Starting this year and running through until December, DC have set up a comics project called ‘The Kamandi Challenge’. Established as a tribute to the experimental, pioneering work of Jack Kirby, the challenge asks a rotating creative team each month to pick up from the cliffhanger of the last issue, solve it, and then tell a story which leads to another cliffhanger for the next team to try and wrestle with. With the gauntlet thrown down in January by Kirby super-fans Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen in an opening chapter, subsequent issues will bring in people including Walt Simonson, Gail Simone, Rob Williams, Amanda Conner and Neal Adams to pick it up and run wherever they can.
And as DC are going to revel in their challenge, so I’m going to throw the other gauntlet down. Each issue, I’m going to have a little chat with a different comics critic about what just happened, how it was all put together, and what their thoughts are on how the Challenge is progressing month-to-month. Unlike DC, who have revealed their roster of collaborators, I’m holding this one close to the chest – but it’ll be bringing in some incredibly smart voices to the discussion. This will be the Kamandi Challenge… Challenge.
Chapter 0: “The Rules”
Creative Team: Dan DiDio, Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish, Hi-Fi, Clem Robins
The first issue of the Kamandi Challenge is split into a prologue and a first chapter, with the prologue setting up the starting point for the entire narrative which chapter one will then have to follow up on and ‘solve’. With that prologue only lasting ten or so pages, though, I thought I’d take this one on by myself – so I can give a little of my background knowledge on both Kamandi and Kirby.
I don’t know anything about either Kamandi or Kirby.
With that out the way, the prologue (or “Chapter 0”, as I’ve helpfully named it) for the series reunites the OMAC creative team of Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen back together, a duo who are known for being huge fan and advocates of the King’s work in comics. And as OMAC started with an everyman who then went wildly off the rails in a highly entertaining fashion, so this opening chapter of Kamandi establishes the character as just another young boy. In a thoroughly effective opening page, we see Kamandi wake up late for school, establish quickly that he lives with his grandma, and then rush off without his homework.
That’s a nice piece of business to open the comic with, and establishes the simplistic, reader-friendly style which DiDio tends to try and write with. He’s not hugely ambitious in the way he puts together characters, instead using established templates – the clumsy, spirited young kid with a heart of gold – to serve as the gateway into silly tangents. DiDio’s simplistic approach also plays into the old-fashioned stylings of Giffen’s artwork, which makes the sequence feel like a throwback to previous comic eras.
It quickly transpires that Kamandi is the only kid in his town who is actually a human, as aliens descend from the sky in a surprisingly poorly-drawn panel which looks incoherent and throws the reader off as they try to follow what’s going on when the prologue quickly changes pace from being a vaguely sinister 1950s small-town piece into a sci-fi invasion saga. Kamandi himself runs back home, chased by aliens and finding out that everybody else in town is a robot sent to protect him, before his grandma throws him into a portal and blows up the family home so none of the aliens can chase him.
Things escalate very quickly, in other words. It’s a shame there isn’t more space to let this story breathe, but at the same time it feels as though DiDio and Giffen would likely struggle to make the story work over a longer frame. The shortened nature of a prologue likely protects them from exposing their somewhat weak hand in this opening storyline, because there’s really not much going on beyond a quick disorientation of the reader. In other words: it does exactly what a prologue needs to, but doesn’t offer much beyond that. A few random phrases are told to the reader, but because the story shifts in tone three times over around ten pages, there’s not much reason yet to care about any hints being set up for the future. For the time being, the readers are still trying to re-orientate themselves – the comic doesn’t leave any space for character development after that first page.
So it’s a wild starting point for the story, which literally includes Jack Kirby as one of the robotic townspeople looking to keep Kamandi safe and ends with the kid growing out his hair, losing a shirt, and developing a six-pack as he teleports to a foreign planet and is immediately thrown into gladiatorial combat with a gorilla. It’s incredibly silly stuff, and yet there’s a lot of charm in just how bizarre the team are willing to take their narrative in such a short amount of time.
I may have never read a Kamandi comic before in my life, but this first chapter offers a change in tone from anything else DC publish right now, and for that it holds my interest. Let’s just see where we find ourselves in twelve months, though…