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.

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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.

Kamandi Challenge no. 9

Cover by Mark Buckingham & Steve Buccellato

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. of Chapters: 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy’s G-Men

Dick Tracy’s G-Men begins where most serials end: with the capture and execution of a supervillain. A newsreel begins the first chapter by introducing Nicolas Zarnoff (Irving Pichel), a “master spy” with a hand in disrupting and overthrowing governments all over the world. The newsreel shows footage of Dick Tracy and the men of the FBI’s Western Division capturing Zarnoff in a daring raid, and concludes with Zarnoff’s sentence of death in the gas chamber. After viewing the newsreel and approving it, Tracy is summoned to Zarnoff’s cell for a few last words, and we learn through dialogue just how wily and dangerous he is: he attempts to direct Tracy to a previously undisclosed hideout, but Tracy cuts him off. The G-men have already been there and defused the bomb Zarnoff had hidden in a safe to finish them off. This sets the tone for the serial: trap and counter-trap.

Tracy departs after Zarnoff vows his revenge. Then Zarnoff receives his last request: copies of all the major daily newspapers. Finding a hidden message from his associates in one of them, he tears up strips of the paper and moistens it in a cup. Drinking the water, he goes quietly to the gas chamber, only for his body to be stolen by his underlings and revived later. After investigating, Tracy learns that a drug known only to the Kali* priests of India was mixed into the ink at the newspaper printing press; by ingesting it, Zarnoff was able to stop his heart and breathing and insulate himself from the lethal gas for a time until he could be revived. Once free, he takes up his criminal enterprises where he left off, with an extra dose of vengeance for the only man to ever capture him: Dick Tracy!

* Pronounced “Kay-lie.” Pronunciation in these films is something I haven’t mentioned before, but there are a few that sound eccentric to modern ears, and not only foreign terms that are now more familiar. Columbia’s announcer habitually pronounces “ally” with the emphasis on the second syllable, as “al-LIE,” and in this serial a henchmen speaks of “DEE-tonating” a bomb. Whether these are relics of older accents or pronunciations from a time when such things were less standardized in broadcasting than they are now, or simply slips of the tongue that were left in due to the hurried “one take” method of filming serials, I’m not sure.

Where 1937’s Dick Tracy has much in common with other serials in its masked mastermind and brainwashed brother, and Dick Tracy Returns is tonally similar to Chester Gould’s comic strip, Dick Tracy’s G-Men seems to draw a great deal of inspiration from the pulp magazines that were contemporary to it. For one thing, there is a great deal of well-executed action, including excellent fight choreography and stuntwork. More importantly, the exoticism of a secret drug mixed into newsprint is just one of many examples of bizarre gimmicks that could be torn from a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! strip, or from the adventures of the Shadow or one of the many knock-offs of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu (or, looking ahead a few decades, the kind of thing Ian Fleming’s James Bond might run into). In another chapter, Zarnoff traps Tracy and his partner Steve Lockwood in a barred room, electrified by a sparking dynamo, and the settings in this serial are even more wide-ranging and colorful than usual, from a lighthouse to a deserted Old West ghost town. Like many serial villains, Zarnoff has hideouts and connections in all manner of places: an abandoned cannery, a fur store, a diving bell hidden beneath a dam, and several houses, cabins, and hotel rooms. Even the conclusion, with Tracy and Zarnoff stranded alone together in the desert, is different in character from the typical serial confrontation, like something out of a men’s adventure magazine and featuring a moralistic O. Henry twist (although it is similar to the ending of Dick Tracy Returns in that it gets the hero and villain alone together by means of an attempted airplane escape).

Allowing for the generally vague politics of serials, Dick Tracy’s G-Men is also more political than its predecessors: as mentioned, Zarnoff is a “master spy” credited with destabilizing democratic governments. A few years earlier, such a villain would have probably been described as a “revolutionary” (code for an anarchist or communist, matching Zarnoff’s beard and Russian name), but Zarnoff is more of a mercenary terrorist, selling his services to the “Three Powers,” a consortium of foreign governments (unnamed, but guess which “three powers” were causing anxiety in the U.S. in 1939?). Zarnoff’s plots include trying to kill the visiting President of a Latin American country, the sabotage of major installations like dams and canals, and the theft of secret plans for weapons and military operations. Whatever his motives, the fact that he is haughty, cynical and almost unnaturally cool-headed (one might say cold-blooded) makes it easy to root against him.

Ralph Byrd returns in the lead role, even more jolly than usual, but the supporting cast has once again been shuffled: Junior and Mike McGurk are nowhere to be found in this serial. Steve Lockwood (Ted Pearson) and Gwen Andrews (Phyllis Isely, who would soon change her stage name to Jennifer Jones) remain in Tracy’s office, played by different actors, and additional support comes from interchangeable agents Scott (Robert Carson) and Foster (Julian Madison).

Zarnoff’s main henchman, Robal, is played by Walter Miller, and to me he looks an awful lot like Ralph Byrd. The fact that he generally wears dark suits and Dick Tracy wears light ones makes it easier to tell them apart, so I guess the cliché about white hats and black hats holds true. It’s a pity that nothing is ever made of their resemblance, like Robal trying to infiltrate the FBI or something like that; maybe Miller should have played Gordon Tracy in the 1937 serial. (And as for that name: “Robal” sounds like something from a Steve Ditko comic, but Chester Gould did have a penchant for using backwards spellings for character names–Professor Emirc, anyone? So was Robal a hidden commentary connecting Labor and un-American activity, or is it simply that Robal is Zarnoff’s “workhorse”? Who knows?)

An uncredited appearance is made by Sammy McKim, who played young Kit Carson in The Painted Stallion, as a boy who helps Tracy get out of an explosive-filled mineshaft in the ghost town chapter. As a child actor, McKim specialized in Western types, so it’s fitting that he makes an appearance for the Old West themed episode.

Interestingly, Harrison Greene, this time credited, returns for one scene as “the Baron,” a representative of the Three Powers interested in obtaining military secrets. Whether he is the same Baron seen in the previous two serials is anyone’s guess, but Greene is apparently the only actor besides Ralph Byrd to appear consistently in the Dick Tracy serials.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy’s G-Men (Republic, 1939)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Chapter titles include both “Sunken Peril” (Chapter Six) and “Caverns of Peril” (Chapter Eleven), but my favorite is Chapter Ten, “Crackling Fury” (an apt description of the sparking dynamo that Tracy and Steve are locked in with).

Best Cliffhanger: One thing that can be said of Republic’s cliffhangers is that they are almost always well-integrated into the plot. The chapter title frequently gives a hint as to the peril that the hero will face at the end, and enough foreshadowing is given–a bit of dialogue or a close-up on some innocuous prop that will become the instrument of doom–that the danger can be seen coming–or could have been seen if only the hero had been more careful. In Dick Tracy’s G-Men, the typical car, airplane, autogyro (!), and dirigible (!!) mishaps are alternated with some truly fiendish and inventive death traps. This is the real stuff, serial fans.

Yes, Dick Tracy’s G-Men uses stock footage of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster as part of a cliffhanger.

In Chapter Two (“Captured”), Dick Tracy is bound and gagged and placed behind a locked door with a pistol rigged to shoot at whomever tries to open it; Zarnoff figures that the stray shot will force the trigger-happy G-men to spray the door with machine gun fire, executing their helpless boss. (And it almost works, too!) In Chapter Eight (“Chamber of Doom”), Tracy is nearly asphyxiated in a furrier’s fumigation room (surely a source of ironic satisfaction for Zarnoff, who faced his own gas chamber in Chapter One!); in Chapter Thirteen (“The Fatal Ride”), Tracy, Lockwood, and FBI Director Anderson are nearly gassed again in the sealed back seat of a taxi cab driven by one of Zarnoff’s men. Only a convenient air tube gets them through that one.

Upon reflection, however, my favorite cliffhanger is the one closing Chapter Four (“The Enemy Strikes”). This chapter takes place in and around a barge filled with explosives. Zarnoff knows that Tracy has tracked him to a dockside salvage outfitter, so he lays a trap, putting a time bomb in the hold of the barge. While Tracy and the G-men shoot it out with the bad guys on the multi-level barge, the timer ticks away; the cliffhanger, however, is not the explosion of the bomb. Dick Tracy discovers the time bomb and throws it overboard, where it explodes harmlessly. Rather, it is set in motion when Robal throws a barrel at Tracy. Tracy dodges the barrel, but instead of continuing to focus on their fight, the camera follows the barrel as it rolls from one ledge to another, Donkey Kong-style, until it lands in the water. There it bobs between the barge and another barge next to it, until the current brings them together: at first, the barrel bulges as it is squeezed, but it eventually splinters beneath the pressure. The danger is clear. Sure enough, Tracy is knocked out and falls into the water, between the two barges, where it is only a matter of time before he suffers the same fate as the poor barrel. Here comes the tugboat to push the barges together. . . .

Sample Dialogue: “I have cheated the law, outwitted the deadly science of the lethal chamber, but at a price no mortal man was ever expected to pay. That ancient drug was brewed by the alchemists of Satan. Tracy forced me to it. Tracy must die.” –Zarnoff in Chapter One, “The Master Spy” (Zarnoff was supposedly modeled after Boris Karloff, but only Chapter One, with its echoes of Frankenstein, really leans into the horror elements; at first after his resurrection, Zarnoff is shaken, and his appearance frightens his henchmen, but in later chapters he appears to have recovered his equilibrium.)

What Others Have Said: “These serials were a definite departure from the comic strip, omitting key characters such as Tess, Pat Patton and Chief Brandon, and emphasized Tracy as the ultimate dedicated lawman, asking no quarter and giving none in his battle against crime. Even as kids we knew that liberties had been taken in transferring Dick Tracy to the screen, but as action fans we didn’t care.” –William C. Cline, “Remakes and Side Effects” in Serials-ly Speaking: Essays on Cliffhangers

What’s Next: My schedule permitting, I should have just enough time to watch and write up the fourth and final Dick Tracy serial, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. before the end of summer!