Friday, February 11, 2011

King Kobra! - 2009

This was the second piece I did for Back Issue!, for an all-villains-themed issue. It was the first full length piece I did, and even though I made a couple of factual errors (corrected here), it gave me the confidence to keep submitting articles for the magazine.


When you see that name, who do you think of?

Well, you probably think of that group of vaguely competent bad guys led by Destro, but that's not who we're talking about--in this case, we're talking about Kobra (also known--mostly to himself--as King Kobra) the DC Comics madman bent on world domination who debuted in his very own title, Kobra, the first issue of which hit the newsstands in November 1975.

Kobra was in many ways your prototypical super-villain: he wants to take over the world, talks about himself in the third person, and murders his own henchmen over their slightest mistake. That last trait sounds a lot like a certain Clown Prince of Crime, doesn't it?

The similarities don't end there--one of the reasons Kobra has always stuck with me as a character is because he was a villain who had his own comic book--something you see fairly regularly nowadays, but was completely unheard of in the 1970s. And while the Joker did earn his own book earlier in 1975, he was then (and arguably still is) the most famous comic book bad guy of all time. Kobra, on the other hand, was a completely unknown entity, yet DC head-honcho Carmine Infantino let Kobra slither past First Issue Special tryout stars like Dr. Fate, Lady Cop, and The Dingbats of Danger Street directly into a solo title.

Maybe that's because Kobra was the co-creation of Steve Sherman and the legendary Jack "King" Kirby, who penciled the first issue's story, "Fangs of the Kobra!" The first story was done (according to the man who would assume the writing of the book, Marty Pasko--more about him in a moment) as a prototype issue, more a proposal for the series rather than an actual first issue. It concerned two men--King Kobra and Jason Burr, twin brothers separated at birth but who retained a psychic connection to one another.

The proposed series (originally to be titled King Kobra) sat in DC's inventory for over a year. In the meantime, Kirby had left DC to return to Marvel. Eventually DC editor Gerry Conway handed the material over to Pasko, who was told "Do something with this." Pasko read the book, and was not impressed, thinking it was little more than a "toss-off" by Kirby, who had one foot out the door at DC (Kirby told Pasko as much a few years later).

Pasko had new stats made of the art, with all the dialog whited out, so he could rewrite the story as much as possible. Necessary art changes were then made by Pablo Marcos. Pasko retained the Corsican Brothers angle, developing a new backstory and details about the cobra cult from his own research on India. Pasko's thinking was that, if Infantino gave him and editor Conway the marching orders to do a regular book, "We wanted to be able to live with it."

Kobra #1 sets up the book's central premise--Kobra and regular guy Jason Burr are brothers, but only Kobra knows this. Burr is approached by a Lt. Perez (who says he is with the NYPD), and is told he is the key to catching international super-criminal Kobra. Burr and Perez are attacked by a giant robot (which fell from space!) sent by Kobra to kidnap him, but they manage to defeat it. We then learn that Kobra and Burr's psychic connection is so acute that when one of them feels pain, the other feels it as well. So as long as Burr stays alive...ssssso doessss Kobra! (sorry, slipped into Kobra-ese for a moment). The first issue ends with Burr and Kobra meeting face to face, but Kobra escapes before the police can apprehend him.

It's at this point that Kobra, as a title, really takes off--Marty Pasko was free to take the story anywhere he pleased, and the book moves at a breakneck pace, jamming more crazy situations, settings, and character asides in six issues than several years' worth of comics do nowadays. In issue #2 we meet Burr's old lady Melissa--and we see that as Burr kisses her, Kobra "feels" it, too (exactly how far these feelings between the brothers can go is something left to the imagination--damn Comics Code). Kobra then runs afoul of another super-villain, named Solaris, whose weapon, the Heliotron, Kobra tries to steal. Perez and Burr get involved, ending with Burr and Kobra, locked in a struggle as they fall from the sky after Kobra saves Burr from getting blasted by the Heliotron.

In #3, the authorities rescue Burr, and they think Kobra falls to his death...but they can't find his body. When dealing with Kobra, you have to remember The Joker Rule: No Body = Still Alive. Shortly thereafter, Kobra shows up at Burr's apartment(!) and Burr's girlfriend Melissa seems to know him! After another tussle with Solaris, Burr learns that Kobra stole a large cache of "illegal cobra venom" from the C.I.A. (even though President Nixon ordered it destroyed!) and that's why the Feds are after him--to keep their illegal activities under wraps. (Hey--say what you want about Richard Nixon, at least he ordered illegal cobra venom destroyed.) Turns out Perez is not from the NYPD--he's C.I.A., and has been lying to Burr all this time. Burr is not amused.

In #4, Burr starts to suspect Melissa isn't telling him the whole truth, and they tentatively break up. Then he meets a mysterious stranger named Randu Singh, who is also after Kobra! Meanwhile, Kobra meets a two-headed alien (what are the odds?!?), who Kobra believes might, if he can experiment on it/them, help him learn how to sever the psychic link between him and Burr.

Kobra sends two of his giant robots, called "Servitors", to find Agent Perez. They find him at an airport, ripping the plane open, crushing him to death! Burr and Singh arrive, the aliens realize Kobra's plan and split, sending Kobra into a rage. He punches Burr out, which should knock him out, too...but somehow it doesn't, and he takes off. Does this mean Kobra is now somehow more powerful than Burr?

In #5, an old star from the DC universe shows up--private eye Johnny Double. Double stumbles onto this Kobra case when he's almost killed by an explosion, the only piece of remaining evidence being part of a suitcase with a Kobra symbol on it. He is apprehended by Kobra and strung up on the Golden Gate Bridge, which will be destroyed, along with all of San Francisco, when the approaching dawn triggers Kobra's new solar-powered machine called The Quaker.

In #6, Double manages to escape, and destroys The Quaker. Kobra gets away, and tracks down Burr, on a plane headed towards San Francisco. Burr is so sick of all this, he's ready to kill himself, as long as it takes his evil twin with him. Kobra then reveals that he has kidnapped Melissa! Meanwhile, Randu Singh and Johnny Double learn of Kobra's newest plan to tap into global communication cables, "bugging" the entire world. Singh and Double find Kobra's secret ship, called The Ark, and sneak on. Kobra blinds Singh with some gas from his glove, and then tries to fly away in the Ark. Double blasts it with a wrist-laser (stolen from Kobra), causing it to crash, seemingly killing Kobra...but that means Jason Burr is dead, too! Doesn't it?

In #7, we learn of course that Kobra survived. Burr, still alive, meets Johnny Double for the first time, and he tells Double the whole story. Kobra then kidnaps Burr, beaming him up into the Ark, where he sees Melissa in suspended animation! As if that wasn't bad enough, Kobra built a machine called The Empathic Magnetizer (patent pending), which "re-routes" pain felt by some of Kobra's minions (used as guinea pigs) into Burr, and Burr only!

Burr learns from Melissa that she knew Kobra years ago and fell in love with him. And even though he's an evil monster, she still does love him, in some way. Burr is convinced Kobra brainwashed her, and he escapes and tries to fight Kobra, who is now working on a plan to resurrect the dead! Kobra pushes Burr off the Ark into the water, and we see Kobra's ultimate weapon--the perfectly-preserved bodies of their parents, which Kobra will bring back from the dead! To be continued...well, sort of.

sgEven though it was advertised on the last page of #7, there was no Kobra #8, which promised to guest-star Batman. Luckily, the story did see the light of day, in DC Special Series #1, an 80-page anthology book featuring stories starring Aquaman, The Atom, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Batman.

In "The Dead On Arrival Conspiracy", Batman gets involved in the case, and makes his way to Kobra's secret HQ in the Swiss Alps. Here he finds Burr--who Kobra learned wasn't dead in the ocean after all--and is knocked out by Kobra's goons. He wakes up alongside Burr, dangling over the Lazarus Pit, something Batman is all too familiar with. Kobra plans to kill them both, and have them reborn as his slaves.

He makes the fatal mistake of not seeing his plan all the way through by sticking around, and soon Batman frees himself and Burr. He apprehends Kobra, while Burr takes off with the hypnotized Melissa. As they leave aboard a ski-lift, Melissa stabs Burr in the back, then throwing herself and Burr out of the car, to their deaths! Turns out Kobra killed Melissa, and reincarnated her as a slave, and she has carried out his orders to murderous perfection.

Batman is shocked when Kobra gets free and jumps off a cliff, seemingly to his death. But at the last second, Kobra's Ark ship grabs his falling body with a tractor beam, spiriting him away. We are left with Batman, vowing to never stop hunting Kobra and bring him to justice.

Wow--and that's only half the stuff that goes on in just these eight stories. Kobra has a crazy, movie-serial, what-else-can-they-throw-in next quality to it, and that feeling extends to the book itself. After Kirby, Marcos, and Berry on the art for Kobra #1, #2 is drawn by Chic Stone and Marcos, #3 by Keith Giffen, Terry Austin, and Dick Giordano, #4 by Pat Gabriele and Lowell Anderson, #5 by Rich Buckler and Frank McLaughlin. Only issues 6 and 7 were by the same team--Mike Nasser and Joe Rubenstein. Whew!

As ramshackle as the book is, it is entertaining in a way that not too many comics are anymore. Sure, a lot of it doesn't make sense (Two-headed aliens? Bringing the dead back to life? Nixon banning cobra venom?), but Pasko wrote Kobra as such a classic indefatigable villain that he's still around to this day, causing trouble in the DC Universe. (In 1985 alone, he was a genuinely creepy menace in Batman and the Outsiders, as well as the butt of jokes when taking on Superman and Ambush Bug in DC Comics Presents. Say what you want, the guy is versatile!) As a side note, I can't help but think, with all the accoutrements Kobra carries with him--henchmen dressed like snakes, the floating Ark, the Servitrons, The Quaker, the secret base in the Swiss Alps--Kobra might have made for a kickin' toy line from Mego. Oh well.

Marty Pasko, looking back, says: "I wrote all of Kobra with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek--it was a preposterous exercise dumped in my lap, and it helped pay the rent on a very nice place in the Village. As embarrassing as it is by today's standards, there is apparently still something appealing about the character, because other writers keep digging it out of mothballs every now and then. Nice to know those books are still entertaining somebody somewhere, if not in the manner originally intended."

All hail King Kobra!

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