Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Coloring Kamandi

It was amazing how much I enjoyed Countdown Special: Kamandi, which reprints issues 1, 10, & 29 from the original Kamandi run in the 1970s. These post–apocalyptic classics were written and drawn by Jack “King” Kirby. I had never read Kamandi: That Last Boy on Earth before (although I wanted to) so it was a real treat. The premise of the story is that some undefined “Great Disaster” has remade the earth. Most Humans have devolved into animals while conversely animals (like tigers, apes and dogs) are intelligent, walk upright, and rule their own empires. The title character is the teenager Kamandi, who adventures across a shattered landscape with his mentor Dr. Canus, and the mutant Ben Boxer. It’s easy to see that Kamandi was heavily influenced by Planet of the Apes, and that it, in turn, informed both Gamma World and Thundarr (which Jack worked on BTW).

Being a post–apocalyptic enthusiast, it makes sense that I would find this enjoyable. I’m even tempted to pick up the new hardcover collections that DC is putting out, and I’ve never been tempted to do that previously. This title really works for me and I like Jack Kirby’s art and storytelling here much more so than his New Gods work. It’s nice to see DC embracing Kamandi again through republishing and by reintegrating him into new storylines. In fact, Kamandi and OMAC (his grandfather) are the only reasons that I’m even remotely interested in the Final Crisis event at all.

When I was reading my copy of Countdown Special: Kamandi, a question struck me: how would Japanese folks respond to the quintessential/classic art style of Jack Kirby? Their experience with comics and their aesthetic tastes are so different I just couldn’t imagine what they might think. Would they like his art? Would they hate it? Could they even relate to it? So I showed some pages to my SO. The exchange went something like this:

Me: “Hey, what do you think of that art in this comic?”
Her: “Hmmm… It’s very busy.”

I thought: “ah, Jack’s dynamic action is too much for her”

Me: “Yeah, this artist is known for his incredible action and powerful figure drawing.”

Her: “the Color is too much, it’s too busy. The background color changes in each panel. It’s distracting”

I thought: “Huh?”

Me: “Ah well, the artist didn’t have anything to do with the color. See, these are comics that originally came out in the ‘70s and…”

But she had lost interest in what I was talking about and went back to reading her book.

That did get me thinking. The bold use of color, which is so common in older comics, was just too visually overpowering for her. She really couldn’t focus on Jack’s art at all. I was kinda stunned but then I remembered that Japanese manga is a black and white medium. The "in-your-face" color had a strong negative impact on her. When for me, it was nearly incidental, particularly because it appeared in a reprint of Kamandi. I recognize that the colorist’s job is much more integrated into the artistic creation of comic books nowadays (computer technology has completely revolutionized the nature of color), but back when Kamandi was first published; it almost seems like an afterthought position. The intent of the coloring process in the days of yore must have been to keep the eyes interested by flashy uses of 4-color shades… whether they matched from panel to panel or not. Looking at the Kamadi pages was such a disharmonious experience for my SO; that the art style didn’t matter at all. For her, the application of color didn’t seem to be thoughtfully considered nor carefully applied. Very interesting. I easily separate Jack’s art from the hues that someone else decided upon, but my SO sees them as one thing. I often have to remind her that American comics are largely a collaborative medium. In the past, my SO has expressed that American comics are too wordy, and bogged down with unnecessary exposition that redundantly describes what’s already visually depicted, but this is the first time she has said anything about color. I guess I gotta’ show her something of Jack’s in black and white to really get her opinion on the his art style. That's sorta' weird for me...



Doctor Smoke said...

I recognise Kirby as a very important artist in comic book art, but I never liked him that much.
I tend to prefer black and white to colour as well, but not because I like manga. I hate manga.
Though I can undertsnad how colour could influence the general impact of a comic book on someone used to black and white.

Doctor Smoke said...

By the way, I hasten to add, before being lynched for speaking ill of Kirby, that I really like the whole Kamandi idea.

ladybug said...

I love color! That's why I like the old comics....some of newer ones seem like pared-down minimalist film boards...

Also, if you look at the panel, they are using alot of opposites (Red/Green, Orange/Blue)

The top Left (RED!) and the bottom Right panel (GREEN) jumped out at me right away...which is the way you would both graphically and visually read the story.

I like the Orange/Yellow blast of the gun and the Blue/Purple guy holding it along w/Last boy's pants!(in the lower left panel)

(Surfer Dude, Surfer Dude...)

I guess just like in the Wizard of OZ, when you come into the world of color, seems magical!

lastvisibledog said...

Kirby did good work and nonsense and everything in between - he was so prolific, that's par for the course - but Kamandi, for me, is his highest point. It was my favorite comic as a kid in the 70s - the only thing that approached it in being special was Howard the Duck. It's just a lot of good, absurd fun - and it was actually still good when Kirby left it and others took over. It's a shame that it got canceled before they finished the story and gave it an ending that was in the spirit of the times . . .

rob! said...

Kirby's an acquired taste if you haven't lived comics your whole life. i showed a drawing of his once to my GF and she was like "that looks weird."

Arkonbey said...

Hmmm. That is an interesting exchange. Perhaps you should use one of the Kirby 'Essentials". As they are B/W, your SO could examine the art.

I wonder if Kirby's colors are better suited to old-school, half-tone on cheap-ass newsprint. I know that my stuff from the seventies has faded nicely so they are so, not as stark as your sample images; I'll bet they were never that saturated to begin with.

Don Snabulus said...

As a person who just saw a Planet of the Apes clip, I should just point out that any shortcomings of Kirby and/or Kamandi are offset by the fact that the Statue of Liberty head is closer to being real size.

Dr. Zaius said...

I remember the original Kamandi. I still have a few issues. At the time I was actually very disapointed in the odd story line. I wanted Kirby to draw Dr. Doom and the Fantastic Four forever. In hindsight, Kamandi was pretty cool.

pissed off patricia said...

Oh my, I have just had a comic artist education here. I really would like to read the Kamandi story you talk about at the beginning of your post. Sounds interesting.

Dean Wormer said...

Excellent post, swine. Never read the original but would love to now.

Fade said...

I just can't stand Kirby's hands. They wig me totally out.

Swinebread said...

Dr S – Hey I didn’t like Kirby when I was younger. So I pretty much felt the same way as you, but slowly over time I started to enjoy his work more and more. Not really a big deal you don’t like the king. As Rob says Kirby’s an acquired taste.

LB – Very good observation. I think there is an esthetic to older comics that draws me in like Modern art. But I think you have to be attuned to it. My SO didn’t grow up with color comics so they look weird to her, like big eyes in manga does to me. I think you could both agree the color is very powerful though.

LVD – Hey thanks for stopping by! You know I have to concur. I never read Kamandi before but it just seems to work on a level that his other stuff didn’t reach. I’ll have to read more to get a better handle on what’s really grabbing me about Kirby’s work on this title. Maybe it’s the 70 post-apocalyptic, maybe it’s all the heartbreak of his life going into this title. I dunno but it’s got my attention now.

I like your site by the way; I really am enjoying your indy comics reviews.

Rob! – too true, “acquired taste” is an astute thing to say. Sometimes there’s a pressure to agree that Kirby is the best thing ever rather than letting folks find him on there own terms. It’s like a book u had to read in HS and realized later that you liked it.

Sanb – Spoken like a true engineer!

Dr. Zaius – I hear that a lot. I missed most of Kirby’s output. His was just some legend by the time I came along and I thought “oh he’s just some guy that draws old look superheroes”… how Little I knew.

POP – If you did read some Kamandi I’d very interested in your reaction. I know the first volume is out in hardcover. But it’s expensive maybe the library or reading it at borders is an option.

Dean – Despite the old comic conventions, I really like this one.

Fade – Look out! He’s got a case of Kirby’s hands.

The Colorman said...

What color?

Swinebread said...

all colors