The late, great Frank Frazetta may have started his career in comic books, but after decades of work painting fantasy illustrations for everything from paperback novels to album covers, the master’s sequential work is often overlooked by even diehard comic fans.
While he worked on everything from EC horror comics to Westerns to newspaper strips to the occasional superhero during the 1940s and ’50s, Frazetta also created a few standout characters that matched the masculine archetypes he’d later paint in larger than life style. One of the most successful Frazetta creations was Thun’da — an amnesiac modern jungle lord placed in a lost prehistorical alley in Africa. The artist created the hero soup to nuts in 1952 and drew only one issue before leaving over creative differences with his publisher. But Thun’da lived on, even making it to his own movie serial. And now the character returns again in a particularly Frazetta-inspired take from Dynamite Entertainment and writer Robert Place Napton.
With August’s “Thun’da” #1, readers will get a chance to meet the jungle lord again as drawn by Cliff Richards, but they’ll also get to reexperience Frazetta’s original story as it will be reprinted alongside the new work in the 48-page series kick-off. In his first interview on the book, Napton told CBR News what impact that first comic by the legendary artist meant to his revival of the series, from how the amnesiac hook of the original story informed the existential themes of the comic to how Frazetta’s grand scale dinosaur work will play in alongside his original supporting cast.
CBR News: Thun’da is a character with a pedigree, but it’s a pedigree that’s not as widely known as some other pieces of comics history or even Frazetta history. When you came on board to this series, what were the elements of the book you thought were essential parts of the character, and what did you feel you had room to play with?
Robert Place Napton: “Thun’da, King of the Congo” is really a remarkable piece of comics and Frazetta history because the first issue of the original is the only comic book he entirely illustrated — something I’m sure a lot of people don’t know about. When I came on board I read Frazetta’s issue and I think one of the interesting choices he made was to make him a modern man who discovers a Lost World. He’s not like Lord Greystoke where he grew up in the situation; Thun’da is an outsider who has to learn the ropes of this world very quickly in order to survive. He is a military man in Frazetta’s original so he has skills and training and that gives him a believable advantage in this life and death battle for survival. The elements of the modern military man became essential. The other element that jumped out and really hooked me was that Frazetta gave him amnesia after his crash landing. Frazetta didn’t go too deep with the amnesia once he established it, but for me, I thought there was room to play with that and take it a step further and really take Thun’da into Jason Bourne territory. So our Roger Drum is a bit more of a cipher with a mysterious past. He’s haunted by fragmented memories and it starts to paint a picture that he’s not sure he wants to remember.
Did you re-read all the original issues in preparation for this gig? What struck you most about that work in retrospect?
I immediately read Frazetta’s Thun’da issue. Like most, I knew him through his amazing paintings and to see sequential panel-to-panel work by the master is something really special. It has the same magic and leaves one wanting for more, but sadly, “Thun’da” issue #1 is the only complete cover-to-cover comic by Frank Frazetta. I read the other issues as well — the ones that were made after he left the series apparently over a dispute with the original publisher. It’s exciting Dynamite is doing the 48-page launch issue for the new series and will feature some of Frank’s work so people who are unfamiliar with it can check it out. It really has the same beauty and testosterone his paintings are known for, so those who haven’t seen it are in for a treat and it will be fun for the reader I think to compare our take with the original.
That said, what was important for you to get across in this very first issue about who Roger Drum is and how he responds to the circumstances he finds himself in?
As our story opens, Roger Drum is in pure survival mode. He’s physically strong and military trained, but mentally fragmented and is just trying to survive and figure out where he is and more importantly, who he was. In that sense there’s a bit of Jason Bourne about him. He’s an outsider, so by default he’s going to be disruptive to this isolated world he finds himself him in, and he’s going to cause change, but less because he wants to — more because he’s just stumbling along. He’s more like Indiana Jones or Jake Sully from Avatar — the modern pulp protagonist who’s not really in control of the situation.
As you said, one of the central mysteries the series will be dealing with is who Roger Drum really is. What can you say about what brought him to this mysterious place and the other kind of existential questions of why this is all happening?
Yes, the central question for Roger is “Who WAS I?” As the story unfolds he might find out there’s more to him than he originally thought. As I said earlier, I think the amnesia angle gives the opportunity to introduce the more existential questions of what makes someone who they are? Is it their memories? And what happens when that’s wiped clean — who are you then? That’s what Roger is trying to figure out — who he was and who he is now. But if that’s not enough, he’s in a land that can’t possibly exist. So even he wonders if he’s dead at one point — as would anyone if they were suddenly confronted with prehistoric life forms. And like Number 6 in “The Prisoner,” I think Roger is confronted with the question of whether he’s going to let this situation break him in half.
The original series had a number of different cast members and groups at play in Thun’da’s world — some of whom may have been less politically correct than others. How did you separate the wheat from the chaff here, and what other characters can we expect to meet in the series as a result?
Like all pulp, there are some characters in “Thun’da” that don’t work when viewed through a modern prism, but the two main groups that Frazetta created — the cave man-like Cliff People and the more sophisticated Shareen — will be back. Pha, the female warrior of the Shareen people will also be back. There is a talking Ape race that was featured that will definitely play a role. I love talking Apes! [Laughs] There’s also a loyal Sabertooth that I’m bringing back. And I’m going to try to build out the Lost World a bit more. One of the reasons I heard Frazetta left the original after the first issue is that the publisher was trying to push him into taking the character out of the Lost World and just having him in the jungle. I don’t know if that’s true, but I did wonder about that when I read the original. It seemed it went from this fantastical world to a more modern jungle world very quickly, but I intend to stay with Frazetta’s original vision of a the Lost World, so there’s a lot of room to explore and discover and I’m hoping we get to do some things we might have done had he the chance.
Frazetta’s first issue was really solid in the plotting, so I tried to honor those moments. Sometimes a writer will change stuff just to change it I think, but I really tried to think of this as an adaptation job with Frank looking over my shoulder. I’ve had the pleasure of working on some great adaptation projects — like working with novelist Terry Brooks adapting one of his Shannara stories to graphic novel. Terry was very much engaged in that process, but unfortunately Frazetta is no longer with us, yet I liked to think that he was around when I was writing this so I’d have to answer to him if things got too far away from what he created. [Laughs]
Even though this version of the character has no memory of who he is, it seems his Navy SEAL-esque skills will serve him very well in the prehistoric times he finds himself in. In what ways has that tension between modern soldier and jungle hero impacted your scripts?
Roger is highly trained and highly motivated to stay alive. He is acting reflexively — both physically and mentally. His memory is gone, but his training just kicked in. I think if you dropped, say a modern Navy Seal into a real Lost World, if such a place existed — they are probably the only ones who could actually survive, so I liked playing with that and making it seem real. If you dropped me off in a Lost World, I’d be T-Rex lunch pretty fast. I’m not an outdoorsman, but someone with that kind of physical training could really make a go of it in my opinion. So there’s a moment in the first issue where he’s going through his equipment and you really feel that before he lost his memory this guy was an expert. He still knows what these things are and how to use them — even though he doesn’t know who he is. He knows how to climb a rope — he knows how to hold his breath under water. He knows how to shoot, how to be stealthy. I think these attributes make him a perfect candidate to be a Jungle Lord. It’s a natural fit.
One big thing that comes with a story like this is the idea of scale. We’ve got dinosaurs and hidden cities and armies and such. What have you done in collaborating with artist Cliff Richards to amp up the size of this book and the world it takes place in?
There is a whole world that Frazetta conceived, which is great. Cliff is fantastic and his pages for this book have been really amazing. I was so excited when I first received the finished artwork. It was a treat. Cliff did his homework; as I did, and he really took a look at what Frazetta created and came up with his own take on it visually. Obviously there have been other Lost Worlds since “Thun’da” — the most obvious being “Jurassic Park,” which have changed our perspective, so all those influences, older and newer, came into play and I just love what Cliff is doing with the creatures and his designs for the other characters. Its great, great stuff.
Speaking of Cliff, what’s been your overall impression of how he treats the character? What does that mean for you as the writer?
As I said, I love what Cliff is doing. His take on Roger Drum is great. The artist is the actor — he has to imbue the character with the emotions an actor would on screen. I would write stuff about where I think Roger’s at emotionally — for example that lost, desperate quality I was hoping Roger would have in the beginning, Cliff captured really, really well. When you’re working with an artist who can put real emotion in a character’s expression it makes all the difference as the writer and you can play the notes you want to play and know what you get back is going to be great.
Recently, you’ve been working on Dynamite’s “Warlord or Mars” books, which feature another character with a military background thrown into an unexpected and fantastic world. Obviously there are a lot of differences between the properties, but are there any ways in which one informs the other for you?
I think classic pulp forms in general share a lot of similarities. In classic pulp forms, the outsider is often the conqueror, or the better of those around him. That’s true of John Carter. He is the best swordsman on mars. So when writing those comics, it’s fun to just let that character be who he is and not try to make it excuses for him. Just go with it — John Carter is the best — deal with it. [Laughs] But for “Thun’da,” I see this having more in common with something like the first “Planet of the Apes” movie, which to me is an inverted Jungle Lord story meets ’60s politics. Chuck Heston, the outsider, the would be Jungle Lord, even remarks when he’s looking at the natives, “If this is the best they got, we’ll be running this place in six months” and then boom, the Apes appear and he spends the entire movie as the underdog. I think it’s the same for our Roger Drum. He’s the underdog for a time. I don’t think John Carter is ever the underdog on Barsoom.
Overall, we’re only at the beginning of this series. What can you say about your long term plan for “Thun’da” over the course of this first arc?
That’s right, this is only the beginning. We really have a great journey in mind for this character. As he explores the world he’s in, making discoveries, we’ll discover it with him — a world full of danger, peoples he never knew existed, creatures beyond his imagination. And through it all, he’ll be on a quest to find himself — is he Roger Drum or is he Thun’da? We hope readers will join us and find out!
“Thun’da” #1 debuts this August from Dynamite Entertainment.