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It's another look at the pulp genre in this outing, with an examination of the Wildstorm universe's "Lord of the Jungle" legend. But this issue has a bit more relevance to the core characters than some of genre material we've seen on this front earlier in the series; this is a solid stand-alone story that manages to further enrich Snow's past and explain a little more about Jakita in the bargain. It's gorgeously rendered to boot. The Cassaday/Martin team seems to get a little better each issue. Oh, and for past issues Cassaday has imitated appropriate styles for different genres to good effect. But this time he's really belted out an homage, almost on par with his Bat-renderings from the last crossover. Make sure you take a look at both covers at left. One is for this issue, and the other is from the pulp All-Story, featuring the first appearance of Tarzan there. Spot-on! (And thanks to Scott Dutton for sending this image, allowing me to replace a German language knockoff cover, based on this original, that I had originally displayed here!) Cassaday did something similar with Issue 5's Doc Brass cover, borrowing from an old Doc Savage cover. And one of the old promotional posters had some elements that were verrry similar to a 1933 Chicago World's Fair poster. The man's a chameleon!! I didn't like the long layoff any more than the next guy, but honestly, can you imagine anyone else providing the art for this book?
The latest tale opens with narration from Snow's Planetary field journal, circa 1933, as he heads down stream to Opak-Re. He's lost, but following the path of a growing legend of a lost city's technological marvels (he mentions a "portable televideo communications device" retrieved from that area that had been examined by the Cummings Scientific Club), and of a jungle-dwelling Englishman from "a delinquent family of freebooters.". Sighting a gleaming, golden city of curious architecture, he silently makes his way ashore.
Sensing a presence behind him, Snow turns to confront a gigantic, snake like creature about to strike. Snow's attack is twofold: a gunshot to the eye, and a rapid freeze of the river from which the serpent is emerging. Snow dives aside as the serpent collapses to the ground. But with barely a moment pause, seemingly ornamental golden shields on the serpent's sides open up, retracting to allow claw-bearing legs to reach the ground. Dismayed, Snow struggles to regain his footing and face his overwhelming opponent.
Suddenly, a cry rings out and grows louder. A barely-dressed man swings out of the jungle on a vine and dives on to the back of the serpent. Delivering two almost superhumanly powerful blows to the back of the serpent's head, he renders the monster unconscious. The savage then offers his hand to Snow and, in perfect and proper English, introduces himself as Kevin Sack, Lord Blackstock. The freebooter-gone-native has saved his life. What's more, he tells Snow that he plans to speak on his behalf to the people of Opak-Re, stating simply that he "has some pull with the locals."
Per Snow's narration, the society is as socially advanced and civilized as they are technologically capable, a thousand years ahead of the rest of the world. They share stories. From Snow's narration, we learn that Lord Blackstock was partially raised in the jungle and is a legend here, even to the reclusive society of Opak-Re. Now an adventurer, he returns from his near-royal station in England periodically in an effort to stave off boredom.
In meeting with the elders of Opak-Re, Snow learns he is welcome to stay, but that he is not to procreate with the women in their racially pure society. This seems a reasonable request to Snow, who has no such inclination, but matters become complicated when one of Opak-Re's leading intellectuals, a woman known as Anaykah, aggressively seduces him. Snow takes this reasonably well. Anaykah explains to Snow that her forbidden attraction to him is largely mental; she prizes his intellect. When Snow reminds her of Blackstock's physical beauty, she counters by explaining Blackstock's arrogance; he thinks himself the king of Africa. Snow prepares to leave Anaykah and Opak-Re, and Anaykah proclaims her eternal love for him.
Eighteen months later, Snow returns to Opak-Re, and Anaykah rushes to greet him at the city's edge, a baby at her feet. Suddenly, the walls of the city begin to shake and shift. Anaykah quickly explains that the baby is hers, fathered by Blackstock. Her shame is clear, both for violating her culture's mandate for racial purity, and betraying her love for Snow with Blackstock. At a loss for words to explain her betrayal, she merely offers, "We were bored."
As the city collapses around them into a perfect cube, she leaves Snow to join the rest of her people underground. She begs Snow to take the baby with him: it's been expelled from the city. Professing her love for Snow, she says simply "I am so sorry" and disappears into the dust and smoke of the transforming surroundings. Snow grabs the infant and sprints to safety. His narration ends around late 1934 with an explanation that he gave the baby to a German family, with the warning that she would have a very low threshold for boredom. The baby's name became Jakita Wagner.
Quite an issue. Despite the fact that the tale took place 70 years ago, it has some interesting implications for current and future events. On top of that, it was a fun look at the legend of Tarzan (among others) through Ellis' eyes! Let's address this first.
Kevin Sack, Lord Blackstock is the Jungle Lord from Brass' group; we first met him in Issue 1. Even though our exposure to the character is relatively brief, Ellis stays fairly close to Edgar Rice Burroughs' original vision of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke--Tarzan. Still, other bits and pieces are included, as there were several characters in that era that tried to capitalize on the success Tarzan experienced. One such character was Manvis Publishing's Ka-Zar, who appeared a mere three times in pulp form back in the late thirties. Of course, Manvis was an early Marvel imprint. When Marvel resurrected the character years later, they tweaked the legend into a more Tarzan-like mold, and Ka-Zar was then said to be a member of British aristocracy, born with the name Kevin Plunder. To sack, to plunder... it doesn't matter where Ellis got it. The legend of the ape-man, raised in the jungle but of aristocratic British stock, remains intact. So too does some of the character of the definitive Edgar Rice Burroughs vision; regal, but arrogant and impulsive. While a tendency towards easy boredom does not ring a specific bell in my (less than complete) familiarity with the character's specific personality traits, it's at worst a comfortable addition.
Probably less comfortable is the fact that Blackstock seems to be a bit of a scoundrel, both by lineage and in action. Snow had described the Sack family as one of delinquent freebooters who had bought their way into the British aristocracy, and Lord Greystoke does nothing to make one think he's risen above the history Snow describes. His casual dismissal of sleeping with "Africans" could be construed as racist, but he decides to make his first foray into this area a betrayal by sleeping with a woman he knows Snow cares about.
To a certain extent, this is somewhat consistent with Burroughs' take on Tarzan. Tarzan often referred to natives with whom he adventured as "my blacks," implying the same type of arrogance and my-loyal-subjects or even ownership view Ellis' character takes. As a reader in the early 21st century, one has to remember when Burroughs first wrote the legend. It's a very different time now, in terms of what is considered off limits or racially insensitive.
I don't recall infidelity to Jane in the old Tarzan tales, but as no Jane seems to be present in Planetary, we should probably assume that Blackstock's betrayal is limited to Snow. So Ellis makes the jungle king out to be a bit more of a scoundrel that Burroughs did, but this might simply be Ellis extending Burroughs' often negative view of the white man in general to the jungle king himself. Tarzan was a chivalrous and dignified man of honor, make no mistake. But Burroughs' tales were replete with evil, violent and avaricious white men from Western society, out to plunder Africa and quite often each other. Even Tarzan himself fit this mold to a point, as he made much of his fortune in gold from one of the many lost civilizations he encountered during his adventures (more on that a bit later).
One area where Ellis clearly diverges with the canon is in regards to Lord Blackstock's age. Burroughs' Tarzan was born in 1888. Blackstock, however, was born the same day as Snow--January first, 1900. Longtime readers were no doubt excited by this revelation, as it marks Blackstock as a "Century Baby," a being of extraordinary power and higher purpose. Perhaps this fact will help explain a notable difference: Tarzan was a powerful man, but Lord Blackstock is nearly super-human. Another interesting parallel, in regards to lifespan, is that Lord Blackstock's likely long life was cut short in early 1945 with Brass' Snowflake disaster. Burroughs' Tarzan also had a very long lifespan, attributed to a shaman's potion granting him immortality. But the basic lore ceases to chronicle his adventures around the summer of 1946.
Back when Planetary first came out, Ellis penned both Planetary and The Authority and the stories featured three Century Babies: Snow, Axel Brass, and Jenny Sparks. The concept of the Century Baby was so enthusiastically received by Planetary fandom that it bordered on crippling at some points: everyone from Brass' team was more or less assumed to be a Century Baby, as was The High, some of The Four, and possibly Colonel Sanders (he wears ALL WHITE--DON'T YOU GET IT??!?!). It turns out some of you were right about Lord Blackstock's birthday after all!
One last quick point of divergence between Lord Blackstock and Lord Greystoke: I don't think Burroughs implied any bestiality in the old books. But check me on that.
But having Jakita be the first known offspring of a Century Baby is no doubt causing a stir. (Before everyone emails in, I'll state that I don't believe Anna Hark is the offspring of a Century Baby. In Issue 5, Brass says that the elder Hark had bedeviled the world since the turn of the century, meaning 1900. Unless he was bedeviling the world in his diapers, he's not a Century Baby!) Her now-known parentage explains several clues that have been dropped by Ellis along the way: Snow admonishing Jakita in Issue 12 and telling her he used to change her diapers; Snow's "spring chicken" remark to Jakita in Issue 15 (she was born in 1934 after all--apparently she's got a Century Baby-esque lifespan); evil Jakita's remark in the Planetary/JLA crossover that she was from "aristocratic stock"; Anna Hark's indication last issue that Jakita was an orphan; and of course this issue's explanation of Jakita's hatred of boredom. She comes by it honestly, as Blackstock hated boredom, and Anaykah apparently disliked it enough to use it as an excuse to sleep with Blackstock.The fact that Jakita is genetically one-half Century Baby is also all we can use right now to explain her abilities. The power that Blackstock displayed in taking down the serpent was more than human, but it doesn't seem to reach the levels that we've seen in Jakita. And while they were an advanced society, the Opakrians showed no extraordinary powers that might be thought to have enhanced Jakita's genetics enough to explain her speed, strength, etc.. For now we may have to simply assume that Jakita has all of her father's powers and takes vitamins besides. Hopefully, Ellis will give us more in this area to explain the apparent discrepancy.
I think we have to assume that Jakita doesn't know the full story of her birth. We can say that she doesn't know Blackstock was her father, given the fact that by the end of Issue 1 she would have realized she was in the room with the remains of her father, but had no outward reaction to the news. And as recently as Issue 15, Brass remarked that he'd been to Opak-Re but hadn't mentioned his knowledge of Snow's visit to Jakita, stating it wasn't "his place" to do so. Since Snow isn't the father, let's assume that it "wasn't his (Brass') place" to tell Jakita the details of her birth (not simply that Snow had set foot in Opak-Re). Now, anyone with a copy of the right edition of the Planetary Guide would know that Snow had been to Opak-Re, so how would Jakita not know this as well? But unless Snow chronicled Jakita's lineage in the Planetary Guide for that year, the only way Brass knows Jakita's link to Opak-Re is if he showed up after she was born but before the city went underground. How many other people could fit that category--have firsthand knowledge of the situation sufficient to know Jakita's story, AND know what they might not want to reveal to her? Sure, Anna Hark knows, but I'm thinking she got that from John Stone. And, well, that means...
Okay, so it's hard to tell who all knows her back story. But it sure looks like she doesn't have the whole picture, and possibly not any of it. Hopefully there'll be more to come on this in an upcoming issue.
Opak-Re is a slightly more complex point of comparison to old Tarzan lore. It seems to be an amalgam of many of the lost civilizations Tarzan encountered: secluded, undiscovered, and intolerant of outsiders (but still in awe of the Jungle King, once they get to know him). Perhaps the most direct swipe is from the lost city of Opar, a location featured prominently in two of the early Tarzan books. Opar was an ancient city that once provided gold to fabled Atlantis. After Atlantis vanished beneath the sea, the city's glory faded and the populace was reduced to a mostly-savage band of sun-worshippers. And I don't mean they worked on their tans a lot--think Aztec. They liked to perform ritual human sacrifice to the sun god. Tarzan and his compatriots were on the sacrificial altar on more than one occasion. But Tarzan got the better of the bargain, as he plundered gold and jewels from the city on more than one occasion!
Where Opar degenerated into disrepair and savagery, Opak-Re (if it's truly the Wildstorm universe's equivalent) seems to have taken Atlantean technology and culture and run with it. Instead of being a gold-mining labor force, Opak-Re seems to be Africa's answer to Atlantis: a literally golden city, incredibly advanced spiritually, culturally, and technologically. Two nice bits were their insistence to Elijah that he put "no white in their water (no cross-breeding)" and their patience with Lord Blackstock's superiority complex. This stance took an ugly turn later, though, when baby Jakita was left to die as the city folded in upon itself. Another quick tip-of-the-hat from Ellis was worked in when Snow mentions that an example of Opakrian technology had been studied by the Cummings Scientific Club. This was a reference to period American Sci-Fi author and early innovator in the genre Ray Cummings (1887 -1957). "Scientific Club" was the name of a series Cummings authored.
If Opak-Re is supposed to be more or less equivalent to Opar, then intellectual Anaykah is the equivalent to Opar's La, High Priestess of the Flaming God. Admittedly, La did have a major crush on Tarzan, but in that universe, it went unrequited. Here, the sexually aggressive Anaykah found success pursuing Snow and apparently gave in to her attraction to the jungle lord besides. One must assume that it relates back to her assessment of Blackstock as both "brilliant" and "valuable"; her efforts to work him around to a broader way of thinking must have put the two in too close a proximity to one another's charms.
Finally, to cover a point I failed to address earlier, the brief shots of Snow moving up river at the opening of the story were reminiscent of the river trip in Heart of Darkness (or it's cinematic update, Apocalypse Now): the steam-powered vessel, the crewman lost due to an attack from the shore (off-panel in Planetary), and the theme of a man gone native (Lord Blackstock in Planetary) were all here. (Thanks, Tammy H!) Another point of similarity was Snow's journal serving as part of our window into the situation. Heart of Darkness gave us the definitive mysterious river trip, one that might color anything that has followed, but it's certainly not much of a stretch to say that Ellis was influenced here.
Were any of the other people in Brass' group Century Babies? How much does Jakita really know about her past? She knows she's not aging too quickly, but does she suspect that she's the offspring of a Century Baby? If she learns her real history, will she go looking for Opak-Re, since its inhabitants are presumably still alive underground? Could Anaykah still be alive?