Of the relatively few constants humanity encounters, the unknown may be the one in which plagues the mind most. Perhaps positive, perhaps not; ultimately, the unknown simply is until it isn’t. And once known, yet another unknown rises, succeeding those which came before. Like an incurable disease, a lingering, ever mutating virus, the unknown clings to the individual and societal psyche. It’s inescapable: a cold, clinical machine, caring not if we are ready for it. Prepared or unprepared, it comes to us all the same. But it’s how we deal with the unknown that Tom King (Batman, Mister Miracle, etc.), Kevin Eastman (co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and Freddie Williams II (Batman/TMNT) explore in The Kamandi Challenge #9.
Like all subsequent issues, the last left Kamandi with a life-threatening cliffhanger. Face to face with a gigantic sea serpent, King’s job was to pen Kamandi an escape. Issue nine opens with the main character, having been swallowed by the creature, falling into nothingness. And he continues to fall into darkness until he reaches a door, leading him to a room with several anthropomorphic beings we’ve come to expect from Jack Kirby’s universe. There’s another door in the room, similar to the first, but those who go beyond it are never heard from again. And none leave voluntarily. Every so often the door opens and a wonderfully 1950s-style robot emerges. Silently, without pause or emotion, the machine selects someone and drags him/her into the beyond. No matter how hard they fight or plead with the robot, it takes them all the same, into the unknown.
The animals who’ve been there long before Kamandi understand struggling against the drag is a fool’s errand. And though they explain such to him, Kamandi is prepared for a fight every time. And every time the robot returns, he fails to stop the coming of the unknown. Over the course of 237 days, he watches as everyone is dragged one at a time until he is the only one left. Each of them reacts to the unknown differently, and though animals, they do so in the most human ways imaginable. The question King seems to be asking is “How do we react to that which we don’t know?”
Some cling to past experiences, reminiscing about days gone by. They find comfort in what they understand and relive those memories. The memories are safe because the outcome is known. (The dancing bird)
Some feign strength. They puff out their chests and roar for the unknown to come. They can handle it. They can handle anything, right? Mock bravery is still a mockery. (A Bitteram Brother)
Some find themselves hysterical with fear for those they love. Their lives are secondary to the other. (“Don’t touch my baby!”)
Some create illusions to protect themselves from the unknown. In place of reality, they create and live inside their own fiction. There’s nothing to fear when you fabricate your own existence. (The bird writer)
Some lose the will to continue. They’ve been beaten one too many times, and they no longer understand the point to it all. Defeat has won. (The last Bitteram Brother)
Some find solace in entering the unknown. They’ve lived their lives, watching all those who’ve gone before them, and are ready for what comes next. (Old turtle)
Some fight until the very end. Sure, the unknown may be impossible to avoid, but that won’t stop them from giving it Hell before it arrives. They are stubborn, but they thrive off that stubbornness. (Kamandi)
While others have faith that it is awesome. Maybe no one ever looks back from the unknown after it’s known because there’s nothing better. The unknown should be embraced because the unknown is how we continue our journey. And life is awesome.(The Elephant/Jack Kirby)
The issue concludes with a quote by Kirby. It reads, “I know the names of the stars. I know how near or far the heavenly bodies are from our own planet. I know our own place in the universe. I can feel the vastness of it inside myself. I began to realize with each passing fact what a wonderful and awesome place the universe is, and that helped me in comics because I was looking for the awesome.”
Kamandi has found one horror after another due to the series’s “challenge” format. Everything is against him. He recounts the terribleness he’s faced over the last eight issues, and he knows when he makes it to the unknown, there will be another waiting for him. The precipice always leads to yet another precipice. The unknown is everything. There are many ways to react when encountering the unknown, but might it be glorious if we could all find everything “awesome”?
Eastman and Williams’s style works beautifully with this haunting, existential tale. The robot’s unreadable design is the perfect embodiment of life dragging us into the next chapter in our lives. And the choice to keep the issue black and white only enhances my next claim: This is the greatest Twilight Zone episode that never was.