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I was part of an improv comedy company in Manhattan back in the 1990s, and The Kamandi Challenge #2 really reminds me of that experience. For those of you unfamiliar with this recent DC series designed as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby, the concept is both simple and wonderfully novel. Each issue features a different creative team tackling Kirby’s whackadoodle DC creation Kamandi, with each issue closing on a cliffhanger and no further game plan left for the next team to tackle the subsequent issue.
There were moments when I was in that improv comedy company when your scene partner or the night’s host or audience member would deliberately leave you with an impossible situation that you as a performer had to think yourself out of. And though you usually thought to yourself, “You utter bastard,” the challenge would force you to be inventive and bold and without fear in inventiveness. Those situations would invariably result in moments of sublime brilliance or complete and total crap. There was nothing in between if you didn’t play it safe, and you invariably couldn’t. The Kamandi Challenge #2, left with a kooky cliff-hanger from the previous issue, doesn’t play it safe, and the result is another issue of totally bonkers fun as long you get into the spirit of the series.
If you’re looking for a strong storyline with lots of cohesion and dramatic shape, may I suggest you look, oh, anywhere else? This is not the series for that. And this issue’s creative team of Peter J. Tomasi and legendary artist Neal Adams understand that, and immediately set about just trying to elevate the plot into crazy areas and revelations. Issue #1 ended with Kamandi captured by evolved animals who misguidedly are trying to set off a nuclear weapon thinking it to be some kind of God.
Tomasi and Adams don’t quite totally ignore that set-up, giving us some initial pages that try to resolve that dilemma and allowing Adams to show that, despite a style that feels occasionally outdated (only because other artists spent decades emulating him) he can still construct action scenes with a combination of realistic human figures and heightened kinetic dynamism. He’s a master for a reason, and though I’ll concede that perhaps he’s past his prime, the level of his art now is more rich and confident and bold than many other artists who excel at pin-ups and poses. He can tell a story with his art, and when paired with a solid scripter (like Tomasi, or really anyone other than Adams himself who is, shall we say, unconventional) he can still put together sequential images that kick ass. The opening action sequence featuring Kamandi trying to avert nuclear armageddon burst with energy you can almost feel as if it were a film.
As for that story, this is a series that relies far more on inventiveness and fearlessness than a cohesive narrative and effective plotting. If you come to The Kamandi Challenge #2 with the latter in mind, you’re bound to be disappointed with its simplicity. But, what the series and this issue does showcase is an old-school kind of comic book storytelling that dominated the Golden, Silver and much of the Bronze Ages of comics. Namely, making sure the customer felt good about plonking down their hard-earned allowance pennies for that issue. Not a trade, not an ongoing storyline, but rather a couple dozen pages of bizarre adventures and exciting action that held no limits in terms of imagination of plausibility. And Tomasi recognizes that and fulfills the requirement. He dispenses with the cliff-hanger of the previous issue with economy but not contempt and then sets about scripting twists and turns that seem to be direct challenges and gleeful swipes at subsequent creative teams. There’s almost a “let’s see you get out of THIS!” vibe to the issue. And that is the quality that reminded me of the delectable terror that improv theatre among talented company-mates would bring about. It would absolutely devour the pedestrian among us (who didn’t last long) but it would also elevate the game of those who had talent.
Look, not every issue of this title is going to cook. Some are going to fall flat. But Tomasi and Adams nail the concept and the aims of the challenge. The Kamandi Challenge #2 is a hard book to review in a way, as I’ve wound up evaluating the conceptual rewards of the book rather than the issue itself. But this is an issue with different aim than most books. The process IS the point in many ways here, and what matters is how inventive and bold the creators can be in kicking the ball down the field. In that regard, Tomasi and Adams do an admirable job. 8.5/10