Retro Review: The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

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Preface: In the Spring of 2002, I was completing doctoral studies in composition at Florida State University. I had finished my coursework and all I had left to do was compose my dissertation. Naturally, I did what anyone would do: I put it off in favor of researching and writing an in-depth article on the comic book character Howard the Duck. In retrospect this was a fairly obvious procrastination strategy, but it was also a natural outgrowth of reading and research on comics that I had been pursuing as a hobby when taking a break from my studies. FSU’s library was well-stocked with books and magazine collections covering the history of comics and related subjects, and as I became more serious I found additional resources online and used eBay to track down copies of hard-to-find comics and magazines, drawing on interviews and histories in my own work.

At the time, I thought I might eventually have enough material for a book, not only on Howard but on the full range of duck characters–from Donald and Daffy to Duckman and Mallard Fillmore–in comics and cartoons, and perhaps answer the question, “Why are ducks so over-represented among funny animal characters?” Was there something about ducks that made them funnier (the archetypal “duck character,” of which Howard is a prime example, is a sputtering, irascible hothead), or was it a matter of artists building on each others’ work, creating a self-perpetuating tradition? I had been a fan of Howard the Duck since much earlier, when I was collecting comics as a kid, but I now applied the rigor of my ongoing graduate studies in examining him.

The book never materialized, but I did complete an essay about Howard before my enthusiasm ran out and I turned to other responsibilities. After pitching the article in a few places without any luck, I put the essay and a big box of research materials away and got on with my dissertation (the composition that eventually became Carnival of Souls). I have alluded to this project occasionally before, but I recently found the disc (marked 5/13/02) on which I had saved the file and have decided to share it. Reading my work now, it is an obvious precursor to articles I have written for this blog (and its length seems now like only a medium-length blog post), and if I had maintained a website back then I probably would have just shared it that way. I seem to recall a more academic, and possibly longer, version of this article that included footnotes, but as yet it hasn’t turned up, and possibly never will.

Being now sixteen years old, there is much here that is either out of date or irrelevant: Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, died in 2008, critical of the comics industry and American society to the last; and Disney bought Marvel in 2009, making the corporate dispute detailed herein moot. The 2002 Marvel MAX series that was the timeliest element in the article is now a blip in Howard’s history; Howard himself has continued to appear in Marvel comics written by other writers, most notably Chip Zdarsky. Time and distance have softened the blow of the 1986 film fiasco, and the movie has a small but devoted cult of fans; Howard has even made cameo appearances in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, something that seemed utterly unlikely back in the early 2000s.

In presenting this essay, however, I am making no effort to update it beyond some minor editing of spelling and punctuation. It is a time capsule of one aspect of culture from 2002 and my thoughts on it, and clearly at least some of these subjects have been on my mind for a long time: regular readers of Medleyana will find arguments here that I have made in other forms in articles on Kamandi and Captain Carrot. Please enjoy this “blast from the past.”

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The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

Creating a beloved fictional character is a double-edged sword: it is only a matter of time before readers and fellow writers want to get in on the act. “Genre” characters from mystery, fantasy and adventure stories are especially subject to embroidery: literary pastiches featuring such characters as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Zorro are common. Comic books and movies invite even more participation, in that both are collaborative arts with notoriously possessive fans. As a contemporary example, witness George Lucas’ love-hate relationship with Star Wars fans, alternately encouraging total identification with his created universe and legalistically quashing any unauthorized embroidering of it.

Until the last decade or so, mainstream comic book publishers (mainly Marvel and DC) kept sole ownership of their artists’ and writers’ creations as a matter of course. Since characters could stay around for (literally) decades and often “crossed over” between titles, company ownership was considered essential in maintaining continuity. A popular character was like a well-established brand, under the umbrella of the company itself, whose label also served as a brand. Even if a character were identified with a particular creator, there was an implicit understanding that heroes and villains lived or died at the company’s discretion, and artists and writers could be shuffled between titles by editorial fiat. The comic book artist or writer was an employee of the company. This has largely changed as big-name comic creators have gained enough clout to negotiate creative control, while others have developed publishing companies, such as Image, where characters automatically remain the property of the creators. An unlikely forerunner to this change in the industry was Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck (HTD).

Howard the Duck is mainly remembered (outside of comic readers) as the disastrous 1986 Hollywood movie, a film that was at first eagerly anticipated but whose name became synonymous with “bomb” in the 1980s. With Marvel publishing a new trade paperback, The Essential Howard the Duck, and a new Howard series with Gerber back in charge, it is worth examining why a movie version seemed like a good idea in the first place, and why the new series has been selling out since its first appearance in comic shops.

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As retold in the new collection, Howard came from a parallel universe, a world much like ours but inhabited by (depending on which version of the story you look at) either talking man-sized ducks or a mixture of different kinds of talking “funny” animals. Through a shift in the “Cosmic Axis” he was transported to the world of humans (“hairless apes”) and stuck there. As an unlikely visitor from another world, he played the classic “outsider” role, commenting on contemporary society’s flaws and absurdities from a perspective free of prejudices or preconceptions. During his run in the ‘70s, Howard crossed paths with cult leaders, sold-out politicians, pompous art critics, and similar pretenders, puncturing their pretensions with his common-sense observations and “don’t tread on me” attitude. In the post-Watergate, post-Woodstock years, when mistrust of the Establishment and doing your own thing weren’t just for hippies anymore, Howard captured a mood and spoke for it in a way that conventional superheroes just weren’t doing.

The “funny animal” tradition has deep roots in comics and animation. Talking animals that walk upright, wear clothes, and live in houses are so commonly linked to the stylized drawings of cartoons that they are hardly questioned as a narrative convention. The best known, of course, are the characters associated with Disney and Warner Bros., but in the early days of animation every studio featured some version of a funny animal character. For decades, animal characters were synonymous with children’s comics, even when executed with great artistry, as in the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics of Carl Barks.

During the “underground comix” boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, however, a number of artists began to appropriate funny animal characters to tell very different, more adult and intense stories. Their “not-so-funny” animals (to use Richard Gehr’s phrase) had sexual relationships, used four-letter words, and sometimes took drugs or became violent. The most famous of these underground funny animals is probably Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat; an early, short version of Art Spiegelman’s cats vs. mice Holocaust comic Maus was also published during this boom.

The motivation for reinterpreting animal characters in this manner was probably as varied as the artists drawing them. Undoubtedly there was a great deal of snarky irony to be had in showing beloved icons brought low, illustrating that the squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse and his pals “really” had feet of clay. Maus similarly jolts us by presenting a horrifying historical narrative in a visual context usually far removed from the realities of war; the distancing device of presenting humans as animals actually brings the reader closer to the horror of the war by poetically linking the childhood associations of talking mice and cats with the lost innocence of the war generation (particularly in Spiegelman’s earlier story, which was drawn in a more “cartoony” style than the full-length version). On the other hand, many underground cartoonists appeared to have a deep knowledge of and love for the cartoons of their childhoods; notwithstanding their often charged subject matter, the comix of Crumb, Kim Deitch, and others helped introduce the classic cartoon style of the ’20s and ’30s to a younger generation, emphasizing the hallucinatory quality of the Fleischer (Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop) and early Disney cartoons.

Given the resurgence of interest in classic funny animals and the popularity of their underground counterparts, it is not surprising that publishers in the 1970s would promote a mainstream funny animal aimed at an adult (or at least adolescent) audience. What is surprising is that Howard the Duck was created almost by accident and was nearly killed off after his first appearance; fan pressure encouraged his return and fueled his early success.

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Relaxation of the Comics Code (a voluntary set of content restrictions that guaranteed mass distribution, originally adopted in the 1950s to placate parents and would-be censors) in the early 1970s allowed mainstream publishers to sell not-too graphic horror-themed comics. One of Marvel’s titles, Fear (a.k.a. Adventure into Fear), featured a swamp-dwelling misfit named Man-Thing, the lesser-known counterpart to DC’s competing Swamp Thing. Fear’s writer, Steve Gerber, produced thoughtful stories on such issues as environmental destruction and cruelty among teenagers, but also gave free reign to a strong sense of whimsy and the absurd. Searching for a surprising, ridiculous image for a sword-and-sorcery tale in 1973, Gerber instructed artist Val Mayerik to come up with a talking duck to include alongside the standard muscular barbarian and robed wizard. The then-unnamed duck, with his first lines “Aw, clam up, bud! You don’t even know the meaning of the word [absurdity]!” suggested to Mayerik a cigar-smoking crank in a rumpled jacket and tie. This early version of the duck affected an Edward G. Robinson sneer (“Okay, creeps–here’s where you get yours, see?”).

Gerber got the effect he was aiming for, but a talking duck didn’t set the right tone for a horror-fantasy comic, so Howard was removed. That was when the fans began demanding more of the Duck; one Canadian went so far as to mail a duck carcass to Marvel’s editorial office. “Murderers, how dare you kill off this duck?” the included note read. Responding to a grass-roots letter campaign, and following Gerber’s instinct that there was something to the character, Howard the Duck began appearing as a backup feature in Man-Thing’s title, and eventually assumed the leading role in his own book.

Howard found himself in Cleveland, a more mundane and down-to-earth setting than in Marvel’s usual stories, and quickly gathered a group of eccentric characters around him: primarily Beverly Switzler, the beautiful hairless ape who would become his companion and (later) lover; struggling artist Paul Same; and the gentle Winda Wester, whose distinguishing feature was her Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment. Together they encountered antagonists who were frequently odder than Howard himself, such as Dr. Bong, who parodied both Marvel’s own Dr. Doom and the rock critic Lester Bangs. Sometimes their adventures parodied conventional superheroics, or the tropes of gothic horror, space opera, or kung-fu movies; often the situations they found themselves in were just nutty, but the best stories were grounded in day-to-day reality. Unlike most mainstream comics, Howard and his friends were often unemployed, underemployed, or swept up in events beyond their control. One of Howard’s most memorable foes was the Kidney Lady, a deranged bus passenger who frequently accused Howard of being a member of the “international kidney-poisoning conspiracy.” Without super-powers, the Kidney Lady was as fearsome in her own way as any of the would-be world-conquerors populating other comics.

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Also unlike many comic books, the heroes of HTD were deeper and more interesting than villains they faced. Indeed, hero vs. villain fisticuffs were beside the point: Howard’s “real” opponent was the spreading corporate influence on American culture and consumer fetishism in its insidious forms. Villains were frequently consumer products or sales pitches brought to life: for example Sudd, “the scrubbing bubble that walks like a man.” There was also a “master of mundane magic” whose spells took the form of radial tires, tennis balls and other consumer items: at one point he trapped the heroes inside a giant cereal box, reversing the “prize inside” promise of marketers. In other stories the accusation is made directly against big-money interests, often as an aside in an ostensibly comic story. Howard even ran for president in 1976 on a platform of fighting corporate monopoly. Fitting with the skeptical tone of the times, HTD was suspicious of overt moralizing, but characters learn lessons nonetheless: you can’t fight city hall, no good deed goes unpunished, everybody has an angle. The three-issue story arc that closes The Essential HTD is particularly notable for its blunt lesson. An irresponsible heiress knowingly invites a “circus of crime” to one of her society gatherings so that she can play hero after they rob her guests. As the events spiral out of her control, one of Howard’s friends is struck by a car and another is shot. Howard’s usual reluctance to get involved makes his blunt delivery of the moral all the more striking: “Actions have consequences. You’ll get yours, Iris.”

Reading the entire Essential HTD in one sitting is an uneven experience (the volume collects the first twenty-seven issues of HTD, plus a handful of other “canonical” stories, including his first appearance). At its best HTD was a witty, refreshingly different commentary on popular and political culture and avoided easy answers to tough questions. The tone of the book varied widely, however, as it was influenced by the sudden notoriety of its creator and the pressure of deadlines. In one well-known story (reprinted in the Essential HTD), Gerber submitted a rambling self-analysis in text form, describing a cross-country move as a road trip with Howard. As life became harder for Gerber (and Howard), Howard’s character drifted from cynicism and disillusionment to depression and paranoia. He even spent some time in a mental institution. Some of these dark stories elaborated Howard’s character in interesting ways, but the low point of the volume is a trip to Canada featuring such cardboard clichés as a noble Mountie and a French-speaking villain called “Le Beaver.” What distresses about the story is not the stereotype, but the shallowness with which the setting is imagined; it is a far cry from the detailed and true-to-life storytelling that marks the Cleveland stories. If another exotic story, an Arabian Nights fantasy, is more successful it is thanks to a fast-moving plot and lighter tone throughout.

The tension in many of the stories is between character and plot: Howard is often passive-aggressive and thus reluctant to get involved in the kind of dramatic situations that make for active plots. The exciting stories subordinate Howard’s skeptical character, and the meditations on Howard’s alienation are quite static; the best stories are able to strike a balance. The troubled relationship between Howard and Beverly could make for a different kind of comic story, with the sort of novelistic depth that became more common in the 1980s, but the late HTD stories were too episodic and inconsistent to quite accomplish that. This tension between passive characters and active plots, along with the absurdity of the premise, is reminiscent of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books.

Perhaps the increasing pessimism of HTD was a sign of things to come: in the late ‘70s, as Howard’s popularity continued to grow, he inevitably came to the attention of the Disney company, who felt that Howard was too reminiscent of Donald Duck and threatened suit. Rather than argue that Howard was a parody (protected by the First Amendment) or an independent creation who sprang from the same pre-Disney cartoon roots as Donald, Marvel capitulated and agreed to change Howard’s appearance. Incredibly, the new design was created by Disney, not Marvel, and the wording of the agreement locked in this awkward new look indefinitely: Marvel couldn’t even come up with another design that didn’t look like Donald. As part of this agreement, Howard had to wear pants in all his future appearances. (It is partly because of this agreement that Gerber had Howard temporarily transformed into a seedy-looking mouse in the new series.)

Faced with this level of editorial apathy and interference, Gerber broke with Marvel and filed suit to wrest ownership of his character from the company. He was one of the first comics creators to do so, and his case, following on the heels of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s campaign to receive credit from DC for their creation of Superman, split ranks within the comics community and brought renewed attention to the issue of ownership. Gerber eventually settled out of court and worked for Marvel again for brief spells in the 1980s, but he says he remains wary of Marvel’s corporate culture, even as he has relished the opportunity to write again for the character with which he is most closely identified.

Gerber was not the first to use funny animals as a vehicle for social commentary or put non-juvenile language in their mouths. Rather his contribution was to rationalize the funny animal in pseudoscientific terms: Howard wasn’t simply a cartoon, he was a visitor from a parallel universe where ducks, instead of apes, had evolved to become the dominant lifeform. It is clear from some of Gerber’s statements in the ‘70s that he had worked out his premise with a science-fictional rigor: for example, there must be lower animals on Howard’s world, since he isn’t a vegetarian (although a running gag in the series emphasized Howard’s disgusted reaction when confronted with a meal of poultry or eggs).

The parallel-world premise could have easily lent itself to Swiftian allegory or heavy-handed moralizing, and there is more than a whiff of Planet of the Apes to it: as the cover blurb had it, Howard was “trapped in a world he never made!” Wisely, Gerber and his collaborators (Mayerik, as well as artists Frank Brunner and Gene Colan) avoided easy comparisons and always implied that Howard’s home was no more perfect than ours. After Gerber’s break with Marvel in 1980 over issues of creative control, Marvel continued to publish HTD stories by other writers, most of whom showed less restraint.

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As a rule, if a fictional setting becomes popular, anything that is referred to by the original creator, however obliquely, will eventually be fleshed out in sometimes overwhelming detail by those who follow. In Gerber’s original concept, Howard’s home was alluded to but never shown, presumably because readers would already be familiar with funny animal settings like the one in Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics. It was writer Bill Mantlo who, after Gerber’s departure, filled stories with references to Flintstones-style parody-counterparts like “Truman Capoultry,” “Richard Millnest Duxon,” and even “Duckschwitz.” At least Mantlo attempted to keep Howard’s edge, although his stories frequently crossed the line from absurd to ridiculous. After the original comic book and Mantlo’s black-and-white magazine were canceled, other Marvel writers treated Howard as a walk-on character, trying to make him “funny” in a way that he rarely was in Gerber’s hands. Unfortunately, the later interpretation seems to have influenced the ill-fated film version.

In his Comics as History, Joseph Witek draws a useful distinction between “beast fables,” such as the tales of Aesop, and “funny animal” stories such as the ones described here. In the beast fable, animals speak, but their character is largely defined by the imagined qualities of their type: foxes are always sly, dogs are loyal, mules are stubborn. The funny animal, however, is an individual. The trappings of clothing, house, and social structures signal to the reader that the character is more man than animal. They may even keep non-speaking pets of their own: in Disney cartoons, Goofy is effectively a man, but Pluto is still a dog.

If in general the funny animal is not conscious of himself as an animal at all, then we may assume that this was how Howard felt about himself before being trapped in the world of “hairless apes.” It is only among humans, where he is the only one of his kind, that he can never escape being reminded that he is a duck. Of course being a duck is a literal marker of Howard’s “outsiderness,” but the Howard stories frequently play with its implications. One can identify “good people” in HTD because they either don’t recognize or don’t care that Howard is different. He and Beverly have a relationship like any other couple, even sleeping in the same bed (although again it was Mantlo in the non-Code-approved magazine who made their status as lovers explicit).

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There was even a short-lived daily comic strip in 1977.

Beginning in HTD #3, the blurb on the first page tells the reader that Howard was always conscious of being different, an outsider, even in his early life. Intriguingly, before Howard’s character became completely settled, he made a few attempts to blend in and make a normal life for himself among the humans. This early version of Howard had a Walter Mitty-like quality as he attempted to imagine himself into the role of good citizen, helping the police rid Cleveland of such menaces as Garko the Man-Frog and a vampire cow. Of course, when Howard was unable to prove that he had saved the city and was further rebuffed by the police with the reminder that he is, after all, a duck, he naturally reacted with the disillusionment and cynicism that became the hallmark of his character.

In this sense Howard’s experience is the dark side of any immigrant’s journey to America. In his homeland he was an individual, and as one of many of his kind, he could take his personhood for granted: the group kinship to which everyone belonged was effectively invisible. In hairless ape America, however, it is his status as a representative of his type that singles him out, and his individuality is reduced to a single image: duck. In fact, although people regularly sputter, “Y–you’re a duck!” upon meeting him, no one in these stories mistakes Howard for a real duck: they assume he is a midget in a duck suit, marking him as either a madman or a publicity-seeker. Oddly, while the updated backstory makes Howard’s prospects grimmer–if he has always been an outsider wherever he lived, what kind of acceptance can there be to hope for?–it seems to offer hope for the immigrant or minority member: maybe the individual personality does make the difference, and Howard’s experience need not be a universal commentary on America.

If Howard fit perfectly the mood of the 1970s, can he still be relevant today? Steve Gerber thinks so. In a July 2001 interview, Gerber summarized the state of the nation: “The situation in the U. S. now–a dork in the White House, the country split down the middle politically, every form of popular culture from music to movies at a creative nadir, and so on–almost exactly parallels the state of things in 1975. In that sense, the time has never been more appropriate for Howard’s return.”

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Of course, those words were spoken before September 11, and one may wonder whether post-attack readers would be in the mood for Howard’s pointed critiques of America’s political and cultural environment. Fortunately, Gerber’s up-to-the-last-minute scripting habits have prevented a jarring lead time between the new book’s writing and publication. So far (as of this writing, four issues of a planned six-issue series have been published), Gerber hasn’t softened Howard’s edge (indeed, the “mature readers” label allows him a far greater freedom of theme and content than he had in the ‘70s), but he lands his hardest punches on America’s self-absorbed, pop-therapeutic culture and religious zealotry rather than specific political viewpoints. In this sense, the new Howard isn’t too different from the old: Gerber (and by extension Howard) has always expressed skepticism for one-size-fits-all solutions, political or otherwise. Although at one time Howard was labeled “The Nemesis of Middle America” by Marvel editors, it was really conformity rather than conservatism that Howard attacked, and Gerber’s new series doesn’t play favorites.

References to September 11 have been kept in the background, but the events have hardly been ignored. In issue #2, a tip to the police reports that “Osama el-Braka” (“Braka” meaning “duck”) has been spotted in Howard’s locale, leading to a two-page splash of SWAT teams, National Guard, and even Girl Scouts bursting into Beverly’s apartment for the kill. In the fourth issue, a committee of heavenly beings called the “Religion as Replacement for Thought Coalition” conspire to live up to their title. One member announces, “we’ve rooted out the moderate Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu elements that have tried to infiltrate and corrupt this coalition.” Another, speaking of the Islamic Madrassas, states, “their success at purging their pupils of any faculty for critical thought borders on the miraculous. We now have a small army of morons willing to fly airplanes into tall buildings, on the promise of seventy-two virgins in the afterlife.”

Much of the satire, however, remains focused closer to home. The third issue was a rather puerile parody of the TV show and comic book Witchblade (“Doucheblade”), which, while admittedly tasteless, rightly pointed out the degree to which large-breasted women with weapons have come to dominate comic book covers since the lifting of the Code and the proliferation of independent comics-specialty shops have allowed publishers to drop the pretense that comics were wholesome reading for kids. On the other hand, the fourth issue takes aim at the self-help guru “Iprah,” who has “convinced half of America she’s the voice of God–when, in fact, she’s nothing more than a franchise.” In one priceless panel, Iprah is shown on the cover of her magazine (“I”), finger-wagging and lecturing God under the headline “Iprah explains it all.”

Howard the Duck’s character seems to have changed little in the nearly thirty years since his creation. Opinionated, vulgar, and refreshingly uncharismatic, his adventures remain a sometimes frustrating but always surprising trip. Although Gerber doesn’t always hit his targets dead on, he fires so many shots that many are bound to connect, and there is plenty in our contemporary culture to take aim at. Perhaps Howard isn’t really so different from the masked heroes with whom he shares shelf-space: he emerges from obscurity to provoke laughter, anger, and thought at the times when he is most needed.

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Kamandi Challenge no. 12: the Conclusion

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Cover by Frank Miller and Alex Sinclair

“The Boundless Realm”
Writer: Gail Simone
Artists: Jill Thompson and Ryan Sook
Colorists: Trish Mulvihill, Laura Martin and Andrew Crossley
Letterer: Clem Robins

“Epilogue the First: The Answers”
Storytellers: Paul Levitz and José Luis Garcia-López
Inker: Joe Prado
Colorist: Trish Mulvihill
Letterer: Clem Robins

Editors: Dan DiDio and Brittany Holzherr

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Kamandi Challenge‘s double-sized twelfth issue (“The Boundless Realm,” written by Gail Simone, and “The Answers” by Paul Levitz and José Luis Garcia-López) performs the difficult task of reconciling and bringing closure to all that came before. That it does so with the help of a little Deus ex machina is understandable, but the appearance of Jack Kirby himself as an angel of (re)creation makes the yearlong tribute to the King of Comics explicit (Kirby’s name, and those of his chief collaborators, has been dropped here and there throughout the series, but only here is he presented as the man himself, rather than in winking references). As Kirby himself says in the course of the story, “D’jinn–genie–genius–what’s the difference?”

But before the fourth wall breaks completely, Gail Simone provides a labyrinth of nested and interlocking narratives: “The Boundless Realm” begins with a genderswapped retelling of the first pages of Kamandi‘s very first issue (stylishly illustrated by Jill Thompson), as “Kamanda, the Last Girl on Earth” is shown rafting through the flooded ruins of New York City. She finds Kamandi, face down in the water, and brings him aboard, praying that he will recover. When he regains consciousness, unsure of how he got there, the two exchange notes: she explains her upbringing in the bunker “Command A,” mirroring the origin of “classic” Kamandi, and he struggles to recall the small town he grew up in, protected by robots. She warns him of the threat of rats, run by a warlord named Gnawbit.

Just as it seems that these two were made for each other (“I feel like I’m falling,” Kamandi says) and the plot turns toward romance, Kamandi is awakened from this pleasant dream and we find that he is still falling through the upper atmosphere with Silverbeck and Royer, the apes with whom Kamandi assaulted the Misfit’s Tek-Moon before being ejected into space at the end of the last issue. Kamanda was only a dream, a hallucination preceding death.

Ryan Sook takes over the artwork for the remainder of “The Boundless Realm,” providing a visual contrast and grounding this part of the story as the “real” events with his classically rendered, near-photorealistic style. (Sook has prior experience with this world, having illustrated the Kamandi story in Wednesday Comics in the style of a Hal Foster Sunday page; here he takes full advantage of the dynamic possibilities inherent in the comic book page, using interesting panel layouts and shapes, as opposed to the old-fashioned illustrations-with-text approach he borrowed from Tarzan and Prince Valiant for Wednesday Comics.)

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As the trio falls to Earth, Silverbeck honors Kamandi by adopting him into the gorilla tribe and encourages him to prepare for death. Not quite ready to give up, Kamandi finds the gauntlet that controls the jet pack he got from the shark in the last episode and summons the (slightly malfunctioning) pack to him. With the jet pack, he is able to grab Silverbeck and Royer but can only slow their descent. Silverbeck directs Kamandi to fall in the jungle (“I’ve always wanted to die in the jungle”) and takes the brunt of the impact, saving Kamandi and Royer at the cost of his own life. Royer recognizes Kamandi as the new chief, claiming to be too old for leadership himself.

Almost instantly, Kamandi and Royer are confronted by rats; hearing the name of their boss, “Gnawbit,” Kamandi realizes that the dream of Kamanda was somehow a warning, and he fights back, shocking the rats with his ability to speak. When the rats subdue Royer, however, Kamandi knows that he must surrender. The rats, having heard Kamandi speak, are now reverent and promise to take him straight to Gnawbit, who has predicted his arrival.

Gnawbit is a rodent Che Guevara, a revolutionary leader commanding his forces from the ruins of an old bank in the city. Although blinded, he sees with the help of an amulet in the shape of OMAC’s Brother Eye; he describes to Kamandi the “Farm” at which humans are bred in a manner similar to contemporary factory farms. Although he admits his disgust at the practice, he defends himself against Kamandi’s horror by pointing out the cruelties practiced against rats by humans in the past; all of his atrocities were born of the best of intentions. His goal was the same as Kamandi’s: to save the Earth.

Inside the bank, the letters of the sign (“Continental Annuity”) are teasingly rearranged into “Continuity” over the vault containg Gnawbit’s treasures, long boxes full of old comic books (including–somehow–Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth). It was in the pages of these comics that Gnawbit read of Kamandi’s impending arrival, and he shows Kamandi the possible futures that the comics portray in their narratives of heroism and self-sacrifice (note that all of the characters shown are, like the Legion of Superheroes, heroes of the future, and leave it to Gail Simone to make sure that one of those heroes is Space Cabbie instead of the usual suspects).

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Cross-cut with Kamandi’s encounter with Gnawbit, the Misfit, dying alone in his disabled Tek-Moon, dispatches one last superweapon to destroy all life on earth: the giant robotic Terror-Naut. Gnawbit has seen this, too, and calls upon his rat forces to form a “rat king,” a giant-sized collective figure that can meet the Terror-Naut head-on (the rats need Kamandi to “drive,” directing them by pulling their tails in a sort of reverse-Ratatouille); armed with Renzi’s “cyclo-heart” from issue no. 6, the rats defeat the Terror-Naut. Although this is the requisite comic book action for the episode, it feels almost incidental, a loose end that needs to be tied up before we can get on with the real thrust of this episode: Kamandi’s discovery of who he is and where he came from. The eye amulet that Gnawbit wears reveals the spirit of Kamandi’s “father”–Jack Kirby!

In “The Answers,” Kirby-as-godhead pulls Kamandi completely into his orbit, giving him the opportunity to remake his reality in the classic “three wishes” formulation. Kamandi still doesn’t quite understand who Kirby is, and verbally spars with him in the same way he argues with almost every other authority figure he comes across. His first wish is to be reunited with his parents; when this turns out to be a video farewell message, he rebels. For his second wish, he asks for the leaders of the world to be brought together, as he has a few words for them: the gallery is filled with King Caesar, Prince Tuftan, and Doctor Canus; the leader of the jaguar sun cult; and other characters from Kamandi’s previous adventures. Vila, the plant girl, is among them, and she encourages Kamandi to say what he came to say. Kamandi urges the leaders to work together to make peace and to make the world a better place for everyone. As Kirby observes, Kamandi has become more powerful through his experiences, and he is at this moment taking possession of the birthright implicit in his name: to command.

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This leads into Kamandi’s final wish, and the final hidden meaning in his name: Kamandi took his name from the bunker Command D in which he was raised, but Kirby guides him into speaking his name as “Command-D,” the computer command for redrawing or resetting a file (a retcon, to be sure, but a clever reimagining of Kamandi’s identity and purpose). After a giant “Whooosh,” Kamandi–or Cameron–is back in his small town, with short hair and dressed in regular clothes, walking past a zoo containing normal, nonspeaking animals. Putting his bizarre experiences in Earth A.D. down to a dream, he meditates, “Humanity’s too smart to ever have that kind of Great Disaster, aren’t we? . . . Aren’t we?” The spirit of Kirby hovers nearby, reminding the readers that while Kamandi may think everything’s back to normal, something has grown and changed inside him.

Interestingly, the last word goes not to Kamandi or Jack Kirby, but to Detective Chimp (from within the walls of the zoo), who addresses the reader directly to thank us for reading and bid us farewell. “This is comics at its best, breaking rules and having fun,” he says, and after this final issue it’s hard not to agree. (He also commiserates over that “Command-D” pun to make sure we know that they know it’s a groaner.) (The choice of having Detective Chimp deliver this epilogue makes for an interesting link between the futuristic talking animals of Earth A.D. and the mainstream of DC continuity; his appearance is also a nod to writer Paul Levitz’s contribution to the DC Challenge of 30 years ago: see below.)

Now that this series has reached its conclusion, it’s interesting to look back and see how it did (or didn’t) coalesce into a single narrative. The first and last few chapters have the most direct involvement with the “save the world” narrative, while the middle chapters have the luxury of being more episodic. Interestingly, Tom King’s “Ain’t It a Drag?”, which ran in issue no. 9, is (in serial terms) an “economy chapter” or (in TV terms) a “bottle episode,” taking place entirely in one location. It even contains a recap of the story so far, not in flashback but in a short monologue that catches up readers who may have missed the beginning. In film and television, such episodes really do serve a purpose of saving money on production costs which can be applied to the rest of the series; comics have no such budgetary restrictions, and original artwork still has to be drawn, but it is telling that this sprawling, episodic story still had room for a more meditative chapter in a single location. Aside from the recap, such chapters are about the essences of the characters, the kinds of insights that can be gleaned best when the action slows down.

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Indeed, the range of types of stories seen in this series–always containing action, but within the varied context of adventure, horror, comedy, and fable, to name a few examples–is a good example of the breadth of storytelling styles still alive within this industry, and a strong defense of the monthly single issue in the face of trade paperbacks and other competing formats. (I plan to read this series straight through again, so perhaps the seams will show more in that context, but as I’ve stated before I consider seamlessness an overrated virtue in art.)

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So did Kamandi “find his parents and save the world?” Er, kind of. Turning it into a metaphor is probably better in the long run, even it doesn’t follow a completely straight line from the first chapter. Was such a project ever going to be completely satisfying from a narrative perspective? That’s the risk of round-robin stories, of course, but that possibility that the story will refuse to come together is what gives it its edge, its sense of danger. By making the continuous cliffhangers part of the explanation, by making Kamandi’s fall from one peril to another seem like a narrative as well as a formal necessity, the last chapter retroactively imposes a sense of orderly progression on his adventures (this conveniently overlooks that not all of the cliffhangers involved Kamandi falling–most did, but not quite all).

More importantly, the idea that danger and its attendant adrenaline rush was necessary for Kamandi to realize his own power keeps it from being a pointless return to the status quo: yes, the rewriting of his reality is essentially a Wizard of Oz move, but as in that story, the lessons learned along the way–about loyalty to friends, about standing up for yourself, about what you’re capable of–are apt to stick even as the adventure itself recedes into a dream. “Sometimes being scared or going way out of our comfort zones is good for us,” Kirby tells Kamandi, and we recognize that as a truth that applies to both fictional characters and their creators.

The truth is that an ongoing narrative by a single creator takes the same risk as a round-robin: the plot might not add up, events may not be resolved in a satisfactory way, the story may not even reach its conclusion. (And in comics, creative teams are frequently changed from issue to issue for logistical or editorial reasons anyway.) The competitive aspect of the Kamandi Challenge, in which each writer lays a trap for the next, is only an extreme form of the way in which writers try to top themselves, writing their characters into corners without exactly knowing how they’ll find a way out, but having confidence that they’ll figure out something. It’s not that different from the way in which Kirby himself and other prolific comics creators approached their plots. Even at its worst, that approach can get by on energy alone, the Edgar Rice Burroughs rush of incident piled on incident; at its best, there is room for considerable depth and thematic development alongside the thrills and spectacle. Kamandi Challenge‘s most rewarding decision, one seemingly made independently by many of the contributors over its run, has been to turn the formal requirements of the round-robin story into reflections on Kirby: his methods, his themes, his legacy.

“The Answers” is also something of a double tribute: to Kirby, of course, but also to prolific writer and editor Len Wein, who was originally scheduled to conclude the series, but who passed away this year. Wein was a contributor to the original DC Challenge, as is Paul Levitz, who stepped in to replace him. I admit I wasn’t very familiar with the DC Challenge when I started reading Kamandi Challenge. Although I was reading and collecting comics in 1985, the DC Challenge was a direct market-only publication, and I didn’t have regular access to a comics store in those years. I’ve since picked up some copies of back issues, and it is . . . well, interesting, to say the least. Like Kamandi Challenge, it invited writers and artists to write stories and set up impossible cliffhangers for the next writers to get the characters out of. The DC Challenge used the backdrop of the entire DC universe as its playground: any and all characters were at the writers’ disposal (including oddballs like Detective Chimp!), and the whole thing appears to be considerably more tongue-in-cheek (in one issue, Albert Einstein appears, using his mastery of space-time to set things right, much like Kirby does in “The Answers”). In some ways it appears to be a dry run for Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which worlds would collide with much higher stakes than the amusement of continuity nerds.

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Kamandi Challenge benefits from a narrower focus–Earth A.D. is a large place to explore, but unified by a common theme and by a single central character–but it also takes itself more seriously than the DC Challenge did. There is humor, but it is mostly in the form of banter rather than silly situations (I will admit, however, that I measure silliness on a bit of a sliding scale when we’re talking about communist bears and machine-gun-wielding sharks).

Ultimately, exercises like this are useful antidotes to the pervasive notion that narratives are airtight constructions, that creators don’t change their minds in midstream when they come up with better ideas, or that having one’s preconceptions confirmed is the highest pleasure in absorbing a story. Surprise is a crucial element, and while some twists can take things too far (always a matter of taste as to what constitutes “too far”), sometimes the best surprises come from collaborators surprising one another (the “yes and” of improvisation) or of artists surprising themselves (the happy accident, or simply a case of getting into the zone and coming up with better ideas than one thought possible when in the planning stages).

As a fan, it has been gratifying to see so many talented comics creators try their hand at writing and drawing Kamandi. The different perspectives on what makes him tick, or how his past adventures do or don’t deliver for modern readers, have been fascinating to observe. And even the weaker chapters in this series have included the gut-level pleasures of sci-fi action in a unique atmosphere. At its best it’s a jolting reminder of just how much influence Jack Kirby still has on individual artists when they’re invited to dwell on it. Continuity is perhaps the big theme of this series, in the small sense of connecting all the diverse strands of narrative and reconciling them, but also in the big sense of handing down traditions and influence, of telling the story of how we tell the story, and why. Kamandi himself is a character who, since passing out of his creator’s hands for good, is often used as a symbol for alternative paths of history, for how individuals might become different people were they born into different circumstances. Back in his idyllic home at the end of Kamandi Challenge, our young hero knows that things could still change: there are many paths forward that life could take. Likewise, there are many paths forward, for both the characters of Kamandi and the medium of comics, represented by the approaches in Kamandi Challenge. It’s not a question of which one will lead to the future: they all do, one way or another.

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Kamandi Challenge no. 7

Cover by Bill Sienkiewicz

“Salvage”
Writer: Marguerite Bennett
Pencils: Dan Jurgens
Inks: Klaus Janson
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

Note: This issue came out last week, but I was travelling, and it’s taken me a few days to get caught up. My apologies for the delay.

Kamandi, thrown from the towering heights of Mishkingrad by its former “Alpha” Grosnovo, and about to fall into the bear city’s atomic furnace, remembers that he is still holding the “cortex crown” that controls the city. Putting it on, Kamandi commands the metal around him (all parts of the great living city) to form a protective shell around him (similar to the vegetable shell Vila wove around him in no. 5) and take him to Renzi. There, he is astonished to see Renzi already surrounded by a band of female dog warriors, scavengers who periodically raid the bear city for technology and scrap metal. The dogs decide to take Kamandi along with them and throw him into a bag for transport. (They rescue Renzi as well, leaving the city of bears to collapse without Renzi’s atomic heart to power it.)

Later, Kamandi emerges from the bag to find himself on a huge dirigible, the floating headquarters of the “Bulldog Britanneks,” as the dogs call themselves. Beatrice, the leader of the Britanneks, recalls knowing Kamandi’s mother, a veteran of the “Android Wars” who designed their ship, and points Kamandi toward the last place she had seen her.

In the mean time, the dirigible floats over the forbidden wastelands of the North Pole, home to the “ice wizards.” The ice wizards (the only one we see is a polar bear) control hordes of “polar parasites,” metallic centipedes that latch onto unwilling hosts and control their minds, steering them to recruit more hosts. The ice wizards have been exiled to the wasteland and sense an opportunity to escape; for their part, the parasites are in constant search for new hosts and new territory. Directed by the ice wizard, a flying iceberg pierces the dirigible, bringing it down. One of the dog women, Sadie, rescues Kamandi from falling to his death; earlier she had flirted with him, but in this moment we sense that perhaps the attraction goes both ways.

On the ground, several of the Britanneks are overtaken by parasites, and with their minds controlled by them they begin attacking their fellows or attempting to lure them to be attacked by parasites. With their ship crashed and at the mercy of the parasites, the group retreats, but not before Kamandi finds the cortex crown among the wreckage. Since the dirigible was built from scrap looted from the bear city over the years, he reasons that the metal may still respond to the crown’s power, just as it had saved him earlier. A plan is hatched: the Britanneks lure the polar parasites and their hosts into the open, and then Kamandi, wearing the crown and driving a power-lifter-like exoskeleton made from the scrap, surprises the parasites, crushing them under the vehicle’s enormous “feet” and freeing the mind-controlled Britanneks as well. With the ice wizard captured (and disposed of off-panel?), the operation is a success.

The Britanneks, reunited, rebuild the remains of their dirigible into a hot-air balloon, while Kamandi, with a new lead on his missing parents, takes off separately in a hang-glider (after receiving a “first kiss” from Sadie). Gliding alone above the wasteland, Kamandi doesn’t notice one last polar parasite crawl out of his satchel, and the chapter ends with the creature biting him on the neck. Is this the end of Kamandi, or is he doomed to spend his remaining days as the host of the polar parasite?

As in other Kamandi stories, “Salvage” gets a lot of mileage out of comparing and contrasting human and animal behaviors and personality type. There are plenty of canine puns and references on hand (Kamandi “deworms” the parasite-infected Britanneks; the flying headquarters is referred to as a “doghouse” and later a “kennel,” and so on; it must have taken a lot of self-control to avoid the phrase “puppy love”). Most notably, while only Commander Beatrice is an actual bulldog, the group suggests the kind of plucky, diverse, but oh-so British commando troop one sees in movies about World War II, and Beatrice represents the typical funny animal English bulldog as a Winston Churchill stand-in: gruff, cigar-smoking, and (in this case) maternal. (“A Canterbury Tail/Calamity from the Clyde,” a two-part “Tale of the Great Disaster” printed in Weird War Tales nos. 51 and 52, makes a similar association between nationality, animal type, and character, but as we have seen that is almost de rigueur in funny animal stories, even ones like this that are darker than your average Carl Barks strip.) Naturally, the canine commandos are introduced playing poker when Kamandi is welcomed onto the dirigible.

Also striking in this story is that all the Britanneks are female, a conceit lampshaded by the engineer Mae who says of Kamandi when they meet, “You smell like you’ve met two, hm, three supporting female characters, tops–both of whom died, I’m guessing.” That sounds about right. I mostly know Marguerite Bennett, who wrote this chapter, from her work on DC Comics Bombshells, a series focused on the publisher’s female characters fighting an alternate World War II in a world without male superheroes. Although this chapter’s art (by Dan Jurgens and Klaus Janson, both of whom have been working in comics since I was reading them as a kid in the ’80s) is more old-school and less attuned to the feminine nuances of Bennett’s script than that of Bennett’s Bombshells collaborator Marguerite Sauvage, “Salvage” shows some of the same inventive remixing of wartime iconography and bantering sisterhood as her flagship series. Also, in addition to improving Kamandi’s representation stats the Britanneks have a more functional family dynamic than any group Kamandi has encountered since his abrupt expulsion from the Truman Show-esque small town in which he grew up, back in issue no. 1. Kamandi has made friends and allies, but the tough warrior women of the Britanneks are a family: they not only fight together, they care about each other, and their scenes are reminiscent of the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Finally, Kamandi has traditionally been a series in which romance took a back seat to action and adventure; not exactly “no girls allowed,” but like many comics, the emphasis is on Kamandi’s status as “The Last Boy on Earth” (emphasis added). Mae commenting on the meager (and deceased) female supporting cast could easily be referring not only to this series but to Jack Kirby’s original book as well. The love of Kamandi’s life, Flower, a girl his age who could speak (in contrast to the mostly mute humans of Earth A.D.), was no sooner introduced than she was killed tragically; later Kirby, sensing a missed opportunity, introduced Flower’s twin, Spirit, but if Kamandi noticed Spirit’s hula-girl near-nakedness, he was too polite to say anything. That was for the pubescent audience. In this case, the flirtatious Sadie and her interest in Kamandi would be unexceptional were it not for the prospect of cross-species love in their relationship. Ultimately, their mutual attraction is turned into a cute joke, with Sadie slurping Kamandi’s face like any family pet. Whether a furry fantasy* or a riff on dogs’ age-old affection for man, the message is clear: even in the wastes of this post-apocalyptic world, it is love, and the possibility of finding it, that makes survival into living.

from Kamandi no. 12

*Not to downplay the degree to which Kamandi can already be seen as a furry fantasy, but as I suggested, its generally chaste approach takes the focus off questions of romance or sexuality.

Kamandi Challenge no. 6

Main cover by Andy Kubert and Brad Anderson

“The Insides-Out Adventure”
Writer:
Steve Orlando
Penciller: Philip Tan
Inker: Norm Rapmund
Colorist: Dean White
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

At the conclusion of last month’s Kamandi Challenge, Kamandi had fallen into the clutches of Dr. Vokolo, a lemur physician in possession of a 3-D “bio-printer.” Vokolo was willing to sacrifice Kamandi for the sake of saving potential lives in the future, a process that entailed removing the still-living Kamandi’s internal organs to be scanned. Alas, there was no plan to put them back when Vokolo was done with them, so things looked bleak for our hero. The tiger man Raja Maccao (“Mack”), whom Kamandi had earlier been traveling with (and who was already searching for Vokolo in hopes of finding a cure for a plague of “weeping pox” elsewhere), burst into Vokolo’s lab and was greeted by a sight out of an EC horror comic.

“What have you done to Kamandi?!” Mack demands as Kamandi Challenge number 6 gets underway. The good doctor explains what is happening, finishing with the ominous promise that “The only thing keeping your friend alive . . . is me.” So to motivate Vokolo, Mack shoots him in the gut, forcing him to use the “bio-printer” to save himself and Kamandi. Well, actually, it takes seven hours to print the regenerative “gene therapy” that they eventually find in the computer’s records, but Vokolo estimates that he has only three hours to live after being gut-shot, so in the end he gets what was coming to him, and only Kamandi lasts long enough to benefit from the gene therapy.

After Kamandi awakens, good as new, Mack chooses to stay behind and look for a cure for weeping pox among the late doctor’s resources. To help Kamandi continue his search for his people, he directs him to an old friend, a superhuman scientist named Renzi. Renzi is a character from Jack Kirby’s original Kamandi series, but his appearance here is largely a cameo. The pair are shown traveling by high-tech hot-air balloon just long enough to establish that Renzi possesses a “cyclo-heart,” an atomic energy source that allows him to change his body to a metallic substance for short durations, before they are shot down over an unknown source of intense heat. Renzi assumes his steel form to protect Kamandi, but both black out in the crash; they awaken in chains, the prisoner of intelligent bears. Renzi is separated from Kamandi: the bears have use of his cyclo-heart.

Kamandi is brought face-to-face with Groznovo, the “Alpha of Alphas”; Mishkingrad, the “God-Commune of the Bears” is a high-tech Soviet collective (because bears, get it?), and Groznovo wears a crown that receives and tallies the collective decisions of the commune’s inhabitants, which he interprets and executes. His status as a channel for the will of the people is quite literal. Kamandi challenges Groznovo’s position, telling him that by being subject to the constantly shifting demands of the people he has merely chosen a different form of slavery, and is free of the burden of ever making his own decisions. Groznovo accepts this idea surprisingly quickly, and in fact lets Kamandi know that he has been tiring of the demands of duty for some time. If ever there was an opportunity for him to break free from the commune’s collective rule, Kamandi has presented Groznovo with it; the bear promises to lead Kamandi to where Renzi is being held.

Throughout their flight through the city, Kamandi notices strangely anatomical references that go beyond the usual discussion of a city’s “bones”: the transit system is referred to as “vascular,” and so on. Near the end of this chapter we see just what Renzi’s atomic-powered heart is being used for: the “God-Commune” is a giant, self-contained city, but it is in the form an enormous, autonomous bear, and with Renzi’s heart as its reactor, it can generate enough power to get up and move about freely. Ultimately, Groznovo has been playing Kamandi: the bear truly wants to be free, but he will not betray the commune’s ideals. He has led Kamandi away from the furnace in which Renzi is being held captive. Kamandi accuses Groznovo of using him, and the pair fight as the bear-shaped city plods along, leaving flames in its wake. Groznovo makes it clear that in a choice between loyalty to Kamandi and his own people, he will always choose his people, and he reluctantly throws Kamandi overboard.

“The Insides-Out Adventure” moves at a quick pace, first resolving the cliffhanger of Kamandi’s vivisection, then getting him into the balloon with Renzi, and finally dropping both of them into the city of the bears. Without the colorful dialogue that tempered the pace of Bill Willingham’s contribution last month, and with four full-page splashes (including an impressive two-page spread of the city coming to life), the effect is an adventure that feels a bit rushed. In particular, Kamandi’s debate with Groznovo on the nature of free will, which seems to be the central theme writer Steve Orlando wants to convey, doesn’t have much tension; Groznovo’s abdication of his crown is a nearly foregone conclusion. (The real twist comes at the end, when he refuses to help rescue Renzi and dispenses with Kamandi.)

Communism (or a high-tech iteration of it) comes off as something of a straw man here, but that is hardly surprising: like most American comic book heroes, and particularly characters who inhabit lands as savage as Earth A. D. (After Disaster), Kamandi’s ideals of freedom and self-determination are particularly American in form: the freedom to go where he pleases, and to bow to no man (or bear) are central. Furthermore, Kamandi has occasional traveling companions, but no tribe: the idea of submitting his own will to a greater good is quite out of place in the lawless kill-or-be-killed wilds of the future. (As in previous installments, comparisons are drawn between the mute, sheep-like humans the bears have penned in captivity and the boy who will not be silenced; as in Planet of the Apes, “This is what happens when a human thinks for himself!”)

Recalling the first chapter, Kamandi was brought up in a sheltered simulation of a typical small town, so one imagines that his schooling included American Government or Civics: like any student who has left school to strike out on his own, part of Kamandi’s story has been his disillusionment upon discovering that the world isn’t what he thought it was, and his subsequent discovery of his own power. His encounter with the communist bears is a test of his beliefs, but one too brief to really challenge them, and in effect the God-Commune is just another cruel domain ruled by an Other, an animal race that has taken one trait of human civilizations (collectivism) to an extreme.

Kamandi Challenge no. 5

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Variant cover by Ivan Reis and Marcelo Maiolo

“Sub Tropical Thunder”
Writer: Bill Willingham
Penciller: Ivan Reis
Inker: Oclair Albert
Colorist: Marcelo Maiolo
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

As Kamandi Challenge no. 5 begins, Kamandi and Vila are being chased by the Kanga Rat Murder Society, by whom they were captured at the end of the last issue. Self-proclaimed guardians of the “Wondrous Western Wall,” the Kanga Rats have given our heroes their choice of vehicle and weapons to defend themselves–they’re sportsmen, not monsters. Kamandi, in the driver’s seat, switches places with Vila so that he can shoot back at the hunters while she drives, and Vila makes the calculation that she can save them by driving off a convenient cliff and landing in open water (sure, last issue they were in “the heart of the scorched Outback,” and now they’re on the shore of the ocean, but whatever). Despite Kamandi’s protests, Vila does just that, growing and extending her plant body to create a protective shell around Kamandi, Groot-like, and then transforming herself into a raft (previous stories showed Vila regenerating herself, but this is the first indicator that she has this much control over her form; still, it’s inventive and exciting, so I’m willing to roll with it). After days adrift at sea, Vila enters a dormant state, assuring Kamandi that she will awaken and regenerate anew once she is in contact with soil and fresh water.

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Alas, Kamandi is picked up by a passing boat while asleep, and his rescuers (a literal “sea dog” and his crew) leave Vila behind, taking her for a bundle of twigs. Perhaps Vila, Kamandi’s longest-lasting companion in this series (and an original character, at that), will turn up again, but for now the Last Boy on Earth has a new ally. After working aboard the ship in exchange for passage, Kamandi is introduced to the tiger man Raja Maccao, professional wrestler-turned-detective and fount of stories (mostly about himself and his many successful cases). Kamandi tags along (for weeks, elapsed in montage) in hopes of finding his own people and for lack of anywhere better to go.

Kamandi and Raja are taken by surprise by the airborne “Bintur horde,” a band of rodent people riding giant owls and hawks. After yet another running battle that ends with Kamandi leaping off a cliff into a river, the two are separated and Kamandi is captured by the horde. He blacks out and awakens a captive of a lemur scientist, who explains that his “3-D bio-printer,” which can fabricate replacement organs for 97 species, will soon be able to replicate human organs as well, at the small price of sacrificing Kamandi’s life, since the printer cannot create without first analyzing samples from living specimens. (While this mad doctor differs from the others encountered so far in that his intentions are noble, the end result is the same for Kamandi.)

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The doctor has begun prepping Kamandi for exploratory surgery (vivisection, really) by his automated operating table when Raja Maccao bursts in to the secluded laboratory (having tracked the aerial raiders by their mounts’ extensive droppings), but it appears that he is too late: the last page, with the doctor holding Kamandi’s heart in his hand and the boy’s chest cavity opened and empty, a look of terror frozen on Kamandi’s face, is the grisliest sight we’ve seen yet. In addition to being far more graphic than usual for this character or his world, it leaves a real challenge for Steve Orlando and Philip Tan when they pick up the story next month!

As the bare plot description suggests, five months into the Kamandi Challenge we’re seeing some recurring plot elements: sudden raids from above; Kamandi escaping by jumping off of or into something; Kamandi losing consciousness and waking up in a strange, new place; and captivity by scientists for whom a talking human is a challenge or opportunity that cannot be denied. But Kamandi can also count on making friends wherever he goes, and proving himself worthy of their faith in him. If I had to name a single quality that defines Kamandi, in his various incarnations, beyond his bravery, intelligence, or strength, I would say it is his resilience.

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Written by Fables‘ Bill Willingham, “Sub Tropical Thunder” provides a real sense of texture through its characters’ dialogue, from the rustic “sea dog” Babal Crow (“Plucked you out of the sea, we did, as you were good as dead. That’s all I ken.”) to the name-dropping, self-mythologizing Raja (“I was a frisky kitty, hungry for game and fame.”), who in a few pages mentors Kamandi in a way we haven’t really seen since Doctor Canus’ departure from the story. Even Vila’s dialogue gives a sense of her as slightly alien, with an unusual perspective. The attention to detail goes a long way toward making familiar character types and situation feel fresh.

I also enjoyed the illustrations by Reis, Albert, and Maiolo, which combine dynamic compositions and panel design with fine (but unfussy) detail. Each artist in this series has brought something of their own personality and style to the ongoing book, and like Dale Eaglesham’s work in issue no. 1, this month’s art resembles the classic comic strips of Hal Foster or Alex Raymond, including some great-looking full-page splashes. The various creatures, including a range of humanoid and giant animals, are nicely realized, with a sense of weight and movement matching their particular anatomies, and subtly-rendered textures like the woody grain of Vila’s skin or the fur on Raja’s muzzle look so real you can almost touch them. The art also emphasizes Kamandi’s boyishness as well, mostly by giving him more childish features (particularly a small nose and full lips), but also by placing him against larger figures or in the corners of panels, highlighting how small and vulnerable he is in this world.

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Finally, there aren’t too many clues dropped in this issue about either the source of the Great Disaster or Kamandi’s importance, but at the same time it’s mercifully free of psychedelic dream sequences, which I’ve mostly begun to think of as red herrings, since the round-robin nature of the series means we won’t really be able to assign meaning to anything until a later writer contributes something that either confirms or denies a particular clue’s significance. That’s okay with me: Jack Kirby was never too concerned himself with seeding mysteries to be resolved in grand arcs, instead concentrating on the pleasures of episodic storytelling, and Kamandi in particular has always been an especially pure example of that impulse: the rhythms of Kamandi are as old as serial narrative–captivity, escape, flight, and rescue–and are represented in spades by “Sub Tropical Thunder.”

Kamandi Challenge no. 4

Main cover by Paul Pope and Lovern Kindzierski

“The Wild Wondrous West”
Writer: James Tynion IV
Artist: Carlos D’Anda
Colorist: Gabe Eltaeb
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

At the end of Kamandi Challenge no. 3, Kamandi and his plant-girl companion Vila were about to be sacrificed to the jaguars’ deity, a giant-sized jaguar so huge that it wears trucks and a jet on chains around its neck as jewelry. As issue 4 gets underway, the giant grabs Kamandi in its enormous paw; Kamandi struggles to escape, stabbing at the beast. He discovers that rather than blood, his knife draws oil from the wound, just before the creature shoves Kamandi in its mouth and swallows him. Abruptly, the scene changes, and Kamandi finds himself in a high-tech control room, the literal belly of the beast: the jaguar “god” is actually a giant mecha, a robot piloted by a pair of jaguar scientists, Cano and R’lash.

Kamandi’s captors explain that they were outcasts from the superstitious jaguar society, skeptical of the cults’ unscientific reliance on myth and ritual. Discovering a cache of ancient technology, the pair taught themselves to use it and built their robotic version of the sun cult’s god, exploiting the jaguars’ credulity and putting themselves at the head of their society. All of this they explain to Kamandi (and Vila, who is also “eaten”), leading up to their plan to dissect him for study (a talking human continues to be a rarity in this post-cataclysmic world).

Kamandi (who was swallowed unscathed because of a lucky malfunction of the machine’s chewing function) isn’t so easily killed however, and he uses a gun to destroy the machine’s control panel; he and Vila (injured but still alive) climb back out of the god’s mouth and into the cockpit of the ancient fighter jet that the machine wears around its neck. They are able to take off (breaking off the jaguar god’s robotic head and revealing Cano’s deception to the other jaguars), but as they climb in altitude they black out.

After regaining consciousness, Kamandi finds himself in a desert next to the crashed jet (and Vila, dehydrated) at the base of a mysterious wall. Kamandi hears voices calling his name from the other side of the wall; strange vehicles approach, driven by figures he can’t quite make out in the blazing sun, but when he attempts to communicate with them, he is struck down by a boomerang to the head. While unconscious, he seems to experience contact with an unknown entity, but that conversation too is cut short and Kamandi awakens alongside Vila, healed, in another unknown location.

Their reunion is brief, however, as a voice instructs them to choose weapons from an arsenal, and the platform on which they stand rises up and opens into a giant arena. Once more Kamandi must fight before a roaring crowd, this time in the Australian Outback, in the domain of the “Kanga Rat Murder Society,” guardians of the “Wondrous Western Wall.” The last page of this issue has Kamandi and Vila hop aboard a Kirby-esque Big Wheel, preparing to flee or fight for their lives.

It took me a couple of readings of this issue to put my finger on why it seemed a little thin. It’s not for lack of incident or characters, and there’s quite a bit I liked about “The Wild Wondrous West,” but it comes down, I think, to the fact that Kamandi gets knocked out and wakes up in a new location twice: it’s a dynamic that helps our heroes get from one place to another, but makes it a challenge to build up much momentum. (It’s probably a side effect of the tag-team storytelling approach, as well: each pair of writers and artists has only one issue to wrap up the previous issue’s cliffhanger and then make their own contribution.) The settings also feel a little familiar; true, gladiatorial arenas are a staple of post-apocalyptic fiction, but we’ve already seen something similar to this in the first issue.

At least this issue’s reveal makes the jaguar god into something different from the giant gorilla Tiny. A pattern is emerging in which the threats facing our heroes in the cliffhangers turn out to be not quite what they seem, and the Star Trek-like false god is a particularly clever solution to last issue’s trap. The jaguar inventors piloting their robotic creation are interesting and original characters in their own right: writer James Tynion IV gives them strong personalities through their dialogue, even as “Professor” Cano and his hunchbacked assistant R’lash inhabit well-worn “mad scientist” territory. I was sad to see them go.

Above all, this issue benefits from atmospheric art provided by Carlos D’Anda, and particularly Gabe Etlaeb’s moody colors (the ominous red lighting inside the jaguar mecha is going to stick with me long after this series has been put to bed, I think). The transitions between settings are made crystal clear by the use of fade-outs and contrasting palettes: there’s no need for an “Elsewhere . . .” caption when the dark tones of the jaguar island give way to the bright yellows and blues of the desert. You can practically feel Kamandi’s thirst, and the haze through which the Kanga Rats appear gives the scene a cinematic feel; past Kamandi books haven’t always captured the kinetic energy of the Mad Max movies when they turn to vehicular mayhem, but the last few pages promise a spectacle that actually moves. One hopes the next team to take over can meet the expectation this issue sets up.

Kamandi Challenge no. 3

Cover A by Ben Caldwell

“Bug in Your Ear”
Writer: Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: Amanda Conner
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

When last we left Kamandi, he had leapt off a cliff into an unknown abyss rather than be captured by Manhunter robots. As Chapter Three begins, Kamandi’s descent is spotted by a hidden watcher, and a pair of bat people, Kreeg and Saparta, is dispatched to catch him; they sort of succeed, but not before Kamandi hits his head and loses consciousness. Upon awakening in a darkened cell, Kamandi is cautioned to be careful by a flying insect. “Yer in danger. They have eyes everywhere,” the bug says.

Then an organic pod emerges through the floor of Kamandi’s cell, which upon opening reveals a green-skinned half-vegetable girl who introduces herself as Vila. “I am yours,” she says enticingly, although her offer isn’t quite what we’re at first led to believe.

It turns out that Kamandi is aboard a ship in the clutches of the God Watchers, a crew of various animal types who believe Kamandi to be a messenger of the gods they have been waiting for; they possess a torn photo of Kamandi (or someone who looks like him) as a young boy, seated in front of his parents, the “true gods.” (Remember that Kamandi’s search to find his parents has so far been the one unifying thread in this round-robin series.)

Despite being hosted as a god, Kamandi doesn’t trust the God Watchers or their turtle leader, Fritz, and is deeply unsettled by what he sees of their ways: the bat people who saved Kamandi are slaves, captured in combat, and when he encounters them again they are undergoing punishment for failing to rescue him unharmed. At a feast held in his honor, Kamandi discovers that Vila and others like her are raised as food: he’s horrified to watch the animals bite off strips of the plant people’s “flesh,” even as Vila assures him that it will grow back. And everywhere, Kamandi is being watched by the hovering insects that serve as the God Watchers’ spy network. Despite his protests that he is not a god, he comes to realize that he is in great danger if the God Watchers begin to doubt him.

The crisis arrives when Kamandi draws his own blood in front of the God Watchers to prove that he is mortal, but that revelation is overshadowed by an attack from the bat people as the ship passes near their territory. In the confusion of the attack, Vila is grabbed by one of the attacking bats; Kamandi hangs on to her by one of her arms and rescues her by chewing through the other. The two of them free the still-captive Kreeg and Saparta (they cannot return to their own kind, as they are considered “tainted”), and are about to ride to freedom when Fritz corners them. “Arrest this impostor and kill the other three,” he orders. But then Fritz and his minions are slaughtered by the attacking bats, and Kamandi and Vila escape on Kreeg and Saparta’s backs just before the invaders firebomb the entire ship.

Whew! That would be enough for an episode of any adventure book, but true to the source material, the four protagonists have only escaped from one danger to step into another: the island they land on is reputed to be the home of a Sun Cult, and almost immediately they are ambushed by intelligent jaguars. After a struggle, Kamandi is again knocked out and taken captive. When he awakens, he and Vila are tied to posts on a ceremonial altar. Kreeg and Saparta have already been ritually cooked and eaten, and “sun-haired” Kamandi is next in line to be sacrificed. After being paralyzed with a drug and ritually decorated by attendants, Kamandi finds himself (with Vila thrown in for good measure) in Fay Wray’s position as a gift to the King Kong of jaguars. “Mmm . . . dinner!” the giant cat purrs. To be continued . . .

“Bug in Your Ear” is the contribution of husband-and-wife team Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, who have worked together on many projects and who obviously know each others’ strengths. Conner’s art is always attractive, with a clean and slightly cartoony style, and here she leans into that quality with a big-eyed plant girl who resembles a sexy spin on the Jolly Green Giant, and a host of funny animals reminiscent of mid-century Disney productions like Robin Hood. The Disney comparison extends to the flying insects: the first one we see, who warns Kamandi to be careful, suggests something like Tinkerbell or Jiminy Cricket, a voice of wisdom from a tiny, unseen source. But that doesn’t last long, as the bug falls prey to an anteater who can’t resist snacking on the God Watchers’ spies.

In fact, despite how busy this chapter is, a great deal of the interest is in the characterization of the many different non-humans and their various motives as they’re thrown together in different combinations. The cuteness of the art and the humor of the characters offsets the gruesomeness of the plot, which lest we forget includes copious examples of (sort of) cannibalism, dismemberment, and ritual sacrifice. (The role reversal of having Kamandi wind up a body-painted “damsel in distress” at the end gives the story a touch of equal-opportunity sensuality, as well.)

Both the God Watchers and Jaguar Sun Cult were listed on the map of Kamandi’s world that Jack Kirby left behind before handing Kamandi off to other writers. I’d go so far as to say that “Bug in Your Ear” represents an ideal form of at least one facet of Kirby’s creation: funny animal characters and themes viewed through the lens of science fiction: not hard science fiction, but at least giving weight to the behaviors of real animals and by extension satirizing the human societies that the animals parody. As in previous iterations of Kamandi, and indeed a great many funny animal books (including those aimed at children), the animal societies mirror human cultures associated with the geography they inhabit.

Aztec jaguars are a natural, of course, and whether the use of Mesoamerican cultural signifiers like step-pyramids and human sacrifice is meant to suggest that the jaguars have taken over where humans left off, or rather that there is some sort of geographical essentialism involved in culture, is something left for the individual reader to ponder. And could we read Fritz and his multi-species crew of God Watchers as L. Ron Hubbard tooling about on a yacht for years as the head of Scientology’s Sea Org? Or perhaps his ship is an inverted Noah’s Ark, run by animals and searching for humans to save? Probably not, but it is fun to speculate. More importantly, no matter how far-fetched the settings and characters of fantasies like Kamandi may be, they connect because we recognize in them the passions for freedom, compassion, and meaning, as well as the cruelty, lust for power, and religious fanaticism that have always been with us, and have always been part of our fiction. As in the Planet of the Apes series, the most dangerous animal is man, no matter what skin he wears in his stories.