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A Lifetime of Superhero Comics — 1983 — Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! 14
In which I discuss putting the 'comic' back in 'comic books', the power of issue numbers and the lack of sales impact of professional animal shapeshifters.
Written by E. Nelson Bridwell and Scott Shaw!
Pencils by Scott Shaw!
Cover date: May 1983
Warning: spoilers for the issue follow
For a form of entertainment explicitly designated as ‘comic’, most of the superhero books I was reading as I entered high school were remarkably unfunny. Oh, sure. Sometimes the writers would give Elongated Man or Firestorm or (Rao help us) Superman a one-liner that, if you used your imagination, could be seen to be sharing the vague general structure of a joke. But they were invariably dreadful, misshapen attempts at humour.
This was bad news for a youngster who was developing a love of comedy.
I was monstrously shy as a wee boy — liable to burst into tears if asked to read any of my creative writing projects in class or talk to anybody I didn’t know or have any attention paid to me whatsoever. Fortunately, my fifth grade teacher had, two years prior to this issue I’m designating as 1983’s comic, made it a personal project of his to encourage my budding sense of humour. Perhaps Mr Virgin — for yes, that was his name — had learnt the importance of the power of laughter after decades of dealing with what surely must have been an endless series of unfunny and predictable taunts over his name.
Regardless of his motives, I remember fondly the man who we sensibly always referred to as ‘Mr V’. He fanned my love of comedy into something that would eventually become the foundation of my adult career. Today — four decades later — I think of myself as a comedy writer. I am currently a comedy writer who mostly writes books about the sport of cricket. But previously I’ve been a comedy writer who (arguably more appropriately) wrote for the Australian branch of MADmagazine. And (inarguably infinitely less appropriately) a comedy writer who did statistical analysis on the Australian housing market.
But my love of comedy was at first helped not one iota by my superhero comic books. The Justice League of America had nothing to teach me when it came to comedy. (Plenty to teach me when it came to using superspeed to travel through time or the optimal stocking of a utility belt or tactics for dealing with fifth dimensional imps, of course. But nothing for comedy.)
Then, in early 1982, I discovered Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! at the local newsagency. The book was an instant delight. Around about this time, the ‘96 pages for 99c’ black and white anthology offerings from Murray Comics were beginning to disappear from my local newsagency. (There were tedious licensing reasons for this that I was not aware of at the time and find too soul-numbingly dull to delve too deeply into now.)
In place of the Murray anthologies, the DC comics were now more like the Marvel ones. Reprints of the original comics. 36 pages, in colour.
And one of the first such DC comics in this non-Murray format that I found in my newsagency was Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! issue 2. (To my eternal frustration, I had missed the first issue, a situation that would not be rectified for at least half a dozen years. So, y’know, not that eternal a frustration, as it turned out. But it felt like eternity at the time.)
The premise of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! was simple. These were funny animal superheroes, illustrated in cartoon style by artist Scott Shaw! (the exclamation mark was an actual part of his name — not optional), a man who’d cut his teeth drawing Hanna-Barbera’s Laff-A-Lympics cartoons. (How did drawing Saturday morning cartoons do such damage to one’s teeth? I dare not speculate.)
The book was co-created by Roy Thomas, a man not historically known for his comedy prowess — he was the writer of, among other things, very serious superhero team books such as All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc.. Those books contained stories of the superheroes of the parallel world that was Earth-2, turf that Thomas had well and truly staked out as his own. (With, as we shall soon see, disastrous results.)
The main conceit of Captain Carrot and his superhero team-mates was that they also existed on yet another parallel earth. Despite being ‘funny animals’ they were just as ‘real’ as the human superheroes of Earth-1 or Earth-2 or Earth-3 or Earth-S. They even had a real designation for their Earth, just like the fancy human superheroes — Earth-C. Sure, the C was for ‘cartoon’, which may have a tad undermined the claims to being treated just as seriously as the other superhero Earths. But otherwise Earth-C was just like Earth-1, the main Earth in the DC universe, except riddled with animal pun names. (Although, of course, the Earth-C inhabitants didn’t see their names as puns. In one memorable exchange with visiting professional animal shapeshifter Changeling from DC’s bestselling Teen Titans, the Zoo Crew make fun of the human versions of place names: “I suppose in Washington they have a ton o’washing ta do”.)
In addition to Captain Carrot (a rabbit who got his powers from carrots imbued with strange alien radiation), there was also Alley-Kat-Abra (a magical cat), Rubberduck (a duck with the ability to stretch), Pig-Iron (a musclebound giant pig), Fastback (a turtle with superspeed) and Yankee Poodle (a poodle with the ability to cast stars (that repelled objects) and stripes (that attracted them)). Together, they were, like so many breakfast radio teams to come, the Zoo Crew.
The other conceit of the book was that previous DC funny animal books (books I knew nothing about, but the equivalent of your Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck comics) were all retroactively deemed to have taken place on Earth-C. As such, there was a history to this corner of the DC universe. (Something I would later learn Roy Thomas went batshit crazy for. The man’s determination to tie pieces of obscure comic books continuity together often outshone his determination to write an interesting comic book story.)
Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! swiftly became my favourite comic. And, since it was not one of those Murray Comics anthologies of DC comics in which stories were started, continued or stopped at the publisher’s reprinting whim, I was able, for the first time, to properly collect the series. Until now, my comics collection was just a grab bag of whatever comics had caught my eye on a particular visit to the newsagency. Buy them, read them, toss them in a box to reread regularly. Just don’t expect any kind of easily trackable ongoing story.
But Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! had actual, proper comic book issue numbers. This may seem trivial, but in the early 1980s, this was a big deal for me. I may have missed the first issue, but I was able to buy every issue after that. And each and every month, I would purchase Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! and devour the team’s battles against a variety of Earth-C menaces (Armordillo, Frogzilla, Cold Turkey et al — I leave it as an exercise for the reader to deduce what superpowers these beastly menaces might have wielded). The Zoo Crew had adventures just like those of the JLA, only with pop culture twists and puntastic wordplay. Perfect for a budding comedian such as myself.
So inspired was I by the first few issues of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! that I tried to do the same thing. In sixth grade, my final year of primary school, we had regular creative writing exercises. Mr V had worked on my self-confidence throughout my fifth grade year. My sixth grade teacher now paid the hideous price for Mr V’s efforts. Regardless of whatever creative writing assignment I was given, I found a way to turn it into part of an ongoing series of stories featuring me and my alter-ego, Super-Nut, a wacky parody of Superman.
I remember very little of Super-Nut’s adventures. This is almost certainly for the best. (I do, however, remember one particular detail: Superman’s powers were undone by the strange alien substance known as kryptonite. Super-Nut’s weakness? Vegemite. Nailed it, eleven-year-old Dan.)
But parodying stuff was fun. Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! had taught me that. I was steeped in DC superhero comics history by now. And it was fun to make fun of it in the way that Captain Carrot and friends did. (Around about this time, I would also have started reading MAD magazine, which would have also helped foster my appreciation for the power of parody.) Sure, I wasn’t as good at it as professional comic book creators were. But each month, I took fresh lessons from these funny animal superheroes.
(I actually didn’t care so much about the funny animal part. They were fine, and obviously fertile ground for wordplay. But it was never the major appeal. I would have been just as happy with parody human superheroes. But parody animal superheroes were what was available. And I was glad to have it.)
And then… to top it all off, in 1983 (my first year of high school) the creators went the next step. Captain Carrot’s alter ego (originally ‘Roger Rabbit’ until rumours that a big-time Hollywood movie with a character of that same name in half of the title was being worked on and the DC higher-ups started encouraging the writers to instead use Captain Carrot’s middle name of ‘Rodney’ (they kept the ‘Rabbit’ surname)) was a comic book artist. In particular, Rodney Rabbit was the comic book artist for the Just’a Lotta Animals comic book — the JLA equivalent in Earth-C. (In the early issues of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew!, we’d often see Rodney working on a panel or cover for a new issue. Those covers were, of course, parodies of classic JLA covers.)
And so, naturally, after thirteen issues, we got down to the real business. A crossover between the Zoo Crew and the Just’a Lotta Animals, who were swiftly revealed to be from Earth C-minus.
This was a delight on every level. A parody of my beloved Justice League of America/Justice Society of America crossovers, with parody versions of the JLA and parody villains to combat. Over the course of a couple of issues of the comic, the Zoo Crew met, fought and teamed up with Super-Squirrel, Batmouse, Wonder Wabbit, Green Lamb-kin, The Crash and Aquaduck. They battled not just recurring Zoo Crew villains but also parodies of JLA villains such as Felix Faust, Amazo and the Shaggy Man (Feline Faust, Amazoo and Shaggy Dawg respectively, of course). Adventures were had, friendships were formed, love triangles were dabbled in and parodies loomed on every page.
Heck, even the creators were parodied. In a cover layout that replicated the format of a recent crossover between the JLA, JSA and Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron, artist Scott Shaw! was now revealed to be Scottie Shaw!. E. Nelson Bridwell became E. Nelson Birdwell, Al Gordon was Owl Gordon, Dick Giordano was Duck G. Ordano and Roy Thomas himself was Roy Thomcat.
The entire thing was a pitch-perfect parody and I loved every single panel of it. Love, love, loved it. In 1983, this was, for me, the pinnacle of superhero comic books. Action, adventure and comedy all in two sublime comic book issues. Perfection.
Alas, there weren’t enough people who agreed with me to sustain the book. Despite that previously alluded-to crossover with fan-favourite Changeling, the twentieth issue of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! was its last regular one. The book — my favourite comic book — was cancelled.
Future mini-series were promised (and eventually came to pass), but for a long time after that, Captain Carrot was ignored by DC Comics. In fact, the DC universe would soon transform into something that, by its very definition, could no longer sustain a concept as glorious as Earth-C and the superhero animals who dwelt there. This was arguably the clearest possible sign that the DC publishers were about to make a horrendous, catastrophic mistake.
But before we get to DC’s Dreadful Catastrophe, which also doubles as my favourite comic of 1985, we should probably check back in with Marvel.
Next month: Cover me, I’m going in