Zembla (Volume 1)
By Franco Oneta
Foreword by Joe Kubert
Hexagon Comics, 2007
This book collects together five black and white comics featuring Zembla, a character not unlike Tarzan.
The brainchild of Marcel Navarro, Zembla came into being in 1963 and clocked up about 650 issues, all told, before finally deciding to hang up his leopard-skin loin cloth. Not an undistinguished or an unsuccessful run, as I’m sure you’ll agree, and he managed to keep order in an often unruly jungle. Never let it be said, either, that he failed to do his bit for ecological harmony and the like. That was one of his strongpoints, actually.
We begin with ‘The Birth of Zembla’, in other words at the beginning. Zembla is the offspring of a French adventurer and an African princess and, when his parents are hunted down and killed by xenophobic philophobes, the bereft babe is raised in the wild by majestic lions. Modesty and manly virtues generally are imparted by beautiful apes. He forms bonds with fiery elephants and an old man imparts wisdom and weapons-training (just in case the wisdom doesn’t quite suit all situations). Their human protector, that’s how the jungle’s citizens view Zembla at the end of the story. Perhaps some creatures – say the dastardly crocodiles, they’ve never been the most congenial – aren’t too keen. Anyway, he’s a good lad and as he vows: ‘Wherever evil and injustice loom I shall be there to fight it.’ Can you say fairer than that?
When we see Zembla in the later stories he has acquired a coterie of helpers and hangers-on. They include Ye-ye, a lippy kid in a MP helmet; Rasmus, a nattily-dressed magician who looks a little like Mandrake; Satanas, a manic leopard that sees people as (contra Jean Rhys) walking steaks; and Petoulet, a loopy kangaroo. Precious and beyond price, also, is Bwana – a white-maned, mystic lion. Some of Zembla’s adversaries in these stories are a wacky and warped ventriloquist, a haughty gorilla (he’s just jealous of Zembla but, well, what can you do? You can’t reason or negotiate with a gorilla…) and an evil demon who casts spells that make others – human and non-human creatures alike – obey his commands. But the most fearsome enemies and most challenging battles are to be found in the story entitled ‘The Super-apes of Anthar’. For (let me get this straight in my own mind first…) these belligerent apes live underground in a futuristic city where they have a nuclear programme and will use any means necessary to get their fair share of the Earth’s riches. They’ll brook no refusal. Can this story, written in the very early 1970s, be an allegory – at once anxious and guilt-ridden – about the rise of the developing world?
Of Franco Oneta’s artwork, one can say that it possesses in abundance the two qualities - narrative clarity and emotional impact – that the great Joe Kubert (who writes the foreword) values above all others. There is action, humour and an offbeat goofiness here (because Zembla’s pals are always getting into scrapes, bless ‘em). In short, there is plenty of entertainment.
Zembla contains a pride of jungle yarns.
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