Sunday, January 15, 2012

Jack Kirby, Mindbomb: Prophecies of a AstroGnostic

We've looked at Jack Kirby several times in the past here, most notably in his startlingly accurate (if not often allegorical) predictions of the Face on Mars in 1959, 9/11 in 1984, and the Gulf War and Iraq War in 1974 and 1975. 

There's also a foreshadowing of the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey, possible Apollo mission footage chicanery, and the suppressed discovery of obelisks on the Moon by American and Russian surveying missions in the mid-60s. 

In ancient times, prophecy was used as an acid test, proof that a prophet or priest was in fact in touch with a god. In the Bible, the punishment for a false prophet was death (the entire EvangeliCIAl movement would be instantly leaderless if that directive were still followed today). If a prophecy came true then the prophet or priest (or priestess, certainly) would be trusted to supply information pertaining to theology, morality, cosmology and so on. 

In other words, prophecy was a means to establish authority. 

Here's what we know-- when Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) was young, he was struck down with scarlet fever. His parents were poor immigrants from Austria and antibiotics were not widely available. As young Jacob lay dying, a group of Kabbalist rabbis were called in to exorcise the demons that were killing the boy. Whether through mystical agency or through Kirby's inborn toughness, he survived. 

 After making his name in the comics field, Kirby was drafted into the Army. His friends were lucky or connected enough to get posts stateside or working for the Armed Forces newspapers or whatever, but Kirby wasn't. He was sent to Europe, right into the crucible of the killing fields. When Kirby's commander found out he was a big deal artist in the funny papers, he decided to use him for recon. 

This meant Jack had to sneak behind enemy lines, sketch the lay of the land then sneak back and explain to his superiors where the Germans were and what they were doing. Kirby was often so close he could smell the Nazis' aftershave. 

He was sent home after contracting a case of frostbite so severe his legs were nearly amputated. Kirby spent the rest of his life drawing, usually so lost in his reveries he couldn't drive a car, balance a checkbook, or do much of anything besides create one indelible character after one classic adventure.  He worked at night, in a tiny, windowless corner in the basement of his Long Island home. 

In the early 70s he moved to Thousand Oaks, CA, where he struck up an unlikely but close bond with neighbor Frank Zappa, 23 years his junior. Sadly, his star went in decline and his audience steadily began to shrink from the early 70s on. However, he found a new, more appreciative venue for his work-- animation. He worked on series such as The Fantastic Four and Thundarr the Barbarian while helping to establish the independent comics market as a major force in the early 80s.

Now, I'd always assumed that Kirby's AstroGnosticism was a contact high off the psychic turmoil of the Psychedelic Era. I was wrong. 

I keep finding out that Jack was plugged into a worldview that Charles Fort, John Keel and Jacques Vallee would feel right at home with earlier and earlier in his career. 

 Which brings us to Sept 1957, or more accurately June 1957, since comics are post-dated three months in advance. This was the dawn of the Silver Age of Comics but a distinctly fallow period for Kirby. His partnership with Joe Simon had collapsed and his relationship with industry giant DC/National was iffy since his rough-hewn style was seen as out of step with the times (that problem was temporarily fixed when art-god Wally Wood teamed with Kirby on Challengers of the Unknown and produced this writer's favorite comics art ever). 

 Jack took work whereever he could get it and got work doing sci-fi and "mystery" books for Harvey Comics, home of Casper the Friendly Ghost and Hot Stuff. Joe Simon may or may not have had some involvement in the scripting and inking, but the stories are most definitely Kirby's. In June, Jack released two books of particular interest, Alarming Tales #1 and Black Cat Mystic #59.

Alarming Tales contains two stories that prefigure Kirby's major 70s work. One is "The Last Enemy," a clear predecessor to Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, which plays such a major part in the Iraq War/Stargate conundrum. 

Kirby took a lot of heat for Kamandi in the 70s, with the fan press accusing him of knocking off Planet of the Apes (DC publisher insisted Kirby feature the ruined Statue of Liberty in the first issue), but Kirby not only beat the Planet of the Apes film by 11 years he beat the original Pierre Boulle novel by 7. Kind of a pattern with Jack.

The second story is "Donegan's Daffy Chair," a startling prefiguring of what Jeff Kripal describes as Kirby's Kabbalistic "Throne Mysticism" in his analysis of The New Gods in Mutants and Mystics. 

The story seems to make little narrative sense- a janitor at an aerospace factory gets in an experimental rocket chair and ends up leaving the solar system. He comes back dressed in alien garb and speaking an alien language, utterly and apparently irreversibly transformed by his cosmic voyage. Space Age technology as Mystery cult initiation. 

 In The New Gods, Metron (read: "Metatron") used his Mobius Chair for roughly the same purpose- to travel the vast reaches of the cosmos in search of transformative experience.

Alarming Tales #1 also presents us with a story about a man who meets a beautiful Dana Scully lookalike from Mars who travels back and forth to Earth using a transdimensional Stargate. 

The story itself is as meh as "Donegan," but clearly shows the very, very strange and esoteric issues running through Jack's mind at the time. The art is interesting as well, in that it clearly seems to prefigure Steve Ditko's alien dimensions in his classic Doctor Strange run. Quite strongly, in fact.

Donegan's trip across the cosmos was repeated in Kirby's Space Odyssey/Moon Obelisk dual prophecy, "The Great Moon Mystery," drawn in 1958 but not published until 1966. In that story the astronauts are transformed into beams of light and shot across the Universe (shades of Chris Carter) in an experience that feels like minutes for the space trippers but lasted for weeks. 

Alarming Tales had two more stories of interest- one was "The Cadmus Seed," a sci-fi story about breeding plant-based supersoldiers that namedrops Cadmus (father of the Samothracian Mysteries) and his army of Spartoi sown from dragon's teeth (loosely borrowed as an army of skeletons sown by the hydra's teeth in the greatest movie ever made). Another story tells the story of a man's virtuous, self-sacrificing dog who is later reincarnated as his son.

However, Alarming Tales- with its stories of cosmic apotheosis, transdimensional romance, mythology-inspired cloning and reincarnation-- is all just preamble. The real action on the stands in June of 1957 was most certainly in the pages of Black Cat Mystery #59. Here we see the three major themes of Jack Kirby's AstroGnostic teleology laid out before us in glorious four-color.

(click to enlarge)

The cover story would have made a great Mytharc episode on The X-Files.
It's also remarkably similar to themes Kirby and Lee would explore in The X-Men. It tells the story of a young boy named Paul who begins to display unusual mental powers from an extremely young age and is taken into government custody to be studied. He's kept in a deep underground bunker where he's treated kindly but with extreme caution.

When Paul reaches adolescence, he announces that he is going to leave the bunker which causes the base to go into lockdown. Paul's captors are reasonable but firm- they clearly fear him and are not entirely sure they can hold him. 

Now, remember this story is being published during the height of the Cold War at a time when any deviation from conformity was seen as tantamount to treason (particularly in a comic book). Kirby here is telling a story of a superior being who is openly defying the military establishment and isn't interested in being used as a weapon against Communism.

Returning the concept of interdimensional travel again, Kirby has Paul throw his captors offguard and escape from his underground prison by erasing himself from the Third Dimension, an act which is "child's play" for Paul's new race of beings.

Harking back to the old pulp themes borrowed from Theosophy, Paul meets his fellow new beings on Mount Everest. Note that they are all variations on the Grey type: thin, diaphanous, with oversized heads and eyes (they also have six fingers on each hand). This story was drawn several years before the Grey type would become popularized. This new race has emerged to leave the planet, and will do so in a way similar to what we saw in the two earlier stories...

...they merge into pure ball of energy and travel at the speed of light. Whether or not they leave their physical forms behind or reconstitute when they reach their destination is unclear. What we do see is a theme Kirby would explore throughout his career-- traveling the cosmos using nonphysical-- in this case, apparently psychic-- means.

The second story is more like a lost Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode, though it predates both. A guy who's down on his luck meets a leprechaun/trickster type who presents himself an traveling salesman from outer space, offering free samples of alien gadgetry. The first device is a kind of psychological repair system, which offers Kirby the opportunity to dip his toes in some of the psychedelic/freakout imagery he'd immerse himself in ten years later (note the "Kirby Krackle" prototype). The art here is crude and rushed-- Kirby was never comfortable inking his own work. Nevertheless, this follows the pattern we've seen over and over again in the Alien Dreaming and the Widening Gyre series; revelation--often a technological revelation-- preceded by nightmare or psychedelic freakout.

Here we also see the kind of narrative that has been reported for millennia-- "little people" walking through walls, bearing gifts of unimaginable power. And the gift that comes help make the newly healed man unimaginably rich?

An antigravity device. The lucky fellow hires it out to move houses and heavy equipment. Perhaps his ancestors would have used the same device to use megaliths for solar observatories, thousand ton blocks of limestone for pyramids, giant stone heads for ceremonial purposes... are you catching my drift here?

Deciding that big business is too stressful, the man takes the "weemer"--a psychically powered teleportation device-- which he uses to travel to Peru, home of the Nazca lines, the VicĂșs pyramids, Machu Picchu and all the rest. Of course, Kirby would later revisit the Andes region for the most explicit "mystical" manifesto of his career. Which brings us to the next story...

Unconsciously following the "reversal of time" motif of ritual drama, Kirby takes us backwards from Posthuman Apotheosis to the Alien-Alchemist Technological Exchange and finally to the AstroGnostic revelation: the footprints of the Stargods themselves. We take this all for granted in the Era of Tsoukalos, but in 1957 this was almost completely unheard of. Not to mention completely subversive, when that word carried real consequence.

Kirby presents us with an archaeological team who stumble on a lost African tribe who pray to a giant stone head. After observing the tribe and their rituals, the scientists come to a shocking conclusion: the tribe is a cargo cult and their shaman is dressed as an astronaut. 

 If this story seems familiar to you you may remember it from the Chariots of the Gods? documentary, which showcased the work of an anthropologist who had studied the customs of an isolated Brazilian tribe called the Bep Koroti in the early 50s but would not publish his findings until the 1960s. Again, this story was published in 1957.

As with Kamandi, Kirby was accused of ripping off Chariots of the Gods? when he produced The Eternals, even though he had explored almost identical themes a decade before with The Inhumans. 

But it seems that he had been exploring those themes a decade before both Chariots and the Inhumans with this remarkable story. This page here is nearly identical to the opening scenes of Eternals #1, as the scientists discover an underground vault in which the stargods left their legacy for the tribe to study.

The scientists are driven away with a weapon remarkably similar to "Greek Fire," which was featured on an episode of Ancient Aliens. The team also discovers that the statue is in fact alive-- it's an alien stargod in suspended animation. Sandman scribe Neil Gaiman would also explore this theme in his Eternals miniseries in 2006. 

 "The Great Stone Face" was published two years before Kirby's "Face on Mars" story and two years before his Easter Island-heads-come-alive story, but certainly reflects the same obsessions. But it also reflects the same obsessions as Eternals #1, which is pretty mind-blowing considering it was published nearly twenty years before it.

Double page spread from Eternals #1

"The Great Stone Face" was also published a full year-and-a-half before Quatermass and the Pit, six years before the English language version of Morning of the Magicians, ten years before Five Million Years to Earth, eleven years before Chariots of the Gods? and nineteen years before The Twelfth Planet. 

In fact, I'm not exactly sure where Kirby could possibly have read anything about Ancient Astronaut Theory in the American media in 1957, certainly nothing as explicit and doctrinaire as this. I suppose there could have been something (Fort perhaps, but certainly not in this Chariots of the Gods type presentation), the only problem is that I've yet to find it. 

 So, here's where we come to the heart of the matter. 

If we look at Kirby's work and recognize his indelible mark on comics, movies and videogames and then we look at his uncanny ability to predict future events, what do we make of his AstroGnostic obsessions? Certainly, those who pretend to speak for him want it all to go away, but the more we look into this the deeper -- and farther back-- it all goes. 

There is absolutely no way this was all just some kind of diversion for Jack. The record shows that this was an obsession, as deep and as indelible as anything about the man. And to claim otherwise is to gravely misrepresent his work and his legacy.

That Jack not only immersed himself in AAT a very long time before it showed up on anyone's radar might well speak to the fact that it undergirds all of his superhero work from the Silver Age on (it's beyond argument that it does starting from the Bronze Age).

But there are also more elusive themes that Jack explored time and again, particularly the theme of psychic communion with alien entities, most remarkably told in "Children of the Flaming Wheel." I

t's almost tempting to wonder if you can't actually separate Jack's AAT obsession and uncanny penchant for prophecy from the psychic/alien contact obsession. It's almost tempting to wonder if the three aren't in fact very intimately linked.

UPDATE: Kirby could have been influenced by the 1956 book UFOs and the Bible, the only major AAT work in a popular US edition I can find that predates "Great Stone Face." 

However, this whole idea of the cargo cult is unique, and Kirby may well have come to the conclusion about ancient astronauts after the cargo cult stories emerged after the war.