My love of Kamandi began in college. Though I had been a fan of comic books nearly all my life I had yet to delve into their history. I had always thought that older comics were corny, or too message-based to appeal to me. I like badasses like Spawn and Wolverine. I admit I even had a fondness for the extreme 90s styling of Rob Liefeld. It wasn’t until high school that I began to branch out of Marvel and into DC, and even then it was only Batman and Birds of Prey that caught my attention. At some point in those halcyon days of Mountain Dew and Taco Bell I remember seeing an old issue of Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth for sale at my local comic book store. At first I thought the book looked ridiculous; here was this boy with flowing golden hair, Hulk-like ripped pants, and a gun. Once I opened the pages though I remember seeing the genius of Jack Kirby in full view. A tribunal of Ape-men sentencing a Lion-man and a Dog-man to death with the caption “Clemency denied!” I wish I had picked up that book and began my love of Kamandi and Kirby a few years early.
Still, that initial exposure to the world of Kamandi stayed with me. Though the boy’s name was soon forgotten, that imaginative world, that Planet of the Apes on acid, stuck with me until one day at the SF State campus bookstore I saw the Kamandi Omnibus Volume 1 for sale. There he was, there was that lost world again. So I sat down and read the entire thing, completely forgetting the two or so classes I had that day. It was okay though, my teachers would understand. There were gorillas riding jeeps into battle with a tiger army that was a bit more pressing than Philosophy of Art.
Kamandi is unlike any other DC comic I’ve ever read, unlike any Marvel comic too for that matter. It isn’t connected to a massive universe filled with different characters each with their own books, though it does contain a well fleshed-out set of characters for Kamandi to interact with. Kirby’s books never really feel like “comic books” in the way that people use the term to diminish a genre they find childish. Who will rise when humanity falls? Kirby took a bold sci-fi question to the edge of sanity and filled it with fun and mayhem. He isn’t Alan Moore, deconstructing genres and making superheroes seem like fascist G-Men. He isn’t Grant Morrison, twisting C-listers into psychological case studies. What Kirby does is create intelligent visual action. No great Kirby book could be adapted into a novel, as so much would be lost. Even a film would have trouble translating his kinetic motion as smoothly as readers imagine it. What makes Kirby so special, and this is something Kamandi displays excellently, is that he is an artist first and foremost. Jack Kirby (the writer) wrote what Jack Kirby (the artist) wanted to draw.
None of that is meant to diminish Kirby as a writer, of which he remains one of the best. As an artist though, Jack Kirby is the single most influential, visually engaging, and fun to have ever drawn a comic book. Of course that is just my humble opinion, but I hope that Kamandi acts as sufficient evidence on Kirby’s behalf. Take for instance this map, which shows the world in which Kamandi lives.
This single page shows several things Jack Kirby did exceptionally well. The first is world-building; the world of Kamandi is America in the distant future, an America at war with itself. The East Coast is home to the Tiger Empire, which is described as expanding (even on a map Kirby suggests epic action.) While the West Coast is the land of the Lion Tribes. Stuck in the middle is the Gorilla Commune, one of my favorite political organizations in any comic book. If you look below the former U.S.A. though you can see that Mexico has become the Wild Human Reserve. This is a spot where Kirby leaves a subtle message to the reader. Not only are human beings considered wild in the future, and not only are they protected in a reserve, but they are literally below (South of) the former United States. There are no more American Humans in the world of Kamandi.
Kamandi is important to me for a lot of reasons. The first is that it is, for lack of a better term, cool as hell. The second is that Kamandi sparked my interest in comics as an adult. Sure I read Fables, Sandman, and all the big ones everybody reads, but Kamandi made me search for those classics that people seem to have forgotten, a search I have thoroughly enjoyed. The final reason I love Kamandi so much, and Jack Kirby for creating it, is that Kamandi inspires me more than almost any other comic book. I yearn to be able to be a part of something as unique and engaging as Kirby’s Last Boy On Earth. If one day in the future I ever have created something truly special, not just to me, but to other people, I will know that Kamandi was a huge part of getting me there.
So Thank You And Happy Birthday, Jack Kirby. You Gave Us This.