Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.
At first glance, Jack Kirby’s Kamandi might seem like veiled rip-off of The Planet of the Apes with its wild humans and intelligent animals in a post-apocalyptic future, but it was oh so much more. Meet me after the jump for more on my love of Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth!
Other than the Avengers, the original Spider-Man cartoon, and an issue here and there, I came to Marvel Comics rather late. Back in the days before comics shops, subscription services, and modern distribution, I was kinda at the mercy of the place where I bought comics, and in the early seventies, Anning’s 5&10 was not big on Marvel Comics. So, by choice or not, I was a DC man.
Now that doesn’t mean I was unaware of Jack Kirby. I knew of his accomplishments, even then I knew he helped create most of the Marvel Universe, and I knew that his leaving Marvel to come to DC was a huge deal. Sifting through the hype machine of the time, I even knew that Jack ‘The King’ Kirby was creating a new universe for DC Comics just as he had for Marvel, the Fourth World.
The Fourth World
I am almost ashamed to admit this, but to my untrained eyes, raised on Carmine Infantino Flash and Batman superheroics, Kirby looked strange and scary. His Asgardian architecture and warriors in Thor and especially those ads for that Kirby portfolio were weird and frightening to me. And while there were concepts like the Black Racer and Lightray that I found fascinating, his weird Superman in Jimmy Olsen turned me off.
I wouldn’t journey into the Fourth World officially until the First Issue Special called Return of the New Gods, then working my way backwards through back issues. Like I said I was a latecomer. But like the “Batman” TV show got me into comics, Batman was also my gateway drug into the Fourth World, through Brave and the Bold, the Batman team-up book. First the caped crusader met Mister Miracle, and a year later, Kamandi. Artist Jim Aparo always made characters his own, so the visual transition was easy, but once I read about Kamandi, I was hooked.
Once I read that existential time travel team-up between Batman and Kamandi in Brave and the Bold #120, I hunted for Kamandi’s own title, that month a fifty cent giant that not only included the reprint of Kamandi’s first adventure in his first issue years before, but also a look inside Jack Kirby’s studio, and a map of Earth A.D. – after the Great Disaster. I read that issue, Kamandi #32, ragged and stared at that map for hours, letting my imagination run wild. Kirby had indeed created another universe, and sucked me in completely.
I learned that Kamandi was raised by his grandfather in a protected bomb shelter called Command D (thus his name) while outside the planet was devastated by nuclear war, or perhaps biological warfare, maybe both – known as the Great Disaster. The radiation and/or virus mutated life on Earth almost overnight. Humans devolved into mute savages, and the animals – Tigers, Lions, Rats, Dogs, Bears, and many others including yes, Apes – evolved into higher intelligent species that now ruled the planet. Kamandi was the only intelligent speaking human in this world when he emerged from the bunker – the last boy on Earth.
This was 1975 when I discovered Kamandi, and the character had been published since 1972, but the concept had been around for much, much longer. At the height of Planet of the Apes mania, the aforementioned Carmine Infantino, artist turned DC Comics publisher, tried and failed to get the licensing for the franchise. Marvel ultimately got it. Rather than give up, he turned to Jack Kirby.
The King had just had his Fourth World Forever People title cancelled and had room in his schedule, so when Infantino asked him to create something similar to the Planet of the Apes concept, Kirby started putting his creative engine in motion. Reputedly he had never seen the PotA movies but understood the gist, and merged it with an unsold comic strip he’d created in the fifties called “Kamandi of the Caves,” to make the character we eventually saw. Kirby would write and draw the character’s adventures for nearly forty issues.
In the series, Kamandi, like David Carradine’s Caine in “Kung Fu,” walks the Earth having adventures. For much of the time he was accompanied by human sympathizer and dog scientist Dr. Canus, but sometimes also Ben Boxer, an astronaut who had been super-evolved into a mutant with fantastic powers. There was also Prince Tuftan, the son of Great Caesar, who ruled the tiger empire; the native girl Flower whose hair always carefully covered her naked breasts; and an alien woman named Pyra who had fiery super powers and a spaceship. So many more as our hero kept wandering.
Of course, where there were friends, there were also enemies. Most of the animal races did not take lightly to a talking human, and of course any enemies of Great Caesar and the Tiger Empire were against Kamandi, who was sometimes taken for the leader’s pet. The worst of these enemies, in traditional 1970s style, was the corporate raider named Sacker. A nefarious businessman, in the disturbing form of a very large snake, Sacker was a villain who was out to conquer the world in the name of greed.
The DC Invasion
Sadly, Jack Kirby did not stay long after I began reading. First he gave up writing Kamandi, then drawing, before leaving altogether. The book, despite fairly good sales, went downhill from there, being cancelled with issue #59. In the last year or so, huge attempts were made to connect Kamandi officially to DC Comics continuity. Kirby himself had a vague crossover with Superman in one issue, I had mentioned the Batman team-up above, and Kirby had mentioned links to his own OMAC creation, but it got worse once The King was out of the picture.
In hindsight, it seems DC was frantic to connect the Great Disaster to continuity. Kamandi met a time traveling Karate Kid, and his grandfather was revealed as being Buddy Blank, also known as OMAC. DC properties old and new, such as the Atomic Knights and Hercules Unbound were linked to the Great Disaster, and an unpublished story from Cancelled Comics Cavalcade revealed Kamandi’s real name was Jed Walker from Kirby’s Sandman series. Once the Crisis on Infinite Earths rolled around, the Great Disaster was used as a reason Legion records of the 20th century were so shoddy, and finally when the Crisis erased it altogether, Kamandi emerged as space hero Tommy Tomorrow.
You can’t keep a good character down however. Kamandi would return, in an Elseworlds mini-series, and as part of the wonderful Wednesday Comics experiment, re-imagined by Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook. Those were the good attempts, as DC sadly tried to integrate the characters and the mythos into their Countdown and Final Crisis unsuccessfully.
And despite all this, the original stories still stand, amazing adventures in a strange new world, an old idea with a new spin. He’s been animated, and even has an action figure, a lost but not forgotten mainstay of the DC Universe. I love Kamandi, and recommend you should check it out too. The first forty issues of the Kirby Kamandi series have been reprinted, as has the Wednesday Comics series, and you can find them on Amazon. It’s wonderful, one of The King’s treasures.