This week sees the release of "Kamandi Challenge" #1, the first new "Kamandi" series in over twenty years (Tom Veitch did an Elseworlds version of Kamandi back in 1993) and the first series starring the "real" Kamandi in almost forty years! So just who is this character that has captured people's attention enough to get a new series four decades after his last one ended?
"Kamandi" came about at a weird point in Jack Kirby's career. What people don't often realize is that Kirby's contract with DC Comics was not dramatically better than his Marvel Comics deal. His departure for DC Comics came about more because of his dissatisfaction with Marvel Comics than anything else (including Marvel asking him to sign a new contact where he would agree not to sue Marvel Comics). Thus, when he moved to DC Comics to launch the Fourth World of titles, he did not gain any ownership interest in the characters, just like how he did not have a contractual ownership of his Marvel characters.
In addition, Kirby's contract basically was that he had to produce X amount of pages of content. It would be up to DC Comics as to how to best to distribute those pages of content. His "Fourth World Saga" ended fairly soon after he got to DC Comics, as DC Comics Editorial Director was always looking for a new comic from Kirby. If a title wasn't a huge hit, he would just have Kirby scrap that book and go create another one. It wasn't that "Fourth World" was even doing poorly in sales, it was just that Infantino thought Kirby could do even better with other titles.
Thus, Infantino told Kirby that he wanted him to create a comic book like "Planet of the Apes," which DC had tried to acquire the comic book license to. Kirby had never seen the film, but he knew the broad strokes of the concept. He went through some of his older works and combined them to make "Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth," about a young man lost in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth where animals have evolved into anthropomorphic beings and that normal men like Kamandi were almost extinct. Kirby initially believed that he would just be coming up with the idea and that someone else would actually write and draw the book, but then Infantino canceled one of the "Fourth World" books ("Forever People") to free Kirby's schedule up.
Just to make the connection between "Kamandi" and "Planet of the Apes" really obvious, the most famous scene in the original "Planet of the Apes" film is when Charlton Heston's character comes across the Statue of Liberty, which confirms that the planet he is on (which he had been hoping was another planet) was, in fact, Earth. So on the cover of the first issue of "Kamandi" and featured prominently in the issue itself is, of course, the Statue of Liberty...
Kamandi's adventures took place in the days following the "Great Disaster." While what the actual "Great Disaster" was was never actually explained, it specifically was not a nuclear holocaust. Most likely, it involved something about radiation, and the radiation led to human beings devolving. Meanwhile, a scientist had developed a serum that could evolve animals and he let his test subjects out some time around the Great Disaster and also let the serum into the water supply. Therefore, "Kamandi" would star a variety of evolved animals. Horses notably never evolved, though, so they remained a prominent means of transportation.
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The various animal clans struggled over territory in the world of "Kamandi," and Kirby nicely provided a map of the world in one of the issues...
One of the most fascinating aspects of "Kamandi" is that there really is not an overarching plot to the book. It was not like Kamandi had a real purpose, outside of a general "find a way to get humanity back on track," but that's not really examined all that much in the series. Really, the main thrust of the comic is just Kamandi coming across weird sections of the United States in every issue. That was truly the genius of Jack Kirby - there wasn't even really much of a point to the comics other than seeing what kind of awesomely strange ideas Kirby could come up with in every issue, like Kamandi fighting Lion Men on Mount Rushmore...
The covers would also always have these awesome, trippy blurbs on them. Here are a few from "Kamandi" #9-11...
"Paris had its Eiffel Tower -- Rome, it's Colosseum! -- but Tracking Site, the strangest city on Esarth, has -- Super-Killers!"
"Trapped in a city of death - the only way out is blocked by an army of ravenous rats!"
"See the department store that sells everything...including a devil!"
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One of the big questions surrounding Kamandi was whether the series was set on the actual DC Comics Earth. Kirby was pretty vague about it, although famously, in "Kamandi" #29, he introduced the concept of "the Mighty one," as a race of gorillas were worshipping what appeared to be Superman's costume.
"Kamandi" proved to be Kirby's most popular series for DC Comics, and he worked on for the rest of his time at DC (through 1975, at which point he returned to Marvel Comics). It also continued without Kirby for more than two years. During this time, Kamandi was slowly worked into the regular DC Universe, like an issue of "Superman" that confirmed that yes, the Superman costume in "Kamandi" #29 was, in fact, Superman's actual costume. Later writers would also try to tie together much of Kirby's future character at DC, specifically OMAC and Kamandi.
Kamandi has only rarely appeared in DC Comics over the past forty years, including a storyline in "Countdown to Final Crisis" that purported to show the "Great Disaster" for the first time, as Buddy Blank (from "OMAC") is on an Earth that is devolving into the same situation as "Kamandi," and Blank gets his unnamed grandson to "Command-D" to protect him, as he hopes that his grandson can forgive him for making him "the last boy on Earth." Kamandi also appeared during "Final Crisis."
"The Kamandi Challenge," however, will be the first new stories starring Kamandi since 1978, so it sounds like it will be a fun adventure!