Kirby’s Post-Apocalyptic Child

Now is Kirby Year 100, the centennial of the birth of Jack Kirby (b. Jacob Kurtzberg, 1917-1994). So it seems right for this Kirbycentric blog to revisit the first Kirby series that I collected myself, new, from the stands: Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth (1972-1978), a comic book I think back to constantly. Publisher DC is now seeking to revive interest in the property with its Kamandi Challenge miniseries, but in honor of Kirby’s 100th this blog will run a “Kamandi challenge” of its own: every month in 2017, we’ll feature new content related to Kamandi, in the form of posts by me and by esteemed guests (among them Rand Hoppe, Gene Kannenberg, Jr., Jarret Keene, Sean Kleefeld, Tom Kraft, and Adam McGovern!).

First up, in a burst of ego, an outtake from my Hand of Fire book: the kernel of what was to have been a Kamandi chapter there. I ran out of room, I ran out of time, and I ended up wanting to reserve the chapter for another day (an ironic cut, considering how much the Kamandi series means to me).

Portions of what follows have been presented at various times and venues, including the national conference of the Popular Culture Association (San Francisco, Spring 2008) and a talk at San Diego State University (Fall 2008). The version you see here fell into something like its current form when I gave a talk at my alma mater, the University of Connecticut (April 2012, with thanks to the great Kate Capshaw). I hope and intend to bring what follows into book form someday, not too many years from now.

Here it is:


KIRBY’S POST-APOCALYPTIC CHILD, or, FERAL BOYHOOD IN A COMIC BOOK FUTURE: KAMANDI

Jack Kirby had a way of summarily rewriting reality. Frankly, he was reckless about it, wild. That’s one of the things I love about his work. Case in point:

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Opening splash from Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth #22, by Kirby and D. Bruce Berry (DC, Oct. 1974).

What lies north of the United States? Canada, you say? Well, you’re WRONG! … Because Canada ISN’T there anymore!! A titanic natural disaster has changed the world and put a big, radioactive barrier on the border…and look what’s come through it to attack… KAMANDI the Last Boy on Earth!

I believe the above splash page—the opening to Kamandi #22, dated October 1974—was my  introduction that series. It is burned into my brain. Kirby wrote and drew Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth for DC Comics for about three and a half years (late mid-72 to late-75), a good, long run for 1970s comic books. I get the feeling that the book was quite popular then, but nowadays it seems to be mainly a memento for devoted comic book fans and pros. Kamandi has had fitful revivals by others since, and DC is currently going back to the well yet again, but the post-Kirby revamps never have taken. No surprise. To me, Kamandi is inescapably a Kirby comic, tied up in his mystique, in what made him special.

It was Kamandi that made me a dedicated Kirby fan. I got #22 from a friend, along with the next two issues, when I was about ten. They were a few months old, but not long after I spent some of my allowance money to buy my first new issue, Kamandi #32, off the stands (an issue that, oddly, DC reprinted just a couple of weeks ago).

Issue 22, which takes off from the above splash, sends Kamandi to an underwater city of dolphins—talking and civilized dolphins who use high tech—and gets him tangled up in a territorial war between the dolphins and their mortal enemies, killer whales—talking killer whales, who, like the dolphins, train human servants to fight their proxy battles. This comic had it all: weird environments, a feisty kid, sizzling action, and tenderness. This was how I entered Kamandi’s world. I got a lot from it.

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From Kamandi #1, by Kirby and Mike Royer (DC, Oct.-Nov. 1972).

Kamandi’s world is, as Kirby puts it, “Earth A.D.,” meaning After Disaster. In it, humankind has slipped from its evolutionary high perch and reverted to pre-articulate savagery, running in herds, while most other animal species, in particular other mammals, have become human-like, using human language and gathering into what I can only call tribal or semi-feudal societies. Kamandi, raised in an underground shelter, is abruptly tossed into this world in issue 1, to his shock. His people, waiting out the Great Disaster in a hive of bunkers, had hoped eventually to retake the surface world—but only Kamandi and his grandfather survived. Until issue 1, Kamandi has never seen the surface world. He has been raised to know and “reclaim” that world, his education consisting of microfilm readings about the past; however, he has no living memory of Earth pre-Disaster.

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Panels from Kamandi #1 (Kirby/Royer).

When his grandfather is murdered by looters—wolves, damn—during Kamandi’s first foray to the surface, the boy is from his underground womb untimely ripped. Oddly, he immediately leaves the bunker in which he was raised, as if taking care of his grandfather was the only thing that kept him rooted there. From then on, his adventures are random; the one goal he seems to have is to find other independent and reasoning humans and thus keep alive the dream of restoring humanity to its pre-Disaster state. Mainly, Kamandi shuttles unpredictably from one danger to the next, gradually learning about his new world along the way.

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Kirby/Royer. Wow!

Kirby kept this up for quite a while. Kamandi was, as noted, a long-lived series, published, mostly on a monthly basis, between 1972 and ’78.  For three years Kirby wrote, penciled, and edited Kamandi on his own, albeit with editorial oversight by DC. Then Kirby decided to leave DC and Kamandi—but steps were taken to make sure that the series outlasted Kirby, a testament to its perceived popularity.

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Joe Kubert’s cover to Kamandi #34 (Oct. 1975), from the run of Kirby issues edited by DC’s Gerry Conway.

DC took pains to smooth over the transition between Kirby and his successors.  In late 1975, at the time that his other commitments at DC were ending, Kirby handed off editorship of Kamandi to DC’s Gerry Conway, for whom he drew seven additional episodes. Nineteen further issues were published after Kirby’s departure, making the series one of the longest-lasting DC Comics series introduced in the ’70s. Ironically, Kirby had at first conceived Kamandi as a book to be written and drawn by others, based on his initial setup; he thought of it as a way of involving other artists and writers. Perhaps it was meant to help fill out his dream of a Kirby-edited, West Coast DC line—or perhaps he saw it as simply another way of fulfilling his contractual obligations. It’s hard to know what he would have made of it if he had had his druthers. In any case, by the time the series was actually launched in late ’72, Kirby’s most intense and demanding personal project, the “Fourth World” launched two years prior, had been cancelled—to his everlasting disappointment—and DC pushed him into writing and drawing Kamandi solo, as an ongoing commitment. So, Kirby would seem to have taken Kamandi on only grudgingly—and despite the series’ popularity some have seen it as a falling-off of sorts for Kirby, a mere assignment in spirit.

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Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, “Talent for Trouble,” Boy Explorer Comics #1 (Harvey, May-June 1946).

Not true, I think. The series has roots in things that interested Kirby very much. The name itself dates at least to the 1950s and Kirby’s notional comic strip, “Kamandi of the Caves,” though it’s not clear whether that never-realized newspaper strip would have much resembled the Kamandi we have. More interesting to me is the series’ subtitle, “The Last Boy on Earth,” and what it suggests. Boy, after all, is a privileged word for Kirby: it cuts through his life and work, from his formative spell in the benevolent youth organization the Boys Brotherhood Republic to the rollicking kid gang strips he did with Joe Simon (such as the Newsboy Legion, Boy Commandos, and Boy Explorers) to his later revivals of same (such as the revamped Newsboy Legion in the Jimmy Olsen series). This sort of “boy,” the adventurous orphan boy, is one of Kirby’s enduring types, a fantasy that distills ideas about youthfulness, energy, recklessness, and independence—as Anthony Rotundo points out, the cardinal virtues of boy culture (46). Of course this type is familiar from folktale and children’s literature: after all, how many children’s stories are rigged so that the child protagonists will be put on their mettle, without adult aid? Kirby seems to have run with the idea. Kamandi is one of these boy types, but, tellingly, he is alone, gang-less. Indeed loneliness is one of the series’ abiding themes.

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Kamandi’s world, as shown in Kamandi #1 (Kirby/Royer).

In Kamandi, two generic conventions are necessarily intertwined: imaginary geography and Kirby’s vision of wild boyhood. The geography of the series provides a perfect setting and warrant for the wildness of the boy; conversely, the boy entails the setting, a world that not only allows for but positively demands his wildness. The irony here, of course, is that Kamandi is described as the last hope for reasoning and civilized humanity; again, the only explicit, overriding goal he has, other than survival, is to lead humankind back from brute savagery.

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Kamandi’s fury. From Kamandi #8 (Kirby/Royer, Aug. 1973).

The fallen condition of his fellow humans fills Kamandi with sadness, and often anger, an anger directed as much at said humans as at the other animals who dominate them. Yet, despite his exceptionality, despite his self-awareness, Kamandi does not seem entirely “civilized”; his very appearance, with his trademark tattered shorts, shirtlessness, and mane of long, unkempt hair, adverts to his wildness—to the fact that he doesn’t quite fit into sentimental ideas about either childhood innocence or the need to raise young people up into a code of civility. Yes, he is innocent, in a sense, but, style-wise, Kamandi is a post-hippy, a Romantic image of boyhood that combines androgynous beauty with a ferine scrappiness. His adventures fit Kenneth Kidd’s description of the genre of the feral tale, that is, “a literary but still folkloric narrative of animal-human or cross-cultural encounter, in which childhood figures prominently”; such tales, as Kidd defines them, include those of children “fostered by wild animals [or] living outside of civilization [or] living in confinement within its borders” (3).

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Simon & Kirby, Boys’ Ranch #1 (Harvey, Oct. 1950).

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Angel, of Boys’ Ranch.

Kamandi is not the first such character in Kirby’s work. The most obvious precedent would be Angel, the most beautiful but also the most tormented of the several orphan boys in Simon & Kirby’s short-lived but fondly remembered western series, Boys’ Ranch (published by Harvey Comics in 1950-51). Angel, a gunslinger, has in common with Kamandi his long, flowing hair and a hot temper; he’s withdrawn, emotionally wary, and dangerous when crossed, a less good-humored Huck Finn champing at the bit of domesticity. He too has a ferine quality.

Another related character in the Kirby canon, one that comes close to linking Angel and Kamandi, is Serifan, the cosmic cowboy from the kid gang-cum-superhero series The Forever People, part of Kirby’s Fourth World saga (DC, 1971-72). The Forever People are the cosmic equivalent of Simon & Kirby street kids: a group of super-powered hippy teens who travel from New Genesis, the world of Highfather, to Earth, in order to thwart the plans of the villainous Darkseid. They embody the Fourth World’s faith in the possibilities of youth—for this was a saga that deferred to the young, repeatedly and insistently. (Indeed, when Highfather, the saga’s Mosaic patriarch, is introduced in The New Gods #1, he is shown bowing to a group of children.)

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Serifan and Donnie, The Forever People #2, by Kirby, Vince Colletta and John Costanza (DC, April-May 1971).

In keeping with the Simon & Kirby gang formula, each member of the Forever People has his or her unique appearance and personal shtick. Serifan, dressed as a cowboy, is described as “a sensitive,” as somehow attuned to dreams and fantasy. His open-brimmed cowboy hat, of the sort often associated with outlaws in Hollywood westerns, boasts a hatband containing so-called “cosmic cartridges,” which resemble “shiny, silver bullets” (#2). But these cartridges aren’t weapons; rather, they’re described as “sensitizers, probes, [and] receivers”; they are “sensitive to the universe—to its largest and smallest limits,” and they feel warm and alive to the touch. Serifan, in short, is a cowboy hippy, evoking the counterculture’s fascination with what historians such as Michael Allen have called “the Cowboy Code” (see Allen, “I Just Want to be a Cosmic Cowboy”). Per that Code, Serifan’s cowboy persona brings to mind ideas of individualism and wanderlust, yet essentially he is a utopian pacifist. As such he resembles the Hairies, the idealized hippies from Kirby’s run on the Jimmy Olsen series. Like the Hairies, Serifan belongs to another, more ideal world; his name echoes the word seraphim (the plural of seraph), perhaps because he is a “young god.” This of course echoes “Angel” as well. Serifan embodies the flipside of Angel: a more positive, or less tragically shaded, vision of self-sufficient boyhood. He still partakes of wildness, of that same frontier ethos as in Boys’ Ranch, but he seeks peace.

Kamandi, by contrast, is more often an aggressive, angry character. He kills often, and is likely to be found with a gun in hand.

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From Kamandi #14 (Kirby/Royer, Feb. 1974).

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From Kamandi #12 (Kirby/Royer, Dec. 1973).

Indeed his anger comes close to suicidal: in Kamandi #1, he seeks to detonate a nuclear warhead (!) in order to wipe out himself and his animal captors. Based on that first story, rage and loneliness would seem to be his two overriding qualities.

In short, Kamandi the series hardly envisions an idyllic childhood. What most marks Kamandi’s character as childlike, in the accustomed sense, are the blunt, sometimes naïve-sounding cadences of his speech, as well as shows of gentleness, loyalty, and, on rare occasion, humor. What Kamandi has in common with his forebears Angel and Serifan is restlessness. Kamandi is (and here Kirby updates the Western to a post-apocalyptic milieu) a boy explorer on a savage new frontier: that of the old world turned upside down.

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From Kamandi #12.

It’s interesting that, though described as humanity’s last hope, Kamandi hearkens back to those half-feral man-children of the classics, what Kidd (105) calls “the literary boy-savage[s]”: Kipling’s Mowgli and Burroughs’ Tarzan. The fact that the name came originally from the unused proposal for “Kamandi of the Caves” underscores the boy’s implicit wildness (and, lest we forget, Kirby also created “Tuk, Caveboy,” way back in 1941). In this case, though, Kirby turns the familiar Mowgli/Tarzan type—the Noble Savage, the Wild Child—inside-out, making Kamandi the sole surviving example of ordinary humanity in a world where humans have otherwise declined to the condition of herd animals or property. Kamandi, we are to understand, is not feral; the rest of humankind, however, consists of brute beasts, whether feral or domesticated. Unlike Mowgli or Tarzan, Kamandi has not been raised by animals, but rather by a human grandfather, from whose protective reach he has been hurled into a world of reasoning, but also often warlike and brutal, animals. Though Kamandi looks the part of the feral child—rough, unchecked, and natural—he has been cultivated by his grandfather. He clings to the idea of his humanity. On the other hand, Kamandi is wild, in that his feelings often outstrip his sense; he survives by violence, often flares into anger, and looks much like a post-hippy envisionment of wild youth. He is fierce.

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Kirby versus “Bull Bantam,” from Kamandi #12.

If Kamandi exceeds some Rousseauist idea of noble savagery, that’s because he is fundamentally at odds with his environment. The series presents, not a tranquil vision of nature, but an adversarial world torn by conflict among rival animal states and between all of those animals and humankind. The world of Kamandi is violent. Adrift in this world, and faced by other animals who regard him as a mere beast, Kamandi must fight constantly to uphold his self-determination and dignity. Yet, antagonistic as it is, this world offers Kamandi—and more to the point Kirby—freedom of action. It grants license. Its rugged, broken, post-apocalyptic landscape is, from a storyteller’s point of view, a frontier paradise, wherein Kirby continually rehearses the tension between incipient “civilization” and a colorful, narratively promising barbarism. This was perfect territory for Kirby, who, increasingly in the ’70s, was to dream up new worlds, or new world histories, or new futures, in order to open sufficient space for his cartwheeling imagination. If his work became increasingly febrile and remote from the reassuring everydayness of most of that era’s superhero comics, it also attained a new spaciousness and scope.

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Kirby primitivism meets Kirby futurism: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Marvel, Jan. 1977), cover inked by Joe Sinnott (?) per GCD.

In this quest for more imaginative elbow room, setting and character went together. Kirby aimed for ferocity in both. He had a thing for savagery in the ’70s: witness his later work on the series 2001: A Space Odyssey (1976-77), which, taking its cue from Stanley Kubrick’s film, repeatedly spliced together visions of a savage past and a space-age future.

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Devil Dinosaur #4 (Marvel, July 1978), cover inks by Sinnott.

Or dig his work on Devil Dinosaur (1978), which starred a fierce dinosaur and his companion, another “boy,” that is, Moon-Boy, and took place in the prehistoric Valley of Flames, a savage paradise that Kirby likened to Eden. Devil Dinosaur, like Kamandi, also included science fiction elements such as extraterrestrial invaders and high-tech gadgetry; it mixed rugged prehistoric settings with Pop futurism. Clearly Kirby enjoyed this mashup of the ancient and the modern, a tendency indulged over and over in Kamandi: to take but one example, the first issue finds Kamandi riding into battle on horseback with a tiger armed with a scepter that shoots laser beams.

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Because why not? From Kamandi #1.

This is a SF world with a frontier ethos, one that justifies and intensifies Kirby’s vision of feral boyhood.

In this light, the imaginative geography of Kamandi is key to its depiction of a wild “boy” at odds with his surroundings. Just what influenced this imaginative geography? Well, most obviously, the popular culture of the day. Much has been said in particular about Kamandi’s very noticeable debt to the then ultra-popular Planet of the Apes film franchise, with its world of intelligent, anthropomorphic apes and bestial, de-evolved humans.

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There’s no way around this obvious debt. Granted, upside-down stories in which animals reign over humans are age-old, and indeed Kirby had done a riff on this trope as early as 1957, in the comic Alarming Tales (published by Harvey); also, Kirby had worked before with the Dr. Moreau-like premise of animals gaining humanoid form through scientific means, as in a storyline from Marvel’s Thor series (#134-135, 1966). However, Kamandi gets very, very close to Planet of the Apes in setting and premise, and clearly owed its launch to the films’ popularity.

Comic book publishers have a long history of poaching ideas from popular films, and Planet of the Apes (APJAC Productions/20th Century Fox) was a hugely successful franchise, just the sort of thing comic books would glom onto. Launching with the first film in 1968 (dir. Franklin J. Schaffner), the franchise carried through four film sequels between 1970 and ’73, a short-lived live-action TV series in ’74, and an equally short-lived Saturday morning animated series in ’75. Moreover, Apes merchandising was lucrative, particularly the action figures manufactured by Mego between 1974 and ’76.

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From megomuseum.com.

By this point—Mego time—what had been conceived as a satirical story for adults had mushroomed into a Pop phenomenon bringing together adults and children. TV ratings for the movies were enormous, and in 1974, the same year as the live-action TV show, Fox screened marathons of all five Apes movies in select theaters. It was a fever. Yet only belatedly did Planet of the Apes make it to comics: Marvel’s licensed adaptation ran from 1974 to ’77, and by the end of Marvel’s run the fever had definitely cooled (and Star Wars lurked just around the corner).

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Planet of the Apes #7 (April 1975), cover painting by Bob Larkin per GCD.

Kamandi came a bit earlier, running six years from 1972 to ’78, in effect straddling the peak of the Apes craze. Kamandi #1 came out just a few months after the fourth film in the series, and less than a year before the fifth. Reportedly, DC had explored licensing Planet of the Apes itself but found the rights unavailable or too costly, so the brief for Kamandi—or the understanding between DC publisher Carmine Infantino and Kirby—was to do something in the same vein (this according to Mark Evanier, in The Jack Kirby Collector #40). Indeed, though apes do not feature in Kamandi #1, they do figure prominently in four issues out of the series’s first year.

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Holy moley, this blew my 10-year-old mind. From Kamandi #1, Kirby/Royer at their best.

In addition, issue 1’s images of a half-drowned Statue of Liberty conjure the iconic final scene of Planet of the Apes, while that issue’s climax invokes the world-destroying warhead from the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). Besides this, certain other plot points echo the Apes films, for example the introduction of female supporting characters Flower and Spirit, recalling the role of “Nova” in the first two Apes movies. More generally, Kirby evokes spectacular ruins and arid desert landscapes similar to those in the films.

Kirby surely knew of these films and their signature images, whether he actually saw all of the films from start to finish or not. Biographer Mark Evanier says that Kirby may not have seen any of the films by the time of Kamandi’s launch (bear in mind that the Apes films were not televised until later, starting in the fall of 1973, and this was before home video). Evanier suggests, though without citing particular evidence, that Kirby may have read the novel on which the first film was based, that is, Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des Singes (1963). Visual touches in Kamandi nonetheless suggest that Kirby drew on the movies, not so much the novel, as inspiration.

In any case, Kirby had a way of responding to popular notions and images, right off the top of his head, with notions and images of his own, and his eager recycling of plots throughout his career suggests that he was not leery of taking familiar notions and running with them. Besides Planet of the Apes, Kamandi obviously and enthusiastically copped ideas from various sources, old and new, including films and stories such as King Kong, Westworld, The Day of the Dolphin, The Exorcist, Gunga Din, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and the popular UFO and Bermuda Triangle mythology of the day. Kirby, always, was a sponge, soaking up ideas from popular stories. He used those ideas frankly, shamelessly, with a newshound’s instincts for the au courant, the trendy, and the free-floating Pop obsessions of the moment. He did so in the Fantastic Four in the 1960s; he did so at the same time as Kamandi in The Demon, which was full of riffs on old horror films; and he would do so in Captain America in the mid-70s. In Kamandi, these fashionable thefts rub elbows with old, familiar elements from adventure fiction, likely drawn from Kirby’s boyhood reading: a stock of nineteenth and twentieth-century classics and pulp. In short, Kirby was pirating throughout Kamandi, and “Earth A.D.” was his frenetic remix of old, familiar stuff. We might call it eminently postmodern.

Besides re-scrambling popular culture, Kamandi’s imaginary geography frankly testifies to certain biases, or limitations of vision. The series leans heavily on old ideas about the world and about the various races and cultures within it. Those ideas are largely Euro- and USA-centric, and many are clearly colonialist in origin, as revealed in the enticing maps of Kamandi’s world that appear in issues #1 and #32. In the first issue, the map focuses on the Americas; in issue #32, the view is wider.

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The revised map from Kamandi #32 (Kirby/Berry, Aug. 1975).

Here the British are recast as (quite literally) bulldogs, while certain parts of Europe include animal cultures named for human leaders, such as the “Wolf Garibaldeks” (in what was Italy) and the “Wolf Napoleoneks” (guess where?). What middle-class whites in the US tend to think of as Third World areas are populated by smaller or putatively less noble animals (ouch)—either that, or civilizations based on stereotypic exotic traits (such as sun worshipping, death worshipping, and surfing!). Much of Kirby’s South America appears to be pitted with craters, while even Canada, as we’ve seen, is simply erased, leaving in its place a radioactive wasteland known as “the Dominion of the Devils.” These brusque changes reflect not an animus against these places so much as, I would guess, an assumption that young American comic book readers were unlikely to be familiar with those places: whereas the areas based on the continental United States are more fully fleshed out, the areas north and south of the border have been emptied out with broad, sweeping strokes. Kamandi’s new world, then, is beholden to the old in that it reflects a nationalistic investment in America as well as American and European stereotypes about the primacy of Western civilization, here distilled and parodied via Kirby’s animal cultures. I’m not saying this to condemn Kirby, who I believe was ringing changes on what he knew, with the kind of happy opportunism that so often marked his work. My point is to highlight the history and certain widely shared prejudices behind his vision: Kamandi, after all, is a very American fantasy.

Yet Kirby’s changes to the map are often surprising. Kamandi’s America, ironically, becomes the setting for a bizarre pastiche of imperialist adventure fiction. In Kirby’s whacked-out recreation of the USA, Kamandi repeatedly discovers the kind of exotic settings once reserved for either the frontier romance or so-called foreign (that is, non-USA, non-Eurocentric) locales. The series recreates, in its America, an exoticism once cultivated in “foreign” or putatively uncivilized settings. I think here not only of the American frontier romance à la Fenimore Cooper and so many others, but also of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonialist adventure fiction, all those stepchildren of Kipling and Rider Haggard, and later of Burroughs.

Intriguingly, many of the animal cultures seen in Kamandi parody aspects of American civilization, just as, in adventure fiction, the portrayal of indigenous non-European, non-white cultures sometimes stresses the way these cultures imitate or parody civilization, but with an interleaving of so-called savage or “Oriental” mystery and superstition to undercut their civilized pretensions. Kamandi partakes of this, with a twist: here animal savagery assumes the forms and ceremonies of human civilization, but with a curious admixture of feudal ignorance and low-tech (i.e. raw and premodern) violence.

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Ape City, from Planet of the Apes (1968), art direction by William Creber and Jack Martin Smith, from conceptual drawings by Mentor Huebner.

The effect is similar to that of the first Planet of the Apes film, in 1968. That film, departing from Pierre Boulle’s source novel, depicts ape civilization as an odd mix of the primitive—those rough, adobe-like buildings, full of rounded, organic forms and arches—and the modern: rifles, cameras, et cetera. Whereas Boulle depicted his apes living in a modernized, high-tech, metropolitan world much like our own, the filmmakers depicted apes living closer to the raw, hard facts of the land, in a less insulated, less urbanized environment, but with a civilization otherwise mockingly close to our own. (Reportedly, the filmmakers choose the more primitive look mainly to save money!) In Kamandi, similarly, animal civilizations are botched or parodic versions of proper human civilization, and their air of exoticism, mystery and danger is shot through with flashes of ironic wit. But the irony cuts both ways, mocking contemporary America as well. Witness for instance the gorilla community that idolizes Superman, in issue #29, or the cult that bases its rituals on the Watergate tapes, in issue #15.

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Kamandi #29 (Kirby/Berry, May 1975) depicts a battle to decide who gets to control Superman’s image and legacy.

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Indict them! Indict them! From “The Watergate Secrets,” Kamandi #15 (Kirby/Royer, March 1974).

Kamandi’s upside-down world, then, allowed Kirby to take a lot of received stuff and put a startling, sometimes satiric spin on it. The series’ premise gave him license for the baldfaced appropriation and twisting of familiar material. More to the point, the plasticity of Kamandi’s world insured that Kirby would remain engaged over the long term, i.e. the three-plus years he spent writing and drawing the book. The series was adaptable enough to stay afloat for what was, for solo Kirby, an unusually long time; in effect the book could bob up and down in the choppy waters of his mercurial interest and moods. The sheer adaptability of its world may help explain why Kamandi was the longest-lived and most commercially successful of all Kirby’s new projects in the ’70s.

More than this, though, Kamandi’s world allowed for the character of Kamandi himself: Kirby’s wild yet innocent idealization of independent boyhood. In spite of the book’s freewheeling aimlessness, the titular “boy” provided a center of gravity; in fact the boy and the world worked together. After all, characters need settings that will grant them sufficient scope of action; that is why, for example, superhero tales require not only stylized characters but also a stylized milieu, typically a vision of the city as a displaced frontier, a violent, unpredictable environment that justifies the hero’s work. Likewise, Earth A.D. is a setting that grants freedom of action to its orphaned boy hero. Kamandi himself is an image of rootlessness and roving, restless imagination: often sad though eternally hopeful; reasoning and bright yet never tame; the last hope of pre-Disaster humanity, yet undomesticated and curiously at home in his wild surroundings. Like Kirby’s other signature heroes—like Orion, for example, or Mister Miracle, both from the Fourth World—Kamandi is an outsider to the very things he wants, and it is the frustration of his hopes that provides the reader with constant thrills. The series, ultimately, offers a stereotypic but nonetheless personal picture of untrammeled boyhood to a readership of, presumably, other boys: just as hopeful, just as angry, just as lost.


Works Cited

Allen, Michael. “I Just Want to be a Cosmic Cowboy”: Hippies, Cowboy Code, and the Culture of a Counterculture.” The Western Historical Quarterly 36.3 (Autumn 2005): 275-300.

Evanier, Mark. “Jack F.A.Q.s.” The Jack Kirby Collector 40 (Summer 2004): 6-11.

Kidd, Kenneth B. Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: BasicBooks, 1993.

Kirby at 99: Chasing the Mystery

UPDATE!

Please continue to support Jillian Kirby and the Hero Initiative’s wonderful Kirby4Heroes campaign: a splendid way to honor Jack’s legacy and that of other veteran comic book creators. For more information about Kirby4Heroes, check out its Facebook page and website. And don’t forget #WakeUpAndDraw, the drawing challenge to benefit the Hero Initiative, which you can follow on Twitter.


Today would have been the 99th birthday of Jack Kirby, an artist and a man we know a lot about and yet who remains, to me, a mystery and a challenge. I expect he always will.

I wrote an academic book about Kirby. I curated an exhibition of his art, and co-edited the catalog which came out of that. I’ve written a handful of articles for The Jack Kirby Collector. In one way or another, I’ve been following Kirby and his work for most of my life, starting I don’t know when–sometime before I turned ten, which is about when he became my favorite comic book artist–and intensifying in my twenties, when I discovered comic shops and began to chase down Kirby books I had not seen as a kid. I’ve thought about and grappled with Kirby in waves, and can mark off certain phases of my life on the basis of how my view of Kirby changed. Sometimes he has been the very center of my interest in comics, and at other times a persistent background; the terms of my attention keep changing. Over the past ten years, though, as thinking about Kirby has turned into a program of academic work, my interest has been constant and especially intense.

You could say that I have Kirbymania. After all, a big part of my thinking and reading life orbits around the idea of Jack Kirby, and I don’t see that changing. Despite the rigors of working on the exhibition and catalog these past few years–a dream, a blur, a happy madness–I can’t help but feel that I’m not done with Kirby, and never will be. The truth is, he is still a mystery to me. There is so much to take in: the crushing hardships of his life, which he refused to be crushed by; his rare and intense gift for comics storytelling; the push and pull of contrary feelings and the gear-grinding clash of ideas in his work; his galloping imagination and yen for Big Things; above all, the great, unstinting generosity of his talent and temperament, which transformed deadline-crazy freelancing into an amazing outpouring of art that was, always, surplus to requirements. How can someone do that? How can that be possible, to wring, from a life steeped in the memory of poverty and violence, work so generous and vivid, so free of cynicism even when it ventured into the darkest places?

Kirby still has me baffled. I don’t think I’ll ever get him all figured out. Lord knows I’ve tried. It was Kirby who lured me into trying to figure out, in Hand of Fire, the whole strange business of cartooning: a mix of figuration, pictographic symbolism, and ecstatic handiwork, all driven toward to simplification and typification by narrative intent–but never merely reducible to a paraphrasable intent. It was Kirby who got me past analytical formalism, back to the wild sweep of the whole comics page. It was he who got me over my adolescent embarrassment at, hell disavowal of, things I really enjoyed and still enjoy: outrageous cartooning, grandstanding images, superhero yarns, space opera, Pop sublimity, plain reckless joy. It was Kirby who kicked me in the slats at age ten, and then again at age forty-plus, when I needed to take a post-tenure plunge into rediscovered pleasures, and needed to own them on a bigger stage. It was always Kirby. And I kept, keep, trying to figure him out. Talk about a glorious fool’s errand.

I keep coming back to the generosity of the work. Anyone who has studied Kirby has read stories about the generosity of the man, and knows that Jack Kirby was loved by many because he himself had love (not just fury) inside him. He was a good man from hard origins who worked in a pitiless, exploitive business, who endured and did hard things, but he was nonetheless a good man. What I’m thinking of, though, is the graphic generosity of the work. Kirby almost always looked at his art from a storyteller’s point of view–which is fair, because he was, as he said, a writer with pictures–but his refusal to stint on the drawing made his pages livelier and more beguiling than almost anyone else’s in the business, and made his head-spinning stories habitable, believable, and authentic somehow, in spite of the wild premises. That he gave so much of himself to drawing those stories helps explain the feeling of aliveness that they give off: a feeling of commitment.

Over the decades, Jack Kirby set an impossible standard for comic books, showing how far a creator could go even without what should be the minimal assurances of creative ownership, editorial control, and financial security. And Jack wasn’t a martyr; often he was a great success,though he learned repeatedly what could happen to a success when the rug was pulled out from under him. He was a survivor, but more than a survivor, he was the very model of what it took to succeed against long odds. That he did succeed in shaping the lives and imaginations of so many–again, there’s the mystery.

Sometimes I think about how very different Kirby is from me: in upbringing, ethos, personality. After all, I’m an academic; I like theory, and live by analysis. Kirby, on the other hand, lived by storytelling. I’m aware that my life has been very different from his, that the intersection of his work and mine is a miraculous fluke. I wonder, how can something be so familiar to me and yet retain its power to surprise? His work does that: it manages to be lovable and uncanny at the same time. As I said, I can’t figure it out. But I am certain that the academic and the writer in me owe their opportunities to the electrifying example of Kirby and what he showed me.

Chasing the mystery of Kirby, of his genius for comics, is a lifelong pursuit. I’m so grateful to be doing it.

So: Happy 99th and profoundest thanks to Jack Kirby! And Happy KIRBY DAY to us all. How odd to think that I’m celebrating his birthday by celebrating the gift he gave to me–but what else is new, eh? May this coming year, between Jack’s 99th and his 100th, be a time of more and better and more widely-read work in Kirby studies. There is a depth and strangeness to Kirby’s work that will never give out–and will continue to be a goad and inspiration to our own work, in his orbit.

PS. I think my first exposure to Kirby’s Kamandi, certainly the first arc of Kamandi that I read, came with issues 22 to 24, inked and lettered by D. Bruce Berry, and published by DC in late-mid 1974. I didn’t buy these; they came in a box of comics gifted to me by a schoolmate whose family was getting ready to move (a short time later, I started buying Kamandi off the newsstand, with issue 32, published in mid-75). Those three issues made quite an impression on me:

Courtesy of Derek Langille’s Flickr photostream

 

Courtesy of Derek Langille’s Flickr photostream

 

Kirby Panel Transcript Lands This Week!

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The newest issue of The Jack Kirby Collector, #67, hits comic shops this week—edited, designed, and published by the great John Morrow, as always. Every issue of TJKC is crammed with good stuff, and this one is no exception; it includes two interviews with Kirby as well as a lovely reminiscence by John himself. It also includes the transcript of the panel discussion at CSU Northridge last September, based on our exhibition Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby and featuring Scott Bukatman, Doug Harvey, Adam McGovern, Andrei Molotiu, Steve Roden, Ben Saunders, and me. This is a far-ranging discussion, taking in perspectives from fandom and academia, from art history, literature, and cultural studies, and from the very personal—our first memories of Kirby—to such dauntingly big questions as “Does comic art belong in galleries?” and “What is Art, anyway?” I’m proud to have been part of this rich, thought-provoking conversation.

Unfortunately, due to my own mistakes, the panel transcript got rushed into print in raw, mis-edited form, and without the approval of my co-panelists. This means that the version included in the print edition of TJKC #67 does not reflect the editorial input of Scott, Doug, Adam, Andrei, Steve, or Ben, and contains several mistaken names, mis-attributed statements, and mis-heard lines. The responsibility for these errors is solely mine, and I apologize to my colleagues for green-lighting this flawed and unapproved transcript. In the mad, breathless rush of the past few months, that is the one thing I really regret.

Fortunately, John Morrow has graciously made it possible for us to include a thoroughly revised and corrected transcript in the digital edition of issue 67, and also to make the whole article available as a free download. To get this download, go to the “FREE stuff!” section of the TwoMorrows website, at:

FREE Jack Kirby Collector #67 Supplement

It will look like this:

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To be clear, subscribers to the digital Jack Kirby Collector should automatically see this revised, corrected version of the article in their digital copies of #67. Subscribers to TJKC in print should find a small information card in their mailed copy of #67 directing them to the free download.

This revised digital version of the transcript entirely supersedes the print version, and is the one I hope Kirby fans and scholars will cite going forward.

My thanks to John and to my brilliant co-panelists for their patience, understanding, and revisions. I am very proud of the final result!

Just Draw! Mark Badger Brings Kirby Studies and More to SVCC  

Going to the Silicon Valley Comic Con this weekend? Look out for Kirby stuff, Kirby studies, and ace cartoonist Mark Badger!


Tomorrow through Sunday, March 18-20, Mark, wearer of many hats–artist, teacher, Comic Book Apocalypse essayist, and Kirby expert among them–will be appearing at the inaugural SVCC at the San Jose Convention Center, where he’ll be doing a lot of great things:

  • Manning a booth on behalf of the Kirby Museum (that would be booth AA2 H) in collaboration with underground comix artist Bruce Simon. They’ll be selling the Four Faces of Evil poster for the Museum, plus Museum T-shirts and sundries, plus examples of their own work–and copies of our Comic Book Apocalypse catalog, as a Museum fundraiser!
  • Co-presenting, with Bruce Simon and puppeteer, writer, and longtime Kirby associate Steve Sherman, the Kirby panel A Graphic Apocalypse, on Sunday at 2:00pm. (You can consult the SVCC schedule here.)
  • Presenting his own interactive workshop, Just Draw, a session on “drawing, mindfulness, comics, and storytelling,” on Friday night from 8 to 9pm. This is based on Mark’s new publication, Just Draw, which he describes as a manual for “stressed out” artists who want to stop worrying and “get their work done.”

Did I mention Mark’s own work? How about his amazing, multipart Abstract Kirby project? How about his now complete Kirby-inspired opus, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, collected for the first time anywhere, just in time for SVCC? Great stuff.



If you don’t know Mark’s comics, you’re missing out on some wonderful cartooning. I learned to recognize his work back in 1988, when his pencils, inks, and colors on a Martian Manhunter miniseries (scripted by J.M. DeMatteis) hipped me to his distinctive style: swooping, slashing, and bold, abstracted into modernistic pattern and pure vectors of force, taking lessons from Kirby and Picasso alike and wreaking havoc with superhero conventions. I followed him to later projects such as Batman: Run, Riddler, Run (1992, scripted by Gerard Jones) and Animal Rights Comics (1996, scripted by Joyce Brabner). His resume since then has been strange and awesome.

Mark is not only a terrific comics artist, but also a teacher and activist. His current projects, such as Just Draw, pull these threads together. His “Daily Kirby” exercises (a 3-year-long series of devotional studies to the King) have to be seen to be believed. Read more about Mark’s career here, and if you’re going to SVCC, look up Mark and tell him I said hello and thanks! Mark’s been one of the voices reminding me of just how important it is to keep up the dialogue between critics and artists–and his own recent work amounts to an amazing creative and critical encounter with Kirby’s work.

The Apocalypse Now Available at Comic Shops!

I’m delighted to report that the exhibition catalog for Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby, co-edited by Ben Saunders and me, and published by IDW in partnership with the CSU Northridge Art Galleries, has at last arrived at comic book shops across the country!

That’s right: the CBA catalog, published last fall, made it to comic shops yesterday, March 16. Kirby fans and scholars, look out for it!

It was a labor of love, and is a trove of Kirby artwork, Kirby lore, interpretation, analysis, and appreciation, as well as a complete documenting of the record-setting Kirby exhibition at CSUN in Fall 2015! For further information, and images, see my posts of January 26, December 5, and October 30, below.

More Kirby news forthcoming!