BEELINE TO THE FUTURE: Jack Kirby's 'Kamandi' Series

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

I’ve been recently rereading Jack Kirby’s SF comics from the 70s when Kirby left Marvel for DC with great fanfare. Kamandi was Kirby best selling and longest lasting series from that period. A couple of years ago, DC republished the series in large folio editions, superb reproductions on good, thick paper that really gives you the opportunity to appreciate the art.

The story is set in a postapocalptic Earth dominated by intelligent animals that have enslaved humans, who have sunk into mindless savagery and largely lost the ability to communicate through language. The series has been accused of ripping off Planet of the Apes, but stories with intelligent animals go back a long time, and comics are especially loaded with those types of tales. Also, Kirby wrote and drew tales about intelligent animals in the 50s and 60s. With that said and done, the series was financially viable partially because Planet of the Apes preceded it. Kirby took the animal concept several steps further than the movies by creating an array of talking animals and insects; the comic teems with intelligent lions, tigers, gorillas, bulldogs, and even ants.

The art of the series is compelling and dramatic with well-illustrated figures and action. The action is relentless and fast moving with imaginative story lines and plots.

Kamandi was raised in a bunker by his grandfather and taught about pre-cataclysm Earth through microfilm and newsreels. Being raised in a bunker protected Kamandi from the radiation, making him smarter and better educated than the other humans he encounters. In addition, he grew up isolated from the world around him, so he might as well be someone from our time shocked by a world of intelligent animals, a scenario again reminiscent of Planet of the Apes. His adventures begin with a group of talking animals discovering the bunker and killing his grandfather, which forces him to wander a crazy world where humans are animals, and the animals run a civilization on a shattered world of ruins.

Some of the highlights include issues 12 and 13 in which Kamandi encounters a group of trading leopards led by a snake, Mister Sacker, who dig up the deitrus of the pre-cataclysm Earth and sell it in a massive apartment store. Sacker owns a business empire and racing tracks in which humans risk their lives, much like the Roman amphitheater.

He encounters noble lions that conserve and protect wild life like humans. He enters a lush tropical environment in which insects have grown to the size of horses, and encounters talking leopards that are destroying the lush environment. A giant seven-foot telepathic ant armed with a spear, a talking bulldog, and the horse marines oppose the leopards. The animals generally make the same sort of mistakes as humans, and often serve as metaphors for human behavior like Aesop, although less moralistically. The page below shows you the giant insects:

Some of the issues are hokey or overly campy. In #7 Kirby gives us a rehashing of King Kong. Kirby churned out this comic at a rapid pace, writing and drawing it every month. Kirby was an idea factory, but some of the ideas were better than others, and there were times he was throwing out whatever he could come up with to keep it moving.
Kirby invented new characters in issues after issue, which is impressive if you compare his work to current Marvel or DC, which largely revolves around reusing the same characters, many of which Kirby and Stan Lee created in the 60s or 70s.

My favorite issue may be 30 when aliens abduct Kamandi and one of his friends. That issue contains some superb and groovy Kirby space art. Kirby’s SF art has always been superb, see his version of 2000 AD, or his depiction of space in the 60s Fantastic Four or Thor. Some of the space art is reproduced below.

A number of Kamandi’s plots are derivative of 70s SF. Issues 37-38, which come at the tale end of Kirby’s involvement, involve Kamandi being kidnapped by a community of mutated humans who are intellectually developed at 6 months and physically developed at two years. The problem is that they die at the age of five. They want to drain the life of longer living humans, especially one intellectually precocious like Kamandi so that they can live longer. The short life span theme is similar to Logan’s Run.
Kirby left the series at issue 40, and he appeared to have lost interest near the end. Gerry Conway and Chic Stone livened up the plot for the next few issues. The art is strong after Kirby leaves the series, although I prefer the art of the Kirby period. In issue 52 Jack C. Harris takes over the series and raised the ideas and plots to their pinnacle. Harris actually managed to improve a Kirby concept, which is a true rarity. Kamandi was finally canceled in 1978 when DC cut many of its comics.
Will conservatives like it? I can’t think of a reason they wouldn’t. This comic is one of the better 70s SF comics with excellent art and consistently strong writing even after Kirby leaves the series.