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.

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2 thoughts on “Kirby’s Post-Apocalyptic Child

  1. ILYA says:

    great stuff. thank you, Charles – I LOVE Kamandi

  2. This is a great post with a lot to chew on. I’ve read bits and pieces of Kamandi, but never the whole thing– I should pick up DC’s new omnibus! As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about Planet of the Apes, I’d agree there’s not much of Boulle to Kirby’s approach. Interesting about the Watergate tapes thing; right around the same time in Amazing Adventures, Don McGregor had Killraven visit DC and find the tapes in White House basement but totally misunderstand their connotations.

    Where are the future installments!?

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