Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Return of Joe Kubert's Tor

The Return of Joe Kubert’s Tor
One of the most famous prehistoric themed comic books is Joe Kubert’s Tor. The series was originally published by St. John in the fifties, running alongside another famous dinosaur comic, Dell’s Turok Son of Stone. But while the latter was phenomenally long-running, the issues spanning over three decades, Tor was remarkably short-lived, spanning a mere five issues. This is rather surprising, giving the talent which Joe Kubert, one of the most celebrated authors in the comic world, infused into the series. Tor,subtitled One Million Years Ago,told the story of Tor, a Cro-Magnon caveman, who possessed a capacity for morality and ethics absent or buried in most of his fellow tribesmen. The first issue told how Tor rescued a small, lemur-like prosimian form the jaws of a hungry plesiosaur. This primordial conflict is depicted on the cover of the first issue, with Cro-Magnon hero rushing to the rescue of small helpless creature, stone-ax in hand. In fact, this looks a bit like he is rescuing one of his own distant ancestors to preserve the evolution the human species (prosimians were already up in the trees by the end of the Cretaceous, and they became bite-sized snacks if they ever ventured down)). Chee-chee (the lemur) could easily have been Tor’s ancient grandparent. Anyway, this illustrates one reoccurring them of the Tor series; Tor is moved to action by his compassion for a fellow being, something very rare in his era of self-preservation and survival of the fittest. Kubert made the point in this series that the primal instincts, so dominate in Tor’s world, still all too often determine human behavior today. Kubert claims that this idea first occurred to him during the Korean conflict. Looking back on Tor, it all makes sense. Human conflicts especially war, racism, and other manifestations of tribalism, are far older than the nations themselves. In fact, genocidal war campaigns have been observed and documented among chimps! Undoubtedly such were with us all through the millions of years of ape-to-human transition. But Tor represented the exception to the painful rule, the human who struggled against the tide of pure animal instinct and sought justice and compassion in an unforgiving world. Are things so different today? Not really. Human injustices are all too often justified for all sorts of ideological and religious reasons, but their causes are almost always rooted in the primal instincts of our distant ancestors.

When I first read Tor in the seventies I didn’t quite get the deeper, philosophical underpinnings of the series. What was great about it was the adventure—and of course the dinosaurs. To be sure, Tor was flawed science, as some of the readers pointed out at the time. It had Mesozoic reptiles, Cro-magon, Neanderthal, and ape-people thriving alongside mammals from the entire run of the Cenozoic, and even Permian finbacks and crocodile-like phytosaurs. Some readers suggested that they banish the dinos, that it would only reinforce falsehoods in kids. As much a valid a point as this is, I heartedly glad they didn’t! But the Human vs. Dinosaur thing was only the most obvious technical error ( Actually not so much an error as a deliberate ignoring of logic, as the writers knew better, even then). There were numerous “educational” features called “Animals of a Million Years Ago” in the fifties’ Tor, some of which were reprinted in the seventies. They all featured great artwork, and some amount of genuine fact, but there were also numerous errors scattered throughout: dimetrodon and eryops were incorrectly referred to as dinosaurs. In the feature on stegosaurus, a small picture shows the great saurian swatting a smilodon with its tail. And in the feature on T-rex, a small picture shows a tyrannosaurus staking a pair of triceratops with a youngster. The caption reads: “The appearance of Tyrannosaurus was a signal for instant flight or sure death!” Actually, a single rex would have little change of overpowering two fully-grown triceratops. And then, of course, was the fact that since this series was run in the fifties, dinosaurs were depicted as giant pea-brained sluggards doomed to extinction. This is something I found almost offensive whenever I read it, and seventies were a time when new ideas about warm-blooded, intelligent dinos were just beginning to get respect, and the dogma of the fifties still prevailed in most dino books. Getting back to Tor, in one of the Danny Dreams back-up features (a series about a fifties kid who experiences “dreams” of his Plesticene reincarnation), his class is on a museum field trip. This is before Danny Wakely dreams himself into the primodial past, where he witnesses firsthand a conflict between a cave bear and smilodon. Danny’s teacher, Mr. Black, explains that, “The word ‘dinosaur’ means ‘terrible lizard,’ and that’s exactly what they were!” Sorry, Mr. Black, but you’re completely wrong on that one.
The first series of Tor also featured some of the first 3-D comics complete with colored glasses. Reprints of the same issues (sporting brand new Tor dinosaur covers by Kubert) appeared in the early nineties. Comic writer Bruce Jones, in an intro to a 3-D edition of his own Twisted Tales horror series, fondly recalls how he first discovered 3-D comics with an issue of Tor. Kubert revived Tor a number of times since. The first was in the seventies, this time published by DC comics. The first issue was a new story, expanded from an aborted attempt at a comic strip version of the series. The remainder of the series was made up of fifties reprints.

Kubert next revived Tor in his own magazine Sojourn in the late seventies. This ran for only two issues, and featured a two-part Tor series. This was done in then pictures only format which has become mainstream in comics today. The Sojourn stories have Tor come upon a pack of small theropods scavaging an apatosaur carcass. He drives the carnivores off, but before he can make off with a slab of bronto meat, a deinonychus comes on the scene. Caught without his spear, Tor meats the flesh-eater in combat, and gets the worst of it. The last panel in the story shows Tor prostrate at the bottom of a ravine, with the deinonychus making off with his prize. The last caption reads “to be continued.” But this was to be the final issue. What happened? Did Tor really survive? Kubert did another short Tor feature in the nineties entitled “Food-Chain,” again as a silent comic. In it, Tor is spear-fishing for small, coelacanth fish. The fish are feeding on tiny water-beetles. Of a sudden, a tylosaurus attacks. Tor is able to kill the beast with his pear, and cut himself a slab of reptile meat. The rest of the carcass is eaten by the beetles.

In the mid-nineties Kubert launched a new full-ledged Tor series featuring all-new stories. Unlike the previous Tor series, this was concieved as a mini-series, lasting only four issues. It was magazine-sized format, published by Marvel’s Epic line of Heavy-Hitters. The story also appeared to ignore the previous Tor series as far as the character’s origin. Chee-Chee was absent, and Tor’s early boyhood (as told in the premier of the seventies series) was given a complete revamp. The story told of how Tor’s father, the generous chief of his Cro-Magnon tribe, made the poor judgment of taking in some exiled Neanderthal rogues. The rogues take Tor’s father’s generosity for weakness, and plot his demise. They accomplish this during a hunt of prehistoric long-horn bison, and Tor flees into the mountains. As a young adult, Tor returns, planning revenge, but he and a woman he has rescued from a sacrifice are captured by a tribe of creatures perhaps best described as “lizard apes.” The strange tribe ties Tor to their ceremonial totem, and their leader takes Tor’s woman as his mate. The lizard-apes force Tor to endure a trial that they claim will make him “one of them” should he survive, though they are confident that he will not do so. Tor descends into a “demon hole’ high in the mountains. In then pitch darkness, he discovers a breeding family of bizarre reptilians. These include a nesting female and huge male, which nearly kills Tor in battle. Tor then skins the female reptile, and wears her hide when he returns to the surface. Tor kills the lizard-ape shaman, and reclaims his mate. Tor and his woman return to his tribe, where he finds Klar, leader of the rogue Neanderthals ruling his people. Tor and his mate manage to kill each none of the rogues, leaving only Klar. The Neanderthal leader taunts Tor, and in a disturbing sequence, slays Tor’s survivng mother. The climax is a battle between Tor and Klar. While the huge Neanderthal nearly wins the battle, an earthquake ensues, and a gigantic monster, something like a cross between a serpent and a centipede, bursts forth and devours the gloating rogue, then becomes intent on gobbling up Tor’s people. Tor manages to slay the subterranean horror by toppling the monster back into the ravine whence it came. Tor is hailed as hero, but refuses his people as they did nothing to overthrow the villain Klar themselves. He sets out over the distant hills, answering the call to adventure. This short series also reprinted the Sojourn Tor stories as back up features, as well as the one shot with the tylosaurus. The final issue featured “The Making of Tor”. Here Kubert also told how the conclusion of the Sojourn sequence was supposed to end, though he had not yet finished it. Tor was found by a girl of another tribe, accompanied by trained cave hyenas. She takes Tor to her cave and tends the wounds inflicted on him by his battle with the dinosaur.
In the early twenty-first century, Tor was reissued in three hardback volumes. The first two featured reprints from the fifties series. The final volume included the premier issue of the seventies Tor, the ninties Tor series, the Sojourn reprints, and ”Food Chain.” Each of these volumes also featured extra Tor artwork, aborted Tor projects, and uncompleted Tor comics done in pencil only.

And now a new Tor series is with us. Like the previous one, it is a mini-series, this one spanning six issues. And also like it, Kubert appears once again seems to have totally revamped the character’s origin. Tor’s background seems totally different here than in any of the other series; it is if each series takes place in a slightly different reality than the one preceding it. This is not, for example, what became of Tor after the ventured over the far hills at the end of the nineties series. At least it doesn’t appear to be—perhaps Tor, who is already a young man at the beginning of this story, has joined another tribe after the events in the previous series and prior to his being banned. In this version of Tor, dinosaurs like brontosaurus and T-rex do not appear to be common among the fauna of one million B.C.; to make the series more credible, Kubert has his Cro-Magnon hero actually discovering lost world where saber-tooths, dinosaurs, proto-humans and other beasts and beings form past ages have not merely survived, but evolved into new forms. The new story has Tor exhiled from his tribe as a result of his isolating himself from his fellow tribesmen, and doing new and innovative things. Fearing Tor’s disregard for tradition, the shaman ousts Tor, who is given a violent beating and is exiled. Tor ventures into a cave leading into a forbidden mountain, and emerges in a new world, covered in dense jungle. He happens upon a young australopithicus-like creature lied helplessly to a log. When a crocodilian reptile attacks, Tor, dives to the rescue, in a scene reminiscent of that in his first issue back in the fifties. One caption reads “Tor drives the point of his shaft deep into the sauropod’s eye.” Sauropod? Maybe Kubert should consult his paleontology books.
After saving the furred youngster, Tor encounters the boy’s tribe of pithicine troglodytes. The tribal elders are displeased by Tor’s intervention, explaining that the boy was intended as a sacrifice to a fearsome giant who dwells in the forest. Subsequently, the selfsame giant appears on the scene, and attempts to drag the terrified youngster away. But Tor dares to defy the giant by tossing a boulder at him. To his surprise, the giant weeps, before retreating into the forest. Tor is them welcomed as a hero by the tribe of hairy men. The next day Tor and the young pithicus venture into the jungle for food. Tor observes animals unfamiliar to him, including pterosaurs, giant centipedes, and a proboscidian mammal resembling deinotherium, with its tucks pointing upward instead of down. This creature may in fact be a pyrothere or false mastodont, although they had teeth on their upper jaws as well. They attempt to scavenge the kill of a saber-tooth, when the owner of the kill returns. This beast is long-tailed, and thus does not entirely resemble smilodon, although it appears much larger than a modern tiger. In fact, it much resembles the striped saber-tooth tarags of Burroughs Pellucidar series (pay attention ERB fans). Anyway Tor is manages to kill the giant feline after an incredible battle that leaves him grievously wounded. When Tor finally recovers he finds he is in the care of the giant of the forest. The young pithicus tells Tor that the giant is not evil only outcast and misunderstood, and his intentions were not evil. The giant has been rescuing the outcast children of other tribes, and they have banded together in a secluded realm deep in the jungle. Tor finds a new love interest in a beautiful, dark-skinned member of the tribe. There is even a hint of racial tolerance here, as the woman is charcoal –skinned with strange white hair, and she and Tor explore “feelings beneath unmatched skins.” Tor and his new mate explore the depths of the jungle, and then happen upon the entrance to a hidden underground world, which is hinted is the home of the dark-skinned woman’s original tribe. They venture within, to be set upon by a horde of albino cavern dwellers with atrophied eyes and fearsome tusk-like teeth, who seem to share a hatred for Tor’s dark-skinned mate (Hmmmm…am I reading a further racial allegory here?) Tor and his mate are subdued and captured by the cavern dwellers when a bizarre creature arises from the depths of a subterranean river.

As I have not yet read the fourth issue of the series, I’ll summarize the events therein as they appear to have happed. After defeating the tentacled horror and cavern dwellers, Tor and his mate return to the surface, only to be captured by the shaman of the pithicine tribe, along with the outcast children. The shaman appears intolerant toward ‘differences” and feels threatened by them. The four-armed giant is slain. The fifth issue opens Tor, his mate, the young pithicus, and the other odd children are captured and bound as a sacrifice for “forest spirits”. They are garlanded with flowers and surrounded by gifts of fruit to entice the “spirits”. The tribe of proto-humans take to the trees to watch the spectacle. At first small animals, mammals and comsognathus-like dinosaurs appear for the food. But they are driven off when a pack of small theropods appear. These somewhat resemble velociraptor, but lack the formidable toe-claw common to all dromeosaurids. They may be coelurosaurs, or even troodon, though likely they have evolved since the Mesozoic, and can be identified with nothing precisely form the fossil record. The males are adorned with crests on their heads and running down their backs. In any event, they are evidently omnivorous, as the first gorge on the gifts of fruit, then turn on the helpless captives. Tor is able to trick the lead male theropod into biting through the restraining vines. He then using the vines to trip the animal. He manages to free the dark-skinned girl and the boy, but is apparently too late to save the other children. One of the observing hominids tosses Tor a club to defend himself against the theropods. The shaman admonishes him declaring that Tor is evil. But the tribe takes Tor’s side in the battle, seeing how he risks his own life to save the others. The shaman is knocked from the tree and set upon and devoured by the theropods. “The sounds of ripping flesh are not uncommon in this prehistoric world.” The caption reads above a scene of a small feathered dino-bird (not unlike the numerous feathered dinos recently uncovered in China) in battle with a snake, as Tor and his companions move off in the jungle. The pithicine tribe now accepts Tor as their leader, but he tells them he plans to return to his own land. The pithicines warn him about crossing the mountain and give him and his companions the supplies they need.

But before they can leave the lush valley a huge flesh-eating theropod attacks. This monster, featured on the cover of the sixth issue, somewhat resembles a T-rex, but has boney projections above its’ eyes, even though it has the two-fingered hands of the rex. Inside the issue however, the front arms are much more like those of an allosaurus, as are the boney pretruberances. The narrow toothy jaws of the great saurian, seem slightly too long for either species. Again, this may be what a t-rex, or allosaur-type theropod muight have evolved into in the last 64 million years of isolation. Anyway, it seems that this was the monster from whom the young pithicus has been stealing eggs. The enraged beast charges the group. Tor distracts the beast, and is able to trick her into falling over a cliff. Tor then smashes the dinosaur’s jaws with a boulder, and takes one of her teeth as a talisman. The tree companions then set off, and begin scaling the tremendous wall of cliffs circling the valley. A slip results in the death of the young pithicus (which was not really necessary), whom they leave in an unmarked grave. Reaching the snow-clad summit, Tor and his mate find themselves confronted by a hulking yeti-like man-beast. The shaggy creature leads them into a cavern, and into a hidden enclave within the hollow mountain. Other snow-creatures are, gathered on the shore of a volcanic-heated lake. It occurs to Tor why they have been brought here: there are no children among the tribe, and all the females are past reproductive age. The leader of the yetis challenges Tor for possession of his mate. In a scene worthy of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a terrific battle ensues, and Tor manages to kill the yeti leader in the waters of the lake with his purloined dinosaur tooth. Tor and his mate continue on their way to his homeland. The final caption reads “the End…for now.”
All in all, a very decent series, and a triumphant return to the good old days of dinosaur comics.

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