Saturday, June 4, 2016

Kamandi - The Lost World!

Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth debuted in late 1972. Jack Kirby had been at DC for well over a year and his magnum opus featuring the New Gods had stalled in the market. But his contract stilled called for him to produce a number of pages so titles were developed to take the place of The Forever People (The Demon) and New Gods (Kamandi) with Mister Miracle hanging on for a few more months. The mandate had come from Carmine Infantino to create a title which evoked the adventure and mystery of the successful Planet of the Apes movies. DC had failed to win that license and so Kirby's version would be competing directly with Marvel's version of the Apes franchise.

To that end, as was often his wont, Kirby dusted off old concepts and blended them to create something totally new. A long ago concept was called "Kamandi of the Caves" about a prehistoric man battling other cave men and such.

Blending this concept with the idea of talking animals (which Kirby had explored before many years before in such places as Thor with the High Evolutionary's "New Men") we got the post-Apocalyptic world of Kamandi. Kamandi derived his name from his home for many years, the bunker in which he lived with his uncle named "Command D".

The first issue is loaded and shows Kamandi exploring the world of demolished New York City for the first time.

In this tale Kirby establishes many of the core concepts of the series. Kamandi encounters other humans, but they unlike himself seem feral and appear to lack the intelligence we commonly associate with mankind. Kamandi battles sentient Wolves who invade his former home and kill his uncle. He avenges his uncle and commandeers an ancient truck to drive to New Jersey where he runs smack dab into a battle between Tigers and leopards. The former appear like Roman warriors of old and the latter have the look of pirates. He is captured and taken to the arena of the Tigers who want to use him for sport at the pleasure of their leader Casesar. They also worship a nuclear missile which the reverently refer to as "The Warhead". A scientist Dog named Canus takes Kamandi under his wing when he detects unusual intelligence and introduces him to another human named Ben Boxer, a mutant who along with his two colleagues hails from a distant area. The nature of Boxer's powers is kept secret for the moment.

Kirby and his regular inker Mike Royer give us a glimpse of Kamandi's world and his future with a tasty poster/map. 

In the second issue of the still bi-monthly series Kamandi joins up with Ben Boxer and his men, but not before the Tigers try to take them all prisoner.

Boxer then shows that he can by the use of a button in his chest transmute his form and become a man of impervious metal, a mutation he shares with the two other members of his "Research Team". They escape by means of a small submarine but are captured by Rats and taken to the holding cell where Boxer finds his colleagues. The three of them transmute and defeat the Rats and Kamandi joins them as they ascend to take control once again of their giant blimp which they plan to use to return to their base called "Tracking Site".

In the third issue Kamandi and the men from Tracking Site have flown the blimp to Nevada, specifically an old military base used for space exploration.

Kamandi becomes separated from his new allies and ends up trapped in Ape City and in battle with a giant ape named Chaaku the Mighty.

While he tries to survive his ordeal with the apes Ben Boxer and his men named Renzi and Steve explore the old base which has artifacts from the Moon's surface.

One of those artifacts was in fact an egg of sorts and has hatched releasing a terrible alien creature capable of wielding electricity as a weapon. Kamandi and Chaaku run through vast tunnels and end up at the old base and confronting the Thing that grew on the Moon and Chaaku battles it bringing down the whole of the underground base on them both. Kamandi and the Tracking Site team escape.

In the fourth issue of the now monthly comic Kamandi and Ben are scavenging and Kamandi is fascinated by an ancient comic book featuring The Demon.

The team is set upon by a gang of tigers under the command of King Caesar's son Tuftan who are battling a squad of Apes. The Apes win and capture both Kamandi and Prince Tuftan. Eventually, after Kamandi leads a small uprising of some captured humans he and Tuftan meet and he discovers that Tuftan's capture was a ruse to learn the nature of the Gorilla base in order for King Caesar's attack to be more effective and one more thing. As Caesar attacks Tuftan and Kamandi head to a still operational jet, but Kamandi recognizing the escalation the jet suggests destroys it before Tuftan can make it operational. The two escape the explosion.

The battle between the Gorillas and the Tigers rages in the fifth issue as Tuftan and Kamandi try to survive. Eventually they are captured and Kamandi meets other humans, in particular a lovely young girl he dubs Flower. They try to escape but are captured by the momentarily victorious Tigers who put Kamandi in the arena on a ruined Murdock Field against a Gorilla commander. Tuftan leaps to save Kamandi when all looks lost in violation of his father's wishes. The Gorillas counter attack  and a stalemate seems likely. Kamandi though inspired by the many items of gambling he's chanced upon in the ruins of Las Vegas takes an ancient slot machine and convinces the two armies to abide by the decision chance will arrive at. They agree, the two leaders pull the lever and the Apes win the day and the Tigers withdraw. Tuftan gives Kamandi a vehicle and he and girl Flower head off into the desert.

The greatest surprise to me as I read these issues was how swiftly Kamandi swept across the continent, from NYC to Las Vegas in a few issues. It shows that rule of apocalyptic survival is intact in this series, that the more famous and relatively iconic a location is the more likely some recognizable aspect of it will survive the rigors of time and vagaries of destruction. Now it's true that Kamandi has only just begun his road trip after ballooning with the Tracking Site boys and that was unexpected for sure. Whatever the motivation, the pacing of the first several issues is fantastic with wonderful energy bristling on the pages. The concept of talking animals is given  proper Kirby oomph and so far we've seen Wolves, Rats, Tigers, Leopards, and Apes with a few Dogs thrown in for good measure. More critters are for sure ahead. Kirby had a hit on his hands, a bonafide hit and it will be fun to see what he does with it.

More to come.

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  1. I wasn't that enthused about Kamandi when it first showed up, probably because it supplanted the richer Fourth World books. Kirby was under the impression that he was creating it and starting a series that others (allegedly Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle or an unnamed Filipino) would continue. But DC's reaction was to cancel two of the Fourth World books and keep him on Kamandi and the Demon, both of which were concepts more understandable to Infantino and, I'd guess, the kids who bought comics. My reading is that Kamandi was kept alive because there was hope for an animated TV series.

    I have since gone back to a lot of late Kirby work that I'd once dismissed and found a lot to value. Primarily it's the beautiful art and inventiveness. Kamandi is not much more than an extended chase through an exotic obstacle course, but it was an exciting book full of colorful, visually startling characters, and it's to Kirby's credit that he could recover from the loss of his Magnum Opus and hit the ground running in a totally new universe, at a supernatural rate.

    On reflection, I was probably past the age of Kamandi's target audience, and I know there are a lot of fans out there who were hit at precisely the right time by it; for many it was their first extended dose of Kirby. I was more interested in the highly similar Killraven series, that was running at Marvel at about the same time, but of course there is room for both and other comics in the same vein. A real predecessor for me was Gold Key's Mighty Samson in "the primitive world of the future". I'm sure there are others.

    1. I was much the same way about Kirby's post-Fourth World work, dismissive. I was very very wrong and I've been making up for that mistake since. That makes sense about the TV show, but still there must've been sales, there was sure quality.

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