They’re finally making another Tarzan movie. But Tarzan is just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to people who somehow randomly became rulers of the jungle. And they’ll never make a movie based on the craziest Tarzan knock-off of all time: Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle.
Published in 1962 by Dell Comics, the series Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle features a family and their Tarzan-like friend enduring many bizarre misfortunes. The series, written by Don Segall and illustrated by Sam Glanzman, was easily among the most bloodthirsty comics of the 1960’s. Featuring dismemberments, mutant animals, and at least 100 deaths per issue, Kona definitely stood out amongst its Dell brethren, and indeed, the wider world of comics as a whole. If you don’t know Kona, now’s the time to learn!
First, let’s meet the characters:
The perpetually suffering children, Mason and Lily: two God-fearing kids excited to bring culture to the indigenous people, alongside their stockpile of AK-47’s.
Their suffering mother, Mary—her only defining character trait is despair.
Dr. Dodd, their capricious grandpa, prone to loudly documenting the suffering of his non-scientist grandchildren from safe distances.
Kona, the Monarch of Monster Isle, and self-appointed bodyguard to the Dodd family.
As the story begins, Mary, Mason, Lily and Dr. Dodd are flying over Manhattan in a zeppelin. They’re en route to Australia, to investigate a series of strange stone markings believed to have been used as an “intra-satellite code system” by the country’s prehistoric Bushmen.
On the trip, the children are absolutely delighted by the idea of bringing culture to the godless natives, and are emboldened to do so by their cargo: A boundless, multi-crate cache of AK-47 assault rifles.
They are, that is, until Lily asks, “Do you think the savages will try to kill us in our sleep?”
Lily then prays to God they not be murdered or taken by the indigenous population. Her prayer drifts into a second, ominous panel, showing the zeppelin drifting headlong into a hurricane. She says, “And be sure to bring us back home all safe and sound…”
It’s here that Kona:MOMI first invokes the old adage: “Imperialists have two things in common: a belief they’re bringing culture to a race who would otherwise be lost without them, and a fear they will be killed in bed by the same.”
While the kids sleep, Mary laments that her late missionary husband, John, who had “dedicated his life bringing progress to the primitive savage” could not make the trip himself. Dr. Dodd chimes in, “…and to think that a great mind like that came to its end in the jaws of a crocodile! Brrrr!” A black & white flashback panel then shows the moment of John’s demise: “I’ll never forget how those teeth came down!”
The effect is darkly comic. The series seems to have been written so knowingly, exaggerating each trope of the genre to such absurd and irresponsible degrees that one suspects it surely must have been conceived as parody.
But suddenly: a thundercrack! The hurricane tears the blimp apart, and the family is violently cast onto a mysterious, uncharted island populated by Neanderthals. Soon, they encounter a deadly tyrannosaur, but are saved at the eleventh hour by the mysterious Kona, the lord of the jungle and the undisputed Monarch of Monster Isle! Kona fights the tyrannosaur to a standstill, until it’s attacked by a giant snake, which is in turn decapitated by a rival faction of Pithecanthropus men.
And while a more typical jungle adventure comic of the time, published by a rival company—DC, let’s say—would economically keep a question and answer inside the same panel, Kona will dedicate an entire panel, and sometimes even full splash pages, to simple declarations of dread and horror.
Panel 1: “What are those savages preparing to do?
Panel 2: “THEY ARE AFTER THE SERPENTS HEAD!”
Dr. Dodd then teaches the Neanderthals to arm themselves with hand grenades and AK-47’s to annihilate their Pithecanthropus foes, and the first issue concludes. From now on, the Dodds will teach the island’s indigenous people about roofs and indoor plumbing, and the series’ status quo is established.
In issue #2, two more giant snakes are uprooted when the family teaches the natives to build huts, and to the horror of the Dodds, both are killed and skinned by the Neanderthals. Their remains are tossed into the river.
This turns out to be the single most important moment of the series: When the snakes’ exposed flesh and blood taints the water, its gigantism, so far unique to this species, spreads among the island’s animals like a virus. Meanwhile, Kona and the Neanderthals are told to use the flayed snakeskin to carry Dr. Dodd’s immense weapons cache! Almost immediately, the village is beset by a horde of humongous spiders, flies, bees and bullfrogs, glyptodonts, pterosaurs, turtles and lobsters—all engaging in a gory Battle Royale.
This horrifying melee is only halted by the sudden gushing flood of an underground river—and as the second issue concludes, we begin what may be one of the greatest single-issue comics of all time in Kona #3: The Cave of Mutations.
Following page after page of the giant creatures being carried away by the crushing waves, Kona and The Dodds manage only to escape by finding a sealed-off quarter of the waterway—the titular Cave of Mutations!
Housing such fusions as manta-snakes, turtle-crabs, swordfish-seals and octo-frogs, this legendary cave has long sealed the island’s godless monstrosities, until now—the revelation leads to an incredible two, full splash pages of Kona’s horrified realization.
The series carries on after that, with the Dodd children suffering at the hands of more preternaturally large animals. In the very first panel of issue #5, Lily and Mason are crushed under the paw of a giant, domesticated cat.
Who is later eaten alive by sharks.
In issue #6, the whole family is forced to participate in an extremely dense, centuries-spanning war between surrealist fish people.
Which leads directly into issue seven (my personal favorite): Immediately after the fish-person war, the Dodds are beset by swarms of humongous army ants. And a strange thing happens: driven mad by the never-ending run of near death scenarios, the vocabulary of each character is suddenly expanded to unseen proportions. And then everyone starts speaking alliteratively.
The first time I read this issue, I felt a sense of panicked mania I’d only experienced once before, while watching Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible—the scene where the soundtrack adds a layer of low-frequency pulse noise, the kind used for crowd dispersal by SWAT teams that can cause nausea and vomiting.
Kona and the Dodds death-defying non-sequiturs underline that this is the exact moment that every character has gone mad from PTSD and exhaustion.
Sadly, the series couldn’t keep it up.
While #9 tells an interesting, gory story about the mythical Phoenix, who is ultimately set on fire by sunlight reflecting through the disembodied eyeball of a beetle it has just eaten, Kona was losing steam. (Issue #13, which involves a time-locked race of subterranean warriors kept in stasis by giant blue kiwis with poison tipped bills, is also a highlight.)
Shortly after these adventures, Dr. Dodd finds a way off the island and brings Kona with him to New York, where he battles a few super villains—however, due to the comics code, these people could not be thoroughly annihilated, in the way mutants, animals, or extinct and fictitious races were allowed to be. Sadly, this series was cancelled after 21 issues, and the stories have never been reprinted. Which is a shame—it’s a weird, disturbing and savvy title that’s crying out for a revival. And it’s a strange footnote to the history of Tarzan-Mania.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.