decades. The comic strip Red Barry first appeared in March 1934, the first of many imitators to follow the success of Dick Tracy. (The artist/writer Will Gould is no relation to Tracy‘s creator Chester Gould. He is also not William Gould, who plays the Commissioner in this serial. While we’re at it, Western actor Don “Red” Barry has nothing to do with the comic strip or serial: he took his nickname through association with popular character Red Ryder, whom he had played on screen.)

The comic strip was popular enough to receive the Big Little Book treatment in addition to a serial adaptation; had it not ended in 1939 after only five years, it is likely it would be better remembered. Apparently, it wasn’t a decline in popularity or the strip’s high level of violence that led to its end: disputes with the syndicate and the heavy workload caused Gould to leave cartooning and begin a new–and easier–career in Hollywood. For many years it was considered a difficult strip to collect (the aforementioned violence meant it didn’t run in some newspapers), but a recent edition from IDW has reproduced the complete run in two volumes, and it is that which I have consulted.

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Like Dick Tracy, Red Barry was a gritty police procedural that didn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of law enforcement; Barry faces off against criminals with his fists and his gun, frequently outmaneuvering them through a combination of quick thinking and dumb luck. During the Depression, when lawlessness seemed to be everywhere, this new mode of “hard-boiled” crime fiction was very popular in both the comics and the pulps. The twist was that Barry was an “undercover man,” infiltrating criminal gangs and bringing them down from the inside, with only Inspector Scott knowing his real loyalty. Gould leavened the frequent fisticuffs and bloodshed with wry humor and colorful characters (as well as some unfortunate ethnic caricatures) drawn from his extensive experience as a newspaperman.

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Modern viewers of the serial will instantly recognize the formula that has been used in so many police stories: Barry is hounded by a clueless Commissioner and defended by his boss (Wade Boteler) because “he gets results;” Barry maintains contacts in the underworld and throughout the city, including would-be Chinatown detective “Hong Kong Cholly” (Philip Ahn, brother of Buck Rogers‘s Philson Ahn, and who is the only major player of Asian descent in this serial).

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His other source of support is Mississippi (Frances Robinson), the Southern-accented girl reporter for the Daily Press, who spends so much time in the offices of the police station (and even behind the wheel of a police car!) that she might as well be an honorary deputy. Although the serial doesn’t have Barry (played by serial icon Buster Crabbe, who had already played Tarzan and Flash Gordon, and would go on to play Buck Rogers) going undercover, it’s still reasonably faithful to the setup of the strip. Many of the supporting characters–Scott, Mississippi, Cholly, and Vane–are drawn from the comics.

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Mostly set in and around Chinatown, it would be easy for Red Barry to fall prey to the clichés of exoticism and Chinoiserie I discussed in the context of Shadow of Chinatown. Indeed, Asian actors and settings are used as a colorful backdrop for much of the story, but there is very little of the “Yellow Peril” in it. With its theme of Chinese self-defense opposed to official American neutrality, Red Barry is also more explicitly political than most serials (this has limits, however; presumably the war referred to is the struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists, but it is primarily a spark to get the story in America going). It is still a work of its time, however: Wing Fu and Quong Lee, the major Chinese characters, are played by white men, Syril Delevanti and Frank Lackteen respectively (see the Spoilers for more on this, however).

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As Hong Kong Cholly, Ahn plays the most stereotyped role, thickly-accented and obsequious to Red Barry (this is true to the original comics). As soon as the white people are gone, however, it is revealed that “Cholly” speaks perfect English: he is, in fact, Wing Fu’s son! (The shift in his dialogue may represent that the two are speaking Chinese in private, but it’s not entirely clear: either way, the clownish simpleton he appears to be around Red Barry is revealed to be an act.) As such, like Wing Fu he plays a dangerous game, respecting and relying on Red Barry and even helping him when it is in his own interest, but knowing that the mission to buy airplanes breaks American law.

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Natacha (Edna Sedgwick) is a similarly nuanced character, taking the initiative to correct the injustice done to her family. While she practically lives at the theater where she performs her act (a ballet number set to Tchaikovsky, of course), she maintains connections with some Russian toughs who hang out at Mama Sonia’s, a Russian restaurant. The lead Russian is Petrov, played by intense character actor Stanley Price, and he and the other Russians play the typical henchman roles, tailing people, breaking into their offices, and threatening them in their search for the missing bonds.

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Quong Lee also has his headquarters, behind the “Eurasian Café” in Chinatown, and his own gang of thugs, headed up by serial stalwart Wheeler Oakman as Weaver. In typical serial fashion, all three of the people trying to get the bonds delegate to people working for them or helping them, partly to keep the mystery drawn out–we can’t have Red Barry copping to the truth too quickly–and to keep the danger at arm’s length until the last few chapters, when they all have to get their hands dirty.

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The Chinatown and theater settings provide colorful backdrops for action and intrigue; many of the locations are returned to again and again, and almost all are riddled with secret entrances and exits, allowing Barry’s quarry to stay one step ahead and leading to some surprise confrontations. The fights, traps, and cliffhangers are generally well-executed and the pacing keeps things exciting and varied.

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The real strong point of this serial, however, is in the characterization: the antagonists have clear, contrasting motives that drive the plot forward and allow the characters to bounce off one another in various combinations. The mystery, while not deep, is tangled enough to justify the length it takes Barry to unravel it, and there are some twists (discussed below) that take the plot in new directions just when it seems that things may resolve according to formula. My one complaint is the sameness of the henchmen that I have in the past referred to as the “white guys in fedoras” problem: without context, it is not always clear whether the Russians or Quong Lee’s men are on screen, and when more than two sides of the conflict collide, the result is often as confusing for the audience as for the men involved. (At least Wing Fu’s men are Chinese, but even this is not always clear in wide shots.) This is not a huge problem, however, as dialogue usually clarifies the situation sooner or later, and when they get the spotlight it is always a pleasure to watch Stanley Price and Wheeler Oakman in action.

Finally, there is Red Barry himself. Once again, Buster Crabbe (here billed as “Larry,” as he often was in his earlier roles) proves why he was so effective anchoring the serials, whether fantastic or more down-to-earth. Crabbe’s Barry is not as rough-edged as the character in the comics, but he is cool-headed, competent, and diplomatic, even when assailed by doubts or in over his head. Putting him at the center makes it easy to see why his friends are so loyal to him. Red Barry is recommended viewing.

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Spoilers: As mentioned, Wing Fu and Quong Lee are both played by white men; in the case of Quong Lee, however, it turns out that he isn’t really Chinese within the story either! In Chapter Eight (“The Devil’s Disguise”), the audience learns that the Chinatown crimelord “Quong Lee” and Mannix, the mild-mannered theater manager, are one in the same! His real identity is Frederick Lee, a renegade white man run out of China. He is a master of disguise, using his theatrical skills to lead a double life and occasionally slip under the police’s noses when things get too hot. It turns out Red Barry isn’t the only “undercover man!” (William Ruhl plays the undisguised Mannix; it wasn’t that unusual for two different actors to play the same character in disguise in serials, either to throw the audience off or to make the “disguise” conceit more convincing.)

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In fact, there is another character who isn’t what he seems: in the Red Barry strip, Valentine Vane was a self-taught amateur detective who attempted to upstage the professionals, spoofing popular series character Philo Vance. In the serial, Vane (played by Hugh Huntley) is an annoying but apparently legitimate source of competition, a Scotland Yard detective brought in by the Commissioner because he lacks faith in Red Barry. In addition to his “scientific” airs, Vane is wealthy, and his mansion, complete with butler, archery range, and collection of automobiles, is a scene to which we return several times. At one point, when Red Barry, in possession of the bonds, is knocked unconscious, Vane takes them, supposedly so he can take credit for their recovery. This makes him underhanded, but not criminal. However, in Chapter Twelve (“The Enemy Within”), Vane makes his move, knocking Natacha unconscious and pulling a gun on the seemingly triumphant Mannix, demanding to split the proceeds from the bonds. “Valentine Vane” has been playing a long con all along, and beneath his “jolly good” cover he is actually an American grifter named Harry Dicer. He’s strung the Commissioner along until he was in a position to make a big score, and now he has his opportunity! Mannix and Vane team up for a while, at least until they inevitably betray each other and receive the punishment that is the just reward for all serial villains.

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Finally, while Wing Fu’s covert mission to buy airplanes for China runs afoul of American laws, changing circumstances mean that the bonds will be directed towards food and medicine for refugees. This humanitarian purpose is not against American law, and so Wing Fu and Red Barry are able to work together from Chapter Ten on. Ultimately, Natacha relinquishes her claim to the bonds when she learns they will be used for refugee aid, as she had been a refugee herself. Thus is the conflict resolved. 

What I Watched: Red Barry (Universal, 1938)

Where I Watched It: TCM aired this serial, one chapter a week, on Saturday mornings for the last three months. I mostly watched it week to week but recorded the chapters to my DVR so I could review them. Unfortunately, I can’t take direct screenshots from my television like I can from my computer, hence the lower quality. Red Barry is also available on DVD.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Between Two Fires” (Chapter Nine)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Ten (“The False Trail”) ends with a car chase, the villain having lain in wait in a taxi and taken Red prisoner, and Mississippi following in a police car. When the shooting starts, Red (in the back seat) takes the opportunity to fight against his captor: the two struggle until the door opens, spilling Red out onto the roadway, where he appears to be run over by Mississipi’s close-following car (the key word being “appears,” of course).

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Sample Dialogue: “You can always find people you’re not looking for.” –a policeman on the lookout for Quong Lee, watching Mannix go by (Chapter Eight, “The Devil’s Disguise)

What Others Have Said: “I have long admired and raved about Red Barry as the one successful detective comic strip and the only one worthy of consideration, from my scholarly viewpoint. Vigorously in the Hammett tradition, with first-rate characters and clean-cut plots.” –letter from author Anthony Boucher to Forrest J. Ackerman, quoted in Red Barry: Undercover Man, Volume 1, IDW Publishing

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What’s Next: In two weeks I’ll return with a look at Adventures of Captain Marvel!

 

Fates Worse Than Death: Mandrake, the Magician

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Aboard the S.S. Mohawk, Mandrake, the famous stage magician, is preparing to perform when he receives a telegram from his friend Betty, daughter of the accomplished scientist Professor Houston. Houston’s latest invention, a “radium energy machine” with which he hopes to benefit mankind (and the development of which Mandrake has also had a hand in), has attracted unwanted attention from criminals who hope to use its great power for destructive purposes. Even aboard the cruise ship, Mandrake is spied upon and an attempt is made on his life by henchmen of the mastermind who calls himself “the Wasp.” Upon returning to land and meeting with the Professor and his daughter, Mandrake offers to help protect Houston and his invention, but before the first chapter is over the Wasp manages to kidnap the Professor and steal the radium energy machine, turning it against Mandrake. To make matters worse, Mandrake begins to suspect that the Wasp is actually one of his close compatriots: could the Wasp actually be James Webster, an engineer; Dr. Andre Bennett, a physician; or Frank Raymond, booking agent and magic store proprietor? The truth is revealed by the end of the 1939 Columbia serial Mandrake, the Magician!

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After the Wasp succeeds in stealing Houston’s machine in the first chapter, he isn’t shy about using it (Houston eventually escapes the Wasp, but without recovering his invention): the power of the machine allows the Wasp to strike at buildings and people at a distance, so there are scenes of power lines, a radio tower, and even a dam being destroyed (in miniature, of course). However, the machine the Wasp stole wasn’t the final model, and Houston tells Mandrake that it will wear out through repeated use. A rare element, “platonite,” must be bonded with steel to fashion new, indestructible parts for an upgraded machine. This gives us several directions for the story to unfold: not only is Mandrake trying to track down the Wasp and the stolen machine, the Wasp is still trying to get his hands on the platonite and the formula for combining it with steel, and while he has Houston in his clutches he puts him to work improving the machine.

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Much of the serial is given over to cat-and-mouse games: the Wasp has a listening device planted in the Houston home, so the bad guys can anticipate Mandrake’s moves until he figures it out and uses the bug to set a trap of his own, and there are various other deceptions and subterfuges. When the action briefly turns to Mandrake’s country estate and the Wasp’s men attempt to corner him there, they get more than they bargained for as the magician’s collection of trick items (a gun that shocks anyone who tries to pull its trigger, a vanishing cabinet through which Mandrake escapes, etc.) confound them at every turn. There are a few switcheroos that take advantage of Mandrake’s skills as an escape artist as well, in which the bound and hooded victim of a trap–supposedly Mandrake, caught at last!–turns out to be the hapless henchman who failed yet again to apprehend his man.

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Although Mandrake still has fans today, it would surprise young readers to learn how big he once was: created and written by Lee Falk (who also created the Phantom), the comic strip hero first appeared in 1934 and ran in newspapers well into the current century. Mandrake is even considered one of the first costumed superheroes, although in many ways he is a transitional figure between pulp and literary heroes such as Zorro and the “long underwear” lineage that begins with Superman. Falk, who began the strip when he was only nineteen, single-handedly wrote all of Mandrake’s daily adventures until his death in 1999. Very few comics creators could match either the length of Falk’s active career or the creative control he wielded during that time! Not surprisingly, serial adaptations followed the success of both strips; bearing in mind that the Mandrake strip was only five years old rather than a character with a decades-long legacy when Hollywood knocked, Falk was still (understandably) unhappy with the changes made in the process of bringing the famous magician to the screen.

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In the comic strip, Mandrake wields genuine magic: although partially based on Houdini, and wearing the classic stage magician’s costume of top hat and tails, Mandrake creates illusions by “gesturing hypnotically,” transforms people and things, and turns weapons against their owners, among other astounding feats. Like later imitators Zatara (father of the now better-known Zatanna) and Doctor Strange, the original Mandrake the Magician adapted the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales to the needs of serial adventure, using his amazing powers (and the muscle of his loyal manservant Lothar) to aid those who needed it, including his beloved Princess Narda. Naturally, such a larger-than-life hero had to face off against equally potent enemies, so Mandrake’s cases frequently involved battling evil wizards, mad scientists, and power-hungry dictators; visiting hidden kingdoms; and unriddling seemingly insoluble mysteries. (Although the daily strip ended in 2013 with the retirement of Falk’s successor Fred Fredericks, Mandrake has continued to appear alongside fellow King Features characters the Phantom and Flash Gordon in licensed cartoons and comic books; as always, a feature film is said to be in the works.)

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By now, of course, I am used to the serial versions of licensed characters being a bit . . . different from the originals. Changing the background, abilities, supporting cast, and even the name of the hero is the rule rather than the exception for serials, so it was no surprise that in the Mandrake, the Magician serial (the comma is part of the serial’s title if not the comic strip’s) the title character is a Houdini-like stage magician and escape artist rather than a wizard with the ability to reshape reality or even hypnotize people. One could imagine Mandrake lending itself to fantastic visual effects or mysterious atmosphere as a feature made by Universal or Val Lewton’s RKO production unit, but it was not to be. It was obviously truer to formula (not to mention more economical) for Columbia to have Mandrake demonstrate his bona fides by performing onstage in a few chapters and then throwing a smoke bomb to get out of a jam or two; the rest of the time he solves problems with his wits and his fists like any other serial protagonist.

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Mandrake is played by Warren Hull, who would go on to play the title role in The Green Hornet Strikes Again, and while he makes for a capable serial lead, he doesn’t look much like the comic strip magician. It has been pointed out that Lee Falk could have been a matinee idol himself, and in fact the comic strip Mandrake looks quite a bit like Falk, lean and debonair and possessed of a sleek mustache. Hull, by contrast, is clean-shaven: in the serials facial hair is often code for villainy, or at least a suspicious character. (Consider Mandrake’s engineer friend Webster, played by Kenneth MacDonald, who has not only a pencil-thin mustache but a permanent wave that makes him look like Norman Osborn as drawn by Steve Ditko: Webster comes in for suspicion from his very first scene, and takes the unusual step of protesting his innocence whenever someone looks too closely at his alibis. But having such a prickly character be the Wasp would be too obvious . . . wouldn’t it?)

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In the early comic strips, Mandrake’s hulking manservant Lothar is depicted as a black African wearing animal skins and given to pidgin phrases like “Me coming, Master,” when he speaks at all. The exotic, uncivilized, and deathlessly loyal servant/bodyguard is a problematic character type (but one hardly limited to Falk’s creations) born of colonialism and racial hierarchies considered so obvious as to be unspoken. Yet Lothar is brave and true, especially compared to contemporaneous depictions of Africans and African-Americans (and was eventually revealed to be a king himself in his own native land); is Lothar, as Rick Norwood claims, “the first heroic black man in comics”? Possibly. As with Tonto and the Lone Ranger, one can argue that the important point is the friendship and mutual loyalty of two men across barriers of race and color, and some pulp and comics stories live up to that ideal, but it is hard to deny that in the stories of the ’30s Mandrake and Lothar are clearly master and servant, and Lothar was not given a more realistic (non-caricatured) appearance until the 1960s.

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Like the comic strips and any other popular entertainment of their day, the serials were not free of racial and ethnic stereotypes that now appear offensive, including depictions of “savage” black characters. (I have discussed this issue before, on one side trying to avoid the easy self-congratulation that comes from pointing out politically incorrect depictions from the past as a sign of how much more enlightened we are today–a self-satisfaction that is rarely justified, especially now– but at the same time making sure that as modern audience members we don’t fall into the seductive fantasy of believing that things were simpler then, or that race wasn’t an issue, or whatever illusion we care to project onto stories which themselves were far simpler than reality ever was: in short, let us engage in a little self-reflection to make sure that we aren’t enjoying these old films and comics for the wrong reasons.)

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However, the Mandrake serial goes in a different direction, casting the Hawaiian-descended actor and stuntman Al Kikume as Lothar. The serials’ Lothar (pronounced lo-THAR most of the time) is likewise a man of few words and refers to Mandrake as “Master,” but he is neither primitive nor brutish. While Kikume is imposing enough to play the strongman character, his casting suggests the possibility that non-white ethnicities were considered interchangeable, or that a Pacific islander would be less threatening as Mandrake’s bodyguard–or perhaps Kikume was simply available. Is this a form of erasure? As we have seen, serial producers had no qualms about changing details to suit their budgets, shooting schedules, or simply their whims. Mandrake, the Magician isn’t as disgustingly racist as Batman–in fact, few of the serials I’ve watched are–but as a data point it is part of a larger pattern, and one that is still the norm, even if things have improved over the years.

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Also essential to the plot are Professor Houston (Forbes Murray) and his daughter Betty (Doris Weston), who play the classic pulp roles of the scientist whose invention attracts dangerous attention and the dutiful daughter who enlists the hero’s aid. (There are suggestions that Mandrake and Betty are into each other throughout, but only at the very end is there confirmation of an actual romance—as frequently occurs, Betty is the only prominent female character in this serial.)

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Professor Houston’s young son, Tommy (Rex Downing), is also along for the ride, but aside from a scene introducing the “Junior Magicians Club” (which adds exactly zero to the plot) and asking some questions that introduce helpful exposition, Tommy doesn’t have that much to do and could be edited out completely with little loss: his character is a serial standby, the youthful, enthusiastic kid hero or sidekick, but in almost vestigial form. Junior leads can be annoying when written or acted poorly, of course, but over the course of a 215-minute run time I would happily trade some of this serial’s repetitive fist fights for more scenes of Tommy or his friends helping out.

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Mandrake’s opponent, the Wasp, is also standard fare for serials: the Wasp is a ruthless criminal of unknown identity and above-average technical ability, and the narrative conceit by which he is secretly one of Mandrake’s confidants, to be unmasked only in the final chapter, is also something we’ve seen before. (The Wasp’s get-up, which includes a shiny half-mask, an embroidered cape, and a PUA-style fedora, is so gaudy even a professional wrestler might find himself asking “Is this too much?”) As in other serials, the Wasp is primarily shown in isolation at his headquarters, behind a control panel through which he operates the ray and communicates with his underlings, so as not to confront the hero directly until the end. At first the gang only hears from the Wasp through a two-way television screen while they hole up in a fake sanitarium, and later they report to him in his actual lair, hidden in an ordinary city block behind a maze of empty rooms.

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Dirk (John Tyrrell), the Wasp’s second-in-command, is less like the typical “spearhead villain” and acts almost like a dispatcher, relaying the Wasps’ orders and encouraging his guys to hustle because the boss is really breathing down his neck. (Unsurprisingly, Dirk doesn’t make it to the end of the serial.) Most of the Wasp’s other henchmen are interchangeable in role and personality, moreso than usual, although Columbia rounded up a colorful-looking range of mugs from their stable of regulars to fill out their ranks.

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Quite a few serials don’t really start coming together until a few chapters in, after some scene-setting and moving the pieces into position. Mandrake takes longer than most to “get good,” and while the last few chapters feature some exciting set pieces and drama, far too many chapters are given over to the perfunctory story-telling and sloppy action (especially the fist fights, which are mostly artless brawls) that are all-too typical of Columbia’s serials. I’m thankful that at least Mandrake has only 12 chapters rather than (shudder) 16. Maybe I’m being too hard on Mandrake simply because I’ve seen enough serials by now that it’s harder to surprise me. But I also think Columbia’s house style just isn’t to my taste (although Mandrake precedes the descent into self-parody that marks the Columbia serials of the 1940s).

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However, I’m willing to point out scenes and ideas that do work, most of which are in the last few chapters. A highlight is Chapter Ten, “The Unseen Monster.” Mandrake, rendered unconscious by a train wreck at the end of the previous chapter, is picked up by the Wasp’s henchmen, disguised as ambulance drivers. They take him to “Green Valley Rest Home,” a sanitarium that is actually a false front for the Wasp’s gang. It’s a great setting, and the ruse has great potential for drama. Once Mandrake is free and reunited with his friends (who have traced him to the Rest Home), there is a fantastic sequence in which the Wasp observes their progress through a “photo-electric table,” a sort of primitive view screen that resembles the top-down view of a video game (or the tracking device used to such suspenseful effect in Aliens), closing automatic doors and detonating explosives at key points to block routes of escape. This is the kind of thing one hopes for when watching serials, even if it takes ten chapters to build toward it.

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What I Watched: Mandrake, the Magician (Columbia, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A two-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment (The first few scenes of Chapter One include some dialogue that is obviously dubbed by modern actors, apparently replacing damaged or missing sound; it’s a little distracting, but since I have complained in the past about garbled or muffled dialogue that is hard to follow, I guess I should at least be grateful for this attempt to enhance my viewing experience.)

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Title Chapter: “Terror Rides the Rails” (Chapter Nine) All of the chapter titles are pretty good in Mandrake; as it suggests, this one involves an attack by the Wasp on the train in which Mandrake and Lothar are riding.

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Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven (“At the Stroke of Eight”), Professor Houston has gathered Mandrake and his colleagues to see a demonstration of his latest invention, a “nullifier” that can counter the radium energy machine the Wasp stole. Mandrake suspects that one among the group is secretly the Wasp, and his suspicions are confirmed when one of the guests sabotages the nullifier at the last moment. Suddenly, Betty and Thomas run into the room: the lights have gone off upstairs! Mandrake confirms that the Wasp is (remotely) turning his ray on the very house in which they stand! Sparks begin flying out of every corner, and we are treated to several quick shots of the assembled guests panicking, surrounded by gouts of flame, and the whole thing culminates with the complete collapse of the house on top of our heroes.

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Cheats: The end of Chapter Six (“The Fatal Crash”) sees Mandrake in an airplane, shot down by an enemy pilot in the employ of the Wasp; the plane goes into a steep dive and crashes. At the beginning of Chapter Seven (“Gamble for Life”), Mandrake puts on a parachute and jumps out of the plummeting aircraft just in time.

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The end of that same chapter finds Mandrake and one of the Wasp’s men struggling in a cable car suspended over a deep chasm; as they rock the car with their fighting, the hook suspending the car aloft weakens, until Mandrake succeeds in pushing his opponent overboard and the hook finally gives way, sending the car plummeting to the bottom. The next chapter repeats the action, but this time Mandrake leaps from the falling cable car and hangs onto the cable, pulling himself hand over hand back to safety. Look, I don’t even get upset about these things any more, but if you want further evidence of the way cliffhangers play fast and loose with consistency in order to gin up suspense, these are typical examples.

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Sample Dialogue: “I guess that’s the last we’ll see of Mandrake. Let’s go.”

“Look! Mandrake!”

(exchange between two henchmen in Chapter Six, “The Fatal Crash”)

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What Others Have Said: “I remember him [Falk] saying that as he was delighted with the [1996] production of The Phantom, he was a bit disappointed that Mandrake, the Magician (who could easily be viewed as a Lee Falk look-alike) had not made it to the screen first. He mentioned that Federico Fellini had shown interest in such a movie, but it never materialized. There had been a 1939 serial, Mandrake, the Magician, starring Warren Hull, but he discounted that version just as he did the 1943 Phantom serial starring Tom Tyler. He felt that neither portrayed his characters as he had conceived them.” –Bob Griffin, “From Fan to Friend: My Memories of Lee Falk,” included in Mandrake the Magician, The Dailies Volume 1: The Cobra

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What’s Next: Join me in two weeks for cops-and-robbers action in Chinatown as Buster Crabbe plays detective Red Barry!

Retro Review: The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

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Preface: In the Spring of 2002, I was completing doctoral studies in composition at Florida State University. I had finished my coursework and all I had left to do was compose my dissertation. Naturally, I did what anyone would do: I put it off in favor of researching and writing an in-depth article on the comic book character Howard the Duck. In retrospect this was a fairly obvious procrastination strategy, but it was also a natural outgrowth of reading and research on comics that I had been pursuing as a hobby when taking a break from my studies. FSU’s library was well-stocked with books and magazine collections covering the history of comics and related subjects, and as I became more serious I found additional resources online and used eBay to track down copies of hard-to-find comics and magazines, drawing on interviews and histories in my own work.

At the time, I thought I might eventually have enough material for a book, not only on Howard but on the full range of duck characters–from Donald and Daffy to Duckman and Mallard Fillmore–in comics and cartoons, and perhaps answer the question, “Why are ducks so over-represented among funny animal characters?” Was there something about ducks that made them funnier (the archetypal “duck character,” of which Howard is a prime example, is a sputtering, irascible hothead), or was it a matter of artists building on each others’ work, creating a self-perpetuating tradition? I had been a fan of Howard the Duck since much earlier, when I was collecting comics as a kid, but I now applied the rigor of my ongoing graduate studies in examining him.

The book never materialized, but I did complete an essay about Howard before my enthusiasm ran out and I turned to other responsibilities. After pitching the article in a few places without any luck, I put the essay and a big box of research materials away and got on with my dissertation (the composition that eventually became Carnival of Souls). I have alluded to this project occasionally before, but I recently found the disc (marked 5/13/02) on which I had saved the file and have decided to share it. Reading my work now, it is an obvious precursor to articles I have written for this blog (and its length seems now like only a medium-length blog post), and if I had maintained a website back then I probably would have just shared it that way. I seem to recall a more academic, and possibly longer, version of this article that included footnotes, but as yet it hasn’t turned up, and possibly never will.

Being now sixteen years old, there is much here that is either out of date or irrelevant: Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, died in 2008, critical of the comics industry and American society to the last; and Disney bought Marvel in 2009, making the corporate dispute detailed herein moot. The 2002 Marvel MAX series that was the timeliest element in the article is now a blip in Howard’s history; Howard himself has continued to appear in Marvel comics written by other writers, most notably Chip Zdarsky. Time and distance have softened the blow of the 1986 film fiasco, and the movie has a small but devoted cult of fans; Howard has even made cameo appearances in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, something that seemed utterly unlikely back in the early 2000s.

In presenting this essay, however, I am making no effort to update it beyond some minor editing of spelling and punctuation. It is a time capsule of one aspect of culture from 2002 and my thoughts on it, and clearly at least some of these subjects have been on my mind for a long time: regular readers of Medleyana will find arguments here that I have made in other forms in articles on Kamandi and Captain Carrot. Please enjoy this “blast from the past.”

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The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

Creating a beloved fictional character is a double-edged sword: it is only a matter of time before readers and fellow writers want to get in on the act. “Genre” characters from mystery, fantasy and adventure stories are especially subject to embroidery: literary pastiches featuring such characters as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Zorro are common. Comic books and movies invite even more participation, in that both are collaborative arts with notoriously possessive fans. As a contemporary example, witness George Lucas’ love-hate relationship with Star Wars fans, alternately encouraging total identification with his created universe and legalistically quashing any unauthorized embroidering of it.

Until the last decade or so, mainstream comic book publishers (mainly Marvel and DC) kept sole ownership of their artists’ and writers’ creations as a matter of course. Since characters could stay around for (literally) decades and often “crossed over” between titles, company ownership was considered essential in maintaining continuity. A popular character was like a well-established brand, under the umbrella of the company itself, whose label also served as a brand. Even if a character were identified with a particular creator, there was an implicit understanding that heroes and villains lived or died at the company’s discretion, and artists and writers could be shuffled between titles by editorial fiat. The comic book artist or writer was an employee of the company. This has largely changed as big-name comic creators have gained enough clout to negotiate creative control, while others have developed publishing companies, such as Image, where characters automatically remain the property of the creators. An unlikely forerunner to this change in the industry was Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck (HTD).

Howard the Duck is mainly remembered (outside of comic readers) as the disastrous 1986 Hollywood movie, a film that was at first eagerly anticipated but whose name became synonymous with “bomb” in the 1980s. With Marvel publishing a new trade paperback, The Essential Howard the Duck, and a new Howard series with Gerber back in charge, it is worth examining why a movie version seemed like a good idea in the first place, and why the new series has been selling out since its first appearance in comic shops.

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As retold in the new collection, Howard came from a parallel universe, a world much like ours but inhabited by (depending on which version of the story you look at) either talking man-sized ducks or a mixture of different kinds of talking “funny” animals. Through a shift in the “Cosmic Axis” he was transported to the world of humans (“hairless apes”) and stuck there. As an unlikely visitor from another world, he played the classic “outsider” role, commenting on contemporary society’s flaws and absurdities from a perspective free of prejudices or preconceptions. During his run in the ‘70s, Howard crossed paths with cult leaders, sold-out politicians, pompous art critics, and similar pretenders, puncturing their pretensions with his common-sense observations and “don’t tread on me” attitude. In the post-Watergate, post-Woodstock years, when mistrust of the Establishment and doing your own thing weren’t just for hippies anymore, Howard captured a mood and spoke for it in a way that conventional superheroes just weren’t doing.

The “funny animal” tradition has deep roots in comics and animation. Talking animals that walk upright, wear clothes, and live in houses are so commonly linked to the stylized drawings of cartoons that they are hardly questioned as a narrative convention. The best known, of course, are the characters associated with Disney and Warner Bros., but in the early days of animation every studio featured some version of a funny animal character. For decades, animal characters were synonymous with children’s comics, even when executed with great artistry, as in the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics of Carl Barks.

During the “underground comix” boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, however, a number of artists began to appropriate funny animal characters to tell very different, more adult and intense stories. Their “not-so-funny” animals (to use Richard Gehr’s phrase) had sexual relationships, used four-letter words, and sometimes took drugs or became violent. The most famous of these underground funny animals is probably Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat; an early, short version of Art Spiegelman’s cats vs. mice Holocaust comic Maus was also published during this boom.

The motivation for reinterpreting animal characters in this manner was probably as varied as the artists drawing them. Undoubtedly there was a great deal of snarky irony to be had in showing beloved icons brought low, illustrating that the squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse and his pals “really” had feet of clay. Maus similarly jolts us by presenting a horrifying historical narrative in a visual context usually far removed from the realities of war; the distancing device of presenting humans as animals actually brings the reader closer to the horror of the war by poetically linking the childhood associations of talking mice and cats with the lost innocence of the war generation (particularly in Spiegelman’s earlier story, which was drawn in a more “cartoony” style than the full-length version). On the other hand, many underground cartoonists appeared to have a deep knowledge of and love for the cartoons of their childhoods; notwithstanding their often charged subject matter, the comix of Crumb, Kim Deitch, and others helped introduce the classic cartoon style of the ’20s and ’30s to a younger generation, emphasizing the hallucinatory quality of the Fleischer (Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop) and early Disney cartoons.

Given the resurgence of interest in classic funny animals and the popularity of their underground counterparts, it is not surprising that publishers in the 1970s would promote a mainstream funny animal aimed at an adult (or at least adolescent) audience. What is surprising is that Howard the Duck was created almost by accident and was nearly killed off after his first appearance; fan pressure encouraged his return and fueled his early success.

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Relaxation of the Comics Code (a voluntary set of content restrictions that guaranteed mass distribution, originally adopted in the 1950s to placate parents and would-be censors) in the early 1970s allowed mainstream publishers to sell not-too graphic horror-themed comics. One of Marvel’s titles, Fear (a.k.a. Adventure into Fear), featured a swamp-dwelling misfit named Man-Thing, the lesser-known counterpart to DC’s competing Swamp Thing. Fear’s writer, Steve Gerber, produced thoughtful stories on such issues as environmental destruction and cruelty among teenagers, but also gave free reign to a strong sense of whimsy and the absurd. Searching for a surprising, ridiculous image for a sword-and-sorcery tale in 1973, Gerber instructed artist Val Mayerik to come up with a talking duck to include alongside the standard muscular barbarian and robed wizard. The then-unnamed duck, with his first lines “Aw, clam up, bud! You don’t even know the meaning of the word [absurdity]!” suggested to Mayerik a cigar-smoking crank in a rumpled jacket and tie. This early version of the duck affected an Edward G. Robinson sneer (“Okay, creeps–here’s where you get yours, see?”).

Gerber got the effect he was aiming for, but a talking duck didn’t set the right tone for a horror-fantasy comic, so Howard was removed. That was when the fans began demanding more of the Duck; one Canadian went so far as to mail a duck carcass to Marvel’s editorial office. “Murderers, how dare you kill off this duck?” the included note read. Responding to a grass-roots letter campaign, and following Gerber’s instinct that there was something to the character, Howard the Duck began appearing as a backup feature in Man-Thing’s title, and eventually assumed the leading role in his own book.

Howard found himself in Cleveland, a more mundane and down-to-earth setting than in Marvel’s usual stories, and quickly gathered a group of eccentric characters around him: primarily Beverly Switzler, the beautiful hairless ape who would become his companion and (later) lover; struggling artist Paul Same; and the gentle Winda Wester, whose distinguishing feature was her Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment. Together they encountered antagonists who were frequently odder than Howard himself, such as Dr. Bong, who parodied both Marvel’s own Dr. Doom and the rock critic Lester Bangs. Sometimes their adventures parodied conventional superheroics, or the tropes of gothic horror, space opera, or kung-fu movies; often the situations they found themselves in were just nutty, but the best stories were grounded in day-to-day reality. Unlike most mainstream comics, Howard and his friends were often unemployed, underemployed, or swept up in events beyond their control. One of Howard’s most memorable foes was the Kidney Lady, a deranged bus passenger who frequently accused Howard of being a member of the “international kidney-poisoning conspiracy.” Without super-powers, the Kidney Lady was as fearsome in her own way as any of the would-be world-conquerors populating other comics.

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Also unlike many comic books, the heroes of HTD were deeper and more interesting than villains they faced. Indeed, hero vs. villain fisticuffs were beside the point: Howard’s “real” opponent was the spreading corporate influence on American culture and consumer fetishism in its insidious forms. Villains were frequently consumer products or sales pitches brought to life: for example Sudd, “the scrubbing bubble that walks like a man.” There was also a “master of mundane magic” whose spells took the form of radial tires, tennis balls and other consumer items: at one point he trapped the heroes inside a giant cereal box, reversing the “prize inside” promise of marketers. In other stories the accusation is made directly against big-money interests, often as an aside in an ostensibly comic story. Howard even ran for president in 1976 on a platform of fighting corporate monopoly. Fitting with the skeptical tone of the times, HTD was suspicious of overt moralizing, but characters learn lessons nonetheless: you can’t fight city hall, no good deed goes unpunished, everybody has an angle. The three-issue story arc that closes The Essential HTD is particularly notable for its blunt lesson. An irresponsible heiress knowingly invites a “circus of crime” to one of her society gatherings so that she can play hero after they rob her guests. As the events spiral out of her control, one of Howard’s friends is struck by a car and another is shot. Howard’s usual reluctance to get involved makes his blunt delivery of the moral all the more striking: “Actions have consequences. You’ll get yours, Iris.”

Reading the entire Essential HTD in one sitting is an uneven experience (the volume collects the first twenty-seven issues of HTD, plus a handful of other “canonical” stories, including his first appearance). At its best HTD was a witty, refreshingly different commentary on popular and political culture and avoided easy answers to tough questions. The tone of the book varied widely, however, as it was influenced by the sudden notoriety of its creator and the pressure of deadlines. In one well-known story (reprinted in the Essential HTD), Gerber submitted a rambling self-analysis in text form, describing a cross-country move as a road trip with Howard. As life became harder for Gerber (and Howard), Howard’s character drifted from cynicism and disillusionment to depression and paranoia. He even spent some time in a mental institution. Some of these dark stories elaborated Howard’s character in interesting ways, but the low point of the volume is a trip to Canada featuring such cardboard clichés as a noble Mountie and a French-speaking villain called “Le Beaver.” What distresses about the story is not the stereotype, but the shallowness with which the setting is imagined; it is a far cry from the detailed and true-to-life storytelling that marks the Cleveland stories. If another exotic story, an Arabian Nights fantasy, is more successful it is thanks to a fast-moving plot and lighter tone throughout.

The tension in many of the stories is between character and plot: Howard is often passive-aggressive and thus reluctant to get involved in the kind of dramatic situations that make for active plots. The exciting stories subordinate Howard’s skeptical character, and the meditations on Howard’s alienation are quite static; the best stories are able to strike a balance. The troubled relationship between Howard and Beverly could make for a different kind of comic story, with the sort of novelistic depth that became more common in the 1980s, but the late HTD stories were too episodic and inconsistent to quite accomplish that. This tension between passive characters and active plots, along with the absurdity of the premise, is reminiscent of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books.

Perhaps the increasing pessimism of HTD was a sign of things to come: in the late ‘70s, as Howard’s popularity continued to grow, he inevitably came to the attention of the Disney company, who felt that Howard was too reminiscent of Donald Duck and threatened suit. Rather than argue that Howard was a parody (protected by the First Amendment) or an independent creation who sprang from the same pre-Disney cartoon roots as Donald, Marvel capitulated and agreed to change Howard’s appearance. Incredibly, the new design was created by Disney, not Marvel, and the wording of the agreement locked in this awkward new look indefinitely: Marvel couldn’t even come up with another design that didn’t look like Donald. As part of this agreement, Howard had to wear pants in all his future appearances. (It is partly because of this agreement that Gerber had Howard temporarily transformed into a seedy-looking mouse in the new series.)

Faced with this level of editorial apathy and interference, Gerber broke with Marvel and filed suit to wrest ownership of his character from the company. He was one of the first comics creators to do so, and his case, following on the heels of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s campaign to receive credit from DC for their creation of Superman, split ranks within the comics community and brought renewed attention to the issue of ownership. Gerber eventually settled out of court and worked for Marvel again for brief spells in the 1980s, but he says he remains wary of Marvel’s corporate culture, even as he has relished the opportunity to write again for the character with which he is most closely identified.

Gerber was not the first to use funny animals as a vehicle for social commentary or put non-juvenile language in their mouths. Rather his contribution was to rationalize the funny animal in pseudoscientific terms: Howard wasn’t simply a cartoon, he was a visitor from a parallel universe where ducks, instead of apes, had evolved to become the dominant lifeform. It is clear from some of Gerber’s statements in the ‘70s that he had worked out his premise with a science-fictional rigor: for example, there must be lower animals on Howard’s world, since he isn’t a vegetarian (although a running gag in the series emphasized Howard’s disgusted reaction when confronted with a meal of poultry or eggs).

The parallel-world premise could have easily lent itself to Swiftian allegory or heavy-handed moralizing, and there is more than a whiff of Planet of the Apes to it: as the cover blurb had it, Howard was “trapped in a world he never made!” Wisely, Gerber and his collaborators (Mayerik, as well as artists Frank Brunner and Gene Colan) avoided easy comparisons and always implied that Howard’s home was no more perfect than ours. After Gerber’s break with Marvel in 1980 over issues of creative control, Marvel continued to publish HTD stories by other writers, most of whom showed less restraint.

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As a rule, if a fictional setting becomes popular, anything that is referred to by the original creator, however obliquely, will eventually be fleshed out in sometimes overwhelming detail by those who follow. In Gerber’s original concept, Howard’s home was alluded to but never shown, presumably because readers would already be familiar with funny animal settings like the one in Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics. It was writer Bill Mantlo who, after Gerber’s departure, filled stories with references to Flintstones-style parody-counterparts like “Truman Capoultry,” “Richard Millnest Duxon,” and even “Duckschwitz.” At least Mantlo attempted to keep Howard’s edge, although his stories frequently crossed the line from absurd to ridiculous. After the original comic book and Mantlo’s black-and-white magazine were canceled, other Marvel writers treated Howard as a walk-on character, trying to make him “funny” in a way that he rarely was in Gerber’s hands. Unfortunately, the later interpretation seems to have influenced the ill-fated film version.

In his Comics as History, Joseph Witek draws a useful distinction between “beast fables,” such as the tales of Aesop, and “funny animal” stories such as the ones described here. In the beast fable, animals speak, but their character is largely defined by the imagined qualities of their type: foxes are always sly, dogs are loyal, mules are stubborn. The funny animal, however, is an individual. The trappings of clothing, house, and social structures signal to the reader that the character is more man than animal. They may even keep non-speaking pets of their own: in Disney cartoons, Goofy is effectively a man, but Pluto is still a dog.

If in general the funny animal is not conscious of himself as an animal at all, then we may assume that this was how Howard felt about himself before being trapped in the world of “hairless apes.” It is only among humans, where he is the only one of his kind, that he can never escape being reminded that he is a duck. Of course being a duck is a literal marker of Howard’s “outsiderness,” but the Howard stories frequently play with its implications. One can identify “good people” in HTD because they either don’t recognize or don’t care that Howard is different. He and Beverly have a relationship like any other couple, even sleeping in the same bed (although again it was Mantlo in the non-Code-approved magazine who made their status as lovers explicit).

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There was even a short-lived daily comic strip in 1977.

Beginning in HTD #3, the blurb on the first page tells the reader that Howard was always conscious of being different, an outsider, even in his early life. Intriguingly, before Howard’s character became completely settled, he made a few attempts to blend in and make a normal life for himself among the humans. This early version of Howard had a Walter Mitty-like quality as he attempted to imagine himself into the role of good citizen, helping the police rid Cleveland of such menaces as Garko the Man-Frog and a vampire cow. Of course, when Howard was unable to prove that he had saved the city and was further rebuffed by the police with the reminder that he is, after all, a duck, he naturally reacted with the disillusionment and cynicism that became the hallmark of his character.

In this sense Howard’s experience is the dark side of any immigrant’s journey to America. In his homeland he was an individual, and as one of many of his kind, he could take his personhood for granted: the group kinship to which everyone belonged was effectively invisible. In hairless ape America, however, it is his status as a representative of his type that singles him out, and his individuality is reduced to a single image: duck. In fact, although people regularly sputter, “Y–you’re a duck!” upon meeting him, no one in these stories mistakes Howard for a real duck: they assume he is a midget in a duck suit, marking him as either a madman or a publicity-seeker. Oddly, while the updated backstory makes Howard’s prospects grimmer–if he has always been an outsider wherever he lived, what kind of acceptance can there be to hope for?–it seems to offer hope for the immigrant or minority member: maybe the individual personality does make the difference, and Howard’s experience need not be a universal commentary on America.

If Howard fit perfectly the mood of the 1970s, can he still be relevant today? Steve Gerber thinks so. In a July 2001 interview, Gerber summarized the state of the nation: “The situation in the U. S. now–a dork in the White House, the country split down the middle politically, every form of popular culture from music to movies at a creative nadir, and so on–almost exactly parallels the state of things in 1975. In that sense, the time has never been more appropriate for Howard’s return.”

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Of course, those words were spoken before September 11, and one may wonder whether post-attack readers would be in the mood for Howard’s pointed critiques of America’s political and cultural environment. Fortunately, Gerber’s up-to-the-last-minute scripting habits have prevented a jarring lead time between the new book’s writing and publication. So far (as of this writing, four issues of a planned six-issue series have been published), Gerber hasn’t softened Howard’s edge (indeed, the “mature readers” label allows him a far greater freedom of theme and content than he had in the ‘70s), but he lands his hardest punches on America’s self-absorbed, pop-therapeutic culture and religious zealotry rather than specific political viewpoints. In this sense, the new Howard isn’t too different from the old: Gerber (and by extension Howard) has always expressed skepticism for one-size-fits-all solutions, political or otherwise. Although at one time Howard was labeled “The Nemesis of Middle America” by Marvel editors, it was really conformity rather than conservatism that Howard attacked, and Gerber’s new series doesn’t play favorites.

References to September 11 have been kept in the background, but the events have hardly been ignored. In issue #2, a tip to the police reports that “Osama el-Braka” (“Braka” meaning “duck”) has been spotted in Howard’s locale, leading to a two-page splash of SWAT teams, National Guard, and even Girl Scouts bursting into Beverly’s apartment for the kill. In the fourth issue, a committee of heavenly beings called the “Religion as Replacement for Thought Coalition” conspire to live up to their title. One member announces, “we’ve rooted out the moderate Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu elements that have tried to infiltrate and corrupt this coalition.” Another, speaking of the Islamic Madrassas, states, “their success at purging their pupils of any faculty for critical thought borders on the miraculous. We now have a small army of morons willing to fly airplanes into tall buildings, on the promise of seventy-two virgins in the afterlife.”

Much of the satire, however, remains focused closer to home. The third issue was a rather puerile parody of the TV show and comic book Witchblade (“Doucheblade”), which, while admittedly tasteless, rightly pointed out the degree to which large-breasted women with weapons have come to dominate comic book covers since the lifting of the Code and the proliferation of independent comics-specialty shops have allowed publishers to drop the pretense that comics were wholesome reading for kids. On the other hand, the fourth issue takes aim at the self-help guru “Iprah,” who has “convinced half of America she’s the voice of God–when, in fact, she’s nothing more than a franchise.” In one priceless panel, Iprah is shown on the cover of her magazine (“I”), finger-wagging and lecturing God under the headline “Iprah explains it all.”

Howard the Duck’s character seems to have changed little in the nearly thirty years since his creation. Opinionated, vulgar, and refreshingly uncharismatic, his adventures remain a sometimes frustrating but always surprising trip. Although Gerber doesn’t always hit his targets dead on, he fires so many shots that many are bound to connect, and there is plenty in our contemporary culture to take aim at. Perhaps Howard isn’t really so different from the masked heroes with whom he shares shelf-space: he emerges from obscurity to provoke laughter, anger, and thought at the times when he is most needed.

Kamandi Challenge no. 12: the Conclusion

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Cover by Frank Miller and Alex Sinclair

“The Boundless Realm”
Writer: Gail Simone
Artists: Jill Thompson and Ryan Sook
Colorists: Trish Mulvihill, Laura Martin and Andrew Crossley
Letterer: Clem Robins

“Epilogue the First: The Answers”
Storytellers: Paul Levitz and José Luis Garcia-López
Inker: Joe Prado
Colorist: Trish Mulvihill
Letterer: Clem Robins

Editors: Dan DiDio and Brittany Holzherr

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Kamandi Challenge‘s double-sized twelfth issue (“The Boundless Realm,” written by Gail Simone, and “The Answers” by Paul Levitz and José Luis Garcia-López) performs the difficult task of reconciling and bringing closure to all that came before. That it does so with the help of a little Deus ex machina is understandable, but the appearance of Jack Kirby himself as an angel of (re)creation makes the yearlong tribute to the King of Comics explicit (Kirby’s name, and those of his chief collaborators, has been dropped here and there throughout the series, but only here is he presented as the man himself, rather than in winking references). As Kirby himself says in the course of the story, “D’jinn–genie–genius–what’s the difference?”

But before the fourth wall breaks completely, Gail Simone provides a labyrinth of nested and interlocking narratives: “The Boundless Realm” begins with a genderswapped retelling of the first pages of Kamandi‘s very first issue (stylishly illustrated by Jill Thompson), as “Kamanda, the Last Girl on Earth” is shown rafting through the flooded ruins of New York City. She finds Kamandi, face down in the water, and brings him aboard, praying that he will recover. When he regains consciousness, unsure of how he got there, the two exchange notes: she explains her upbringing in the bunker “Command A,” mirroring the origin of “classic” Kamandi, and he struggles to recall the small town he grew up in, protected by robots. She warns him of the threat of rats, run by a warlord named Gnawbit.

Just as it seems that these two were made for each other (“I feel like I’m falling,” Kamandi says) and the plot turns toward romance, Kamandi is awakened from this pleasant dream and we find that he is still falling through the upper atmosphere with Silverbeck and Royer, the apes with whom Kamandi assaulted the Misfit’s Tek-Moon before being ejected into space at the end of the last issue. Kamanda was only a dream, a hallucination preceding death.

Ryan Sook takes over the artwork for the remainder of “The Boundless Realm,” providing a visual contrast and grounding this part of the story as the “real” events with his classically rendered, near-photorealistic style. (Sook has prior experience with this world, having illustrated the Kamandi story in Wednesday Comics in the style of a Hal Foster Sunday page; here he takes full advantage of the dynamic possibilities inherent in the comic book page, using interesting panel layouts and shapes, as opposed to the old-fashioned illustrations-with-text approach he borrowed from Tarzan and Prince Valiant for Wednesday Comics.)

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As the trio falls to Earth, Silverbeck honors Kamandi by adopting him into the gorilla tribe and encourages him to prepare for death. Not quite ready to give up, Kamandi finds the gauntlet that controls the jet pack he got from the shark in the last episode and summons the (slightly malfunctioning) pack to him. With the jet pack, he is able to grab Silverbeck and Royer but can only slow their descent. Silverbeck directs Kamandi to fall in the jungle (“I’ve always wanted to die in the jungle”) and takes the brunt of the impact, saving Kamandi and Royer at the cost of his own life. Royer recognizes Kamandi as the new chief, claiming to be too old for leadership himself.

Almost instantly, Kamandi and Royer are confronted by rats; hearing the name of their boss, “Gnawbit,” Kamandi realizes that the dream of Kamanda was somehow a warning, and he fights back, shocking the rats with his ability to speak. When the rats subdue Royer, however, Kamandi knows that he must surrender. The rats, having heard Kamandi speak, are now reverent and promise to take him straight to Gnawbit, who has predicted his arrival.

Gnawbit is a rodent Che Guevara, a revolutionary leader commanding his forces from the ruins of an old bank in the city. Although blinded, he sees with the help of an amulet in the shape of OMAC’s Brother Eye; he describes to Kamandi the “Farm” at which humans are bred in a manner similar to contemporary factory farms. Although he admits his disgust at the practice, he defends himself against Kamandi’s horror by pointing out the cruelties practiced against rats by humans in the past; all of his atrocities were born of the best of intentions. His goal was the same as Kamandi’s: to save the Earth.

Inside the bank, the letters of the sign (“Continental Annuity”) are teasingly rearranged into “Continuity” over the vault containg Gnawbit’s treasures, long boxes full of old comic books (including–somehow–Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth). It was in the pages of these comics that Gnawbit read of Kamandi’s impending arrival, and he shows Kamandi the possible futures that the comics portray in their narratives of heroism and self-sacrifice (note that all of the characters shown are, like the Legion of Superheroes, heroes of the future, and leave it to Gail Simone to make sure that one of those heroes is Space Cabbie instead of the usual suspects).

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Cross-cut with Kamandi’s encounter with Gnawbit, the Misfit, dying alone in his disabled Tek-Moon, dispatches one last superweapon to destroy all life on earth: the giant robotic Terror-Naut. Gnawbit has seen this, too, and calls upon his rat forces to form a “rat king,” a giant-sized collective figure that can meet the Terror-Naut head-on (the rats need Kamandi to “drive,” directing them by pulling their tails in a sort of reverse-Ratatouille); armed with Renzi’s “cyclo-heart” from issue no. 6, the rats defeat the Terror-Naut. Although this is the requisite comic book action for the episode, it feels almost incidental, a loose end that needs to be tied up before we can get on with the real thrust of this episode: Kamandi’s discovery of who he is and where he came from. The eye amulet that Gnawbit wears reveals the spirit of Kamandi’s “father”–Jack Kirby!

In “The Answers,” Kirby-as-godhead pulls Kamandi completely into his orbit, giving him the opportunity to remake his reality in the classic “three wishes” formulation. Kamandi still doesn’t quite understand who Kirby is, and verbally spars with him in the same way he argues with almost every other authority figure he comes across. His first wish is to be reunited with his parents; when this turns out to be a video farewell message, he rebels. For his second wish, he asks for the leaders of the world to be brought together, as he has a few words for them: the gallery is filled with King Caesar, Prince Tuftan, and Doctor Canus; the leader of the jaguar sun cult; and other characters from Kamandi’s previous adventures. Vila, the plant girl, is among them, and she encourages Kamandi to say what he came to say. Kamandi urges the leaders to work together to make peace and to make the world a better place for everyone. As Kirby observes, Kamandi has become more powerful through his experiences, and he is at this moment taking possession of the birthright implicit in his name: to command.

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This leads into Kamandi’s final wish, and the final hidden meaning in his name: Kamandi took his name from the bunker Command D in which he was raised, but Kirby guides him into speaking his name as “Command-D,” the computer command for redrawing or resetting a file (a retcon, to be sure, but a clever reimagining of Kamandi’s identity and purpose). After a giant “Whooosh,” Kamandi–or Cameron–is back in his small town, with short hair and dressed in regular clothes, walking past a zoo containing normal, nonspeaking animals. Putting his bizarre experiences in Earth A.D. down to a dream, he meditates, “Humanity’s too smart to ever have that kind of Great Disaster, aren’t we? . . . Aren’t we?” The spirit of Kirby hovers nearby, reminding the readers that while Kamandi may think everything’s back to normal, something has grown and changed inside him.

Interestingly, the last word goes not to Kamandi or Jack Kirby, but to Detective Chimp (from within the walls of the zoo), who addresses the reader directly to thank us for reading and bid us farewell. “This is comics at its best, breaking rules and having fun,” he says, and after this final issue it’s hard not to agree. (He also commiserates over that “Command-D” pun to make sure we know that they know it’s a groaner.) (The choice of having Detective Chimp deliver this epilogue makes for an interesting link between the futuristic talking animals of Earth A.D. and the mainstream of DC continuity; his appearance is also a nod to writer Paul Levitz’s contribution to the DC Challenge of 30 years ago: see below.)

Now that this series has reached its conclusion, it’s interesting to look back and see how it did (or didn’t) coalesce into a single narrative. The first and last few chapters have the most direct involvement with the “save the world” narrative, while the middle chapters have the luxury of being more episodic. Interestingly, Tom King’s “Ain’t It a Drag?”, which ran in issue no. 9, is (in serial terms) an “economy chapter” or (in TV terms) a “bottle episode,” taking place entirely in one location. It even contains a recap of the story so far, not in flashback but in a short monologue that catches up readers who may have missed the beginning. In film and television, such episodes really do serve a purpose of saving money on production costs which can be applied to the rest of the series; comics have no such budgetary restrictions, and original artwork still has to be drawn, but it is telling that this sprawling, episodic story still had room for a more meditative chapter in a single location. Aside from the recap, such chapters are about the essences of the characters, the kinds of insights that can be gleaned best when the action slows down.

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Indeed, the range of types of stories seen in this series–always containing action, but within the varied context of adventure, horror, comedy, and fable, to name a few examples–is a good example of the breadth of storytelling styles still alive within this industry, and a strong defense of the monthly single issue in the face of trade paperbacks and other competing formats. (I plan to read this series straight through again, so perhaps the seams will show more in that context, but as I’ve stated before I consider seamlessness an overrated virtue in art.)

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So did Kamandi “find his parents and save the world?” Er, kind of. Turning it into a metaphor is probably better in the long run, even it doesn’t follow a completely straight line from the first chapter. Was such a project ever going to be completely satisfying from a narrative perspective? That’s the risk of round-robin stories, of course, but that possibility that the story will refuse to come together is what gives it its edge, its sense of danger. By making the continuous cliffhangers part of the explanation, by making Kamandi’s fall from one peril to another seem like a narrative as well as a formal necessity, the last chapter retroactively imposes a sense of orderly progression on his adventures (this conveniently overlooks that not all of the cliffhangers involved Kamandi falling–most did, but not quite all).

More importantly, the idea that danger and its attendant adrenaline rush was necessary for Kamandi to realize his own power keeps it from being a pointless return to the status quo: yes, the rewriting of his reality is essentially a Wizard of Oz move, but as in that story, the lessons learned along the way–about loyalty to friends, about standing up for yourself, about what you’re capable of–are apt to stick even as the adventure itself recedes into a dream. “Sometimes being scared or going way out of our comfort zones is good for us,” Kirby tells Kamandi, and we recognize that as a truth that applies to both fictional characters and their creators.

The truth is that an ongoing narrative by a single creator takes the same risk as a round-robin: the plot might not add up, events may not be resolved in a satisfactory way, the story may not even reach its conclusion. (And in comics, creative teams are frequently changed from issue to issue for logistical or editorial reasons anyway.) The competitive aspect of the Kamandi Challenge, in which each writer lays a trap for the next, is only an extreme form of the way in which writers try to top themselves, writing their characters into corners without exactly knowing how they’ll find a way out, but having confidence that they’ll figure out something. It’s not that different from the way in which Kirby himself and other prolific comics creators approached their plots. Even at its worst, that approach can get by on energy alone, the Edgar Rice Burroughs rush of incident piled on incident; at its best, there is room for considerable depth and thematic development alongside the thrills and spectacle. Kamandi Challenge‘s most rewarding decision, one seemingly made independently by many of the contributors over its run, has been to turn the formal requirements of the round-robin story into reflections on Kirby: his methods, his themes, his legacy.

“The Answers” is also something of a double tribute: to Kirby, of course, but also to prolific writer and editor Len Wein, who was originally scheduled to conclude the series, but who passed away this year. Wein was a contributor to the original DC Challenge, as is Paul Levitz, who stepped in to replace him. I admit I wasn’t very familiar with the DC Challenge when I started reading Kamandi Challenge. Although I was reading and collecting comics in 1985, the DC Challenge was a direct market-only publication, and I didn’t have regular access to a comics store in those years. I’ve since picked up some copies of back issues, and it is . . . well, interesting, to say the least. Like Kamandi Challenge, it invited writers and artists to write stories and set up impossible cliffhangers for the next writers to get the characters out of. The DC Challenge used the backdrop of the entire DC universe as its playground: any and all characters were at the writers’ disposal (including oddballs like Detective Chimp!), and the whole thing appears to be considerably more tongue-in-cheek (in one issue, Albert Einstein appears, using his mastery of space-time to set things right, much like Kirby does in “The Answers”). In some ways it appears to be a dry run for Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which worlds would collide with much higher stakes than the amusement of continuity nerds.

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Kamandi Challenge benefits from a narrower focus–Earth A.D. is a large place to explore, but unified by a common theme and by a single central character–but it also takes itself more seriously than the DC Challenge did. There is humor, but it is mostly in the form of banter rather than silly situations (I will admit, however, that I measure silliness on a bit of a sliding scale when we’re talking about communist bears and machine-gun-wielding sharks).

Ultimately, exercises like this are useful antidotes to the pervasive notion that narratives are airtight constructions, that creators don’t change their minds in midstream when they come up with better ideas, or that having one’s preconceptions confirmed is the highest pleasure in absorbing a story. Surprise is a crucial element, and while some twists can take things too far (always a matter of taste as to what constitutes “too far”), sometimes the best surprises come from collaborators surprising one another (the “yes and” of improvisation) or of artists surprising themselves (the happy accident, or simply a case of getting into the zone and coming up with better ideas than one thought possible when in the planning stages).

As a fan, it has been gratifying to see so many talented comics creators try their hand at writing and drawing Kamandi. The different perspectives on what makes him tick, or how his past adventures do or don’t deliver for modern readers, have been fascinating to observe. And even the weaker chapters in this series have included the gut-level pleasures of sci-fi action in a unique atmosphere. At its best it’s a jolting reminder of just how much influence Jack Kirby still has on individual artists when they’re invited to dwell on it. Continuity is perhaps the big theme of this series, in the small sense of connecting all the diverse strands of narrative and reconciling them, but also in the big sense of handing down traditions and influence, of telling the story of how we tell the story, and why. Kamandi himself is a character who, since passing out of his creator’s hands for good, is often used as a symbol for alternative paths of history, for how individuals might become different people were they born into different circumstances. Back in his idyllic home at the end of Kamandi Challenge, our young hero knows that things could still change: there are many paths forward that life could take. Likewise, there are many paths forward, for both the characters of Kamandi and the medium of comics, represented by the approaches in Kamandi Challenge. It’s not a question of which one will lead to the future: they all do, one way or another.

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Kamandi Challenge no. 11

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Cover by Nick Bradshaw and Steve Buccellato

“Enter . . . the . . . Misfit!”
Writer: Rob Williams
Artist: Walter Simonson
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

Things are coming to a head: after the Death Worshippers stormed the Tower and shot Kamandi’s mother (who turned out to be the Commander of the Tower and leader of the robot forces who are trying to wipe out all animal life) at the end of last issue, she dies trying to tell Kamandi something about his still-missing father. However, she turns out to be a robot (I knew it!) with a secondary mission. The Tower is not only a building, but an actual rocket, and as the Death Worshippers continue to fight with the robots, the rocket launches into space, taking Kamandi to a final confrontation with the true power behind-the-scenes.

Kamandi continues to fight the robots alongside the Death Worshippers, joined by the shark crew from last issue (now wearing jet-packs: ah, comics!). Although the fight goes against Kamandi and his comrades, he is given a jet-pack by one of the sharks and, after wiping out some more of the robots, makes his way to the control room of the rocket. There, protected from the robots, he sees his friends cut down and realizes that he is once again alone.

Until, that is, one of the screens in the control room comes to life and the true commander of the rocket reveals himself: the Misfit, a genetic freak with a brilliant intellect, who has summoned Kamandi in order to extract the secret that lies in Kamandi’s genetic code. The Misfit, enthroned on his “Tek-Moon,” an armed space station, plans to launch the Anti-Cortexin from space!

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Examining a map, Kamandi sees that the ship is heading over an area marked “UFO activity” and hatches a plan: “Maybe if I press these controls I can somehow uncloak the ship so others below can see it and destroy it,” he says to himself. “A suicidal hope, but what other choice do I have?”

Soon after Kamandi disables the rocket’s cloaking device, a squadron of flying saucers attacks! Not only that, they are being flown by gorillas! (Sharks with jet-packs! Gorillas in flying saucers! Although Kamandi was a Bronze Age creation, there’s more than a little of the free-associative qualities of the Silver Age in this chapter.) The simian saucer pilots, led by the enormous ape Silverbeck, succeed in boarding the rocket with the intention of destroying the Tek-Moon once and for all. An orangutan named Royer (undoubtedly a nod to Jack Kirby’s long-time inker Mike Royer) discovers Kamandi and convinces Silverbeck not to kill him. Kamandi reveals the projected image of the Misfit to Silverbeck and Royer (“By the Severed Paw! What horror!”), who exchange threats.

The Tek-Moon opens fire on the rocket; when the Misfit lets slip that he could reunite Kamandi with his still-living father, Kamandi commandeers the rocket controls and prepares to ram into the Tek-Moon (suicide missions are a theme in both this chapter and the series as a whole), determined to find his father or die trying.

Fighting against the ape warriors who would pull him back, Kamandi flies directly into danger, set on learning the truth about his parents; but the Tek-Moon’s weaponry is too much for the rocket, and the bridge is blasted open and exposed to the vacuum of space just before it reaches the Tek-Moon. Kamandi is flung into space and the last shot we see is him tumbling toward the Earth below. To be continued?? (Yes, two question marks are needed to convey the uncertainty of this cliffhanger!)

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“Enter . . . the . . . Misfit!” has a bit of a Star Wars vibe, at least visually: the command center of the rocket ship resembles the bridge of the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, and of course there is the armored space station, poised to rain death on an unsuspecting world below. Such doomsday weapons are a staple of science fiction, but the Death Star is the most obvious example. So, too, the Misfit (a Kirby creation who first appeared in Kamandi no. 9, with a similar germ warfare scheme) reminds me of Emperor Palpatine: a fitting antagonist to introduce at this point, warped physically and mentally, but holding out the tantalizing promise of solving the mystery of Kamandi’s origins and destiny. (Walter Simonson, the artist, worked on a number of science fiction comics over the years, including Marvel’s Star Wars adaptation, but he is best known for his long run on Thor, and the combination of far-out, alien places and weird characters is a good fit for him.)

The map that Kamandi studies aboard the rocket ship is, of course, modeled after the map that Jack Kirby provided during the early days of Kamandi, and which was fleshed out by later writers. Greg Pak, who wrote last month’s chapter, mentions in his afterword in this issue (in which he describes how he would have gotten Kamandi out of the cliffhanger if he had continued writing it) that he was assigned sections of the map to include in his chapter. I hadn’t realized that the challenge included specific territories, but in hindsight it explains the thoroughness with which Earth A.D. has been explored in this series. Some have been returns to places Kirby and his successors already visited in their series; others have been freshly revealed glimpses of places that were only names on the map up until now.

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Over the course of this series, it has been interesting to observe how different writers treat the influence of Jack Kirby. Some have used Kirby’s characters and settings to tell stories more or less within their own style, while others have either emulated Kirby’s dynamic (some might say bombastic) manner or turned their stories into direct tributes (if Royer in this chapter is an homage to Kirby’s collaborator Mike Royer, does that make Silverbeck Kirby himself, I wonder?). In this chapter, writer Rob Williams seems to delight in some old-school comics techniques, most notably the use of play-by-play dialogue that describes things as they happen (“The talking human fights like a three-armed ape! We are wiping out the robot crew!”).

Nobody talks like this except comic book characters, and here it takes the place of verbose caption boxes, which otherwise appear only at the beginning and end of this chapter. It frequently turns toward the goofy (Kamandi says of the Misfit, “Indeed, he is truly a pumpkin-headed toad!”), but Silverbeck and the Misfit are especially prone to the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that Kirby deployed regularly (and which my regular readers know that I am powerless to resist). Whether it is the “Misfit majesty” giving orders to “Open fire with every weapon upon this bountiful and deadly Tek-Moon!” or the gorilla UFO commander calling Kamandi “a fool and not of the Silverbeck wisdom!”, “Enter . . . the . . . Misfit!” is, from its title on down, a story that oozes an affection for the comics medium and its more whimsical expressions.

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Kamandi Challenge no. 10

Cover by Francis Manapul

“Mother, May I?”
Writer: Greg Pak
Penciller: Shane Davis
Inker: Michelle Delecki
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

After the robot has dragged Kamandi from the waiting room (seen last issue), we see that the facility is a museum, the robots engaged in mounting displays of the humanoid animals that populate the earth. Other displays show the forgotten world of humans, and Kamandi sees a photograph of himself with his mother (remember, Kamandi has been searching for his missing parents since the attack on his home in issue no. 1). The robots, confused and agitated by the presence of a human (who are not supposed to be given the taxidermy treatment), prepare to take him to the Commander. Kamandi breaks free using a gun from the museum’s collection (how many times have we seen something like that happen?) and escapes to the ocean that surrounds the building.

While he jetskis away, he is attacked by a punk-looking gang of sharks with humanoid arms and machine guns. However, when the sharks discover that Kamandi isn’t a robot, they help him fight off his pursuers and escort him to shore. In exchange for sparing his life, they turn Kamandi over to a group of humanoid panthers, “death worshipers” who go by names like “Dead Woman” and “Dead Man” and refer to Kamandi as “Dead Boy.” Their fatalism is only a realistic appraisal of their chances: the area is ruled over by the Commander, controller of the robots, who lives at the top of a tower that overlooks the land. Sooner or later, death comes to all animal hybrids under such a reign. The panthers expect Kamandi to help invade the tower and kill the Commander.

After a graphic demonstration of the tower’s killing power, Kamandi decides to take the mysterious Commander on alone. Gaining entry by stealth, Kamandi spies containers of “Anti-Cortexin” (Cortexin being the chemical that originally gave sentience and upright posture to the animals of Kamandi’s world) and is attacked by more robots.

Kamandi is saved when a woman wearing power armor destroys the robots; Kamandi recognizes her as his long-sought mother. In the course of the reunion, she explains that she had hoped to keep him safe during the Android Wars by hiding him in the simulated small town in which he was raised, but upon returning she had found it destroyed. Now, after conquering the robots, she has but a single purpose in mind: she plans to use the Anti-Cortexin to return the world’s animals to their natural state, and make the world safe again for humans. Of course, it turns out, she is the Commander.

Kamandi barely has time to react to this news when an explosion rips the building apart: the death-worshiping cats have broken into the tower; in the last panel, Kamandi holds the body of his mother, who was injured in the explosion and may or may not be dead.

If the double-page sharks vs. robots spread doesn’t scream “COMICS!” to you, I don’t know what would. After the stark, existential meditation of Tom King and Kevin Eastman’s “Ain’t It a Drag?”, “Mother, May I?” is both a return to the bold four-color mayhem we have come to expect from Kamandi, and more importantly a turn towards a possible conclusion. As part 10 of a projected 12, Greg Pak and the writers who will follow him have their work cut out for them in fashioning an ending to this sprawling, multi-author story.

The reunion with Kamandi’s mother (unless the next installment undoes this by making her a robot or impostor, because comics) answers one of the central mysteries of the series, but leaves many unanswered: what happened to Kamandi’s father, for example? The Commander’s genocidal mission against the sentient animals is another: early on, when Kamandi first escaped the destruction of his home, he might have been expected to think the same way, that the humanoid animals are monstrous and that the natural order of things has been overturned. Yet if there is one consistent arc in this round-robin story, it is Kamandi’s growing understanding that intelligence, compassion, and friendship come in many forms. The varied relationships he has formed with characters such as Dr. Canus, Vila, Mack, and Sadie are testament to this enlarged sense of humanity, and a single panel shows in Kamandi’s facial expression that he is both surprised and aghast at his mother’s plan.

From a metafictional perspective, too, the reader doesn’t really expect such a plan to succeed, if success would undo what makes this fictional world attractive and interesting to begin with. For all its terrors, Earth After Disaster is full of wonders; in contrast to the resource-starved desert of the Mad Max films, it is teeming with life, and while Kamandi has sought others like himself in vain until now, he is long past seeking to wipe the slate clean.

Sometimes authors create tension by awareness of the character’s desire for circumstances that would foreclose narrative possibilities–Superman may wrestle with his desire to live as a normal man on an intact Krypton, even though it is his presence on Earth that gives him power and makes him a superhero–but in this case Kamandi’s journey has been one that brings him in line with the reader’s perspective, and I get the impression that he doesn’t want to erase the effects of the Great Disaster any more than the reader does.

On the other hand, there are only two chapters left in this saga, and unlike most open-ended comic book stories, there’s nothing stopping the last writer from blowing it all up. We shall see: if you’ll pardon the speculation, I suspect that we’ll find that either Kamandi’s mother isn’t actually dead, allowing this conflict to play out and form the climax of the series, or Kamandi’s father will enter the scene, either to continue her plan or as someone with a different set of priorities. We shall see.