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.

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Kamandi Challenge no. 8

Cover by Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Alex Sinclair

“Not Quite the Odyssey”
Writer:
Keith Giffen
Artist: Steve Rude
Color: John Kalisz
Lettering: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

After parting with the Britannek Bulldogs last issue, Kamandi was hang-gliding over the ocean toward his next goal, following the track of his missing parents, when he was bitten by a Polar Parasite that had hitched a ride in his satchel. As Kamandi Challenge no. 8 continues the story, Kamandi is able to bring the glider in for a crash-landing in the surf, and succeeds in crushing the parasite against a rock before it can take control of his mind. While attempting to recover supplies from the wrecked glider, he is surprised by a band of humanoid goats and sheep in ancient Greek dress. Calling him “Odysseus,” they take him to be the returned hero of the Odyssey: he is human, like the illustrations in the “ancient texts” the goats have based their life on, and he can speak. He must be the one!

Nothing is ever quite that simple in Kamandi’s world, however, and the goats’ claim on Kamandi is challenged by a band of wolf people, the eternal enemies of the goats. To the wolves, Kamandi is “Ulysses,” the Roman name for Odysseus, and such hermeneutic differences are the stuff of which holy wars are made. Or perhaps it is simply the external manifestation of the two species’ age-old antagonism. The wolves attack, and the goats fight back, with Kamandi stuck in the middle and with no control over his own fate.

Once safe in the goats’ village, Kamandi learns a little about the feud, and that both sides expect him to be their champion, but he is also given to reflect on the bizarre experiences he has come through. As hinted at in previous chapters, Kamandi has been experiencing dreams of another life, a life which in the hints we are provided can be recognized as the original Kamandi series by Jack Kirby. This isn’t the first time Kamandi has been taken for a god, and his priority is escaping and getting on with his search. At the same time, both sides prepare for a final confrontation, their training marked by grisly reminders of the conflict: the wolves practice shooting arrows into sheep carcasses, and the goats play games with severed wolf heads.

Attempting to slip away in a small boat, Kamandi instead finds himself trapped between the fleets of the two warring factions; he briefly senses something else moving under the surface of the water, but is distracted from it by the outbreak of war. Too slow to escape being caught between the opposing fleets, Kamandi concentrates on simply surviving while staying out of the paws of wolf and sheep alike. Briefly submerged, he sees an ominous dark shape with glowing eyes. Later, adrift on a shield, he passes between the feet of an enormous statue that stands astride the harbor like the Colossus of Rhodes; on the pylon supporting one foot is carved the name “Odysseus,” on the other “Ulysses.” As we have seen through the snapshots of life in both communities, the religious mania of the high priests has no room for ambiguity: they would sooner die than compromise, and the last we see of the wolves and sheep are the flames consuming their ships and their villages. Only too late does Kamandi, alone at last, remember the creature he saw under the water, when he experiences another swell and a menacing sea serpent surfaces right in front of him!

Some chapters of Kamandi Challenge have sought to tweak or update the original series by questioning its assumptions or broadening its representation, but “Not Quite the Odyssey” is a comic book fable in the classic mode. With its literary references and overt indictment of religious mania, this story (written by Keith Giffen, who provided art for the series prologue in issue no. 1) would have fit very smoothly into Jack Kirby’s Kamandi. The artwork by Steve Rude (himself an iconic disciple of the Kirby manner) nicely combines Kirby’s energetic style (Rude’s Kamandi looks very much like Kirby’s, but with slightly more rendering and shading, and the heavily-inked backgrounds frequently look like they were pulled straight from a Bronze Age book) with varied panel layouts that keep scenes from being monotonous. Further, the touches from ancient Greek design in the goats’ city and the wolves’ Roman Legion dress gives them a specificity and deepens the thematic connection to the Iliad, with Kamandi escaping the final sea battle like the wanderer his captors take him to be.

On the other hand, the commitment to parable and the relative lack of distinct characters sometimes leaves this chapter feeling as two-dimensional as the Greek pottery art it references. After the quirky, loquacious characters presented by (especially) Jimmy Palmiotti, Bill Willingham, and Marguerite Bennett, the return to functional (at best) dialogue is a bit of a come-down. Most of it is purely expository, and both the goats and the wolves speak with the monotonous single-mindedness of the zealot: “He has returned! As foretold in the sacred book!” (A humorous exception is Kamandi’s face-to-face encounter with the “Penelope” who was waiting for his return, an appropriate punchline to the mistaken-identity plot and an effective bit of “what now?” escalation.)

To make up for it, Kamandi spends more time than usual talking to himself or adding wry asides to the conversation: this Kamandi is experienced enough to know how crazy this all is, and he even chastises himself for the choice words (rendered in grawlixes) he uses in response. Fables are about types rather than individuals, or perhaps that is the point of this particular fable: the loss of identity when one gives in to cultism. Kamandi, in this reading, is the lone individual, the Last Boy on Earth, just trying to keep his head down and survive as elemental social groupings collide. No wonder he doesn’t have much meaningful interaction with either side: they’ve largely given up listening and speak only to each other, choosing to live in their own echo chamber (heeeeey, maybe this isn’t only about ancient myth.)

My 2016 in Books

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No, I haven’t read all the books in this pile; that’s my haul from one of several library sales I hit this year (I have read a couple of these, so far, though). I really can’t help it: this year I continued to collect books at a rate faster than I could read them (a common problem, I’m afraid), but I did make an effort to read books that were already on my shelf. Other books I got from the library when I could, including most of the graphic novels listed below. (I debated whether to include trade paperback collections of monthly comics, but in the case of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I decided what the heck: they’re some of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last couple of months, and for the record The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe! is a graphic novel in the traditional, standalone sense.)

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In addition to filling some gaps in my comics reading, I followed through on my promise from last year to read more of the pulp and genre novels that have been crowding my shelves for years. Most are quick reads, and some of them tied into other projects I was involved in. Reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was part of my preparation to watch the Buck Rogers serial for a feature in The Solute last spring; novels by William MacLeod Raine and Zane Grey (my first Grey!) continued my exploration of the traditional Western.

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And what about those covers! I love the lush cover paintings Ballantine commissioned for its “Adult Fantasy” line back in the late ’60s, and Ron Walotsky’s cover for Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star in particular is a great example, intensely colorful and reminiscent of Weird Tales great Hannes Bok and Dungeons & Dragons icon Erol Otus. (The book itself was less psychedelic than the art might suggest, an early example of “parallel world” fantasy whose only speculative element was the presence of psychic witches. The Blue Star was originally published in 1952, early enough that Pratt included a prologue setting up the events of the novel as a dream, unable as he was to assume that contemporary audiences would automatically understand the concept of a secondary world.)

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Then there’s this one, an ironic bit of spy-fi, found in a used bookstore. I only recently found out that The Bamboo Saucer was made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it. The book was okay. (High Road to China, an aviation adventure set in the interwar years, is another one that was made into a movie; the copy I read is even a tie-in edition with a photo insert of star Tom Selleck, but I have absolutely no memory of the film.)

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Other Highlights:

It was a good year for non-fiction for me, and the books on Gary Gygax, Nancy Drew, and Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer were especially fascinating looks into the publishing industry and the creative process. (The Man From Mars also confirmed that the scientist alter ego of superhero The Atom was named after the Ray Palmer, something I had wondered about.) Another fascinating read was A Kim Jong-Il Production, about the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, who were pressed into service making movies for the North Korean dictator, a noted film buff.

I also read quite a few (mostly short) novels, including books by Jack Vance, the last book of Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions (a series I enjoyed very much), and a pair of contemporary (ca. 1970) gothic romances by Susan Howatch (another library sale find: how could I resist a cover like this?).

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Aside from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, comics and graphic novels that I found rewarding were Planetary (I had read the first few issues several years ago, but the Omnibus edition from the library caught me up on the entire series), All-Star Superman (as good as everyone says), and V for Vendetta (unfortunately timely).

Here’s the complete list:

January
Armageddon 2419 A.D., Philip Francis Nowlan
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
All the Wrong Questions: “Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?”, Lemony Snicket
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, Paul Fischer
League of Somebodies, Samuel Sattin

February
Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, ed. David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu
Bulldog Drummond, Sapper
Halting State, Charles Stross

March
Mission to the Head-Hunters, Frank and Marie Drown
All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
The Fighting Tenderfoot, William MacLeod Raine
Cowboys & Aliens, Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, et al
Al Williamson Adventures, Al Williamson et al
The Planetary Omnibus, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

April
Heroes of Bear Creek, Robert E. Howard
Big Planet, Jack Vance
The Blue World, Jack Vance

May
The Dragon Masters & Other Stories, Jack Vance
The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane, Philippe Druillet
Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, Adam and Dustin Koski
Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, Michael Witwer

June
The Blue Star, Fletcher Pratt
Lone Sloane: Delirius, Jacques Lob and Philippe Druillet
Camelot 3000, Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
The Flight of the Bamboo Saucer, Fritz Gordon
Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson

July
High Road to China, Jon Cleary
Three Weeks, Elinor Glyn
Last of the Duanes, Zane Grey
Marvelman Classic Vol. 2, Mick Anglo et al

August
Cowgirls: Women of the American West, Teresa Jordan
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne

September
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak
This Business of Bomfog, Madelaine Duke
Critical Mass, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis
A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju, Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling and Shawn Pryor
The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, Thomas E. Simmons

October
Monster, 1959, David Maine
Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, Jacques Futrelle, ed. E. F. Bleiler
The Waiting Sands, Susan Howatch

November
The Devil on Lammas Night, Susan Howatch
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. One: Squirrel Power, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, North and Henderson
The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem (2nd ed.), Myrick Land
Howard the Duck Vol. 0: What the Duck, Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones et al
The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, Roseanne Cheng
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd

December
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Two: Squirrel, You Know It’s True, North and Henderson
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Tony Cliff
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Three: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now, North and Henderson

Fates Worse Than Death: Captain America (1944)

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A bizarre series of deaths, some accidental and some obvious suicides, strikes at wealthy and influential men. The only connection between them is their involvement in an expedition to Central America in search of Mayan ruins, and the jeweled scarabs found in the victims’ possession. The mastermind behind the deaths, revealed to the audience in the first chapter, is Dr. Maldor, a member of the expedition who feels cheated of the glory and wealth that others have claimed. As the Scarab, Maldor is determined to take down his rivals, one by one, all the while posing as the friendly and helpful director of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences.

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Maldor’s plan might very well succeed, but for the industrious District Attorney, Grant Gardner, and his assistant Gail Richards, who stand in Maldor’s way and get far too close to the truth in their investigations. Even worse, Maldor’s henchmen keep running afoul of the costumed crime fighter known only as Captain America. Could Gardner and Captain America be one and the same? The audience knows, but will the Scarab learn the truth, and what will he do with it?

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These days, when one reads about the 1944 Captain America serial, the focus is on its lack of fidelity to the comic books created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 and published by Timely (now Marvel) Comics. Instead of being Steve Rogers, a runty Army volunteer turned into a titan by the Super Soldier serum, the serial Captain America is Grant Gardner (played by Dick Purcell), a crusading district attorney who dons the costume to bring criminals to justice; no reference is made to his origin. Instead of wielding the iconic shield, Grant Gardner carries a gun, and he gets a lot of use out of it (in fact, considering how many bad guys Gardner kills in his civilian identity without anyone batting an eye, it’s not exactly clear why he needs to step outside of the law and put on a costume at all).

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This Captain America doesn’t even fight Nazis, all the more surprising considering the character’s explicitly patriotic concept and the serial’s wartime production. As in the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, Captain America’s foe follows the serial formula of a far-reaching (but apolitical) criminal mastermind: no Red Skull here, folks. Timely publisher Martin Goodman gave Republic the right to use the character for free (according to Marvel executive Tom Brevoort, speaking in the promotional documentary Captain America: 75 Heroic Years), likely expecting the film to boost sales of his comic books. Whether it had the desired effect, I don’t know, but one wonders what Simon and Kirby, not to mention their loyal readers, thought when they saw “Grant Gardner” going through the paces of a typical Republic adventure.

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I was aware of all that before I watched the serial, but I tried to keep an open mind: although this is an extreme example, it wasn’t unusual for serial producers to change details of their source material to fit into their standard formula, and perhaps the serial would be a success on its own terms, even as it missed the mark as an adaptation. Unfortunately, I ultimately found it tedious and repetitive, even though it had some good performances and some individual chapters that worked well. Like many fifteen-chapter serials, Captain America can’t quite sustain its length, and might have been more effective cut down.

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As both Gardner and Captain America, Dick Purcell has some personality and makes for an engaging central character, and there’s quite a bit of action (much of it supplied by longtime stunt man Dale van Sickel, who actually wore the costume for many of these sequences). He’s not really anything like what I think of as Captain America, being closer to a “cop who bends the rules” type rather than a boy scout, but free of other associations he held my attention. The sheer number of the Scarab’s henchmen that he blows away or throws out high windows, in either identity, would satisfy Charles Bronson.

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Even better is the supporting cast: played by Lorna Gray, Gail Richards is Grant Gardner’s capable assistant, and the only person who knows he’s Captain America. Although she sometimes ends up as the damsel in distress (the memorable cliffhanger in Chapter Five, “Blade of Wrath,” has her tied up and threatened with beheading by the guillotine-like blade of a paper-cutting machine), she also takes the initiative, and clearly takes after her boss. In one chapter, she catches someone tampering with Gardner’s car; when the man pulls a gun in an attempt to abduct her, she whips out her own heater and shoots him dead!

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As Dr. Maldor/The Scarab, Lionel Atwill is the very model of a plummy, cultured villain, complete with monocle. Using the “Purple Death,” he can make men do his bidding or drive them to suicide. Like most serial masterminds, he works through his disposable henchmen, keeping himself at a distance from the violence until the very end. His right-hand man (and also the most active in the field) is Matson (George Lewis), but John Davidson (whom we just saw in Tailspin Tommy) also lends his deep voice to the cause of evil as the henchman Gruber.

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Maldor possesses a cutting wit, often directed at his bungling helpers. In one scene he sarcastically congratulates his henchmen: “You should be proud of yourself. Captain America has made a fool of you in every job you’ve attempted.” In a late chapter, when Maldor starts getting his hands dirty himself, he honest-to-God says “There are ways of making you talk” to the only man who knows how to decipher a Mayan treasure map, before flogging him with a cat-o-nine-tails.

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Later in the same episode, when Maldor learns that Gardner is on his way to the Scarab’s farmhouse hideout, he uses an airplane to personally drop bombs on the house in the hopes of destroying evidence of his presence and (even better) killing his nemesis at the same time (it is in fact the fifth building destroyed directly or indirectly by the Scarab in this serial, a showcase of special effects masters Theodore and Howard Lydecker’s genius). It would be nit-picky to question the efficiency or timeliness of this method. Rather, it points to the ways in which Maldor exemplifies the criminal mastermind: the true master criminal works through others, keeping the dirty work at a distance, as long as necessary; he always has multiple escape routes and alibis; and most importantly, he has the resources and the will to do whatever it takes to remove any obstacle that keeps him from his goal. If that means getting in a plane and blowing up his own hideout, so be it.

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The thread of Maldor’s vengeance against the members of the Mayan expedition is really the only thing that ties together the various episodes, giving the serial a somewhat choppy rhythm: in several chapters, Gardner/Captain America is charged with protecting or rescuing a scientist or executive whom the Scarab threatens. In some cases, that involves recovering or destroying a new invention that the Scarab wants for himself (a “vibrating engine” shakes apart a building in the first chapter; an “electronic fire bolt” allows the Scarab’s gang to cut open bank vaults to finance his operations in the next, and so on). Unfortunately, too much time is spent explaining and talking, or with anonymous henchmen setting up traps without much happening. When Purcell, Atwill, or Gray aren’t on screen, the film lags.

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What I Watched: Captain America (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: The serial is on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: All the bases are covered by Captain America‘s chapter titles: from the poetic (“Blade of Wrath”; “The Toll of Doom”) to the bluntly literal (“Skyscraper Plunge”), the alliterative (“Triple Tragedy”; “Horror on the Highway”) and the lurid (“The Dead Man Returns”). But before Captain America was “The First Avenger,” there was “The Avenging Corpse” (Chapter Ten), my pick for Best Chapter Title.

Best Cliffhanger: Sometimes simple misdirection makes for the most effective cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Dead Man Returns”), Captain America has tracked the Scarab to an electrical laboratory, where Dr. Lyman’s Life Restoring Machine is to be used to revive Matson. As he fights with one of the Scarab’s henchmen, the two of them end up inside of the generator room, which generates the million volts necessary to charge up the machine. Another of the Scarab’s men, Dirk, throws the switch to turn it on: we see a shower of sparks and then the camera cuts to Dirk’s horrified face and we hear a chilling scream. (Of course at the beginning of the next chapter we see our hero leap out of the generator room just in time: the scream belongs to the other guy.)

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Sample Dialogue: “Mister Gardner is a brave man; I’d feel much happier if Captain America were with him.” –Professor Dodge, Chapter Three, “Scarlet Shroud”

What Others Have Said: “Sadly, Purcell died of a heart attack shortly after completing this serial at the age of 35. It was a tragic end for the man who originated the role of a nearly immortal hero (in the comics, Captain America’s died and come back to life at least three different times). Purcell’s Cap isn’t the strongest or most physically fit, but there’s something to be said for the human dimension he brought to the role.” –Matt Singer, The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as we get medieval with The Adventures of Sir Galahad!

Purple Prose, Purple Death

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In watching the 1944 Captain America serial (for which I’ll have a full write-up next week), I was struck by the title of the first chapter, “The Purple Death,” a title shared by the first chapter of the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In Captain America, the Purple Death refers to the extract of a rare orchid that makes its victims susceptible to hypnotic control (the “death” part comes when the victims are ordered to kill themselves, helpless to resist); in Flash Gordon, it’s a mysterious, fatal disease spread from Mongo to Earth that leaves its victims marked by a purple spot.

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The pulps (as well as comic strips and serials) were known for lurid, vividly-drawn stories with larger-than-life heroes and impossibly wicked villains to match. Purple is an attention-getting color, to the point that we speak of “purple prose.” I was also reminded of the Purple Empire, one of the enemy nations that Operator #5 fought against in the 1930s. (I thought there might be some significance to that, but the Operator series included a rainbow of enemy nations, possibly influenced by the color-coded War Plans developed by the U. S. military during the 1920s and ’30s.)

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In reading and watching stories from the 1930s and ’40s, I’ve encountered the phrase “purple death,” or uses of purple as a dangerous and dramatic color, enough times that I wondered if there was an underlying connection. So, in the spirit of Philip J. Reed’s Pop Questions, I’m asking: what’s the significance of the color purple in the pulps, and why particularly is death purple? Does it refer to the livid color of a bruise or the marks left by strangulation? Is it the association with royalty, by extension gaudy and powerful? I have a few leads that seem likely, but if anyone reading this has a specific answer, I’d love to hear it.

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Purple is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, including the Victorians of the nineteenth century, for whom purple was the color of “demi-mourning,” to be worn after a period of wearing black. It was also the color of royalty, originally due to the rarity and high cost of purple dyes in the ancient world. It would certainly match both the dramatic style and frequent (if shallow) references to history and classic literature in the pulps if that were the reason. I don’t have statistics at hand, but my hunch is that as comic books became the dominant medium for pulp storytelling, more villains than heroes had purple uniforms or color schemes.

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However, the most likely answer goes back to the 1918 influenza epidemic: the disease killed quickly, and often left its victims purple in color as their lungs filled with blood and starved the body of oxygen. One book on the subject is even titled Purple Death. According to some estimates, as many as 50 million people worldwide died during from the disease. Just as pulp heroes were often veterans of the Great War, so the memory of the epidemic would have resonated with writers and readers in the decades that followed. In Flash Gordon, the Purple Death was also a disease, and the scenes of public panic and the scramble to find a cure hearken directly to the 1918 epidemic; by comparison, the use of the phrase in Captain America is almost poetic, but would likely have still induce a twinge of fear for those who remembered it. Even today, with no direct memory of the influenza epidemic, it sounds ominous.

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So perhaps that’s the answer. If any readers have more details to offer, or facts to contradict my speculations, I’d love to hear them. Any other examples of purple as a color marking death or danger are, of course, welcome.

My 2014 in Books

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually one to keep a list of everything I read or watch, but in 2014 I kept a list of books I had read, in part because I was conscious that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. Although the number this year is relatively small, I’d say the mixture of non-fiction and genre fiction is fairly typical of my reading in the last few years. The list includes some graphic novels and collections of comics, but not single comic book issues (which I’ve also fallen way behind on). It’s also influenced by subjects I was writing about; however, it only includes books I read from cover to cover, not those I dipped into for reference. Finally, all but one was a first-time read, although I had read parts of some of them in the past.

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January
Batman: Odyssey, Neal Adams
King City, Brandon Graham

February
The Look of the Old West, William Foster-Harris

March
Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman
Great American Folklore, Kemp P. Battle

April
The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux
The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut

May
Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial, Alan G. Barbour
Misery, Stephen King

June
The Lost Worlds of Power Vol. 0, ed. Philip J. Reed

July
Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights, various

August
The American Book of the Dead, Stephen Billias (reread)

September
The Bloodhounds of Broadway, Damon Runyon
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Jacques Tardi

October
Showcase Presents Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, various
All The Wrong Questions: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, Lemony Snicket
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

December
The Lost Worlds of Power, ed. Philip J. Reed
All the Wrong Questions: “When Did You See Her Last?”, Lemony Snicket
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie, Chris Nashawaty

Much of my thinking on what I read this year has already been included in the articles to which they are linked, and since most of what I read was published before 2014 and is in a diverse range of genres, ranking them seems pointless. I am struck, however, by how long ago some of the books I read in the spring seem to me; I might not have remembered that I read them this year at all without this list, instead consigning them to a hazy, indistinct “past,” even though I enjoyed many of them. To tell the truth, even September seems a long time ago from this vantage point. Such is the telescoping effect of the end-of-year holidays, I guess.

It strikes me, however, that I began and ended my year with two very different books that explored the rush of unbridled creativity in different formats. (Sorry, Batman: Odyssey, I don’t mean you, although you were memorable in many ways.) Brandon Graham’s King City is a graphic novel set in the futuristic metropolis of the title; its central character is a young man returning to his old stomping grounds after training with a mysterious group that uses multi-talented cats as weapons (yes, it is quite strange, but that description doesn’t even scratch the surface). In Graham’s notes (which I am paraphrasing, as I borrowed the book from the library and don’t have it in front of me), he said that King City‘s plot was guided by his desire to only draw things that were exciting to him: to not bore himself. Such an impulse could have led to disaster, but tied to a strong sense of craft, it makes for an immersive, invigorating read, with its weaponized cats, ultra-violent gangs, sexy girls, and graffiti-filled urban vistas that are part Moebius and part Mad magazine.

kingcity

At the other end (and just finished today, in fact) was Chris Nashawaty’s pictorial/oral history of influential director/producer Roger Corman’s career, from his days cranking out cheapies for the drive-in market to his nurturing of young (and affordable) talent, to his eventual recognition as a Hollywood elder statesman. The book includes reminiscences from such graduates of “Corman University” as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and James Cameron, to name only a few. I was somewhat familiar with Corman’s career and working methods, and of course many of his films; Corman, and “mavericks” like him, continue to inspire because of their perseverance and determination to create in the face of low budgets, limited time, and (in many cases) lack of prestige. Corman and his crew made a virtue of such limitations, but the many anecdotes about making films show the value of committing to do one’s best work, whether on a pointed political statement like The Intruder or on the many monster, biker, and women-in-prison movies that Corman made on an assembly-line basis.

Tomorrow, I look back on the movies I watched this year.

In the Hall of Mirrors with Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew

Somewhere between “funny-animal” comics and cartoons for children and the evolved animals of Planet of the Apes and other adult science fiction lies the semi-serious talking animal trend in comic books of the 1970s and ‘80s. Howard the Duck is a familiar example of a walking, talking humanoid animal interacting with mainstream costumed superheroes, but he was neither the first nor the last character of his type. I’ve always been intrigued by anthropomorphic animal characters: years ago I wrote a lengthy analysis of Howard and his creator, Steve Gerber, and if I can find it I might post it here.

I was similarly drawn to Jack Kirby’s post-apocalyptic series Kamandi for its mixture of science fiction and talking animals. Last summer I wrote about DC’s Showcase Presents the Great Disaster, a “phone book” collection of material peripherally related to Kamandi and including a healthy selection of not-so-funny-animal stories; now DC has released another Showcase collecting the core run of another hybrid series, the superhero/funny-animal adventures of Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew. Like Great Disaster, this volume was announced several years ago but was held up (reportedly by disputes over royalties) until now. In any case, it comes out at an opportune moment, as Captain Carrot has returned to comics as a main character in Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity, and the renewed popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shows that there is still an audience for wise-cracking, butt-kicking humanoid animals.

CaptainCarrot

Most of the Captain Carrot stories were new to me, although the character has made brief appearances in DC books since his introduction in New Teen Titans no. 16 (included in this volume) in 1982. Created by prolific writer Roy Thomas and cartoonist/animator Scott Shaw! (yes, the exclamation point is part of his professional name), Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew was tagged from the beginning as “Not just another funny-animal comic!” The tone is light and full of verbal humor and animal puns (Roger starts out in “Gnu York” and the team later moves to “Follywood, Califurnia”), but the adventures and conflicts between characters are firmly within the tradition of superhero comics.

Captain Carrot is the leader of the group: super-strong, tough, and blessed with super-hearing, as well as the ability to leap great distances (as with Superman, who could similarly “leap tall buildings in a single bound” in his early appearances, Captain Carrot would later be depicted as flying outright). Unlike his team, whose powers are constant, Captain Carrot gains his power from eating “cosmic carrots,” irradiated by the meteor that accompanied Superman when he visited from his own dimension. When the carrots’ effect has worn off, he reverts to his scrawny alter ego, cartoonist Roger (later Rodney) Rabbit, a secret identity with some resemblance to Clark Kent and Golden Age hero Hourman.

Rounding out the Zoo Crew are Rubberduck, who can stretch his form like Plastic Man; Yankee Poodle, a patriotic-themed heroine who can repel and attract matter via the stars and stripes she projects from her hands; Fastback, a turtle with super-speed; Pig-Iron, the tough guy; and Alley-Kat-Abra, a martial artist with mastery of magic, focused through her “Magic Wanda.” Each of these characters is an established type, and Thomas and Shaw! have made clear in commentary that they were conscious of the balance of personalities and powers that made up a good super-team, but none are outright copies of extant characters.*

Zoo_Crew

Most critically, Captain Carrot and his cohort are clearly established as living in one of the DC multiverse’s many parallel earths, a planet much like ours but inhabited by Saturday-morning-cartoon-style talking animals. The team’s origin is explicitly tied to Superman, who crosses from his own dimension to the funny-animal world, where he is viewed as a terrifying pink monster (with five fingers!): in Captain Carrot’s world, “men” are creatures of myth and legend. Changeling (aka Beast Boy) of the Titans and animal-themed villains Starro the Conqueror and Gorilla Grodd would also make appearances in the book, and many of the team’s subsequent appearances have been crossovers of one kind or another. Despite its obvious kid appeal, this isn’t segregated from DC continuity, as one might expect for a children’s title.

As noted, Captain Carrot and the other members of the Zoo Crew aren’t direct parodies of established superheroes. Although there are many winking references to human history and pop culture (particularly celebrities: Rubberduck’s civilian identity is movie star “Byrd Rentals,” and Yankee Poodle is gossip columnist “Rova Barkitt”—will readers younger than 40 even recognize the reference to Rona Barrett?), the Zoo Crew are unique individuals rather than being modeled after any specific character. This distinguishes Captain Carrot from Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, a similar parody of Marvel’s characters introduced in 1983 (a year after Captain Carrot’s first appearance).

In addition, master of minutia Roy Thomas built in many links to DC’s own funny-animal past: Pig-Iron was a transformed Peter Porkchops, a character who had appeared in DC’s Funny Stuff in the 1940s; Fastback was the nephew of another Golden Age funny-animal, McSnurtle the Turtle (who also moonlighted as a superhero, the “Terrific Whatzit”). Other characters from Funny Stuff were introduced as side characters, and in one story arc the team was split up and sent back in time to different eras, encountering characters such as Nero Fox (a jive-talking, jazz saxophone-playing funny-animal Roman emperor—in other words, a character who could only have been created during comics’ unselfconscious Golden Age) and the Three Mousketeers.

captain_carrot_009_full

Thomas’ obvious delight in making such connections and in capturing the essence of superheroic types brought to mind another creation of his: the Squadron Supreme, the analogue of DC’s Justice League of America that Thomas introduced in the pages of Avengers, and which has become a JLA stand-in in the Marvel multiverse. Intriguingly, while the Squadron very directly represents the JLA in the pages of Marvel Comics, the Zoo Crew actually strike me as a subtle reworking of Marvel’s character dynamic smuggled into a DC book. (Such are the differences between the two publishers that even parodying them requires a different approach: the Squadron Supreme is the JLA with a coat of paint, while the Zoo Crew mimics the contemporary soap opera feel of a Marvel book rather than specific characters.)

From the team’s first appearance, their stories are marked by squabbling and infighting, with the kind of character-based conflict that was a central ingredient in Fantastic Four, Avengers, and Uncanny X-Men. Captain Carrot is continually struggling to keep his allies focused on the mission, and nearly every issue includes one or more characters challenging his authority or the entire purpose of the group. Pig-Iron (most clearly modeled on FF’s Thing, pugnacious and blue-collar) wants to be left alone; Rubberduck and Yankee Poodle are accustomed to star treatment; Alley-Kat-Abra fights with Yankee Poodle over leadership roles and pines for the Captain’s affections. A great deal of the time, it’s not clear that the members of the team even like each other that much.

Consider another hero who is added later, the only member of the Zoo Crew to gain his powers through a source other than the meteor that entered their universe with Superman. Chester Cheese, a mouse, was a star basketball player whose father was a scientist working on the space program. Chester was approached by two goons working for a crime boss named Fatkat, who wanted him to throw a big game on which Fatkat had a lot of money riding. When Chester refused, his father was killed and Chester was locked in his laboratory. After eating a sample of lunar green cheese, he gained the power to shrink to small sizes, retaining his strength; calling himself “Little Cheese,” he enlists the Zoo Crew in an attempt to bring Fatkat to justice.

LittleCheese

On the surface, Little Cheese resembles other shrinking heroes like the Atom or Ant-Man, but his origin is a remix of Spider-Man’s, combining the drama of teenage life, super-science, and a parental figure whose tragic death leads him to use his powers for a higher purpose. (Not to mention that his nemesis, Fatkat, strongly resembles Marvel villain the Kingpin.) In short, Little Cheese’s story illustrates the Marvel habit of building stories around “little tragedies,” to borrow Chris Sims’ phrase. Tragic origins aren’t foreign to the DC universe, of course, but in combination with the personality conflicts and limitations placed on the Zoo Crew’s powers, it’s very much in line with Marvel’s modus operandi. In that light, Captain Carrot’s adventures are an overlooked example of what Sims calls “The Problem,” a decades-long desire on DC’s part to make itself more like Marvel.

It gets even more complicated when another funny-animal super-team is introduced, and this one is a direct parody: the Justa’ Lotta Animals, which starts out as the comic book that R. Rabbit illustrates as his day job, but which (naturally) turns out to be a real group from yet another parallel earth. The two-part crossover, “Crisis on Earth-C!” and “Crisis on Earth-C-Minus!”, parodies the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossovers in bringing the champions of two worlds together. This JLA consists of Super-Squirrel, Bat-Mouse, Wonder Wabbit, Green Lambkin, the Crash (a super-speedy turtle, showing there are only so many spins one can put on this kind of character, I guess), and Aquaduck (whom I almost forgot); when first encountered, only Captain Carrot is familiar with them, since he draws them for a living.

CptCt_14_GS

It’s a time-honored convention of comic books that when two or more superheroes meet for the first time, they fight each other (through confusion or a villain’s manipulation). The JLA/Zoo Crew match-up is no different, but even after getting the facts straight, inter-group rivalries persist. Captain Carrot has trouble adjusting to the idea that the fictional characters he draws are not only real, but have personalities and motives of their own, and both the Zoo Crew and JLA exhibit a territorial streak when it comes to another super-team in “their” world. A love triangle forms, as Super-Squirrel is immediately jealous and resentful of Wonder Wabbit’s interest in a fellow bunny (it’s really a love quadrangle, as Alley-Kat-Abra is also possessive of her Captain).

The “real” Superman and Wonder Woman weren’t romantically linked until recently, but this storyline uncovers subtext that was always present, if only in the minds of fans: just as Mark Gruenwald could have Hyperion and Power Princess consummate their love in the pages of Squadron Supreme, Super-Squirrel could give voice to feelings of jealousy and inadequacy that Superman would leave unspoken, if he felt them at all. (The Captain Carrot/Wonder Wabbit pairing can be read as a parody of all such “doomed romance” storylines, as they belong in two different worlds, but it isn’t treated as a joke: the story ends with Rodney drawing Wonder Wabbit for his comic book, ruefully acknowledging that he can’t even escape into his work to forget his loss.) As a fan of both funny-animals and pastiche characters, the whole thing is a fascinating chance to observe a diverse group of characters—some of whom stand in for entire mythologies**—bounce off each other. Captain Carrot isn’t just parody: it’s meta.

Jlanimals

* Behind-the-scenes commentary and information about the Zoo Crew’s creation is drawn from Alter Ego no. 72 (September 2007).

** Speaking of mythologies, I haven’t even gotten to the six-chapter Oz-Wonderland War, published as a three-issue miniseries in 1986, and a fitting culmination to the contents of the book, with more character development than most of the previous issues. The storyline draws the Zoo Crew into an interdimensional conflict based on the characters and settings of L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll (and includes a brief reunion with Wonder Wabbit), and includes some great artwork by Carol Lay, balancing the cartoon style of Shaw! with the illustrative styles of Denslow and Tenniel. It deserves a longer write-up, but as a blend of humor and reference (scripted by longtime DC writer and editor E. Nelson Bridwell, who had a reputation as a “continuity cop” himself) it’s a very pleasurable (if frequently downright weird) read.