Pages 31 thru 61 of Panel to Panel: Exploring Words & Pictures are among my favorite. These are the pages which contain selections from cartoonist Rob Walton’s amazing tome, By Jingo! A Personal Reflection on the Writings of Jack Kirby. These thirty pages, in my opinion, are also among the most important within Panel to Panel, and truly capture what this project is all about. There is so much love for the comics medium in these pages, and admiration one of its greatest architects. But these are not the gushings of a fanboy; Walton’s scholarly look at the works created by Jack Kirby during 1972-1975 is unlike any other piece written about the subject. It looks beyond the dynamic art for which Jack is known, and delves deeply into the worlds he had created, worlds which reflect our own. Walton’s deeply personal writings reveal much about the morals and ethics of a man best known for single handedly creating a method and style of comics which has inspired generations of creators. This is serious stuff, folks. Serious stuff written by one of the only cartoonists whose work can make me laugh out loud. (Read Rob’s book Ragmop to see what I’m talking about) But that’s not to say that By Jingo! doesn’t insight an emotional response in me. It actually creates one of my favorite feelings… nostalgia.
From Chapter Four
The Lost Boy on Earth:
From Part II
Earth A.D. (After Despair)
After the excitement of discovering The Demon #1, discovering Kamandi #1 was like some divine gift from the comic-book gods. Sure, the cover was an obvious rip-off of Planet of the Apes, but this was “A sensational DC Jack Kirby Blockbuster” and would no doubt prove to be as different from the Apes films as The Demon #1 was from every other horror comic out there. As it turns out I would be right, but my full appreciation for those differences would only come after many years of rereading, maturing, and walking a path very similar to that walked by the Last Boy On Earth.
Page one sets the scene and, as always, Kirby conveys information concisely and expediently. Although Kamandi is paddling an inflatable raft reminiscent of the one Charlton Heston captained in the first Apes flick, he is not on some unknown inland sea. He is paddling through an archipelago of architecture. The ruins of Manhattan’s skyscrapers jut out of the sea like deadheads in the shallows of a fresh water lake. Kirby makes no effort to disguise the fact that this is earth. It’s integral to his narrative that we know where we are and that we know immediately. The shock Kirby is hoping to deliver is not one of human destruction, but of natural disaster. Something has happened, something inevitable, unavoidable and irreversible: an extinction event comparable to the fabled asteroid that hastened the end of the dinosaurs.
After untold decades, and at least three generations of humans living and dying underground, the last surviving human, an old man, has sent the youngest surviving boy, his grandson, Kamandi, on a mission of reclamation. Kamandi is not ready for what he finds.
“Can this be the world that grandfather sent me to reclaim? — Is this his dream of a joyous homecoming?”
The one thing readers were definitely not accustomed to in 1972 was having the rug pulled out from under the hero’s feet before he’d even gotten past page one of his debut issue, but that’s exactly what Kirby does. There is already a pervading sense of melancholy in that very first page as Kamandi navigates his raft through the ruins of New York. You can sense the eerie silence save for the lapping of the waves against the buildings. This is not the world Kamandi was either hoping or expecting to find. It is far worse.
Kirby tells us that Kamandi is named after the people who inhabited “Command ‘D’,” part of an underground complex of bunkers where presumably humankind’s survivors would toil until the earth would be deemed inhabitable again. In 1972 underground bunkers were still a large part of the intrinsic Cold War consciousness. The threat of nuclear annihilation was not as prevalent as it had been during the proliferation of the Hydrogen bomb in the 1950s, or the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe of the same year still had people digging more than rose beds in their gardens. It is from out the depths of that universal culture of fear that Kamandi has emerged. A natural holocaust has happened and its aftermath has outlasted the expectations of the finest scientific brains of Command ‘D’. The opening caption on page one tells us that Kamandi and his grandfather are the only two humans left alive in the complex. The bunker no longer affords them the safety and security of its original design. The time has come for Kamandi to venture forth to reclaim mankind’s heritage.
The somber double-page spread on pages two and three reveals the full extent of mankind’s disenfranchisement. Civilization, as represented by the drowned city of New York, is gone, and with it, the hopes and dreams of a huddled humanity. Kamandi registers both shock and dismay at the world he has encountered. The earth his grandfather thought would be waiting for them has moved on at an oblique historical angle. The films of the Old World that Kamandi viewed as he grew up in the bunker turn out to be but shadows whose magic has been dispelled by the harsh light of this new reality. The light from the Old World of human civilization was but the last light of a distant star that had died innumerable years before.
Kamandi’s trek takes him up the Hudson River. After meeting a heard of feral humans Kamandi continues home. Before he reaches the underground complex, an explosion rocks the bunker. Looters have tripped a series of booby-traps that Kamandi had set up to safeguard their meager supplies and his grandfather’s life. Kamandi quickly realizes that not all the looters were killed. He races down the corridor past Command ‘A’. As he approaches Command ‘D’ Kamandi’s alarm grows. There is panic in is thought balloon: “Oh, no! No!”
His worst fears are realized when he enters the centre and discovers his grandfather’s body tossed up against a pile of broken furniture, his frail bones, no more than kindling, added to the pyre. Kamandi reacts with savage grief gunning down the first looter he sees. I keenly felt Kamandi’s grief as he cradled his grandfather’s limp form in his arms and lamented:
“Forgive me, grandfather–! You needed me and I wasn’t there to help you.”
Kamandi’s first lesson in life is perhaps the cruelest: We are seldom there to help when truly needed, and those we love most, may sometimes die alone, unheard, yet calling out our names.
Kamandi has little for regrets as a second looter storms the room. The invader has kinship within the ranks of the dead as well, and is as eager to exact revenge as Kamandi. When they turn and confront each other they are each arrested by the revelation implicit in the fact of each other’s existence: both are seemingly impossible products of nature. Reason demands that neither should exist, but they do. They stand face-to-face, incontrovertibly: the impossible boy and the impossible wolf.
Admittedly the impact of the revelation that the looter is an anthropomorphized wolf is lessened by the fact that the reader has (most likely) anticipated the appearance of highly evolved and “human” animals. Kamandi’s horror, however, is fully realized even if the reader doesn’t necessarily share it (although I can’t speak for everyone). I remember seeing Planet of the Apes for the first time in the local movie-house in Simcoe—a small town (in 1967) in rural Southern Ontario where our family would spend the Victoria Day weekend (May 24). The sequence where the gorilla rides through the cornfield and reigns in his horse, turning to the camera for the big reveal, is one of Hollywood’s great moments: great because in that one moment, everything changed, and movies were never again the same. However, in the fall of 1972, the drama of Kirby’s bold reveal was wasted. The true drama lay in the boy’s reaction and in the aftermath of his grandfather’s death.
Kamandi kills the wolf and abandons the bunker for the second time in his brief life. This time, however, he will not be returning, and his eulogy is brief and appropriately unsentimental:
“Goodbye, grandfather! We did our best for each other! Now sleep peacefully in your world while I see the rest of mine.”
There is something of the primitive in Kamandi’s words and actions. Before humans evolved a sense of the spiritual (or divine), the dead were readily abandoned. There was no doubt grief at the loss of kin, but little time wasted dwelling on the dead. There was the matter of survival to attend to. Likewise, Kamandi does not tarry for either words or burial rites. He leaves the body where it lies and moves on. Kamandi needn’t concern himself with any other world, save the one he is in. Call it life lesson number two: mourning is a luxury: one few can afford in Earth A.D.
Mortality is a fork in the road where the quick and the dead figuratively shake hands and go their separate ways. Once violence has touched a place, its contamination spreads and it’s best to seek refuge elsewhere. So Kamandi buries his grief and helps himself to the wolves’ all-terrain vehicle and sets off to see the world. Like Taylor, Kamandi may not like what he finds, but he’s determined to find it anyway. Both of the worlds he’s known: that of the underground complex and that of the world his grandfather had hoped to reclaim, are gone. There’s only one world left to him now, and Kamandi’s got pluck enough to face it head on. As he’ll soon learn, Earth A.D. doesn’t wait for stragglers. If you don’t keep up you’re not likely to see the morrow. Hesitation in Kamandi’s world means separation from the pack. Life will not think twice before leaving you behind. Fortune can change in the blink of an eye and the turn of a page. It is Kamandi’s stoicism and courage that will see him through many a trial. Luckily his world offers constant new adventures to distract him. Kamandi has a long way to go, however, and his deadliest challenge lay just ahead. The threat will come not from the animals he meets, but from the despair he suppresses in his own heart.