Jack Kirby and the Great Disaster
Kirby is Coming!
“Kirby is coming”. It was splashed across ads for DC comics in the early 70s. It was the biggest thing to hit the ever-shrinking comics world since the Batman TV series. Jack Kirby, a (the?) mainstay of Marvel Comics, erstwhile partner of Stan ‘the Man’ Lee, was leaving the company he’d help lift to popularity with his shear talent, and going to Marvel’s greatest rival, DC Comics. Worlds shook that day. When Jack arrived, he was there to shake those worlds even more.
Jack Kirby was an idea machine, no, an idea fountain. His New Gods series burst with new ideas, concepts, characters so rich DC continues to mine them to this day. Jack came to DC to change the world of comics for good. When people told him the industry was dying, Jack didn’t know what they were talking about. How can an industry with so much untapped potential be dying? What the industry needed was not more foot draggers, slowing things down, but people with vision, who could imagine a world of new formats, genres new and neglected, markets overlooked, and talent that was raring to go. Jack Kirby felt he had that vision.
Jack wanted new formats for his books. He proposed magazines. He proposed hardcover books to be sold in bookstores; he saw a universe of fresh creations, creations that could save comics, save DC. Kirby would be the idea man and editor, seeding the new books then passing them off to handpicked talent to carry them forward.
DC though, wanted Kirby, not Kirby as editor of a line of Kirby creations turned out by other people. DC wanted one big, wet, sloppy hit of a book that publisher Carmine Infantino could point out to the new bosses at Warner’s and say, “See, I told you I could do it! I can save this company!”
Kirby had come at the right time; when DC was casting about, ready to try anything that looked good at the moment. Kirby had come at the wrong time, when DC would try anything… but not long enough to make it work. They wanted to change, but were too rooted in the ‘we’re the oldest, biggest company out there’ mantra to make the changes that were necessary, too insecure to push reluctant distributors to trying a format they self-fullingly declared dying, dead. They half-heartedly put out a couple of Jack’s magazine ideas, gave a parental ‘we’ll see’ to the rest.
A format change had undercut sales just as Kirby and DC were launching its new books. You remember the 25-cent comics (a new story with the balance of the issue padded out with reprints)? We love picking up these ‘giant’ issues now at the cons for way too much money, but it was a disaster for DC. Marvel matched it briefly, but then cut back to 20 cents while DC maintained it’s new price. Marvel took the lead in sales and didn’t look back. Rumors flew. DC was to be sold, DC was closing, DC was firing everyone and going to all reprints. In this siege of despairing gossip, Carmine Infantino cast around for something popular with their audience, something that could be ‘that hit’ he was looking for, Planet of the Apes. He called Jack in Thousand Oakes.
Could Jack Kirby do a Planet of the Apes type book, but not close enough to cause trouble with 20th Century Fox? “Sure! I can do that!” As Kirby’s one time assistant Mark Evanier says of Jack:
“Jack took great pride in his ability to make anything work. It didn’t matter what the genre, romance, Superheroes, westerns, funny animal. He would consider if a challenge…I don’t think Jack ever saw Planet of the Apes, but he knew the basic plotline. He wanted to change it enough so fans wouldn’t think he was ripping off the movie, but some said that anyway ”
Jack still had the dream of starting a book off, and then, once underway, handing it off to another writer and artist, and being the editor of what would amount to a ‘DC West’. Mark was to be the recipient of Kamandi. He watched as Jack pulled out some old samples of a strip Jack had once thought of submitting to the syndicates back in the 1950s, Kamandi of the Caves. Jack said this was to be the basis of his new book, Kamandi of Earth. By the time Jack had finished spinning the story of his new comic, the only thing that remained was the boy named Kamandi. And the occasional cave.
This may not have been Jack’s regular sort of thing, not a ‘Kirby Book’, but Jack was going to do the best he could with it. It was a challenge, to take an ‘end of the world; foolish mankind destroyed themselves’ type of premise and try to find some of the Kirby optimism in it. Remember, Kirby’s stories were all about optimism, about hope. Even the New Gods was about hope (what is The Pact about if not about hope, and a quest for understanding). Planet of the Apes is about the failure of hope; it takes place one minute after midnight on the nuclear clock. Jack’s Kamandi would therefore, be the hope of mankind, of his new kinder, smarter-in-sorrow rise, not the despair of his fall.
What would also make this a Kirby book is that he would attack it with the same passion he used on his Fourth World books. Jack was building a universe, a Kirby tapestry, woven of his own ideas and sweat. Carmine was hunting around for something that would fly. He knew, probably better than Kirby that the New Gods was a slow seller, and Infantino was looking for a hit now. He saw that the mystery books being edited by Joe Orlando were popular, why not have Jack do one of those? Sure, no problem. Jack figured out the book between ordering his dinner in a restaurant and the arrival of his food (not to say it was a shoddily conceived book. Jacks’ concepts were often full born, with only a few details to be worked out. I said he was a genius). The Demon debuted shortly after Kamandi. It was Jack’s version of the sorcery and mystery books. Again, not a perfect fit to Kirby, but a challenge.
Kamandi lived in the world of the Great Disaster. A world where not only apes talked, but Tigers, Leopards, Rats, Wolves and Dogs all had taken the place of man not only as talkers and thinkers, but rulers of the earth, doomed to repeat the exact same follies that had led man to the Great Disaster. Kamandi had been raised in a special bunker, ‘Command D’, by his grandfather, who educated him, teaching him about the world before the radiation drove them underground. As the first issue begins, Kamandi is caught away from the bunker exploring the devastation, when a pack of talking wolves kill his grandfather. Kamandi is left to wander the wasteland, trying to find people like himself to fill his loneliness. He finds that the humans can neither talk (those that can, don’t do much more than grunt) nor think for themselves. The ruling creatures of the Earth treat humans as man once treated farm animals.
Jack puts Kamandi into constant peril, always forced to keep moving, always hunted like the animals that humans in his have become. No sooner does Kamandi get out of one peril, he is thrust into another. He gets away from the wolves, only to run straight into the Tigers; he escapes from the Tiger city and lands in the midst of the Gorillas. He had to be the unluckiest boy in the middle of a very crowded wasteland. And always he was looking for a friend, someone like him, a human.
Kamandi’s search for a friend, for anyone remotely like himself is near heartbreaking at times. He’s desperate to find someone in this strange world of talking beasts, that when he finally finds the mutant Ben Boxer, he sobs in relief. Boxer is part of group from “Tracking Station” (notice the use of “Kirby Quotes”), a group of humans that survived the nuclear fallout by slowly exposing themselves to the radiation. The result is not only are they still alive, but now they are able to “fission” themselves into men of living steel. Kamandi sets off with them in their scouting balloon on their explorations of the ruined cities. But he seems to lose track of them quite often, falling prey to the various animal rulers of Earth AD (After Disaster).
Kamandi can never be sure who will be his friend one minute, and his enemy the next. The animals treat him like a freak (or fear just what a ‘smart animal like Kamandi would mean), but his treatment by the closest thing to his own kind, the wild humans of the plains isn’t much better. They are also fearful of Kamandi, not knowing what to think of one of their own who talks like their oppressors. Often he’ll make a friend, only to find himself betrayed back into captivity, or met a kindly animal only to treated like a pampered pet. That seemed to change with issue #5.
Kamandi, again separated from Ben Boxer and friends, finds himself escaping from a Gorilla city with Prince Tuftan, son of Great Caesar, the king of the Tigers. Kamandi finds time to free a pen of captured humans, one of which, a young girl about Kamandi’s age, decides to follow him. Her name is Flower, and she wears a flower in her long black hair, and no top. Only her seemingly glued on hair and the fact there is no wind on Kamandi’s world protects her modesty. The end of the issue sees Flower and Kamandi driving off together in a dune buggy given to them by a grateful Prince Tuftan “”By Caesar, he was almost as human as we Tigers!” Kamandi had won the Tigers respect, found a friend and things were looking up.
I know guys who still sigh over Kamandi #6, Flower, who will shake their heads 32 years later at the blow dealt to them by their friend Jack Kirby in that issue. Lions who are running an endangered species preserve again, attack Kamandi and Flower, on the run. The Lions take the pair to their own little environmental zoo, the ruins of a suburban development called Sunny Hills Estates. There he realizes why the stoves, lights and fireplace work. He’s in a zoo, and he’s a valuable, poachable commodity. When the poachers show up (pumas, of course) they grab Flower and demand Kamandi give up his rifle. To save Flower, he starts to comply. Flower stops him. She kicks the Puma, and runs toward Kamandi as the Puma opens fire. They gun down Flower as she steps in front of Kamandi.
Kamandi is alone again.
As he worked on the first few issues of Kamandi and the Demon, Carmine told him the news: The New Gods was to be cancelled. The Forever People, New Gods, Mister Miracle the whole ‘Fourth World’ saga were books close to Jack’s heart, ones that he had planned, thought about, stayed awake into the early morning hours creating. They were the books that were going to save comics. What can you do? Kirby had a family to take care of, a contact to fulfill and responsibilities to meet. He had a tremendous work ethic, born of the Great Depression and poverty. Kirby didn’t let people down. Jack sharpened his pencil and drew up another issue of Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth.
Carmine showed his faith in the book by featuring it at that years' San Diego Con as the next big thing from DC. Just as he’d hyped the Fourth World books in the previous years. With the Fourth World books cancelled, Jack had a hole in his 15 pages a week schedule.
This continued a trend with Kirby. DC more and more dictated what Kirby’s next project would be, and Jack accepted it as a challenge and tried to make the best job of it he could. Sandman? Jack didn’t like or understand the scripts, but ok. Manhunter, Dingbats, Atlas, Cobra, the Losers, all projects either DC never followed up on, or suggested to Jack to keep his contract quota fulfilled.
Kamandi showed what Jack could do with elements handed to him by someone else, elements that were shopworn before Jack got to them himself. Planet of the Apes may have been the inspiration, but Jack had left the movies far behind with just the first few pages. Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth bursts with Jack’s imagination and, something Kirby isn’t always credited with, emotion. Kamandi is a confused and angry young man (really, his mouth and attitude get him into more trouble…), desperate to find someone, anyone, like himself to cure his loneliness. He wanders Earth AD, buffeted by one heartbreak after another, forever searching for a friend.
Mike Royer, the heaviest lifting inker in the biz (really, inking 15 pages of Kirby a week, not to mention covers and lettering as well? The man deserved a break and a tremendous thank you) left the series with issue 16, Bruce Berry taking over after assisting Royer on backgrounds at #17. Bruce was thrown in the deep end of the pool with no lifeguard. In addition to Kamandi, he was expected to ink all Jack’s pages for other books, like the Losers, and any other assignments Carmine threw Jack’s way to keep up the 15-page quota.
With the cancellation of the Demon, Kamandi had become Jacks main assignment, and he was fast enough to be several issues ahead. You could never fault Jack’s professionalism, but Kamandi started to grow stale. Kirby’s cosmic imagination was too earthbound in Kamandi’s world. Of the later issues (indeed, of the whole run), #29 is a standout. The Legend is a story of a gorilla cult that worships a fractured and distorted version of the story of Superman. They catapult themselves through the air in an effort to prove themselves ‘The Mighty One” reborn. Kamandi puts his friend Ben Boxer up as the new/old Mighty One, and the gorillas put him through the trials to prove him worthy of the prize. Kamandi and Ben are shown the prize, Superman’s supersuit. Before they could claim it, it is stolen by one of the gorilla candidates for ‘Mighty One’. The villain is dispatched, and Ben (never wanting the mantle anyway) refuses the suit, leaving it to hang, awaiting the return of its owner. Kamandi is sure he’s “Still Alive! Not even the Great Disaster could conquer “him”.
I’ve always wondered if this was Jack’s version of a team up? Something he might have been asked to do by DC to tie the book into the rest of the line? Leave it to Jack to team Kamandi with Superman’s costume, but not Supes himself.
It was something voiced by fandom, and relayed to Jack via the letter columns: ‘DC had different futures!’ Kamandi was not the future of the Legion of Superheroes, so thoroughly mapped out over in Adventure and Superboy Comics; it was not the future of The Atomic Knights or even Space Cabbie. How did he explain that?
Jack didn’t bother. It was irrelevant to what he was trying to do. But what was he trying to do? Jack now found himself right back in the monthly book grind, a place he didn’t want to be. His Fourth World was gone, his new formats and ideas barely and only reluctantly acted upon. What now?
Around this time, Jack went to an executive get together held by the Warner people in California at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They would all be there, the Warner execs, the distributors, and Jack Kirby representing DC for Carmine who couldn’t attend.
Mark Evanier tells a story of Steve Sherman and himself (another of Jack’s assistants) picking up Jack at his home in Thousand Oaks and driving him over (Kirby could drive, but would often get lost in his latest idea, and forget where he was) to the meeting.
“On the way over, Jack was talking about how he was going to tell these guys how to do comics. He couldn’t wait to get there and show them what comics were about.”
They found a quieter Kirby on the trip back. When asked how it went, Jack replied:
“They don’t care. They just don’t care.” Many of those present didn’t realize they owned a comics company; the rest ‘didn’t care.’ Kirby went home and worked ahead on Kamandi.
Playing It Out
“Kirby was tired. They told me he didn’t want to do the editing anymore, so I took it over.”
Gerry Conway came aboard as editor, fresh from Marvel Comics, with issue #34. Since Jack worked so far ahead (he had those 15 pages a week to fill on quota. When in doubt, Carmine told him to ‘do another Kamandi’), Conway’s impact wouldn’t be that huge for a couple of issues.
The first thing Gerry did was to have Joe Kubert do the covers. This was probably a move to have more control over the look of the entire line. Joe Kubert fit the look of DC more than Kirby did. Which was part of the problem. Kirby was never that good a fit with the DC universe. The new Kamandi stories would now be lettered in New York. This would lessen the incredible workload on Bruce Berry, but it would now be easier for Gerry to make changes to Jack’s dialog. Gerry?
“Jack’s talent was great, but it didn’t lay in dialog.”
Jack had fought hard for his independence. How did he take the changes? Mark Evanier:
“Jack knew he was leaving at this point. He’d been talking to Marvel for awhile, but he still needed to stay on good terms with DC, in case it fell through,”
Jack had been a pioneer in comics. For 30 years he was a groundbreaker and builder. Now health problems were plaguing him, as was disillusionment with the whole comics industry. It was clear the situation at DC wouldn’t stand. But where would be go?
Jack accepted Conway’s changes to his dialog, drew #39 and 40 to Conway’s plots, then moved back to Marvel, something he didn’t really want to do, but better a job at Marvel then no job at all.
Jack’s last issue was #40, drawn to a Gerry Conway plot, and dialoged by Gerry.
“Without Kirby, I’m not sure why we went on”
Kamandi continued with Gerry Conway as editor and writer, then Denny O’Neil, then Jack C. Harris. The art was handled by Chic Stone and Mike Royer (to give it something of a Kirby feel), then some early Keith Giffen and Jack Able, finally Dick Ayers and Alfredo Alcala (then Danny Bulanadi). Turnover became the norm on the title, only stabilizing at the end with Harris/Ayers and Balanadi. Kamandi was established as OMAC’s grandson (another Kirby title, and yet a different article), but while this storyline was happening, Kamandi became a victim of that other Great Disaster, the DC Implosion. DC cancelled the lowest selling books, and Kamandi just made the cutoff. Unused stories turned up in Cancelled Comic Cavalcade (DC’s Xeroxed volumes sent out to contributors for protect copyrights). Later he would turn up in a mini series in 1993, by Tom Vietch, Frank Gomez and Mike Barriero. This time Kamandi is under the Elseworlds umbrella, meaning it’s outside of DC’s ever ridged continuity.
Kirby’s run is now to be reprinted in the DC Archives volumes, a testament to how Kirby was able to take an idea springboarded by someone else, and find his own personal vision in it. His 70s DC work has aged very well, now it seems the readers a finally catching up with Jack. See? Told you he was a genius.
Thanks to Mark Evanier and Gerry Conway for the info in the article!
This originally ran back in the early 2000s, in Back Issue Magazine. Since then. Kamandi has been recognized as a classic work, and reprinted several times, in the formats Kirby envisioned.
It’s only taken nearly 50 years to catch up to Kirby.