Kamandi Challenge no. 2

Cover by Neal Adams and Tim Shinn

Cover by Neal Adams and Tim Shinn

“Nuclear Roar!”
Story and Words:
Peter J. Tomasi
Artist: Neal Adams
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Letterer: Clem Robbins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

At the end of last month’s “K–is for ‘Kill’!”, King Caesar had triumphantly returned from battle with a “god” that he planned to awaken in order to add its power to that of the Tiger Empire. Only Kamandi, claimed as a “pet” by Prince Tuftan and guarded by Dr. Canus, recognized the “god” as a nuclear missile, left over from the times before the Great Disaster. As Caesar activated the missile’s computer system, it began a countdown, with Kamandi certain that the ancient device was going to blow up the entire city and everyone in it.

As this month’s continuation, “Nuclear Roar!”, begins, Kamandi struggles against his captor, attempting to reason with the tigers and halt the countdown, or escape, only to be put in his place. The last few seconds tick away, but instead of detonating, the missile opens a hatch, from which emerges a gorilla commando, guns blazing! “A giant ape hiding inside an old nuclear missile like it was a Trojan horse!” Kamandi exclaims, accurately summing up the situation. Indeed, the gorillas were able to track their inside man to the tigers’ hidden city, and a wave of gorilla soldiers begin invading.

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In the confusion, Kamandi escapes and heads back to the Museum of War seen last issue. There, the jackdaw guards that confronted him before are even more bloodthirsty, with one in particular sensing Kamandi’s presence and promising to shred him with his talons, among other graphic threats. After struggling against the jackdaw using the stockpiled weapons, Kamandi comes across a mysterious high-tech chair. Warned away from it, he naturally sits down in it out of spite, just in time for Prince Tuftan and Dr. Canus to arrive and try to pull him out of it (like many of the relics of the past, it is considered sacred, despite–or because of–the tigers’ inability to understand it).

Somehow Kamandi activates the chair, and he, Tuftan, and Canus are teleported a great distance: all the way to the ruins of San Diego, in fact, far outside the Tiger Empire. Canus, frightened, recognizes the place as the site of a “wild human reserve,” but before he can explain what that means to Kamandi, he and Tuftan are struck by robotic “Manhunters” who attempt to capture Kamandi. In a last-ditch effort to escape, even if it means death, Kamandi leaps from the ledge upon which he stands, into the unknown. To be continued . . .

I can’t say I was crazy about “Nuclear Roar!” After the fluid, expressive art of Dale Eaglesham last issue, Neal Adams’ treatment of the same characters looks stiff and, dare I say it, ugly. Adams is of course a giant in the comics world for his work on Batman, but in recent years his style has become stiff and over-rendered, with an emphasis on goggle-eyed, open-mouthed expressions of shock. It’s . . . distinctive, I’ll admit, but not something I care much for. Combined with Peter J. Tomasi’s dialogue (“Your new god’s a mushroom cloud, idiots!” is a typical bon mot), this chapter is functional but not very subtle as storytelling.

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The biggest development in the ongoing serial is getting the threesome of Kamandi, Tuftan, and Canus out of Tiger City and into a dangerous, remote area that can jumpstart the quest/journey elements central to most of Kamandi’s previous adventures, and will presumably force the three main characters to work together. As yet, we haven’t seen anything to indicate that they will be uneasy allies, much less friends, but I appreciate that the friendship angle is being given time to develop organically: for all of Kamandi’s pugnacious bluntness in Kirby’s original saga, he typically made friends quickly. One of the opportunities of revisiting or retelling this story is in decompressing and smoothing out some of the original story beats, or at least exploring them from a different angle. Or, who knows? Maybe they’ll all kill each other in this version of the story. But somehow I doubt it.

There are some nice touches, however, as well as more clues about the world Kamandi has been dropped into. We don’t learn any more about his search for his parents, but it is mentioned again, just to make sure we (and the next team to take over the story) don’t forget about it. I also got a good laugh out of the reveal of the gorilla hiding inside the missile: if you’re not going for subtlety, then this kind of audacious broad stroke is a good alternative, and saving it for a three-quarter page splash after a page turn maximized the element of surprise.

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There’s also the jackdaw guard who uses what are unmistakably explosive Batarangs against Kamandi during their fight in the Museum: this is obviously a tip of the hat to the artist’s most famous work, but could it be more? In Jack Kirby’s original series, it was established that Superman was a real person in the past, connecting Earth A.D. to DC’s mainstream continuity as an “alternate future.” In Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen’s prologue “The Rules” from issue no. 1, we see a glimpse of Superman and Batman posters on the wall of Kamandi’s bedroom; by itself that doesn’t prove anything, but the connection to other heroes’ continuity remains a tantalizing possibility. Maybe the Batarangs in the Museum were actually the Batman’s, salvaged from one of King Caesar’s excursions into a future Gotham City?

What about the Manhunters who confront our heroes in San Diego? These appear identical to the Manhunters who preceded the Green Lantern Corps as an interplanetary police force in past DC comics, even referencing their catch phrase “No man escapes the Manhunters,” but what their role here is remains to be seen.

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Finally, the most overtly meta moment in the chapter is the full-page illustration of the group in mid-teleportation. In addition to the dramatic image of Kamandi, seated in the chair and struggling to hold onto Tuftan and Canus, there are cameos of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman; Gorilla Grodd; the Sandman’s mask; a Mother Box; and most intriguingly, a stack of comic books. And they’re not just any comics: visible covers include Kamandi no. 1, an issue of Kirby’s New Gods, DiDio and Giffen’s New 52 OMAC, an issue of Green Lantern and Green Arrow (another landmark Neal Adams series), and Legion of Superheroes. Fragments of narration or speech dot the panel as well. In the spirit of an ongoing comics jam, these could be inside jokes, referring to some of the creators’ other work, or they could be clues to the mysteries of Kamandi’s parentage and destiny: depending on how future writers pick up on them, they could go either way.

Kamandi Challenge no. 1

Cover B by Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish

Cover B by Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish

“The Rules”
Story and Art: Dan DiDio, Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish
Colors: Hi-Fi
Lettering: Clem Robins
Editor: Brittany Holzherr

Kamandi Challenge no. 1 begins with a prologue: an ordinary teenage boy (as yet unnamed) is running late for school, gently encouraged by his grandmother. The set-up is classic, reminiscent of Peter Parker and his Aunt May, or any number of fairy tales. Threading his way through an idyllic small town after missing the bus, the boy encounters similarly benevolent townsfolk (including a couple named after Kamandi creator and “king of comics” Jack Kirby, and his longtime inker Mike Royer), all of whom know him and are watching out for him. Their solicitous treatment turns out to be more than mere small-town friendliness, however, when a piece of the sky cracks off and falls to the ground: the boy’s home is actually an enclosed dome, a Truman Show-style simulation of a normal life, and that shelter has finally been pierced by his (unknown, at least to him) enemies.

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The friends and neighbors who so recently were encouraging him to get to school are suddenly armed and ready to fight off the threat; they are, in fact, robots, programmed solely to protect the boy! Attacked by one of the invaders, the boy is horrified to come face to face with a humanoid, talking rat. There is so much about the outside world that he did not suspect! At home, “grandmother” shoves him into a mysterious glowing chamber, a sort of stasis capsule, before fighting off the intruders with one final explosion. In his artificial sleep, the boy receives more instruction, including an order to “remember Command D”–not, apparently, the name of the bunker in which he was raised, as in the original Kamandi stories, but perhaps a code or protocol.

After an indeterminate time in suspended animation (but long enough for the boy’s hair to grow long), the chamber is opened and the boy is reawakened by manlike tigers, scouts for the Tiger Empire ruled by King Caesar. The tigers assume that the phrase the boy keeps muttering, “Command D,” is his name, and thus Kamandi is christened, a new name for a new world. Taken for a savage animal, Kamandi is thrown in a paddy wagon and driven to Tiger City where he will fight in Caesar’s gladiatorial arena. His protests are interpreted as the unintelligent parroting of a wild beast who has learned to imitate speech–everyone knows “animals” can’t talk. Thrust into the arena, Kamandi is pitted against “Tiny,” a giant, Kong-like gorilla.

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On that cliffhanger the prologue ends, with Kamandi (and the reader) given a crash course in the premise of the series, both its story (Kamandi is referred to as “the last boy on earth” a couple of times, and one of the robot guardians insists that he is to be protected as if the fate of the world depends on it; and we get an introduction to the upside-down “animals ruling over humans” formula that was also essential to the series) and the test of the creators’ inventive powers: “What’s the matter, boy? Afraid of a little challenge?” one of the tigers jeers Kamandi as he throws him into the arena. Those might as well be Dan DiDio’s words to the next team to pick up the story: get him out of this, if you can, guys.

Dan DiDio is both the architect of this series and current Co-Publisher of DC Comics, so his influence is felt far beyond the stories on which he has writing credits, but I personally associate him with the New 52 version of OMAC that he and artist Keith Giffen collaborated on in 2011. OMAC, the “One-Man Army Corps,” was another creation of Jack Kirby’s, and the liberties “The Rules” takes with Kamandi’s origin story has some similarities to the way DiDio and Giffen expanded on OMAC, with an emphasis on mysterious conspiracies and secret identities, not to mention all those robots. Visually, Giffen and Koblish are in similar territory, with an updated Kirby-by-way-of-Kubert style that makes for a good introduction to this new version of the character.

DiDio writes in an afterword to Kamandi Challenge no. 1 that one of the rules of the series is that not only is each writer-artist team to end their chapter on a cliffhanger, leaving it for the next team to resolve, but they must write a note indicating how they would have continued their story, to be included in the letters page. As an example, he states that he would have resolved the cliffhanger at the end of “The Rules” by having Kamandi trick Tiny into throwing him into the audience of the arena, where he would meet and befriend Prince Tuftan. In addition to the window this opens into the writers’ creative process, I imagine it also guarantees that the cliffhangers play fair: there has to be some way out for our heroes. (I also like the implicit invitation to play along: “Can you solve it before they do?” a blurb on the cover asks.)

“K–is for ‘Kill’!”
Writer: Dan Abnett
Artist: Dale Eaglesham
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Lettering: Clem Robbins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

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In the next chapter, Tiny attacks Kamandi; the tiger people in the stands cheer on the fighters and assume that the puny human will be no match for the champion ape. Instead of tricking Tiny into throwing him into the stands, as DiDio had suggested, Kamandi lures Tiny into an electrified wall surrounding the arena, knocking him out and proving himself more clever than the tigers had originally thought. Suddenly the “wild animal” has value, and Prince Tuftan turns Kamandi over to Dr. Canus, a humanoid dog, for training as a full-time gladiator.

Canus at first assumes that Kamandi’s speech is just parroting, as before, but he is soon shocked to realize that Kamandi is intelligent and can fully understand him. Kamandi tries to remember his home, but is only able to recall the dreams from his long sleep (a montage of images suggests that his “dream” consisted of events from the original Kamandi series), and the mission his “grandmother” gave him: “find your parents, save the world.”

To Canus, however, Kamandi is still an animal and the boy is kept on a leash as he is shown around the tigers’ city. Kamandi and Canus witness the return of King Caesar, back from a victorious campaign against the leopards, and bearing with him military weapons taken as the spoils of war, including a giant missile. Kamandi breaks away from Canus and investigates the forbidden Hall of War, an enormous stockpile of weapons from the old, human world. (Is the eye-shaped insignia seen above the Hall entrance and elsewhere a reference to OMAC’s Brother Eye, a seed for later writers to pick up on, or just coincidence?) Attacked by flying jackdaw guards, Kamandi almost escapes but is recaptured by Canus, who emphasizes that he’ll pay with his own life if Kamandi escapes on his watch.

They return to the main square to witness King Caesar attempting to “awaken” the recovered nuclear missile, taking it for a god of the ancients. Kamandi recognizes the missile for what it is and tries to warn the tigers about the danger it poses, but he is too late: King Caesar has armed the warhead and set it on a countdown for detonation! Unless Kamandi can halt the countdown, he–and everyone else–has only five minutes to live!

“K–is for ‘Kill’!” (gotta love comic book titles) continues the remix spirit of “The Rules,” hitting the beats of the original classic stories but combining elements in different ways in the interest of telling a new story: “Tiny,” introduced in “The Rules,” appeared in the original series (Kamandi no. 7, where the similarity to King Kong was both more explicit and more tragic); likewise, in the original series Kamandi’s first stop after escaping his bunker was the Tiger Empire, where he was forced to fight as a gladiator (the orange and blue tunic he wears in this chapter is a nod to his costume in that episode), and Dr. Canus was one of the first friends he made in the post-human world.

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In “K–is for ‘Kill’!,” Canus is more skeptical of Kamandi than in the original stories, and the political realities of the Tiger Empire are more explicitly drawn: not only does Canus’ life depend on serving Caesar, he openly admires Caesar’s strength and has wholeheartedly adopted the tigers’ martial ethos. “War is our way of life and our salvation,” he tells Kamandi. Elsewhere it is made clear that the arena serves to keep the people occupied and happy, and that Prince Tuftan, who runs the city in his father’s frequent absence, is eager to prove himself.

This chapter also highlights the series’ similarities (never far from the surface) to the Planet of the Apes movies: examining Kamandi’s backpack, Canus asks, “Why would an animal have books?”, echoing Charlton Heston’s famous question, “Doctor, would an ape make a human doll that talks?” King Caesar’s attempt to commune with the godlike nuclear missile (an element present in Kirby’s original) echoes the underground cult in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Of course, the motifs of captivity, barbarism ascendant, and the worship of ancient weapons and relics are common in post-apocalyptic stories, so this observation is intended in the spirit of comparison rather than criticism: Prince Tuftan’s assumption that Kamandi simply stole his books illustrates just how far down the evolutionary ladder humanity has fallen, especially for a first-time reader who is exploring Kamandi’s world alongside him.

Finally, Dale Eaglesham’s art in this chapter is particularly appropriate, capturing the classic sense of adventure and exoticism like an old-school Sunday comic strip. Tiger City is a richly-realized environment, full of stone temples, statues, and walkways, thick with vines and palms. The characters, including the animals, are expressively rendered and fluid in a way that’s not very Kirby-like at all but is quite beautiful; it’s a great fit for the material.

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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