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Kamandi is Awesome

by Alex Cox (you can read about more awesome things on Alex’s blog, World of Awesome).

What is it about KAMANDI?

If there was ever an example of a comic that works in spite of itself, this is it. On first glance, it’s a ridiculous concept, with a half-naked blonde guy of indeterminate age as the central character. Of course, the artwork is dynamite, and every page jumps at you with signature Kirby explosiveness, but past the immediate appeal of the illustration, it looks a little childish and exceedingly violent. Not to mention the fact that he covers had the most bizarre taglines ever to grace a comic after 1960.

Usually, a Great Comic has a clear hook, or a great plot, or rich characters; concepts that you can wrap your head around and say, “This is what makes this comic exceptional”. KAMANDI, I am bewildered to say, has none of that, beyond simply being gorgeous to behold, art-wise. Aside from coming from the Pen of Kirby, it doesn’t seem to have much going for it.

Yet it’s still something of a masterpiece, and quite possibly the best comic of the Seventies. Against all odds, KAMANDI worked in a way that few comics do. It holds up, conceptually, even today. Despite major flaws, it remains infectious and joyous and a total kick in the ass.

What are these “major flaws”? Well, they’re pretty fundamental, and all in one basket together, they would sink any other book, by any other creator…

1. “KAMANDI” IS A RIP-OFF

KAMANDI was borne out of the popularity of PLANET OF THE APES. This is a given; the first issue even features the image of a decrepit Lady Liberty, an image made famous by Charlton Heston on his knees in the sand, screaming at the sky. The plot of KAMANDI (such as it is) revolves around the last remaining bare-chested human, making his way in a savage world where evolved animals rule, and humans are mute beasts, used as slaves. His best friend is a benevolent animal scientist, and he frequently travels with a beautiful, topless human female, hoping she will speak some day. This is all very familiar.

Of course, this is filtered through the awesome brain of JACK KIRBY, so the additions to the familiar tropes are many many and grand. While PLANET OF THE APES (for all its goodness) was kind of bland, design-wise, KAMANDI is a technicolor world filled insane machines, crumbling cities, giant monsters, and brightly garbed animals of all types. Rather than Gorillas with single-shot rifles, we are given giant bats, snakes with robot arms, leopard pirates, and tigers that wear some of the coolest clothes ever drawn in comics.

KAMANDI is PLANET OF THE APES with intensity replacing the brooding, insane landscapes replacing a bland desert, and dynamic mutant rebels with cyclotronic hearts replacing the psychic guys who worship that missile underground.

So while it is true that KAMANDI started as a rip-off, it immediately evolved into something far more vast and tremendously more exciting than Roddy McDowell in a funky rubber mask.

2. KAMANDI IS A BORING CHARACTER

Kamandi himself is little more than a cipher with feathered hair and a pistol. His personality consists of getting angry a lot, traveling endlessly and pointlessly, and enjoying kicking animal ass. He’s a pretty blank slate. Even visually, there’s not much going on there; he wears cutoffs and boots, and his only accessories are a gun and a holster. Even with “simplicity of design” in mind, he’s still pretty weak. While the primary yellows and blues of his hair and clothes are striking, the boldness is purely graphic. Kamandi would make a pretty lame costume or action figure. He’s no Indiana Jones.
But what Kamandi lacks in personality and visual interest, he more than makes up for in bare-knuckle, two-fisted, balls to the wall Excitement. This is a kid who jumps feet-first into every fight, has an incredibly short fuse, and lives in a world where THAT’S ALL THAT MATTERS! Anger, fearlessness, and a high protein diet are what it takes to survive! He doesn’t need subtleties or depth, he needs a gun…. so that he can kill some frikkin’ gorillas!

What do we learn about about Kamandi over the course of the series? We learn that he hates it when animals disrespect him. And we learn that he will kick their asses for disrespecting him. As far as I’m concerned, that’s about as much character development as you need, when the next scene you might read involves Kamandi taming a giant cricket so that he can ride it like a horse.

3. “KAMANDI” MAKES NO SENSE

The world of KAMANDI is EARTH AD… AFTER DISASTER! What was the “Great Disaster”? No one knows. It apparently involved radiation. How did the new society evolve? How did humanity devolve? Why are some animals (horses, buffalo, insects) still the same, while some animals (tigers, dogs, killer whales) have evolved into intelligent human hybrids? And what’s the deal with the wide variety of mutants and monsters?

The answer is, “Don’t worry about it. Just accept that weird things will happen.”

One of the fundamental rules of writing fiction, and particularly speculative fiction, is that the world you place your characters in must have some sort of logic unto itself, and internal consistency. As loopy and ridiculous as STAR WARS is, if Chewbacca could turn into The Thing by putting on a magic ring, that would likely be a step too far outside the established rules of that fictional world. (Although it would be awesome.) KAMANDI is an exception to this rule, and wears this exception like a badge of honor. Think you’ve got things remotely figured out? Just wait for the next issue, because something so bizarre will come out of left field it will make your head spin.

The only established rule in the KAMANDI universe is that there are no rules. It makes no sense. As much as people accuse Grant Morrison of being “weird for weird’s sake”, Kirby was turning Arbitrary Weirdness into a cottage industry long before Grant ever communed with extra-dimensional aliens. Every issue of KAMANDI was chock full of bizarre concepts that added to the enormous Earth AD tapestry of Things-That-Shouldn’t-Work-Together-But-Somehow-Do.

4. “KAMANDI” HAS NO POINT

Superman is on Earth to fight injustice. Batman wants to avenge his parents by bringing justice to criminals. Spider-man is eaten up with guilt, Sam Beckett is trying to find his way home, and Frodo has to destroy the Ring.

There is General Thrust to most fiction; you know where the characters are going, and mostly you know why. Sometimes it’s as vague as “Philip Marlowe solves mysteries because he can. And he gets paid to do so.” You, the reader, understand the point of the story, even in the most general terms.

With KAMANDI, there is such a cannonball momentum to the pace, you never have a chance to stop and think “Why is this happening?” Kamandi spends so much time reacting to the insanity around him, there is never a moment where you feel like he has a priority in life. He spends so much time either simply surviving, angrily fighting back against tormentors, or just exploring for excitement’s sake, the narrative thrust never expands beyond “Holy Crap Look What’s Happening RIGHT NOW!!!”

This is where we really see Kirby’s genius as a writer at work. The man never lets up, not for an instant. The point of the story never forms around a “Character A has to accomplish X, despite Y” storyline, nor does it need to. It is a rollercoaster of a plot where every page is a new twist, and the fact that many of them come out of the blue is part of the thrill. The plot of KAMANDI has no point, because that would take time to establish, and between lions on motorcycles, submerged cities, and rats in hot air balloons, there was no time to spare!

And so it was that KAMANDI was the best seller of all of Kirby’s DC books. It lasted the longest, and despite the recent surge of interest in the FOURTH WORLD saga, KAMANDI was the first to get the Archive treatment. Thirty years later, it’s impossible to read any random issue and not get excited, or enjoy yourself. It was an unstoppable thrill-ride that worked despite not working at all. It broke every rule of what makes good fiction, and yet these comics are still something you can hardly put down. In the end, what makes KAMANDI so awesome is very primal. It seems ridiculous to try and define it. I just chalk it up to the genius of Jack Kirby, and the eternal appeal of watching tough guys beat up animals.

33 Comments

Patrick Joseph

April 14, 2008 at 9:27 am

Point by point:

1. Kamandi was a ripoff. No. Kamandi was created by Kirby in 1957 before the Planet of the Apes novel was published. Certain elements were tweaked to reference the film series, but the core concept was all Kirby.

2. Kamandi is a boring character. That’s subjective, but I can assure you that once you’ve seen a picture of Kamandi, his character design will stick with you forever. I knew who he was as a kid years before I bought up the full Kirby run in the mid 80′s. Kirby didn’t do generic, boring, or unforgettable when it came to character design.

3. Kamandi makes no sense. You got me there.

4. Kamandi has no point. It’s about survival of the species. It’s man versus evolution in a last stand. The cause of the Great Disaster matters as little as the cause of the circumstances of the genetic purge in Y.

Kamandi is some damn fine comics.

I’ve only read a bit of Kamandi, but having loved Thundarr the Barbarian as a kid, I’ve liked it OK. It would be kind of nice if there was an end goal, or even an end for the series.

I was just complaining about this, but I do hate the post-Crisis idea that with the Great Disaster averted, Kamandi grows up to be Tommy Tomorrow. Um, no.

I’ve managed to put together a complete run of original copies of Kamandi. I’ve only read about 20 issues so far. If I had read the whole thing I can pretty much guarantee it would have made my top 10 runs. It’s like pure, condensed Kirby insanity.

Kid looks like a real sissy.

It strikes me that part of Kamandi’s success in the ’70s may have stemmed from the general atmosphere of decline and chaos in society at that time. Old institutions were seen as failing (c.f. the Nixon Presidency and the economic crisis), the social order was reversing itself (the US suddenly being at the whim of foreign powers, an upswing in crime, civil rights and feminism turning militant), and people just generally thought life sucked. Kamandi can be seen as a metaphor for all that, with the character being emblematic of the last vestiges of the old order struggling to survive and adapt to the new social reality.

Or it coulda just been the talking monkeys.

Kamandi might be awesome, but that still doesn’t make it alright that Countdown wasted two of its final issues on telling an origin for a new version of him.

The Fiendish Dr. Samsara

April 14, 2008 at 12:38 pm

Michael said:

>>It strikes me that part of Kamandi’s success in the ’70s may have stemmed from the general atmosphere >>of decline and chaos in society at that time. Old institutions were seen as failing (c.f. the Nixon Presidency >>and the economic crisis), the social order was reversing itself (the US suddenly being at the whim of >>foreign powers, an upswing in crime, civil rights and feminism turning militant), and people just generally >>thought life sucked. Kamandi can be seen as a metaphor for all that, with the character being emblematic >>of the last vestiges of the old order struggling to survive and adapt to the new social reality.

>>Or it coulda just been the talking monkeys.

It’s both. Two great tastes and all that.

Kamandi might be awesome, but that still doesn’t make it alright that Countdown wasted two of its final issues on telling an origin for a new version of him.

Every issue of Countdown is a waste.

If Kamandi wasn’t a rip-off of Planet of the Apes, Alex can certainly be forgiven for believing otherwise. I do recall reading that Kirby never actually saw Planet of the Apes, but took the basic concept as a starting point. Myth? Also, DC needs to finish the Kamandi Archives series!

KAMANDI was a direct rip of POTA.

Kirby had a proposed series from the 50′s that used the name “kamandi”, but the series that actually became the KAMANDI we know was inspired by, and the result of, POTA popularity.

It’s hard to deny the similarities, in premise and in imagery, and I’m not sure why one would want to. The fact that Kirby’s erstwhile lift of POTA was far, far better than the inspiration speaks volume about his talent and charisma.

If DC said “give us a thinly veiled version of this popular property”, Kirby came back with something obviously “inspired by”, but much richer and a hell of a lit more fun.

http://books.google.com/books?id=TrZ7Jx2nqIQC&pg=PA108&lpg=PA108&dq=%22kamandi+of+the+caves%22&source=web&ots=NA3ViEkRvC&sig=1Nb0e7Sa1ssqECCRrWaMaJ76ogE

Hopefully that link works. It’s a great analysis of Kamandi’s development from The Jack Kirby Collector.

Read it and draw your own conclusions on who ripped off who and what.

I vote that Kirby came up with the initial concept, but was able to tap into ideas from POTA to make it stronger.

In Tales to Astonish Ronin Ro said that Kamandi of the Animals was an idea Kirby had floated for a 1950s newspaper strip, about a postapocalyptic world peopled by mutants and talking animals. When he suggested it to DC in ’72, Carmine Infantino instructed him to incorporate ideas from POTA, including putting the Statue of Liberty right on the cover as an obvious swipe.
It sold big from the start, which was bad news for Jack… Infantino famously canceled the Fourth World books and directed him to focus on Kamandi and the Demon.

And T., I’d be careful about calling that kid a sissy. He might go through an entire Tiger Legion and a seaful of talking orcas just to get at you.

Kamandi, yeah!

Also, ignore everything DC does with Kamandi today, all the Tommy Tomorrow/Countdown ect. ect. nonsense

Nice Kamandi piece. Kamandi was above all a CONTACT comic. It’s about the rush of wind in your face and the stomp of your feet on the ground. Kamandi was comics at their most existential. “I act. Therefore I am!” Kind of like Whitman’s barbaric yawp. Four Colour action direct from the circus of Kirby’s mind. Clear and present, Kamandi was a power play sent romping through vivid space, as if to say, “I am!”… Subtleties be damned. Yes, civilization and human dignity hung in there as meta threads, but above all it was of an individual making bold upon the world.

And Kamandi only borrowed circumstantially from Planet of the Apes. Here is the original Kirby Kamandi work
http://cartoonsnap.blogspot.com/search/label/Jack%20Kirby

Long before Heston and Co., did their thing in the late 60′s and early 70′s, tell me if this work would n’t easily fit in with Kirby’s much later DC series…

FunkyGreenJerusalem

April 14, 2008 at 6:26 pm

Is there an affordable collection, like the Fourth World Omnibuses, on the way?

I’d love to check Kamandi out, but I think archives are usually a little more than I like to spend.

Well, the Archives cost $49.99, the same price as the Fourth World Omnibuses.

That said, a Countdown 80-Page Giant containing 3 issues came out a couple weeks ago. That’s a nice sampler (I would imagine. I haven’t read the series myself) for just three bucks.

Every issue of Countdown is a waste.

That’s a strange thing for a Marvel zombie like yourself to say. I mean, it’s not like you’d be any more likely to read the books if they were done differently.

“Kamandi might be awesome, but that still doesn’t make it alright that Countdown wasted two of its final issues on telling an origin for a new version of him.”

Well, that waste of time gave us a cheap reprint one shot, so I’m happy with it, especially because I’ve been able to happily ignore Countdown for its entire run.

““Don’t worry about it. Just accept that weird things will happen”

Isn’t the pretty much true of everything that Kirby wrote?

You know, 22 years later, I still have no idea why DC decided to write Kamandi’s future out of the continuity and have him grow up to be Tommy Tomorrow instead. Who in the world thought that the character of Tommy Tomorrow had more potential than Kamandi?

Kamandi was the book that really sold me on Jack Kirby. Those two page splashes on EVERY page 2-3 and then at least one additional one and some full pagers that were the very best work Kirby ever did, hands down. Kamandi may not have been Jacks best writing, but his art definitely peaked during this run.

When I saw those pages I finally realized the artists were different and that he was the same guy who’d done all those Marvel books I’d read in grade school. That was aprt of the problem, it seemed like every book I picked up as a kid was drawn by the same guy, and guess what, they were! I remember buying Forever People #2 off the spinner rack because of the art. I remember a bunch of Black Magic’s because of the art. I remembered tons of Fantastic Fours. But til I was12 and I saw that Kamandi #13 a friend was reading and fell in love with the title did I pay enough attention to realize Jack Kirby had drawn them all.

I bought every issue of Kamandi as it came out from about #17 on, not to mention everything else by Jack I could afford, and I still have every one of them dog eared and well worn as they are, as well as NM copies of every issue that are my pride and joy.

I’ve got everything Jack did from the Fourth World on, but Kamandi will always be my favorite. Someday I’ll take all those dog-eared issues and get them bound in a hard cover…

Rohan Williams

April 15, 2008 at 2:07 am

To be fair, Kirby claimed to have never seen Planet of the Apes. Someone at DC told him to make a comic book version of Planet of the Apes, and he did so, without ever actually seeing the film. It’s all in Mark Evanier’s outrageously awesome new book, ‘Kirby: King of Comics’, which I’d recommend in a heartbeat to any of the fine folks here.

“You know, 22 years later, I still have no idea why DC decided to write Kamandi’s future out of the continuity and have him grow up to be Tommy Tomorrow instead. Who in the world thought that the character of Tommy Tomorrow had more potential than Kamandi?”

It seems to have been a misguided attempt by DC to, in the process of eliminating the alternate Earths, also eliminate alternate futures. The 30th Century of the LSH, despite having had a few world wars in the interim, was still recognizable as a descendant of 20th Century Earth. This meant one could draw a line between modern DC and the LSH and reasonably pass through other SF futures like the Planeteers, Space Cabby, the Space Museum, etc., but the world of the Great Disaster was probably considered too far out there to be part of the single future timeline. (The Atomic Knights also got retconned around this time.)

As you say, it wasn’t a very well-thought out decision (as Wikipedia dryly puts it: “Tommy Tomorrow and the Planeteers have not been seen since”). (Ironically, it also caused some minor LSH continuity issues–Karate Kid visited Kamandi’s world in one issue–but those would pale before the massive continuity issues that would hit the LSH a bit later.) This wasn’t the only example from that era of DC shooting themselves in the foot in attempting to introduce consistent rules to the post-Crisis DCU–the limitation on time travel (only being able to travel in time once by any given method) come to mind.

I think the Tommy Tomorrow idea was pretty dumb, and highlights a creative problem that DC has with all their future-scape stories/titles.

I love me, my continuity plently, but Kamandi and the Legion (in all incarnations) are set in the FUTURE. A yet to be determined future. Why not play with that idea?

Why not say that Kamandi’s future is ONE of many possible futures for the DCU? Keep the continuity within the title itself consistent, but don’t get hung up on how it would dovetail into something like the Legion’s future.

You wouldn’t have to worry anymore how one version of the Legion ties into another either, they are all possible futures, with their own internal continuity intact – don’t waste time showing how all of the versions tie together (though I do suspect that Geoff John’s upcoming mini will be a treat to read.).

I have to say that this idea, would also lend itself very well, to those instances where DC decides that a future-scape title is no longer working, and needs a reboot. You could simply have a story where in the current DC, an event/incident takes place that alters that timeline.

I’m like…well, almost everyone it seems, and hate Countdown (though like many I gave it a serious chance) but I think it would be a wild and wildly creative idea to have it revealed that the 52 Earths are all divergent timelines of the same earth.

Kind of a merging of the multiverse with the idea of hypertime.

Personally I think Kirby, despite all the hype, really was a comicbook genius. He was not only enthusiastic, which showed, he anticipated so far in advance of trends that in Kamandi we see the flip side of the Watchmen. Both Kamandi and Watchmen are “post-” Silver Age in sensibility. Watchmen moved on by making comics “serious” probably largely to make it OK for the nerds writing such stuff to still like comics as adults. Kamandi moved on by abandoning all the weighty Silver Age continuity at both Marvel and DC, erasing it and refusing to replace it with anything else. Kamandi would work perfectly as a Saturday Morning Cartoon (SMC) because it has the same basic type of premise and tropes as successful SMCs.

In putting a SMC into comicbook form Kirby successfully amalgamated the flavour of the modern comics industry he co-founded and the coming trends in entertainment- short sharp hits of adrenalin, plots able to be connected by older viewers / readers if they could be bothered- fun first and foremost.

Kamandi has as much or more pathos than Watchmen but it retains the optimism of previous eras in comics. It has the leap into action ethos of the Golden Age, Silver Age art and modern content- violence that would give the Punisher a run for his money, an apocalyptic world without the wordy bloviating of an Alan Moore or a Stan Lee, and many a moral issue- minus the questionable titillation and constant left-leaning politically correct obtrusions.

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You are too ignorant on the subject of the comic Kamandi to be writing about it. A little research before you open your mouth would assist you immensely. Kamandi NEVER borrowed from Planet of the Apes; rather the situation is the other way around….Kamandi has been around since 1957…easily a decade BEFORE Planet of….

[...] living on the earth. It is a four color Kirby-esque romp with a protagonist whose motivation is getting angry when animals disrespect him. It makes no sense, and it’s not meant to. There are talking animals. Obviously, a YOUNG [...]

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