Thursday, March 08, 2012

Wizards, Workings and Walk-Ins: Grey Magic

Click here for Part One and Part Two and Part Three

In the realm of the Leprechauns. Note giant mushroom.

This series cuts to the core of what The Secret Sun is all about, and where it all originally came from.

For years I've puzzled over how similar creators or creations, seemingly equal in most respects, will resonate on entirely different frequencies. How this resonance will have long-lasting effects on successive generations, and most importantly, resonate outside of the confines of the imaginal realm itself.



Why do people still care about Philip K Dick or Lovecraft but not Asimov or Poe? What about Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple? On the surface, their music is conceptually identical but their impact on the culture was not. Elton John and David Bowie followed remarkably similar career paths in the 60s and 70s-- how is it that Bowie continues to inspire blatant imitators when John does not?


The Twilight Zone was a success where The Outer Limits was a failure, but something about the latter resonates on a much deeper level than the former. The same can be said for Lost in Space and Star Trek. 90s phenoms The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are usually mentioned in the same breath, but shows are still trying to recreate The X-Files' magic.

These are just a handful of examples of a basic dichotomy I've tried to wrap my head around for a very long time. And it's by no means confined to pop culture.

Kirby's endless obsession with alien gnosis, from 1957

What I've learned is that the difference between the two divergent poles is an essential gnosis. At the heart of these more resonant creators and creations is an awareness that transcends consensus reality, whether that's acknowledged or not.

Oftentimes there'll be what some would call contact; a life-changing encounter with Otherness, an encounter that's often credited with everything that comes after. What exactly that other is can often only be determined by tracing its footsteps in the work itself.

Which brings us to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Kirby's pre-Marvel Thor with Loki as elfin Trickster

That their work still resonates is a matter of fact. Of the top 20 movies last year, three-- Captain America, Thor and X-Men: First Class were Lee/Kirby co-creations (Lee didn't create Cap but redefined him with Kirby in the 60s) that drew heavily on Kirby's storylines in particular (Thor was as much an Eternals film as anything else) and a fourth, Transformers 3, was heavily Kirby-derived. This year will see The Avengers (another Lee/Kirby creation) hit the screen as well as a Spider-Man relaunch, a Stan Lee/Steve Ditko character Kirby had a hand in the development of.

Now, no one is more obsessed with Jack Kirby than I am, but at the same time I'm a heretic and an outcast to the Kirby Kult (why should they be any different?). There are several reasons for this but chief among them is the outright hostility and contempt the Kult has for Stan Lee.

Sure, Stan is a big showboat and took too much credit for other people's (specifically Kirby and Ditko's) ideas, but at the same time he was the one who was able to shape, package and sell those ideas to the public in way Kirby and Ditko could never have done on their own. Both artists came up with a lot of great concepts after splitting with Stan Lee but never were able to achieve the same commercial success without the editorial and promotional genius that Stan brought to bear.

What the Kirby Kult won't tell you is that Stan hired Jack in the late 50s when Kirby had been blacklisted at industry leader DC/National, and was having a run of bad luck with the second-tier publishers like Harvey, Archie and Classic Illustrated.

Worse still, Kirby's attempt at crossing over into newspaper syndication flopped. Jack's writing was furiously inventive but often incoherent and his crude inking (or rather, his wife's inking) was out of step with the slick look ascendant in the late 50s. In short, Jack was in serious danger of ending up toiling for bottom feeder houses like Charlton before Stan took him on board.

As it stood, Stan was paying some of the lowest rates in town. But he was a gas and easy to please, so he attracted a lot of top talent, many of whom were DC moonlighters like John Romita and Gene Colan. Stan shared his tiny Empire State Building office with his pretty young secretary Flo Steinberg, who made for a nice incentive for freelancers to visit often.

Stan was not only the editor of Marvel Comics, he was the only writer for quite some time. So having a guy like Kirby on hand was a godsend, since Jack was not only an idea machine, he didn't need any prompting from Lee to produce stories. Stan would later say this of Kirby:
"Some artists, of course, need a more detailed plot than others. Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean, I'll just say to Jack, "Let's let the next villain be Dr. Doom'... or I may not even say that. He may tell me... he just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing."

Before and After Marvel: A man remarkably consistent in his obsessions

After dissolving his official partnership with Joe Simon, Kirby worked for a number of different companies and collaborated with different writers but the obsessions were always the same: UFOs, interdimensional aliens, ancient astronauts, walk-ins, psychic/telepathic contact with aliens and various otherkin and on and on and on, ad infinitum.

Kirby tried to incorporate some of these ideas when he worked on the Green Arrow strip for DC , only to alienate the ultra-conservative editors there with his weird stories. He'd do a number of stories for DCs House of Secrets anthology series exploring these themes as well, as well as the remarkable stories for Harvey's Black Cat Mystic that we looked at (very much a dry-run for The X-Men, only infinitely stranger) a few weeks back. But his ideas didn't go over very well there either.

Kirby was on a wavelength the rest of the industry -- the rest of the world-- most certainly was not.

It would be a much different story with Stan Lee. As if directed by some hidden force, the first script Stan would hand Jack to draw when Kirby returned to Marvel would be nearly identical to the stories Kirby had been writing for DC and Harvey; "I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers." It's as if the aliens themselves had brought the two together and then signed their names to the matchmaking.

Seeing Kirby's value as an idea man and penciller- and shortcomings as an inker-- Lee would have his best men ink Jack's pencils; Christopher Rule, Dick Ayers, Joe Sinnott and Steve Ditko.

It's Ditko's role that started all this, since we were looking at Doctor Strange and Kirby's unacknowledged role in the development of that character. I believe the resonance of that Doctor Strange, the incredible power that character had during the psychedelic Sixties, is as much an artifact of this bizarre communion Jack Kirby was involved with with parties unknown as the obvious, considerable narrative and illustrative powers of Steve Ditko himself (which I never want to discount).

This cuts to the core of the concept of Cultural DNA: memes embedded in certain concepts from their genesis that account for their resonance.

Ditko's typically paranoid take on interdimensional contact from 1959

I also think that Kirby was a huge influence on Ditko, maybe one that Ditko may not necessarily want to acknowledge. Kirby was the master of fantasy design- costumery and the rest- when Ditko was mostly drawing crime stories. We already looked at the Fourth Dimension story Kirby did before coming to Marvel, visual traces of which you saw all over Doctor Strange. But we have a paper trail of Kirby characters that play into Doctor Strange's evolution, going back to 1957.

And here again we see Kirby's dual obsession with aliens and the occult.

Challengers of the Unknown was the last project Kirby worked up with partner Joe Simon, and widely seen as the prototype for The Fantastic Four. Four men survive a plane crash and decide to seek out adventure (only without superpowers). As you can see, Kirby's stories mix sci-fi and sorcery, including yet another of Kirby's pre-Hill abduction classic Grey aliens (colored green, alas).

In the origin story (from Showcase #6), the Challs face off against a descendant of Merlin, who's dressed in a costume identical to the kinds of finery Ditko supplied his characters in Doctor Strange.
Here Morelian abducts the Challs into his sanctum, which is again identical to something you'd see in a Ditko Doctor Strange story. Kirby's 50s stories are drenched in this kind of imagery.

And if Fantastic Four retraced the Challengers' footsteps in many ways, it only makes sense that Morelian would show up. And he did right on schedule- as "Miracle Man" in Fantastic Four #3. As you can see, Miracle Man provided a clear visual model for Doctor Strange, just as Doctor Droom provided the conceptual model.

A more heroic sorcerer character was obviously something Kirby and Lee were working towards; the same month Fantastic Four #1 premiered, Kirby gave this character a dry-run, named simply "The Sorcerer." The lineage of these characters is another story altogether, as you'll see when we trace their footsteps in a moment.

The same issue had yet another walk-in story, this one with a Lovecraftian flavor. Featuring Kirby pencils, Ditko inks and considerable input from Lee* (including the kind of moralizing Kirby would come to chafe against) "Kragoom" has an ancient alien hovering in space, waiting for the first human to reach orbit.

The co-incidence of a sorcerer hero and an alien invasion via walk-in possession is what kicked all of this off with "The Possessed." But here it is again in Journey into Mystery with these two Kirby stories, and the pattern persists throughout these ostensible throwaway monster stories that Kirby and Lee were churning out.

And the first appearance of Doctor Droom coincided with "Torr," the hallucination-inducing alien walk-in story we looked at in the first part of this series. What's even stranger is that the alien gnosis- via the walk-in posssession of one "John Carter"-- takes place in a cave, that most honored of initiation spaces tracing back to antiquity. Note also that Donald Blake is possessed by the spirit of Thor in a cave- when fleeing Easter Island-headed aliens, no less.

For a guy who Art Spiegelman referred to as an "idiot savant obsessed with orgasm," Kirby was juggling some incredibly sophisticated mystical ideas in his head.

FLYING SAUCER NOSTRADAMUS

Like this story: in the last installment, we talked about how Aleister Crowley was vexed by ball lightning in Hebron, NH., so much so he was inspired to complain to The New York Times about it. To Kirby, the "fireballs" were sentient beings mistaken for UFOs, beings who could take possession of human beings when they needed to communicate with us. This was from Alarming Tales, the same 1957 series where Kirby explored the Fourth Dimension.


In "The Hole in the Sky," also from 1957, Kirby eerily anticipates the theories of Keel and Vallee by at least a decade by presenting alien abduction as the work of interdimensional Watchers (with serious Trickster tendencies) who look all the world like classic Greys, right down to the spindly bodies.

Here again is the same exact storyline Lee and Ditko later outlined in "The Possessed," right down to the invasion by way of walk-in possession.

Doctor Strange wasn't the only Lee-Ditko character Kirby had a hand in. Lee had Kirby work up his version of Spider-Man but preferred Ditko's. Kirby's version is lost to us, but apparently was very similar to The Fly, the character he and Joe Simon created in the late 50s, based on an earlier character called The Silver Spider.

Kirby's involvement with the character was short-lived since he went to work for Stan around the same time, but The Fly's origin-- which Jack rewrote -- is drenched in alien gnosis. In other words, there's a very compelling reason that Spider-Man looks roughly like a Grey, as Jeff Kripal points out in Mutants and Mystics.

In the original story, a young orphan meets a genie who transforms into a Captain Marvel lookalike. In Kirby's version, the orphan lives in a home run by a cruel warlock. The boy sneaks into the warlock's sanctum-- again, indistinguishable from Doctor Strange's-- and finds a fly-shaped ring that catches his fancy.

And right on schedule, the ring opens a portal to an alien dimension, where yet another spindly, goggle-eyed alien comes through and imparts upon the boy the alien gnosis. It's a sure bet Steve Ditko spent a lot of time studying Turan and taking notes...

So, yet another interdimensional alien emissary, yet another face and head with the contours of a classic Grey. Quite a major thruline, from start to finish with Mr. Kirby.

And a long time before the Grey became a cultural icon. A long time before.

Of course, the Greys would hit the big time with the Betty and Barney Hill abduction drama, and in the last installment of this series we detailed how Kirby's sorcerer hero Doctor Droom replayed Aleister Crowley's Grey-summoning Amalantrah Working in a comic book cover dated the same month as the Hill abduction, which climaxed in the same town that Crowley had summered some 43 years before.

And Kirby was somehow tapping into this more than a decade before anyone had ever heard of the working, whose details were lost to history until the publication of Kenneth Grant's Magical Revival. The Face on Mars story 17 years before the Viking expedition almost seems mundane by comparison.


Now, Doctor Strange was one of the offspring of Doctor Droom, but given evil wizard characters like Morelian and Miracle Man we also have to take Doctor Doom into account. Why? Because he's not just a mad scientist, he too is an evil wizard. And his own origin bears special attention...

...because he starts off as Marvel "Jack" Parsons-- the young scientific prodigy/black magician (right down to the explosion)...

...and reaches his apotheosis as Aleister Crowley, prowling the wastelands of Tibet in search of occult knowledge. Doom would retrace Parsons and Crowley's path at the same time predict their rise to infamy in the Sixties as the counterculture's favorite "evil wizards." Or in Parson's case, evil wizard/mad scientist. Note that Lex Luthor would do much the same, but in Siegel's case, I think the parallels were a bit more conscious.


This is no small detail in the context of the alien gnosis.
We saw Crowley's bootprints on the ground where the Hill abduction took place and modern mythology has it that Parsons opened that interdimensional gateway that Kirby wrote about so often with the Babalon Working.

The objective truth of any of it is secondary to the resonance of the myth, something that continues to take on a life of its own. Certainly the Collins Elite takes it all very seriously ( I still would argue splitting the atom had more to do with any "gateways being opened" and doubt the sanity and basic intellectual competence of any religious maniac who'd argue otherwise).

All of which is to say whereas I put very little stock in the Parsons/Crowley reality-- having studied their lives in great detail, I can't see where their magical dabblings produced much of value to them-- I do see their mythologies as obviously quite potent. And it's exactly that mythology that seems to be animating these stories. How it was doing so is another question entirely.

And here again Kirby's Fourth Dimension gateway featured a Jack Parsons lookalike emerging from that gateway with a Marjorie Cameron lookalike, who just happened to be from the Red Planet. There's your Scarlet Woman for you. Ages before any details of the Babalon Working were ever published. Or published anywhere Kirby would have read about it...

And Kirby's "Sorcerer" story had his young magus- who also happened to be a whiz with engines and other types of machines--emerging from the same Mojave Desert after a magical battle of his own to meet a woman who is draped in bronze here (and dressed in red throughout the story). Just as did Parsons following the Babalon Working.

Now as familiar as some of you might be with Parsons' story, none of the details of his life and workings were published until fairly recently, and very little at all would have been known in 1961 when this story was published. If Kirby knew anything at all about Parsons, it would have been old tabloid gossip about the "doomed rocket scientist and his kinky sex cult."

The OTO and Crowley were as obscure as you could get in the early 60s, and I'm not even sure if there were any active chapters at the time. If anyone can produce anything about Crowley or Parsons in a magazine Kirby might have seen- say Fate or something similar, please drop me a line.


But it's worth pointing out that Marvel "Jack" Parsons would bless every rocket test with a recital of Crowley's "Hymn to Pan" and one of the earliest stories Jack Kirby did for Stan was "I Laughed at the Great God Pan," which told the story of a boorish philistine who finds himself on the wrong side of the ancient god. Which makes me wonder just what the King was tapping into, after all.

Or what was tapping into him?

My own feeling is that Crowley and Parsons were just more pieces on the board. They make for ready-made villains for spooky stories but seemed to me to have been as bewildered by the widening gyre as the rest of us. But in the ongoing exegesis you look for maximum resonance and connection and notorious occultists are useful like symbol systems and significant historical events.

But for my part I'm still finding endless treasure in this vein, thank you very much. Predicting the Gulf Wars, 9/11, the Face on Mars, the Challenger explosion et al, not to mention this very strange and incongruous confluence of interdimensional aliens and walk-in possession several years before any of that was fashionable is a kind of magick that works very nicely for my purposes. Where it's all going is still an open question.

But it's worth remembering that most of the Stanford remote viewers translated their visions into drawings...

POSTSCRIPT:

Jack's problems with Marvel really had to do with owner Martin Goodman but he also came to resent the attention the furiously charismatic Stan was getting in the media. Kirby did put finally his foot down and insisted that Stan not be given sole writer credit (the credits would eventually read "By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby" on the work they did together) but Jack also resented his grim Gnostic philosophy being papered over in the dialogue stages by Stan's sunny Humanism.

But that's what kept the kids coming back for more: Stan was not only a great editor (Kirby was the most prodigious idea machine in the history of pop culture, but was incapable of distinguishing a good idea from a great one) and a great wordsmith (it was Stan's writing that first made me fall in love with the power of language) but was able to create an imaginary clubhouse-- a Marvel Universe-- in which lonely, isolated kids could commune every month with Smilin' Stan and Jolly Jack and the rest of the Bullpen. Kirby went out of his way to nurture relationships with fans in person, but had no idea to do what Stan did on paper.

Just how much Stan did for Jack was made clear when Kirby went back to DC in 1971. Kirby was not up to the task of editing himself and most of the books he created there failed. With the added pressures having to edit and dialog his own books, Jack's art lost a lot of the detail, dimension and power it had in the 60s, a situation not helped by cut-rate inkers who had none of the skill or finesse fans took for granted at Marvel. Jack's prestige and reputation in the fan press suffered badly. No longer "King Kirby" like in the glory days of the Marvel Bullpen-- fans now called him "Jack the Hack."

Stan would come to Jack's rescue again. With relations badly strained at DC, Stan lured Jack back over to Marvel. But this time, he did so over the objections of many of his editors. Kirby was seen as a has-been, and Stan's offer to let Jack write his own books was seen as a big mistake. And in truth, Jack's sales weren't much better at Marvel than they were at DC. Towards the end of his 70s, the strain was definitely showing- Jack's writing and drawing were the worst of his career. Stan came to Jack's rescue a third time and got him out of comics and landed him a much better gig with the animation department, allowing Jack to start a new career that gave his life a very happy final act.

And let me just say this, based on my own experience: creating something is the easy part. Packaging it and getting out there and selling it to a disinterested public is a whole other level entirely. Never for a moment discount how much Stan Lee brought to the table and how hard he worked to make the Marvel Age a reality.

* The astronaut here cheats his way into the program and deserves his fate, a typical Lee morality move. Kirby would have him be the most heroic astronaut ever and have him still get f*cked.

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