Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Kraa, the Unhuman

Before publication of first issue of Fantastic Four brought the superhero revival to Marvel Comics, Stan Lee wrote a lot of monster stories. And I mean a LOT of monster stories--a huge variety of these creatures were used to fill the pages of Tales of Suspense, Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales before Iron Man, Thor and Dr. Strange took up residence in those books.

Most of these stories were fun; many had neat little plot twists; and pretty much all of them--drawn by either Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko--looked great.

A fine example of this comes from Tales of Suspense #18 (June 1961)--it was reprinted in Where Monsters Dwell #15 (May 1972). Both covers are shown here. It's a rare thing when someone can outdo Jack Kirby in cover images, but I think I would have to pick the later John Severin cover as the better of the two.

 "Kraa, the Unhuman" introduces us to a mild-mannered high school teacher who craves some adventure in his life. So he flies to Africa to investigate why a remote tribe has suddenly decided to a strange new idol. The teacher (who is apparently so mild-mannered that he never bothers to tell us his name despite providing first-person narration) is robbed and left out in the jungle, but he still determinedly presses on.

He finally finds the tribe and discovers their "idol" is actually a living being. Kraa was once a human, but a communist nation sent troops to the jungle to do secret atomic bomb tests. Kraa was mutated by radiation into a huge, ugly monster. Taking over the tribe, he vows revenge on all civilized men.

Kraa is confused, though, when the teacher reacts with compassion rather than fear or cruelty. So when a giant python attacks the teacher, Kraa sacrifices his own life to save him.

Like most of the monster stories from this era, it's not really an exceptional story. But the plot is reasonably clever and Kraa's heroism gives it some real heart. It's real strength, though, lies with Jack Kirby's art.

It's accurate, I think, to call the first couple of years in the 1960s Marvel's "monster phase." Other titles cover-dated June 1961 included four more anthology books with monsters on the cover. There were also four humor books and one Western (The Rawhide Kid--who fought a MONSTER that month when he encounter the Terrible Totem.) During this phase, Stan Lee wrote a lot of undeniably fun stuff. But I would have to say that it was Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko who really made these tales memorable. They were stories that depended heavily on simply looking awesome. And Kraa the Unhuman is nothing if not awesome-looking.

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