What is it about KAMANDI?
If there was ever an example of a comic that works in spite of itself, this is it. On first glance, it's a ridiculous concept, with a half-naked blonde guy of indeterminate age as the central character. Of course, the artwork is dynamite, and every page jumps at you with signature Kirby explosiveness, but past the immediate appeal of the illsutration, it looks a little childish and exceedingly violent. Not to mention the fact that he covers had the most bizarre taglines ever to grace a comic after 1960.
Usually, a Great Comic has a clear hook, or a great plot, or rich characters; concepts that you can wrap your head around and say, "This is what makes this comic exceptional". KAMANDI, I am bewildered to say, has none of that, beyond simply being gorgeous to behold, art-wise. Aside from coming from the Pen of Kirby, it doesn't seem to have much going for it.
Yet it's still something of a masterpiece, and quite possibly the best comic of the Seventies. Against all odds, KAMANDI worked in a way that few comics do. It holds up, conceptually, even today. Despite major flaws, it remains infectious and joyous and a total kick in the ass.
What are these "major flaws"? Well, they're pretty fundamental, and all in one basket together, they would sink any other book, by any other creator...
1. "KAMANDI" IS A RIP-OFF
KAMANDI was borne out of the popularity of PLANET OF THE APES. This is a given; the first issue even features the image of a decrepit Lady Liberty, an image made famous by Charlton Heston on his knees in the sand, screaming at the sky. The plot of KAMANDI (such as it is) revolves around the last remaining bare-chested human, making his way in a savage world where evolved animals rule, and humans are mute beasts, used as slaves. His best friend is a benevolent animal scientist, and he frequently travels with a beautiful, topless human female, hoping she will speak some day. This is all very familiar.
Of course, this is filtered through the awesome brain of JACK KIRBY, so the additions to the familiar tropes are many many and grand. While PLANET OF THE APES (for all its goodness) was kind of bland, design-wise, KAMANDI is a technicolor world filled insane machines, crumbling cities, giant monsters, and brightly garbed animals of all types. Rather than Gorillas with single-shot rifles, we are given giant bats, snakes with robot arms, leopard pirates, and tigers that wear some of the coolest clothes ever drawn in comics.
KAMANDI is PLANET OF THE APES with intensity replacing the brooding, insane landscapes replacing a bland desert, and dynamic mutant rebels with cyclotronic hearts replacing the psychic guys who worship that missile underground.
So while it is true that KAMANDI started as a rip-off, it immediately evolved into something far more vast and tremendously more exciting than Roddy McDowell in a funky rubber mask.
2. KAMANDI IS A BORING CHARACTER
Kamandi himself is little more than a cipher with feathered hair and a pistol. His personality consists of getting angry a lot, traveling endlessly and pointlessly, and enjoying kicking animal ass. He's a pretty blank slate. Even visually, there's not much going on there; he wears cutoffs and boots, and his only accessories are a gun and a holster. Even with "simplicity of design" in mind, he's still pretty weak. While the primary yellows and blues of his hair and clothes are striking, the boldness is purely graphic. Kamandi would make a pretty lame costume or action figure. He's no Indiana Jones.
But what Kamandi lacks in personality and visual interest, he more than makes up for in bare-knuckle, two-fisted, balls to the wall Excitement. This is a kid who jumps feet-first into every fight, has an incredibly short fuse, and lives in a world where THAT'S ALL THAT MATTERS! Anger, fearlessness, and a high protein diet are what it takes to survive! He doesn't need subtleties or depth, he needs a gun.... so that he can kill some frikkin' gorillas!
What do we learn about about Kamandi over the course of the series? We learn that he hates it when animals disrespect him. And we learn that he will kick their asses for disrespecting him. As far as I'm concerned, that's about as much character development as you need, when the next scene you might read involves Kamandi taming a giant cricket so that he can ride it like a horse.
3. "KAMANDI" MAKES NO SENSE
The world of KAMANDI is EARTH AD... AFTER DISASTER! What was the "Great Disaster"? No one knows. It apparently involved radiation. How did the new society evolve? How did humanity devolve? Why are some animals (horses, buffalo, insects) still the same, while some animals (tigers, dogs, killer whales) have evolved into intelligent human hybrids? And what's the deal with the wide variety of mutants and monsters?
The answer is, "Don't worry about it. Just accept that weird things will happen,"
One of the fundamental rules of writing fiction, and particularly speculative fiction, is that the world you place your characters in must have some sort of logic unto itself, and internal consistency. As loopy and ridiculous as STAR WARS is, if Chewbacca could turn into The Thing by putting on a magic ring, that would likely be a step too far outside the established rules of that fictional world. (Although it would be awesome.) KAMANDI is an exception to this rule, and wears this exception like a badge of honor. Think you've got things remotely figured out? Just wait for the next issue, because something so bizarre will come out of left field it will make your head spin.
The only established rule in the KAMANDI universe is that there are no rules. It makes no sense. As much as people accuse Grant Morrison of being "weird for weird's sake", Kirby was turning Arbitrary Weirdness into a cottage industry long before Grant ever communed with extra-dimensional aliens. Every issue of KAMANDI was chock full of bizarre concepts that added to the enormous Earth AD tapestry of Things-That-Shouldn't-Work-Together-But-Somehow-Do.
4. "KAMANDI" HAS NO POINT
Superman is on Earth to fight injustice. Batman wants to avenge his parents by bringing justice to criminals. Spider-man is eaten up with guilt, Sam Beckett is trying to find his way home, and Frodo has to destroy the Ring.
There is General Thrust to most fiction; you know where the characters are going, and mostly you know why. Sometimes it's as vague as "Philip Marlowe solves mysteries because he can. And he gets paid to do so." You, the reader, understand the point of the story, even in the most general terms.
With KAMANDI, there is such a cannonball momentum to the pace, you never have a chance to stop and think "Why is this happening?" Kamandi spends so much time reacting to the insanity around him, there is never a moment where you feel like he has a priority in life. He spends so much time either simply surviving, angrily fighting back against tormentors, or just exploring for excitement's sake, the narrative thrust never expands beyond "Holy Crap Look What's Happening RIGHT NOW!!!"
This is where we really see Kirby's genius as a writer at work. The man never lets up, not for an instant. The point of the story never forms around a "Character A has to accomplish X, despite Y" storyline, nor does it need to. It is a rollercoaster of a plot where every page is a new twist, and the fact that many of them come out of the blue is part of the thrill. The plot of KAMANDI has no point, because that would take time to establish, and between lions on motorcycles, submerged cities, and rats in hot air balloons, there was no time to spare!
And so it was that KAMANDI was the best seller of all of Kirby's DC books. It lasted the longest, and despite the recent surge of interest in the FOURTH WORLD saga, KAMANDI was the first to get the Archive treatment. Thirty years later, it's impossible to read any random issue and not get excited, or enjoy yourself. It was an unstoppable thrill-ride that worked despite not working at all. It broke every rule of what makes good fiction, and yet these comics are still something you can hardly put down. In the end, what makes KAMANDI so awesome is very primal. It seems ridiculous to try and define it. I just chalk it up to the genius of Jack Kirby, and the eternal appeal of watching tough guys beat up animals.