Kirby (and Kirby Studies) in Moselle

 

Nov. 11, 2017. Studying Kirby never gets old. These past few days I’ve been in Metz, France, learning new ways to think about him and his work.

Metz lies in France’s northeast corner, in the region of Lorraine, not far from the German border. It belongs to the Département (i.e. administrative region) of Moselle—that is, within the Moselle River valley. It is about an hour and a half’s ride (by super-fast TGV train) from Paris. To me-—to my awestruck American eyes—it seems like a pleasant city that wears its history like a badge. It’s home to the Saulcy campus of the University of (Université de) Lorraine, or UdL, which is where I’ve been these past few days.

To commemorate this, Kirby’s centennial year, the Département of Moselle is paying tribute to him and his work with a series of comics-related events and exhibitions (see kirbysuperheros.fr). That is what brought me to the UdL.

Metz was a pivotal place in Kirby’s life—which is an understatement. As a 27-year-old combat infantryman in World War Two, Kirby took part in La Bataille (Battle) de Metz, which raged in the Moselle from September to December 1944. He was lucky to survive; most of his comrades-in-arms did not.

To be specific, the 11th Regiment of the 5th Infantry Division of Patton’s Third Army came to Metz in early September 1944. From September 8th to 10th, Kirby and some 1200 other soldiers took part in an ill-fated bid to cross the Moselle at Dornot-Corny (Dornot being a village on the west side of the river, and Corny a village on the opposite shore). They were ordered to establish a bridgehead and drive the Germans from the Fort St. Blaise. Opposing them were battle-worn German soldiers reassigned from the Russian front (the Voss battalion), as well as fresh graduates from a SS school (the Berg battalion) and elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. The Moselle had become a heavily defended German frontier, so the Metz campaign was hard-fought and brutal. Dornot-Corny in particular became a disaster. The Americans were poorly informed and ill-prepared; lines of communication were tangled, and roads clogged; rain poured down, and the waters of the Moselle were ice-cold. Expected support did not come, and artillery support, when it came, inadvertently killed Americans (“friendly fire”). The Germans, for their part, rained artillery on the Americans nonstop; shells whistled and howled through the air, explosions ripped up the ground. Many Americans huddled in makeshift foxholes in a small wood that they came to call Horseshoe Wood (named for the horseshoe-shaped pattern of the troops’ movement). Trees were blasted apart—wooden shrapnel flew—and the woods were laid bare.

The roughly mile and a half of territory around Dornot-Corny became a killing ground. Of the 1200 Americans who went into it, 945 were eventually reported lost or wounded. Within days, American troops did establish a bridgehead further south, at Arnaville, but Dornot-Corny was remembered, if it all, as a defeat—the kind of thing armies would prefer not to remember, in fact. Indeed Dornot-Corny been has been described as “une bataille oubliée” (a forgotten battle). The people of Metz, however, have worked to make sure that it is not forgotten, and the events of September 8-10 are now memorialized as “60 hours in hell.”

Jack Kirby lived through that.

I visited Dornot-Corny two days ago. I will say more about that in a later post, and hopefully with a few photos. It was an oddly appropriate Veterans’ Day observance, so to speak. Suffice to say for now that the experience was moving and eye-opening, and I will not forget it. Thank you to Elisabeth Gozzo and the Association Thanks GIs for working so hard to preserve the memory of the soldiers and their sacrifice.*

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How and why did I get to Metz? I was invited to speak at the colloquy or symposium Expérience autobiographique et bande dessinée de genre: le récit de soi in spaces contraints (Autobiographical Experience and Genre Comics: Self-Narratives in Constrained Contexts), organized by scholar Jean-Matthieu Méon of the CREM (Centre de eEcherche sur les Médiations, or Center for Media Research) at the UdL. The impetus for this colloquy was Kirby’s centenary, as indicated by the subtitle Autour de Jack Kirby et de son passage en Moselle/Traces of Jack Kirby’s War in Moselle—thus the symposium built on Moselle’s larger Kirby tribute. Méon worked generously, tirelessly, to involve me in the symposium, arrange my travel to France, and make sure I understood things despite my language deficit—for which I cannot thank him enough. (Merci mille fois, Jean-Matthieu!)

The colloquy consisted of two days’ conversation in the UdL’s Salle Ferrari (a conference room arranged in concentric rings and with microphones everywhere!). Its main purpose, to paraphrase Jean-Matthieu, was to talk about Kirby, his life, his style, and his development, in order to talk more broadly about the category of “autobiographical comics”; or, in other words, to “expand the repertoire of authors, works, and formal strategies to consider when discussing the expression of autiobiography in comics.” As both autobiographical comics and Kirby are deep interests of mine, I was thrilled to have been invited. Moreover, the opportunity to talk about Kirby in a European context was something I had never experienced before—and frankly I had not realized how deeply Kirby’s work has affected so many readers outside of anglophone North America. To see such strong, firsthand evidence of this has been a great experience. Kirby studies is international!

Fourteen scholars gave papers: eight from France, three from Belgium, one from the UK, and two (including myself) from the US. In addition, Jean-Matthieu framed the event with opening and closing remarks, establishing a rich theoretical and historical context for our discussions. Following, in order of presentation, are brief notes about the talks. Some addressed Kirby particularly, while others dealt with different topics at the intersection of comics and autobiography studies:

  • Benoît Crucifix of the University of Liège, Belgium (whom I had met before), spoke on autobiographical readings of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley in the archival reprint volumes organized by Chris Ware and Jeet Heer.
  • Benoît Tellez spoke on autobiographical dimensions of Winsor McCay’s comics.
  • Maaheen Ahmed discussed authorial presence in works situated between autobiography and genre comics, including works by Pratt, Seagle and Kristiansen, and Larcenet, and how those works construct author-personas by invoking memories of past comics as well as memories of other media incorporated by comics.
  • Jean-Charles Andries de Levis discussed Alex Barbier’s Lettres au maire de V., and how the image of the werewolf in that and other works takes on an autobiographical function.
  • Benoît Glaude explored the phenomenon of pseudo-autobiographical texts attributed to comics characters (Little Nicholas, Corto Maltese, etc.), i.e. “the passage of non-autobiographical comics through the autobiographical literary genre.”
  • Pascal Robert spoke on the drawn signatures of cartoonist André Franquin and how those signatures assert the individuality and status of the author and renegotiate the relationship between author and editorial/publishing establishment.
  • Bounthavy Suvilay presented on the work of mangaka Hiroyuki Arakawa and how that work, as it conveys the story of a community rather than giving an individual confession, does not subscribe to Western conceptions of autobiography as genre but instead follows models specific to Japan.
  • Jean-Matthieu Méon spoke on the autobiographical works of the late Sam Glanzman and how they both conform to and exceed the conventional straits of the war comic genre.
  • Hugo Frey (University of Chichester, UK), with whom I have worked but whom I had never met, spoke on Hugo Pratt’s contributions to British war comics (Fleetway’s War Picture Library) in the late 1950s to early 60s, and how hints of Pratt’s later expressionistic style emerge even in these highly conventionalized comics.
  • Laura Caraballo (presenting a paper written in collaboration with Roberto Bartual) explored Kirby’s treatment of the sublime and the “concern for pure form” that emerges in the second half of his career, in relation to abstraction, Pop Art, and psychedelic art.
  • Éric Maigret presented on contested or fractured masculinity (or conflicts between hegemonic and subordinate masculinities) as the ground of Kirby’s personal and professional struggles, as revealed in diverse works.
  • Mathieu Li-Goyette (Université de Montréal, Canada) spoke on how Kirby’s war comics address the self “in a context of brotherhood” and heterogeneity, as analyzed within a schizoanalytic framework informed by the theories of Deleuze and Guattari.
  • Steven Brower (Skyping in from the US) discussed Kirby’s late works, particularly OMAC, as prophetic and dystopian “cautionary tales.”

I had the honor of leading off the colloquy with a keynote exploring Kirby’s changing view of war via his depictions of Japanese soldiers in two very different comics, one “The Treachery of Osuki,” a Boy Commandos story from Detective Comics #68 (Oct. 1942), and the other “Bushido,” a Losers story from Our Fighting Forces #154 (April 1975). My goal was to contrast early Kirby and late Kirby regarding the way he imagined the “enemy” and the nature of heroism in war—and to show how Kirby moved from wartime propaganda to more complex views. Along the way, I indulged my growing interest in the “kid gang” genre of comics pioneered by Kirby and Joe Simon in the early 1940s, and sought to place that genre in the context of Kirby’s autobiography as well as popular culture influences.

 

I wish I could share photos from the actual symposium proceedings, but I did not get any good ones of the speakers speaking—partly because the setting was small and intimate and I didn’t want to make anyone feel awkward, and partly because most of the presentations were in French and I was straining to understand them. The colloquy included both French and English talks, but frankly when it comes to French, I have seulement un trop petit peu (though this trip has given me some practice) and cannot converse in the language, so I relied on notes and impromptu help from colleagues. Fortunately, all presenters used PowerPoint, and most embedded in their slideshows text in whatever language they were not speaking; in my case, for example, I prepared French-language text for my talk. So that meant that I could follow the outlines of arguments in cases where I could not grasp the details of language. But I was keenly aware of my language deficit and working hard to show that I was listening and trying to understand—an occasionally frustrating experience, but overall the group worked hard to realize Jean-Matthieu Méon’s vision of a truly international summit. Everyone was gracious about it. I have to say, it was intense to spend so much energy trying to pick out whatever words I could recognize; fortunately, most presenters explicitly framed their talks in terms of theoretical perspective, methodology, and corpus of study, and those academic habits, which I’m familiar with, helped make up for my lack of fluency in the language. (In all, six presentations were in English and eight in French.)

This was a tremendous intellectual workout for me, and a great social occasion too. I got to make new friends, stretch my understanding, get a renewed feel for French language and culture, and—as I’ve said—learn that there are diverse international perspectives on Kirby. I only wish that I could have made it Metz earlier this year, and spent more time there, so as to fully experience the region’s celebration of Kirby (again, see kirbysuperheros.fr).

Once again, my deepest thanks to Jean-Matthieu Méon and his colleagues for making this happen!

KIRBY VIT!

*(My two main sources for the above account of the battle at Dornot-Corny are, one, my memories of conversations at the battle site, particularly the recollections of historian Elisabeth Gozzo; and two, the commemorative booklet Une bataille oubliée: les têtes de pont de Dornot-Corny et d’Arnaville, 2009, partly written by Gozzo and sponsored by the Office National does Anciens de la Moselle and the Association Thanks GIs, which Gozzo leads. They have done some wonderful “memory work” to make sure that the terrors and sacrifices of the War are not forgotten.)

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CSUN Celebrates Kirby’s 100th

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Kirby lives.

This coming Monday, August 28, is Jack Kirby’s birthday—I call that Kirby Day. What’s more, this particular August the 28th would have been Kirby’s 100th birthday, his centenary. To think of what Kirby lived through, from his boyhood on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, to his passing in 1994, fills me with awe, and his work continues to fill me with a sort of tongue-tied gratitude for its never-ending richness. I try to observe Kirby Day on this blog every year, but on this 100th anniversary it seems especially urgent.

Monday the 28th also happens to be the first weekday of the new (Fall 2017) semester at my school, California State University, Northridge. That these two events—one the centennial of an artist vital to comics, visual culture, and my own life, and the other the perhaps-routine but still always exciting start of a new school term—should coincide seems a bit crazy, but too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. So CSUN, and particularly the Comics@CSUN initiative that I head, will be commemorating Kirby’s 100th in two ways:

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First, I have curated an exhibit of Kirby works from the 1940s to the 1980s, called Jack Kirby @ 100. This exhibit consists mainly of comic books, photographs, and art prints, and will be up in the Oviatt Library’s Music & Media wing from August 25 (that was today) through October 1. From The Boy Commandos  and Young Love to Captain Victory and The Hunger Dogs, this show gives a small but vivid window onto Kirby’s comic book career.

Second, this Monday the 28th—Kirby Day, the centennial edition!—I will be moderating a panel discussion with two great, Kirby-inspired comics creators who have taken Kirby’s influence in their own unexpected and original directions: Mark Badger and Tony Puryear. The panel will take place in the Oviatt Library’s Jack & Florence Ferman Presentation Room from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., and will be followed by a visit to the exhibit (upstairs).

Both the exhibit and the panel discussion are FREE and open to the public—readers, please feel free to drop in! For more info, see the Comics@CSUN Events page, or just visit the CSUN homepage. And please help spread the word via social media, with the hashtags #KirbyAt100 and #ComicsAtCSUN. Thanks!

It’s been a challenge to do these things while also preparing new courses for a new semester—but there’s no way I could let this centennial pass without officially observing it at CSUN! Thanks to the University and all my colleagues and sponsors who helped make this happen, and to the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center for their unstinting support! (Check out the Museum’s own schedule of Kirby centennial events this weekend, at its popup museum in NYC’s One Art Space.)

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PS. Don’t forget to support Jillian Kirby’s annual charity drive, Kirby 4 Heroes, which raises funds for the Hero Initiative, a nonprofit that supports veteran comics creators in need! Each year the drive has been raising more and more money—let’s make Kirby’s centenary a record-breaking year! This is a project Jack Kirby would have been behind 100 percent.

Kirby lives.

The CCI Kirby Museum Booth, plus What I’m Doing at CCI

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I’d like to crow about what I’m doing at Comic-Con International: San Diego this weekend, but more importantly, I want to talk about the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center.

The Kirby Museum is the epicenter of grassroots Kirbydom, a champion of comics and Kirby scholarship, and an incredible repository of images and history. It’s also the work of a great and generous team.

They will be at Comic-Con International: San Diego this weekend, of course, telling the world about Jack Kirby and his art. Showing his art, in fact, and inviting everyone to share in the project of Kirby studies. All convention long, the Museum will be displaying 2100 images from Kirby’s original art—a stunning exhibition of Kirbyana. What’s more, their booth will play host to artists and commentators like Mark Badger, Ray Wyman, and the great Kirby collaborator Mike Royer—all part of a concerted celebration of Jack’s centenary.

As if Comic-Con’s exciting slate of Kirby centennial and Will Eisner centennial events weren’t enough, the Kirby Museum team will make its booth the very HQ of Kirby studies right on the exhibit hall floor! That’s Booth #5520, in the Gold and Silver Pavilion, just across, as usual, from the TwoMorrows booth (where of course there will also be a wealth of Kirbyana, including issues of The Jack Kirby Collector and the new Kirby100 book, courtesy of the great John Morrow and co.). You really should visit that Pavilion.

Signing and selling: Thanks to the Kirby Museum’s generosity, I get to spend some time signing and selling my Kirby studies books at the Museum’s booth. Copies of the Eisner-winning Hand of Fire (2011) and the Comic Book Apocalypse exhibition catalog (2015) will be available, and a cut of the proceeds will go to the Kirby Museum! Look for me on:

  • Thursday, July 20, 3:30-6:00pm
  • Friday, July 21, 3:00-4:00pm
  • Saturday, July 22, 2:00-5:00pm

I look forward to talking with anyone and everyone with an interest in the King!


Biographical and Autobiographical Comics: Besides reveling in Kirbyana this weekend, I have the honor of moderating a panel on nonfiction comics with four great cartoonists: Box Brown (Andre the Giant; Tetris), Sarah Glidden (Rolling Blackouts; How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less), Sonny Liew (The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye; The Shadow Hero) and Mimi Pond (The Customer Is Always Wrong; Over Easy). We’ll be discussing the slippery relationship between fiction and nonfiction, with reference to their wonderful books. That’s Biographical and Autobiographical Comics, on Friday morning, July 21, from 10:00 to 11:00 am, in Room 28DE. You couldn’t ask for a stronger set of creators in one panel!

Join the Kirby and Eisner Celebrations at Comic-Con 2017!

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With apologies to Rick Geary, Jack Kirby, and Joe Sinnott!

Wow. This is a year to be at Comic-Con International: San Diego. It’s the centenary of Jack Kirby (1917-1994) and the centenary of Will Eisner (1917-2005), two comics greats who improbably crossed paths early on and improbably kept innovating and nudging comics forward throughout their long careers. The two men eventually developed very different reputations in comics studies, but both were seminal, inspiring, and frankly astounding narrative artists who carried comics a long way. Both left their mark on Comic-Con too, becoming household saints of that great convention. Both are honored yearly for that. But this year is something special, as Comic-Con is observing the centennial of both men with a special series of panels and events throughout the weekend. See below for a full listing of those CCI events that appear to be Kirby and/or Eisner-related (clicking on an event’s title should take you to its official place in the online CCI schedule).

I will be lucky enough to take in part of the weekend. Though I won’t be able to attend all of the events listed below (who could?), I will be at several, and man am I grateful for that! Both Eisner and Kirby have meant a lot to me as a comics reader and scholar, and I’m sure that this is going to be one long nostalgiathon!

NOTE: I have the good fortune to spend part of the Con signing and selling books at the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center’s booth (#5520), as detailed in this separate post. The Booth is going to be amazing, so come check it out!

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Eisner and Kirby, 1982. Photo by Alan Light.

 

Kirby and Eisner Shop Talk

(The following blurbs come direct from the CCI program, with minimal editing:)

Jack Kirby’s Consciousness, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Barry Ira Geller, and the Real Argo

Thursday, July 20 • 10:00am – 11:00am • Room 5AB

Finally, the fascinating truth about the real CIA Argo mission! Hear how Jack Kirby and Barry Ira Geller’s script and production designs for Lord of Light made the actual Argo mission successful, as recently testified to by the “Sons of the Iranian Revolution.” The Kirby/Geller work, though not mentioned in the Oscar-winning film, rests in the International Spy Museum forever. Discover the unbelievable awareness and consciousness of Jack Kirby as remembered by Barry Ira Geller, one of the last people to have creatively partnered with Jack. Kirby was the Rembrandt of comic art, the Einstein of superhero visions, and the creator of the modern romance genre. Hear Mike Royer, arguably the best Silver Age inker–certainly Jack Kirby’s favorite–give the real story behind the inking of these fantastic series!

Spotlight on Mike Royer

Thursday, July 20 • 11:30am – 12:30pm • Room 4

As part of this year’s gala Jack Kirby Centennial, here’s an hour-long chat with Jack’s favorite inker of his work, the man who worked with him on the Fourth World comics, Kamandi, The Demon, and many others. But Mike Royer was so much more than just Jack Kirby’s inker. He worked with Russ Manning on the Tarzan comic books and newspaper strip and again with Russ on the Star Wars newspaper strip. He drew for Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella and worked on the ’60s Marvel superhero cartoons and for Gold Key Comics and had a multi-decade career working for Disney on things as un-Kirbylike as Winnie the Pooh. Come hear him be interviewed by his friend and colleague, Mark Evanier.

Cartoon Art Museum Workshop: Mastering the Art of Jack Kirby

Thursday, July 20 • 2:00-3:00pm • Room 2

Ever wondered how the legendary Jack Kirby created his signature style? Now you can learn the tricks of his trade and those he collaborated with to draw Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men among many other iconic characters. Celebrate Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday with Kirby fan and cartoonist Mark Badger (Batman, Just Draw) leading this workshop, with guidance from the Jack Kirby Museum. Supplies provided by Sakura.

Why Will Eisner Still Matters at 100

Thursday, July 20 • 3:00-4:00pm • Room 9

Born 100 years ago, Will Eisner not only recognized the future potential of comics at an early age but also worked his whole life to help achieve those goals. But how could Will Eisner still be relevant to us today? Join Paul Levitz (former president of DC Comics, author of Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel, educator, comics historian), Jackie Estrada (administrator, Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards), Paul Dini (Harley Quinn co-creator, writer, producer), Maggie Thompson (writer, editor, comics historian), and maybe a surprise special guest to discover why.

Graphic Novel Creator Richard Kyle’s Legacy

Thursday, July 20 • 8:30-9:30pm • Room 8

Richard Kyle published the first graphic novel, Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger, as well as Graphic Story World and Argosy magazines. Mr. Kyle’s publishing work and the future of graphic novels will be discussed by a panel of experts: Mike Royer (artist, writer, Jack Kirby’s inker), Denis Kitchen (artist, writer, publisher, creator of Kitchen Sink Press), Ron Turner(writer, publisher, founder of Last Gasp), Jamie Coville (writer, comics historian), Phil Yeh(cartoonist, publisher of Uncle Jam), Greg Koudoulian (early SDCC film program contributor), David G. Brown (cartoonist, winner of the 2009 NAACP Image Award), and Maggie Thompson(writer, comics historian, co-editor of the Comics Buyer’s Guide).

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

Thursday, July 20 • 9:00-10:30pm • Room 9

This feature-length documentary about Will Eisner premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. The film includes interviews with Stan Lee, Jules Feiffer, Jack Kirby, Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, Gil Kane, and many other famous writers and cartoonists who knew and worked with Will Eisner. The showing will be introduced by Danny Fingeroth (comics historian, Spider-Man group editor) with a brand-new videotape introduction from the film’s director/producer Andrew D. Cooke and writer/producer Jon B. Cooke.

Spotlight on John Morrow

Friday, July 21 • 11:00am – 12:00pm • Room 4

Comic-Con special guest John Morrow (publisher at TwoMorrows) presents a sequential image, stereophonic, multimedia extravaganza: “Jack Kirby: Yesterday, Today, and TwoMorrows!” Join John on a comics history road trip that explores how Kirby’s career was inexplicably intertwined with John’s own life, long before he published Jack Kirby Collector #1 in 1994, and continues to permeate TwoMorrows Publishing today. You’ll see rare Kirby artwork, video and audio of Jack himself, rare photos, and the debut of John’s new book, KIRBY100, an all-star celebration of Jack’s 100th birthday! The video presentation will be followed by a Q&A session with details of other new TwoMorrows titles, including their Reed Crandall biography and GROOVY, which documents how flower power affected comics and pop culture.

Comic Arts Conference #6: Comics Auteurs: Kirby and Eisner at 100

Friday, July 21 • 11:30am – 1:00pm • Room 26AB

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the births of comics masters Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, whose contributions to comic books and graphic novels cannot be overstated. Marc Greenberg (Golden Gate University School of Law) discusses how copyright law partially helped the Jack Kirby and Jerry Siegel estates get a second bite at the apple in renegotiating publishing deals. Kim Munson (From Panels to Frames: Comic Art in Museums) looks at how recent art shows contribute to the constant rediscovery and reevaluation of Eisner and Kirby’s work. Jennifer Willms (University of Koblenz-Landau) delves into the Eisner’s comic compendium of Jewish American history and the immigrant experience.

Will Eisner: Mentor, Partner, Friend

Friday, July 21 • 12:30-1:30pm • Room 8

Comic-Con special guest Denis Kitchen looks back on his 35-year relationship with Will Eisner, from the unlikely friendship that formed between a scruffy underground comix publisher and a buttoned-down businessman to the creative and publishing partnership that brought The Spirit to a new generation and helped give birth to the graphic novel.

Jack Kirby: Friends and Family

Friday, July 21 • 1:30-2:30pm • Room 8

If Jack Kirby were as immortal as his work, he’d be 100 years old next month . . . and he’s still here in spirit and impact. Today a group of his family members and closest friends will talk about the man they knew, the man whose genius revolutionized the comic book industry again and again, and they’ll even tell you what he liked on his pizza. Your moderator is former Kirby assistant Mark Evanier (author, Kirby: King of Comics).

The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards

Friday, July 21 • 8:00-10:30pm • Indigo Ballroom, Hilton San Diego Bayfront

The 29th annual Eisner Awards (the “Oscars” of the comics industry) honor comics creators and works in 30 categories… Other prestigious awards to be given out include the Russ Manning Promising Newcomer Award, the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award, and the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comics Writing.

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This is a great comic!

This is the 13th year for presentation of the Bill Finger Award… The 2017 recipients are William Messner-Loebs (Superman, the Flash, Aquaman, Mr. Monster, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Dr. Fate, Jonny Quest, Spider-Man,Thor, Journey) and… Jack Kirby! …The awards will be presented by Mark Evanier. 

Comics Greats on Will Eisner’s The Spirit

Saturday, July 22 • 11:00am – 12:00pm • Room 4

Originally a syndicated Sunday newspaper comic insert, Will Eisner’s The Spirit is still acclaimed for its great artwork, imaginative splash pages, unforgettable characters, and attention-grabbing storytelling. Hear Danny Fingeroth (Spider-Man group editor, comics historian), Denis Kitchen (publisher, writer, comix cartoonist), Jeff Smith (cartoonist, Bone,RASL), Joe Staton (cartoonist, Dick Tracy) and, on videotape, Jules Feiffer (Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning cartoonist and screenwriter) talk about the impact of The Spirit on their own careers. Hear about their favorite Spirit adventures and learn why Will Eisner’s original Spiritstories are still in print today with new comics appearing monthly.

Jack Kirby’s 100th Birthday Celebration with IDW!

Saturday, July 22 • 1:00-2:00pm • Room 25ABC

Featuring an impressive library of more than 1,300 pages of Kirby original DC and Marvel artwork — the largest showing ever! IDW president Greg Goldstein hosts this stellar birthday tribute with a groundbreaking slide show, featuring art from eight different Artist’s Editions plus some surprises. The panel features superstar creators Walter Simonson and Kevin Eastman, who will share their Kirby remembrances and influences, along with senior editor Scott Dunbier and creative director at IDW PDX Dirk Wood. Everyone who attends will receive a “birthday” gift! One lucky fan will go home with an Artist’s Edition!

The Centennial of the King of Comics, Jack Kirby

Saturday, July 22 • 2:00-3:00pm • Room 29AB

 Illustrator and comic book historian Arlen Schumer (The Silver Age of Comic Book Art) marks the centennial of Kirby’s birth with a multimedia retrospective about how a first-American generation son of European Jewish immigrants growing up in the Lower East Side of New York City named Ya’akov Kurtzberg became acknowledged by both professionals and fans alike as the single greatest artist and storyteller in the history of comic books, Jack “King” Kirby.

The Annual Jack Kirby Tribute Panel

Sunday, July 23 • 10:00-11:15am • Room 4

Continuing the celebration of the Kirby Centennial, this is the annual panel about Comic-Con’s first superstar guest, the man they call “The King of Comics,” Jack Kirby. Jack left us in 1994, but his influence on comics, film, and this convention has never been greater. Discussing the man and his work this year are Jim Chadwick (editor at DC Comics), Paul Levitz (former president at DC Comics), Mike Royer (Kirby’s favorite inker), attorney Paul S. Levine, and several highly surprising surprise guests. Naturally, it’s moderated by former Kirby assistant Mark Evanier.

Will Eisner at 100: The Real World of Publishing Comics

Sunday, July 23 • 2:45-3:45pm • Room 5AB

Andrea Colvin (Lion Forge), Gina Gagliano (First Second), Kurt Hassler (Yen Press), Heidi MacDonald (The Beat), and Filip Sablik (BOOM! Studios) talk about the challenges and opportunities of selling graphic novels into traditional book markets. Moderated by John Shableski (Will Eisner Studios and Udon Entertainment).

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With apologies to Rick Geary and Will Eisner!

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.