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The Kamandi Challenge Reminds Us That Superheroes Can Be Art for Art’s Sake

Writers: Dan Didio, Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett
Artists: Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish, Dale Eaglesham
$4.99
DC Comics

The old film company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer famously used the slogan ars gratia artis–“art for art’s sake”–on its company logo for decades. Though ironically used for commercial purposes, the sentiment is worth pondering: that art has intrinsic value on its own and should be enjoyed as such. DC Comics, then, deserves some credit: despite being one of “the big two” commercial comics publishers whose characters mainly exist as a merchandising mechanism, they do occasionally indulge in an “art” project. Even when it feels like 50 percent of the company’s output is Batman, we occasionally get a classy, prestige comic that comes off more as a prestige project than a moneymaker. Justice League vs. Suicide Squad may be the standard summer blockbuster, but projects like Wednesday Comics or Walt Simonson’s The Judas Coin illustrate that the company is willing to put out a product for their own artistic merit–their “Oscar material,” if you will.

The Kamandi Challenge is, transparently, exactly this kind of project, though we’ll have to wait another 11 months before we’ll know if it’s an overall artistic success. A twelve-issue maxi-series, the project plays off a mostly-forgotten idea DC did over 30 years ago. The original DC Challenge series was a similar creator jam where twelve teams of artists and writers each handled an individual issue of an overall story. In any given issue, the creative team would end the story with a cliffhanger, and the next issue’s team would have to resolve it. This was a fun concept to be sure, but not one anyone remembers three decades later (another project called Crisis on Infinite Earths was taking the spotlight at the time).

But now, DC’s decided to bring back the concept with the added twist that it revolves around Jack Kirby’s underutilized Kamandi character. It’d be unfair to call Kamandi a “Planet of the Apes” knock-off, but…well, ok, it’s a Planet of the Apes knock-off, and the impetus for the story actually goes back to a time where DC unsuccessfully tried to get the Apes license. Similarities aside, Kamandi was a late 1970s expression of Kirby’s unbridled creativity with a lone surviving teenage human fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world of mutated animals and an unresolved mystery of how the world–later revealed to be DC’s near-future–became this way.

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This opening salvo of The Kamandi Challenge doesn’t do a lot new with the character. It does establish a new origin for this version of the character, notably departing from Kirby’s original story and any variants we’ve seen to date. It’s still the same basic story, with the character finding himself alone in a fallen world populated by intelligent animals. This issue actually features two challenges: a prologue by Dan Didio and Keith Giffen which homages “the King” in more than one way. “Kirby” himself appears in a fakeout introduction to the character, and Giffen’s art is notably retro, appearing closer to Kirby’s 1970s stylings.

Not even midway into the issue, the story is handed off to Abnett and Eaglesham, who take a slightly more traditional approach to the comic and aren’t homaging Kirby as openly. This doesn’t make the story any worse, but it does illustrate the kind of experience we’re in for, as there is a perceptible shift in style. The thing to keep in mind while reading this story is that Didio intentionally ended his chapter with a “How does Kamandi get out of this one?” moment, and Abnett is responsible for solving it. Keeping the tagline of the comic in mind–“Can You Solve It Before They Do?”–the reader is invited to imagine Kamandi’s escape before turning the page. This is how comics generate tension, but the Kamandi Challenge experience forces the reader to think about it a little harder.

If the creator exchange seems annoying, consider that this sort of thing happens all the time in comics, albeit unintentionally. A creator quits a book mid-story, or is running behind and a fill-in artist is required. Recall that Roger Stern famously left The Amazing Spider-Man before revealing the Hobgoblin’s identity, requiring Peter David to come up with his own solution. (Stern later revealed his intended solution some 15 years later.) Or consider how many X-Men plotlines were introduced and handed among a series of authors over the course of decades.

The Kamandi Challenge is effectively taking that frustrating feature of serialized comics and embracing the madness of it. In a sense, it’s a meta-commentary on the nature of franchise books, but it turns it into a jam session and lets the readers enjoy how creators have to pick up where others leave off.

Whether this entire project will be successful remains to be seen. DC has an impressive lineup, but achieving twelve out of twelve hits is going to be a (no pun) challenge. Then again, Wednesday Comics had its share of misfires, but the overall completed project was unique and acclaimed, and it went on to win a Harvey for best anthology. Kamandi may yet surprise us as another astonishing piece of entertaining art.

Rating: Four Great Disasters Out of Five

About Adam Frey (286 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.
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