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.

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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.

Introducing the Kamandi Challenge!

kamandi-challenge-special

I’ve written before about my interest in Kamandi, “The Last Boy on Earth,” the futuristic adventure series Jack Kirby created for DC Comics in 1972. So when I learned about DC’s upcoming Kamandi Challenge, described as a “round-robin, no-holds-barred storytelling extravaganza told in 12 issues,” with a separate writer/artist team picking up the thread in each installment, I knew I would be adding it to my pull list at my local comics store (shout-out to Prairie Dog Comics in Wichita). The book will apparently be more than just a showcase for talent: running up to the 100th anniversary of Kirby’s birth (1917-1994), the teams are invited to make things tough for those who follow them: “Each issue will end with an unimaginable cliffhanger, and it’s up to the next creative team to resolve it before creating their own. It’s a challenge worthy of ‘The King’ himself!” They already had me at “Kamandi,” but when cliffhangers are involved, how could I resist?

kamandi

To recap, Kamandi (named for “Command D,” the military bunker in which he was raised by his grandfather) is the last ordinary human in a post-apocalyptic world that has been taken over by intelligent animals: not just apes, but tigers, dogs, reptiles, and more. Other humans have been reduced to nonverbal animalism or have developed mutant powers themselves. Monstrous creatures roam the earth, and new animal societies have developed in the ruins of the old world, patterned on the Romans, pirates, or Chicago gangsters. Kirby had been tinkering with Kamandi as a concept for several years (his original idea was to be a newspaper strip called “Kamandi of the Caves”), but the final version owes a clear debt to the popular Planet of the Apes movies while remaining pure Kirby. It’s a set-up ripe for adventure and wonder, and after Kirby’s run on the original series it continued to inspire comics creators (not to mention the influence it had on cartoons such as Thundarr the Barbarian, for which Kirby contributed concepts and designs, and more recently Adventure Time).

kamandi-canus

Perhaps to prime the pump for the upcoming series and get new readers caught up on the character and his setting, DC released the Kamandi Challenge Special this week, reprinting the double-sized Kamandi no. 32 (which included a reprint of the series’ first issue) from 1975 and including a pair of “lost” stories. Other than a full-page ad for the Kamandi Challenge, there’s no editorial hand-holding, and even the first issue, which introduces Kamandi and sets his feet on the path of adventure, is printed after the story from Kamandi no. 32, which begins in the middle of the action (just as it was in the original double issue–the reprint is always the backup in such cases). I guess they assume that fans can look up all the context on the internet, or perhaps the real audience is fans like me who’ve ready everything at least once already.

kamandi_32

Of most interest is a pair of stories that were intended for Kamandi nos. 60 and 61, but which were abandoned when Kamandi was a victim of the “DC Implosion,” when rising production costs and a slump in sales led to DC management cutting a third of the publisher’s titles without warning. Finished but unused stories from all the cancelled titles were printed in-house in ashcan editions (low-quality, low-circulation black and white copies); in addition to piecemeal reprints, scans of those stories have circulated online for years, but this is the first time the Kamandi stories have seen print in an official publication.

I’m not sure what a new reader will make of these “rediscovered” stories, to be honest: Kirby had left the book he created some time before its cancellation, leaving it in other writers’ and artists’ hands. In typical Kirby fashion, he had breathlessly filled his issues with ideas and characters, leaving many loose threads and never dwelling on any one idea for longer than a few issues. Writers who followed (including Gerry Conway, Dennis O’Neil, and Jack C. Harris) introduced some ideas of their own, but also revisited and fleshed out many of Kirby’s original concepts, using Kirby’s map of “Earth After Disaster” (also included in the Special) and tying the continuity together (for example identifying Kamandi’s grandfather as OMAC, the “One Man Army Corps,” another orphaned Kirby creation) while crafting some longer, less episodic arcs.

kamandimap

The “new” stories form the end of one of those arcs, the quest of Kamandi and his friends to help stranded space alien Pyra (the final form of the energy being encountered in the first story reprinted in the Special) power up her spaceship by opening a “vortex” in a mysterious giant energy field in Australia, guarded by the “Kangarat Murder Club.” Kamandi, sucked into the Vortex by a mysterious voice, witnesses the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, and comes to understand that there are many versions of himself living different lives, including some in worlds that did not suffer the “Great Disaster.”

kamandi-pyra

Given a choice, Kamandi ultimately decides that he owes a duty to his friends, still in danger; before coming back, however, he is picked up by servants of the Sandman, the master of dreams, who mistake him for the Sandman’s friend Jed. (You see, Jed is one of the many alternate lives that Kamandi could have lived, had circumstances been different.) Kamandi’s encounter with the Sandman mostly serves to tee up an unused Kirby Sandman story in which Jed enlists the Sandman’s aid in proving to a miser that Santa Claus is real (this involves a trip through dreamland to the North Pole and a battle with a band of “Seal Men” who are unhappy about the Christmas presents they’ve received in the past). No, it doesn’t fit very well in the (admittedly fantastical) world of Kamandi, but the reprint was mostly to buy time as Harris and company geared up to take the book in a new direction, with Kamandi traveling into space and having yet more bizarre encounters. It was never to be. Nevertheless, it isn’t every day that a story sees the light of day (officially) nearly forty years after it was first meant to run.

kamandi-santa

In any case, this is all preamble: the real action starts next week, with the release of Kamandi Challenge no. 1, written by Dan DiDio and Dan Abnett with art by Dale Eaglesham, Keith Giffen, and Scott Koblish. I’m so excited, I’ve decided to accept this challenge: I’m going to review and discuss each issue as it comes out. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll join me.

Strange Games: Comic Books Confront the Apocalypse

Recently, DC Comics published a trade paperback collection under the unwieldy title Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights. I don’t intend this essay to be a review, but I will say up front that if mid-century visions of nuclear war are your bag, there’s no reason not to pick this up.  If you’ve read any volumes of Showcase (or Marvel’s similar Essential series) before, you know what to expect: more than 500 pages of black-and-white reprints (of stories from the 1960s through the 1980s in this case) on cheap paper at a low price.  They don’t call ‘em “phone books” for nothing.

GreatDisaster.cover

I was eager to get this volume (it had been previously announced several years ago and then delayed) for a few reasons.  First, I was a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction when I was younger, and comic books were no different from other media in exploring that theme.  Second, although I had read some of the stories included, many were unfamiliar to me, and this would be a good way to fill in some gaps.  Finally, the focus on a central event (and one which had been interpreted many different ways by writers over the course of decades) makes this volume a little different from the typical Showcase that either follows a single character or collects completely unconnected stories (like the anthology title House of Mystery).  Some effort was made to arrange contradictory material into a single chronology, and that kind of editorial undertaking is always of interest to me.

Does it succeed?  Eh, sort of.  On one hand, the title tells you a lot about what’s in the volume: several cycles of stories centered on the destruction of civilization as we know it.  The Atomic Knights, in a series of stories by writer John Broome and artist Murphy Anderson that began in 1960, travel the wastes of post-World War III America, surviving with the help of their suits of medieval armor (discovered in a museum and possessed of miraculous radiation-shielding properties).  The only other continuous series represented in this volume is Hercules Unbound, but there are a number of stand-alone stories (many under the umbrella title “The Day After Doomsday”) as well.

On the other hand, the Great Disaster doesn’t have the instant name recognition of a superhero, nor was it the title of an ongoing book (the Atomic Knights, for example, were found in the pages of Strange Adventures; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were added to the title of this book so that at least some character would be named on the front cover).  In fact, the Great Disaster isn’t even synonymous with World War III in DC continuity, but you have to dig pretty deeply into the book to figure that out.  The Great Disaster is (or was, pre-Crisis) a conveniently vague apocalypse in the background of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, involving weapons of mass destruction as well as natural disasters, taking place at some point after WWIII.

(Not included in this volume)

(Not included in this volume)

The most distinctive legacy of the Great Disaster in the world “A.D.: After Disaster” was the release of a mind-altering chemical (“cortexin”) that caused ordinary animals to become intelligent, as well as gaining upright posture and opposable thumbs.  In the wake of the Great Disaster, most humans had become mute and animalistic.  Essentially, Kamandi’s world is one of reversed roles like Planet of the Apes, but with anthropomorphic dogs, tigers, and rats in addition to gorillas and other species (not to mention numerous mutant monsters and space aliens that defy categorization), all mixed up together in the ruins of a futuristic civilization.  The last point varied pretty widely: sometimes it seemed like the Great Disaster hit America in the 1970s, but it never stopped Kirby and his successors from throwing in robots, spaceships, and other high-tech devices left behind by the “ancients” if a story called for it.  (Eventually, Kamandi’s world was linked to “The World That’s Coming,” the setting of OMAC, a short-lived—and even weirder, but definitely futuristic—science fiction series Kirby had also created.)

Aside from Planet of the Apes, the world of Kamandi bears a close resemblance to the campaign setting of Gamma World, a role-playing game from TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons.  In transposing the adventuring-party model to a post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting, the game designers gave players the option of playing as a “pure strain” human, (humanoid) mutant, or mutated animal.  From one angle, the title character of Kamandi (“the last boy on Earth”) and his companions, the superhuman Ben Boxer and dog-man Dr. Canus, could be player characters in a Gamma World game, and their travels from one wonder to another, piecing together the fragmented history of their world and facing down monsters and villains, are not unlike an ongoing RPG campaign.

GammaWorld

Alas, Kamandi does not appear in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster. The material reprinted from Kamandi #43-46 is a backup story focused on Urgall, a gorilla whose liberal ideas (extending respect not only to non-gorillas but to humans, and even female gorillas!) put him at odds with his tribe. (Another “tale of the Great Disaster” that appeared in Weird War Tales #51-52, featuring warring English and Scottish dog-men, is not included, which is too bad, as it is superior to the story of Urgall.)  I’ve gone into detail about Kamandi because I’m a fan, and having collected (I believe) all the pre-Crisis appearances of Kamandi and OMAC, it’s hard for me to not bring that context to the present book.  As of this writing, the only collected reprints of Kamandi are more lavish and expensive than the Showcase series, but the title is worth seeking out and is really more essential than anything in this book (but if you’re reading this, you already knew that, right?).

When I first read the Atomic Knights stories (about fifteen years ago), they struck me as more than a little silly: in addition to the conceit of medieval armor protecting against radiation, the stories were burdened with outdated gender roles (the “littlest knight,” Marene Herald, mostly stays out of the way, awaiting the day that team leader Gardner Grayle will propose to her) and too many convenient “scientific” solutions to problems.  Although the war is said to have occurred in October, 1986, the Atomic Knights’ roots in the early 1960s remain obvious.

Reading them again, however, I’m more sympathetic to the earnest tone: the Knights are at the vanguard of rebuilding democracy, and the stories often end on a didactic note, preaching the need for cooperation, compassion, and emphasizing reason and the rule of law.  Many of the menaces they face will be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction: problems of supplying food and energy when nothing will grow; human populations regressed to caveman-like savagery; would-be dictators such as the fascist “organizer” Kadey and the self-proclaimed King of New Orleans; and non-human threats either produced by radiation (a Triffid-like strain of mobile, intelligent plants) or opportunistically filling the void left by the collapse of humanity (a race of underground mole people who plan to permanently darken the sky so that they can take over the surface world; scavenging space aliens searching for precious metals).  That the Atomic Knights continue striving and are able to keep their humanity as they do so is, in its own way, optimistic.

strange_adventures#144

In fact, the suits of armor the Atomic Knights wear aren’t an anomalous detail: sometimes the comparison to knights of old is made explicit.  In the first story in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, “The Year 700 After the Bomb,” the post-war society resembles feudal Europe, right down to the Robin Hood-style costumes, royal titles, and pseudo-Old English dialect.  One could attribute these details to lazy writing, but it also reflects a view of history with definite evolutionary stages: just as civilization climbs upward over generations, it can also slide downward, and in such stories the image of a new “Dark Ages” is made literal.  (This can probably be laid at the doorstep of H. G. Wells, whose view was long enough to envision a day when humanity, too, is extinct, and whose film Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies, portrayed a post-war English village ruled by a petty medieval warlord.)

It was when the Atomic Knights encountered warriors from the legendary island of Atlantis, time-warped into the future by their own scientific catastrophe, that I was able to put my finger on the story-telling mode. Replace “radiation” with “magic,” and a story in which armored knights battle Romanesque soldiers from an ancient island could be part of any fantasy novel from the last hundred years.  Specifically, the discovery of “Atlantides” (as the islanders are called in this story) fits neatly into the “lost world” genre: as practiced by H. Rider Haggard, A. Merritt, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, there was always the possibility of a remote valley, cave, or island that history and evolution had passed by, leaving a population of dinosaurs, ancient Romans, or other living relics to be discovered.  The lost world genre was mostly finished off by World War II, as the empty, unknown spaces on the map were filled in; wiping the slate clean with a global catastrophe allowed writers to open those spaces up again, and fill them with mystery and adventure.  In these stories, the lost world was our own.

Perhaps that is one reason they continue to be popular: although seemingly pessimistic, this strain of post-apocalyptic fantasy, showing places and objects of the present through the eyes of later generations, provides for a kind of reenchantment of the everyday.  We gain perspective when we imagine a bustling city full of skyscrapers as empty and crumbling; more importantly, we can appreciate how marvelous our technology is when we picture later generations trying to make sense of it.  In the Gamma World game, there was a mechanism for player characters to puzzle out the use and meaning of “artifacts,” meant to prevent players from using out-of-game knowledge to identify, say, a rifle as a weapon rather than an emblem of office.  Similar misinterpretations are a staple of the genre: picture the subterranean mutants of Beneath the Planet of the Apes worshipping a nuclear missile as a god, or a young shaman trying to divine omens with a vinyl record in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Likely inspired by real-life cargo cults, the projection of superstitious beliefs onto modern goods allows writers to remix old and new cultural symbols, comment on our relationship to technology, and—that standby of science fiction—map contemporary political concerns onto fantastical stories.

AtomicKnights

It should go without saying that the stories of Kamandi and the Atomic Knights don’t have anything to do with the likely horrors of a real nuclear war (or whatever the Great Disaster was supposed to be), and the longer their stories continued, the more fantastical and obviously escapist they became.  In the final story included in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, no less a DC eminence than Superman himself encounters the Atomic Knights, only to discover that their entire history is the dream of Gardner Grayle, placed in a sensory deprivation tank as part of a military experiment.  Grayle’s unconscious mind has taken over the computers running the simulation and threatens to launch an actual nuclear strike in order to make real the fantasies in which Grayle has played the hero for years.

The premise, and the lesson that Grayle imparts after awakening at the last minute (“The task before mankind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!”), owe much to WarGames and the similar lesson the supercomputer WOPR (“Joshua”) learns in that film (“A strange game: the only winning move is not to play”). “It was all a dream!” is obviously the king of lame cop-outs and, in cases like this, the last refuge of a writer whose story has gotten away from him.  I think it actually works, though: in 1983 the “survivable” nuclear war was an increasingly untenable premise, and the quaint early stories of the Atomic Knights had become hopelessly snarled with the continuity of Hercules and the world of the Great Disaster in the pages of Hercules Unbound.  (I haven’t commented on that series, but suffice to say that even the titular demigod couldn’t bear the burden of reconciling the combined histories of the Atomic Knights, Kamandi, and OMAC and telling his own story in an intelligible manner.)

I think it’s a little much to criticize escapism, however, when the target audience has so little power to change the situation from which they are escaping.  It’s one thing to indict military planners running simulations with potential real world consequences, another to criticize something as obviously fanciful as the Atomic Knights or Gamma World.  Speaking as a cold war baby who was ten years old in 1983 and absolutely terrified of nuclear war, the only other alternative was denial: I could hardly watch the news without having a panic attack, and I had no desire to subject myself to The Day After when it aired (I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the even grimmer Testament and Threads at the time).

Nuclear war was also frequently on Superman’s mind in the 1980s: most fans today remember Superman IV and the Man of Steel’s quest to rid Earth of nuclear weapons, but in the comics Superman often stood aside as an observer, willing to admonish mankind but not make the hard decisions for us.  Visions of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction haunt him: a Superman who does nothing to prevent a holocaust is not super in any way, but were he to take the choice out of our hands he would become a god rather than a man.  This version of Superman as advocate and guardian challenges the view of comic book readers as naïve simpletons waiting to be rescued.

(Also not included in this book)

(Also not included in this volume)

As I said initially, I eventually became an avid consumer of comics, games, books and movies that explored life after the bomb.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? I don’t recall thinking it was realistic to expect survival in the event of a war, much less high adventure, but it was a comforting daydream. Certainly there was plenty to choose from, and I know there were a lot of guys in my generation who shared the same fantasy.  (One of the most believable details of last year’s The World’s End was that arrested adolescent Gary King would end up as a wandering gunslinger in the wasteland, loving every minute of it: for me it was a striking moment of recognition.)  Just about everything you need to know about this phase of 1980s masculinity can be found in the video for Tom Petty’s song “You Got Lucky.” It’s all there: guns, guitars, cowboy-chic dusters, and a sweet arcade in the middle of the desert.  (Petty obviously liked the milieu enough to make an appearance as himself in the 1997 film adaptation of David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman.)

TomPetty

The focus in popular culture changed after the passing of the Cold War; although the apocalypse has never been far from our entertainment, the end of the world can come from almost any direction nowadays: terrorism, climate change, pandemic, just to name the more realistic possibilities.  Free-floating dread has replaced the pointed terror of “Mutually Assured Destruction;” chaos is more feared than ideology, and it’s reflected in the zombie hordes and rampaging kaiju of current film.  Still, the stories I grew up with haven’t been forgotten: perhaps it’s driven by ‘80s nostalgia, but remakes or reboots of Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, and even WarGames have either been made or are in production.  Gamma World has been through seven editions, the last in 2010, although I haven’t played in years.  The intoxicating cocktail of sword-and-sorcery among the ruins of modern civilization is still with us in such programs as Adventure Time.  Earth A. D. is still a place that many of us like to visit, even if we wouldn’t want to live there.

AdventureTime