Welcome to #1 Comic of the Week, a new series where our comics editor, Susana Polo, tips you off to a neat new story or series that kicked off in comics this week — just in time for some weekend reading.
Sometimes, in #1 Comic of the Week, I recommend that you read a new first issue of a comic series. Sometimes, I tell you about a brand-new comic collection that tells the beginning of a series or is its own self-contained story.
This week, I’m just going to scream at you to read The Kamandi Challenge.
(And while I do that, I’m going to show you just a few of the weird ideas that a team of writers and artists churned out for it.)
2017 was the centennial year of comic book titan Jack Kirby, and DC Comics did a lot to celebrate his legacy at the company, with re-releases and collections to go around. The Kamandi Challenge, however, was probably the weirdest of DC’s efforts — and therefore the most Kirby-reminiscent of the bunch.
The hero of Kirby’s Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, published from 1972 to 1978, had the looks of Tarzan and the personality of a classic boy’s adventure hero. He’s a good-hearted human in a barbaric world of anthropomorphic animal tribes — feral tiger men, detective dogs, piratical kangaroos — on a wasted future Earth. You don’t really need to know anything more about him than that.
The Kamandi Challenge wasn’t just created to honor a Kirby character, but to honor Kirby’s dramatic, operatic, suspenseful, go-big-or-go-home style of adventure stories. Every issue of The Kamandi Challenge has a different writer/artist pairing — assembled from some of the heavy hitters on DC’s team — with the same mandate: End the story with a cliffhanger spelling out Kamandi’s certain doom. The next team’s job is to get Kamandi out of that death trap, continue the story and then put him right back into another cliffhanger.
The result is an absolutely wild adventure series. All consistency is thrown to the wind as writers and artists desperately one-up one another, contorting themselves in narrative gymnastics to rescue Kamandi from having all his organs removed by a mad lemur scientist, or being blown up by a tribe of jingoistic tiger men with a nuclear missile, or being swallowed by the King Kong-sized cat-god of a leopard tribe. And the only thing better than big and loud is when the next issue is quiet and strange instead.
Adding to the appeal of the stories themselves is a window into the process. To keep writers from simply painting their successor into an impossible corner, each team also had to provide a solution for their death trap in writing. And in The Kamandi Challenge collected edition, each of those letters is printed just after the relevant issue. You get to read how the story went — and then read how the last writer thought the story could have gone.
The Kamandi Challenge itself is a tribute to the boundless creativity of Jack Kirby, but it’s in those letters that creators put down in words what it meant to them to even be in proximity to his legacy. Do yourself a favor, and grab a copy of it. It will be the weirdest thing you read all month — and the most joyful.
This is a giant robot being punched by a swarm of rat men who’ve combined to make one giant rat man.