Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April is Kamandi Month: Who gash? Ugash!

Script/pencils:  Jack Kirby, inks: D. Bruce Berry
Kamandi #18, June 1974)
That's Sgt. Ugash to you, ya lousy animal!  Jack Kirby must have had a love for angry tough guys.  I imagine he knew some real life versions of these bombastic characters growing up on the Lower East Side in New York, and he must have encountered more than a few during his wartime army stint.  Look at all the variations on this theme he created or co-created-- Brooklyn, from the Boy Commandos; Scrapper, of the Newsboy Legion; Dum Dum Dugan, one of Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandos; Ben Grimm, the Thing; Detective Dan "Terrible" Turpin, with a death wish in New Gods #5 (later revealed by other sources to be a grown-up Brooklyn, a truly terrible idea and one we'll ignore since we operate under the "If Kirby Didn't Write It, It Never Happened Theory" around these parts).

Those are just the ones I know by heart.  You could usually identify these guys by their ubiquitous derby hats or well-chewed cigars, or both.  Or, in the case of Sgt. Ugash, a green cap (with his name printed on it!), purple jumpsuit and lots and lots of hair.

Sgt. Ugash first appears in Kamandi #17 (May 1974) and he's as rambunctious from the get-go as any of those other classic Kirby creations.  He's not only fighting the tiger army, but he's also having trouble keeping his troops supplied because the gopher people keep tunneling up under the ape bivouac and stealing everything they can get their clawed hands on.  Pumping water, bullets and fire into the holes doesn't solve the problem, so Ugash sends Kamandi down like a ferret with bombs strapped to his back.  That rascally Kamandi, of course, turns on Ugash, so the sergeant and his ape soldiers spend the next couple of issues pursuing the Last Boy on Earth, who fights back using a giant worm, the likes of which would make Maud'Dib's mouth water at the thought of riding it against the Harkonnen hordes.  We might consider this some kind of phallic symbolism.  If big apes represent masculinity run amok, then it takes a really big dick to beat a really big ape.

By Kamandi #20 (August 1974), however, Kirby has abandoned the tiger-gorilla war and forced Sgt. Ugash and Kamandi into an unfriendly alliance against the Roaring Twenties-style robots inhabiting Chicagoland.  Some chump years before the Great Disaster decided it would be a hoot to build a theme park based on Chicago's violent Prohibition days and equip the various factions with real bullet-spraying tommy guns.  This theme park-designing asshole must not have watched Westworld; I'm guessing Kirby did, or at least absorbed a little of it from television commercials.

Kamandi #20, "The Electric Chair!!!"  This was my first Kirby comic, my first encounter with Sgt. Ugash.  This single issue of Kamandi came my way and as far as I knew, Ugash co-starred in all the others as well.  As a Planet of the Apes fan, I immediately liked him more than the kid who gave his name to the comic.  Plus, Kamandi reminded me of the filthy hippies we saw on the news, or one of my oldest brother's baseball teammates who sometimes teased me or got drunk at our house and barfed in my bedroom when my parents went away for the weekend.  Throughout the story, Kamandi tries to use reason and puzzle out what's happening, a rational but-- to a child reader-- unsatisfactorily unassertive way of dealing with the situation.  Ugash couldn't care less about the whys of Chicagoland; he simply starts smashing the place.  But for me, Ugash had another thing going for him besides ape-appeal and hands-on approach to problem solving.

Kirby/Berry (Kamandi #20, August 1974)
The pre-programmed robots ram Ugash through a nightmare parody of the US justice system as if he were just another anachronistic hoodlum, and the gorilla's baffled rage at this railroading by mysterious, implacable authority figures who will not listen to reason was an all-too-familiar experience for a lot of us who were about to start elementary school.  Adults and their bizarre ideas and arbitrary rules!  We were already sick of them.  As a comic book reading six-year-old, it made more sense to go down swinging like Ugash.  Ugash got his licks in for all us kids, even though he could never win.

Even then, we understood the futility of those kinds of grand gestures (rebellion in the 1970s meant spankings both at home and at school, or at least the dreaded "writing lines" in the principal's office, which kept us trapped well past the final bell), but what Kamandi did seemed shameful.  In retrospect, it makes a lot more sense--  Kamandi splits.


Richard Bensam said...

Another excellent post, sir.

May I suggest one small clarification? For the benefit of younger and less clued in readers, it bears mentioning that the truly terrible idea of "Terrible" Turpin being revealed as a grown Brooklyn from the Boy Commandos was not remotely Kirby's idea and had nothing to do with him.

(I mention this because sometimes I run into people who are faced with the whole of DC history all at once and don't get a clear sense of the order in which things happened in real life. For that matter, they may also be used to thinking in terms of characters instead of creators. For such readers, the New Gods by Jack Kirby, by Gerry Conway, by Steve Englehart, by Mark Evanier, by John Byrne, by Jim Starlin et cetera and so forth are all part of one vast tapestry and all have equal weight. My thinking is of course the exact opposite...)

Joel Bryan said...

Thanks and thanks for the clarification! I hope no one gets the idea Kirby came up with that Brooklyn/Turpin stink-bomb. And with any Kirby solo creation-- especially these properties-- if Kirby didn't write it, then as far as I'm concerned, it never happened.

Joel Bryan said...

Annnd... fixed! Thanks again!