Tuesday, May 31, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #11: KAMANDI #30
PLOT-SUMMARY for “UFO: the Wildest Trip Ever”: On Kamandi’s future-Earth, most humans have devolved to animal status while intelligent, humanoid animals now rule the world. Kamandi and his older male friend, mutant Ben Boxer, seek shelter one night in a structure they mistake for an abandoned bunker. In truth it’s a flying saucer, which takes the two Earthmen on a “wild trip” many miles away, to an island that’s little more than a great sand-pit. The saucer’s owner, a humanoid whose features are hidden by his helmet and flight-gear, never communicates with the humans but turns Kamandi and Ben loose on the island. They find that it’s the alien’s repository for assorted objects representing the lost glories of humanity—mostly large sculptures and ancient vehicles, one of which is an airliner full of dead, quick-frozen passengers. Ben deduces that the two of them are to be living “samples” in the alien’s collection. As soon as he hazards that speculation, it’s confirmed as an enormous circular space-warp materializes in the sky and begins sucking the alien’s collection into the sky and swallowing buildings, ocean liners, et al. The humans see no escape but fortunately their investigation of the airliner turns up an “atomic satchel bomb,” which they accidentally activate. The bomb stays aboard the airliner as the warp draws it up, and detonates so as to close off the sky-door. The alien, cut off from his passage home, tries to ray-blast Ben and Kamandi. In the ensuing battle Kamandi ruptures the alien’s suit, and bolts of energy blast out of it, for it turns out that the alien was “living cohesive energy.” Without his suit the alien is out of commission for the time being, but his suit’s explosion exposes Ben to massive amounts of radiation. The story ends on a cliffhanger, as Kamandi finds that Ben has become a giant.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: KAMANDI #30 is the first part of a multi-issue continuity that takes place on the island. This rather rambling storyline involves various adventures for Kamandi and Ben—Ben eventually having his gigantic condition reversed, an invasion by competing animal armies, and Kamandi’s discovery that the nameless alien can become his ally once “he” regains a body—which, as it happens, turns out to be female. Kirby’s assorted plotlines are enjoyable enough but only this first section—almost a stand-alone tale save for the cliffhanger--carries the symbolic resonance of myth.
The story’s first panel includes a caption stating that “an invader stalks the dreams of Kamandi,” and by extension, those of his buddy Ben as well. But though Kirby leaves no doubt that their adventure is not a dream, the entire story has a more dreamlike tone than most KAMANDI stories. Possibly this is because the story is clearly patterned on the various “UFO narratives” that were receiving considerable media-exposure in the 1970s, and skeptics derided these stories as hallucinations or dreams, if not outright lies. In fact, while aboard the saucer Kamandi and Ben are even “probed.” Naturally, given Jack Kirby’s propensities for “G-rated” work, this brief incident carries none of the quasi-sexual content of the UFO-narratives; rather, for two brief panels thin wires extend from the saucer’s walls and attach themselves to the heroes, with one closeup of the wires attaching to their faces.
The opening caption also mentions that Kamandi’s post-disaster Earth “has violently buried the past and created new and terrifying mysteries.” To be sure, the nameless alien and his space-warp aren’t created by the future-Earth’s disaster, but their agency is certainly drawn to Earth out of some unexplained curiosity about mankind’s vanished glories. Many stories in the KAMANDI series, following the pattern suggested by the PLANET OF THE APES films, mediate on such transitory glories, but KAMANDI #30 is the only Kirby tale that takes the APES theme a little further. The image of buried vehicles and statuary in the island’s “sand-pit” is certainly derived from the conclusion of the 1968 film, in which the remnants of Lady Liberty lie half-buried on a sandy beach. However, though PLANET OF THE APES has nightmarish moments, it never seems dreamlike, as KAMANDI #30 does. Kirby’s story could be read in Jungian terms as an “anamnesis,” in which the ego of the viewing subject finds itself hurled into a “collective unconsciousness” consisting of images and icons from mankind’s past.
The space-warp also carries a symbolic resonance that goes beyond its base functionality in the story. Kirby’s captions imply that the warp is the means by which the alien traverses “the vastness of space,” but its principal purpose in the story is to transport the glories of mankind to some undiscovered country. Since Kirby never has the alien explain his purpose, the alien’s enterprise takes on an eerie ambiguity, and the warp seems less like a standard SF-device and more like a numinous presence—a gateway not to an alien world, but to some celestial firmament, into which the detritus of the phenomenal world is being converted back into the nothingness of the originary world. Kirby largely eschews direct religious references in KAMANDI #30, but on page 6 he does describe the saucer in flight as pouring forth “gobbets of angel fire.” Even the fact that the alien has no real body suggests the Judeo-Christian concept of angels that can assume or discard human form at will.
Against such supernormal visitors, Kirby’s humans must rely on dogged perserverance. Throughout the KAMANDI series Kirby alludes to (but does not state outright) the possibility than nuclear weapons contributed to the disaster. Yet the one nuclear knickknack that appears in this story plays an ambivalent role. Though originally intended for the “horrible crime” of slaughtering an airplane full of people, the satchel-bomb saves two humans from being captured or destroyed by alien technology, and so represents a positive aspect of human inventiveness. On page 16 two Kirby-captions suggest the thought processes of the inscrutable alien as he tries to kill Ben and Kamandi: “To deal with ‘men’ is a classic error. They accept nothing—not even death.” Significantly, Ben Boxer—who in other stories displays the power to change into a metallic colossus—uses no more super-power than does Kamandi in wrestling with this intergalactic “angel.” Thus the alien’s incomprehensible designs are defeated by the complementary factors of human insight and human determination.
I mentioned in the first paragraph that in later issues the energy-alien takes on the form of a human female, albeit one with bright crimson skin and able to shoot bolts of cosmic flame. Despite gaining the name “Pretty Pyra” and the ability to speak, Pyra never tells the readers the purpose of her enterprise; only after Jack Kirby left the feature did a later writer venture a full explanation of her mission. This suggests that Kirby didn’t really want to reduce the “UFO” adventure to the level of standard science fiction tropes, though in earlier features, such as GREEN ARROW and CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, he had used such tropes in purely functional fashion. Unfortunately Pyra’s embodiment robs her of her mythic identity. With the help of another Kamandi-ally, the scientist Doctor Canus, Pyra takes on human form by using Kamandi’s own body as a template. However, though this cosmic take on the Frankenstein myth had great potential, Kirby doesn’t establish any meaningful connection between the “Last Boy on Earth” and his fiery “offspring.” Kirby probably meant Pyra to be another iteration of the “cosmic innocent” type so well realized with his Silver Surfer. But Pyra never fits the scope of Kamandi’s earthbound adventures, and her assumption of feminine form seems merely an idle fancy, as her femininity has no impact on future Kirby stories.
Having invoked Jung, I suppose I should note that the “hole in the sky” could in Freudian terms be read as a “cosmic vagina,” devouring instead of giving birth. The fact that the owner of the “hole” turns out to have feminine aspects might partly support such a reading. However, in most of his oeuvre Jack Kirby’s fantasies tended more toward Jungian abstraction than to Freudian concrete physicality. In a 1972 interview republished in THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #52, Kirby’s questioners, in apparent seriousness, state: “Maybe we have dirty minds but the Mother Box means one thing to us and we just wondered if you had that in mind.” Kirby replies that he only noticed the association only when he “really began to think about the label I put on it.” Later in the same interview he doesn’t rule out Freudian interpretations but claims that his main thought was that, “I saw it as gaining simple strength from the mystic. I feel that man has the capacity to gain strength from the mystic, something outside himself, something beyond his body.” This remark makes an excellent gloss on this KAMANDI continuity, for though the hero’s initial encounter with a “mystic ET” is a negative one, in the long run that ET becomes an ally in the adventures of the Last Boy on Earth.