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The most unexpected comic perfectly sums up 2017

How an epic sci-fi throwback perfectly encapsulated today’s news cycle

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An illustration of Kamandi from DC Comics’ The Kamandi Challenge #1 Bruce Timm/DC Comics
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Last Friday night, I painfully gorged myself on news coming out of Puerto Rico, the place where half my grandparents were born. Saturday morning, I woke up to the President of the United States calling Puerto Ricans lazy for asking their own government for help in an humanitarian crisis. Sunday, my dad told me he was angry about Trump’s comments, but didn’t know where to put the anger: He felt like he’d been full of anger for months. Sunday night, I went to bed, thinking “I’ve got to write about Kamandi tomorrow.”

Monday morning, I opened Twitter and discovered that America had a new record for deadliest mass shooting in recent history. Even the idea of focusing on the news cycle enough to write about a mere metaphor for it felt painful. On Tuesday, our president lobbed paper towels at hurricane victims. By Wednesday, I was swept up in New York Comic Con duties.

Now, I think I’m ready to write about Kamandi.

The Last Boy on Earth

“I can’t believe you read it! Nobody read it!” Tom King exclaimed when we sat down at New York Comic Con and I told him I wanted to ask about his issue of The Kamandi Challenge. It was the last place I expected to find a direct metaphor for the 2017 news cycle, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it all weekend. That is, when I wasn’t thinking about current events.

Cover of The Kamandi Challenge #9, DC Comics (2017)
Cover of The Kamandi Challenge #9
Mark Buckingham, Steve Buccellato/DC Comics

The Kamandi Challenge, created to honor Jack Kirby, is a sort of exquisite corpse anthology series from DC Comics. Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, is one of Kirby’s more obscure DC Comics characters, with the looks of Tarzan and the personality of a classic Boy’s Adventure hero. In Kamandi’s post-apocalyptic world, he’s the last remnant of humanity, in a world populated by warlike tiger men, detective dogs and piratical kangaroos.

Every issue of The Kamandi Challenge has a different writer/artist team with the same mandate: end the story with Kamandi’s certain doom. The next team’s job is to get Kamandi out of the deathtrap, tell their story, and put him right back into another. To keep everything on the up and up, each team also has to provide a solution for their deathtrap, to prove they haven’t just painted the next team into a corner.

So far, Kamandi has been rescued by an all-female group of dog commandos, had all his organs removed by a mad doctor and washed up on an island of Homer-worshiping goat and wolf tribes. But The Kamandi Challenge #9, all-too-cheekily titled “Ain’t It a Drag?,” is so different from the rest of his adventures that I had to ask King where the angle came from. He said that his inspiration was a story from Kirby biographer Mark Evanier, about a time when Kirby heard of a young artist who wanted to pay homage to his signature style.

“And Jack Kirby says ‘The only way to Kirby-up your work is to create a new character!’ The only way to outdo Kirby is to do something new,” King said.

He knew most of the other writers would be crafting big monsters and mad science situations. “Everyone’s going big, so I’ll go small,” he decided, “and I’ll tell a quiet story, because that felt like a Jack Kirby move, too.”

Issue #9 didn’t feel so much like a quiet story to me as it did a ghost story. At the end of #8, Kamandi was about to be swallowed by a vibrant, green sea monster. In #9, he woke up on a slab in a dark cave, surrounded by frightened animals, in an entirely grayscale comic. The first four panels of Kamandi’s perspective set an immediate, uncertain tone.

From The Kamandi Challenge #9, DC Comics (2017) Tom King, Kevin Eastman, Freddie Williams II/DC Comics

Everyone in the cave was swallowed by a vortex, and went through a door. Now they’re in this room. Every day, a door opens — a different door — and an unstoppable robot steps through it. It drags someone out of the room. The door closes. They’re never seen again.

That is all anyone in the cave knows about the cave. And by the end of the issue, that is still all the reader knows about the cave.

King and his collaborators spend the story meditating on Kamandi’s daily, futile attempts to stop the robot and the myriad ways the denizens of the cave find to deal with their situation — escapism, bravado, acceptance, unflappable optimism, nostalgia for their lives before. Each new scene is punctuated by a count of how long Kamandi has been there. Day 1. Day 18. Day 37. Higher and higher. Every day he charges the robot, and every day it swats him across the room.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s necessarily bleak (mandated cliffhanger ending, remember?) but it has a hopeful note. It’s just that I’m not sure if that hopeful note ultimately just makes the whole thing more bleak.

At one point, Kamandi begins recounting everything that’s happened to him so far in the series:

From The Kamandi Challenge #9, DC Comics (2017) Tom King, Kevin Eastman, Freddie Williams II/DC Comics

“It all just leads to the brink of something horrible,” he finishes. “And over that brink, you go over. And then you’re back to ... everything. Everything.”

For King, this is the part of the comic that feels the most like the news cycle of 2017.

“You have to write [your issue] before it’s all out,” he said, and in order to put the scene in he had to ask Kamandi’s editors for a recap. “So they send me a document of the summaries of everyone. I was like ‘He did this in like 36 hours? He went through all that?’ And then I was like ‘This is a metaphor, this is what life feels like now.’ Every day, I’m like ‘That happened two days ago?’ There was a huge massacre in this country and it feels like we’ve already moved on to the next goddamn awful thing.

“That’s how it feels. It’s like every fucking day it’s another goddamn thing.” Then he laughed, at his own vitriol. “‘Every fucking day it’s another goddamn thing.’ Tom’s comics, the theme goes on!”

But to me, it wasn’t the monsters and tiger-men and piratical kangaroos that felt the most familiar. It was waking up every morning to see someone new get dragged out of a dark room to an uncertain fate.

The next level of puzzles.

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