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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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.*

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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.

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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.

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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.

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* 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.

Strange Games: Comic Books Confront the Apocalypse

Recently, DC Comics published a trade paperback collection under the unwieldy title Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights. I don’t intend this essay to be a review, but I will say up front that if mid-century visions of nuclear war are your bag, there’s no reason not to pick this up.  If you’ve read any volumes of Showcase (or Marvel’s similar Essential series) before, you know what to expect: more than 500 pages of black-and-white reprints (of stories from the 1960s through the 1980s in this case) on cheap paper at a low price.  They don’t call ‘em “phone books” for nothing.

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I was eager to get this volume (it had been previously announced several years ago and then delayed) for a few reasons.  First, I was a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction when I was younger, and comic books were no different from other media in exploring that theme.  Second, although I had read some of the stories included, many were unfamiliar to me, and this would be a good way to fill in some gaps.  Finally, the focus on a central event (and one which had been interpreted many different ways by writers over the course of decades) makes this volume a little different from the typical Showcase that either follows a single character or collects completely unconnected stories (like the anthology title House of Mystery).  Some effort was made to arrange contradictory material into a single chronology, and that kind of editorial undertaking is always of interest to me.

Does it succeed?  Eh, sort of.  On one hand, the title tells you a lot about what’s in the volume: several cycles of stories centered on the destruction of civilization as we know it.  The Atomic Knights, in a series of stories by writer John Broome and artist Murphy Anderson that began in 1960, travel the wastes of post-World War III America, surviving with the help of their suits of medieval armor (discovered in a museum and possessed of miraculous radiation-shielding properties).  The only other continuous series represented in this volume is Hercules Unbound, but there are a number of stand-alone stories (many under the umbrella title “The Day After Doomsday”) as well.

On the other hand, the Great Disaster doesn’t have the instant name recognition of a superhero, nor was it the title of an ongoing book (the Atomic Knights, for example, were found in the pages of Strange Adventures; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were added to the title of this book so that at least some character would be named on the front cover).  In fact, the Great Disaster isn’t even synonymous with World War III in DC continuity, but you have to dig pretty deeply into the book to figure that out.  The Great Disaster is (or was, pre-Crisis) a conveniently vague apocalypse in the background of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, involving weapons of mass destruction as well as natural disasters, taking place at some point after WWIII.

(Not included in this volume)

(Not included in this volume)

The most distinctive legacy of the Great Disaster in the world “A.D.: After Disaster” was the release of a mind-altering chemical (“cortexin”) that caused ordinary animals to become intelligent, as well as gaining upright posture and opposable thumbs.  In the wake of the Great Disaster, most humans had become mute and animalistic.  Essentially, Kamandi’s world is one of reversed roles like Planet of the Apes, but with anthropomorphic dogs, tigers, and rats in addition to gorillas and other species (not to mention numerous mutant monsters and space aliens that defy categorization), all mixed up together in the ruins of a futuristic civilization.  The last point varied pretty widely: sometimes it seemed like the Great Disaster hit America in the 1970s, but it never stopped Kirby and his successors from throwing in robots, spaceships, and other high-tech devices left behind by the “ancients” if a story called for it.  (Eventually, Kamandi’s world was linked to “The World That’s Coming,” the setting of OMAC, a short-lived—and even weirder, but definitely futuristic—science fiction series Kirby had also created.)

Aside from Planet of the Apes, the world of Kamandi bears a close resemblance to the campaign setting of Gamma World, a role-playing game from TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons.  In transposing the adventuring-party model to a post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting, the game designers gave players the option of playing as a “pure strain” human, (humanoid) mutant, or mutated animal.  From one angle, the title character of Kamandi (“the last boy on Earth”) and his companions, the superhuman Ben Boxer and dog-man Dr. Canus, could be player characters in a Gamma World game, and their travels from one wonder to another, piecing together the fragmented history of their world and facing down monsters and villains, are not unlike an ongoing RPG campaign.

GammaWorld

Alas, Kamandi does not appear in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster. The material reprinted from Kamandi #43-46 is a backup story focused on Urgall, a gorilla whose liberal ideas (extending respect not only to non-gorillas but to humans, and even female gorillas!) put him at odds with his tribe. (Another “tale of the Great Disaster” that appeared in Weird War Tales #51-52, featuring warring English and Scottish dog-men, is not included, which is too bad, as it is superior to the story of Urgall.)  I’ve gone into detail about Kamandi because I’m a fan, and having collected (I believe) all the pre-Crisis appearances of Kamandi and OMAC, it’s hard for me to not bring that context to the present book.  As of this writing, the only collected reprints of Kamandi are more lavish and expensive than the Showcase series, but the title is worth seeking out and is really more essential than anything in this book (but if you’re reading this, you already knew that, right?).

When I first read the Atomic Knights stories (about fifteen years ago), they struck me as more than a little silly: in addition to the conceit of medieval armor protecting against radiation, the stories were burdened with outdated gender roles (the “littlest knight,” Marene Herald, mostly stays out of the way, awaiting the day that team leader Gardner Grayle will propose to her) and too many convenient “scientific” solutions to problems.  Although the war is said to have occurred in October, 1986, the Atomic Knights’ roots in the early 1960s remain obvious.

Reading them again, however, I’m more sympathetic to the earnest tone: the Knights are at the vanguard of rebuilding democracy, and the stories often end on a didactic note, preaching the need for cooperation, compassion, and emphasizing reason and the rule of law.  Many of the menaces they face will be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction: problems of supplying food and energy when nothing will grow; human populations regressed to caveman-like savagery; would-be dictators such as the fascist “organizer” Kadey and the self-proclaimed King of New Orleans; and non-human threats either produced by radiation (a Triffid-like strain of mobile, intelligent plants) or opportunistically filling the void left by the collapse of humanity (a race of underground mole people who plan to permanently darken the sky so that they can take over the surface world; scavenging space aliens searching for precious metals).  That the Atomic Knights continue striving and are able to keep their humanity as they do so is, in its own way, optimistic.

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In fact, the suits of armor the Atomic Knights wear aren’t an anomalous detail: sometimes the comparison to knights of old is made explicit.  In the first story in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, “The Year 700 After the Bomb,” the post-war society resembles feudal Europe, right down to the Robin Hood-style costumes, royal titles, and pseudo-Old English dialect.  One could attribute these details to lazy writing, but it also reflects a view of history with definite evolutionary stages: just as civilization climbs upward over generations, it can also slide downward, and in such stories the image of a new “Dark Ages” is made literal.  (This can probably be laid at the doorstep of H. G. Wells, whose view was long enough to envision a day when humanity, too, is extinct, and whose film Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies, portrayed a post-war English village ruled by a petty medieval warlord.)

It was when the Atomic Knights encountered warriors from the legendary island of Atlantis, time-warped into the future by their own scientific catastrophe, that I was able to put my finger on the story-telling mode. Replace “radiation” with “magic,” and a story in which armored knights battle Romanesque soldiers from an ancient island could be part of any fantasy novel from the last hundred years.  Specifically, the discovery of “Atlantides” (as the islanders are called in this story) fits neatly into the “lost world” genre: as practiced by H. Rider Haggard, A. Merritt, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, there was always the possibility of a remote valley, cave, or island that history and evolution had passed by, leaving a population of dinosaurs, ancient Romans, or other living relics to be discovered.  The lost world genre was mostly finished off by World War II, as the empty, unknown spaces on the map were filled in; wiping the slate clean with a global catastrophe allowed writers to open those spaces up again, and fill them with mystery and adventure.  In these stories, the lost world was our own.

Perhaps that is one reason they continue to be popular: although seemingly pessimistic, this strain of post-apocalyptic fantasy, showing places and objects of the present through the eyes of later generations, provides for a kind of reenchantment of the everyday.  We gain perspective when we imagine a bustling city full of skyscrapers as empty and crumbling; more importantly, we can appreciate how marvelous our technology is when we picture later generations trying to make sense of it.  In the Gamma World game, there was a mechanism for player characters to puzzle out the use and meaning of “artifacts,” meant to prevent players from using out-of-game knowledge to identify, say, a rifle as a weapon rather than an emblem of office.  Similar misinterpretations are a staple of the genre: picture the subterranean mutants of Beneath the Planet of the Apes worshipping a nuclear missile as a god, or a young shaman trying to divine omens with a vinyl record in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Likely inspired by real-life cargo cults, the projection of superstitious beliefs onto modern goods allows writers to remix old and new cultural symbols, comment on our relationship to technology, and—that standby of science fiction—map contemporary political concerns onto fantastical stories.

AtomicKnights

It should go without saying that the stories of Kamandi and the Atomic Knights don’t have anything to do with the likely horrors of a real nuclear war (or whatever the Great Disaster was supposed to be), and the longer their stories continued, the more fantastical and obviously escapist they became.  In the final story included in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, no less a DC eminence than Superman himself encounters the Atomic Knights, only to discover that their entire history is the dream of Gardner Grayle, placed in a sensory deprivation tank as part of a military experiment.  Grayle’s unconscious mind has taken over the computers running the simulation and threatens to launch an actual nuclear strike in order to make real the fantasies in which Grayle has played the hero for years.

The premise, and the lesson that Grayle imparts after awakening at the last minute (“The task before mankind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!”), owe much to WarGames and the similar lesson the supercomputer WOPR (“Joshua”) learns in that film (“A strange game: the only winning move is not to play”). “It was all a dream!” is obviously the king of lame cop-outs and, in cases like this, the last refuge of a writer whose story has gotten away from him.  I think it actually works, though: in 1983 the “survivable” nuclear war was an increasingly untenable premise, and the quaint early stories of the Atomic Knights had become hopelessly snarled with the continuity of Hercules and the world of the Great Disaster in the pages of Hercules Unbound.  (I haven’t commented on that series, but suffice to say that even the titular demigod couldn’t bear the burden of reconciling the combined histories of the Atomic Knights, Kamandi, and OMAC and telling his own story in an intelligible manner.)

I think it’s a little much to criticize escapism, however, when the target audience has so little power to change the situation from which they are escaping.  It’s one thing to indict military planners running simulations with potential real world consequences, another to criticize something as obviously fanciful as the Atomic Knights or Gamma World.  Speaking as a cold war baby who was ten years old in 1983 and absolutely terrified of nuclear war, the only other alternative was denial: I could hardly watch the news without having a panic attack, and I had no desire to subject myself to The Day After when it aired (I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the even grimmer Testament and Threads at the time).

Nuclear war was also frequently on Superman’s mind in the 1980s: most fans today remember Superman IV and the Man of Steel’s quest to rid Earth of nuclear weapons, but in the comics Superman often stood aside as an observer, willing to admonish mankind but not make the hard decisions for us.  Visions of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction haunt him: a Superman who does nothing to prevent a holocaust is not super in any way, but were he to take the choice out of our hands he would become a god rather than a man.  This version of Superman as advocate and guardian challenges the view of comic book readers as naïve simpletons waiting to be rescued.

(Also not included in this book)

(Also not included in this volume)

As I said initially, I eventually became an avid consumer of comics, games, books and movies that explored life after the bomb.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? I don’t recall thinking it was realistic to expect survival in the event of a war, much less high adventure, but it was a comforting daydream. Certainly there was plenty to choose from, and I know there were a lot of guys in my generation who shared the same fantasy.  (One of the most believable details of last year’s The World’s End was that arrested adolescent Gary King would end up as a wandering gunslinger in the wasteland, loving every minute of it: for me it was a striking moment of recognition.)  Just about everything you need to know about this phase of 1980s masculinity can be found in the video for Tom Petty’s song “You Got Lucky.” It’s all there: guns, guitars, cowboy-chic dusters, and a sweet arcade in the middle of the desert.  (Petty obviously liked the milieu enough to make an appearance as himself in the 1997 film adaptation of David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman.)

TomPetty

The focus in popular culture changed after the passing of the Cold War; although the apocalypse has never been far from our entertainment, the end of the world can come from almost any direction nowadays: terrorism, climate change, pandemic, just to name the more realistic possibilities.  Free-floating dread has replaced the pointed terror of “Mutually Assured Destruction;” chaos is more feared than ideology, and it’s reflected in the zombie hordes and rampaging kaiju of current film.  Still, the stories I grew up with haven’t been forgotten: perhaps it’s driven by ‘80s nostalgia, but remakes or reboots of Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, and even WarGames have either been made or are in production.  Gamma World has been through seven editions, the last in 2010, although I haven’t played in years.  The intoxicating cocktail of sword-and-sorcery among the ruins of modern civilization is still with us in such programs as Adventure Time.  Earth A. D. is still a place that many of us like to visit, even if we wouldn’t want to live there.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Batman (1943)

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Industrialist Martin Warren, after serving his sentence for an unnamed crime, is about to be released from prison; his niece, Linda Page, asks (her boyfriend? fiancée?) playboy Bruce Wayne to accompany her to pick him up.  Although Wayne’s life of leisure doesn’t allow him to get out very early in the morning, he promises to accompany her.  But before they arrive, Warren is picked up by some other old acquaintances, who coerce him to meet their boss, Dr. Daka.  Daka is a Japanese spy striking at the United States from within, and if Warren doesn’t join Daka’s ring of “dishonored” engineers, bankers, and other professionals and agree to serve his “League of the New Order,” he’ll be turned into a mindless zombie by one of Daka’s inventions.  In the mean time, the costumed crimefighter known only as the Batman, with his sidekick Robin, leave a pair of crooks (complete with the “mark of the Bat” on their foreheads) for the police to pick up.  Who are Batman and Robin, and what do they have to do with Bruce Wayne and his young ward, Dick Grayson?

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There can be hardly anyone reading this who isn’t aware that Bruce Wayne and the Batman are one and the same, of course, and the 1943 Batman serial wastes no time in letting the audience in on that information.  In making the leap from the comics to the screen, only the core trio of Bruce/Batman, Dick/Robin, and Alfred the butler were retained (Batman’s police contact is Captain Arnold, not Commissioner Gordon), but their characters and identities are recognizable to readers of the comic book (for the most part: Alfred is relegated to comic relief, skittish and easily flustered, but he still comes through when his services are needed).  None of Batman’s usual enemies like the Joker or Penguin are present (many of the most familiar villains weren’t created until later anyway); Batman was made during wartime, and the enemy he faces in Dr. Daka is a nationalistic one.

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Even allowing for its wartime origin, it saddens me to report that Batman is incredibly racist.  As a cringe-inducing caricature of the effete, treacherous Oriental, Daka is grossly offensive, but if the serial stopped there Daka would fit in with the pseudo-exotic threats I’ve mentioned before (and he is, after all, supposed to be a villain).  But that isn’t enough: Daka’s lair is located on a street in “Little Tokyo,” which according to the enthusiastic narrator has been nearly empty “since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”  That’s in the first chapter and it doesn’t get any better: even Daka’s own henchmen despise him and throw around racial slurs behind his back.  “I’m not afraid of him or any other squint-eye,” says one named Forrester before rebelling.  Forcing Daka to surrender, Forrester tells him “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin,” when he (briefly) has the advantage over him.  Subtle it is not. (Unsurprisingly, Daka was played by a heavily made-up white actor, J. Carrol Naish, a common practice in 1940’s Hollywood.)

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The wartime angle is also apparent in constant references to America’s fighting spirit and the important work being done by the armed forces and munitions manufacturers.  In a twist from the comics, Batman and Robin undertake secret missions for the U. S. government, receiving coded messages from contacts about threats to America’s intelligence and infrastructure.  (According to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, rigid censorship ensured that serial heroes were never shown taking the law into their own hands.  Since being a vigilante is central to Batman’s identity, in the serial he remains independent from the police, taunting an exasperated Captain Arnold who nonetheless depends on the cases his “best agent” wraps up for him, but ultimately Batman gets his orders from Uncle Sam.)

After the generic “spy ring” of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, Batman has a refreshing specificity: Daka plots to steal radium (both to fuel a superpowered “radium gun” and to build an even larger one), blow up a supply train, steal an experimental plane, jump a claim on a radium mine (truly a magical element that allowed screen writers to add a contemporary touch to the hoariest plots), and more.  The political context may have brought out some ugly, jingoistic racism, but there is also never a question of the time and place and what the stakes of the conflict are.

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The oddest aspect of this propagandistic impulse is in the setup of Daka’s Little Tokyo hideout: the League of the New Order has its headquarters hidden in a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” a wax museum primarily containing tableaux of Japanese war atrocities.  Every time the front of the business is shown, a carnival barker is pitching its importance to the war effort: “See the life-size models of the victims of our savage enemies! . . . See how they treat their prisoners. It’ll make your blood turn cold!”  It almost seems as if the filmmakers intend the barker’s words to represent the serial itself: “Come on in here and spend a dime, my friends, and wise yourself up. It’s not a circus, it’s not a carnival—this is a serious proposition!”  Yet the carnival barker is in league with Daka, sending his henchmen to the secret entrance and selecting victims to be brainwashed.  It’s either brilliantly self-referential, a commentary on the bottomless duplicity of the enemy, or just goofy.  Daka believes in hiding in plain sight, apparently.

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The seriousness of Japan’s Imperial ambition isn’t necessarily foreign to either the serial format or Batman as a character—both have featured their share of would-be world conquerors—but it is an odd fit with the tone of the 1943 production, which is frequently light, even whimsical.  Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin appear to be having a ball whether in costume or out: this isn’t the grim, tortured Batman of Christian Bale, or even the reclusive weirdo Michael Keaton portrayed.  Even Naish as Daka gets to rub his hands gleefully and display a few moments of humor, like when he feeds raw meat to his pet alligators and briefly considers throwing a zombie to them as “something special.”  The actors and narrator embrace even the most absurd contrivances with gusto, and I’m not convinced this is entirely a case of straight-faced material only appearing funny in hindsight: comic relief was an essential component of the serial, and I daresay the funny parts are fresher and more entertaining than the repetitive fistfights and formulaic cliffhangers.  (It became very easy to predict what the cliffhanger would be in each episode, as the same beats were employed to set the stage each time. When, as in Chapter Six, a thug says, “Let’s get out of here before that chemical reaches those wires!” you know exactly what’s going to happen next.)

The 1943 Batman serial is likely to be of interest primarily to Batman completists, but I doubt it will satisfy any fan who would describe themselves as such.  It was rereleased to theaters in the 1960s as a camp film, where it influenced the next wave of Batman adaptations. Fans of the 1966 Adam West Batman TV show will recognize many elements: the deadpan acceptance of ridiculous situations, enthusiastic narrator, and even the two-part episodes with cliffhangers very much in the serial style.

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So what works?  For all the fistfights, Batman engages in quite a bit of detective work in this serial: not only does he find and analyze clues, he goes undercover (he disguises himself as a thug named “Chuck White,” and sends Alfred out in disguise a couple of times), gets information out of Daka’s henchmen through a variety of means, and even manages to turn their traps around on them, all while maintaining his secret identity.  Batman also delegates responsibility to Robin and Alfred, who several times come to the rescue.  The complexity of the puzzles is laughable and the level of thought isn’t that deep, but within the bounds established by the script, it’s easy to believe that Batman and Daka are waging a high-stakes chess game against each other, striking and counter-striking until the big confrontation.

I also liked Lewis Wilson as the title character more than I expected: to cover his real purposes, his Bruce Wayne is vapid and silly, and his excuses for not being around—he took Dick to a polo match or an amusement park; he doesn’t get moving until around noon—are amusingly flip.  He expects Linda to believe him, because what red-blooded man would use such indolence as an excuse unless it were the truth?  When one of Daka’s henchmen suggest that Wayne might be the costumed troublemaker, Daka sneers, “Don’t be absurd—that simpering idiot could never be the Batman!”

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What I Watched: Batman (1943, Columbia)

Where I Saw It: I watched a Columbia Pictures DVD set, but it is on YouTube (in many parts) starting here.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Almost all the chapter titles are pretty great, with the kind of snappy immediacy and hint of exciting developments that all the best pulp titles have.  If forced to choose, I’ll go with Chapter Four, “Slaves of the Rising Sun” (balanced out by the fifteenth and final chapter, “The Doom of the Rising Sun”).

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Thirteen, “Eight Steps Down,” ends with a double cliffhanger: Batman, trying to sneak into Daka’s lair, is threatened by the classic spiked-walls-closing-in trap, while at the same time, Linda Page is about to be turned into a zombie by Daka’s mind control device.  However will they escape?

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Many of the escapes in Batman are of the kind that would infuriate Annie Wilkes: a train bears down on the hero, or an armored car plummets off a cliff and explodes, only to be revealed in the next chapter that Robin pushed Batman off the railroad trestle or Batman leapt from the armored car just in time, all shown from a different angle.  If any of those are cheats, then they all are.  However, I can’t say any of them explicitly undo the setup of the cliffhanger.

Actually, my favorite is the resolution to the cliffhanger of Chapter Fourteen (“The Executioner Strikes”), in which Batman, knocked out and placed in a coffin-sized wooden crate, is carried to Daka’s lair; the box, unopened, is dropped into Daka’s alligator pit.  At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, it’s revealed that Batman had escaped before the crate was even brought to Daka’s lair, and it was Daka’s henchman Wallace in the box.  You can bet he didn’t get the benefit of a last-minute cheat.

Sample dialogue:

Bruce: “Well, we never got to the cave.  It was so hot out, we laid down by the side of the road and took a nap.”

Linda: “Asleep! Just when I needed you both so much.  If it hadn’t have been for the Batman I’d be dead in the cave!”

(Chapter Nine, “The Sign of the Sphinx”)

What Others Have Said: “Where could even a Japanese spy get enough ration stamps for all that meat?” Harmon and Glut, referring to the fodder for Daka’s pet alligators

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I vicariously travel the Western frontier through Fighting with Kit Carson.

Points of Connection, Part One: the Many Children of Krypton

Hyperion.  Supreme.  The Sentry.  What do these characters have in common?  All are doppelgängers, or doubles, of Superman, and not just in the sense that all costumed heroes descend from the Big S, or in the debt they all owe to Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, nor even in their monomythic relation to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Rather, they are thinly veiled copies, different enough in detail to escape litigation (or avoid confusing readers) but readily recognized by key elements of their persona, history, and/or supporting cast.

The double, or pastiche, is a powerful fictional technique, in which an established character is effectively remade (and frequently repurposed); it’s especially common in comic books, where “copycatting” is an established (if not especially reputable) practice.  As an example, the core members of DC’s Justice League of America—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al—have been copied numerous times, individually and as a team.  It should be noted that I’m not speaking so much of identical twins or copies of the same characters inhabiting parallel universes, although those are equally common story-telling tropes. The doubling to which I refer is almost always intertextual, allowing a writer to tell a story including (a version of) a character owned by another publisher, or including story elements that would be unacceptable for a well-established (and ongoing) character.

Adhering to genre conventions is not enough: recall that National (DC’s parent company) sued Fawcett over alleged similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel, yet the elements the two characters have in common—super strength and other powers, colorful costumes, secret identities, and an ethos of doing good—are practically universal among Golden Age heroes, and in other specifics the characters are quite different.  Superman, orphaned son of the doomed planet Krypton, doesn’t have much in common with Billy Batson, who is given his powers by the wizard Shazam.  It is precisely those details that a writer can exploit, filling in the pastiche character’s backstory with variations that are functionally the same; sometimes it is as simple as changing a few names (Superman’s Krypton becomes Hyperion’s Argon), at other times a more thorough reworking is undertaken, but the connections are still apparent because of the overall dynamic of the story.  This goes beyond parody, although the line can be fuzzy: Mad’s “Superduperman” and “Captain Marbles” are clearly a joke, but one intended to reveal, among other things, the venality and absurdity hidden beneath the costumed hero’s civic-minded facade (“Once a creep, always a creep!”). Hyperion (from Marvel’s Squadron Supreme) and Alan Moore’s take on Marvelman/Miracleman (instantly recognizable as Superman and Captain Marvel, respectively) are largely dramatic in their treatment, but just as flawed.

The value of the double is summed up by Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, a study that looks at the evolution of superhero narratives through the lens of Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence:

The current character, though obviously in debt to its source, can often act as a powerful misprision [a reflection, or reinterpretation] of that original character, while the fact that it is not actually the original frees the writer from the constraints of copyright and continuity.

For example, earlier in his book, Klock argues that “Warren Ellis’s Four Voyagers [from the pages of Planetary] are a trope of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, which is to say that while the Four Voyagers are characters in themselves, they are also an interpretation/metaphor of characters that have come before” (emphasis added).

Such misprision is most useful when the writer has something to say beyond aping an already successful character: in Klock’s scheme, informed by Bloom’s statement that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem,” well-known characters stand in for their creators, so that one generation of writers can exorcise or assimilate the influence of the preceding generation.  (And obviously, the technique of parody allows the writer to zero in on whatever element of the original character they wish to critique, exaggerating it, sometimes to the point of absurdity–see above.)  One doesn’t have to agree with all of Klock’s conclusions to see the value of this dialectic approach, and in fact the finest realization of a pastiche character isn’t always written by the person who first created it.  Alan Moore took over Supreme, a character created by Rob Liefeld, and transformed him into a meditation on Superman; the resemblance was already present, but Moore brought it into focus.  As another example, Mark Gruenwald used the Squadron Supreme, Marvel’s trope of the JLA (originally introduced by Roy Thomas), to examine the relationships of the characters to each other, bringing out unspoken subtext or real-world concerns (such as the tendency toward paternalistic fascism inherent in the concept of super-protectors; the alienation of super-beings’ human friends and family; and the finality of death, as opposed to comic book characters’ typical return from the grave for shock value, marketing purposes, or narrative convenience) that would halt an ongoing series in its tracks if acknowledged. (Another version of the Squadron, effectively a trope of a trope, was launched in 2003; more about that later.)

Such concerns, when addressed at all, used to be the domain of the parallel universe or “imaginary story:” What if the Justice League used their power to oppress humanity instead of protecting it?  One answer was Earth-3’s Crime Syndicate of America; another was the Squadron Sinister, created as part of an unofficial “Avengers vs. JLA” crossover (since by Comic Book Law, when two characters meet for the first time, they must test their powers against each other in battle; the Squadron Sinister later, of course, became the Squadron Supreme). Later, such projects as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier would address many of these subjects using flagship characters in speculative settings outside regular continuity, but Squadron Supreme (1985) predates the more critical approach to characterization kicked off by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and by Miller himself, and the aforementioned projects benefited from the more fluid approach to continuity that became fashionable after the high water mark of Crisis on Infinite Earths’ obsessive attempt to keep things in fixed positions.

Time is short tonight, so I’ll save a discussion of Watchmen, one of the most prominent and influential reinventions of this type, for next time.