The seventies were a difficult time for Jack Kirby. Having become disgruntled with his treatment at Marvel Comics, a company he had helped put on the map, he had left to go to their competition, DC Comics. But, things quickly began to spiral into a familiar hole when the series he had been trying to tell his entire career, the Fourth World, was cancelled in under a year. Wanting to leave DC but unable to do so due to his contract, Kirby was forced to create new concepts for the company until he could escape. So, Kirby just began throwing ideas at a wall and explored the ones that stuck. It was in this time we were graced with the creation of OMAC, the Demon, and a brand-new take on his classic character, the Sandman. All of these were remarkable failures at the time and were quickly cancelled, but there was one concept that really took off. One simple idea that bloomed into an entire world of creative opportunity that went on long after Kirby eventually left the company.
This was Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth.
It’s said that during the seventies, infamous DC editor, Carmine Infantino, had been trying to gain a license to produce comics based on the popular Planet of the Apes films, which he was never able to procure. So, as any good editor is wont to do, he went to Kirby and demanded he produce a comic similar to Planet of the Apes so DC could cash in on the growing popularity of the series. At the risk of upsetting Infantino, Kirby agreed to create the comic. But, there was a small hitch: Kirby had never seen the Planet of the Apes films. Sure, he knew about them, had heard about their concept, but he had no real idea about what to base the new series on. So, in standard Kirby fashion, he took the building blocks of a franchise and built them into something that was far and away more exciting, powerful, and all-around more fun than what had come before.
From the cover of the first issue you could tell Kirby was trying to pull in the Apes audience. The destroyed Statue of Liberty drowned in an ocean that covered a city, one lone figure piloting a small raft towards the reader. It wasn’t subtle imagery by any stretch of the imagination, but, then again, Kirby wasn’t what you would call a subtle man. It’s telling that Kirby gave us that famous Liberty image from the word “go,” that image that some would chalk up to a rip-off but most others would find captivating. From that one image famous for its presence in an ending, Kirby is able to draw in an audience familiar with what had come before and begin something new. Kirby was telling us he knew what this was and he knew we knew what it was. But he was also telling us to forget everything we thought we knew and dive in because this was just the start of a wild adventure.
Kamandi followed the exploits of the titular hero throughout the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic world filled to the brim with dangers and excitement. After an ominous catastrophe called the Great Disaster, the world has become desolate and hostile, with radiation mutating many of the world’s animals into humanoid races warring over territory and power. Humans had mostly devolved into mute workhorses while races like the tigers and gorillas ruled with iron fists. This is the world Kamandi awakens to, stumbling out of the remains of an old bunker (the name of which, Command D, is where he finds his own) from before the Great Disaster. Raised by his grandfather, Kamandi was told stories of the World that Was and, after his grandfather’s death, decides to leave the bunker and meet this world head on. What he finds is far beyond the stories he heard from his grandfather and he is hunted at every turn by creatures that seek to destroy him. Aided only by a canine scientist named, of course, Dr. Canus, Kamandi travels across Earth-AD in hopes of reigniting the dying human race.
Okay, so it was a little bit like Planet of the Apes.
Kirby was able to take the simple premise he was given and make it his something wholly his own. Gone was the cold, sterile world of Apes, Kirby gave us sweeping expanses of destroyed cities and flooded countries. There wasn’t time for the contemplative plot of Apes when you had Kamandi attempting to wrestle a giant cricket to be his steed. The world felt alive and truly lived in, as if every decision Kamandi made could be his last. A trusted friend could just as soon be the worst enemy with all the drama a massive leopard in chainmail and a laser gun could have. And, though Kamandi never really had a solid direction in terms of plot, it never really seemed to matter. One minute Kamandi could be riding on horseback across an arid desert that used to be Chicago and the next he could be fighting humanoid rats diving out of a zeppelin. It was the purest “Rule of Cool,” book Kirby ever put together, meaning that the logic of the world and stories never seemed to matter as long as what was happening looked cool. And, honestly, that’s not a bad philosophy to have when you’ve been tasked with making an Apes rip-off.
Kamandi was an instant hit, becoming Kirby’s best-selling work of his entire DC Comics’ career. Audiences thrilled to the excitement of Kamandi’s adventures in Earth-AD and delighted in his fighting spirit. It also didn’t hurt that Kamandi was completely removed from the goings-on of the mainstream DC Universe that included the likes of Superman and Batman. This allowed for the characters to really come into their own and the book wasn’t forced into any sort of crossover material until long after Kirby had left DC. The only occurrence of Kirby himself tying the book into DC’s expansive continuity was in Kamandi #29, when Kamandi discovers a tribe of apes that worship the old, worn uniform of Superman himself. Of course, Kamandi had no clue to the importance of the uniform, but for readers this was a revelation. This wasn’t just a standard post-apocalyptic world that Kamandi was exploring. This was the post-apocalyptic DC Universe. And, if the legends of the ape tribe were to be believed, the heroes had failed to stop the Great Disaster that created this world in the first place. It was even mysteriously indicated that Kamandi was in somehow related to Kirby’s other series running at the time, OMAC. In that series, the hero, the titular OMAC, is attempting to stop the World That’s Coming from happening. If Kamandi’s world is any indication, OMAC failed just like everybody else.
Despite the dark undertones surrounding the origin of Kamandi’s world, the stories themselves were usually light and full of high-stakes adventure. You could tell that Kirby was finally having some fun. While he was understandably upset over his visionary Fourth World’s cancellation, he at least had Kamandi to tell exciting stories and, on occasion, work in that famous Kirby philosophy. From the cover of the first issue, you knew that Kirby had a vision for even this mandated series. He drew out maps of the new world and how the different empires were distributed. He designed ancient machinery that somehow was beyond anything we had seen before and regaled the beasts of the world in the most insane armor one could realistically wear. You could say many things about the worlds Kirby created, but you could never say they were boring.
It’s hard to say just what Kirby would’ve done with Kamandi had be continued the series. After a few years producing fifteen (fifteen!) pages for DC a week, sometimes on projects he could care less about, Kirby was ready to leave. As soon as his contract expired, nothing could keep him there and he left Kamandi and the rest of Earth-AD hanging. Other writers would come in and explore the world that Jack created, but it would eventually be cancelled a few years later. While Kamandi eventually ended in a whimper, at least while Kirby was on the book, it really was the place to go for the best adventures in comics. Kirby never seemed to let his unideal working conditions drive his passion for his own stories. He made the best possible book he could every time, and that’s something to be commended.
If you’re interested in checking out Kirby’s Kamandi, there’s really only one way to do it. Go grab the Kamandi by Jack Kirby Omnibus volumes 1-2, which collect his entire 40 issue run on the title. DC had made plans to publish a one volume omnibus this year collecting all of Kirby’s Kamandi, but the solicitation appears to have been cancelled until further notice, so if you don’t want to wait, the previous editions will do in a pinch.
Now, go treat yourself to the adventures of a lifetime.