Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Kamandi - The End Of The World!

I conclude my look at Jack Kirby's Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth with this final set of five issues. Two issues previously Gerry Conway had been installed as the editor of the series and Joe Kubert had taken over the chores as cover artist, two clear signs that Jack Kirby's time at DC was quickly coming to an end.

In this thirty-fifth issue of the series we find Kamandi along with his pal Doctor Canus returning to Earth with Pyra aboard her spacecraft. They find themselves in Mexico at what was once a resort hotel in Acapulco. But quickly Kamandi finds that the rules are starkly different in this brave new world. The pool is lorded over by Crocodiles who view Kamandi as vermin clogging up the pool. They turn him over to a Jaguar and Kamandi learns that the Jaguars are in charge of the resort which follows the simple but brutal rules of "The customer is always right." and "Survival of the fittest." as different species battle it out for control of different floors of the resort. Kamandi has a disdain for Wolves and lays claim to the second floor they occupy and uses a noxious glue to drive them out and when they jump in the pool a brutal battle with the Crocs ensues. 

The next issue is the last written by Kirby and finds Kamandi leaving Canus and Pyra as he investigates a herd of humans who seem to be migrating to some unknown destination. They are being driven by music hidden in rocks (rock music...get it) and are compelled to to find its source.

Kamandi finds that vicious riders are actually rounding up these humans as they appear for reasons which are unknown. The Red Raiders turn out to be mutant humans, the result of genetic testing, who have a life span of only five years and are desperately searching for DNA which will reinvigorate them. Kamandi is introduced to a girl named Arna. Meanwhile Pyra and Canus are shot down.

Gerry Conway takes on the writing chores and Mike Royer returns to ink Kirby on what prove to be his last three issues of Kamandi. Kamandi is taken captive by the Crater People so that they may extract his DNA. Meanwhile Doctor Canus and Pyra pull themselves out of the wreckage of her spacecraft and Canus learns that Pyra is from a planet called Zirandius and her mission was to search the whole of space to find new energy sources for her people who had depleted theirs. She is attracted to the Earth by the Great Disaster explosion and has since been gathering up relics from the ruins of the planet. Kamandi discovers that the Crater People are an experiment to solve overpopulation by giving humans a tiny five-year lifespan and now Arna wants more from him. He escapes and Arna follows him knowing she will be killed if she is blamed for his loss. The Crater People go mad with rage and chase the pair out of their territory but the duo are attacked by a giant Lobster.

The Lobster takes Kamandi and Arna to a vast undersea "Airquarium" where the two are added to the ranks of many humans that the Lobster, a giant Snail, and a giant Clam operate as an experimental station. We get a glimpse of what has been happening with Tuftan and Ben Boxer when we see the great sea battle they waged against the Apes is won but Boxer is held captive by Tuftan for his treasonous act during the battle when he freed a prisoner.

Kamandi rejects being the subject of an experiment and organizes the humans to work together to break out of their undersea prison. A human named Smasher holds the Lobsters at bay while the humans and Kamandi and Arna escape. Sadly his sacrifice is not understood or appreciated by his fellow humans who wander off into the wildnerness.

In the final Kirby-drawn issue of Kamandi we find Kamandi and Arna assaulted by a giant Parrot in what was once Mexico. The fend it off but the scene shifts to Doctor Canus and Pyra who have been taken captive by Lizards.

They learn that the Lizards rely on heat to keep active and with the summer sun leaving they need the heat supplied by an unknown source on a distant mountaintop. The Lizards employ Donkeys as slaves which angers Pyra. Meanwhile Kamandi and Arna are tricked by Donkeys and captured and taken to the city of the Lizards. Kamandi is given the mission to go up the mountain and bring back the heat source. He does but discovers it is a nuclear reactor and when it is brought to the town it destabilizes and explodes. Kamandi, Arna, and Doctor Canus escape and wander into the wildnerness to their next adventure, the fate of Pyra is unknown.

And that's it. Kamandi will go on when Dick Ayers is brought aboard to do the pencil art chores. Kirby completes his obligations to DC and will make his return to Marvel.

Jack Kirby's run on Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth was arguably his most successful during his third run at DC Comics, lasting over three times longer than nearly every one of his other efforts. The man who had helped create the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos, and revamped Sandman and Manhunter with his partner Joe Simon was one of the talents who had made the company great in the war years. A decade later in the Cold War era he returned and gave birth to the Challengers of the Unknown. This third go at the company had begun with huge anticipation as the venerable company experienced its first really major shake up since the birth of the genre. Thanks to Kirby's work in tandem with Stan Lee,  DC lost its place as the leader in the field (though technically that would not happen in terms of sales until after Kirby was already at DC). The dramatic replacement of longtime writers and editors with a thrust toward using artists to fill the gaps and point the way forward was a departure and a gamble which looms large in retrospect and was seen as such at the time.

But it was over by the time the fortieth issue of Kamandi hit the stands in 1976 and with it both Kirby and Infantino, the man who brought him over would be gone from DC. Kirby would return to Marvel with great fanfare, though there too he would meet weirdly a great deal of disrespect. Ironically Infantino himself would venture over to Marvel where he worked on several series as an artist during the late Bronze Age. DC would look for new ways to sell comics, experimenting with Dollar Books and other formats. Kamndi would go on, but it was just one more book among many without the distinctive hand of the King of Comics to guide it.

No more to come.

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Kamandi - The Brave And The Bold!

One of the blessings of being a Bronze Age comic book fan is being able to enjoy the "Haneyverse". The Haneyverse was that special and highly distinctive continuity which existed nowhere but in the The Brave and the Bold issues written by Bob Haney and illustrated by greats such as Neal Adams, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin, and especially Jim Aparo. It was in the relatively early days of the Haney-Aparo run when Jack Kirby's Kamandi was given his first stab at an audience outside the confines of his own comic book.

The problem is a fairly severe one. Isolated in a future apocalyptic version of the DCU how could Kamandi being combined with the ready star of The Brave and the Bold -- the Batman, a hero with a more or less grounded sense of reality. Well when it begins the story is a conundrum indeed. Kamandi is being hunted by a posse of Apes led by the Batman. It seems Batman was whisked into the post-Great Disaster future by means of magic. He simply falls down in Gotham City and his essence shows up in Kamandi's world. It's efficient, insensible, and pure Haney. In a twenty-page or so story it gets the job done. Batman then gets mistaken for another intelligent animal and using pure chutzpah and a steady karate chop takes command of a Gorilla gang. Kamandi and eventually Batman protect a band of humans holed up inside the massive heads of Mt.Rushmore. Just as they succeed, Batman is whisked away to once again inhabit his body. Part of visiting the Haneyverse is never having to say you're sorry.

Many years later Batman and Kamandi partner again, but this time it's Kamandi who time travels, drawn into the 20th Century by an unknown power. He becomes an enforcer for some local mobsters and Batman is of course forced to bring him to his senses and once again stop crime for a few seconds on the streets of Gotham.  

I miss the take-no-prisoners writing of Bob Haney and I terribly miss regular visits to the Haneyverse.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Revival Of The Planet Of The Apes!

In the twenty-first century there has been a push to revive the Planet of the Apes franchise after many years of relative calm and quiet. There had been a few comic books here and there, but really no big push of any consequence. PotA seemed to have become a nostalgic favorite beloved by many a Baby Boomer but beyond that little else. Then Tim Burton showed up. Apparently the folks at 20th Century Fox had been trying to revive the franchise for some time, but it wasn't until Burton got aboard as director that it happened.

Planet of the Apes from 2001 (hard to believe it's been that long) is a movie that did pretty well at the time financially but critically it was met with skepticism. It at once played to the expectations of the fans but also brought to the fore a fresh and interesting take on Apes and Ape City in particular. Burton is a director who often allows his style to overwhelm his purposes, but in this movie the requirements of the setting seem to have limited this tendency. The story is like its 70's counterparts a convoluted tale of time travel, but also like those vintage movies a satire on the modern world. The satire seems more pedestrian in some ways but its a key element nonetheless.

The humans are pretty forgettable in this one, but the Apes are something else entirely. The make-ups by Rick Baker combined with some fantastic wire effects give us Apes which are actually quite scary. Burton mentions that he's trying to evoke a "Flying Monkeys" effect and to my eye it works. The late Michael Clarke Duncan was quite good as Attar, the lead Gorilla as was Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa in a similar role. Loved seeing the late Charlton Heston in a delightful cameo. But it is Tim Roth as the villain Thade who steals this movie for me. He's utterly fascinating and utterly scary, one of the best film villains of all time in my estimation. He inhabits the role and plays an Ape with the finest vigor and authenticity these movies have ever seen.

For all its virtues thought this new Planet of the Apes did not spark any sequels.

Then in 2011 we get Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This is a completely new vision of the Apes story, taking us back to the very beginning. No time travel this time, the story we follow is how an ultra-intelligent Ape named Caesar got that way and how his transformation signals the end of the world as we know it.

The movie starring James Franco tells the story of a San Francisco-based researcher named Rodman who is trying to cure Alzhiemer's Disease by boosting brain chemistry. His lab experiments on Chimps and one of those Chimps named "Bright Eyes" gives birth to a genetically altered ultra-intelligent offspring dubbed Caesar. Rodman saves Caesar and later experiments on his own father who suffers demenita (John Lithgow). This trio is happy for many years until a grown Caesar, a creature too smart for his limited role as pet, gets into trouble and is shipped to a sanctuary where he and other Apes are routinely abused. Eventually Caesar leads a revolt, steals new chemicals to enhance his Ape allies and the Apes rise up to battle the authorities and establish their own society in the wilds of the Redwood forests beyond the city.

This is a small story, mostly discussed ad nauseum by folks for the motion capture techniques used to develop the realistic Ape characters. This is remarkable but the story is what matters and this is a telling fable of how humans are all too often guilty of hubris and willing to harm not only others but themselves. Franco's character is set up as a morally good man, but sadly I'm conflicted. He's certainly affectionate to Caesar and cares about him and others but his actions are ethically indefensible and ultimately it is his lab work which unleashes a virus which wreaks havoc over the whole of the globe setting the stage for the sequel.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the  PotA movie we've been waiting for. The first movie in this sequence almost comes across as a preliminary treatise, an essay you need to read before you get to the heart of a really good narrative.

This movie picks up ten years after the rise and we find Caesar installed as the leader of a well-established Ape culture in which the ultra-smart simians communicated with sign and even limited speech. They live a life of a primitive culture using spears and horses to fend for themselves and their families. Into this Eden of sorts comes humans who have been absent for many years following the plague and immediately violence erupts. Survivors in San Fancisco need to restart a dam for electric power and the Apes are settled right next to it. After much haggling a deal is struck and work on the dam progresses with some success. But also there is a great deal of mistrust, especially by an Ape named Koba who discovers that the humans are arming themselves and himself acquires a gun or two. He ends up revolting by trying to kill Caesar and leads the Apes into a furious battle against the humans while Caesar and his allies try to find a way to bring peace to a situation which seems destined to spin out of control.

Love this movie. While I did find it a bit slow in places, nonetheless we have here the most vivid example of what this franchise can be. We get many many different Apes, well realized and brimming with personality and against that we have humans who are a curious and deviated lot also. The two societies are desperate to survive and finding how to do that seems truly difficult. The movie falls into some simplistic moralizing at its finale, but the build up is remarkable for the depth of character it presents.

My favorite Ape character is Koba, the villain of the piece and the most successful Ape character since Thade a decade earlier. Koba is a Bonobo who had been the subject of sundry laboratory experiments and has suffered mightily. He is a follower of Caesar but disagrees that humans can be trusted. He is a sociopath but he is presented as a more complex fellow early on, one I am sympathetic to, thought he movie reduces him a bit by its finale to a cliche. My favorite scene in all these movies to date is when Koba pretends to be a happy fun-loving trick-playing chimp to confuse some humans and get his hands on a gun. It encapsulates the complicated relationship humans have with these animals and shows all to effectively how we totally misunderstand behavior we imagine we fathom.

These new PotA movies are a heap of fun and I'm eager to see the next one which is to be titled War for The Planet of the Apes. 

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Children Of Doom!

Charlton Comics often produced workmanlike forgettable comics, intended to entertain for a moment and than disappear into the maw of mass consumption. But at the same time they produced real gems, pieces of fiction which resonated well beyond the confines of a single time and place. "Children of Doom" by Sergius O'Shaugnessy (Denny O'Neil) and the late great Pat Boyette is one such story.

"Children of Doom" appeared in the second issue of Charlton Premiere dated November 1967. The Giordano era was quickly ending and soon all of the talent here would be ensconced at DC Comics, Giordano and Boyette for a relatively short time (Giordano would return later) and Denny O'Neil for pretty much the rest of his career. What they created in this haunting one-shot is a story that seems in many ways to not make sense but thematically rings out far beyond its pulp beginnings.

A blend of traditional comic book storytelling and offbeat but compelling black and white washed pages, this story captures your imagination. It smacks of the best of the Twilight Zone episodes, but doesn't offer up quite the same pat ending they often defused themselves with. Whether intentional or not, there is an ambiguity to this story which evokes real wonder about the nature of man and his future. I

(1978 reprint of the story.)
If you've never read this beauty, here is a very groovy link for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

(Fred Hembeck variation of the classic cover - note the exceedingly phallic spaceship is retained.)
I have the story in its original form but most recently read it in the collection Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures 1940-1980 which gathers together a host of offbeat and weird but thought-provoking comics.

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The Golden Derby - June 1966!

Fifty years ago this month at Charlton hard-nosed martial arts action was the order of the day. The two series Thunderbolt by Pete Morisi (P.A.M.) and Judomaster by Frank McLaughlin were rather unlike anything else on the stands at the time. Both were adding to the growing martial arts awareness of the time which was just beginning to simmer thanks to the memorable turn as Kato by Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet (still a few months away when these comics landed). Both Morisi and McLaughlin were expert at showcasing action, each in his own distinctive way and these stories are ideal for their skill sets. Charlton's humor mag Go-Go attempted to tap into the always ready teen market by blending Archie-style stories with Mad-magazine style satire and straight up Teen Beat types of articles. There are so many different trends evident in this comic that it's hard to identify which one was most important. And speaking of trends, Charlton still cranked out their car comics, the only company which found any footing at all in this oddball market. These comics with many stories by Jack Keller and others were focused on a hobby, a pastime and way of life which was quickly becoming cliche and nostalgic at the same time. And always there was romance, a kind of comic for the girls it was assumed, though I can say directly that I really enjoyed these comic stories at the time, and mostly it was the artwork which could be really different and sometimes more impressive than the stuff geared obviously for boys.

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Return To The Planet Of The Apes!

Of the two television adaptations of the Planet of the Apes the animated series Return To The Planet of the Apes by DePatie-Freleng was the more satisfying. The fact it was animated gave it a greater opportunity in those halcyon pre-digital days of showing a more complete picture of the new and weird Ape world. I don't even want to try and fit this series into the broader PotA continuity, it would be useless. This series seems to me a reboot of the concept, a fresh take on the singular premise.

As with all the PotA features, this one begins when astronauts crash onto what they imagine to be a distant planet but which will be revealed to be their own Earth in the distant future when humans have been reduced to status of animals and Apes are the ascendant species with a full-blown civilization. What is notable about this animated rendition is that the world of the Apes is a relatively modern one, with technology which seems to peak about the 1950's. These Apes have cars and trucks, live in a rather handsome city with amenities like plumbing (I assume), electricity, television, and other modern details of daily life.

Into this world come three astronauts (Bill, Jeff, and Judy) who crash land in a lake and walk overland in a forbidding landscape to ultimately discover that they are stranded in a topsy-turvy world. They get split up in the debut and end up in different places. Jeff discovers an above average intelligent girl named Nova who wears a dogtag with the name "Brent", Judy disappears in a crack in the ground and will reappear a prisoner of weird humans named "Underdwellers", and Bill (dubbed "Blue Eyes") ends up in the in the hands of Zira and Cornelius who recognize his intelligence and immediately work with him to help. The three are eventually reunited after much effort and many adventures and work in tandem to help the lot of the humans (called "humanoids" in this series) who are the victims of oppression and persistent attacks from the Ape City dwellers.

The stories have memory and while the episodes are not necessarily continued, they do have a continuity which runs through them. Events matter and watching them in sequence is necessary. Alas the story stops short of a final resolution, though the trio do succeed in finding a new home for the humans somewhat shielded from the Apes.

The visuals on this series do a remarkable job of maximizing what was then called animation. Costs didn't allow for full animation and the producer here, the great Doug Wildey does a fantastic job blending the action (such as it is) with well-crafted montages and beautiful backgrounds to create a wonderfully rich environment. While the pacing of certain sequences is a bit slow, the atmosphere is pitch perfect many times and the images are often quite striking.

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Kamandi - Beginning Of The End!

The thirty-first issue of Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth picks up with the odyssey of Kamandi and Ben Boxer after their encounter with a U.F.O. The explosive discharge of the Alien resulted in Ben becoming a giant in his mutant metallic form. He appears to be overcome by the will of the Alien creature and wanders off leaving Kamandi and Professor Canus who are picked up by a belligerent Prince Tuftan aboard his ship.

Eventually Canus and Kamandi re-enter the U.F.O. and encounter the Alien in its pure energy form. While the Tigers battle the "Brobdingnagian" Boxer in a brutal sea battle Kamandi and Canus work to convince the Alien to change Ben back which eventually happens.

Kamandi and Prince Tuftan encounter Doctor Canus and the Alien which calls itself merely "Me", though when it divides its energy form it calls itself "Us". Their close encounter though is interrupted by attacking by a flotilla of attacking Apes and a battle between the Tigers and the Apes erupts.

The Ape leader named Ramjam successfully assaults the landing force of the Tigers while Kamandi and Canus take refuge once again in the U.F.O. The Alien becomes bonded with the sand itself to create a creature who can move against the Ape forces and pushes them back.

As a battle rages between the naval forces of the Tigers and the Apes with Ben Boxer's assistance, Doctor Canus and Kamandi stay aboard the U.F.O. and attempt to help the Alien to assume a form more useful on Earth. While Prince Tuftan and his forces prove to have some success and take Ramjam prisoner, Canus and Kamandi use the equipment aboard the spaceship to midwife a brand new form of life.

That form of life is called "Pyra" as the alien takes the form of a beautiful red-skinned fire-haired silver-suited woman. Pyra is still quite powerful as she reveals when she works with Kamandi and Canus to help stop an Ape secret military weapon, a deadly ship with remarkable ramming capabilities.

Meanwhile on the Tiger ship Boxer runs into some trouble with Tuftan when he releases the prisoner Ramjam because he could not see him tortured.  The story ends with Canus, Kamandi, and Pyra heading into space.

In orbit, Kamandi, Doctor Canus and Pyra encounter a Soyuz spaceship left over from the time before the Great Disaster.

Aboard this ship they find what appears to be a cosmonaut still alive in a lotus position. As they explore the ship, the Cosmonaut escapes his space suit and reveals he has transformed into a boneless mutant and attacks the trio who fend him off before realizing he is just trying to finish his last mission, but which will never be accomplished since the equipment is long destroyed. The trio re-board the U.F.O. and head back down to Earth.

In these issues we see the beginning of the end of the Kirby era on Kamandi. The adventures seem to veer off the exploration of the Earth of Kamandi and become intoxicated with the new character of Pyra. I don't know who dreamed up Pyra, Kirby no doubt, but she seems out of place in this adventure to me, part of some other kind of story. With the thirty-fourth issue Kirby steps down as editor on the series to be replaced by Gerry Conway, who himself had just migrated from Marvel. Soon Conway will take over the scripting chores on the book as well, but that's for next time. The use of the great Joe Kubert on covers for the series was a real blow to all Kirby fans. Kubert is great but his covers while dripping with drama lack the power of Kirby's mind-blowers at their best.

The wild inventiveness of the series seems to wane in these stories which drag on a bit despite what appears a quick pace. That illusion of drag is lack of focus on Kamandi and the shift over to the larger cast I think. We are never given enough story on any one element, but the story itself does seem to be over quickly. I'm reminded of a soap opera or a daily comic strip. Also the artwork is not nearly so amazing as it had been. The great Kirby two-page splashes seem to have gone away. Kirby himself appears to lose interest a bit in these final months at DC and his work is rather lackluster in many respects, likely because he's responding no longer to his own mandates but must meet the whims of others for the first time in several years.

More to come.

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