Jack Kirby was not the first creator I knew by name. That honor went to the Incredible Hulk’s artist “Happy” Herb Trimpe.
The first Kirby comics I ever saw were the “Boy Commandos.” My dad bought comics when he was a kid and growing up, the Larsen kids were allowed to read and enjoy (and in some cases mutilate beyond recognition) those comics. I liked the “Boy Commandos” just fine, but they didn’t make a bigger impression than “Captain Marvel Adventures” or the EC Comics or even Powerhouse Pepper. My Dad had a ton of comics and with all of the Carl Barks “Donald Duck” and “Uncle Scrooge” and the “Archie” and “Mopsie” and “Nancy” and “Blue Bolt” comics, the few issues of “Boy Commandos” didn’t stand out.
When I started buying comics of my own, Jack Kirby was at DC. The “New Gods” and “Forever People” had run their course. I think I had an issue of “Mister Miracle” (#10 if memory serves me) and that was it. The book that made a lasting impression on me was “Kamandi The Last Boy On Earth.”
I wasn’t there from day one. I didn’t see every issue. I bought the ones that I ran across. I can recall having #4 and #5 and seeing ads in the comics for issues 11 and 12 and having them. I had a few scattered other issues as well. “Kamandi” #32 was a “Giant” issue, which reprinted the first issue in addition to a new story and it featured a Photo gallery, which promised “an intimate glimpse of Jack Kirby!! His life — his home — his studio!!!”
It was pretty neat — despite the nearly indecipherable blurry black and white photos printed on newsprint. And the comic itself was pretty incredible stuff. I can remember looking back and forth from the D. Bruce Berry inked lead story to the Mike Royer inked reprint and wondering why the older story looked so much better. It was the first dawning realization that an inker really could make a big difference on what the finished art looked like.
“Kamandi” worked. Everything about it clicked. Years later, able to read it all, I’m in awe of just how good this book really was. Yes, the “New Gods” and “Mister Miracle” and the “Forever People” were good books, but Jack’s ideas were spilling out of his head and on to his pencil so fast that the ideas lacked focus. Ultimately, the Forth World books failed and I think part of the reason was because they tried to do too much, too quickly. Kirby had worlds to tell you about and he wanted to get it all out there immediately and it simply didn’t gel in a way that readers immediately grasped.
The world of “Kamandi” was simple. There was a disaster. Men were reduced to animals and animals had taken over the earth. There were talking gorillas straight out of “Planet of the Apes,” sure, but there were Lions and Tigers and Bears (oh my!) along with Wolves and giant Rats and Insects. Kamandi’s goal was to put things right — to find more intelligent, reasoning humans like himself and put mankind back in their rightful place as the leaders of this savage land.
In the “Forever People,” Jack made an attempt to sound hip. His characters were flower children, reflecting the world outside his window. But Jack’s hip lingo sounded forced and corny. Jack was well into his ’50s and these comics read like they were written by a man in his ’50s.
“Kamandi” was a different story. “Kamandi” was set in a distant future. Sometime in the past, a natural catastrophe had occurred, exposing the earth to radiation. Kamandi was born and raised in a bunker complex, below the Earth’s surface and he gained his knowledge from films that his grandfather showed him. When it was safe, Kamandi came to the surface and explored. But disaster struck! While the boy was away, the complex was broken into and his grandfather was killed. The invaders were wolves and Kamandi’s battle with the two left them dead. With no reason to stay behind, the boy left the bunker complex to venture out on his own.
Without it being set in a specific time, Kirby didn’t attempt to make his dialogue contemporary and many of the animals emulated humans from different eras. Tigers rode horses and had a leader named Caesar. Lions were game wardens. Gorillas were heavies. Humans either roamed the Earth wild or were slaves or pets — doing tricks for sweets.
The viewpoint of the book was (at least during the time Kirby was writing the book) squarely on its lead character. Supporting characters would come and go. When Kamandi came into contact with Ben Boxer, we’d see what he was up to but when Kamandi was separated from Ben, Ben would cease to exist. There were no subplots to speak of. The action was intense, the consequences were high and the outcome was often bleak. Characters would die brutally and the world was rife with danger.
“Kamandi” was Jack’s success story at DC. While the “New Gods” and “Forever People” faded away after a measly 11 issues apiece and “Omac” even less, Jack was on “Kamandi” for a full 40 issues and it lasted 19 issues beyond that. It took concerted effort and a number of rotating creative teams to put “Kamandi” to rest. Had it been handled anything like it had under Jack’s care, it might still be going today.
“Kamandi” was great! His world was vital and vivid and alive! Surprises were around every corner and danger was everywhere. There were automated robots and mutants and giant airships and aliens and everything imaginable.
The only attempt to tie “Kamandi” into the DC universe was the appearance of Superman’s suit and a scrawled legend of Superman scrawled into a rock wall and even that could be interpreted as though the costume was a leftover from a movie set and the story the plot from a feature film. The last boy on Earth didn’t run across Batmobiles or leftover green arrows or magic lassoes. Kamandi’s world was its own world and it flew in the face of the DC Universe.
And so it needed to be destroyed.
Following DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” all of the worlds from various DC books were consolidated and the DC Universe was simplified. There was one Earth with one past and one future and Kamandi was nowhere to be found in that future. Sure, there was a token panel in the “History of the DC Universe” featuring a young boy being found in Command D and renamed Tommy Tomorrow, but that was hardly a satisfactory solution for any reader that loved the world Jack had created with its talking animals, ravaged land, giant insects and radiation belts. Jack had this world with Dolphins building cities beneath the seas and Killer Whales training humans to destroy them — the token gesture of suggesting that the feisty longhaired teen became a clean cut goody two-shoes that said “golly” and “gee whiz” was anything but acceptable.
But given the way Jack’s other creations were twisted and ruined, perhaps it’s for the best.
The issues that followed Jack’s run with the Hollywood Hounds and other equally insipid creations were so mind-numbingly bad that “Kamandi’s” inevitable cancellation was a welcome relief. Later writers’ pitiful attempts to tie Kamandi in to Kirby’s other futuristic book “Omac the One Man Army Corps” were astonishingly bad and the attempt to do something akin to “Thor’s Tales of Asgard” with a series of backup tales about the Great Disaster were dull beyond description. Jack was creating worlds and expanding universes and successive writers were tying things together and making them smaller.
It’s a damned shame.
For years DC has done all but ignore Kamandi. But the demand for Kirby collection has grown over the years and calmer heads have prevailed. DC has put out a Kamandi Archive book, which collects the first ten issues of this outstanding series and a second volume is on its way.
I wish that I could instill upon people the notion that not every book has to be for every reader. There are folks in high places that don’t want to collect certain stories because they don’t appeal to them personally. There are still scores of Kirby comics left uncollected because the higher ups have deemed them unworthy despite the hunger of a vocal audience. Where’s the “Omac” collection? Where’s the “Demon” collection? Where’s Jack’s “Sandman?” Where’s the “Boy Commandos” collection? Where’s the “Dingbats of Danger Street” collection?
“Kamandi” was my introduction to Jack Kirby and I’d follow him back to Marvel for “Captain America,” “The Eternals,” “Devil Dinosaur,” “2001” and “Machine Man” and over to Pacific Comics for “Captain Victory” and “Silver Star” and back to DC for “Hunger Dogs” and “Super Powers.”
Jack was (and is) the most influential artist in the history of comics. He created more enduring creations than any other artist, living or dead.
Kamandi was one of the best.