Note: I realized I left this series hanging and didn't adequately wrap it all up. Seeing as how Synchronicity insisted I do so- in its own inimitable way- here's the coup de grace for what was an unexpectedly popular breakthrough series.
As I've said too many times here, my first Kirby purchase was Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth #30. It wasn't the first Kirby comic I remember reading, however.
An interesting sequence of events, starting with Mike Clelland posting an absolutely stunning Graham Hancock lecture on the "stoned ape theory" led to that first Kirby read appearing to materialize out of thin air at the exact same point I needed to re-read it.
As longtime readers know, Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth #30 featured the momentous story "UFO, the Wildest Trip Ever," a story with seemingly endless synchonistic reverberations. There's an obvious double-entendre at work; "trip" meaning both the journey Kamandi and his mutant mentor Ben Boxer take after being abducted by an energy-being who traveled to Earth via a Stargate, but also the psychedelic meaning of "trip" as well.
Kirby was always an astonishingly imaginative man, but only the most blinkered skeptic can look at the radical transition his work took around 1965/1966 and not recognize that something else-- some other extraordinarily powerful influence-- changed his interior landscape for good.
Kirby's cosmic visions were not only a huge influence on comics, they were also a huge influence on the psychedelic art movement as well. Indeed, his work would get only more cosmic and more shamanic, long after Psychedelia went out of fashion (and it was only in fashion for a matter of months before the radicals and social realists swept it out to the margins during the convulsions of 1968).
You can see the transformation in the pages of The Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3; it starts off with fairly standard superheroics and before you know it you're bombarded with visions of gods and the deep cosmos, of unimaginable technology clashing with brute rage.
What's so remarkable is the vessel these visions chose to express themselves through; a quiet, modest combat vet from the mean streets of the Lower East Side, who was often dismissed as an "idiot savant" (according to Art Spiegelman) or "a strange little man sealed in his own imagination" (according to one of his coworkers in animation) or "Jack the Hack" (according to the fanboys after his work fell out of fashion).
While his contemporaries were in awe of his skills, they generally dismissed him as a case of arrested development, and not a particularly bright case at that. It wouldn't be until a new generation of creators- people like Bruce Timm, Frank Miller, Alex Ross and Jim Lee- took control that Kirby's post-Silver Age genius would be rediscovered.
And it's not as if Kirby was some kid who was coming into his own. By the time his psychotronic freakout kicked in, he'd been drawing comics professionally for 30 years. This kind of metamorphosis isn't just unprecedented for comics, I can't think of a parallel in the arts in general. It was a reversal of the usual model, the wild experimentation of youth giving way to a comfortable rut in middle age.
Like his psychic peers in other fields-- Max Ernst, David Bowie and William S. Burroughs-- Kirby took to the randomizing power of collage to express his cosmic epiphanies. Like them, Kirby was fixated on aliens and gods and alien gods, and like them he changed the rules of his field forever.
Now back to that first Kirby story I remember reading- it was in that issue of Marvel Collector's Item Classics pictured above. There were two Kirby stories in that book, one a Fantastic Four story and the other an early Hulk yarn. When I was a kid the star of the show was the Doctor Strange story, all the more so since he tangles with Loki and Thor.
I enjoyed the FF story but it wasn't until the comic showed up on the floor in my hallway the other day-- don't ask me how or why-- that I realized how crucial it was to this little exegesis we're undertaking here.
Specifically we see the FF menaced by a sentient fireball (which later re-appear in the storyline begin in Kamandi #30), which turns out to be an interdimensional gateway (ditto) to the lair of the alien giant known as the Watcher (read this important piece on the ancient Watchers, written by the late, great Filip Coppens). The Watcher has abducted the FF into his non-Euclidean alien dimension to warn them of the threat posed by a mad scientist (read: evil wizard) called the Molecule Man...
...who is the least interesting part of the story. But by the same token he is not only an evil wizard, he also falls into that sci-fi fairy template- wand and all- that we looked at in the "Eldritch" chapter of this series. All the more so since the Watcher later uses that sentient fireball to remove the villain from this dimension after he is outfoxed by Reed Richards. As in any classic fairy story, the magical outsider can only be fooled into defeating himself.
Of course, what caught my attention is that my two Kirby firsts both deal with this idea of sentient plasma recently explored by Andrew Collins in his book Lightquest. From an interview with Collins:
I propose that during UFO close encounters we enter what might be described as isolated bubble universes, or drive-through universes, where the interaction between human consciousness and plasma-based environments come together to create virtual worlds of our own making, based on our present conception of what we expect to experience under such traumatic and otherworldly circumstances.What Collins writes about 2012, Stan and Jack were doing fifty years previously. But it was that Hancock lecture that put me back on the trail of how these things seem to manifest themselves outside of time and space, in much the same way that comic seemed to manifest itself on the floor beneath a bookcase just as these issues re-entered my thinking.
If this truly is what happens, then the only good explanation would have to involve a progressive understanding of quantum entanglement, i.e. non-local communication, in which whole systems of twinned particles are able to transfer information back and forth in an instant of time. Under such conditions a shifted reality that might present itself as the interior of a spacecraft, the realm of faerie or even the heavenly paradise, might come into being, and be very real indeed. Yet in fact it is a mental projection existing temporarily within a higher dimensional reality attached to highly energetic light forms.
Jack Kirby was undoubtedly a shaman in the literal sense, but how he was able to tap into these particular streams- almost invariably only accessible through the use of powerful psychedelics-- remains a mystery to me. Well, a mystery in that I don't have the particular documentation to prove my suspicions.
Kirby's wartime experiences were harrowing- when his CO found out Jack could draw, he didn't send him off to a cushy media post, he sent him into the lines to sketch out the lay of the land and enemy positions. PTSD wasn't well understood then but it could well be that Jack was treated psychiatrically for "shell shock" and may well have been dosed with LSD or something similar (a not-uncommon therapy then) either consciously or more troubling, without his consent.
But something doesn't come from nothing. And if Jack was displaying behavior and work identical to those shamans who reached deeper states of consciousness through the use of entheogens then it makes no sense to assume that Jack didn't have access to these compounds at these crucial points in his career.
Hancock's lecture covered a lot of the same ground as this must-see documentary, and there were several times that the lecture had me thinking specifically of Jack. And it was this exact doc that I was talking about five years ago when discussing Jack's metamorphosis into a shaman.
But Kirby may have been more than a mere visionary cartoonist- as if that's not enough in and of itself. I remember one night I was lying on the couch, flipping through a stack of Kirby's Eternals comics when a documentary on the Discovery Channel was talking about how shamanic art in different cultures had similar features- abstracted human figures, dots, squiggles, and odd geometric designs. What struck me about that was in the mid 1960's Kirby's art underwent a startling transformation and incorporated ALL of those motifs.As politically correct as it may be to serve up the usual bromides about "creativity" and "imagination" and this and that, and delicious-delicious-oh-how-boring, it's my experience that extraordinary transformations do not arise of out of ordinary circumstances. It's not only dishonest to pretend so, it's pointless.
So those of us who have encountered them in a significant way will have similar experiences and results, whatever the cultural dressing may paint it all as.
Kirby seems to have first encountered these entities in the mid 50s and the stories he told about them baffled and bemused his editors and audience, even though proto-psychedelic sci-fi was all the rage in comics at the time. Ten years later an even more profound encounter took place and the aftershocks of it changed the entire face of genre entertainment- no matter what medium- forever after.
Now I need to figure out exactly why this reality seems to have been insinuating itself into my own life for as long as I can remember.