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The Kamandi Challenge Challenge: Prelude

Hey everyone — your friendly neighborhood Pull List writer here, getting ready to do something a little risky in the months ahead. And also review comics.

As I mentioned in last week’s Pull List column: DC Comics, in honor of what would be Jack “King” Kirby’s 100th birthday, has seen fit to launch The Kamandi Challenge, a 12-issue round-robin miniseries focused on Kirby’s own Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth. The conceit is that each issue will be written by a different creative team; the end of each issue will be a cliffhanger, which the next team must then address to kick off their own issue. It’s a fun idea, though one that flirts with a large number of creative challenges.

My entire column might not exist if it weren’t for the contributions to the medium by the King — indeed, both the DC and Marvel universes would be poorer, if not desolate, without Kirby’s creations to populate them (yes, Stan helped with a lot of them, too). So, in an effort to pay tribute to the King, I’ll be dedicating a column per issue to reviewing the Kamandi Challenge and hopefully sharing the beautiful weirdness of his art with the world.

It starts with:

The Kamandi Challenge Special

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This special is actually two old issues of Kamandi on one. The first third of the book is a reprint of Kamandi #1, the origin story of the Last Boy on Earth as written, edited, and drawn by the King himself, with inks and letters by D. Bruce Berry. The remainder is a reprint of Kamandi #32, a 1975 story by Jack C. Harris, with art by Dick Ayers and Danny Bulandi, letters by Milt Snapinn, and colors by [ILLEGIBLE IN THE REPRINT]. If I had to sum this special up, as someone with only minimal exposure to Kamandi prior to this week, my summary would be: “Huh, cool…wait, what? WHAT?”

Let’s start with the Kamandi #1 content. This issue is pure Kirby, but I would not describe it as the height of Kirby; indeed, in this story I’m reminded that Kirby’s role as a progenitor of the comics medium means that he’s inherently inexperienced at using it. The conceit of Kamandi is fascinating, engaging, and relatively unique in comics: one of the last humans, a boy from “Command D” of an underground bunker, loosed into a science-fantasy wasteland full of evolved/mutated animals and other things so weird Galactus and the New Gods are looking at it and going “Maybe be less like a Jack Kirby creation, buddy.” But the story on which those ideas are hung is kind of a mess. The narration and events are disjointed, with characters telling us things happened in dialogue balloons as often as they are illustrated on the page, and the story kind of starting in media res and then leaping backwards to an origin story with basically no warning (though in fairness, that may be partially due to DC chopping up the issue, not Kirby’s original work). The pacing is rushed — more than once, a character radically shifts attitudes and opinions in the course of a single dialogue balloon. That said, this is still amazing. You can actually see Kirby settling into the story as the issue goes on, moving from trying to cram in all the background info he thinks his readers need to telling a much more natural story about the enduring horrors of conflict, greed, and war (things with which the King had far too much experience…) and the equally enduring qualities of adaptability, ingenuity, and will to keep fighting, while also telling us about a war between fascist apes and imperialist tigers. The writing is fascinating, in that it’s clearly influenced by his time with Stan Lee (who did help shape the expectations of comic book voice at the time) while also being Kirby’s own ominous, Old-Testament style that would help codify Darkseid and his ilk. And the art…how could Jack Kirby art be anything but stellar? There’s a splash page with a ruined Statue of Liberty that is especially phenomenal, and the scene of the tigers worshiping a nuclear warhead like a sacred idol is disturbing in its similarity to actual religious ritual. This background is appreciated, both as a chance to learn more about Kamandi going into the Challenge, and a chance to once again appreciate the gifts of the man this Challenge is here to celebrate.

Then there’s Kamandi #32, which is just so bizarre my notes on it as I was reading are largely in all caps. It’s Chapter 2 and onward of a story called “Into the Vortex,” in which Kamandi enters, well, a vortex, a junction of time and space. In Kamandi’s world, the supporting cast of Doctor Canus (who showed up in #1), a bloodhound-man detective named Mylock Bloodstalker, an alien woman called Pyra, and a mostly nude woman with spider-powers called Spirit face off against the evil Australian Kangarat Murder Society. Within the vortex, Kamandi winds up in a story-within-a-story. …teams up with Hector Hall, the Sandman…to learn about how in a different time and space he was called Jed (the Sandman’s sidekick and also a character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman opus)…who in this story helps the Sandman rescue Santa Claus…to help Kamandi learn more about himself and decide whether to return to his reality or not. Oh, and the artist of the story within a story is Jack Kirby, and the story also reveals that Kamandi is the grandson of OMAC…yeah. Is it redundant for me to mention how trippy this story is? It’s also a fascinating tribute to Kirby, though,  because the story (that isn’t being written by Kirby) is a gorgeous reminder of how much the medium owes Kirby. The pacing and flow are much improved from #1, the art is more detailed, the panels are taking a few more risks…but in everything, you can see how what Kirby was doing in #1 (and does in the Sandman story) are the platform on which Harris, Ayers, et al. are standing. It is also, in its own way, an introduction to the mythology of Kamandi — the really bizarre side of it — and so a fitting way to move forward into the Challenge. I even suspect the vortex and the concept of thousands of alternate versions of Kamandi is going to be a major factor in that story.

So, that’s that. Two stories, one primordial, one refined, both weird in their own special way, bringing us to next week and the actual liftoff of the Kamandi Challenge…and therefore, the Kamandi Challenge Challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing how bizarre and confusing this gets, and hope you’ll be there with me sharing your own thoughts.

Tyler Dent Hayes
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Tyler is a professional writer of speculative fiction and an enthusiastic lover of comics, tabletop games, pro wrestling, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, literary criticism, ice hockey, and basically every genre of fiction and music, but especially anything about superheroes, mythology, or both. Hailing from the wilds of Mendocino County, Tyler is lucky enough to have attained an advanced degree in talking about writing and to have married his favorite person in the world. He blogs about writing, life with anxiety, and occasionally movies and comics at his website, www.tyler-hayes.com. He'd love to play Sentinels of the Multiverse with you if you're interested.

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