Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Of course, howling roars could also suggest some sort of intestinal disorder, but more about that later.

B’wana Beast was a fabled character in my early fandom years. “Worst. Superhero. Ever.” Was the most uttered phrase whenever his name was mentioned, and this was before we started separating each word in those observations with punctuation.

By that time in my life, I'd co-founded a bad movies club in high school, and was much enamored of lesser known comic book heroes and obscure characters. The first time I recall seeing anything about B'wana Beast, he was featured as one of the potential new members for The Justice League of America, in a very funny Dateline: @!!?# strip by Fred Hembeck.

Learning that there was a bad movie equal in superhero comics...well, insert the head explosion footage from David Cronenberg's “Scanners” except that it's a happy splosion and not provoked by Darryl Revok.

I don’t remember the exact day I found Showcase issues 66 and 67, but it was at the Eastland Mall in Columbus Ohio on a weekend when they hosted a small comics convention. I do remember that I was out of high school, which goes to prove not all adult decisions are necessarily sound.

B'wana Beast was Mike Maxwell, who rejected working for his millionaire father in favor of joining his college roommate Rupert Kenboya as a game warden in Zambesi Africa.

Of course they don't get far. Their plane is struck by lightning and crashes at Mt. Kilamanjaro. I figure staying in America wouldn'tve gone well either. Having wealthy parents in a superhero comic book pretty much paints an origin target on your head.

Fortunately Rupert and Mike survive, finding themselves in the lair of a mutant red ape. Mike drinks some rainwater filtered through the minerals of the mountain. The ape returns to its den, and Mike, suddenly empowered by the mineral water, wrestles and defeats the ape. As a sign of submission, the ape presents Mike with an alien helmet that allows him to communicate with animals, and also enables him to combine two animals into one big powerful mutant animal. There are no intentional punchlines in this paragraph.

The two issues detailed the Beast's encounters with the 'sinister' Hamid Ali, aka “He Who Never Dies”. Halfway through the first is a notable smackdown between BwaBeast and HWND. It's memorable because ol' Hamid is piloting a giant gold dinosaur looking tank, and BB uses his helmet to merge a rhino and a buffalo, which I guess makes a 'ruffalo', and battles Tankosaurus Rex.

The second issue continued the running battle, and introduced a female photographer who intended to capture the elusive B'wana Beast on film. For all the great honking originality bleeding all over the pages of these comics, the best career they could manage for the female character is photojournalist. As if Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen had a kid! I might actually give them enough credit to have swiped the female photojournalist idea from the John Wayne film “Hatari!” rather than any other comics.

Heavily promoted(meaning it received half to full page blurbs in nearly all the DC titles published at the time), the ‘Beast arrived in early '67 courtesy of writer Bob Haney, who’d already given the comics world Metamorpho, and Mike Sekowsky, regular penciller of the Justice League of America.

According to Toonopedia.com there was supposed to be a third issue, but Sekowsky left over the racism in the concept. They never found a replacement artist, and the third issue never appeared.

Re-reading them this week, I repeatedly had to pick my jaw up off the floor over the frequent use of jungle adventure stereotypes that were dated by about 30 years when these comics were published...42 years ago.

Of my favorite moments from the books:

*The first big reveal of B'wana; his expression, stance, and a strategically placed fire give the appearance of him taking a flaming dump.

*The red ape, Djuba, racing to get B'Wana a drink of Mt. Kilamanjaro Dew. Djuba. Everyone's favorite simian Alfred.

*Beast's battle cry. “KI KI KI KIUEEEEEE!” Clearly a callback to Tarzan's yell, but when read aloud, sounds dangerously close to ca-ca oowee.

*The giraffe riding panel on page 16 of Showcase #67. Also a callback of sorts, this time to the opening of The Lone Ranger radio show. Starts off with the same dramatic rhythm as LR's announcer, becoming less daring and resourceful as it goes until it's finally punctuated by that caca yell.

*The B'wana Beast costume. An alien helmet, fur trimmed boots, and candy cane loincloth(?!?). Certain to strike terror in the hearts of poachers and superstitious natives, if by terror you mean provoking your enemies to both laugh AND point.

It would be almost 20 years before B'wana would appear again, this time in issue two of the notorious DC maxiseries, “DC Challenge”. He used his animal melding powers to combine an elephant and a rhino. You do the math.

Grant Morrison brought him back briefly during his run on Animal Man, and one other person in the DC Universe took the helmet and water and became another version of the character(recently killed off, along with Mike Maxwell a few years back), but BwaBeast's best work is in another medium, in memorable animated guest shots in Justice League Unlimited (the classic “This Little Piggy”) and in the opening teaser of “Enter the Outsiders” from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, where he merged a horse and a spider. Whatever you call that, don't wear spurs.

Considering his merging powers, I think B'wana has just as good a shot as a commercial spokeshero as Hawkman did with Baby Ruth a few years back. I mean, can you think of a better superpower to promote Reese Cups?

I'm such a fan of the character that I got Sergio Aragones to sketch ol' B'wana for me in 1985 while attending my first Chicago ComiCon. Curiously, I don't think I ever attempted to draw him until this week. Certainly have enough fluorescent Batman doodles lurking in my sketchbooks.

With the right approach, the B'wana Beast concept could support a light and silly adventure miniseries. Okay, I just slapped myself. That'll be enough of that.

Thanks to Toonopedia.com, the Wednesday night gathering of Sunday Comix at The Crimson Cup, wikipedia, Sergio, and Aaron for offering the blog space and the inspiration to write this. Oh! And extra special thanks to Fred Hembeck.

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