Kaman Baby, Light My Fire

Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth #1
Art and Writing by Jack Kirby
Published by DC, 1972

If the Marvel comics Jack Kirby popularized with Steve Ditko and Stan Lee showed adolescent frustration, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth is all about finding the adult world ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Where Kirby/Lee’s Johnny Storm and Hulk, or Ditko/Lee’s Peter Parker, can trace their angst to specific, material needs–Johnny just wants to party, Peter a girl to accept him for who he is, and Hulk for those damn tanks and helicopters to leave him alone–Kamandi sees his excitement at going forth into post-apocalyptic America dissipate into terror at the thought of being truly alone.

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Kamandi finds New York City a flooded ruin, not at all the glamor of the micro-films his grandfather showed him, the people he can consider peers all seem stupid, and society at large seems cruel, inhuman, and warlike. His first encounters with the evolved, anthropomorphic animal societies which have arisen in this world include wolves which shoot his granddad dead and tigers slaughtering their enemies while riding atop horses (one of the many links to the comic’s origins as an alternative for DC not getting the license for Planet of the Apes). Later, the mixed cultures of the tiger society, ruled by a fierce-yet-curious Caesar (who adopts Kamandi as a pet), is seen praying to a nuclear warhead. This is what the punk movement (and the rock’n’roll movement before it) would view as the adult’s culture. While it’s doubtful Kirby was listening to MC5 or the Stooges, he very much taps into the zeitgeist. Kamandi’s rage at this world is descended from fellow blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy Johnny Storm’s anger at the stifling adults around him, but now taking shape and direction.

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Ultimately, Kirby keeps Kamandi’s turmoil emotional: this world is introduced in a series of splash pages. The first is what looks like his protagonist rowing through a bay, a ruined city looming behind him. The next two are essentially one broken image, recreating the lurching dread of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla: Kirby reveals the flooded New York City in the same right-panning manner Honda depicted devastated Tokyo with (and like Godzilla, the cause of this ruin is radiation), dragging the reader’s eye to the Statue of Liberty–a captivating action-to-action transition which couldn’t have been achieved with modern comics’ tendency towards two-page spreads. It’s also the only time Kirby’s inker, Mike Royer, is loose rather than tight with the pencils, giving the scene a grimy, flickering effect akin to newsreel footage. Kamandi’s presence here is small, isolated to the bottom half of the first page of this sequence, reflecting his own feelings of inadequacy and isolation in this strange land.

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Notably, these feelings are internalized throughout The Last Boy on Earth, resulting in bursts of violence and outrage (which in many instances only cause more trouble, such as when Kamandi is sprayed down with a hose by his captors during an escape attempt). While this isn’t more profound than Lee’s perfect understanding/articulation (if not emulation) of adolescence, which gave a populist forum for Kirby’s grand ideas, what Kirby does here is much less commercial/much more metaphysical (like his “Fourth World” books and later Eternals, when he returned to Marvel).

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The prospect of being “the last boy on Earth” is neither adventurous nor daring in Kirby’s eyes, merely lonely; like Peter Parker, Kamandi just wants someone to talk with. Smartly, Kirby resolves this despair by introducing the sympathetic Dr. Canus and, more importantly, Ben Boxer, a radioactive superhuman. Boxer’s powers, unlike the warhead Caesar’s followers worship, isn’t entirely destructive: a button he pushes on his chest regulates the power, allowing him to create a beautiful, heavenly glow which amazes Kamandi and causes an emotional collapse (sobbing as he hugs Boxer, his first emotion outside of anger and defiance since the comic’s opening pages). Boxer becomes a figurehead, both as a redemption for nuclear energy and hope society is capable of more than barbarism. More than that, he’s Kirby’s assurance “Last” does not have to mean “Alone.” That everyone has someone to relate to. And nothing is more important in life.

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