Comics We Love: ‘Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth’
Thudding onto shelves everywhere this week is Kamandi Omnibus Volume 1, a hardcover collection of the first twenty issues of Jack Kirby's massive post-apocalyptic epic adventure. Under-appreciated in its time, the classic series has a chance to find a new audience thanks to Kamandi's recent appearances in Wednesday Comics, Countdown, and Final Crisis. But informed readers already know that the sprawling, innovative series is a real gem, one of the most creative and underrated comics of the 1970s, and perhaps the best of Kirby's DC canon."Does the Earth flip its lid every ten thousand years or thereabouts?" Jack Kirby posits in "The Great Earth Cataclysm Syndrome," a fun, erudite, and illuminating essay in the backmatter (they didn't call it that back then) of Kamandi #2. "Is planetary cataclysm part of some continual 'adjustment' Earth must make in its endless swing around the sun?" What Kirby's referring to is the cataclysmic hypothesis, the idea that a series of global disasters have shaped the world over and over again, with polar shifts and worldwide floods hitting Earth's reset button every few millenia.
The idea is given little credibility by mainstream science today, but it's still an awesome idea, and it got Kirby's brain boiling. The storytelling possibilities were endless. When given the task to create something that could capitalize on the success on Planet of the Apes, he drew on the polar cataclysm hypothesis, filtered it through whatever magical mechanism resided in his brain, and out of his fingers came Kamandi.
In a move that would drive today's decompressed origin epics to commit ritual suicide, much of the info on Kamandi and his world is spelled out in a handful of captions. Untold years ago, a catastrophic radioactive event called The Great Disaster wiped out nearly all mankind. Kamandi is the last descendant of a group of survivors who occupied a bunker called Command-D, for which the character was named. (It's better than Brooklyn.) Educated on the old world by a microfilm library (if you know what microfilm is, congrats, you're old), after the death of his grandfather, Kamandi ventures out into the world to see if it remains habitable. It's a qualified yes.
What remains of the world is controlled by bipedal, intelligent creatures: tigers, dogs, rats, apes, and others altered by radiation and the after-effects of a genetic experiment. A few pockets of mankind remain, but they've devolved into savagery, without even language or intelligence, surviving only as wild things, or occasionally drafted into subservience, as slaves, or pets of the anthropomorphic new rulers of the Earth.
This is where we can start sticking the metaphors in, and view it as a sort of sci-fi/fantasy coming of age tale. Kamandi, still a teenager, sets out into a world he doesn't understand, with no home, no family, and no foreseeable future. It's an interesting way to look at it, especially when Kamandi begins to scrape together something resembling a life, a family, even a home. Though the various animal kingdoms are mostly hostile, and view humanity as a nuisance, there are friendships to be found, bonds to be forged. Dr. Canus, the brilliant dog-man scientist (if the name didn't tip you off) curious about the talking human, Tuftan, the young heir to the Tiger Empire, who treats Kamandi more like a mascot than a friend but cares for him nonetheless, and Ben Boxer, leader of a society of descendants of physicists and engineers, genetically altered to withstand the radiation that continues to affect the planet.
Kamandi is, at heart, a classic boys' adventure story set in a world altered by man's own hubris. Cataclysmic polar shift or not, it's clear that men dug their own graves. First published in 1972, smack dab in the middle of the Cold War, Kamandi examines nuclear culture in some interesting ways. Kirby's talent for world-building is sharper than ever, and everywhere Kamandi travels, he seems to come face-to-face with the impacts of disaster and man's misplaced faith in forces beyond his control. From Ben Boxer's society of mutated scientists to the nuclear warhead worshiped by the Tiger Empire, parables both subtle and pronounced find their way into the storytelling to wondrous effect.
Kirby receives plenty of deserved credit for so many things: his innate understanding of the possibilities of the form before it had even been considered; the brash, energetic nature of his illustrations; his seemingly endless ideas for characters and worlds and stories. Something that doesn't seemed mentioned enough is just how smart he was, how cleverly he took his opinions on life and society and translated them into sci-fi parables that have captured readers' imaginations for decades. In Kamandi, we get to see just how bright Kirby was, how completely he seemed able to take his worldview and stick it into comics. It's magic stuff.
"Recorded history, as we know it," his essay continues, "is littered with debris of monuments once thought to be miracles of invulnerability. But they've been buried by common mud. The sea hides them in numbers from our eyes. And others stand tilted and broken where tourists gather round them like flies."
As far as monuments go, Kamandi Omnibus is relatively small, less vulnerable to the erosion of time, and easily transferred from hard copy to soft with the simple act of reading. The joyous madness and sense of wild discovery in these pages is something eternal.