It would be absolutely insane to try and make the assertion that Kamandi was one of Jack Kirby‘s greatest comics, or even the greatest comic that he did for DC in the ’70’s. They didn’t call Jack “The King” for nothin’; his work essentially led to the creation of the Marvel Universe with Stan Lee, and has already cemented him as one of the most important comics writers and artists of all time. Even when you look at only his work for DC, where he retreated after Marvel screwed him one too many time, his Fourth World books are tremendous in terms of scope and quality, and discounting those titles, The Demon is still a force to be reckoned with. Simple name recognition probably says it best: of all of Jack’s characters involved in DC’s various relaunches in recent years, Kamandi is the only one that has yet to see print again on a monthly basis.1
My own experiences as a fan have been handicapped from the beginning. Having been born only three short years before the series was canceled, it wasn’t until I was a young teen that I even heard of the character, and still a few more years before I found a single back-issue that was within my price range. To complicate matters, there was some dispute as to the validity of the character in terms of continuity2, and other visions of the future directly contradicted the one Kamandi presented.3 Not only was it hard to find the source material, but his position within the larger framework of comics seemed to be in doubt. It was very easy, both as a reader and a creator, to let Kamandi fall by the wayside.
Even the creation and introduction of the character seems difficult to believe. The first issue of Kamandi – released in 1972 – is uncannily like a very successful film series that began a few short years before, Planet of The Apes. Marvel Comics, as it turned out, beat DC to the punch in securing the rights to the film, and DC wanted something to rush something to the marketplace before Marvel could get their book launched. One of Jack’s Fourth World books, The Forever People, had just been canceled, freeing him up to work on a new book of some kind. DC’s dictum to Jack was to do a book like POTA, and at first glance, it’s hard to suggest that he didn’t. Kamandi lives in a world set in the future, we see a destroyed Statue Of Liberty, and inside there are various races of intelligent, talking animals that run the world. We even meet someone in an 20th Century astronaut suit. Is this even a story that The King can drag out for nearly 40 issues without feeling as if it is far too much of a rehash of things that have already been done?
Yes, as it turns out, and the reason being is that the story was already something that Jack had done before… in 1956. At that time, Kirby was working for Harvey Comics, and produced a story called “The Last Enemy” that involved an astronaut who returns to Earth only to find much time has passed, and animals – not humans – run the planet. Around the same time he also produced a regular strip called “Kamandi of the Caves,” both of which he combined to create the version of Kamandi that we know and love now. Jack went back and forth in terms of how familiar he was with Pierre Boulle‘s novel (published in 1963), or the POTA film at the time he wrote Kamandi4. But what is clear is that both were familiar with each other, and both used each other’s work as jumping off points for their own particular visions of the future.
Case in point: Kamandi #1. True, we see the Statue of Liberty, but where that was the final image of POTA, Kirby opens his story this way, with Kamandi paddling his raft in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. Kirby is telling us that where ever POTA may have gone, we’re going further. And quickly, too. The Kamandi stories move at near-lightning speed, preventing us from even meeting the person that raised Kamandi before they are killed. In no time he’s traveling to other lands, meeting other races and survivors, and trying to make sense of this scarred and destroyed land that bears only the slightest resemblance to the world we know. There are relics and references to our world, but as far as their relationship to the story at large, we might as well not even pay attention. In much the same way that good Super-Hero needn’t refer to the rest of their fictional universe but when appropriate, do, Kamandi does not rely on what came before it, but rather, merely presents adventure governed only by the rules a post-apocalyptic world can offer. By 1974 Marvel’s Planet of The Apes book came out, to coincide the new line of toys, a TV show, and animated series, that would launch all within a year. By then, Kamandi had been running for nearly 20 issues.
As with anything that Kirby touched, the story does not end here. Jack eventually left DC and went to work for animation studios in the late ’70’s / early ’80’s, while Kamandi was handed off to other writers, and eventually canceled. It was at Ruby-Spears Productions, a subsidiary of Hanna-Barbara, where Jack was asked to produce some POTA concept art for a series that would proceed the animated series that had already been produced in 1975. While the concept art never developed into anything we saw on screen, it was this arrangement that led to Jack designing characters and backgrounds for several Ruby-Spears animations, including the much revered Thundarr The Barbarian, created by Steve Gerber (another ex-Marvel genius), and written by Mark Evanier, who worked with Jack on the Fourth World books. While Thundarr and Kamandi are very much their own creations, their similarities run deep, and yet again, it was Kirby who had a hand in shaping our modern-day visions of the future.
In my own Kirby-like way, I was re-introduced to Kamandi by accident. I was going to meet a friend, when I received a message saying that they couldn’t join me. Quite a ways from home, and with very little on my agenda, I popped into a library to see if there was anything around that would catch my eye. To my astonishment I found an old and dusty “Archives Edition” of the first 10 issues of Kamandi, collected for the first time in 2005, which had probably been languishing away on the shelf ever since. Aside from the librarians that handled the book, it appeared that almost no one had read it. A lost relic from a world that used to exist had found its way into my hands. I ran home and immediately to my secret bunker, and began reading stories that I had always heard about, but had never had a chance to read.
Explosions. Talking animals. Current technology masquerading as ancient relics. Barbarian-like gladiatorial fight scenes. Nuclear paranoia. The downfall of modern society, where our human mistakes are repeated by animals time and time again.
Seriously, what’s not to love?
(Note: DC has recently published Vol. 1 of a new Kamandi reprint series, based on the popularity of other Kirby reprint editions that have come out recently. The OMAC book was incredibly successful, and his entire run on Kamandi – many issues of which have not been available since their original print runs in the ’70’s – should be available in two Volumes by the end of this year.)
1 While there have been several references to, and attempts to bring back, Kamandi since the original series was canceled in 1978, most often these attempts are spearheaded by Grant Morrison, who is a nerd for characters like this, and rarely do they lead to regular appearances, as with every other Kirby Property that DC owns.
2 There is only one explicit DC Universe reference within the Kirby-penned issues, and that one is left up to interpretation as to its authenticity. Editors and future writers had tried to tie this character explicitly to another Kirby property, OMAC, with varying degrees of success, leading to much confusion among fans and readers.
3 Another, less post-apocalyptic future had already been established in the pages of The Legion Of Super-Heroes.
4 Jack claimed that he had not seen Planet of The Apes at the time, and only had a passing familiarity with the story when he was told to work on this project. Later, he claimed that he had seen it and was aware of what they had done, and was himself trying to do something else closer to the work he’d done in the past (that was, very likely, the inspiration for the film in the first place). Personally, I believe the later.