I swear I did not plan the timing of this post on purpose.
What I mean to say is that I don’t generally go in for shilling Marvel product on this blog. Yeah, if I like something the company I’m working for is putting out, which I do a lot, I’m not shy about saying, most frequently in Five Comics Worth Reading, which is designed in part with that function in mind. And yeah, I’ll pimp my own stuff in, well, Pimping My Stuff. However, I try not to set this blog up as a promotional machine to point out how cool upcoming projects look—aside from Art Attack—because I already do that quite nicely over on Marvel.com, I believe, and Kiel and his crew do the same on CBR.
So please believe me when I say I conceived of this post and began writing it in my head before I had any idea we’d be announcing today that my friend Rob Williams is writing what sounds like a dope series about Skaar going to the Savage Land and fighting Ka-Zar and a bunch of other folks for control of the kingdom. My intention in writing this piece was to talk about the coolness, both tapped and untapped, of Ka-Zar, Shanna, Zabu, etc., not to sell comics.
(But if this post does move you to learn more about these subjects, Skaar: King of the Savage Land by Rob Williams and Brian Ching starts in April)
Anyways, I finally got to read the first eight issues of Mark Waid and Andy Kubert’s much ballyhooed (or at least ballyhooed) Ka-Zar series of the mid-late 90’s, collected this very week. I was not let down. Waid’s doing what he does best, writing an endearing but flawed lead, exploring a strong but complex romantic relationship and packing in loads of action—it’s actually not totally unlike his Flash run, just with the hero in a loincloth as opposed to red and yellow spandex. Kubert gets to cut loose drawing dinosaurs, crazy cave folk, a darn hot Shanna and frankly the nastiest Rhino I’ve ever seen.
But I went in knowing I was going to dig Waid and Kubert’s work; Ka-Zar was the unknown commodity.
I like him. I like him a lot.
If you’re only familiar with Ka-Zar from guest appearances and maybe the 90’s X-Men cartoon, it’s easy to write him off as a typical Tarzan knockoff, the noble savage swinging around the jungle with his sabretooth tiger, fighting pterodactyls and hanging out with his hot leopard bikini-wearing lady. Indeed, many have depicted him as just that, but as Waid—and others—have demonstrated there’s more than that to the character.
Ka-Zar does not speak in grunts or say “Me Ka-Zar,” he is as witty and charming in his verbiage as any Marvel hero. He was not born in the Savage Land; he was raised for the early years of his life in England as Kevin Plunder, heir to British nobility. As Waid points out in his first issues, Kevin was nine when he came to the Savage Land, and though he came of age there, he still remembers his other life and retains a degree of it in his attitude.
While Ka-Zar has often been portrayed as weary to trust anybody or anything from outside the Savage Land, Waid writes him as a torn soul, divided between the wild kingdom he rules with mastery and the mysterious outside world he deep down harbors a rampant curiosity about. While outwardly the apex of manhood, Waid’s Ka-Zar is in many ways still a child, filled with wonder about the things he doesn’t know or fully understand, eager to explore. It’s certainly a fascinating dichotomy and in the hands of a skilled creator like Mark Waid, fertile ground for character exploration.
Speaking of dichotomy and contrast, another part of Ka-Zar’s appeal comes simply from the fact that he’s never alone: he and Shanna are a package deal. Unlike her husband, Shanna came willingly to the Savage Land as an adult, already having lived all the life she wanted to in the “real world.” There is no ambiguity in Shanna; she’s an incredibly strong woman who knows exactly what she wants and exactly where she stands and makes even her potent partner seem the tame one of the couple, no easy feat for a female character in comics. In Waid’s run, they bicker, and Ka-Zar seems justifiably intimidated by Shanna, but they’re also far stronger together, something they recognize. Oh, and by the way, despite being jungle adventurers who run around in next to nothing, they’re also loving and impressive parents of a young son! It’s a unique and special coupling that elevates both characters.
Yet despite the potential of both Ka-Zar and Shanna to be strong leads set apart from other Marvel Universe protagonists, a potential only scratched in stuff like Waid’s series or Christos Gage’s lead story in Marvel Comics Presents a few years back, it’s not difficult to discern what holds them back from becoming A-list characters, as it’s also one of their defining strengths: The Savage Land.
The Savage Land is one of the classic comic book locales and a go-to setting to show a different side of the typically urban heroes who populate the Marvel Universe. And you know if a character heads to the Savage Land, they’re going to inevitably run into Ka-Zar and Shanna, the same way there aren’t too many stories set in Wakanda where The Black Panther doesn’t at least cameo or in Atlantis that don’t involve Namor somehow. As much as I’m interested in all that other stuff I outlined above, the key component of Ka-Zar remains that he is the ruler of the Savage Land, and that if you go there he is the absolute best guy to have on your side.
Unfortunately, this means you’ve got basically two options if you want to tell a Ka-Zar story with some juicy conflict beyond him and Shanna hunting for food: Either a villain comes to the Savage Land looking to take it over/seek revenge on Ka-Zar/whatever, or Ka-Zar leaves the Savage Land for some compelling reason and fights villains in a more familiar setting like New York City and then goes home upon completing his mission. In the eight issues of Waid and Kubert’s run I’ve read, I’ve already seen both stories, and they were done well, but I can imagine coming up with continued reasons for either scenario to keep occurring is going to become straining. Besides that, if you’ve got an ongoing Ka-Zar series where bad guys and guest stars are finding reasons to come to the Savage Land, it probably means no other books are going to feature Savage Land adventures, which cuts off a valuable storytelling avenue.
The solution might seem to be to get Ka-Zar out of the Savage Land on a regular basis by having him join, say, the Avengers, but do that and you’re removing the character’s most defining trait and what makes him special; sure he’s got great survival skills and can hold his own in the occasional jaunt to the big city, but his whole deal is that he knows how to manage and thrive in a place few others can on a level that nobody else can. I’d argue no Marvel character is as closely tied to his home base as Ka-Zar is, including the aforementioned Black Panther and Namor, adding on guys like Doctor Doom or even the Inhumans.
The Savage Land is integral to Ka-Zar, but it’s also what prevents him from truly breaking out.
I wonder how different things might have been had Ka-Zar and the Savage Land been developed somewhat independently of the Marvel Universe in a separate series and then integrated later, following a similar model to how Warlord and Skartaris were created and built upon over at DC. That way you have the benefit of building a whole mythology of places and people, both allies and enemies, within the Savage Land that can sustain Ka-Zar’s adventures alone for years rather than just having the X-Men or Spider-Man visit every couple of years and only ever showing the same half dozen characters because that’s all you need. It may not have made a difference, as after all, Warlord has never really been among DC’s top tier or joined the Justice League, but he did have quite the long-running series once upon a time.
So yeah, there’s definitely something there when it comes to Ka-Zar and his family, but I’m not sure how it should best be handled, truth be told. Part of me wants to see another enterprising set of creators give a go at an ongoing series and take it where it can go. Another part is curious to see what it would be like if Ka-Zar and/or Shanna joined the Avengers (and I am getting to see it after a fashion in the Ultimate Universe, but they’re very different characters).
But I do think the largest pragmatic portion of me recognizes that certain characters simply aren’t destined to be headliners, serving rather as intriguing occasional players in the larger tapestry of their comic book universe. So I’ll take my Ka-Zar fix where I can get it, be it in guest appearances, back issues or the occasional limited series.
Starting with Skaar: King of the Savage Land, beginning in April.
Sorry about that.