“The Swamp Girl” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from October 31 to December 31, 1955. Just as Dan Barry guided the strip closer to its origins, he took two sidesteps in introducing a back-story for Dr. Zarkov that Alex Raymond never intended. “The Swamp Girl” introduces us to a hot-tempered, beautiful young woman called Zara, whose mother was the sole survivor when her rocket crashed on the swamp world of Malagua twenty years before.
As the story begins, Lisa (Zara’s mother) is succumbing to malaria just as her daughter has finally succeeded in repairing their rocketship. Zara sets off to visit her father’s home world of Earth and fulfill her mother’s dying request that her daughter bring the father she has never met to see her mother before she dies, so that her mother may reconcile with him.
Zara arrives on Earth with her pet black panther, Octavio. Their ship’s coordinates take them to the desert town where Zara’s father, Dr. Zarkov, lives. After upsetting the neighborhood and evading the police, both the swamp girl and her panther reach their destination.
Zarkov is presenting his plans for a new space satellite at a scientific gathering when a dagger is hurled at the podium with a message attached. Zarkov explains to Flash that twenty years earlier, he was married to a woman named Lisa, whom he met when he made his first interstellar voyage and arrived on her native planet, Elgon. Lisa and Zarkov lived together on Earth for a few months after their wedding, until she unexpectedly left him to return home to Elgon out of frustration that her husband was more dedicated to science than their marriage. Stealing his rocketship, Lisa crash-landed on Malagua and gave birth to the daughter Zarkov never knew he had fathered.
Zarkov and Flash follow Zara’s trajectory to Malagua. There Zarkov is reunited with his wife on her deathbed. Zarkov learns that Zara is his daughter just before Lisa dies. While Zarkov falls into a terrible depression over the hurt he has been submerging in his work all these years, Zara blames her father for driving her mother away. First, she uses explosives to destroy their rocketship and then she burns her mother’s cabin to the ground to deny them shelter from the hostile environment of the planet.
Stealing their firearms while Flash and Zarkov sleep, Zara acts on her impulsive attraction to Flash and steals a kiss from him before running away. Resorting to bow and arrows to hunt for food, Flash is attacked by a crocodile. A sympathetic Zara helps nurse him back to health. After Zarkov risks his own life trying in vain to save his daughter’s pet panther when the cat is attacked by a snake, Zara’s anger turns to tears of sadness and she turns to her father as the only family she has left.
While Flash recovers from his wounds, Zara collapses with malaria from the mosquito-ridden swamp. Finding her hidden rocketship, Flash and Zarkov take the girl back to Earth, where she recovers in a hospital. There is tremendous emotional resonance to this strip to a degree never before attempted. The revelation of the human pain and sense of failure behind Zarkov’s unswerving commitment to science and the tenderness of the development of a father-daughter relationship between him and Zara points to a redefining of the strip that sees it move towards a more mature level of storytelling. “The Swamp Girl” is an excellent and under-appreciated storyline that is one of Dan Barry’s very best in his long run with the strip.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press) and The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). The Triumph of Fu Manchu is scheduled for publication in July 2014.