Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Life and Times of The Deadliest Man Alive: A History of Kobra

No less an authority on super-villainy than the Batman has called him the second most dangerous man he's ever met. Beginning with the fifth issue, the covers of his own short lived series proclaimed him the deadliest man alive.  Although not the first DC villain to be given a series (that honor goes to Batman's arch-nemesis, the Joker), he was the first to debut as the star of his own book.  Call him Naja-Naja or call him Jeffrey Burr, just don't call him late for a ritual sacrifice.  He is the lord of the Cobra Cult; the would be world conquerer known as Kobra.
What follows the jump is a rather lengthy article on the history of the character, concentrating on the years from his first appearance in 1975 to 1985's Crisis On Infinite Earths.  That's why I've included the jump break, so that if don't care to read this long-winded discourse, you can more easily scroll down to something you might find more interesting.

The story of Kobra begins, as does so much in the realm of super-hero comics, with Jack Kirby.  While Kirby is best known for co-creating many of the iconic heroes who form the bedrock of the Marvel Comics universe, his most enduring contributions to the lore of the DC Universe are villains, such as Darkseid and, of course, Kobra.
According to the text page in Kobra #1, the initial germ of an idea that evolved into Kobra actually came from DC's publisher, Carmine Infantino. He envisioned an update of The Corsican Brothers, the 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas, the French novelist better known for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, which told the story of a pair of Siamese twins separated at birth and raised separately.  The publisher handed the concept to Kirby, who, with the aid of assistant Steve Sherman, wrote and drew the first issue of what was then known as King Kobra.  However, as Rob Kelly reveals in his article on Kobra in Back Issue #35, that story was  not originally intended for publication, but rather to serve as Kirby's proposal for the series.
    Kirby left DC to return to Marvel shortly after completing King Kobra, and the proposal story languished for more than a year while the DC powers that be tried to decide what to do with it. It was slated on three separate occassions to appear in First Issue Special, which served as a forum to debut new concepts, before  the decision was made to launch it as a new series. At that point, it was given to editor Gerry Conway, who assigned Martin Pasko as the series' new writer. Pasko's ideas for the book necessitated a rewriting of Kirby's script as well as the redrawing of  the character of Jason Burr in order to make him appear younger.  Pablo Marcos was brought in to make the required alterations in the art.  With these changes in place, the bi-monthly series, now called simply Kobra, debuted with an issue dated  February-March, 1976.
    That first story, “Fangs of the Kobra,” serves to set up the basic premises that would carry Kobra through its six remaining issues.  We meet Jason Burr, a college student who is approached by Lieutenant Ricardo Perez of the NYPD. Perez claims to need Burr's help to capture a criminal known as Kobra.  The detective reveals to Jason that Kobra is his Siamese twin, who was believed to have died shortly after the operation which separated them. In reality, the child was kidnapped by adherents of the Cobra Cult, who believed him destined to be their next leader. A later issue fleshes out the story a bit. Jason's father was an American tycoon, head of Burr Industries, and his mother was a native of India. Jason and his twin were born prematurely while the couple were visiting New Delhi.  It is worth noting that although the original Kobra is now also known as Jeffrey Burr, Jason Burr states in this issue that his presumed dead twin was never given a name.
    We are also introduced to Kobra himself, who operates out of an elaborate complex deep below the city of New York, using stolen alien technology to aid him in his quest for world domination.
We discover, too. that the brothers share a psychic link that allows one to feel any pain inflicted upon the other. Thus, it is presumed that if one is killed, the other will die as well. Burr uses that link to lure Kobra to him, but the villain escapes, zooming off in his futuristic flying ark.
     Dennis O'Neil, writer of most of the issues of the Joker's series, has opined that the major problem with writing a comic about a super-villain was that the Comics Code demanded that the star of your book be captured and incarcerated at the end of every story, and that having him have to break out of prison every issue strained the reader's credulity.  However, Kobra, throughout the run of his series and beyond, continuously eluded capture, yet every issue of his series carried the Comics Code's seal of approval.
    Many titles launched during this period were marked by rapid creative turnover, with writers and/or artists producing only one or two issues before being replaced.  Kobra was no exception to this trend. In this case, though Pasko wrote all the stories, the artistic duties fell to a different team nearly every issue.  It was not until the final two issues, penciled by Mike Nassar with inks by Joe Rubinstein, that the series seemed to have finally gained a “permanent” creative team.   The earlier issues featured art by Jack Kirby, D. Bruce Berry and Pablo Marcos in #1;  Chic Stone and Marcos in #2; Keith Giffen, Terry Austin and Dick Giordano in #3; Pat Gabrielle and Lowell Anderson in #4: and Rich Buckler and Frank McLaughlin in #5.  The covers for the first three issues were by Ernie Chua, Joe Kubert did the cover for #4, and  the covers of the three remaining issues were by the teams who produced the interior artwork.
    Pasko now began to truly make the series his own, building on and expanding upon what he and Kirby had established in the premiere story. According to Kelly, Pasko developed a history for the Cobra Cult based upon his studies of India, but none of that ever made it into the comic.  With all that Pasko did manage to cram into these stories, there just wasn't room.
Borrowing another element from The Corsican Brothers, in which the two brothers fall in love with the same woman, the second issue introduces Jason Burr's girlfriend Melissa, who Kobra also knows and has feelings for. In a flashback in issue three, we also learn the story of Natalie, Kobra's other lost love, whom he met while hospitalized for a minor illness and who briefly lured him away from the Cobra Cult and led him to question his destiny.  Only after Natalie was killed by an Interpol agent during the commission of a crime did Kobra learn that she was an international jewel thief.  It was her death that motivated Kobra to return to the cult and conquer it in order to use it in his campaign of vengeance against the forces of the law.
Issues two and three comprise a two part story in which Burr, at the behest of Kobra, is drawn into a conflict between Kobra and another villain known as Solaris, who has developed a solar powered death ray that Kobra wants for himself. Also, in this story the psychic link between the brothers grows stronger, to the point where the two share the same dreams and emotional reactions and Kobra can feel it when Melissa kisses Jason.  Later, Perez is revealed to actually be a CIA agent who is after Kobra in order to recover a canister of deadly cobra venom stolen by Kobra despite having been ordered destroyed six years earlier by the President.
    Then, the book was “canceled”.  The letters column of issue three ends by announcing that issue had been the last.  However, two months later, the next issue appeared on news stands right on schedule. The title had been granted a temporary stay of execution until final sales figure were tabulated.
The fourth issue features Kobra's meeting with a representative of the alien race responsible for the creation of the Servitor, a robot Kobra had sent to kill Jason Burr in issue one.  Kobra believes that the two headed, four armed creature, who claims that he will eventually split into two separate two headed aliens, holds the key to breaking his psychic link with his despised brother.  Kobra manipulates the alien into ordering a pair of Servitors to kill Agent Perez.  Realizing he's been duped, the alien takes his killer robots and goes home.  Melissa disappears after a fight with Jason, and he believes, rightly, as it will turn out, that Kobra is behind it. The other highlight of this issue is the addition to the supporting cast of Randu Singh, an Indian delegate to the United Nations, who hopes to recruit Jason to help him end Kobra's threat to his home country.  It is hinted in a caption that this is not Randu's first appearance in a DC comic, though nowhere in this or subsequent issues is it revealed where we might have seen him before. Randu previously had been part of the supporting cast of another Jack Kirby created book, The Demon.
    Issue five sported a brand new logo on the cover and a new direction for the story inside.  Pasko began to shift the emphasis away from the brother against brother conflict and to build a team of characters to oppose Kobra's mad schemes.  Toward that end, this issue saw the addition to the cast of Jonny Double, an obscure private investigator character who had appeared in only a handful of comics since his debut in Showcase  some eight years previous.  The story centers on Double, with Burr appearing in only a few panels, as the detective uncovers a plot by Kobra to use a machine that can trigger earthquakes to destroy San Francisco.
The story concludes in the sixth issue.  Jonny manages to stop the earthquake from leveling the city. Instead, it merely causes some damage to the Golden Gate, which Double and Randu then must stop Kobra from taking advantage of in order to tamper with undersea telephone cables running beneath the bridge. The issue ends with Randu blinded by Kobra's venom, and the villain himself seemingly killed when Jonny appears to have destroyed his ark.  This issue introduces yet another member of the Anti-Kobra crew, a scientist friend of Jonny Double's named Dr. Ross Emerson, who, as far as I've been able to determine, had not appeared in any previous comic book.  Jason Burr appears in this issue only long enough for Kobra to reveal to him that his lost love Melissa is still alive, thus giving Jason a reason to go on living and preventing him from killing himself to stop Kobra. 
    The title of the story in issue six is “The Crack In The World Conspiracy”,  while the next issue featured “The Lazarus Conspiracy” and the story that was to have appeared in the never published eighth issue was entitled “The Dead On Arrival Conspiracy.”  It's safe to assume that had the series continued, Pasko would have carried on the convention of naming each story “The (Fill In The Blank) Conspiracy.”
 “The Lazarus Conspiracy” returns Jason Burr to center stage. He finally meets Jonny Double, who hands him one of Kobra's wrist weapons acquired during the incident at the Golden Gate bridge. Jay uses the device to sneak aboard Kobra's ark to look for Melissa. He finds her, but is captured by Kobra.  Melissa reveals to Jay that she now loves Kobra, and we are given reason to suspect that she may have been working for him all along. The villain then unveils his “Project R.”  R stands for “Resurrection,” meaning that Kobra has now gained the power to revive the dead.  Jason escapes, and Kobra prepares to unleash his “ultimate weapon” against his brother, the stolen bodies of the twins' dead parents.
    Despite a promotional blurb promising not only a “spellbinding climax” to the war between Kobra and Jason Burr, but a guest appearance by Batman as well, in the next issue, this is where the ongoing Kobra series ends.  Without even an announcement in the letters column this time, the series was canceled for real.  However, it would not be long before the villain would begin popping up around the DC universe.

The character's next appearance came just a few months after the cancellation of his title, in the summer of 1977, in 5 Star Super Hero Spectacular, a giant sized “DC Dollar Comic,” featuring tales of Aquaman, the Atom, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Batman.  In truth, the issue is probably most notable for the Green Lantern story, which marked the first work on the character by artist Joe Staton, who would go on to a lengthy run on GL's own monthly book. 
For the Batman story, Martin Pasko revived “The Dead On Arrival Conspiracy,” which was to have appeared in Kobra #8, reworking his original idea to feature the Caped Crusader more prominently while tying up the loose ends left dangling by Kobra's abrupt cancellation.  Bats is drawn into the conflict between the twins when Bruce Wayne receives a letter from Jason Burr which begins “If you are reading this, I am dead.”  Jason is not dead, but he is, once again, Kobra's prisoner, having been lured into a trap baited with the revived bodies of his parents.  Jonny Double had assumed Jason to be deceased and mailed the letter to Wayne per Burr's instructions.  Batman tracks Kobra to the Swiss Alps, where he has appropriated a former lair of Ra's Al Ghul, complete with the Lazarus Pit, the device that allows Al Ghul to be nearly immortal. Kobra has altered the Pit to make anyone revived by it his slave.  Previously, he had subjected Melissa to this treatment.  Kobra is momentarily captured by Bats and Jay escapes with Melissa in tow.  Protected by the effect of the Neural Neutralizer, a device, introduced in the last issue of Kobra's series, that temporarily breaks the the psychic link between the brothers, Kobra telepathically orders Melissa to kill Burr. Kobra then escapes and Batman vows vengeance.
    While the death of Jason Burr freed Kobra of any continuity baggage left over from his series, it also took away the element that distinguished him from any of an endless number of would be world conquerers who have appeared in super hero comics throughout their long history.  Now he was just another power mad guy in a silly costume with an army of fanatical followers.  I wonder if, had Kobra's series continued, Pasko would have taken the drastic step of killing Jason Burr. I think the answer is that he would have. Given the new direction the series took beginning with the fifth issue, which deemphasized Burr's role in the story and would have been cemented firmly in place by his elimination, it seems to me that the character's demise was inevitable.
    The first writer other than Kirby or Pasko to handle Kobra was David Michelinie in a series of Aquaman issues beginning later in 1977.  The story concerns Kobra's efforts to destroy the country of Portugal and featured guest appearances by Batman and Green Lantern.

Pasko took one final turn at writing the character he'd co-created in the pages of Superman.  In issue #326, a squad of Kobra's men break into Clark Kent's apartment to retrieve an alien weapon Supes had confiscated from some agents of the evil organization known as Skull, who had stolen it from Kobra.  In the process of recovering the weapon, the henchmen stumble upon one of Clark's spare Superman outfits.  Oddly enough, while the alien weapon was hidden in a secret compartment in Clark's closet, the costume seems to be just hanging there alongside his fleet of identical blue suits. In Superman #327, Kobra uses his knowledge of Superman's secret identity to blackmail the Kryptonian into helping with his plan to recover an experimental nerve gas that Superman had earlier dispersed into a fine mist which settled harmlessly over Metropolis after the plane carrying it exploded.   Needless to say, Superman figures out a way to  thwart Kobra's plans, but Kobra once again escapes. Interestingly, Superman is unable to spot Kobra's ark using his infra-red vision, yet in “The Dead On Arrival Conspiracy” Batman had been able to photograph the vehicle using infra-red film.  Its seems that Kobra had upgraded his “masker” in the interim.
The next writer to employ Kobra also had a previous connection with the character.  He was Gerry Conway, who had edited Kobra's series just a couple of years earlier.  Beginning in issue #273, Conway pitted Kobra against Wonder Woman. This story arc also featured a minor change in Kobra's costume. A hood, resembling that of his reptilian namesake, was added to his headgear.  It looked rather silly and was thankfully absent the next time he appeared.
    That next appearance wouldn't occur for four years.  After his long absence, Kobra had a big year in 1985.  His not all that triumphant return to the DC Universe occurred in a Superman/Ambush Bug team up in DC Comics Presents # 81, plotted and drawn by Keith Giffen, returning to the character whose third issue he had penciled, in a vastly different style, nearly a decade earlier, with dialogue by Robert Loren Fleming and inks by Bob Oksner. Kobra seeks out the Bug to acquire the secrets of his costume's powers of teleportation.  When he arrives at Ambush Bug's office he finds Superman, or at least Superman's body. Superman and Ambush Bug had temporarily switched bodies after the Bug inadvertently exposed the Man of Steel to Red Kryptonite.

Following his encounter with Ambush Bug, Kobra boards his ark and directs his lackeys to “plot a course out of the DC Universe.”  He would return only a couple months later to once again face off against Batman, who this time was backed by the team of new and obscure or little used heroes known as the Outsiders, in a tale written by Mike W. Barr with art by Alan Davis, which appeared in Batman and the Outsiders #24 through #27. Kobra manages to capture one of the Outsiders, learn the teams' secret identities, and take control of America's “Star Wars” space based missile defense system before his plans are thwarted by Batman and his protégées.
    Kobra's other appearance during 1985 was a mere cameo.  He is simply a face in the crowd in a couple of panels amongst the army of super villains assembled by Lex Luthor and Brainiac to conquer three of the five remaining alternate earths in the ninth issue of DC's landmark, universe changing 12 part mini-series Crisis On Infinite Earths
    Kobra's little hiatus was not to repeated.  Following his initial encounter with the Outsiders, Kobra would become a recurring nemesis for the team, and would go on to grapple with other heroes, ranging from King Faraday to the Flash to the Justice Society of America. Indeed, since his return in 1985, not a year went by without Kobra popping up in one title or another until 2008, when he was killed by Black Adam.   However, his organization continues to exist and thrive, with the mantle of Kobra being taken up by a resurrected Jason Burr.    Given that this is comics, after all, and that the revival of the dead is a major part of the Kobra mythos, it seems likely the original will someday return.


  1. Kobra never had too much popularity, however who have read his comics, know that is an fabulous figure of action.