Tom King has been having a very good year. Between his critically acclaimed work on both Batman and Mister Miracle, he’s cemented himself as one of comic’s biggest creative names with remarkable speed after his entry into DC’s creative stable with 2014’s Grayson, his rescued-from-cancellation Omega Men and his original work at Vertigo, Sheriff of Babylon.
Ongoing titles and 12-issue limited runs might be where the majority of King’s work has been focused, but they’re far from his only staple. He’s been quietly building himself a bibliography of one-shots and standalone short stories, from the oft-forgotten Darkseid War: Green Lantern #1 to the Eisner Award-winning “Good Boy” short story in Rebirth’s first Batman Annual. King’s working to master the art of one-and-done storytelling as much as he’s been chipping away at the infamous 9-panel-grid.
His most recent attempt might not be where you’d expect. While those who have been reading it have trumpeted their appreciation for the series, DC Comics' The Kamandi Challenge -- a legacy project where creators play round-robin on a Kamandi, the Last Boy On Earth story -- hasn’t exactly been sales gold. It was a nice homage to Jack Kirby, celebrating his centennial birthday to be sure, but the title hasn’t seemed to find a new fan base with modern readers the way those involved would like.
King teamed up with Kevin Eastman and Freddie Williams III for the ninth issue in the series to tell a one-off story, playing by the rules of the challenge only in the sense that it picks up from the cliffhanger left by Issue #8, but otherwise standing completely alone. It’s probably not where you’d think to look for a gorgeous, philosophical comic, but it’s there, hidden in plain sight... and as King told CBR in a recent one-on-one discussion, he'd really appreciate it if you gave it a shot.
CBR: So, Mister Miracle--
Tom King: Yeah! Mister Miracle -- Actually, wait, can we talk about Kamandi #9? You’re the only person who read it in the whole world.
Yes! Also, that’s totally not true, but let’s talk Kamandi, I’d love to talk Kamandi. I read it last night back-to-back with Mister Miracle #3 and spent the whole night just kind of staring at the ceiling in a vague sense of existential dread.
[Laughs] Yes! Awesome, it stinks to write a book you really love and then see nobody talking about it. It’s an issue that stands on it’s own, it’s a one-and-done, so you didn’t even have to read the other Kamandi issues to catch up to it!
You’re someone who seems really comfortable with one-and-dones, so let’s do this. Tell me where this idea came from?
Well, there’s this philosopher named Blaise Pascal who -- The Wager is what he’s famous for -- so I was reading, and he’s a big, like, “God” guy, 15th century, and he said that, basically, “without God,” the whole world would feel like you were stuck in a room, tied up, and someone would come in every once in awhile and drag you out. That image just stuck in my head -- and I was like, "Oh, man that’s a story."
Then I got this Kamandi thing, which is like, “Here, you have this puzzle, but this puzzle has no solution.” Which made me think, dude, that’s fuckin’ life, man. Life is a puzzle that doesn’t have a solution. And writing a puzzle I don’t have to solve? I was like, “Okay, I’ll do this story.”
It felt to me, by the end of it, that it was almost a statement on superhero stories in general. This idea that there can never really be an ending.
Right? Yeah! But you can find meaning -- Jack Kirby found meaning -- by making something awesome, by creating. Even though he knew you could never win, he still punched death in the face, you know?
It’s the saddest story I’ve ever written, but there’s a little bit of hope in it. I write a lot of sad stories about people looking out windows and crying. Especially half-naked men looking out windows and crying, that’s kind of my specialty. Grant Morrison has postmodernism, Frank Miller has darkness, and I have half-naked men.
Half-naked men, and moments of incredibly dark prose! I keep thinking of that one panel, towards the start of the issue while one of the monkeys is being drug out and he’s saying, “I ain’t scared, I ain’t scared,” and then it turns to, “I’m scared, I’m scared…”
Did you know those are all Dr. Seuss characters?
That just makes it darker!
I read a lot of Dr. Seuss to my kids! The elephant is Horton from Horton Hears a Who, the three monkeys are the Wickersham Brothers... Yeah.
Good lord, how did you clear that with your editor!
Well, I mean, I changed them! Just...don’t tell anyone. [Laughs] It’s a tribute! Combine Dr. Seuss, Kirby and Pascal and you’ll get something cool -- and then have one of the absolute legends of the comic industry draw it? Man.
Eastman’s art on this was incredible -- and those inks, too. The issue feels like a twilight zone episode.
And when was the last time DC did a black and white issue? Isn’t it crazy that they let me do that? Because when I think Kevin Eastman, I don’t think “color” I think, y’know, Ninja Turtles.
So what was that like, handing Eastman the script? Did he get it immediately or was he like, “...what is this?”
Oh my God, it was hard -- I mean, he’s not hard to work with, he’s the nicest guy in the world. But he called me and was like, “Kirby’s my favorite, this is my first DC project, I want to do huge, big, double-page splashes, I want to crazy, I want to space, I want to go beneath the Earth, I want to draw a thousand creatures.” And I had to be like, “Oh, uh... it all takes place in a room. It’s one room...there’s...a door. You get… [Laughs] There’s a robot?”
Well, clearly you worked it out, since he completely knocked it out of the park.
Yeah, he nailed it. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever worked on. He got it done.
The Kamandi Challenge #9 is already on sale everywhere comic books are sold.