2017 marked the centennial birthday of Jack “The King” Kirby, and the world of comics did not fail to celebrate one of the most important contributors to the medium of any place and time. In addition to the innumerable articles and private tributes, publishers unleashed a torrent of commemorative covers, one-shots, new series, and other events designed to honor an artist who created so much. In the midst of all of these projects, one stood above the rest as the ultimate Jack Kirby tribute of 2017: The Kamandi Challenge.
The Kamandi Challenge was announced in 2016 as a 12-part maxi-series specifically intended to honor Kirby’s centennial. Each issue would be composed of a different artist and writer team, drawn at random from those who wanted to work on the project. No planning between teams was allowed in advance. Instead, each issue would present an impossible cliffhanger for the next set of creators to solve.
The result was something entirely unexpected. Many partners had never worked together before, and every team had to plan for the unexpected while also delivering their own story and challenges. With the final issue landing just days before the end of 2017, it’s clear this project was unique and a grand tribute to Kirby for a few key reasons.
Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth Was Special, Even For Kirby
Many of Jack Kirby’s finest creations came from his later years spent at DC Comics. Marvel superheroes like Captain America and Thor are filling the big screen, but for comics fans it’s his stranger DC heroes and characters that really show just how diverse his concepts were. Whether it’s the horrific The Demon, the epic Fourth World Saga, or the bizarre future of OMAC, Kirby’s DC work is consistently special. Yet amongst all of these titles and a titanic lifetime bibliography, Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth still stands out as being something very special.
Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth was the longest series Kirby created at DC Comics, running a total of 40 issues. Most of his other inventions struggled in their time—not even Mister Miracle or The Demon made it to 20 issues. This also marks Kamandi as the longest running series both written and drawn by Kirby. His work on Fantastic Four and Thor made for some of the longest runs ever, but in Kamandi no collaborators would overwrite or alter Kirby’s intentions on the page.
The series is also notable for highlighting key themes within Kirby’s work. It’s focused on the power of youth, the potent variety and possibility found within an increasingly strange world, and optimism in the face of overwhelming odds. Kamandi is an encapsulation of decades of work that also jumps into new territory for Kirby, leaving all of the trappings of the superhero genre behind. While Kamandi has appeared in the pages of DC Comics events, the series itself was always far beyond the realm of capes. For all of these reasons, it’s clear why Kamandi has held a special place in many other creator’s hearts for so long, and why it was the obvious pick for a tribute series.
The Kamandi Challenge Focused on Creators First
While we still admire and enjoy many of the comics created with Kirby’s characters, the man himself spent much of his life focused on creator’s rights and proper attribution. He was a proponent for building new things and rewarding the people who built them. It’s only right that a series dedicated to his life ought to put those making it at the forefront.
That’s how The Kamandi Challenge was advertised, and it delivered on those advertisements. Rather than packaging the comics as “more Kamandi”, DC Comics emphasized the murderer’s row of artists and writers involved with the project. It’s obvious when reading the series that everyone involved enjoyed the work they were doing and were allowed to show off what makes them unique. Modern writers like Steve Orlando, Tom King, and Marguerite Bennett all do what they do best instead of leaning on Silver Age style. Artists ranging from Kevin Eastman to Amanda Conner contrast styles and make each issue their own.
The result is a series that can be just as engaging in single issues as a whole story. Readers who are familiar with the work of individuals involved are bound to find the same style and traits they seek out in comics already. In the issues with creators they don’t recognize, they may discover something new that encourages them to seek out more work. It’s the individuality of each artist and writer that makes them special, and The Kamandi Challenge emphasizes the worth of individuals over a cohesive, similar whole.
The Concept Encouraged Invention and Creativity
The challenge didn’t just emphasize creators, it pushed them outside of their comfort zones and encouraged them to work with new concepts. In addition to starting each issue with a daunting cliffhanger, creators were supposed to move the story to different areas of the Kamandi world map and set up their own finales. All of this was in addition to crafting a unique narrative.
The results varied, but were consistently enjoyable and compressed in storytelling and ideas. It’s difficult to think of many DC Comics published in 2017 that contained as much story as each issue of The Kamandi Challenge. They moved at lightning speed, often introducing new characters or concepts with every turn of the page.
Yet the heart of the creators involved was never lost, in spite of the incredible pace and density of ideas reminiscent of Kirby’s best work. Just consider The Kamandi Challenge #9 in which Kamandi is trapped in a bizarre lab filled with test subjects and no hope of escape. Writer Tom King and artists Kevin Eastman and Freddie Williams II create an entire biosphere, culture, and mystery, then play it off as both a tribute and grander statement. It’s the sort of single issue that King excels at, and it is perfectly constructed for his collaborators. The result is something that feels fresh and new, speaking to what these artists are capable of—just what the series was intended to accomplish.
That’s why The Kamandi Challenge was the best tribute to Jack Kirby in a year absolutely stuffed with them. It honors a great Kirby concept, celebrates modern creators, and pushes everyone involved to create something new and exciting. There’s simply no better way to honor the legacy of a true comics hero.