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Wednesday Comics: Kamandi

Earlier this week I reviewed Wednesday Comics, a rather spanking anthology from DC Comics. I kinda figured, however, it might be worth my while to break out some of those fifteen stories on their own (but not all of them) and discuss them, as it’s easy to lose sight of a particular writer/artist’s work in an anthology. I thought I’d turn my attention to one of the conspicuously non-superhero titles in the anthology, an adaptation of the classic Kirby comic, Kamandi.

Although Kamandi only debuted in 1972, there’s an argument to be made that the character is better suited to this particular format and style of storytelling than the DC superheroes which otherwise populate the collection. Created by the legendary Jack Kirby, Kamandi is the story of the last boy on earth, attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic future ruled by hyper-evolved talking animals (rats, cats and – most viciously – apes). The character has a lasting cult appeal, but was never necessarily the most popular property at the publisher, but it’s nice that they dusted him off for this project. I have to admit being a bit surprised at the creative team – Dave Gibbons is regarded as an author, but made his name as an artist, so it’s strange to see him writing this – but it works, it really comes together and suits the unique format of the project perfectly.

Gibbons successfully apes the adventure comics of yore...

Superheroes have dominated the “comic” medium for so long that we tend to forget that they were never really the be-all and end-all (though maybe they came close). Indeed, the newspaper comic strips that this anthology is supposed to recall never really featured too many costumed capers. Instead, they were devoted to comedy strips, or adventure strips, or even romance strips. Kamandi here is clearly structured as something of a throwback to serialised thrillers like Tarzan, populated with bizarre human-like animals and straight-forward “quest” plot (save the Tiger King before the apes can execute him!).

Gibbons seems to know better than to over-egg his pudding. There are no socially-conscious morals or life lessons included here, nor any deep soul-seaching on the nature of the medium or life. Instead, there’s a monkey with a bazooka. Or a monkey with a machine gun. Or a dog flying the airship. You get the idea. If this strip were a snack, it would be a cheese burger, with an extra side of cheesy nachos and maybe a milk shake – one which had mysteriously fermented into cheese.

Well, the cat's out of the bag...

And yet I feel like I’m selling this short. Like I’m somehow making it seem cheap or disposable. It isn’t. Indeed, reflecting the original medium that inspired this particular giant chunk of nostalgia, Gibbons eschews conventional comic book storytelling methods. Instead of pictures broken up by word balloons, thought balloons or even caption boxes, the narrative occupies empty white space at the edge of the visual composition in a manner which more suggests modern political cartoons in newspapers than graphic novel.

The narrative is worded as a prose story. Speech is given inverted commas, and we’re informed who is speaking via text. In a wonderful move that perhaps most of the other strips would have done well to copy, there’s a text intro at the start of each page, which updates the reader on where the story is at a given moment. Since readers originally would have had to wait a week between pages (and would have shuffled through fifteen other strips between them), it probably came in handy, offering a summation of everything the reader needed to know. Although they’re somewhat less essential if you plan to read the story in one sitting, they’re still pretty cool – if the text alongside illustrations evokes the image of etchings on classic fantasy novels, these introductions are like chapter headings, written in a self-conscious but endearing style.

The bunker had a bit of a rodent problem...

Ryan Sook’s artwork suits the story perfectly. Though structured as such, his artwork doesn’t feel like comic book panels. It feels like classy illustrations to some sort classic science fantasy saga, to which we are reading but truncated notes. I’m not sure how bipedal felines and canines can represent a niche, but Sook has certainly found his. The pencil work is confident and beautiful – instead of attempting (as Paul Pope did with his Strange Adventures) to ape a classic style, the artwork instead goes for a timeless appeal, itself ending up somewhat classic.

Gibbons takes us on a tour of post-apocalyptic America, which is quite an achievement in his limited space. Indeed, looking back over it, his comic crams a lot it and manages to avoid some of the pacing troubles of the other serials. His plot is straightforward, but he’s able to elegantly introduce us to the world of Kamandi without seeming awkward or forced – I’ve never read a Kamandi story before, and I feel quite comfortable with the character after reading this particular introduction.

Out and a-boat...

Kamandi is a simple story, but that’s not a criticism. It doesn’t over-stretch itself with ambition, it doesn’t keep you awake at night pondering it – but it does over a wonderful “boy’s own” style of adventure which I can actually see fitting in much better with the original newspaper comic strips than, say, Batman or The Flash. It isn’t too comfortable with itself – it never seems to be patting itself on the back for being clever – but is a solidly entertaining story from page-to-page and perhaps one of the two or three titles in the book which most strongly draws out that feeling of nostalgia that the project seems to have been aimed towards.

And still, without breaking the mold or moving too far outside the box, it’s a well-written story from an author who obviously has a great deal of affection for the material, and illustrated in a beautiful style. The fact that it seems designed to stand out from the crowd (without bubbles or lines dividing text and image) is just icing on the cake.

Next week: Even more cliffhangers!

In short, it’s the kind of story which reminds the reader how Kamandi himself has hung in at the fringe of the DC Universe, depsite the fact his last proper series ended in 1978. There’s something timeless and enduring and magical about the setting. You don’t need meta-commentary or innovation to see that.

2 Responses

  1. The text is laid out like that to invoke Prince Valiant.

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