For nearly 60 years, the time-traveling malcontent Kang — who makes his big-screen debut in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania this week after a tease in Loki season 1 — has been a staple of Marvel Comics. Yet if you mention his name to a Marvel fan, don’t be surprised if a certain familiar look comes into their eye; that glazed, vacant, middle-distance stare of instant apathy that can only mean:
“Oh, God. Kang again?”
In space, no one can hear you scream — but that doesn’t stop an evil-doer from trying. This week, Polygon celebrates all forms of sci-fi villainy because someone has to (or else).
The trouble is that Kang, with his one-dimensional villainy and retro-Silver Age sneering, has become synonymous with impenetrable storylines that are about 10 steps too complicated for their own good: navel-gazing, self-referential comics that obsess over their own continuity for continuity’s sake. You would think, if you were a multidimensional warlord from the far-flung year of 3000 A.D., that life would at least be interesting. But boredom, ironically, is a sensation that Kang himself would be the first to sympathize with.
This, readers, is an unconscionable crime greater than any Kang himself could have devised. There is, or ought to be, nothing boring about a garishly costumed, flamboyantly over-the-top, multidimensional time-traveler who periodically dresses up like an Egyptian pharaoh for kicks. All of which is to say, Kang is great when Kang is recognized for what he is: the silliest damned villain in the Marvel multiverse.
Who is Kang?
Born Nathaniel Richards in a distant 31st century where war, conflict, and struggle are unknown, the man who would become the Conqueror found it all utterly, interminably dull. Resolving to emulate the deeds of great warlords from Alexander and Genghis Khan onward, he thus jetted backward through time for the cheap thrill of conquering everything and everybody in his path. (If you’re wondering, Kang is a distant descendant of Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, but that’s less a central building block of his character and more a piece of trivia.)
For comic writer Kurt Busiek, that simple premise is the key to unlocking what makes Kang interesting in the first place. As the writer of more than one major Kang storyline during his tenure on the Avengers title, Busiek would be the first to admit that he has, in his words, “some skin in the game” when it comes to this character. But as he tells Polygon via email, “I think he works best when he isn’t treated as some generic time-traveling villain… Any story where Kang uses time travel to sneak around and set things up for him to win easily in some coming conflict seems to me to miss the point of the character. He doesn’t want easy. If he did he could have stayed at home.”
Busiek has homed in on the powerful secret to good Kang stories throughout history, the basic fact about the character that so many writers seem to miss. Kang the Conqueror is ridiculous. He is chaotically over-the-top and flamboyantly evil, and he’s the first person in the world to admit it. He doesn’t even have superpowers: Just an endless array of deus ex machina future tech. He is gloriously, willfully, and unapologetically weird. And that’s just the way Marvel should keep him.
To understand that central weirdness, you need to go back and look at Kang’s very first comic appearance — a story in which he isn’t even Kang at all.
Born in Arizona (in the year 3000)
In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were still just at the cusp of their most fruitful years of creative partnership. Even so, they already had it in them to produce the periodic glimmer of mad genius in their work. In that year’s Fantastic Four #19, the foursome travel back in time to ancient Egypt in search of lost medical technology, only to be immediately taken captive by soldiers of the mad Pharaoh Rama-Tut: in actual fact, a megalomaniacal, ray gun-wielding time-traveler.
Every part of Rama-Tut is unignorably, and seemingly deliberately, ridiculous, from a panel showing him drawing his inspiration from 1950s TV cowboy dramas to his getup that strongly resembles the costume from a 1978 Steve Martin routine. Most impressively of all, the time machine he takes back to the past turns out to be the actual, literal Sphinx: the panel showing him bringing the monument to a crashing thud after zipping through space-time remains a thing of beauty six decades later.
Even at the outset, then, there was nothing about Rama-Tut that readers would have been expected to take particularly seriously, even by the standards of Silver Age Marvel Comics. He was also a character that might have been just as easily forgotten, were it not for an odd and surprising decision just shy of one year later. In 1964’s Avengers #8, the Kirby and Lee team introduce us to a brazenly self-confident warlord from the future, intent on picking a fight with the Earth’s greatest heroes.
This, for the first time, is Kang in the identity and purple-bedecked costume in which we’d come to know him. And right out of the gate, he exhibits all the preposterously extra personality you might expect, from his sexily arrogant insouciance to his obnoxious certainty in his own success. When we first catch sight of him, he’s lounging like a Playboy centerfold on what can only be described as an invisible flying beanbag chair, and lackadaisically declaring, “No need for such unseemly speed! Time means nothing to Kang, the Conqueror!!” (Thor’s deadpan reply, “I find his confidence disturbing,” is a model of perfect Stan Lee comic timing.)
But most important of all is a surprise reveal: Kang is none other than a future version of Rama-Tut, having been knocked off course on his way back from Egypt and shot forward to his own future before zipping back to our own present. This was unusual! A bit of unexpected, and totally unnecessary, linking of continuity that gave a simple character just enough head-spinning complication to be mind-trippy in an early-’60s sort of way. It was a brilliant, oddball move from Kirby and Lee, and it made Kang just bizarre enough to become a fixture in the Marvel firmament.
And it was about to get weirder, because two months later, Lee (this time alongside journeyman Kirby replacement Don Heck) introduced a third time-traveling ne’er-do-well, this one going by the name Immortus. Unlike the immediate Kang/Tut connection, it’s unlikely that Lee had any idea at this early stage that he was multiplying Kang’s identity yet again.
And yet, despite themselves, they were, which brings us to the next absurd thing we need to understand about Kang: No matter how much continuity-loathing readers might hate him, it’s not nearly as much as he hates himself.
Time can change me
Roughly a decade after Kang and Immortus were first introduced in Avengers, writer Steve Englehart opted to draw a connection between the two characters, establishing that Immortus was, in fact, the farthest-future iteration of Kang, mellowed out and now dedicated to stopping the more disastrous mistakes of his brash, boneheaded younger self.
Englehart explained his reasoning to Polygon via email: “When I wrote my first Kang story, people told me no one had ever written a coherent time travel story; there were always things that didn’t connect. I tried my best to solve that myself, and I think any Kang story that connects all the dots has the potential to be good, while any story that hasn’t been thought all the way through is never gonna get there.”
Englehart’s editor and predecessor as Avengers writer, Roy Thomas, concurs, explaining via email, “Any time travel story mostly just has to involve the reader in either solving an historical question or in bringing about (or avoiding!) a particular historical outcome. That was the basis […] of the handful of Kang stories I wrote.”
No surprise, then, that writers have increasingly made halting his own alternate selves one of Kang’s central preoccupations from Englehart’s day to our own. Years later (or maybe earlier, this is Kang we’re talking about, after all), writer Allan Heinberg and artist Jim Cheung would introduce the character of Iron Lad in their 2005 Young Avengers: an ersatz junior Iron Man, revealed (to the surprise of both readers and teammates) to be a teen version of Kang desperate to avoid his future of villainy.
Kiddie Kang may not have been successful, timelines being cruel bastards in the end, but his desperate war against his adult self remains one of the most purely enjoyable Kang stories in recent years. And if all of this twisting and turning through the timeline is starting to sound like more trouble than it’s worth, don’t worry: Kang has a solution to that, too.
From Kang’s earliest days, Marvel has had the wisdom to embrace the contradictions and time loops in his biography for what they are: gloriously stupid and perfectly bizarre. Consider the early instance (from Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four Annual #2) in which Rama-Tut has a chance encounter with fellow time-lost villain Doctor Doom while floating through space-time. After briefly considering killing one another, the two of them are halted in their tracks by a sudden freakout that they might actually be the same person from different points in the timestream. The ensuing standoff is the Kirby/Lee sci-fi version of your best stoned dorm room conversation. It might be the greatest Marvel Comics sequence ever published.
Indeed, so many Kangs ended up populating the various Marvel timelines and multiverses, and so many writers turned to the trope as an easy shorthand or story escape card, that the situation gradually became untenable for character and publisher alike. So it was with this in mind that writers Roger Stern and Walt Simonson, alongside artist John Buscema, introduced the Council of Cross-Time Kangs, a Kang Gang assembled from across all timelines, dedicated to keeping the unrulier Kangs and their universes in line. The gathering turns out to be big enough to fill a whole-ass arena, hootin’ and hollerin’ their way to world domination.
It’s the most bonkers concept in a career devoted to them, and it exemplifies the Kang ethos in a nutshell: Kang is everything, everywhere, and everybody he needs to be. It’s always, constantly, too much, and therefore doomed to failure, but that doesn’t matter. The fun is in the idiocy to begin with.
So when Kang stories fail, it’s because latter-day comic writers, working in the shadow of Watchmen and Dark Knight and the conviction that comics aren’t just for kids, can’t wrap their heads around the notion of stories becoming beautiful by grace of their unabashed stupidity. They trip over themselves by feeling the one thing Kang himself never feels: embarrassed by Kang.
They might do well to remember Busiek’s words of wisdom when it comes to the character. “He’s not Dr. Doom, he’s not the Red Skull, he’s not Magneto,” Busiek says. “He’s Alexander the Great in purple pinstriped hip boots at the head of a sci-fi army. And every battle is do or die, because otherwise you ain’t really alive.”