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Tue, April 7th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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KA-ZAR, 1997

Ka-Zar is an unlikely character to base an on-going series on. He's a decent supporting character when you need an ambassador to The Savage Land in a comics story. If Spider-Man visits and the writer needs to recap what the Savage Land is, well, there's always Kevin Plunder there to fill that gap -- a man raised in the terraformed jungle oasis of Antarctica by a sabretooth tiger, living there now with his She-Jungle Queen of a wife who's renounced modern technologies in favor of communing with nature and living at one with the land.

Just to make his 1990s solo series a harder sell: Ultimately, it's Ka-Zar versus Thanos.

And Ka-Zar is having marital difficulties. These aren't the typical difficulties based on miscommunication or characters acting stupidly, either. There are honest reasons behind it, with characters who act believably. But superhero comics rarely do relationship problems well. They always scream "plot point" and give the hero a reason to pummel the bad guy a little harder, or to be a little more "relatable" to the average comics reader.

Here's the basic pitch, then, for 1997's "Ka-Zar" on-going series, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Andy Kubert (Jesse Delperdang on inks, Joe Rosas coloring, Todd Klein on letters): Ka-Zar's marriage is in trouble. A long lost brother of his is now threatening his way of life. Ka-Zar moves to New York City to protect his baby boy and to play the Fish Out Of Water card. Along the way, he discovers that the true evil hunting him is Thanos. Ka-Zar, the granola nature boy, becomes a cosmic hero? Meanwhile, New York City transforms against him and -- well, chaos ensues.

It's too nutty to work, but Mark Waid pulled it off. It's fun to look back on the first batch of issues (I made it through issue #9 of Waid's 14 or 15 issue run before deadlines loomed) to pick it apart and see where and why I worked.

The centerpiece of the story is the relationship between Kevin and Shanna. It proves that you can have a loving relationship in a superhero comic that has its problems without being annoying or trite. (Are your reading, Spider-Man writers?) While Kevin and Shanna's marriage is deeply troubled at the beginning of the series, it's something that provides an angle for personal angst and includes small milestones along the way to solving their problems. Waid adds layers to the relationship, and that's a smart thing. He also points up the differences between men and women through this story. Things Kevin does "wrong" might make sense to a lot of guys. And the troubles Shanna has with Kevin ring true as relationship fodder in general. It's not that she disagrees with him; She doesn't like that he operates on his own, or that he doesn't stay true to his word, or that he beats himself up when he can come to her. It's all basic Venus/Mars stuff, but it's all effortlessly introduced. 


Issue #7 is a tour de force for that stuff, as Waid uses Shanna to narrate the tale, instead of Ka-Zar. It's a bit wordy (and the caption boxes are colored pink, for heaven's sake), but Waid was obviously trying to both get into Shanna's head in this issue as well as bring new readers up to speed. The exposition is obvious, but the plot is sound.

The root of all the problems is Kevin's love of technology, something forbidden in the Plunder household of the Savage Land. It's a strong point of contention between he and his wife, and something that drives the series through its first year. Kevin bears the burden of great guilt when technology leads to danger for everyone he holds dear, including his wife, child, sabretooth tiger, and even his child's nanny. That's what propels the character through everything that happens in the series.

The technology also has the benefit of having a visual element, which helps in a comic book. Whether it's in the dramatic way Kevin disposes of technology, or in the conflict between the cityscapes and Kevin's jungle wardrobe, Waid's narrative has a visual element that helps to sell it better than say, a character longing to be free or wishing for someone else to love him. Those things work great in a novel, but can easily bog a comic down.

Backing up, everything is laid out skillfully in the first issue. Waid establishes the happiness of the marriage and family, then quickly points out its flaws and amplifies them. The Savage Land and its underpinnings are explained in a few brief scenes. The villain of the series starts the issue off, hiring Kraven the Hunter's mentor, Gregor, to kill Ka-Zar. Issues of tech versus nature are present. Most of the people, places, and things you need to enjoy the first 6 - 10 issues of the series are right there on the pages of issue #1. That's not too shabby.

I don't think I've ever given Waid enough credit for being an action writer. "Ka-Zar" comes straight out of the Chuck Dixon school of comic writing. Character is displayed through action. And the action is almost non-stop. You don't get the chance to settle in comfortably with a dinner table conversation without a herd of dinosaurs suddenly parading through the living room. Waid doesn't let the comic get dull, either from a pacing point of view or a visual one. He pays heed to the fact that this is a superhero comic, and keeps things lively, with chase scenes through the jungle, the Antarctic, and the streets of New York City. He tailors each action piece to its environment, the characters in it, and their attitudes. There's never a dull moment, and much of it gives his artist a chance to shine.

In addition, Waid has a wicked sense of humor that I'm not sure shows through often enough. In this book, Parnival Plunder (Ka-Zar's brother) gets all the best lines, but even Ka-Zar and Shanna whip off one-liners based not on cute witticisms, but on their reactions to the moment at hand. Again, as with the action scenes, there's a fair amount of character underlying their every word. Check out the scenes between Parnival and Thanos, most notably, for the best of the gags. Thanos plays it straight-laced and deadly serious. Parnival pokes at the creature as a lion in the cage, so wrapped up in his own invincibility and status in his world, all the while crippled by his fear of germs. It's a fascinating internal conflict.

The series ran at a time when trade paperbacks weren't the norm. Waid is sure to create each issue as an entity unto itself. There are cliffhangers throughout the series, even if it's false jeopardy -- really, did you think he was going to kill off Ka-Zar's infant son or sabretooth tiger? But the idea that the book was being directed at an audience that needed an excuse to come back next month is definitely there. Even the "endings" are lead-ins to the next story, most notably as Parnival transforms New York City into a jungle at the end of issue #7.

Waid is also sure to include recaps for new readers. There are a couple of groan-inducing spots with that, but you can't blame a guy for trying to induce new readers to jump on board. It's something of a lost art these days, anyway. Keep in mind: This series came out at a time when Marvel had those fold-out covers to give you brief character histories and "Story So Far" write-ups. (It only cost four cents more that way!)

The one big disappointment in this batch of issues? We all knew as soon as we heard that the Museum of Natural History was involved at the beginning of issue #5 that the famous hanging whale would come into play. Sure enough, there it is at the end of the issue, snapping free from its lines. . . Ugh.

THE ART OF KA-ZAR

Andy Kubert doesn't play with storytelling tricks too often, but the ones he uses are effective.

I remember enjoying Andy Kubert's art the first time I ran across it in the pages of "Uncanny X-Men" in the early 90s. Recently, he went through a stage of drawing in a more illustrative style for projects like "Origins" or "Marvel 1602." Most recently, he drew a few issues of Grant Morrison's "Batman" story. His art has definitely progressed in the last fifteen years. While his "Batman" stuff might not have been as lush as his "Origins" work, it represented a return to a "cartoonier" form that relied more on dynamism and less on realism. There's something nicer about his looser line and more energetic art. He still doesn't play with the form as much as his brother does. Adam Kubert messes around with panel layouts and storytelling styles in every project he does. Andy has more of a straight forward early 90s art style, without the excess glitz and crosshatching.

I didn't get into his "Ka-Zar" work right away. So much of it seemed too melodramatic and too simplistic. Backgrounds dropped out too readily. Double page spreads looked empty, though I'm guessing he was hoping for the colorist -- Joe Rosas, who did great work on Jim Lee's "Uncanny X-Men" run -- to fill in the gaps. 1997 was early days for Photoshop coloring. Lots of experimentation was going on, particularly in the area of adding textures and special coloring effects. You can see some of that here, and I think it's something Kubert might have been counting on, to his detriment.

What looks like detail in this opening spread to the first issue is mostly Photoshopped textures.

Some of his work reminded me a lot of Norm Breyfogle's, too. Perhaps it's the line work, or maybe the inkwork from Delperdang, but I saw it popping up a lot.

This panel from issue #5 reminds me a lot of Breyfogle's line work, in particular.

European artist Pino Rinaldi filled in for issue six and the difference was jarring. Rinaldi's art looked lifeless on the page. He told the story and pushed the characters through their paces, but the extreme angles and crazy energy of Kubert's line and characterization was gone. It was enough to make Kubert's too-frequent use of the "nose-and-eyes" closeup panel look like Jack Kirby excitement. Characters jumped around the page, and the action flowed more smoothly with Kubert. It also seemed that his backgrounds increased in frequency after that month off and the cityscape work became more interesting.

One thing that remained consistent through the first year of the title is that Kubert could draw the heck out of a shadowy Thanos. For the first half dozen issues, we only ever saw Thanos in silhouette against a starry sky. I'm not sure if that was supposed to fool anyone into not figuring out who it was, or if it was just a stylistic choice. If the latter, it worked well. Some of Kubert's most dynamic panels make great use of Thanos' silhouette.

Plus, who doesn't like Thanos?

KA-ZAR CODA

When you bring up "Mark Waid" to a comic reader, they'll usually remember titles like "The Flash" or "Fantastic Four" or "Kingdom Come." They won't immediately think "Ka-Zar." Heck, I think there are plenty of people reading comics today who don't know this book existed in the first place. It's not in print anywhere. There are no trades collecting it, and no reason to create one now. "Ka-Zar" is a hidden gem of the Waid bibliography. It just got lost in the shuffle of things, most notably the "Heroes Reborn" debacle that took Waid off of "Captain America" before putting him back on it, much the same way he left "Fantastic Four" only to return to it later.

But there's much to recommend for this series. It is slightly the product of its time in its production values, but the themes of the pieces are timeless. Waid doesn't load down the comic with pop culture references. The characters aren't erased from Marvel history. And while some mention is made of "Heroes Reborn" art one point, it's never a plot point. The book stands well on its own.

Combined with the popular artistry of Andy Kubert and the skilled colors of the criminally-overlooked Joe Rosas and the much-lauded lettering of Todd Klein, it's a nice package that I'm sure wouldn't be too expensive to pick up. This is assuming you'd be able to find it in a back issue bin somewhere. If you do, give it a spin.

Waid lasted 15 issues on the series, with Kubert leaving shortly before then. The series ended with issue #20, under the writing pen of James Felder, who hasn't had a comics credit since 1999.

"Ka-Zar" #1 featured very early comic art from John Cassaday. And Brian K. Vaughan wrote the "Ka-Zar Annual 1997." It's a story that fits neatly and perhaps surprisingly into the series' continuity. It answers a couple of questions the series left open, notably about Parnival's evil scheme.

SOME ADDITIONAL ATMOSPHERE

Marvel Comics in 1997 was an interesting place, in retrospect. They produced a lot of junk, but there are also some nuggets of quality strewn throughout. Don't toss the bad out with the good. "Ka-Zar" is one of the bright lights, but some others showed through, as well.

"The Incredible Hulk" featured Peter David and Adam Kubert. Thunderbolts had just kicked off, from Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley. Busiek also handled "Untold Tales of Spider-Man" at the time. John Ostrander's "Heroes for Hire" was a Marvel gem for a little while. Steve Skroce was the artist on "Amazing Spider-Man," and John Romita was on another of the Spider-titles. James Robinson and Chris Bachalo handled "Generation X." Jeff Matsuda drew "X-Factor."

Also of note: "Heroes Reborn" was past the halfway mark at this point, and glossy stapled-in ads were starting to appear for "Heroes Return," which featured a return to greatness for a number of characters. Howard Mackie and Tom DeFalco seemed to be writing every third Marvel book. Marvel did its "-1" issue stunt in 1997. There was a "Spider-Man Cybercomic" in progress at the time. "Ka-Zar" #7 even came polybagged with a CD of the comic. I think. I'm guessing that it's true based on the banner on the front cover to the comic. I have no memory anymore that small detail. Odds are, it was an AOL CD that gave you access to Marvel.com, but that was the late 90s for you. . .

Also, check this out, from "Stan's Soapbox" in issue #7:

I don't remember a thing about that theoretical line of comics. Anyone else have a better memory?

Sadly, this week's Pipeline Podcast will be delayed by a day or three. My usual basement studio is undergoing some renovations and won't be accessible for a couple of days. Try again later in the week. Thanks for your patience.

AugieShoots.com is still daily, with more animals and a look at the new lens I picked up this week.

The Various and Sundry blog is still alive, mostly for "American Idol" updates.

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, now with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, mark waid, ka-zar, andy kubert, marvel comics

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