Saturday, January 14, 2017

At the End of the Jungle Trail with B'wana Beast

Within the boom-and-bust cycles of the comic book industry, you can in retrospect spot those moments when the superhero idea has exhausted itself and been played out.
One such milestone was marked by B’wana Beast (Showcase 66-67, Jan.-Feb. 1967).
The superhero fever accelerated by the surprise success of the Batman TV show in January 1966 was already starting to break, but delirium had apparently set in. Ads in the Showcase issues featuring the “Jungle Master” promoted the new feature Dial H for Hero (featuring a superhero who becomes everybody) and Mattel’s Captain Action doll (featuring a superhero who becomes everybody).
And then there was B’wana Beast, a new character concept created by Bob Haney and Mike Sekowsky that had late-night coffee stains and cigarette ashes all over it.
Take Tarzan, slap a gaudy superhero helmet on him and give him the power to telepathically command animals and — to make it all just a little weirder — to COMBINE animals into OTHER, LARGER animals.
Give him a secret hideout on top of Mount Kilimanjaro and a purple gorilla pal, Djuba. Shrug off any uncomfortable feelings you may have about yet another white jungle god, and ignore the fact that “B’wana” is an East African term meaning “master, or boss.”
For good measure, wrap things up with a James Bond clinch in which a beautiful girl moans, “Beast … you beast!”
“B’wana Beast started out as game warden Mike Maxwell, who got stuck in a cave on Mount Kilimanjaro,” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “First, he drank water that had reached the cave by being filtered through rock, which made him suddenly bulk up like Bruce Banner turning into The Hulk, ruining the clothes he’d been wearing. Then his pal Djuba, a gorilla, gave him a helmet that enabled him to order beasts around like The Jaguar, or like The Fly could command insects. He's frequently been compared to Aquaman, who did that with underwater fauna.”
“B’wana Beast was apparently scheduled for the usual three (tryout issues). But reportedly Sekowsky quit after two, citing racism in the concept as his reason for wanting no more to do with it. He suggested another artist be found to continue it, but DC failed to do so.”
But let’s not be too quick to label B’wana Beast as a failure. Sure, he may have vanished from embarrassment, and it took him 20 years to get the nerve to reemerge. But he’s since acquired a more palatable successor, Freedom Beast, and been featured in toys and three animated series.
There’s a comic book Valhalla for even the spectacularly, stylishly bad characters, though not for the forgettable ones. No one’s going to rescue The Maniaks, Binky or Top Gun, the features that debuted in Showcase right after B’wana Beast.

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