The Kamandi Challenge Challenge

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.

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Bruce Timm

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…

Review: Scooby-Doo Apocalypse #1

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Jim Lee

DC are launching fix or six Hannah-Barbera comics over the next few weeks, such as an update of Wacky Races which promises to invest the franchise with the post-apocalyptic latex bodysuits it clearly apparently needed. It’s a freakish mix of books, with what looks like a straight-laced version of The Flintstones being the only one of them which seems to be following the original spirit of the cartoons it’s based on. Perhaps.

The big one for me, though, is Scooby-Doo Apocalypse. This is one which retains the color-coding of the characters’ different clothing and not much else, it seems, with the “team of teens tackling a nefarious villain dressed as a monster” concept chucked away in favour of something really, really quite bizarre. Scooby Doo Apocalypse is a series in which the monsters are actually real: the creations of a nanotech virus unleashed on the world by Velma, amongst others.

In the world of the comic, each of the five characters has been updated somewhat. Fred now appears to be clearly coded as gay by the artist but straight by the script; Daphne is a self-invested brand in the Lois Lane fashion; Velma is a cynical scientist who triggers the events of the series as part of a sinister corporation; and Shaggy and Scooby are no longer cowards.

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Those two are the characters who hew closest to their original iterations, with Scooby basically the same he always way – with the addition of a heroic streak and a monocle which projects emoticons for Shaggy to read. That monocle is the strangest choice of the book, actually, because artist Howard Porter’s work is a huge step up from his work with Grant Morrison’s JLA (my only other point of reference for him: I’m not much of a DC reader) and he does a really quite impressive job of giving life and expression to the great dane. Scooby is arguably the most articulate of the entire team in this comic, rendering his emoticons largely irrelevant – I stopped reading them after the first two instances, to be honest, because his face told the story by itself.

What’s confusing to me about the book is where it’s meant to be aimed at. I think… me? I think my sort of age is the reference, because this certainly isn’t a book for kids. Not in the sense that it’s particularly violent or crude (although there was actually a suggestion on the last page that we might a get somewhat less moderate level of violence than you’d want on a Scooby Doo comic) but because the concepts are all just so high-level. Fred’s first few pages have him mention “granola-snorting weirdos”, for instance, before talking about, of all things, Esperanto. I’m in my twenties I have barely any memory of Esperanto! And even that was only because it got mentioned on Red Dwarf.

 

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It’s far too overwritten for younger readers, in other words. Not just because the references are ones only old readers are going to get, but because the wording of each concept is so unnecessarily convoluted and impossible. The basic idea of the comic is that a virus infects people and turns them into monsters, and the team have to stop it. But it’s not described in a simple way like that – instead, Velma strings off this hugely complicated spiel about the virus which uses big words and bigger concepts. Eight year old Steve, I can promise you, had absolutely no interest in googling to find out what a “biological template for a more abundant and peaceful world”is, nor looking up the meaning of words like “self-replicating”, “passivity”, “benevolent” and more. Why, each time, does the script use the most difficult and complex version of every word possible?

So yeah, I think I’m probably more the intended audience than the children who actually y’know, watch Scooby Doo cartoons now. On that level – I’m sort of interested in it? I mean, I’ve watched at least two Sharknado movies, and this brings out the same level of wide-eyed fascination for me. I can’t look away from the comic because I just don’t know what the plan is, how the series is looking to execute that plan, or if they even have a plan right now. The arch, knowing camp of the series when I watched it is replaced with a semi-serious tone that is possibly winking at the readers, or possibly just has something stuck in its eye.

I’m not really sure if the book is intentional or not, right now. I mean sure, you have Keith Giffen and Howard Porter as the central creative team for the series, which is a sign that DC want this to stand alongside all their DC Rebirth titles. At the same time, it’s a comic which sort-of posits that Fred is the nicest member of the team. Fred! In comparison to Velma, whose redesign makes her look like an alt-reality Dr Sivana; or Daphne, who spends the whole issue being furious about everything that happens, regardless of if its actually inconveniencing her or not; or Shaggy, who reads as a clueless and strangely earnest dude who over-explains every situation he’s in; Fred is the one who seems like the underdog here. Daphne even punches him for no reason near the end, just to make us really feel sorry for him, stuck with this nasty bunch.

Scooby comes off like a slightly toned-down version of himself. As I said earlier, that’s mainly because Porter gives him the best expressions and body language of any of them – he’s the most fun character to follow, even when not speaking or the focus of a panel. It’s also partly because he isn’t featured anywhere like as much as the others. He seems to be a supporting character at this point rather than the lead, but we’ll see how that changes over time.

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I do really like the colouring, provided by somebody at Hi-Fi. Porter gives things a Star Wars-esque sense of age and spectacle, with strange background characters passing by in every other panel. The colours could have followed that and used a muted palette, but instead they’re vibrant and bright -making the backgrounds pop and actually giving the book the grown-up effect it’s going for.

It’s such a weird direction for Scooby Doo, though. I don’t dislike it, but I can’t think of anybody I’d really recommend it to? It’s a fun comic at times, with something like a 40% hit rate for the jokes. I like Fred now, somehow. And over the course of an arc, we’ll be able to grasp what exactly the plan is for the book. How does it react to the original cartoons, what will it keep and what will it jettison? DC have taken the most predictable, formulaic comic they had (not criticisms! everybody likes the Scooby formula) and turned the book into the strangest, least predictable title on the shelf.

Scooby Doo Apocalypse #1

Writers: Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMattis

Artist: Howard Porter

Colourist: Hi-Fi

Letterer: Nick J. Nap

Publisher DC Comics

 

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