Jack Kirby is hailed by many in the comic book world as perhaps one of the greatest creators to ever work in the industry. After all, there’s a reason he was given the nickname “King” Kirby. Without him, we wouldn’t have such classic characters like The X-Men, The New Gods, or even Captain America.
Newer readers may not be as well-versed in his contributions though. While his creations have had long lives past his own, his credit isn’t given nearly as much as it should be. DC looks to change that, however, with their newly released series The Kamandi Challenge, reinvigorating one of Kirby’s weirdest creations in an exciting format for readers new and old to enjoy.
Kamandi, for those who don’t know, was the self-proclaimed “Last Boy on Earth,” trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where sentient animals live and rule. Think classic Planet of the Apes and you’ll get a sense of the flavor of the stories you’re dealing with. He may not be as well-known as other Kirby creations, but is still regarded as being one of Kirby’s most creative.
This new series brings Kamandi back to the spotlight in a fresh, yet throwback to classics, take on “event” books. Each of the twelve issues of this series is to be broken up by different creative teams working to tell a round-robin style story. Where one writer ends his piece, usually on a massive cliffhanger, the next will begin…without knowing how the previous story was going to end. The fun is seeing how each new writer gets Kamandi out of the seemingly inescapable fate the last writer leaves him in.
This initial issue has two distinct parts, allowing for two different creative teams to take on the challenge and lay out how future issues will present themselves. This gives the book a distinctively retro feel. It’s almost as if you’re reading a long-lost comic from the days when books would be eighty pages or more, cost only a quarter, and had multiple stories between their covers. Not a bad way to pay homage to the “King.”
What really makes this book stand out though is the way the creators pay homage to Kirby. This series already feels like a love letter to the influence he left behind, and hopefully it will carry that feel through the rest of the issues. What a fitting birthday present, as this year commemorates the one hundredth birthday of this giant of the industry.
Perhaps the highlight of this book is the opening chapter, written by Dan DiDio. This section feels like it could very well have been crafted by the King himself, utilizing a similar writing style that emphasizes dialogue, not narration boxes, to get across the backstory and thoughts of the characters. Coupled with Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish drawing in a blockish style with heavy lines and overly expressive faces and this chapter feels like the highlight of the entire book. There’s even a robot bodyguard named Mr. Kirby as the cherry on top.
The art does vary throughout the issue, with Dale Eaglesham stepping in to draw the second chapter of the series, but it works here without being too glaring of an issue. Many event books now rely on multiple artists to finish the pages, often utilizing two or three different styles per issue the further into a story they get in order to meet deadlines. Here, the creators have tackled that challenge head-on, ensuring that while there will be varied looks throughout the chapters, it’s all built into the concept of The Kamandi Challenge.
That being said, the second chapter, entitled “K is for ‘Kill’!”, written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Eaglesham, doesn’t manage to meet the high bar set from the opening chapter. Which is unfortunate, considering the book gets off to such a great start.
That’s not to say the story is inherently bad or doesn’t justify it’s high price point (it comes in at a whopping five dollars). Far from it. Abnett tackles the idea of differing animal factions at war with one another splendidly. The world he lays out, where Kamandi must survive a gladiator arena against a gigantic gorilla and endure the humiliation of being led around on a leash by a sentient dog, is visually stunning and easily compelling. Simply put, had this chapter not immediately followed the high of DiDio’s opening salvo, I might look at it as being a bit better. But under the same cover, it just doesn’t match up.
Looking at the varying qualities of the two stories presented here does raise one red flag in wondering how the rest of the series will fare. Will there be more low points than high ones? Will it be a roller coaster of quality, where some stories work really well and others fall flat? Or should we simply take the series as it comes, enjoying the zaniness of the structure and reflecting on how innovative Kirby was to create all of this? I prefer to choose the last one and let the series just play out in front of me as the spectacle it is.
If you haven’t read any of Kirby’s work, shame on you. Go fix that first. But if you want a series that feels like a throwback to a more classic comic book style, or are eager to see a story structure that emphasizes the creators’ storytelling skills, The Kamandi Challenge is the book for you.