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Friday, March 13, 2020

The Roots of Genndy Tartakovsky's PRIMAL (2019)

Q: How many giant, blood-red, mutant bats does it take to carry an adult T. rex into the cave of a humongous spider-god?

A: Is that an African or a European giant, blood-red, mutant bat?
Actually, the answer is ‘two’.

From this intro you can tell that I’ve finally caught up with PRIMAL, the latest series from Genndy (Samurai Jack) Tartakovsky on the Cartoon Network. The first five episodes of the first season aired last Fall and ended on a cliffhanger (spoiler – I’m betting that the T. rex is still alive).

Spear and Fang

The show’s premise is simple – in a cartoon version of prehistory where only such things are possible, a caveman (‘Spear’) is befriended by a Tyrannosaurus rex (‘Fang’) and together they fight for survival.

The premise is not new or novel. Pop culture is clogged with hominids of some sort or another living in a world where both dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals all coexist.

The most famous is probably the long running and much repeated, THE FLINTSTONES (1960). Like Primal’s Spear, Fred Flintstone has a pet dinosaur, Dino, who I always thought must be some sort of prosauropod. But, The Flintstones, as great as it was, is just a variation on Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners (if that means anything to kids these days) and its prehistoric milieu is just a parody of modern society.

Primal’s earliest, best-known antecedent would be the comic strip, ALLEY OOP, featuring the caveman of the same name. Created by V.T. Hamlin back in 1932, Alley Oop lived in the mythical prehistoric land of Moo and got into all kinds of hijinks with his cavemen buddies, his pet dinosaur, Dinnie, and his girlfriend, Ooola (as in Oh la la!). Primal’s Spear even shares Oop’s thick body build, although not Oop’s Popeye-like upper arms and legs.

Next up is Vaughn (Cheech Wizard) Bode’s, THE MAN, featuring the adventures of a melancholic and confused-by-his-prehistoric world caveman. Broadly modeled after Alley Oop, The Man is alone in his world except for his beloved stick (called ‘Stick’) to which he voices his inner thoughts and fears. In his neanderthal brain (not a slur), The Man perceives Stick as being as ‘alive’ as he is and even risks his life to save it when it is in danger.

Primal’s Spear shares a similar relationship to his own ‘Spear’ and goes to great lengths to retrieve it when it is lost.

Vaughn Bode's The Man

The Man’s existence is sad, lonely, scary, and desperate, and it is not at all your traditional comic strip. Spear’s adventures and almost suicidal despondency over the misery that is life in Primal’s first episode could easily be seen as a homage to what may be Bode’s most mature and poignant work. The Man was originally created in 1965 for Syracuse University’s student newspaper (Bode was just a sophomore!), the Daily Orange, and deserves to be better known. The Man can be found in a 1972 reprint by Print Mint or in Schizophrenia, an anthology of Bode’s work published by Fantagraphics in 2001.

Which brings us to Jack (The King) Kirby’s, DEVIL DINOSAUR, which is what PRIMAL is in all but name.

In 1970, Kirby left Marvel Comics after creating or co-creating almost their entire roster of super-heroes. Lured to DC with the promise of editorial control and presumably better pay, Kirby created his much praised, interconnected ‘Fourth World’ series (New Gods, etc.), only to have them abruptly cancelled by unsupportive overseers (I’m looking at you, ghost of Carmine Infantino!). Kirby replaced these books with new (even better IMHO) characters (The Demon, OMAC, Kamandi) before giving up on DC and returning to Marvel in 1976.

Going back to Marvel must have been hard, but Kirby had a family to feed, so he swallowed his pride and returned to The House That Kirby Built. He went on produce some of his best work, including an oversized ‘treasury’ version of 2001: A Space Odyssey that is a thing of beauty to behold. But perhaps his most notable creation (at least to this palaeontologist) is the curiosity that is Devil Dinosaur, his last hurrah for Marvel. Only running for nine issues (but since recently revived), it featured the adventures of the blue ape-man, Moon Boy, and his red T. rex, the aptly named Devil Dinosaur.

Just like the world of Primal, Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur lived in chaotic mixture of prehistoric beasts and danger, and featured adventures that only Jack Kirby could have conceived. Fans were never surprised when marauding aliens turn up or when Devil Dinosaur time traveled forward to the modern world.

Tartakovsky's Primal embraces all things Jack Kirby, only differing in its beautifully muted colour design and lack of dialogue (bravo for that stylistic choice – that must have been a tough sell to the network executives). As the series progresses, Spear and Fang battle progressively weirder protagonists until we finally fully arrive in Jack Kirby’s universe by episode 4. The giant mutant bats from this episode bear an uncannily resemblance to giant bats from his Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth #9 (1973). The giant spider from the same episode was seen in Devil Dinosaur #2 (1978). And finally, Primal’s cliffhanger episode delivers the Clobberin’ Time punch of the giant wearing the Triceratops skull mask (above) from DD #3 (1978) battling one of Kirby’s first creations for Marvel, The Incredible Hulk.

Yes, you read that right – THE INCREDIBLE HULK.

To beat the giant ape-thing wearing the Triceratops skull and save his T. rex buddy, Spear drinks a potion that turns him into a giant (giant!), raging, out-of-control green blue hulk. At this point the series has admitted that anything goes! I fully support Tartakovsky engaging his inner Kirby as the series moves forward. I will be disappointed if I don’t soon see robotic Recorders from another galaxy, Spear’s spear turning out to be a magic hammer when slammed on the ground, and a time machine that takes Spear and Fang to downtown Manhattan! At a minimum.

Note the famous log from King Kong (1933)

Is Primal Worth My Time: A big five stars for entertainment value and I refuse to poke holes in its premise by wearing my palaeontologist field cap. I can even believe the events that lead to Spear and Fang teaming up. But I will point out that only a ‘plot device’ could have Spear building his soon-to-be-eaten family’s hut in the middle of a plain full of carnivorous dinosaurs and not up on a safe cliff somewhere. Or, maybe, you know, being a caveman, why not put them in a nice defendable cave

Not every episode is over top adventure. The David Krentz storyboarded episode (#3) with Spear and Fang battling a winter storm and a herd of mammoths is touching and exciting at the same time. And kudos to the brilliant design and colour palate of the series, and the fine music and sound design that is all the more noticeable for the lack of dialogue (although there IS a lot of grunting, screaming and roaring).

Availability: Wherever you can watch the Cartoon Network.

Ray Bradbury on The Man: "The Man by Vaughn Bode is very sad and very touching and full of the loneliness that must have been beast/man's long before we knew more of love and what it could do to save us from the uncaring universe, and, often, ourselves." 

Contender for the greatest single frame in animation history