The Last Reader On Earth

Kamandi Issue #1
Kamandi Issue #1

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.

Until now.

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.

L & R Evening

Best Comic Ever
Best Comic Ever

Not that this is news to anyone, but I am a Love & Rockets fan. (Not the band.) Encouraged by my friend Lyra, I picked up a copy of Music For Mechanics in the early ’90’s, and over the years would pick up an issue or collection here and there, totally impressed and in love with almost every aspect of the book.

Within L&R there are two main narratives that have been running through the series since the beginning: Locas, written by Jamie Hernandez, which focuses on a group of Latina punk-rock girls from a neighborhood called Hoppers 13 in Southern California, and Palomar, written by Gilbert Hernandez, which focuses on the residents of the eponymously named, magical-realist village somewhere “south of the US border.” While a number of other, unrelated stories and characters crop up regularly, including stories by their brother Mario, these are the primary works in the series.

In the monthly comics, the stories within were presented in a piecemeal fashion: there would be a little from Locas, and little from Palomar, a little of this, and little of that, and in the really early issues, a Mario story. Recently, a series of excellent reprints were put together that collected the stories in a way that separated the flotsam and jetsam from each other. Now, you can get a four volume series that covers the entire Locas storyline up to the present (in order), and a three volume series that covers the entire Palomar series. (There’s yet another collection that contains all the Mario stories, and everything else that isn’t part of the two other storylines… though in many cases, there are crossovers.)

Having (finally) read through nearly everything by all three of these artists, I have become quite torn in terms of how to divide my fan worship. Critically, the Palomar stories are highly respected, and there is something very astute and literary about the Gilbert stories. And while I really do like his work quite a bit, there is a part of me that is drawn to Jamie’s work more often. (To be perfectly honest, I really love the Mario stories best, but in terms of output vs. enjoyment, Jamie wins.) I can’t exactly stress this enough without using an equally geeky analogy: admitting this is the Comics equivalent of saying you are a Beach Boys fan, but you just aren’t that into Pet Sounds.

Even worse than this, I find myself drawn mostly to the Sci-Fi / Latina Wrestling stories, more than the soap opera that is the majority of the Locas stories. When Maggie is flying around the world, repairing robots and spaceships and meeting dinosaurs, I just find myself enjoying the stories more than when Maggie and Hopey are fighting over their “relationships problems.” When Hopey’s band goes on tour, I’m much more excited than when they show Maggie struggling with her new job as Apartment Manager. When Vicki is in mourning because her old wrestling enemy, Rena, might be dead, and thus Vicki declares that she will only wrestle fair and square for the rest of her career, it feels like a more momentous occasion than when Penny attempts to squeeze more money out of her rich sugar Daddy. To make this point abundantly clear, this is the Comics equivalent of saying, “After Brian Wilson left the group, the Beach Boys REALLY started to cook!”

It is often said of me that I like to take nerdiness to hitherto unknown heights (as recently as yesterday afternoon, by one of my co-workers after I complimented his daughters Avengers t-shirt), and when I started to think about it, this schism in the things I enjoy about L&R seemed to cut right to the heart of that comment. Rather than the artistic and acclaimed work of one person, I like the cheesy soap opera of his brother. Rather than the sharp and sophisticated relationship analysis that happens in later stories, I like the corny Sci-Fi / Wrestling stories. Rather than the (yawn) boring observations on sexual relationships that are bubbling beneath the surface of all the later stories, I seem to get much more excited about spaceships, robots, and dinosaurs.

I’m not exactly sure what that says about me, but if taking nerdiness to the extreme means that I am in love with Latina-Wrestler, Punk-Rock, Sci-Fi comics, then I will make no apologies for my nerdiness. But, to win back at least some of the cred I’ve lost, I’m starting on reading two imported volumes of Corto Malteseto make up for it.

Currently Reading:

 

Shade, The Changing Man
Shade, The Changing Man

Originally created in the 70’s by Steve Ditko, this revival began in 1990 and ran for six years, until the writer (Peter Milligan) finished all 70 issues. Along the way he utilized a lot of different artists to fit each particular chapter of Shade’s story; as “The Changing Man” Shade is constantly becomming someone new, and as each style shifts and changes, new artists take over. (Very similar to the way The Invisibles was written & drawn four years later.)

Half psycedellic free-for-all, half adventure, and entirely strange from start to finish, this series is the story of how Shade came to Earth from his home planet, Meta. (Yeah. It gets better.) Meta exists in a dimension near (or around?) Earth; between Earth & Meta lies The Madness Zone, the only place that allows passage between the dimensions.

Shade is sent by his superior, Wizor, who had told him to fight the manifestations of “Madness on Earth” in whatever way he can. Apparently, The Madness Zone has begun to leak into Earth’s dimension, and so Shade must combat the leak using a Madness-Vest (or M-Vest for short).

On Earth, when humans catch “The Madness,” their internal obsessions and frustrations are externalized. In the first major story, a JFK obsessed man creates a “Kennedy Spinx” in Dealy Plaza, that asks people, “Who Shot JFK?” If they are wrong, the Spinx eats them. In the second major storyline, Hollywood itself catches the Madness, and soon everyone finds themselves in a movie, within a movie, within a movie, ad infinitum. As Shade travels the Mental States Of American, he runs into huge American Myths that must be kept in check in order to prevent Americans from going crazy. Did I mention Peter Milligan is an English Writer, too?

I fell in love with this series when I was in High School, as it sparked the imagination like few other things I read back then. Now, over 15 years after I first discovered the comic, it reads so vividly and beautifully that it’s hard to imagine it as a “dated” piece of writing. In much the same way that Ditko’s Shade held up pretty well to me in 1990, here in the far-distant time of 2009, those innocent Comics from my High School years carry an impressive amount of punch.

I have all 70 issues of the 90’s run if anyone wants to borrow them, and the 8 original issues of the Ditko series. Neither were “popular” in the usual sense of the word, but for my money, there are few comics that are as well written (or as academically “funny”) as Shade. It’s well worth the read, even for non-Comics fans.

Life Really Does Imitate Art… In Comics

Reality... Or Fantasy?
Reality... Or Fantasy?

As a person dependent on bus transportation, you quickly tire of many of the usual ways to pass the time when being ferried back and forth. To shake things up, I’ve been listening to NPR on my iPod, since it’s not only a surefire way to show my instant alignment with the political Left, but it also sends a clear signal to the masturbating homeless man sitting next to me that it’s not okay to engage me in conversation. (Might I add: mission accomplished.)

Recently I listened to this Radiolab episode, in which Robert Krulwich and Brian Greene get down to brass tacks about the nature of the universe. It’s pretty compelling stuff, and Robert’s incredulous questioning not only acts as a proxy for the usual kind of scepticism new ideas like this tend to become associated with, but Brian’s cool demeanor in what must be a pretty uncomfortable position creates a perfect science narrative for us to take home: even in the face of absolute hostility from skeptics, the bigger truths that science is uncovering are, without a doubt, compelling and fascinating, even for Christians.

Even more interesting than the encoded religious discourse is the fact that, according to Brian’s understanding of the universe, Comic Books had it right all along: we live in a universe where every imaginable variant universe – and, in fact, exact, to-the-molecule duplicates – exists somewhere, “out there.” Not only that, but there are exact duplicates of me in other duplicate universes posting this exact same blog entry… along with all the other versions of me that are posting entirely other things (or, similar things worded differently). I’m sure the duplicates of you, reading this, are having the same reactions to reading this sentence as you are, too.

Metatextual jokes aside, the hilarious part to me, listening to this, was how easily I believed Brian’s “crazy” ideas. The whole time I was thinking, “this is like the multiverse concept in DC Comics… a concept propagated by every other version of DC Comics in all the other universes, too.” It led to some pretty funny moments throughout the podcast, which I’m sure was amusing to the other people riding the bus, as they inched further away from the giggling kid with the iPod at 8:30 in the morning.

Vampire Punks!

Vampire Punks!
Vampire Punks!

The cover, and two interior pages, from Swamp Thing #3, July, 1982. (For higher-resolution scans, try my Flickr Page). In this issue, Swamp Thing fights for his life against Vampire Punks from the small town of Rosewood, Illinois. (I hear they had a wicked hardcore scene back in those days.) Our protagonist runs up against Stiv Slashers, a kid who is turned into a vampire by a hitchhiker. He in turn infects his girlfriend X-Head, who works at the local Blood Bank. Together, they reduce Rosewood to a town of Vampire Punks that terrorize any of the humans left behind. Swampy, being the agreeable moss-encrusted creature that he is, decides to give these punks What For.

(My favorite detail in this issue: the Punks live in the Front Street Arcade, and sleep inside of old Pinball Machines during the day.)

Swampy Enters The Arcade
Swampy Enters The Arcade

Almost as good as the images / dialog from this issue is an exchange in the letters page which showed up in issue #8:

I just read SOTST #3 and was not all that pleased with it. When I first heard of the Punk-rock vampires that were to be in this issue, I thought it would be rather funny. I was, at least, a bit disappointed. I can’t say I agree with the way you portray punks. Contrary to what Phil Donahue, Penthouse, and the Today show say, not all punks are self-destructive junkies.

At the end of the story you have Swamp Thing say, “…You’re too decent… you’re the promise of what this town could be…!” Does this mean that it would be far better to have a world of decent, clean-cut American

boys than it is to have a bunch of unsightly Punk rockers? A lot of people apparently think so, and I’m glad to say I don’t agree. The next time you do a story with punks in it, keep in mind that you can’t believe everything you read or see on television.Mark “Sid” Pfaff
234 S. 6 West
Missoula, MT 59801

Editor’s Response: To Mark – or “Sid”: We thinks thou dost protest too much. The word “punk” never appeared in the story, fella; that’s your label, not ours. And what Alec [Swamp Thing’s alter ego] was so disturbed by was an apparent world-view, not a style of dress. You, as a self-proclaimed “punk,” seem focused on appearance, however – and something that superficial was not at all what concerned the characters in the story.

How It Went Down
How It Went Down

Not only is “Sid” sort of missing the point (this has nothing to do with the comic’s portrayal of punks, but of punks who have turned into vampires and have no soul), but the editor takes a pretty self-righteous attitude toward “Sid” in his response (reading between the lines: the editor understands that appearances do not a person make, but accuses “Sid” of making his assumptions based on the way the way the Vampire’s Dress). This little sequence (and the letter than it provoked) was one of the more entertaining things about Swamp Thing in these early days.

Interesting factoid: Stiv Bators, the Vampire Punk’s namesake, had just started The Lords of The New Church a year before this issue came out. At the time, Stiv was incorporating the stage show of the Dead Boys with a more New Wave / Pop sound, which lead to him becoming a bit of an icon in the music world, even in the mainstream. Considering that Iggy Pop was experiencing some downtime, career-wise, it makes sense that Stiv might be the most recognizable punk icon at the time this writer set to work on Swamp Thing.

And that’s one to grow on.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Sequels!

There’s just no two ways about it: Repo Man is one of the best movies ever made by human beings. I’ve often thought so, and there was no end to my excitement when I discovered that a comic book sequel – written by Alex Cox – was on the way. Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday was published in March of this year, and while I’ve had a copy for a while, I only just finished reading it the other day after I’d finally plowed through all my required reading for school.

As many people know, Alex Cox originally penned Repo Man with accompanying story boards, and when he was trying to get the film made, the Comic / Script hybrid is what people saw when he was trying to generate interest. Repo Man itself is a perfect synthesis of everything that Comics are about: Sci-Fi stories with everyman characters getting caught up in the action, working against the Government & Local authorities to get the job done. But beyond the junk-culture trappings that it embraces, what Repo Man managed to do effectively was to synthesize Alien Conspiracies, Cold War Paranoia, the Devolution of Americans, TV Addiction, the Commodification of Everything, Punk Rock, LA Street Life, Drug Culture, Revolutionary Military Groups, Tabloid Footprints In Your Hair, the Disposable Nature of Modern Human Life, Televangelists, Celebrity Gossip, & The Interconnectedness of All Things into a stream-of-consciousness filmic essay about Life In These Here United States. After a few viewings, Cox’s dialog takes on Chaucerian qualities, and every bit of garbage and each throw-away “product placement” seems full of nuanced meaning in the same way every piece of set-dressing in a Wes Anderson movie does. Many people have argued to me that Repo Man is a sloppy and schlocky ’80’s movie that implies a lot and says very little. I couldn’t disagree more.

Having said that, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday is very much about the same things that Repo Man is about. Set 10 years after the film ends, Otto (now calling himself Waldo) returns to LA in an effort to eek out a living for himself. Where the career of Repo Man was previously the job that represented American Culture perfectly (everyone can own anything, but the elite thug ruling class will always have the power to take it away if there’s a buck in it to be made), now the career of choice is Telemarketer. Waldo quickly immerses himself into the world of everyone trying to sell everyone else every imaginable thing they don’t need, not realizing that everyone else is trying to do the exact same thing. The shiny prize, the thing that keeps all Americans living this pathetic lifestyle, is the idea that if you work hard enough, you’ll win that Hawaiian Vacation.

Waldo buys into this idea just like everyone else, and as the book unfolds we watch him weave in and out of a story that, itself, is a further scathing criticism of the direction this country is going in, here and now. The same fears are still at play, and as people stab each other in the back they’re still surprised to see a knife in their own when they turn around. Odd Sci-Fi elements come into play, and the Government – as clueless as anyone else – is still trying to screw over their people while still being thwarted by clueless people like Waldo, even if he’s not making an effort to. So much of what is great about the original film is in this book that it’s hard not to like.

Still, this is not a great sequel by any stretch of the definition. While continuing the same themes and ideas that are great, Waldo suffers from being somewhat incoherent and condensed in a way that borders on the surreal. To me, Repo Man was about the ability to leave behind the world around us by giving up the bullshit that causes misery in our lives. Otto, from the outset of the film, rejects nearly everything in his life (in order: his job, his friends, his family, religion, and in the end, his girlfriend & driving itself) for a chance to understand the wisdom that Miller gained from having not driven until that moment. Their reward is that they are allowed to ascend to the next level, to leave behind LA & it’s flawed existence and discover the secrets beyond.

Cast against that reading, Waldo leaves something to be desired in terms of resolution. In fact, there can barely be said to be a plot, and what little there is seems irrelevant in the end, anyway. LA has progressed to a point that bears little similarity to the world Otto left, and as Waldo, he seems to have learned nothing, and is willing to jump right back in and play the game, despite the implication that we’re all running in circles anyway. Waldo fails to learn anything useful during these adventures, and while one could argue that only in the end did Otto actually “learn” anything in the movie, in the comic, Waldo fails to change in any way; at the end, he’s still under the impression that his Hawaiian Holiday is just around the corner, despite serious evidence to the contrary.

There are so many things that I could address that make Waldo unimpressive: it is not a movie, it has no awesome soundtrack, it has a slick computer look-and-feel to the production that adds a lame “sheen” to new comics, and the format of the book is cramped and feels a bit short in the end. (I read it in a couple hours, and it seemed to go by too fast for something that is as ostensibly dense as it is.) Of course, these complaints are all personal taste more than anything else. So, here’s a recommendation: Plettschner (the knitting “coffee break” security guard that worked for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation) makes a great cameo, and catches us up on what’s happened to him in the interim. (Very, VERY funny.) And really, Waldo is a great book in terms of cultural satire, and Cox’s ability to take disparate parts of the American Dream and weave them together to create a Comedic Nightmare is equally painful and funny. But there is no ooomph to the book, no emotional trajectory that makes it worth following (or, really, rooting for any of the characters), and the resolution is as empty and painful as Mainstream Marvel Comics Pap.

Perhaps I should try reading it listening to Iggy Pop & The Plugz? Or, perhaps, the book is just not that great in the first place, and I should let sleeping dogs lie? Only time will tell.