Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ka-zar The Great... the Brunette?

ka-zar comic artWell, finished up the reprint of two of the Shadow's official London adventures. Have to admit, London and castle grounds make for a good location for the Shadow, almost as much as Chinatown. I kinda wanted to see the Scotland Yard inspector Eric Delka come off a bit better, I'd have liked to see him in his own mysteries.

So, next up is "The Lost Empire" from KA-ZAR THE GREAT pulp circa 1937. Now I read the first one some time ago so there's a few things I didn't really recall. But Ka-zar is depicted on the covers much as Fiction House's Ki-gor, a bronze giant with darkish blonde hair and he was blond in his few golden-age comic reprints that I've read. And he's of course blond in the present day adventures.

Yet the text in the story talks about his lion-mane like black hair that falls to his shoulderska-zar cover art (notice on the cover how short his hair also is). But despite his appearance inside the story, it's obviously the cover images that have dictated how he'd appear for the next 70 years.

I remember Zar the lion (Ka-zar means "brother of the lion") but I don't really recall Trajar the elephant or Nono the ring-tailed monkey, but again that could be because it's been a couple of years since I read that first story.

Then when it talks about Ka-zar being heartbroken over feeling betrayed by his love and who he had sent away by the name of Claudette (!?), I realized this is the third issue of the pulp, not the second. There's a whole issue I'm missing! Sigh. Anywho, this is shaping up to be crackling good yarn complete with a hidden lost race.

We'll get the negatives out of the way first. There's the practically sentience of his animal pals and the fact they can all talk to each other in the language of the beasts that can derail your suspension of disbelief. But, there's not a lot of it, to the point it's not much worse than some of Burroughs' liberties (such as a prehistoric man being close enough to the apes, that he can talk to modern day ones with no problem in THE ETERNAL SAVAGE, one of many problems with that book). There's also the latent racism that exists in books like this. Some of which can be defended if you pause and think about it objectively a bit (it is about uncivilized and uneducated areas of the jungle and natives do tend to be more barbaric as well as superstitious) but there are other areas where you just shake your head and be thankful we've become a little more aware since then. For the most part though Ka-zar dislikes all men equally. It's no more than what's usually found in Burroughs or Howard.

It's a good book though. In some ways it's better crafted and more ambitious than Burroughs, it almost reads as the type of book Lester Dent would have come up with if he chose to write a Tarzan type character. It's not as fantastic or atmospheric as Burroughs and he doesn't really get into explaining the nuts & bolts of the strange lost world to the point of almost boring you as ERB is wont to do at times such as TARZAN AND THE ANT-MEN.

Basically, Ka-zar is travelling the jungle with his animal companions in order to forget his heartbreak over the seeming betrayal of Claudette which has caused him to distrust all mankind. However, his elephant causes a landslide and while Trajar the Elephant escapes harm, Ka-zar, Zar the lion and Nono the monkey fall into a deep sheer chasm and knocked unconscious. Unable to scale the walls, he follows a cavern into a nestled valley with an Egyptian city complete with degenerated in-bred slaves and their "white" Egyptian citizens. But it's a civilization posed on revolt as their old ruler has died under mysterious circumstances. It's now ruled by his proud haughty daughter, worshipper of the good goddess Isis but fears the machinations of the two chief priests, one of Seti and the other of Pthos, the dark god of the slaves. Into this comes Ka-zar, too proud to bend to the will of the young Queen and feared by everyone else. It differs a bit from Burroughs in that the Queen is played as being young and thoroughly royal. She reacts emotionally and quick to punish to the point that while beautiful, to Ka-zar's eyes (and this reader), she comes across cruel at times. And it's a situation that Zut, the wily priest of Seti is quick to exploit, eager to set himself up as ruler. If this was a Burroughs story, he'd be the bad guy because he was a coward and had the hots for the Queen, but here he's a schemer through and through. And while there's the usual Queen has the hots for the hero situation, she doesn't really come off quite as weepy and subservient because she is a female. That a lot about her stems from her relative youth, suddenly being thrust into a situation beyond her, and just being raised as being royalty and above everyone else.

So, for a while the story is Ka-zar in a situation where neither party is necessarily the "good" side. In a much longer novel and under slightly more deft hands, there's a lot to be mined here that only really gets touched on. But then this is supposed to be an action/adventure story and it eventually does develop in open battle and he has to choose somewhat obvious sides. And the story ends on a somewhat bittersweet note through the machinations of again the too smart lion.

If you like jungle lord stories, this one is definitely worth seeking out.

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