As I’ve discussed in a previous post, when Marvel Comics brought back their mid-Sixties double-feature format with two titles in 1970, my younger self promptly jumped on one of them — Amazing Adventures, co-starring the Inhumans and Black Widow — picking up both the first and second issues. For some reason, however, I put off sampling the companion title — Astonishing Tales, headlined by Ka-Zar and Doctor Doom — for several months, so my first issue was the series’ third. Yes, reader; that does indeed mean that I turned up my nose at new work from not just one, but two giants of comic book art — Jack Kirby (who already had one foot out the door at Marvel) and Wally Wood (who was just putting a foot back in). What can I say? I was a callow youth, who pretty much took Kirby for granted (he put a couple of new books out every month, after all; if you missed one, there’d be another one along in a couple of weeks) — and, truth to tell, I didn’t yet know who Wood even was, or why I should care.
And so, by the time I got around to giving Astonishing Tales a try, there had already been changes to the creative teams for both features. Wally Wood was still drawing the “Dr. Doom” strip, but the original scripter, Roy Thomas, had been replaced by Larry Lieber. Meanwhile, Thomas himself had briefly assumed the writer’s role on “Ka-Zar” with Astonishing Tales #2, stepping in for Stan Lee, who’d written only the series’ initial 10-pager before bowing out* — only to bow out himself just as quickly, turning the scripting over to a young writer new to Marvel, Gerry Conway.** And now, with Kirby having decamped to DC, “Ka-Zar” would get a new artist as well. Beginning with issue #3, the adventures of the Lord of the Hidden Jungle would be illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith.
Unlike Wally Wood, Windsor-Smith was a known quantity for thirteen-year-old me. I’d enjoyed the young Englishman’s work on Daredevil and Avengers the previous year, appreciating his innovative layouts and the sheer energy of his art, even while recognizing that in some other respects, his drawing skills weren’t quite up to those of his two most obvious influences, Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko; not yet, anyway.
Among Windsor-Smith’s earliest art jobs for Marvel (though this one I didn’t buy) was the cover for Marvel Super-Heroes #19 (March, 1969), a comic which just happened to feature Ka-Zar in his first solo adventure. The artist’s indebtedness to Kirby is quite evident in this piece (which I’d seen in ads, if nowhere else); and when I discovered that he was the artist on the jungle lord’s outing in Astonishing Tales #3, I imagine I was expecting something pretty much in this vein.
What I didn’t realize, however — mostly because I hadn’t yet sampled Windsor-Smith’s work on Conan the Barbarian (the second issue of which came out the same day as AT #3, September 15) — was how much he’d developed as an artist, in terms both of technical proficiency and of individual style, since I’d last looked at his stuff over a year ago.
And so, when I finally turned past the book’s cover (by Marie Severin, incidentally) to the first page of “Back to the Savage Land”, I had some adjustments to make. Because, while it was evident from the opening scene that Windsor-Smith had by no means entirely shaken off his Kirby influence, there seemed to be other things going on here as well:
As indicated by the splash page caption, this story begins in the immediate aftermath of Ka-Zar’s premiere Astonishing Tales adventure. According to Roy Thomas’ Marvel Masterworks introduction, although he scripted the scenes in AT #2 in which the Petrified Man first appears, he wasn’t the one who came up with him:
At story’s end, Jack, with or without Stan’s input, had tossed in a weird, stony-faced character. I scripted him — whether based on Jack’s margin notes or not I don’t recall — as having come from the Savage Land with some secret revelation.
For the first outing in his new ongoing series, Ka-Zar’s creators*** had crafted a relatively generic Marvel superhero story, pitting the jungle lord against a fairly obvious (and probably inevitable) adversary, the veteran Spider-Man villain known as Kraven the Hunter. But the new creative team of Conway and Windsor-Smith seemed to draw more inspiration from the Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp adventure fiction from which both Ka-Zar and his normal stomping grounds, the Savage Land, had ultimately been derived — which included not only that author’s Tarzan stories, but also his tales of Pellucidar and Caprona.
The “lost world” milieu that we see Windsor-Smith (aided by inker Sam Grainger) bringing to life here is distinct from the “sword and sorcery” realm the artist was concurrently depicting in Conan, but both settings provided plenty of opportunity for the kind of exotic, ornate imagery he was clearly becoming increasingly adept at.
As the Petrified Man begins to narrate the tale of his past, Windsor-Smith must of necessity return to rendering somewhat more mundane subjects than those provided by the Savage Land; even so, as we readers follow along with this account of a 16th-century sea voyage, we’re still at a substantial remove from the contemporary New York City setting where our story began — and the artist’s work here is just as convincing as in the previous scene.
(A quick side note: The single legible name on any of the tombstones, “Charity Trask”, doesn’t appear to have any significance in the present story; my best guess is that it’s a reference to an obscure character from the Gothic horror TV serial Dark Shadows.)
Less than a full day’s travel by plane and boat later, Ka-Zar, Zabu, and their new companion are all back in the Savage Land:
As you may have noticed, we’re already on page 7 of this 10-page story, and the title character hasn’t fought anybody yet. And since this is, after all, a 1970 Marvel comic…
Just in case you’re wondering, even though Ka-Zar addresses Tongah as “old friend”, this is the character’s first appearance.
The bereaved warrior has just enough time to tell Ka-Zar and the Petrified Man that Zaladane was the leader of the attack upon his village, and then…
And with that, we’ve run plumb out of room for Ka-Zar in this issue. We’ll come back to the Lord of the Savage Land his companions before the end of this post, I promise; but for now, let’s forge on ahead to the second of Astonishing Tales #3’s two features, which also happens to be the one I’m pretty sure I bought the comic for in the first place: Doctor Doom.
Like Ka-Zar, Dr. Doom had had a previous solo outing in Marvel Super-Heroes, headlining issue #20 (which, coincidentally, was the issue immediately following Ka-Zar’s tryout). This story had come out concurrently with the third installment of a four-part Fantastic Four tale featuring Doom as the antagonist; by the time that storyline wrapped up, the monarch of Latveria had indisputably become my very favorite comic-book supervillain. Still, I didn’t buy MS-H #20, perhaps because I was still in the process of “getting into” Doom when it appeared in February, 1969. By the time Astonishing Tales #1 came out in May, 1970, however, I had definitely begun picking up comics whose primary attraction was that Dr. Doom appeared in them; in any event, I most assuredly wasn’t indifferent to the character (in contrast to my attitude towards Ka-Zar, whom I had yet to read about in any other comic). So why did I pass on AT #1?
I think that it’s at least possible (though by no means certain) that I flipped through the Doom story at the back of the book, and was less than enthused by the artwork. It’s more than a little embarrassing to admit this now, but in 1970, I may have taken a look at the art of Wally Wood (or Wallace Wood, as he seems to have preferred to be called during his lifetime) — more specifically, at his propensity for framing characters in medium-range “shots”, as well as his occasionally stiff-looking figure work — and thought that it looked old-fashioned, somehow. Thankfully, I learned pretty quickly to appreciate Wood’s substantial merits, such as the mastery of light and shadow which allowed him to give his subjects an almost three-dimensional depth and solidity (though, naturally, I wouldn’t use that sort of language to describe his art for some years to come); but, fifty years ago, my experience of encountering Wood for the first time was probably roughly analogous to my initial encounters with Neal Adams and Jack Kirby two or three years prior to that — in other words, what I was seeing here for the first time was simply so different from what I was accustomed to seeing in comic book art, that I didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Not that I was completely ignorant of Wood and his work in 1970, you understand. I’d seen his T.H.UN.D.E.R. Agents comics for Tower on the racks circa 1965-67, even if I hadn’t bothered to buy any of them; and while I’d also passed on DC’s Captain Action #1, which he both pencilled and inked, I did pick up — and very much enjoyed — Captain Action #3 (Feb.-Mar., 1969), for which he’d embellished the pencils of Gil Kane. Still, in 1970, I didn’t quite “get” Wally Wood; and that might have influenced my decision to give Astonishing Tales #1 a pass.
On the other hand, it’s equally possible that I opted not to buy the book due mainly to the fact that, as much as I liked Dr. Doom as a character, I found it hard to get completely behind the idea of a supervillain as a series’ protagonist. (For what it’s worth, I kinda still do.) Just because I enjoyed reading about Victor von Doom and his nefarious doings, it didn’t necessarily mean I wanted to root for the guy. As far as I was concerned, any story with Doom in it was supposed to end with his being defeated by the FF, Daredevil, Sub-Mariner, or whomever.
Nevertheless, whatever my reasons for passing up the first and second issues of Astonishing Tales may have been, by the time September rolled around, I was evidently ready to give the book, and its Doc Doom solo feature, a shot. But while issue #3’s Ka-Zar installment had obliged my latecomer status by beginning in the moments immediately after that hero’s latest exploit, the splash page of “Doom Must Die!” dropped me right into the middle of an ongoing — and rather complicated — storyline:
The credited writer for this story is Larry Lieber; though, as we’ve already noted, he followed Roy Thomas, who’d scripted the first two installments of the serial, and may reasonably be presumed to have contributed somewhat to the plotting of the entire arc, including this chapter. Of course, since this was an era when the “Marvel Method” of comics-making was still routinely used, it’s possible that Wood himself did the lion’s share of the plotting for all three chapters; this seems unlikely, however, considering that Wood is known to have broken things off with Marvel the last time he’d worked for them (in 1964-65, on a well-regarded six-issue run of Daredevil) over his unhappiness at not being compensated for his plotting contributions to stories officially credited as having been written by Stan Lee alone. It’s hard to imagine a situation at Marvel in 1970 in which Wood would have been willing to do anything other than to work from a detailed plot outline, if not actually a full script (unless it was to provide the script for the story himself, which he in fact did for four short sword-and-sorcery tales he produced for the publisher’s Tower of Shadows anthology title at around this same time).
Whoever was responsible for coming up with the plot, however, the basic premise — a rebellion of the Latverian people (or some of them, anyway) against the tyrannical Von Doom — was pretty novel in its time. Up until this point, we’d seen relatively little of Latveria and its people beyond the confines of Doom’s castle; the aforementioned serial in Fantastic Four #84-87 had gone further than any earlier story, but even it had limited its scope to a single village.
Unfortunately for the rebels, their leader is Prince Rudolfo, the “rightful heir” to the throne usurped years earlier by Dr. Doom. As the scripts by Thomas and Lieber make clear, Rudolfo is as power-hungry as Doom himself; about the only thing he has to recommend him over our armored protagonist is that he’d presumably be less inclined to try to conquer the world (and even if he were so inclined, it’s pretty obvious he’d be bad at it). This, of course, allows the storytellers to mute some of the natural sympathy that readers might otherwise feel for the Latverian freedom fighters, even though it’s still hard to actually root for Doom. (Well, it was hard for me, OK?)
Adding a level of intrigue (and certain other appeal factors as well, at least for the adolescent heterosexual males in the audience — and, yes, in 1970, your humble blogger was among them) is Rudolfo’s confederate, the beauteous Ramona, who happens to be a dead ringer for Victor’s childhood sweetheart, Valeria (a character who’d been introduced the previous year, in Doom’s Marvel Super-Heroes tryout story — which, not so coincidentally, was co-written by Thomas and Lieber). Ramona is supposed to pretend to be Valeria, and thus undermine Doom. Her ruse is successful for all of three panels, but that’s OK, because that was what Rudolfo was planning for all along. (I told you this plot was complicated.) As you might expect, Ramona ultimately seems to develop a few tender feelings for Vic, which might even be reciprocated — though, as we’ll see, that plotline never really goes anywhere.
Meanwhile, unaware of the plot against him, all of Doom’s attention has been focused on his latest creation — “a super-powerful living being“, made in his own image, and imprinted with his own brain patterns. The Doc intends for this construct, which he’s dubbed “the Doomsman”, to be the prototype of an eventual world-conquering army. Hmm, I can see some potential difficulties with trying to control an army of duplicates that are as just smart as you, and perhaps even more powerful, physically — but, hey, I’m no evil genius.
Wait, there’s still more! In addition to Ramona and his rank-and-file rebel soldiers, Rudolfo has another, secret ally — a guy wearing a faceless globe on his head, who calls himself the, um, Faceless One. Readers who had come into this story at the beginning were probably expecting that, when the Faceless One inevitably took off his helmet in the concluding chapter, he’d be revealed as someone familiar to Marvel fans. As things turned out, however… well, you’ll see when we get to that point.
By the time the story’s final installment in Astonishing Tales #3 opens, the rebels’ attack on Castle Doom is underway. The Doomsman has been activated, but instead of coming to its creator’s aid, it has chosen to go its own way (see, what’d I tell you?) — only to come under the influence of the mysterious Faceless One:
The Faceless One’s force shield only provides him with a momentary respite, as Doom quickly nullifies it with his own “electronic energizer” — and then drives his foe backwards into the waiting arms of the Doomsman, “from which there is no escape!”
Huh. OK, I guess having the Faceless One’s globe-like “helmet” turn out to be, well, him, is a bit more surprising than if he’d turned out to be, I dunno, Diablo or someone like that.
Dr. Doom rushes outside just to see another, larger globe — apparently the Faceless One’s spaceship — ascending into the heavens. But it’s all a ruse, as said ship is empty, and F.O. is actually making a beeline for the castle’s Master Control Room.
Meanwhile, Doom finds himself beset by a group of the rebels, who’ve been armed with unearthly weaponry courtesy of the Faceless One. Unfortunately for them, their weapons are no match for Doom’s force field tech:
It looks pretty bad for the Doc, doesn’t it? By turning his own technology against him, the Faceless One has somehow managed to expel Doom “from our corner of existence“. At least, that’s how I interpret Lieber’s narrative captions in those last three panels.
Unfortunately, the story goes completely off the rails at this point, as the scene that follows makes absolutely no sense in the context of what we’ve just seen and read. It’s as if Lieber took a break for lunch after writing the copy for the panels above, and by the time he got back to the typewriter, had lost the thread of the story:
WTF? How did Doom evade and/or escape the Faceless One’s “sea of electronic waves“? When and how did he reach the controls of his “underground vibration machine“? Why is his face so freaking huge?
Your guesses are as good as mine, as neither the text nor the art for what remains of our story offers the slightest clue to the answers of any of those questions.
Doom’s “test” of (i.e., his attack upon) his creation lasts less than a page, and is pretty obviously included just for the sake of padding the story out to its required 10-page length. When it’s over, Doom sadly concludes that the Doomsman is simply too difficult to control, and abandons his plan to create an army of the androids.
The single panel depicting the Doomsman stranded in an alien dimension provides an opportunity for Wood, whose best-regarded work may be the science fiction stories he drew for EC Comics in the 1950s, to utilize his superb visual imagination in a way the rest of the story hasn’t so far; alas, it’s over all too quickly.
Left unanswered at the story’s conclusion is the question of why the Faceless One, an advanced alien being, was messing around with a Latverian revolution in the first place. Of course, this being Marvel, he would eventually show up again, though his motives would remain murky. Prince Rudolfo and the Doomsman (ultimately renamed Andro) would both return to bedevil Dr. Doom in the future as well, leaving the mysterious Ms. Ramona as the only one of the story’s principals to completely disappear after Astonishing Tales #3.
As things turned out, Wally Wood wouldn’t be around much longer than that, himself. He drew one more Dr. Doom tale for Astonishing Tales — issue #4’s “The Invaders!”, in which the Red Skull and six subordinates (the not-so-formidable Exiles) invade and conquer the entirety of Latveria while Doom is vacationing on the Riviera (no, really) — and then he was pretty much gone from Marvel again, only turning up to ink a story here and there.**** The next time my younger self encountered his full art, it was either in the form of a reprinted Mad story from the Fifties — the period when Wood was arguably at his peak — or in the pages of a Warren black-and-white magazine, where the artist’s facility (and enthusiasm) for delineating voluptuous women was, shall we say, rather less inhibited. But whichever came first, those works of Wood were the ones that ultimately made me a fan, where his Dr. Doom stories hadn’t quite managed to do the job.
The “Dr. Doom” feature trundled on for a few more issues sans Wood, with Lieber continuing as scripter through issue #6. George Tuska came on board with #5 to finish off the two-part Red Skull story, and stuck around long enough to collaborate with Lieber on the first chapter of a two-issue tale featuring the Black Panther — the first meeting between these two Marvel monarchs. Then, with #7, there were more major changes in the creative team, as writer Gerry Conway and artist Gene Colan came in to finish off the T’Challa tale, then went on to craft a memorable standalone story, featuring Doom’s annual battle with Satan for the soul of his deceased mother, for issue #8. But that was all she wrote for Doctor Doom in his first solo series, as with Astonishing Tales #9, Ka-Zar became the title’s sole lead; the Latverian despot’s next shot at (almost) solo stardom wouldn’t come until 1975’s Super-Villain Team-Up, where he’d share top billing with the Sub-Mariner.
Speaking of Ka-Zar, I did tell you we’d be getting back to him and to that Petrified Man-Zaladane storyline before we closed up here today, didn’t I? Alrighty, then: in AT #4’s installment (by the same team of Gerry Conway, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Sam Grainger), Ka-Zar, Tongah, and Zabu strive mightily against Zaladane and her warriors as the latter assault the city of the reptilian Vala-Kuri. But it’s the Petrified Man who ultimately turns the tide, after coming across the same idol that gave him stony immortality centuries ago; this time, however, when he touches the idol, the Petrified Man gains the powers of Garokk, the Sun-God, himself. And “Garokk” is sore displeased at the behavior of “his” followers:
Garokk brings the battle to an immediate end, turning the sky dark and dissolving the Sun-Empire warriors’ weapons. But though her warriors lay down their arms, Zaladane refuses to admit defeat. She escapes, flying away with Ka-Zar held captive in her pteranodon’s talons.
In Astonishing Tales #5, Conway and Windsor-Smith are joined by inker Frank Giacoia as they bring their story to its close. While Ka-Zar attempts to extricate himself from the clutches of the Sun Queen, Garokk becomes more and more deranged — ultimately deciding that the only way the world can truly know peace is if all living things die. Ka-Zar is ultimately able to defeat his former ally by dunking him in a fiery pool that lies in a cavern below the Sun God’s idol — a pool that is, of course, the source of the drink that changed and empowered the Petrified-Man-to-be back in issue #3’s flashback sequence — thereby reversing his metamorphosis:
See the mostly-silhouetted figure in the background of the last panel above? That’s Zaladane, who appears to get crushed to death on the story’s next and final page, when the huge idol falls over on top of her. (I say “appears”, because Zaladane will turn up alive and well years later in X-Men, where she’ll eventually claim to be the long-lost sister of Lorna Dane, aka Polaris [!]. Oh, and Garokk will ultimately return as well, so I suppose Ka-Zar’s dubbing him “Lazarus” is more apt than it might first seem.)
Windsor-Smith would be back in Astonishing Tales #6 for the next Ka-Zar story, as would Conway — but then both would depart, as Roy Thomas returned as scripter in #7, joined now by Herb Trimpe as artist. And though Windsor-Smith would return to Ka-Zar one more time for a book-length tale in AT #10 (beautifully inked by Bill Everett), he was essentially done with the character and his Savage Land milieu at this point. While the young Briton’s artistic evolution would continue at Marvel for years to come, it would primarily be seen in the pages of Conan the Barbarian and its related titles — though with short stops at Daredevil, Iron Man, and “Doctor Strange” (in Marvel Premiere) along the way — and, of course, a brief return to Avengers.
As for “Ka-Zar”, a variety of artists and writers would continue to rotate through the feature’s creative roster for most of its duration, which spanned twenty issues of Astonishing Tales before the jungle lord moved into his own title, which ran for yet another twenty. Somewhat surprisingly in retrospect. as I don’t recall ever really becoming that invested in Lord Kevin Plunder as a character, I stayed around for virtually all of the Astonishing Tales run. I’m guessing that had less to do with Ka-Zar himself, however, and more to do with several other interesting characters who either debuted or became better established over the course of that run — including Bobbi Morse (the future Mockingbird), Gemini (of the villainous Zodiac), and the Man-Thing, who made his color comics debut in the series.
Good stuff, in other words. I look forward to sharing it with you in the months and years to come.
*According to Roy Thomas’ 2012 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Ka-Zar, Vol. 1, Lee got Kirby’s phone call informing him that the artist was leaving Marvel for DC Comics after the first two installments of the “Ka-Zar” strip had been drawn, but before Lee had scripted the second one. Thomas speculates that this news left Marvel’s editor-in-chief “with no burning desire to dialogue Jack’s final Ka-Zar”, which is why he handed it off to associate editor Thomas.
**Oddly enough, in his Marvel Masterworks introduction, Thomas recalls that he, not Conway, scripted the Ka-Zar stories for AT #3 and #4, although both are unambiguously credited to the latter writer in the printed (and reprinted) editions. Perhaps Thomas assisted his younger colleague with the plotting of these stories, uncredited, as he is known to have done with a number of other Marvel comics in the early ’70s.
***I’ve used the word “creators” here, but it might be more accurate to say that Lee and Kirby reinvented Ka-Zar, rather than created him, in much the same way that they reinvented the original, Golden Age Human Torch in the form of the Silver Age’s Johnny Storm.
The original Ka-Zar made his debut in 1936, in a pulp fiction magazine of the same name published by Martin Goodman. This version of the hero was David Rand, a young American raised in the Congolian jungle, who hung out with a lion named Zar; his adventures were written by “Bob Byrd”, a house pseudonym. Ka-Zar (the magazine) ran for a mere three issues, but Goodman brought him back into print when he started up a comics line a couple of years later; Ka-Zar appeared not only in the historic first issue of Marvel Comics, but in the following twenty-six issues as well.
Some time around 1965, Goodman appears to have decided it was time to bring Ka-Zar back, if only to maintain Marvel’s legal rights to the property. So, in X-Men #10 (Mar., 1965) Lee and Kirby introduced a brand-new version of the blond jungle lord. This one’s “civilized” name was Kevin Plunder (though readers didn’t learn that right away), and he was the scion of an aristocratic English family. In contrast with his Golden Age namesake, he operated out of the Savage Land, a prehistoric realm hidden in Antarctica, and his best bud was a saber-tooth tiger named Zabu,
This Ka-Zar would prove to have considerably greater staying power than his predecessor; though he’s never become what you’d call an “A”-lister, he’s also never been out of sight for long since his introduction into the Marvel Universe fifty-five years ago. Not too shabby for a brazen Tarzan knockoff, when you think about it.
****According to an interview Roy Thomas gave Jim Amash for Alter Ego #70 (July, 2007), Wood’s departure came about thusly:
…we felt that, every issue, we were getting less and less of Wally. Stan [Lee], I remember, particularly felt on one or two of those stories that “This isn’t really Wally. This is him having some assistant doing it and him just inking it,” and he didn’t feel we were really getting the best of Wally Wood the way he had a few years earlier in Daredevil. So, since Stan and Wally hadn’t always had the best of relationships—to say the least—Stan asked me to talk to Wally about doing more of his stuff and not farming it out. That didn’t work out too well. What happened was that Wally just quit entirely…
If I had it to do over again, I think I’d argue harder to Stan that we should just leave him alone, because it was either have Wally to the extent that we did or not have him at all.