Recently, I bought Marvel’s Devil Dinosaur Omnibus. It’s a hardcover reprint of the entire original Devil Dinosaur run. It’s not quite as impressive as it might sound considering that there were only nine issues.
Devil Dinosaur was one of the last comic creations of legendary creator Jack Kirby. It wasn’t a bad comic. In fact, I think it’s quite charming. But, even at the time, it seemed a bit old-fashioned. The series stars a red dinosaur and his primate companion, Moon Boy. While the comic was originally set in Earth’s primitive past, it was eventually retconned to be an alternate reality. Devil Dinosaur has primitive adventures, fighting giants, dinosaurs, and aliens to defend The Valley of Fire, his home. The tag line says it best: “In an age when giants walked the world — he was the mightiest of all!”
Devil’s adventures are fairly straightforward affairs. Something threatens the valley. Devil and Moon Boy fight that something. The valley is saved. The end. Although it’s funny to see that by issue 4, Jack Kirby had already run out of run-of-the-mill dinosaur attacks and resorted to alien invaders. Although dinosaurs vs. aliens is always cool with me.
What’s interesting to me though are issues #6 & 7 that retell, in a roundabout way, the Biblical fall from grace of humanity. This is a delightfully absurd yet thoughtful story, and even a bit subversive. The story begins with Devil unleashing a swarm of giant ants to destroy an alien spaceship. (Because DD is more than just a pretty face. He can be strategic when he needs to be.) The ships computer remains though and, damaged but functional, it decides to basically adopt a pair of the primitive hominids who stumble upon it.
The hominids, unable to understand what it is, simply call the computer a “tree” (it does kind of look like one.), and at first, they grow upset with the tree as it pacifies them (for their own good, of course). It then encases the area in a forcefield (for their own protection, of course), and provides food and shelter. Everything they could need or want. Everything but freedom.
Eventually, Devil and Moon Boy happen upon the primitive couple, and Devil manages to pierce through the forcefield. The tree overloads and explodes. The couple escape, promising to retell the story to their tribe and carry it forward. The end.
On its face, it’s a fine story, but what I love about it is how it explores the story of the fall from grace in a rather shades of gray way. In this story, the tree is misguided. It’s not so much evil as confused. It’s well-meaning and, considering how difficult can be in The Valley of Fire (what with all the dinosaur and alien attacks), it’s hard to say that the primitive people are better off. Yet the computer does accidentally kill a third member of its charges with a radiation leak. It might be an accident, but it shows that the computer’s “superior” judgment isn’t always reliable.
The primitive folk, despite being surrounded by plentiful food and safety, almost immediately resent their protected status. They instinctively seek freedom. The Valley of Fire might be treacherous, but it’s their home. They’d rather live short, free lives than long, captive ones.
The ultimate twist though is that, just like in the story of The Garden of Eden, a reptile is responsible for humanity’s “fall”. True, dinosaurs aren’t really reptiles, but bear with the symbolism. It’s Devil who frees the hominids. And I doubt it’s a coincidence that Devil’s name is indeed Devil. But there’s no malice in Devil’s actions. He’s just trying to help.
Is the tree wrong for wanting to protect the hominids from a dangerous world and their own self-destructive natures? Are the hominids wrong for not appreciating the gifts it wants to bestow? Does their freedom come at too high a price? Or is their paradise exactly what they perceive it to be, a prison? Seductive, yes, but a prison nonetheless. And let’s not forget our old pal Devil Dinosaur who may or may not be doing the primitive souls a favor, but sees only two distressed people calling out for aid.
Who exactly is the bad guy in this story? Or the good guy for that matter?
There are no clear answers, and it’s pretty complex stuff for a kid’s adventure comic. It’s true that the story itself isn’t terribly subtle in terms of art and characterization. Then again, our characters are primates, dinosaurs, and a malfunctioning computer. Yet the story itself is a great study in how complex and unclear life can be sometimes, how good intentions aren’t always enough, and how our primitive instincts might cost us more than we realize OR lead us out of a false paradise. Or even both at the same time.
All I know for certain is that Devil Dinosaur is pretty damn cool.