In honor of the Red Dawn remake, here’s Steve Ditko bashing commies with a King Kong ripoff – Konga #9
Steve Ditko’s Charlton work was nothing if not interesting. He helped forge (and rework, in some cases) a line of heroes that would years later both inspire the Watchmen pantheon and be incorporated into the sprawling DC universe. The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom et al. are still venerated for what they were: off-beat alternatives to the big two’s offerings. This was when Ditko was at the peak of his powers, coming off the unfathomably iconic Spider-Man work at Marvel, and even the oddball material he handled was invested with a tremendous energy. It was often tremendously odd energy, but energy nonetheless.
He had another, prior run at Charlton before that, though (indeed, he bopped in and out with that publisher until it closed its doors). A few months ago I talked about an issue of Gorgo, one of a number in that series to which he provided art. The Gorgo comic was a continuation/re-imagining of the Gorgo film, which was itself a blatant British Isles ripoff of the venerable Godzilla franchise. Ditko and that particular comic’s writer, Joe Gill, redid the Gorgo introduction from the film, and added a layer of anti-communist paranoia to leaven the dough. It was a silly story, but it was a pleasant surprise to see such an absurd subject combined with the great bogeyman of Ditko’s Objectivist philosophy.
That’s not the end of the low-grade Red-baiting, though. Oh no. ENTER KONGA.
Konga, like Gorgo, was a 1960s film that stole liberally from another successful property, in this case King Kong – as if you couldn’t guess be the name (hey, let’s add an “a”) and the giant primate you see above. It’s a terrible film, one that’s rightly been consigned to history’s celluloid dustbin, though it featured snappy dialogue like this: “Fantastic! There’s a huge monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!” (Seriously. It’s in the trailer.) Hard to believe prose like that wouldn’t play onscreen. (In a bit of trivia, the film starred Michael Gough, Tim Burton’s Alfred, who also starred in The Sword and the Rose, which itself had a comic adaptation reviewed here recently. I offer this up in case you ever find yourself playing the world’s most boring game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.)
What makes the comic we’ll examine here so priceless is the overt anti-communist propaganda within. Ditko and the anonymous scripter (possibly Gill again?) managed to throw together a diatribe against the Comintern — one that celebrates the triumph of the individual over the soul-crushing collectivist state — and masquerade it as a giant gorilla story. It’s a hell of a feat, to say the least.
Let’s have a look.
The man standing alone against international communism is Stanlut Kazhov, an animal trainer with an ability to communicate with beasts. He has a stage act in the Soviet Union that, how shall we say, is not a roaring success, and his Stupid Pet Tricks routine runs afoul of a local entertainment commissar:
In defense of the heckling audience member, I too would want the dancing girls.
Kazhov is packed off to Siberia. (No word on what happens to the dog. Maybe it gets sent off to Doggie Siberia. Or gets shot in the head.) This sounds like a bad thing, but he’s actually on a collision course with wackiness, because Konga has grown tired of bathing in the ocean, and has decided to wander overland for a little while. He comes across the labor camp in which Kazhov is interned, and the guards (understandably) attack him, which sends the (quite affable-looking, actually) Konga on a camp-razing rampage. Kazhov, however, has no fear:
It turns out Kazhov really does have a heck of an ability. He understands Konga (though Konga never so much as grunts, so it’s unclear what exactly he’s understanding), and Konga understands him (though all Kazhov does is speak English — I COULD DO THAT). Konga silently recounts his tale of woe origin (in the film he was a monkey given a growth serum), and this gives Ditko a chance to deploy his trademark “splashing water” imagery:
Kazhov rides around in Konga’s shoulder, like Master and Blaster in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and the two of them generally have a grand old time. The Soviets respond immediately to this giant threat in their midst, dispatching Migs to try to take him down — planes attacking a giant gorilla, where have we seen that before? They fail miserably, and this is when the commie caricatures really take off. Introducing the fat, jowly, cigar-chomping Politburo member with a menacing black bowler hat:
Thanks to some good old-fashioned commie elbow grease, the Reds are able to track Kazhov and Konga, and when Konga goes for a swim, they’re able to swoop in and kidnap the erstwhile vaudevillian. They spirit him away to be held at a missile base, one with some delightfully inventive Americanized Cyrillic Orwellian phraseology:
Oh, Ditko. You scamp.
Of course Konga comes after his new friend, and the destruction promised by the cover follows. Kazhov is freed, and he decides to take this opportunity to rid the world of at least the missiles present at this facility:
An observation: THROWING NUCLEAR MISSILES LIKE DARTS IN A BAR AND PUNCHING THEM MIGHT NOT BE THE BEST WAY TO ENSURE WORLD PEACE.
Their work done, Kazhov and Konga find themselves a nice little island paradise, where they’ll live happily ever after. At least until the next issue, or more commies need comeuppance.
This comic is an interesting product of its time, released as it was between the soul-crushing communism-related American crises of McCarthyism and Vietnam. You could still in 1962 portray Reds as comical (literally, in this case) paper figures, an omnipresent threat worthy of being a foe in a comic, and the (justified or not) cynicism of the coming years was still in the offing. This was a perfect moment for a hulking gorilla to go on a rampage through a Soviet missile base — if there ever was such a moment. Ditko’s art, which is all straight lines and curves (all art is when you think about it, but it’s never so wonderfully noticeable as it is with Ditko) is as magnificent as ever. It’s somewhat stunning that he was crafting this comic right around the same time he was sitting in his studio creating the visual vocabulary that would define a certain web-slinger. It speaks to Ditko’s capacity for invention, and for embracing all facets of the strange. And I’m not sure how far his political consciousness had progressed at this point, but you can see the joy in the communist caricatures, almost to the point that you expect Boris Badenov to wander through a panel.
Or maybe this is just a story about a giant King Kong ripoff that pounds on communists. Whatever.
Until next time.
(Should you desire more Ditko/Konga fodder, there’s an actual honest-to-God Konga trade out there called The Lonely One, which reprints some of the Charlton series. It’s a bit light on the commie-bashing, though.)