Friday, April 26, 2013

Another King of the Jungle

Like a lot of comics fans, I like to pick up comics from the quarter bin, and not just because it feels so much more meet than paying $3.99 for a decompressed floppy, but because occasionally we find real gems. I'm definitely listing this one in the gem column.

Toka the Jungle King was published by Dell for ten issues from 1964 to 1967; the issue I found is #10. It was a confusing read at first, and a little internet research revealed why: Toka is actually an Inca noble - a prince or a high-ranking warrior of some kind - but he was put into some kind sleep or suspended animation for 400 years, and now functions as a sort of South American Tarzan in current-day Bolivia or Peru or someplace. A difference is that Toka is not merely a protector of the indigenous people of the area, but also asserts himself as their king, even though he isn't one of them ethnically or culturally and they already have a functioning governmental infrastructure (embodied in a chief and a medicine man).

Oddly, this issue lacks a narration box or any other exposition laying out this rather unusual relationship for new readers. I mean, how hard is After sleeping for four centuries, the mighty Inca warrior Toka awakes to protect the native people of his land once again or something like that?

Anyway, in this issue, Toka is being a bit dickish, throwing his weight around and yammering about his king-ness, perhaps in response to some challenges to his right to rule from Mulugru, the medicine man.

Just like our presidential debates.

Even the animals tick him off.

"Yeah, I know it's only natural, but I'm feeling macho today!"

The ensuing narrative arc has Toka being tested and failing several times, his experiences changing his view of what being a king means. First he screws up the village's response to a fire ant invasion:

Chief seems mighty forgiving of the goofball - this time.

Then his political enemy Mulugru drugs him up and messes with him not once, but twice. And to top it off, a volcano erupts, threatening the village. A heavy rain pulls Toka's fat out of the lava on the last one, just as he comes to realize that maybe he has been acting a little dickish.

By the way - is he ripped, or what!?

Of course, since Toka has Learned His Lesson, the people - and the animals, too - confirm that they want him as their king and he resumes his role as their leader and protector to cheers and huzzahs.

And then his comic gets canceled. The guy can't win.

The prolific Joe Gill provided this fairly pedestrian story, which was enlivened by a few nice bits of interaction that have some verisimilitude if not authenticity, and, of course, by the wonderful art of Frank Springer.

What really ratchets up the coolness factor of this comic is that there's not a white guy to be found. The whole story takes place within the indigenous society - the hero, villains (such as they are), sidekicks, and supporting players are all brown. That alone is notable, particularly for a comic of this time, but their treatment is exceptional: physically, everyone is portrayed comics-realistically; none is a caricature. And the dialog is rendered in straightforward language, with no syntactic or grammatical idiosyncrasies (the exception being Toka's occasional reference to himself in the third person, which is probably a sign of his royal arrogance more than anything else). The characters are all human beings, with rational motivations and reasonable weaknesses and fears.

Perhaps my response is more an indictment of the historical treatment of minority characters in comics books than a case of this comic's being in any way extraordinary, but the tone and timbre were certainly noteworthy. Good on ya, Joe Gill and Dell.

There's no trade paperback for me to buy, but I am sure going to keep my eye on the quarter bins for more Toka.

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