Monday, January 18, 2016

Zarnak: Forgotten Forerunner [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Comics have a great reputation nowadays. The top grossing films are all based on comics: X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and so on. If you want to sound a little more high fallutin', you can call them "graphic novels," I don't care. Big writers actually brag about writing comics or having a story adapted into comics. This was not always the case.

In fact, it was worse than that. Comics were an infection in science fiction; only slightly less worse than Venusian snot plague. Many SF writers wrote comics, but they didn't brag about it. Henry Kuttner, Manly Wade Wellman, Alfred Bester, Eando Binder, Edmond Hamilton, and Harry Harrison who started out as a comic artist and became a famous SF author. But of all the science fiction comics, there is one that is different. Perhaps especially hated or simply ignored, but unusual. I'm talking about "Zarnak."

"Zarnak?" you ask. Wasn't he a villain in Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane? Nope. Wasn't he a tentacular space monster in Planet Comics? Uh-uh. Wasn't he a Soviet spy who tried to blackmail J Jonah Jameson in Amazing Spider-Man? Never. Zarnak was the only comic character to appear in a science fiction pulp. Not to be inspired by a pulp or to get a comic from a pulp company, but to actually appear in one.

Wonder Stories has a long and complicated history. It began as Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories, then became just Wonder Stories. All three were owned by Hugo Gernsback. But in 1936, Gernsback gave up the pulp game (at least for a while) and Wonder Stories got bought by the Standard Magazine chain, which changed the name to Thrilling Wonder Stories and placed twenty-one-year-old Mort Weisinger in charge.

Lester del Rey explains the change in his The Worlds of Science Fiction: The History of a Subculture (1977):
"The magazine was no longer the same. It was deliberately slanted to a lower age group, far more frankly designed to use action stories than Astounding had ever been, and it included a comic strip inside it. The comic insert was soon dropped, but it had already helped to give the magazine a bad reputation with the older readers."
First off, you can literally hear the contempt drip off Del Rey's tongue at the words "comic strip." Secondly, you notice that he quickly brushes the strip aside, unnamed, and moves on. Granted he was writing a history of science fiction but the abruptness is as typical as his comparison to the holy grail, John W Campbell's Astounding.

I plan to rectify Mr. Del Rey's omission. That "comic strip" was called "Zarnak" by Max Plaisted, a pseudonym of Jack Binder. (Both Binder and Weisinger have big things to do in comics, but more on that later.) Jack Binder was Earl and Otto's older brother (Jack 1902, Earl 1904, and baby Otto in 1911). Jack was the one who spearheaded the brothers' involvement with comics. Earl and Otto formed "Eando Binder" and went on to write such pulp classics as "I, Robot" before Otto eventually joined the Fawcett Comics team and wrote Captain Marvel and later moved to DC to help create Supergirl. Let's just say that Binders and comics went together.

But back in 1936, with a new juvenile pulp to launch, Mort Weisinger had Jack Binder produce "Zarnak," a cliff-hanger strip modeled on Buck Rogers (that had started in 1929) and Flash Gordon (1934).

Zarnak lives on the Earth of 2936, a planet regressed to medieval superstition after World War 5. Building a rocket plane, Zarnak leaves Earth in search of a spaceship that fled the planet and may have the last remaining scientifically civilized humans left. But Zarnak gets into trouble right away when a meteor plugs his rocket tubes. He is headed into the sun, but lands on the undiscovered first planet, Vulcan. There he finds slugs who eat metal and he uses them to unplug his ship and escape. He crash-lands on Mercury and meets the "crazy ones," beings with large, bulbous heads and are ruled by Thark. Zarnak is sacrificed to a giant bird that takes him to a city on the cold side. This city is inhabited by scientists who want to cut Zarnak up to discover the secret of longer life, because they live for only twenty-four years. Zarnak is saved by the beautiful Etarre, who takes him away in her plane, but they are shot down by Thark who puts them in his new machine that is supposed to separate their souls from their bodies. Zarnak fools Thark into thinking they have been freed, lures him to his ship, straps a jet pack on him, and is rid of the fool. The duo flies to the Hollow Mountain where Etarre betrays him to the Supreme One, giant-headed Vaeco, who wants to burn Zarnak alive. Vaeco relents and explains that he and Etarre are from Venus. Etarre was born looking like an Earthling, so Vaeco fled with her to Mercury, where he rules like a god. Zarnak becomes part of the team. He goes on a secret mission to find a rogue scientist living amongst the "crazy ones," finds their secret generator base, and is attacked from behind...

The strip was dropped and the next installment never appeared.

Let's look at the good and the bad now. On the negative side, the science was very poor. The meteor that plugs the rocket tube is hilarious. Zarnak contemplates jumping out of his ship into space, then quickly remembers this is entirely stupid. The characterization of Zarnak and his enemies is almost non-existent. We assume Zarnak is good because he is human and heroic. We assume the scientists and the crazy ones are bad because they are ugly and alien. Was this any dumber than other SF comics being produced? Not really, for the stories in Planet Comics and even the newspaper strips would make similar faux pas. On the plus side, Jack Binder kept the story moving with an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style pace (remember Thark?) He always managed to come up with a cliffhanger too, which is not as easy as you might think with only three pages an episode. The entire thing comes off as a paper version of a Flash Gordon serial. Not the high standard Lester Del Rey wanted and ultimately, neither did Mort Weisinger. Cancelled after only eight episodes, it is hard to imagine Zarnak had any real influence on science fiction. Unlike Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, Zarnak was quickly forgotten.

Jack Binder must have shrugged off the cancellation. He was moving up in comics. By 1942 he had his own comic mill that employed such future stars as Gil Kane, Ken Bald, Kurt Schaffenburger, and Carmine Infantino. Binder himself penciled many of the Captain Marvel adventures written by his brother Otto. Jack closed the studio four years later, moving into semi-retirement, but continuing to pencil comics for a number of years.

Also to be noted: twenty-one-year-old editor Mort Weisinger would end up at DC in 1941. After a stint in the army, Mort became the man behind Superman and Batman, along with Julius Schwartz. It was Mort and Julius who would lure so many of those old SF writers into the DC fold, having first known them as fanboys publishing fanzines and semi-prozines and finally real pulp titles. Zarnak had come and gone, but the authors of Thrilling Wonder still had much to offer comics, bringing in the better science fictional content we take for granted as part of the DC universe.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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