Sunday, January 30, 2011

Star Wars Symbol Cycle: The (Other) Source of the Force

Note: We talked about the spiritual sources of the Force earlier, and I touched upon Jack Kirby's influence as well, but I thought it deserves a much closer look. Some other writers have commented on some of these connections, but they are so important that they deserve their own post. So since no one else is going to do it, I'm going back to the well again, along with some additional information added in. Enjoy!

One little-known but absolutely crucial precursor to George Lucas is the work of comic book master Jack Kirby. I say ‘little-known’ not because Kirby’s work - either his comic books or the various TV and Film adaptations of them - hasn’t been enjoyed by millions since the early 1940’s. I’m referring to the fact that Lucas seemed to draw so heavily on Kirby is not readily known by the general public, nor was this noticed by pop culture-illiterate scholars like Joseph Campbell.

The basic foursome of the original Star Wars film, as well as their principal adversary, have archetypal parallels with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four comics.

Han Solo is like Mr. Fantastic, the arrogant, overconfident leader of the group.

His future paramour Princess Leia is like the Mr. Fantastic's future paramour Invisible Girl, in fact the most indelible image of Leia from the first Star Wars film is as a translucent hologram.

Luke is like the Human Torch, the reckless young turk. Luke and the Torch are also linked etymologically through the terms for light in their names (a vigilant reader reminded me that Leia/Sue and Luke/Torch are siblings).

• The ugly/adorable brawn of the outfit, the inhuman Chewbacca, is like the misshapen Thing, who is also Mr. Fantastic’s old friend and co-pilot (Even the streaking star effects seen in Star Wars when the four reach hyperspace in the Millennium Falcon strongly recall the cosmic ray effects that created the Fantastic Four during their spaceflight in Fantastic Four #1).

The Doctor is in- note stormtrooper

Even if you find those correspondences tenuous, one thing cannot be denied: Darth Vader is essentially the same character as the Fantastic Four’s primary villain, Doctor Doom. Both are hideously scarred men encased in armored suits. Both wear capes. Both were once promising young mystics undone by their fascination with forbidden realms; in Vader’s case, the Dark Side of the Force, and in Doom’s case, other-wordly dimensions.

Both were haunted by the deaths of their mothers and both became tyrants. Both had rivalries driven by jealousy with their main opponents (Obi-Wan and Reed Richards, repsectively). No one who ever read Fantastic Four comics could fail to see the mirror image of Doctor Doom in Darth Vader.

When this comic was released in April 1975, Luke's surname was "Starkiller." Soon after it was changed to "Skywalker."

The Star Wars Universe's first black hero is a lot like Marvel's one. Both hail from exotic wonderlands built on mining fortunes (the Black Panther's Wakanda is home to the world's "vibranium" reserves). Both had problematic relationships with the heroes. And both were known for wearing dashing capes.

There's more: the relationship between Luke and C3P0 mirrors the relation between Thor (another blond, weapon-wielding god-man) and the Recorder, a robot send into the Universe to observe events for the Rigelian race.

Lucas may have adapted the plot for the first Star Wars film from Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress, but given the parallels between the heroes and Darth Vader and the Marvel heroes and Doctor Doom, it's equally likely he borrowed it from Fantastic Four #84, in which the Fantastic Four sneak into Doctor Doom's kingdom to free captured government agents. Read this:

On their way home from the Hidden Land, the Fantastic Four are stopped by SHIELD jets and brought before Nick Fury and Dum Dum Dugan. Fury asks the FF to go into Latveria to investigate the disappearances of SHIELD agents and any information they have regarding robots that might be active in the region.

Sneaking into Latveria, the Fours presence is soon discovered by Dr. Doom, who incapacitates the whole team by sending his Servo-Guards to deal with them. Waking up in a house, Reed and the others are shocked to see that they haven't been put in a dungeon and that the people of Latveria are cheering them as honored people. However, when they try to leave the country, Dr. Doom prevents them from doing so, saying that if they attempt to do it again he will have them killed.

One interesting detail- at the time of this story the Fantastic Four included Princess Crystal, a member of the royal family of the Inhumans. Note that her headdress has a motif not unlike Leia's circular buns.

Note same motif of Darth/Doom looming over heroes from FF#84

But Kirby’s influence on Lucas would go far deeper than the similarities between the heroes and villains of Star Wars and the Fantastic Four. The Manichean struggle that informs Star Wars at its narrative core may be as old as time, but I’m willing to bet good money Lucas first encountered it not in Joseph Campbell’s obscure treatises, but in Jack Kirby’s landmark comic book series, The New Gods.

The story goes like this: Jack Kirby, after 35 years spent sweating and struggling in comics (which included 10 years of laboring in Stan Lee’s shadow at Marvel ), wanted to create a new line of characters. So Marvel’s main competitor, DC Comics (Superman, Batman) hired Kirby away from Marvel in 1971 and let him create a entire line of new titles - The New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle - which Kirby referred to as "The Fourth World."

The Fourth World was unprecedented in its scope. In it, Kirby was created an interlocking universe of characters which had only a tenuous relationship to the so-called ‘DC Universe’ of superheroes. These characters were extra-dimensional ‘gods,’ superhuman aliens who traveled to Earth with the use of the ‘Boom Tube,’ a sort of Stargate that bridged their dimension and ours.

The ‘God’ of the New Gods was “the Source,” an omnipotent energy field that the gods of New Genesis interacted with through a ‘Mother Box.’ The Mother Box was a living computer that each god carried with them, usually in their headgear. You’d be correct in assuming that ‘The Source’ plays the exact same role in the Fourth World comics that ‘The Force’ plays in Star Wars.

Just as in Star Wars, the Fourth World is divided into two opposing factions; the followers of Izaya the Inheritor (also known as ‘Highfather’) on the utopian world of New Genesis, and the subjects of Darkseid (pronounced ‘dark-side’) on the fascist slave planet Apokolips. In the past, Apokolips and New Genesis had fought their own ‘star war,’ and it nearly resulted in their mutual destruction. But they had settled a truce that was sealed by the exchange of Izaya’s and Darkseid’s first-born sons (“The Pact”, New Gods #7). Orion, the feral scion of Apokolips was raised on New Genesis and would become its mightiest warrior. Of course, the name ‘Orion’ brings us back once again to Osiris. Scott Free, Izaya’s son would be raised on Apokolips, but would escape and become the “Super Escape Artist,” Mister Miracle.

Both characters have echoes in Luke Skywalker. Orion would become the sworn enemy of his father and would travel to the Death Star-like planet of Apokolips battle him to the death (The Hunger Dogs, 1985). Scott Free would be tutored in the ways of the Source via the Mother Box by an Obi-Wan like character named Himon (“Himon,” Mister Miracle #8), resulting in his new identity as Mister Miracle. Luke Skywalker also has another counterpart in the Fourth World stories: Orion’s comrade-in-arms is the young, blond hero Lightray (his name is also reminiscent of Mark Moonrider, of the Forever People).

Top: Izaya (with his glowing phallic symbol) trains young
Orion in the ways of the Source
so that he may prevail against his evil father. Bottom: Ibid.

Izaya the Inheritor has similarities with Obi-Wan as well. Both were once fearsome warriors who renounced warfare after the defeat of their principal adversaries (Izaya defeated the warlord Steppenwolf, and Obi-Wan defeated Anakin Skywalker) and surrendered themselves to the Force/Source in order to tutor their young champions (ie., Luke Skywalker/Orion).

Apokolips was not so much a planet as a Death Star-like artificial world, solely devoted to warfare. In many ways, Apokolips is the visual model for the Death Star. Darkseid is not the visual model for Darth Vader that Doctor Doom is (though he may have been the source of the idea for Vader’s helmet), but Darkseid’s henchman DeSaad is the spitting image of Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi.

Like in the Star Wars films, the adversaries in The New Gods fight their battles in several different locations. Because of the pact between New Genesis and Apokolips, the combatants are forbidden to attack each other directly, so Earth became the battlefield of choice. Just as in the later Star Wars films, Kirby produced an mind-boggling array of characters, monsters and machinery for the Fourth World comics. But Kirby’s fertile imagination was not matched by his narrative prowess, and the books became bogged down under the weight of Kirby’s endless parade of concepts and characters. Faced with lackluster sales, DC canceled the entire line in 1973 and set Kirby to work on a host of new titles.

But the hardcore fans --like George Lucas-- venerated the Fourth World books and the characters remain a vital part of the “DC Universe” to this day. And another hardcore fan named Bruce Timm eventually became the producer of the popular Superman and Justice League cartoons, and has exposed The New Gods to an entire new generation by featuring Kirby’s creations in those series.


But Lucas' obsession with Kirby seems to go even deeper. Kirby revived the Black Panther around the time of the release of the first Star Wars film, and cast him as a globe-trotting adventurer scouring the earth for occult treasures while battling rival treasure hunters and exotic dangers. Yes, just like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the parallels go even deeper.

In the first story-arc of Black Panther, Kirby had the Panther searching for a ancient time machine called King Solomon's Frog. The search leads him to a treasure trove in which this magical device summons a future human who looks exactly like an alien Grey. The alien is part of a future hive society composed of hatches, much like a bee's nest. The Panther is accompanied by a British rogue of uncertain loyalties and is being chased by a deadly and beautiful femme fatale and her coterie of armed thugs.

If that plot sounds familiar to you, don't be surprised. It's essentially the same plot that George Lucas produced for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Lost artifact with strange powers, roguish sidekick, femme fatale and deadly alien-like creature. And that film touches on Jack Kirby's great obsession, ancient astronauts, which he also explored in Fantastic Four with the Inhumans, a race of super-beings engineered in antiquity by the alien race the Kree. Well before Chariots of the Gods, I might add.

NOTE: I originally contributed a lot of this information on the now-defunct Star Wars Origins site.

UPDATE: Boy, talk about syncs- I just the most recent Jack Kirby Collector and they also ran a story called "The Source of the Force," calling out the Kirby parallels in the prequels. Go figure.