Into the back issue box #3

I doubt if anything could top the craptitude of last week's entry, but you never know! That's the beauty of selecting books at random. So let's look at this week's dark journey into the depths of the back issues ...

Superman/Tarzan: Sons of the Jungle #1 by Chuck Dixon and Carlos Meglia. Published by Dark Horse (in cahoots with DC, obviously), October 2001.

This has to be better than the last one, right? We'll see. Here we go, as a first-time comic book reader thinks, "Wow, Superman meets Tarzan? How can that not be good?" Anyone picking this up, one thinks, would have some knowledge of both Superman and Tarzan - the general outlines of each story. Right? Hard core comics readers will have this knowledge about a vast number of characters, but if this was the first comic you ever read, can we assume that you know a little bit about Superman and Tarzan? I will so assume.

Our story begins with a mutiny on board a ship, the Fuwalda, anchored off East Africa on its way from Bombay. The leader of the mutineers, Black Michael, stops his odious crew from killing John Clayton, a passenger on board, and raping Clayton's pregnant wife, Alice, instead deciding to maroon them in the jungle. Before he can, however, a meteorite streaks out of the sky and crashes near them in the jungle. For some inexplicable reason, this changes Black Michael's mind and he decides to sail them to South Africa. Why does he do this? It's just a meteor, and it doesn't hit the ship. The only possibility is that he believes Lady Alice's prayers brought the meteor down, and if he tries to maroon them, another meteor will come down and hit the ship. The text implies this, but it's stretching credulity a bit that a hard-nosed mutineer like Black Michael would be that superstitious. This is, after all, the mid- to late-nineteenth century, and presumably Black Michael has heard rumors of astronomical knowledge.

The meteor contains, perhaps not surprisingly, a human baby. He is adopted by an ape, Kala, who lost her own child to a leopard. The chief ape grudgingly allows Kala to keep the baby, whom she names Argo-Zan. On the next page, Alice Clayton gives birth to a baby, who will be the "future lord of the Greystoke manor." Again, even first-time comic book readers should be able to understand that this boy should have been Tarzan, but now Superman will become Tarzan. It's not rocket science!

We skip ahead to Argo-Zan's teenaged years, and in a very confusing panel sequence, a black leopard leaps onto Kala, bringing her "son" to rescue her. She dies, hoever, and Kerchak, the chief, tells him he is no longer welcome among the apes because Kala was the only one who tolerated him. He treks into the jungle and finds the spaceship that brought him to Earth, where he triggers the hologram of his parents telling him who he is. As he learns about his past, young John Clayton daydreams in school, even as his teachers comment on how brilliant he could be. His father is angry that he fails at school and ignores both Oxford and the army, preferring instead to wander around the estate. Kal-El (he announces his name although his parents never tell it to him on-panel), meanwhile, tells a monkey friend that he does not belong with the apes, he belongs with the "apes who look like [him]. No hair upon their bodies. And they wear the skin of animals." He sees an African tribe far away coming up the river, even though N'Kima, his monkey friend, claims no one can see that far. We're not quite sure what the tribe is doing upriver, but as they apparently dance around a bonfire that night, Kal-El suddenly appears above them and announces, "People of Krypton, I am Kal-El, son of Jor-El! I am HOME!" Cue dramatic music and exeunt! As dramatic as it is, however, it makes little sense. Kal-El learned that Krypton is no more, and he even says as much to N'Kima. So why does he now think he's on Krypton?

This is the first issue of a three-part mini-series, and if I were a first-time reader, I would be tempted to come back for more, despite the Kal-El's confusing statement at the end (at the same time grumbling about the serial nature of the genre when I could read a book all at once). Dixon does a nice job setting everything up and using the histories of both characters without confusing us too much. Like I said, anyone picking up this book has to know a bit about the characters, so the lack of backstory isn't that bad. Dixon gives us everything, really, that we need to know. However, for someone who is unaware of DC's "Elseworlds" line, this might be something of a disappointment. Superman as Tarzan? Lord Greystoke is not Tarzan? Where's the iconic Superman costume? It's there on the cover, but as a reflection of the "Tarzan" Superman. Someone looking for "Superman meets Tarzan" will be sorely disappointed. As a story, it's decent enough, but as a Superman story, it's a bit off. Naturally, most people who have never read a comic book won't be picking this up, but if they did, I wonder how confused they would be, especially because, as this is published by Dark Horse, there isn't the standard disclaimer about what Elseworlds comics are all about.

The art, as you can see, is low-rent Humberto Ramos, and as I've never been a Ramos fan, I liked this even less. For the most part, however, it does its job, save for the strange half-page when the leopard attacks Kala. There is nothing all that dramatic (except for the last page), and the renderings of the characters are stereotypical in the way that comics are - the mutineers are grotesque, the Africans are savage, Kal-El is god-like, the Claytons are stolid, and the schoolteachers are caricatures. There's nothing all that offensive about it (although I'm not sure, on the second-to-last page, why some of the Africans are drooling), but there's nothing noteworthy about it either.

This is an interesting premise rendered with broad strokes, something Dixon is pretty good at (I'm stepping out of first-time reader mode now), and although it isn't slam-bang action, there's just enough to keep it moving. It's not gripping enough to make me go find the next two issues, but it does establish the characters well and give us hints about what's to come. Does anyone know how it turned out?

Next week: how should I know?

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