Friday, June 7, 2013

Every month is Kamandi Month: A brief on Ben Boxer

Not long after his capture by Great Caesar's tiger troops in Kamandi #1 (October 1972), Kamandi meets and befriends Dr. Canus, a dog with an advanced degree of some kind and his good pal, the apparently human Ben Boxer.  Except Boxer has to wear an old NASA spacesuit to keep from going Chernobyl and killing thousands.  Kamandi decides beggars can't be choosers when they're looking for people to talk to and tags along with Boxer for an adventure among the rats who scavenge along the outskirts of the Tiger Empire.

Since Kamandi is subtitled "The Last Boy on Earth" rather than "The Last Boy Sidekick on Earth," his relationship with Boxer proves intermittent.  They're always finding themselves separated.  Kind of like Gene Wilder from the train in the movie Silver Streak.  You hope poor Wilder would just stay on the damned thing for once, and that Kamandi and Boxer would stick together for Kamandi's sake because this book is downright scary when he's alone against all kinds of talking animals and weird little rat-things that want to kill him just for having incredible hair.  I can't imagine any of their other adventures topping their second escapade, though.  It reduces Syd Barrett's post-Floyd lyrics to the banality of corporate sales reports by comparison.

Before that happens, Boxer and his companions Steve and Renzi take a powder in Kamandi #4 (March 1973).  They leave our hero to fend for himself (and read old Kirby comics he finds lying around outside Las Vegas) and for the next few issues we follow along as Kamandi finds a new friend in Prince Tuftan, falls in love, loses said love, battles apes, lives through Kirby's take on the classic 1933 film King Kong and then runs into Ben Boxer and buddies again in #8 (August 1973).  This time they take Kamandi along with them to their home and things become epic. Not Internet epic, but truly epic.  Behold:

We find out in Kamandi #9 (September 1973) Boxer, Steve and Renzi live in a floating sphere called simply Tracking Site, no definite article.  Like Boxer, Steve's a clean-cut guy who looks like he should be playing first base for the 1961 New York Yankees.  Renzi, however, resembles a refugee from Swingin' London with his Paul McCartney pudding bowl hair and George Harrison beard.  They don't live at Tracking Site alone, however.  They share the immediate neighborhood with a lot of rabid human-sized bats who wear clothes but otherwise appear to be completely feral.  And for some reason there's a freaky little homunculus called the Misfit (he gets a definite article) who rooms there with them, too.

About the Misfit.  His name recalls Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," but in appearance and behavior he also seems related in some way to Phillip K. Dick's malignant mutant character Hoppy Harrington in his novel Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965).  In a flashback from Kamandi #10 (October 1973), we see Boxer, Steve, Renzi and the Misfit (their brother?) as youngsters.  The Misfit lives inside some kind of artificial external womb and begs to be freed.  As an adult, with his stunted arms, his blue skin and stunted limbs hint at some oxygen-deprived gestation period-- but that doesn't explain his fuzzy orange cranium.

How does one get to Tracking Site?  By balloon.  Tracking Site hangs suspended over a cratered area that once was Central America.  The three amigos travel the world gathering info and plugging it into the NASA Mind, a huge computer charged with collating this data (for reasons Kirby never completely goes into) and they always come back by balloon.  Their return from these each of these missions invariably involves an elaborate recreation of an Apollo-era splashdown, complete with a replica aircraft carrier and an all-robot welcome from the Serviteks, humanoid robots who see to the daily operations of Tracking Site.  It's to honor their NASA ancestors, according to Boxer.

But all is not well at Tracking Site and we see Kamandi has picked the wrong time to visit.  The Misfit has reprogrammed the Serviteks into his personal army and sics them on Kamandi and chums.  He has the most adorable little baby-carrier strapped to Kamandi's neck and hops right in.  At the same time he hectors Kamandi with a sinister monologue and lasciviously paws his captive's luxuriant golden locks.  Obviously, with a name like the Misfit, he was predestined to create problems.  In fact, his plan is to make life not just difficult but literally impossible for everyone on earth by releasing the Morticoccus germ, a huge slimy organism responsible for wiping out all the NASA scientists who once lived at Tracking Site, including Boxer's father.  Then the bats break in and things degenerate into the comic book equivalent of the LSD-fueled (was there ever any other kind?) Hunter S. Thompson road trip to the Mint 400 from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I wonder if Kirby hadn't meant Boxer, Steve and Renzi for a book of their own and decided to plug them into Kamandi.  You know, just some idea he'd been toying around with before putting it back in the pile of about ten thousand others.  Somehow it caught his attention again one day and he couldn't contain himself.  There's certainly more than enough set-up here for a series, yet Kirby confidently disposes with it in two issues before making up even more wild situations and talking critters.  Think about it-- three radioactive astronauts with technology so advanced it could almost pass for magic.  Plus they can turn themselves into metal.  They live in a floating super-science wonderland and spend their days searching the world for even more knowledge.  That's a solid concept with a lot of story potential.  Of course, Kirby had already done something with at least a passing similarity in New Gods, but with quasi-mythical/sci-fi demi-gods instead of astronauts.  Maybe Kirby felt astronauts were too prosaic to carry their own book even if they do have hearts that emit pure atomic energy.

Anyway, with the end of the Morticoccus story, Ben Boxer and Kamandi part ways for a while.  But we haven't seen the last of Boxer.  There's a little matter of Superman's underwear Kirby would have the two of them investigate in a later issue of Kamandi.

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