Wednesday, March 13, 2013

After the Apocalypse--according to DC

This week we will look at one of several post-apocalyptic futures set in the DC Comics universe. Next week, we'll visit the Marvel Universe to see what sort of horrors the future offers us there.

Setting stories in a variety of possible futures is a common trope in both DC and Marvel. And, when you think about it, it's not surprising that so many possible futures within these universes are so horrific. If you don't have conflict, you don't have drama. Wrecking civilization is a great way to generate conflict.

When Jack Kirby went to DC in the early 1970s, one of several characters he created was Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth. Editor Carmen Infantino had tried to acquire the comic book rights for The Planet of the Apes. He failed (Marvel got the rights instead) and so he asked Kirby to create something similar. 

The result is my personal favorite of his DC characters. Kirby’s imaginative, kinetic artwork is always fun to look at, regardless of the subject matter, but he was at his best when he had room to get as science-fictiony as possible. Kamandi was set in the future, after some never-explained catastrophe has destroyed civilization. Now intelligent animals ruled the Earth, while most humans had been reduced to sub-intelligence and dropped quite a few notches down the food chain. The series gave Kirby a chance to draw everything from bipedal wolves armed with machine guns to futuristic vehicles to flying sharks. It was, in other words, a near-perfect world for him to play in.

Poor Kamandi, a fashion-challenged teenager and one of the few intelligent humans left, wandered from one location to another and regularly got himself into an awful lot of trouble. In the three issues we’ll be discussing (Kamandi 21-23--September - November 1974), he becomes a soldier in a war between dolphins and killer whales

The action picks up in the first panel, along the shore of a sea where most of the Midwestern USA used to be, with Kamandi getting involved in a fight to protect a dolphin named Inspector Zeel. Menaced soon after that by a giant crab, Kamandi opts to join up with Zeel for mutual protection.

Zeel is being carried in a water-filled container by his inarticulate human body guard. The companions must trek across a radioactive landscape, where they are attacked by Neanderthals and Zeel is almost killed. Finally, they reach “Seaway,” the underwater home of the dolphins. Here Kamandi is reunited with Ben Boxer, Steve and Renzi, three mutant humans with whom he had traveled for a time in earlier issues. These three have the ability to transform their bodies into steel.

Kamandi learns that the dolphins are at war with the killer whales, with both sides using humans as soldiers. After a young dolphin who befriended Kamandi is killed, the Last Boy on Earth decides to himself join the fight. He soon finds himself trying to track down The Red Baron, an enemy human who uses his underwater craft to perform deadly hit-and-run raids.

But the Red Baron continues to get the best of the dolphins and their human soldiers. Casualties are high--including Zeel's human guard. Finally, Ben Boxer and the other mutants come up with a plan to lure the Red Baron into a trap. Kamandi volunteers to act as bait for the trap--which leads up to yet another brutal confrontation with the Red Baron.

Gee whiz, this is cool stuff. I read these issues as a little tyke--having bought them at the local 7-11--so my opinion is arguably colored by nostalgia. But a dolphin vs. killer whale war using humans as cannon fodder? How is that NOT completely awesome?

That being said, these issues do also hightlight Kirby's faults when he wrote his own scripts. Without someone like Stan Lee to flesh out his plot ideas, his characterizations were often one-dimensional and his dialogue was sometimes stilted. 

But the strength of his story ideas overcomes these faults and his wonderful art still make Kamandi a fun comic book. The world he created for this comic book had it's own internal logic, but it was a logic that allowed for endless variety in terms of plot ideas and fantastic imagery. The setting allowed Kirby to keep layering one amazing idea on top of another and still have it all make story-sense in the end. In the first issue of this three-part tale, for instance, he starts with a wild melee involving sword-wielding humans pouring out of a submersible craft to assassinate a dolphin, then tosses a giant mutant crab into the mix. A few pages later, there's a stampede of giant frogs, followed by a tribe of nine-foot-tall Neanderthal men, followed in turn by a giant insect forcing its way through a radioactive barrier. In the second issue, he moves the action to an undersea city built by talking dolphins and gets Kamandi involved in a bizarre war. The story moves at a furious pace and it all makes sense in the context of this particular future Earth.

And, of course, the art is so good it makes you want to beat up anyone who doesn’t think so. Everything from the design of the armor and weapons used by the human soldiers to the dolphins’ underwater civilization to the Red Baron’s attack vehicle just oozes with a sense of pure fun. A two-page splash illustration of Kamandi, being pulled on water skis by a pair of dolphins, trying to nail the Red Baron with a spear gun, is alone enough to make the whole story worthwhile.

I suppose it can be argued that Kirby's art is so awesome that it causes the story to fail on one level. Kirby obviously wanted to use the dolphin-whale conflict to comment on the brutality and waste of war. To an extent, he succeeds. But the art is so gosh-darn FUN to look at, the point about war's brutality kind of gets lost in a sea of awesome imagery. 

Film director Francois Truffaut said that it's impossible to make an anti-war movie, because the movies will make inevitably make war look exciting. The same problem exists with this Kamandi story arc. Kirby shows heavy casualties and several characters we like get killed. But in the end, we won't think about that. We'll instead imagine ourselves on a pair of water skis, drawing a bead on the Red Baron with a harpoon gun while a pair of dolphins tow us forward. 

Seriously, how is that NOT awesome?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...