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Kamandi!

Longbox Graveyard #143

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!

Kamandi #10, Jack Kirby

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?

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

“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!

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

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.

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

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 …

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

… 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?

Kamandi #9, Jack Kirby

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?

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

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 …

Jack Kirby, Kamandi

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

… 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 …

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!

Master Blaster!

(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)

Hodor!

Hodor!

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!

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

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, Jack Kirby

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 …

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

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.

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

“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 …”

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

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 …

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

… 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.

IMG_0018_2

Jack Kirby, Kamandi

Kamandi, Jack Kirby

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

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on February 4, 2015, in The Dollar Box and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.

  1. turn your mind inside-art indeed; good read

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  2. I bought a couple of random issues of Kamandi in a dollar bin a year or two ago. They were a pretty good read. These issues you discuss do sound like a lot of good, trippy fun.

    This series, based on your description, sounds a bit like Thundarr the Barbarian, though Thundarr is not nearly so bizarre.

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  3. I loved Kamandi but only ever read it through random issues I picked up in my local second hand book/comic shop but in hindsight that now seems like the best way to read it: random and out of sequence. Makes it seems even crazier and no-sense-making

    Have to put in a word for Mike Royer’s lettering, it has a boldness that’s perfect for Kirby’s DC work

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  4. I was a loyal reader of Kamandi for a couple of years and tried to hang in for a bit after Kirby left. I was nine or ten years old, so i was the perfect audience for it. It was just a lot of fun to read.

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  5. Reblogged this on My Blog.

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  6. I loved Kirby back in the day but the premise of Kamandi did not grab me at that time – I had super-hero myopia as a lad. I read some random issues I am sure. In the recent few years I’ve been binging on Kirby’s work and ended up buying Kamandi in “Archive Edition” format (2 volumes). The work is exactly as you characterize, Paul — energetic, creative, impenetrable at times, nutty, but always 100% US-made Prime-cut Grade “A” F-U-N!

    It was fun reading your commentary above — makes me want to re-read the whole kit n kaboodle!

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  7. Love this edition Paul. I think Kamandi has so much potential outside of the comics. Picture a 12 episode Netflix series. Gold!

    Love the parallels to Mad Max. Kirby was a master of invention. There has never been an artist outside of Ditko that has a style that creates not only unique characters but technology and worlds.

    Either way..I am still a huge Longbox Graveyard fan. Great work my friend. As usual!

    Hero Out..

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    • Thanks, Hero!

      For my part, I think the perfect Kamandi adaptation would have been for a crate of the comics to wash up on the shores of Japan in about 1982 or so, without translation, resulting in an unauthorized anime adaptation. THAT would be worth hoarding VHS for!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lol..brilliant..someone needs to get on this..I think if Jack Kirby was working in Japan in the 1950-60s anime as we know it would look exactly like the Kirbyverse that we know today.

        Dust off the VCR..I am all in on this one!

        Hero Out!

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  8. Due to his formula, Kamandi lacked some character development but it had everything else that you’d expect from a great adventure strip… Things that are sorely lacking in so many modern characters driven comics. Kamandi never fail to entertain you! Glad you decided to give it a chance Paul, I knew you couldn’t be disappointed.

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    • Kamandi is just about perfect for what it is. I know it has been revised and reinvented by later creators (and such is the way of comics), but really, it’s all about animal-headed guys beating each others brains out. And that’s great by me.

      Last night I watched the “Last Bat On Earth” episode of The Brave & The Bold animated series, which features Kamandi and Batman battling Gorilla Grodd for the fate of Earth A.D. … and it was pretty much all animal-headed guys beating each others brains out. That show GOT IT! (and that show is deeply missed)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I wasn’t into the Kirby stuff at Marvel because I was a solid DC kid (those were the ones that my Mom brought home from the drugstore whenever I was sick and she was picking up my prescription). When Kirby moved to DC I grabbed onto the 4th World stuff eagerly. But my favorite stuff of his was Kamandi, which I dutifully read every month. I loved everything about it – it felt like a TV series or a cliffhanger serial from the 30s. Good stuff. I keep meaning to pick up the big collection, but will heed your warning to not over-read.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on Mars Will Send No More and commented:
    A look inside a vintage issue of Kamandi, featuring the awe-inspiring extermination of Morticoccus… The Ultimate GERM!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Whenever folks attempt to tell me that Kirby had lost it by the 70’s, I just shake my head in wonder as I think about The New Gods, OMAC, Captain America, and Kamandi. kamandi might be my favorite work of The KIng’s. There’s just something so earnest and amazing about it. Great article, Paul!

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  12. This is a fantastic story. I love Jack Kirby’s Kamandi series for the art and the post-apocalyptic plots. You make an excellent observation about Kirby launching this series as a counterepoint to Marvel’s Planet of the Apes series.

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    • Planet of the Apes was the worst. And I say this as a child of the sixties and seventies, who eagerly awaited each movie, and sat through more than one butt-numbing in-theater movie marathon to watch them all. I mean, I love those movies, I really do, but for an action fan — particularly a comics action fan — they didn’t offer a lot. Beneath The Planet of the Apes remains my favorite film in the series, just because it is so schlocky and so full of ACTION compared to the other pictures, which is what a twelve-year-old kid wants. Not Maurice Evans in a monkey suit. ACTION. And Nova.

      I don’t doubt that Kirby could have done a dynamite Apes comic, but I’m glad he got to do his own thing with Kamandi … in part because it meant he wasn’t saddled with a lot of Talking Apes, but mostly because in Kamandi he got to do action. ACTION! It’s all animal-headed maniacs trying to kill each other, and for a comic, I far prefer that to a bunch of static ape heads discussing the finer points of the Lawgiver’s prophecies.

      ACTION!

      Now, if Kamandi had Linda Harrison/Nova, it would be just about perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

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