Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Curse of Ka-Zar

The Curse of Ka-Zar the Savage

G.I. Joe comics is how I got started with funny books, and X-Men comics got me from high school to married life (including college, graduate school, and a Ph.D.). But my #1 favorite comic book of all time has to be the short run of Ka-Zar from Marvel Comics (1997-1998) by writer Mark Waid and peniciller Andy Kubert. Ka-Zar (pronounced “kay-czar”) was a little known Tarzan-ish character in the Marvel Universe, living in the prehistoric Savage Land lost somewhere in Antarctica.

But there’s this problem with Ka-Zar, you see. Sort of like a curse. I realize that now as I sit on the sofa with my foot propped up and my pinky toe on ice.

Ka-Zar (volume 3) by Waid and Kubert was a brief 14-issue series, followed by a forgettable half year or so of the title written by another writer and a few other artists.

[=Comic fan boy rant alert=]

What Marvel should have done was treat Waid and Kubert’s run as a stand-alone 14-issue mini-series. This title was SUPER classic with some of the most fantastic art I’ve ever seen—dinosaurs, saber-toothed cat, jungle tribes, cityscapes, and more. And the story’s great—a young married guy struggling to find his place in a technologically advancing world, and fight bad guys, too—Rhino the villain, Thanos, High Evolutionary, and some guy named Gregor who was Kraven the Hunter’s teacher, so you know he was a bad dude.

Even in its short run, Waid and Kubert’s Ka-Zar left a legacy that still lingers in my comic fan boy’s heart. Unfortunately, the comic has also created a string of curse-like encounters that make me suspicious of something strange, and I’m not talking about the Savage Land.

The first unfortunate circumstance from this comic book is that it took my favorite artist—Andy Kubert—off of my favorite comic book title—X-Men. This comic was the adjectiveless X-Men (as opposed to the sister title Uncanny X-Men), and it featured more of my favorite characters in the mutant group—Cyclops (the serious, hardworking leader—my kind of guy), Beast, Gambit, babes Rogue and Psylocke, and Wolverine (the best at what he does). But I can’t complain too much. A few years earlier, Artist Andy Kubert had replaced my other favorite artist (superstar Jim Lee) and Kubert himself was replaced (after a few stand-ins) by up and coming Carlos Pacheco. That trio makes up a majority of my top 5 artists of all time.

Comic book geekiness done for now. So here’s where the really creepy things come up.

I was in college at University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Back then, I was a super comic book geek. I delighted at the weekends, not because of a few days without class, but because on Saturdays I could drive out to the comic book shop by the mall and check out the latest comic books coming out that week. (Later on, I learned that comics are released on Wednesdays, so I started stopping by the comic book shops on hump day; one store even gave out free bags and boards for your comics on Wednesdays—bonus!)

Anywho, I was geeked up on this particular Saturday to pick up issue #2 of this new Ka-Zar series. The first issue had exceeded my already Jurassic-sized expectations and I was super-stoked for the sophomore effort. It was even the special “second issue/second cover” version of the comic, part of Marvel Comics’ schemes back then.

So after I picked up the comic at the store, I threw it in my car passenger seat with all my other goodies of that week, then headed back to campus for some fun lovin’ comic readin’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t control my curiosity, pulled out the comic book, and—I hate to admit this, looked it over WHILE I was driving. (Forget texting while driving.) I’ll admit, I wasn’t actually reading the comic. I was just enjoying the fine alternative cover and, okay, maybe I was glancing at the first page.

Well, even though it was a glance, it was enough to through off my judgment of time and space while driving. I looked up to see the car in front of me braking to a stop at one of those unpredictable pedestrian-controlled mid-street stoplights. Even with just a second or so of relapse in my looking at the road, I misjudged my speed and ever so softly bumped into the car in front of me. Very softly.

It was totally my fault. All I could do was grimace as the passenger in the car glared back at me. It all happened so fast I didn’t know what to do. There was no screech of tires, squealing breaks, crunching metal or anything. The car in front looked perfectly fine, and so did mine. That’s what bumpers are for, right? For us distracted comic book readers, right? No? Okay.

Being inexperienced in what you do after such an event, I continued on once the light turned green and turned left on my journey back to campus. The car in front turned right into a parking lot. And I will always wonder if they did so to stop, get out, check damage, and swap insurance info if need be. Problem was, I was already going the other way, fuming at myself, feeling sheepish, and wondering if I was supposed to stop and see if the folks were okay. They were okay, right? No big deal. Just a little tap. From an irresponsible college student. (Should’ve probably included this in my apologies chapter I’m writing up.)

So I don’t know what happened to the other car. I assume all was okay. No cops showed up at my door in the week to come. And no one put a ticket on my car, although after one weekend that year, someone DID take a baseball bat to my side-view mirror. I’m chalking that one up to a drunk frat boy.

As for me? I went back to campus that day, checked my car’s front bumper (no damage), and went upstairs to read my comic book. If comics are the truest form of escapism, I was escaping mighty fine that day, enjoying my favorite comic book and ignoring the nagging thoughts in my head about being a terrible driver.

A few months later in the summer, my sister asked me to house- and cat-sit for her, as she was out of town on a trip. She lived an hour east of O’Neill, where I stayed with my parents in the summer between college school years. (Free rent!)

I told my sister, “Sure I’ll do it.”

It was the summer. I had nothing better to do except work and make some money. And I liked my sister’s cats. They were from my parents’ crew of outside cats and now lived a posh lifestyle indoors. Very refined.

As an added bonus to my task, my sister’s house was in Tilden, a town only 30 minutes away from Norfolk, northeast Nebraska’s very own metro center. Norfolk had no comic book shop, but it did have a Hastings movie/book store that sold comics. Cha-ching!

Ka-Zar #4 was coming out that month and there was no way I could find it in O’Neill. So as I philanthropically drove to my sister’s house to check on the cats, house, and mail, I envisioned issue #4 of my favorite comic book in my hungry hands.

I went to my sister’s house first—did the duty, cleaned cat doody, fed the cats, etc. Then I put them back and went to Mecca—the comic book rack at Hastings. There was issue #4 with the cool Spider-Man-esque cover of hero Ka-Zar swinging on a vine between new York city skyscrapers, complete with the tagline, “It’s your friendly neighborhood . . .Savage Man?!” Utter awesomeness.

The inside of the comic was good too, as Ka-Zar leaves his jungle home in the Savage Land to travel to NYC and track down his villainous half-brother, the Plunderer.

My strength of will was sturdier then, just two months after the bumper bump in Lincoln. I didn’t read the comic (or even open it) on the 90-minute drive back to my parents’ house. But I’m sure I know the first thing I did when I got home. After using the bathroom of course.

So was the comic good enough to be worth a three-hour round trip to the nearest book store? You bet. Babysitting the cats just gave me a logical excuse to do it.

Is something wrong with me? No, maybe it’s just the lure of an excellent comic book.

Fast-forward ten-plus years. I’m married, living in Kansas, only regularly reading two comic titles a month (Captain America and X-Factor, if you’re keeping track).

My parents’ house burns down. (More on that elsewhere and in the future.)

Mom had always been telling us kids that once we got our own place, she’d dump all our toys and junk back on us. Well, years pass, apartment buildings have no storage, and our new house doesn’t have much more, either. My wife asked me if I’m upset at the tragic fire. No lives lost, and most photo albums saved, so it could have been a lot worse. Plus, now that I’ve been away from home for over a decade, home has sort of a different feeling to it.

But I did leave some of my comics at my parents’ house. And wouldn’t you know it, Mom and Dad actually dug through the rubble and found over 200 comic books. Most were water damaged and wrinkly, but good enough to read, despite their stench of charbroiled dirt. Mom and Dad pulled them all out of their bags and boards, spread them out in a garage and let them air dry. Cleaning and sorting a son’s comics—that’s the deepest kind of parental love you can find on this planet, aside from what you see in March of the Penguins.

Here’s the weird thing. I’ve searched through these recovered comics and can’t find any Ka-Zar, not even the crappy ones after Mark Waid and Andy Kubert left the title. But I do find comic books that I bought and stored the same months as Ka-Zar, including the Pacheco-drawn X-Men issues (excellent!) and Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley’s Thunderbolts series. (The latter is also highly recommended for its twist-and-turn plots and Marvel lore goodness.) But Ka-Zar is nowhere to be seen (or smelled, at this point).

My first thought is maybe since I loved and fondly remembered this series so much, I had pulled it out of the comic storage boxes a few years back and put them in a different box somewhere else. I checked with my boxes here in Kansas, but no cigar.

Or maybe my parents did find those Ka-Zar comics and figured those issues were too far gone and damaged. Was the Savage Land not salvageable? No, Mom and Dad didn’t recall seeing any Ka-Zar issues.

(Or maybe my Mom didn’t approve of Ka-Zar’s wife Shanna the She-Devil in her leather bikini that rivaled Slave Princess Leia. Mom didn’t mention anything, and she knows I’m a happily married man and will always stay that way. Wife knows that too.)

Alas, it seemed my precious Ka-Zar issues were lost to the burning flames forever.

And even worse, despite the greatness of this series, Waid and Kubert’s Ka-Zar came out before Marvel comics started their aggressive paperback trade business. That was when bigwigs at Marvel pretty much mandated that all comic book stories consist of longer 5-6 issue story arcs that can easily be repackaged and reprinted as a book-ish graphic novel they can sell at book stores. (Hence the newly coined phrase, “wait for the trade,” from fan boys everywhere regarding comic books that are good, but not that good to burst into a comic book store once a month and pay the monthly cover price.) Come on Marvel, get this Ka-Zar series into a book!

[=Belated comic fan boy rant alert part two=]

So about three months after the fire and after I conceded that these awesome comic books were long gone, I realized that in this day and age of eBay, nothing is ever truly gone (at least, not until the end of times).

So I hopped on the Internet, and in no time flat found that Ka-Zar is alive and well in the annals of Buy It Now! listings. About five bucks an issue, counting shipping and handling. Not too bad, since most new comics these days go for the same price.

Then I found an even better deal at another website— Sahweet!

I quickly added them all to my cart and ran upstairs to get my wallet and credit card. Then on my trip downstairs, I tripped. I slipped on the slick carpeted steps and surfed down the rest of the step stairwell, yanking down two picture frames along the way.

Not fun. The picture frames survived—no broken glass. But it sure felt like my left pinky toe was broken. Or fractured at lest. I slept through the night with some ice, and then this morning my wife convinced me to go to the hospital for X-rays. (This little piggy went “Wee wee wee!” all the way to the nearest urgent care facility.)

The wife has had three surgeries in the last year (car accident, gall bladder), so she’s tight with these people.

The X-rays come back with nothing conclusive about any broken pinky toe bones. But even if there were, the physician’s assistant tells us that the treatment is the same. (My wife told me the same thing that morning—she’s a former nurse.) But even so, the X-ray results were helpful to know how much I should expect the healing process to take. (With a fracture, it would have been a couple of months; with no fracture—yay!—the P.A. said expect soreness for a couple of weeks.)

They taped me up and sent me on my way. So it looks like I’ll be wearing sandals to church on Sunday, a perfect way to display a puffy maroon, purple, and black appendage.

On our way out the door (hobbling), the P.A. asks me what I did for a living.

With a cautious breath, I say, “Professor, I teach science teachers.”

“Oh, so you must be really smart,” she says.

“No,” I answer, “just a nerd.”

And so as I wait for my new (used) Ka-Zar issues to arrive in the mail in the next week, I openly admit to my nerdiness/geekitude. At least I won’t be driving or having to go up/down stairs to get these comics. I can just wait for the mailman to make a friendly delivery to my front porch.

This time, I’ll be prepared for any Ka-Zar curse that lingers with this second batch. I’ll have plenty of Band-Aids at my side while I use scissors to cut open the package.

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