Monday, December 4, 2017

Karate Kid #1

Karate Kid #1 
"My World Begins in Yesterday"
script by Paul Levitz
art by Ric Estrada and Joe Staton
cover by Mike Grell
cover date: March-April 1976
review by Glenn 'Continuity Kid' Walker

It's 1976, the American Bicentennial is in full swing, and I'm twelve years old. I love comics, I'm solidly a Legion fan, loving the Mike Grell art on Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes (which unknown to me is soon coming to an end), and I see a Karate Kid solo comic on the spinner rack, with a Grell cover, and I'm instantly sold.

That was issue #2, but still--- the excitement is still there, and even though I devoured that issue immediately, I'll start my reviews here with the first issue – which I had picked up shortly after that second issue.

 But first,  a couple of history lessons.

Back in those days, before comic shops and subscription services, not all stores carried all comics. I was a DC Comics guy not just because of the gateway drug of the 1966 "Batman" TV series, but also because the store I frequented, Anning's 5 & 10, carried mostly DC Comics, with few exceptions...  The Avengers, one of my other passions, being one. To find other comics, you had to go to other stores. For instance, I didn't really become a Marvel zombie until I started going to the Eckerd's Drugs one town over – all Marvels, hardly a DC to be found.

And then there was the Berlin Auction, or to the city folk or the folks who hadn't lived in my area forever, the Berlin Farmers Market. We actually talked a bit about it in this episode of The GAR! Podcast. There was a lot/store there that sold comics on one end of their table inside. Apparently they also sold magazines too, but as a kid, I never noticed them. The comics there were stacked in about fifty piles of about fifty or so assorted titles in each pile, sometimes just one, sometimes dozens of one book. They all had the same thing in common, they had the tops of the covers torn off.

I forget why this was done, something about inventory and proving they had the books, but it didn't matter to me, I was all about the comics. And at the time I started being treated to comics there, they were three for a quarter, and went up by inflation thereafter. As I recall, last time I visited, it was still a good deal. This was where I was introduced to Tarzan comics, the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Adam Strange, the Hulk, those tabloid-sized Famous First Editions, and the late Karate Kid #1.

Let's start at the top. It's a beautiful Mike Grell cover, and even though it features a lopsided Time Bubble, that never bothered me at the time. Karate Kid is leaping out of the Bubble to rumble with bad martial arts types, leaving a void next to Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, Superboy, and Mon-El. When you get inside, after mourning the absence of interior Grell art, you start to realize how weird it is to have Superboy in that position on the cover, when Karate Kid is actually coming to Superman's time.

The cover does represent the irony and paradox of what this series really was. In 1976, we had lost Bruce Lee three years previously, but the martial arts wave was in full swing, thanks to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest in movies and on TV, and comics with Marvel titles like Deadly Hands of Kung Fu - Shang Chi and Iron Fist were rocking the world. DC wanted in, and tried with Richard Dragon: Kung Fu Fighter, a Denny O'Neil character adapted from one of his prose novels, but they wanted a more sure bet. …didn't they already have such a character??

The powers-that-be targeted Karate Kid from the 30th Century world of the Legion to fit the bill. Just bring him to the present day to have adventures. After all, he's already wearing hand-me-downs from Bruce Lee's closet, he'd be perfect. That's probably what they were thinking, and actually, in the right hands, it could have been a great concept - mixing the genres of martial arts and science fiction. But it just wasn't meant to be. We could have had wild time travel adventures in the vein of and predating both Terminator and Back to the Future, with martial arts. The Karate Kid series wasn't just a generic Seventies superhero series, it was a bad one. 'Missed Opportunity' should have been its subtitle.

The first issue starts with a bang, and an early Paul Levitz script to boot. Early being key here; this is before his golden age on Legion, but he was hitting his stride on JSA at this time. Somehow however, this is not his best Legion work, or work, period. I'm also less than happy about the art, a mix of Ric Estrada and Joe Staton, two gentlemen whose quality in my opinion varies depending on the inker, and their styles are near indistinguishable here. It's almost as if this was a rush job, as much of this series would appear to be, and they took turns drawing and inking each other. It ain't pretty, folks.

We open on Karate Kid and Nemesis Kid in combat. These two had been rivals and enemies since the two - along with Princess Projectra and Ferro Lad – joined the Legion of Super-Heroes in Adventure Comics #346. You can get the Legion of Super-Bloggers skinny on Nemesis Kid right here, but to me, the character always had the most vaguely defined powers, even if among the deadliest. Supposedly he can manifest whatever ability or power needed to counter his opponent's powers....see what I mean about vague? It has allowed him to best Superboy in combat, and yet Nemesis Kid himself has been felled by the equally vague weakness of fear, and on other occasions an inability to take on more than one opponent at a time. And of course it goes without saying for most Legion fans: they know that eventually it is Nemesis Kid who kills Karate Kid in combat, and is later executed by Princess Projectra.

Here in Karate Kid #1, it is pretty straight cut superhero vs. super-villain action, although this time leading to the 20th Century. The battle between the Kids is cut short by the arrival of the Legion (assembled here as Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Mon-El, and Brainiac 5 taking Superboy's place from the cover). When they arrive, Nemesis Kid teleports away. Karate Kid then explains that it's something the villain can only do when facing more than one opponent. Gotta love Bronze Age comics, dialogue and caption boxes constantly keeping the reader in tune with what's really going on.

Val is really ticked off, as he believes he could have taken the villain alone, and he takes it out on Brainiac 5. Karate Kid holds him responsible for Nemesis Kid's escape by not building a good enough cell. He's not inaccurate, and it is interesting to see any Legionnaire not only blame Brainy out loud, but also lay hands on him. This is only the beginning however, as after Brainy doubts Val's ability to defeat Nemesis Kid, Lightning Lad calls him dumb. So Karate Kid fights back against both LL and team leader Mon-El. The Legion decides to leave Karate Kid here in the 20th Century to pursue Nemesis Kid, and here's where it gets cold: they'll return when he calls for help.

There's a communication gap here between Val and his fellow Legionnaires, and there has always been a difference between him and the others. His 'powers' come from training, whereas most of the Legion got theirs through birth or accident, and all are like blinking or walking. Karate Kid trained to be the fighter he is, and must train every day to continue to be such. It's a difference the other Legionnaires might never understand. Only Saturn Girl gets it as the Legion returns to the 30th Century, and even as she tries to explain it to her love, Lightning Lad, it's true, even he can't get his head around it. Karate Kid is on his own.

Confronted by cops who think Karate Kid is an actor in some movie, dressed like Bruce Lee in kung fu pajamas, our hero flies away courtesy of his Legion Flight Ring. Unfortunately it was damaged in the fight with Nemesis Kid. Flailing, he grabs onto a window three floors up and we meet one of our major characters for this series, schoolteacher Iris Jacobs, who Legion fans might know better as Diamondeth in our Who's Who entries here onsite. That identity and transformation is still a ways off,  however.

They make fast friends, with KK  oblivious to how Iris perceives him. It is evident from the first scene, as if written in a character outline that says "Iris Jacobs: romantic interest," that she has eyes for the mysterious stranger. Val is evasive, not answering her questions, but then as if it was nothing, tosses away his malfunctioning Flight Ring. That was probably not the smartest thing to do. (If I did not know better, this is where I would have suspected Booster Gold initially got his Flight Ring - but that turned out to be a completely different story.) After finding his Time Bubble stolen, Karate Kid leaves Iris pondering his origins and goes off in search of his foe. We will see her again, for sure.

In place of the Time Bubble, Nemesis Kid left the means to find him. Despite walking into an obvious trap, Val goes in search of the villain. After chasing down a hood on the street shouldering a 30th Century weapon, KK finds a company called Futuretech Inc. There are so many questions now. How long was Nemesis Kid here in the past? Is a year long enough to start a company, start production, start an arms network, hire thugs, build a whole building?? And why didn't anyone else notice a guy in the street with a big future weapon over his shoulder? No one in New York blinks at a guy with ordinance that big and fancy? Where are New York's protectors of the time, Wonder Woman or the Freedom Fighters?

At Futuretech, Karate Kid fights through a gauntlet of goons and security measures to get to the villain. Paul Levitz calls it a ballet of murder, the nine-panel battle between Val and his martial arts cliché opponents. The page is a triumph, from the fight choreography to the Black Dragon mention to the final panel announcing once and for all the arrival of the Karate Kid. This is the kind of martial arts action one might expect of a project like this. Soak it in, it doesn't last.
The next phase of the battle, through laser traps and a nuclear-powered Nemesis Kid, we see the other opportunity a comic such as this should have offered full time. Val Armorr is only a man, one who nearly loses some toes in this battle, survives a several floor drop, and takes down Nemesis Kid with his wits and his fists and feet. This triumph is what partially leads our hero to decide to stay, that this is "an age when people did things." He sends the villain back to the Legion in the Time Bubble with a note, saying he's staying, and not to call him, he'll call them. Bottom line, he wants to be a hero in his own right, not just another Legionnaire.

That's not all there is to it though. His thought bubble when thinking about Iris' job betrays the real reason: Val wants the human touch. The 20th Century is hands-on, as opposed to the teaching machines of his time. He wants to do things. But as we will see in issues to come, this is not all there is to his staying in the past. He's not just here to 'do things' or 'find himself,' there is more, and we'll get to that.

Levitz shines in the final act, as does the mixed master art team, but it's not the book I wanted and the book it could be. I wanted to like this, I wanted to love this, and I wanted it to be so much better than it was. Admittedly, Karate Kid is a dated and inept attempt at what could have been awesome in the right hands.  Conceptually cool mix of genre, but for this issue atleast, bungled.

Next: Major Disaster!