Welcome to the Dollar Box, where I look at single comics issues or short runs of books that had an original cover price of a dollar or less. This time I turn my attention to Jack Kirby’s Kamandi — the last boy on Earth!
If Wikipedia can be trusted, Kamandi was born when DC Comics failed to land the Planet of the Apes license, and turned to Jack Kirby to create something similar. You can almost imagine the conversation, with Carmine Infantino saying, “Jack, can you do us a Planet of the Apes strip?” and Jack saying, “Never saw the movie — what’s it about?” Carmine: “A ruined future, where men are beasts and humanoid apes rule.” Jack: “Got it!” Of course, Kirby wasn’t going to content himself with drawing a bunch of human actors in ape-face. Jack’s post-apocalyptic world of tomorrow would be ruled by every manner of man/animal hybrid — ape-men (of course), but also dog-men, and tiger-men, and humanoid bats that wear costumes looking a bit like opera capes because, why the heck not?
“Why the heck not?” might very well be the subtitle for this whole loopy series, which ran forty issues under Jack Kirby, and almost as long without him, debuting in 1972 before getting wiped out in DC’s own apocalyptic event, the “DC Implosion” of 1978. Kamandi was a wildly imaginative and far-ranging series, but you can’t help but suspect Jack was making it up as he went along. Seemingly every issue is about Kamandi discovering some bizarre splinter of topsy-turvy civilization, getting captured, escaping, being chased, fighting, and then quitting the scene after an issue or three to turn up in Las Vegas or some old department store on the outskirts who-knows-where only to find it overrun by another race of crazy, gunned-up, animal-headed maniacs. Good times!
These are pure adventure comics, and while later storytelling gymnastics would tie the series in with the larger DC Universe — including another Kirby creation, OMAC — I’m not sure these books benefit from close scrutiny. It really is about turning the pages, admiring the art, and wondering what the heck will come next. The stories themselves read like throwbacks to early-20th century adventure fiction, and were pretty clearly pitched at kids — these tales have more in common with Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs than they do DC’s 1970s superhero oeuvre. Trying to read a bunch of them in a single sitting will frankly melt your brain. But for a book that you dip into for an issue or two, to get your head turned inside-art and to marvel at Kirby’s sometimes-goofy but always-earnest world building, Kamandi has some real virtues.
Raised in the “Command-D” bunker from which he took his name, and educated by microfilm records of the world-that-was, Kamandi is a blank slate, a prideful and adventurous teenager who thinks with his fists and acts mostly in service to the story’s plot, another call-back to pulpy heroes like Tarzan or Conan the Barbarian. Kamandi lacks the depth of those characters, though, partially because Kirby writes him as a brash teenager archetype, and partly because characterization would crowd out pages better devoted to the Gopher Men of Ohio, or a giant grasshopper grand prix. It’s not that the series is lightweight — for example, Kamandi’s first love meets with a bad end, and it is wrenching to read — it’s just that this isn’t a character-driven series. It’s a spectacle, with Kamandi and a loose collection of supporting characters along for the ride in Jack Kirby’s magical mystery tour of “Earth-AD” — our planet, horrifically contorted by the intentionally ill-defined “Great Disaster.”
Among those supporting characters are three human mutants — Ben Boxer, Steve, and Renzi — who figure prominently in this tale from issues #8 and #9 of Kamandi. The three have the weird power of turning themselves into living metal by clapping their hands to their chests …
… which feels perfectly normal in this world, even a bit pedestrian, and sure, why not, why wouldn’t this prove a survival trait in a world where humanoid bats swarm to attack your hot air balloon as you drift above an abandoned test range?
That guy with this pistol is Ben Boxer, in his non-metallic form, a kind of adult supervision in this series. Ben’s the sort of dashing male adventure figure that Kirby wrote all the time, someone Jack seemed to think would be cool to younger readers, but he mostly feels like your dad. In this particular story, Kamandi has joined up with Ben and the boys to explore the “Tracking Site,” a NASA experiment gone awry (don’t they all?) that was intended to pave the way for man’s conquest of space.
Ben and the boys are revered by the robots that run the place … but of course the robots almost immediately run amok, because what’s the use of drawing robots if they can’t run amok?
But it’s not the robots fault — they’ve been corrupted by The Misfit, a kid of degenerate freak with mental powers, carried around by his robot servants …
… and here we have another of those pulp throwbacks, as the Misfit and his burly host remind me of Kaldanes and Rykors from Burroughs’ Chessmen of Mars …
… though they might be more familiar to readers of a certain age as Master Blaster from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Who rules Bartertown? Master Blaster rules Bartertown!
(And since I need to sometimes prove I don’t live entirely in the world of 1978, here’s the same big-dumb-guy-carrying-the-little-genius trope from Game of Thrones)
Anyway, this Misfit is a piece of work. He’s got the robots all stirred up, and he seems bent on destroying the world by releasing a killer germ to which he thinks he is somehow immune. And if not for those damn bats, he might have just pulled it off by now!
But the return of Ben Boxer and the boys upsets the Misfit’s plans, and kicks everything into hyperdrive, with bats and robots and mutants brawling all over Tracking Site.
Kamandi is saddled with the little lunatic long enough to learn the Misfit’s sad origin as a failed experiment to breed life that might survive this grim future, and which implies the Misfit may be related to Ben Boxer, a kind of demented half-brother that can’t be killed but needs to be locked in the attic. Certainly, Ben doesn’t seem surprised that the Misfit is primed to do something nasty when let off the leash …
And that nasty thing is nasty indeed — Morticoccus, a truly revolting creation, a malevolent, ambulatory super-germ, a prime example of the loathsome mad science that permeates this series.
“Every human in Tracking Site died in the effort to contain him … in this new world he can live — only if he destroys all other life around him …”
To tell the truth, I have no idea what is going on here. Mutants that turn to metal, their evil brain little brother, rabid bat-men, robots, killer germs, none of it makes a lot of sense. And none of that matters! It’s just off-the-hook crazy fun.
Our heroes eventually get their feet under them, and win the day. Kamandi gets points for showing compassion to the Misfit, moving the little creep to a rare moment of gratitude, permitting Kamandi to escape certain doom …
… but the Misfit himself still pays the price, dying in epic fashion as his space-probe sphere rockets into the sky, with its hull breached by those bloody bats just as the killer germ breaks free.
A gruesome ending indeed, and while I’m not sure I buy Kirby’s conclusion that the Earth was the winner, I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed this bizarre tale of bats and germs and robots and the Last Boy on Earth, even if I’ve read it three times and still don’t know what happened! I’m sure I’ll read it again, as I will every issue of Jack Kirby’s weird vision of Earth “After Disaster.”
Issues #9 and #10 of Kamandi had a cover price of twenty cents, but I expect you can find them for around five bucks now, which seems a fair price to pay for a big slice of looney Jack Kirby nostalgia. There’s also an out-of-print omnibus (which commands big bucks), and digital versions through Comixology, where I snagged most of Kirby’s whole run for .99 an issue. But whether you find them in the dollar box or not, keep an eye out for Kirby’s Kamandi — every collection would be enriched by having an issue or two on hand!
NEXT MONTH: #144 Rampaging Hulk
What if everything you knew was wrong? What if one day, you woke up to a nightmare, and knew with a sickening certainty that it was your life that had been the dream?
Welcome to Super-Blog Team-Up, where a coterie of comic book bloggers all tackle a similar topic on the same day. This time, we’re looking at alternate realities, and for my subject I’ve chosen the “Days of Future Past” story from Uncanny X-Men #141-142.
Aside from 1961’s “Flash Of Two Worlds,” which established the DC multiverse, it is hard to think of a more famous alternate reality comic story than Days of Future Past, which changed the way we look at comics, and the reverberations of which are still being felt today, most recently in the 2014 blockbuster installment of Fox’s X-Men movie franchise.
But forget 2014. Let’s go back to the future of 1981, before Diamond Previews or movie trailers or spoilers on the internet might ruin the surprise of what the then far-future world of 2013 held in store for Marvel’s most popular super-team. So celebrated is this story — so often referenced, reprinted, reinterpreted, and imitated — that it is nearly impossible to understand the impact that this cold open had on comics readers who had plucked X-Men #141 off the spinner rack at 7-11.
What. The. Hell?
Fans following the series might rightly have feared that they’d missed an issue, but scurrying back to re-read #140 would offer no comfort — the last page of that particular story showed the Blob breaking out of jail, with little indication of an impending dystopian future nightmare, aside from a title slug confirming that, yes, the next issue of X-Men was this very “Days of Future Past.”
It was the boldest surprise yet from a comic that changed the industry with some of the boldest stories of the 1970s.
Returning from the limbo of being a reprint book with 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1, the X-Men took the comics world by storm. Guided by writer Chris Claremont, and illustrated by Dave Cockrum, the X-Men were a breath of fresh mutant air in the Marvel Universe, honoring the history of what was at the time a relatively obscure, tertiary comics property, while at the same time mapping out a vigorous new mutant universe, full of monsters, aliens, conspiracies, and political intrigue.
When John Byrne joined the book in issue #108 — in the midst of a superhero space opera that saw the X-Men wrestling with the fate of reality itself — the series kicked into hyperdrive. Though they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, Claremont and Byrne became the Lennon and McCartney of their era, sparking a spectacular creative outburst that brought us the X-Men versus Alpha Flight and the Hellfire Club, some great Magneto stories, an adventure in the Savage Land, and the Death of Jean Grey.
But most memorable of all would be the storyline where everybody dies!
Claremont and Byrne began their tale in medias res, disorienting their audience with an unexplained time-jump, and gleefully staying several steps ahead of us as they shattered the foundations of Marvel’s carefully-cultivated continuity. Colossus and Kitty Pryde were married? Wolverine was a wanted criminal? Cyclops, Nightcrawler, the Fantastic Four, and more were dead? This was a Marvel world turned upside-down, never moreso than with the masterful reveal that the ragtag band of rebels resisting the rule of the mutant-hunting Sentinels were lead by the X-Men’s arch-enemy, Magneto!
Re-reading this story after so many years, there are several things that leap to mind.
Most notably, this was a simple story … or at least as simple as a time-hopping, alternate timeline, end-of-the-world story can be! The premise was established with a few deft strokes: in a grim future ruled by homicidal robots, the world’s last superheroes travel into the past (and our present) to prevent their world from coming to be. You’d expect a lot of narrative and world-building, but pretty much the entire second part of the tale was conventional fisticuffs between the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, who were bent on carrying out an assassination that would ultimately lead to an apocalypse. That’s a lot of heavy lifting to do in just an issue or two, and if it all happened a bit fast, requiring some info-dump dialogue …
… and if recapping the premise required still a bit more expository musing on behalf of Professor Xavier …
… well, those things weren’t too far afield from Chris Claremont’s usual approach, which heeded the directive of Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief, Jim Shooter, who required that every script take into consideration that it might be the very first comic someone might read.
It’s frankly not a bad way to write comics, and if it is a little on-the-nose, this style also has the virtue of brevity. Days of Future Past was a two-issue story, folks! The Bronze Age had some real advantages, I tell you! Were Marvel to tell this tale today, it would be a twelve-issue maxi-series embedded in a sprawling, endless, line-wide crossover event.
But that particular dark future had not yet come to be in 1981 (and pardon me for a moment while I consider my own Days of Future Past, where Longbox Graveyard travels back to 1984 to head off Secret Wars and Crisis On Infinite Earths, before they can unleash an endless series of cumbersome editorial events and reboots on comics fans forevermore). It was a dark future indeed, playing for higher stakes than the usual Marvel monthly — they weren’t kidding when they said that everybody dies …
Now, sure, these deaths “didn’t count” … we knew they’d be overturned, somehow. And our heroes do ultimately triumph, averting the end of the world (the implications of which were dispatched with the speed that characterized the rest of this story) …
… but the fact is, those deaths really did occur. Our heroes died, in the future — just because that future was erased didn’t make the deaths less wrenching. Because no one really stays dead in comics, the most we can ask of a comic-book death is that it be respectful and emotionally-centered, and Claremont and Byrne give us that in spades, with off-panel deaths that feel more impactful because we are mostly left to imagine how they happened. Chris Claremont was a master of comic book characterization, and watching him kill off such vividly-rendered personalities hit to the gut.
There’s plenty more to unpack here, too, like the pervasive presence of the Fantastic Four (which may have reflected John Byrne’s preoccupation — his celebrated writer/artist run on Fantastic Four was in the offing), and the brief hero turn by Magneto, telegraphing an era-to-come in X-Men where villains weren’t villains so much as fallen heroes.
Forty years later, this tale is still worth reading, both for its own sake and because it marked the end of an era. The time was fast approaching when you couldn’t tell who was on the X-Men without a scorecard …
(And here is that scorecard!)
I certainly never cared for X-Men quite so much after the Claremont & Byrne team called it quits, which would happen just two issues later, so I missed much of what came after. Ultimately I think I prefer looking forward to my own future of days past — say the 70s and 80s — where the X-Men all lived in one series, and Claremont and Byrne made everything old seem new again!
And on that alternate-timeline note, let me remind you that the Super-Blog Team-Up crew is today looking at alternate timelines and pocket universes from all around the comic book multiverse. Check ‘em out, and tell them Longbox Graveyard sent you!
- Amazing Spider-Talk/Chasing Amazing/Superior Spider-Talk: Spider-Man Reign FOR and AGAINST!
- Between The Pages: A Tale Of Two Cities On The Edge Of Forever
- Bronze Age Babies: Things Are A Little Different Around Here …
- Firestorm Fan: Firestorm in Countdown Arena
- Flodo’s Page: The Ballad of Two Green Lanterns
- In My Not So Humble Opinion: The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong
- The Legion of Super-Bloggers: Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes
- The Marvel Super Heroes Podcast: Epic Comics’ Doctor Zero
- Mystery Vlog: Marvel & DC’s Secret Crossover — Avengers #85–86
- Superhero Satellite: Marvel Comics’ Star Comics Line
- The Idol-Head of Diabolu: Martian Manhunter Multiversity
- Ultraverse Network: Black September
- The Unspoken Decade: 5 Batmen, 1 Superman — ZERO HOUR AND Robocop vs. Terminator
NEXT WEEK: #142 Kamandi!
I keep this blog pretty laser-focused on comics, but something very cool turned up in my mailbox on Monday, so please indulge me in this little diversion.
What is this?
This is a stack of autograph pages for the anniversary edition of Grimtooth’s Traps, awaiting my signature!
Why my signature?
Well … because the mysterious master of the Longbox Graveyard is also (kinda, sorta) Grimtooth the Troll! Back when I was eighteen years old or so, I edited and (largely) wrote Grimtooth’s Traps, a universal role playing game supplement, for Flying Buffalo Inc.
The book was an instant hit, spawning several sequels. It has remained in print more-or-less continuously since 1981, published around the world in six languages, with something over a quarter-million copies in print.
cartoon of teenage me, circa 1981, by Grimtooth’s Traps illustrator Steve Crompton
It was one of the delights of my early career to be a part of this project, and I was very pleased to make a small contribution to the spiffy new anniversary edition of Grimtooth’s Traps recently kickstarted by Goodman Games.
I’m out of practice with my autograph, but I think they came out OK.
Grimtooth’s Traps opened a lot of doors for me. It provided a substantial professional credit at a very young age, and was instrumental in getting me my first video game design job. It’s a real kick that something I did so long ago is still embraced by fans. I’ve been dining out on the old troll for three decades, and I am so very pleased and proud that the Grimtooth series is getting a deluxe treatment from Goodman Games!
(We now return to your regularly-scheduled comic book content).
Just a friendly reminder that I post a couple times a day to Instagram.
My posts routinely draw a couple hundred likes, and usually spark some conversation. It’s a way to have daily comic book chat on small subjects that don’t always merit a full blog treatment here at Longbox Graveyard.