(This being a repost from my own blog)
Jack Kirby’s Bronze Age series, Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth is the only post-Fourth World book of his besides Eternals that impressed me. When I first picked it up, I wasn’t at all entertained, then I grew to enjoy it, now I enjoy it more. Part of which is that Kirby breaks with a lot of standard post-apocalypse tropes.
Kamandi was a riff on Planet of the Apes, a post-apocalypse world (Earth A.D. — After Disaster) where homo sapiens existed as beasts while evolved animals ruled. Not just apes but a tiger civilization modeled on Rome; rats running a crime ring out of sunken NYC; a technologically advanced society of lions in the Southwest US; and an aquatic dolphin culture. Our hero grew up inside “Command Bunker D” (hence his name) with his grandfather, sheltered from the world. After a wolf raider penetrated the bunker and killed his grandfather, Kamandi emerged and discovered Earth A.D. is nothing like the old books he grew up reading He sets off on an endless quest: seeking other intelligent humans; fighting or befriending the manimals; and helping the helpless where he can.
What I disliked about the book as a teen was that Kamandi seemed too ineffective and helpless. He’d run into trouble — giant gorilla, rat kidnappers, leopard pirates — and most of the time someone else would get him out of it, such as the lion Sultan or the human mutant Ben Boxer. Kamandi was the lead character; I wanted him to be the hero. He wasn’t. Though I noticed when I reread the series a few years ago that he accomplishes more than I saw at the time. In one issue, for instance, he averts a bloody battle between tiger and gorilla forces by convincing them to resolve things with a game of chance. Generally, though, he’s a POV character rather than a hero.
What got me hooked as things progressed was that Kirby was wildly creative. A racetrack where tamed humans run like greyhounds, chasing not a rabbit but a delicious cake (a welcome treat after their rations of gruel). A cult of apes that worships the Watergate tapes as the voices of the gods.
This may not work well for later generations but as someone who watched Watergate unfold, I found it hilarious. Then there’s a moving story in which we learn how animals gained intelligence and witness it happening to the beastlike humans in Kamandi’s present.
Plus there’s the visuals. Pulling off a shot like this in the movies in the 1970s would have been insanely expensive. For Kirby it’s relatively easy.
When I reread the series, I still liked all that stuff but I also discovered Kamandi’s ineffectiveness was a plus. He’s a teenage boy trapped in a world he never made; it’s not surprising he’s out of his depth and doesn’t dominate events. He’s courageous and resourceful, but the most he can do is save a life here and there or resolve a small injustice. He’s not the Chosen One destined to remake the world and restore humanity, nor the hero who triumphs over the world through sheer awesomeness, he’s Everyboy. It’s quite refreshing, (I say that despite liking lots of heroes who do change their world).
Kamandi’s ordinariness also contributes to something I did enjoy as a teen, how real Kirby’s world felt. It was obvious the various animal societies existed before they met Kamandi and would continue after he was gone. Meeting a talking, intelligent human cub was weird, but it wasn’t a game-changer, just a colorful story they’d tell the family over dinner. The world didn’t revolve around Kamandi, so it had more space to be a world.
I appreciated this much more after Kirby left the book (#36 was his last issue) and other writers took over. The strange animal cultures stopped feeling real: they existed purely to put Kamandi in danger. Some of the animals saw Kamandi as an existential threat that might lead to humanity reclaiming the world. The final issue launched an arc that would have established Kamandi as indeed a Chosen One of some sort (the book ended first). Like they say, nothing makes you appreciate quality like watching people do the same thing badly.
#SFWApro. All art by Kirby