Rumble in the Jungle

This morning post looks at another giant Marvel comic from my childhood at the very end of the 1960s.  Marvel Super-Heroes 19 ( March 1969)  features a showcase strip for Ka-Zar. I only learned  the correct pronunciation (“Kay-sar”) in the mid-70s; my own assumption ” KaaZARR” is, I think , more dramatic and naturally, evokes TARzan.

This is a month in which Steranko’s Captain America is on the stands. Colan is producing mood pieces for Sub-Mariner and Dr. Strange while Kirby’s Prisoner homage is underway for the FF, probably his last innovative storyline. But I have the sense of a rather complacent Marvel. Meanwhile DC is launching the Witching Hour; other new characters and directions are on sale- Bat Lash, Captain Action,  the Creeper, Hawk and Dove, Mod Wonder Woman ; eight or nine covers are pencilled by  Neal Adams. Infantino is marshalling his forces against the House of Ideas.  Marvel is playing it safe with bimonthly tryouts and maybe they’re right because in a year’s time, only Mod WW will still be around.

I think I got my first copy of this comic in  East Kilbride- I have a memory of flicking through it at the till in Safeway. I wasn’t very taken with it- I preferred Marvel’s group books like FF, Avengers or X-Men.

My Father, My Enemy is a collaboration by Arnold Drake and Steve Parkhouse and drawn by marvel stalwart George Tuska, with a Kirby-influenced cover by Barry Smith. Smith would succeed the King as penciller of the Lord of the Hidden Jungle in the early 70s, where he produced the Conan-esque tale of the Petrified Man: a potent blend of H Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs with Art Nouveau flourishes.

Drake, of course, was the author of Doom Patrol and Deadman, and had left DC after a pay dispute. He  wrote some issues of X-Men and the first iteration of the Kree Captain Marvel. His most interesting creation for Marvel was the Guardians of the Galaxy in the previous issue of MSH. His dialogue is self-conscious and stilted, with strange rhythms: it’s not unlike Kirby’s writing. But where Kirby is lambasted for his non-naturalistic scripting, I’m not aware of similar criticisms of Drake.  His characters proclaim and often have a strident, almost hysterical edge to their cynicism. Here, the character of  Edgar Plunder is actually more interesting than his brother.

In the late 70s and early 80s,  Parkhouse would become author of the pulp avenger Nightraven, a Tolkeinesque Black Knight and, memorably,  Dr. Who – specifically the dystopian End of the Line and the surreal epics Tides of Time and Voyager. As a British creator, he would seem a logical choice for a hero who hails from Derbyshire.

The USP of Ka-Zar is that he’s Tarzan at the Earth’s Core: a half-naked jungle man who fights dinosaurs. However, half of this story dwells on the Gothic Romance plot of two aristocratic brothers: one sophisticated and decadent, the other a noble savage. It’s a sci-fi Wuthering Heights.

This part of the story harks back to earlier appearances of Ka-Zar in Daredevil and Spider-Man. Kevin and Edgar each  possess half of a medallion, key to the destructive power of Anti-Metal, with which Edgar (aka Parnival- some weird misspelling of Percival?) wants to rule the world!!! When the action shifts to the Savage Land, Marvel’s Antarctic Pellucidar rip-off, we don’t see any dinosaurs , only two freaky tribes: one yellow-skinned, the other amphibian. The latter are ruled by an alien castaway, Quor. We’ve seen these heavies on the cover but they get short shift in the narrative: Quor gets nine or ten panels and is readily dispatched. He’s completely superfluous to the story. The best part of the tale is the ironic ending: Ka-Xar never learns that his father was a good man, not an evil one.

Apart from the hurried dispatch of the unnecessary alien, my problem with the story is that the feuding brother plot is a core element of Thor and to a lesser extent, Prof. X and the Juggernaut and the Inhumans. It’s been done to death at Marvel.  I’m also baffled as to why most Ka-Zar writers prefer homages to Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Nonetheless, MSH 19 must have been successful because a year and a half later, Ka-Zar was headlining in two comics.

The other features in this book are reprint from the 1950s.

Human Torch is a story from Young Men, a title that had an odd ring to it even when I was a kid. The Vulture is a bird-masked mastermind who plots nuclear blackmail. He also builds robot replicas of the heroes.  There’s no indication of the Torch’s android nature. Here, he and Toro have “unique body chemistry” and the Torch can absorb atomic radiation. Thanks to an acid death-trap, the Vulture makes a getaway.

Verdict By Magic: This Bill Everett tale stars  “The Wizard of the Universe, the Mastermind of the Forces of Good” aka Marvel Boy. Bob Grayson travels from the parklands of his adopted planet Uranus to investigate a stage magician, Pasha Emit Erut-Uf . The magician and his assistant are obviously  time travellers but the story is incoherent.  Aside from his pocket-size spaceship, the Silver Bullet, MB’s only power seem to be mastery of disguise. He also only wears his flamboyant Superman-outfit when travelling to Earth. It’s a very pretty story to look at,  however.

Black Knight is  another ornate, chivalric adventure by the tragic Joe Maneely.  His turbaned Merlin has an Arabian Knights quality. Here, Sir Percy- Clark Kent to the Black Knight’s Superman – saves King Arthur from some lions, a gypsy plot dreamed up by Modred.

Sub-Mariner:  Namor and his “companion” Betty Dean survive a plane crash in the Atlantic and are rescued by armoured “spacemen”. These robotic beings turn out to be Dirty Red agents,  after America’s nuclear arsenal.  Apart from being a swimmer who is superhumanly strong,  Namor doesn’t  really display any super-powers and has a swashbuckling, macho personality. Betty is a gorgeous nymphet. If this is another Bill Everett strip, its rain-lashed island setting is a moody contrast to the airy, glamorous New York in Marvel Boy.

Marvel Mailbag: four rave reviews for the Roy Thomas/Howard Purcell Black Knight showcase, including a very long but charming letter by Bettina C. Helms, who writes in a mock-Shakespearian vein. Of course, the Black Knight appeared in The Avengers  intermittently for the next couple of years but Marvel chose not to launch him in his own strip. The splendidly-named Danny English requests the revival of Timely’s heroes including Challenger, Blazing Skull and the Fin.

Interestingly, given that DC used to revile Marvel’s artwork in the early to mid-Sixties, these stories were classily illustrated. This is also a  strong  line-up:  take Captain America into consideration and Atlas has a roster of heroes  equal to that of DC. If the 50s revival had caught on, like the Barry Allen Flash a couple of years later, might we have had an Avengers movie directed by Joss Whedon and and starring Cap, Namor, Marvel Boy and the Torch?

Coming soon: Cosmic House of Fun

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

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