For nearly 60 years, time-traveling malcontent Kang — who makes his screen debut in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania this week after a teasing in Season 1 of Loki — has been a staple of Marvel Comics. But if you mention his name to a Marvel fan, don’t be surprised if a certain familiar look comes into his eyes; that glassy, blank, mid-distant 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 a bad guy from trying. This week, Polygon celebrates all forms of sci-fi villains because someone has to (or else).
Trouble is, with his one-dimensional villainy and retro Silver Age sneer, Kang has become synonymous with impenetrable storylines that are about 10 steps too complicated for their own good: navel-gazing, self-centered comics, self-obsessing continuity around for the sake of continuity. You would think if you were a multidimensional warlord from the distant 3000 AD life would at least be interesting. But ironically, boredom is a sentiment Kang himself would be the first to sympathize with.
This, dear reader, is a ruthless crime greater than any Kang himself could have imagined. There’s nothing boring about a garishly costumed, flamboyant, over-the-top multidimensional time traveler who regularly dresses up as an Egyptian pharaoh for fun. All in all, when Kang is recognized for what he is: the dumbest fucking villain in the Marvel Multiverse, Kang is great.
Who is Kan?
Image: Marvel Studios
Born Nathaniel Richards in a distant 31st century where war, conflict and struggle are unknown, the man who would become the conqueror found everything utterly and infinitely boring. Determined to emulate the exploits of the great warlords of Alexander and Genghis Khan, he sped backwards through time for the cheap thrill of conquering anything and everyone in his path. (If you’re wondering, Kang is a distant descendant of Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, but that’s less of a core building block of his character and more of a trifle.)
For comics writer Kurt Busiek, that simple premise is key to figuring out what makes Kang interesting in the first place. As the author of more than one major Kang story during his tenure on the Avengers title, Busiek would be the first to admit that he has, in his words, “some skin in it” when it comes to the character. But as he emails Polygon, “I think he works best when he’s not treated like some generic time-travelling villain… Any story where Kang uses time travel to sneak around and set things up so he’s in some.” Cases easily wins conflict seems to miss the point of the character to me. He just doesn’t want it. If he had done that, he could have stayed at home.”
Busiek has got to the bottom of the powerful secret of good Kang stories throughout history, the fundamental fact about the character that so many writers seem to overlook. Kang the Conqueror is ridiculous. He’s messy over the top and extravagantly 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 technologies. He’s glorious, willful, and uncompromisingly weird. And that’s exactly how Marvel should keep him.
To understand this central weirdness, you have to go back and look at Kang’s very first comic book appearance – a story in which he isn’t Kang at all.
Born in Arizona (in the year 3000)
Image: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics
In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were just beginning their most fruitful years of creative partnership. Nevertheless, they already had it in them to create the periodic glimmer of insane genius in their works. In this year’s Fantastic Four #19, the foursome travel back to ancient Egypt in search of lost medical technology, only to be immediately captured by soldiers of the mad pharaoh Rama-Tut: in reality a megalomaniac, ray-cannon-wielding time traveler.
Every part of Rama-Tut is unmistakable and seemingly willfully ridiculous, from a panel showing him drawing inspiration from the television cowboy dramas of the 1950s to his getup, which heavily resembles the costume of a Steve -Martin routine from 1978. Most impressively, the time machine he takes back in time turns out to be the actual, literal Sphinx: the panel showing him causing the monument to make a cracking bang after zooming through spacetime remains six Decades later a thing of beauty.
Image: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics
So, right from the start, there was nothing about Rama-Tut that readers were expected to take particularly seriously, even by the standards of Silver Age Marvel Comics. He was also a character who might just as easily have been forgotten had not a strange and surprising decision been made less than a year later. In 1964’s Avengers #8, the team of Kirby and Lee introduce us to an unabashedly confident warlord from the future who is determined to take on some of Earth’s greatest heroes.
This is Kang for the first time in the identity and purple adorned costume we first met him in. And right from the start, he displays all the absurd extra personality you might expect, from his sexy, arrogant carelessness to his sickening certainty about his own success. When we first see him, he’s lounging like a Playboy centerfold on an invisible flying beanbag and nonchalantly declaring, “No need for such unseemly speed! Time means nothing to Kang the Conqueror!!” (Thor’s deadpan reply, “I find his confidence disconcerting,” is a paragon of perfect comic timing from Stan Lee.)
Image: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics
But most important of all is a surprising revelation: Kang is nothing more than a future version of Rama-Tut, who was thrown off course on his way back from Egypt and shot into his own future before returning to our own present. That was unusual! A bit of an unexpected and totally unnecessary continuity shortcut that gave a simple character just enough dizzying complications to be insane in an early ’60s sort of way. It was a brilliant weird move by Kirby and Lee, and made Kang just bizarre enough to become a fixture in Marvel heaven.
And it was about to get even stranger, because two months later, Lee (this time along with Kirby’s backup journeyman, Don Heck) introduced a third time-travelling scamp, this time named Immortus. Contrary to the immediate Kang/Tut connection, Lee was unlikely to have any inkling at this early stage that he was multiplying Kang’s identity yet again.
And yet they were, despite everything, which brings us to the next absurd thing we need to understand about Kang: No matter how much anti-continuity readers might hate him, it’s not nearly as much as he hates himself.
Time can change me
Image: Stan Lee, Don Heck/Marvel Comics
About a decade after Kang and Immortus were first introduced in Avengers, writer Steve Englehart decided to create a connection between the two characters, noting that Immortus was actually the furthest future iteration of Kang, mature and now destined to stop the more catastrophic mistakes of his brazen, stupid younger self.
Englehart explained his reasoning to Polygon via email: “When I wrote my first Kang story, people told me nobody had ever written a coherent time travel story; There were always things that didn’t go together. I did my best to solve this myself and I think any Kang story that connects all the dots has the potential to be good, while any story that wasn’t thought through to the end will never get there. “
Englehart’s editor and predecessor as Avengers writer Roy Thomas agrees, explaining via email, “Most of the time, any time travel story needs to involve the reader in solving a historical question or in bringing about (or avoiding!) a specific historical outcome. That was the basis […] of the few Kang stories I’ve written.”
Small wonder, then, that writers from Englehart’s time to our own day have increasingly made stopping his own alternate self one of Kang’s central concerns. Years later (or maybe earlier, we’re talking Kang, after all), writer Allan Heinberg and artist Jim Cheung introduced the character of Iron Lad in their 2005 Young Avengers: a replacement junior Iron Man, revealed (to the surprise of both both the reader and teammates) of being a teenage version of Kang desperate to avoid his future as a villain.
Image: Allan Heinberg, Jim Cheung/Marvel Comics
Kiddie Kang may not have succeeded, timelines were cruel bastards after all, but his desperate war against his adult self remains one of the purest Kang stories of recent years. And if all that twisting and turning through the timeline sounds like more trouble than it’s worth, don’t worry: Kang has a solution for that, too.
From Kang’s earliest days, Marvel has had the wisdom to accept the contradictions and time loops in his bio for what they are: gloriously silly and downright bizarre. Consider the early instance (from Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four Annual #2) where Rama-Tut has a chance encounter with the time-lost villain Doctor Doom while floating through space-time. After briefly contemplating killing each other, the two are stopped by a sudden freak that they may actually be the same person from different points in the time stream. The ensuing confrontation is the Kirby/Lee sci-fi version of your best stoned dorm talks. It could be the greatest Marvel Comics sequence ever published.
Indeed, so many Kangs populated the various Marvel timelines and multiverses, and so many writers turned to the trope as a simple shorthand or story escape card, that the situation became untenable for characters and editors alike. With this in mind, writers Roger Stern and Walt Simonson, along with artist John Buscema, introduced the Council of Timespanning Kangs, a Kang gang composed of all timelines and dedicated to reconciling the unruly Kangs and their universes . The gathering proves large enough to fill an arena, hooting and hollering their way to world domination.
Image: Walter Simonson, John Buscema/Marvel Comics
It’s the craziest concept in a career dedicated to them, and it exemplifies the Kang ethos in a nutshell: Kang is everything, everywhere, and everyone he needs to be. It’s always too much and doomed to fail, but that doesn’t matter. First of all, the fun lies in the idiocy.
When Kang stories fail, it’s because modern comic writers, working in the shadow of the Watchmen and Dark Knight and believing that comics aren’t just for kids, can’t reconcile the idea that stories are beautiful by grace become their unabashed stupidity. They trip over themselves because they feel what Kang himself never feels: Kang being embarrassed.
You might do well to remember Busiek’s words of wisdom when it comes to the character. “He’s not Dr. Doom, he’s not Red Skull, he’s not Magneto,” says Busiek. “He’s Alexander the Great in purple pinstripe hipster boots at the head of a sci-fi army. And every fight is about life, because otherwise you don’t really live.”
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