Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mindbomb: John Carter, PKD and "The Face on Mars" Revisited

A lot of people know about Jack Kirby's 1958 "Face on Mars" story by now, but fewer have read it. And that's a shame, it's a fascinating story. Though there's no writing credit, the story is unquestionably Kirby's- it's practically a catalog of his obsessions, themes that he'd revisit over and over through the rest of his career: ancient aliens, lost civilizations, psychic communication, alternate realities and space opera.

I started thinking about the story after watching John Carter, since there were certain details that seemed to ring a bell. But as with Kirby, there's always a new connection or five to make, and Mars seems to be the linchpin here. The more I thought about the story, the more I saw it as Kirby's tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Warlord of Mars series, in his typically oblique fashion.

I couldn't help but be reminded that Richard B Hoagland said he believed that John Carter doesn't just travel in space, he travels back in time. That motif of recovering the past is all over these stories, all of which seem to connect to the Face on Mars.

All of this also struck me in light of the Theosophist theorizing about Mars (and its influence on Burroughs), which was always chalked to one discarnate entity or another. Discarnate entities always seem to play a major role in all of this...

As we saw in the splash page, a team of astronauts lands on Mars and discovers the Face. An astronaut falls into the eye of the Face and finds himself in a strange landscape. He finds he can breathe the air and sees a race of elegant giants walking around Martian cities in sci-fi finery, all of it strongly reminiscent of Barsoom of in 20s-vintage John Carter novels.

The astronaut then witnesses an invading force in the skies and sees the great Martian cities reduced to rubble. More than that he experiences the invasion first hand. This is pure Kirby; he used the same exact motif in Captain America's Bicentennial Battles. It's also another obvious John Carter nod.

The astronaut then witnesses a briefing from one of the giants (let's call them the "Anunaki", for argument's sake) pointing to a planet between Mars and Jupiter. The invasion force came from that planet (let's call it "Tiamat," just for argument's sake) and so the Martians launch a doomsday bomb against it. But the effects of the war destroy the Martian atmosphere and reduce "Tiamat" to an asteroid belt. Or a "Hammered Bracelet," if you prefer.

This is all a good 18 years before anyone even heard of Zechariah Sitchin, mind you.

And here's the typical Kirby ending: it turns out it was all a virtual reality hologram, transmitted directly into the astronaut's mind. Just like any number of Kirby stories all the way up into the 80s, including several 2001: A Space Odyssey-resonating and related stories, such as the ones we looked at in "Moon Machines and Mind-Bombs."

NOTE: Tristan observes this all reminds him of Prometheus. I think that goes without saying, as does Mission to Mars.

Shortly before Kirby wrote "The Face on Mars", he wrote another, similar story called "The Great Stone Face," about an ancient astronaut cargo cult (way, way, way before such things were fashionable in comics). "The Face on Mars" seems very much to be a sequel/companion to this story, as it covers many of the same bases. Note this Face's headdress, and save for future reference.

And the same Kirby riffs again: the intrepid explorers discovering the hidden temple, learning the great secrets of the long-vanished civilization of ancient astronauts. Of course, in this story we learn the stone face is attached to a body and is a giant ancient astronaut, who is not stone and not dead but is in a state of suspended animation.

"The Giant Stone Face" is yet another story that bears no credits but is all Kirby, beyond any doubt at all. Jack's partner Joe Simon packaged Race to the Moon and Alarming Tales and other stories were written by other hands, but there's no doubt whose obsessions are being stoked here. They would be stoked for many years to come, often to the consternation of a spandex-crazed fanbase who only wanted Kirby to draw punch 'em ups.

"Stone Face" and "Face on Mars" were roughly contemporaneous with "The Stone Sentinels of Giant Island," the first of several Kirby stories about the Maoi of Easter Island (one of which was one of the last stories he drew before retiring from comics). Note the invading aliens in the Thor origin story also bear a strong resemblance to the Maoi as well.

And here we see Kirby hammering on the same riffs yet again. A crew of brave and intrepid explorers come up a hidden wonder in the middle of nowhere and discover evidence of a lost civilization somehow connected to mankind's legacy, all of which is symbolized by a giant stone head.

And again, long before any of this gained any traction in the culture, Kirby was chalking it all up to ancient astronauts. The Maoi were actually stone automatons- powered by starlight, of all things- who were created to protect the (very) ancient astronauts from the dinosaurs (!).

Kirby would leave DC for Marvel and tell the same story - twice- in Tales to Astonish. Again, once this man got his hooks in an obsession, he never let go. it's just a shame he didn't live to see the excavations that revealed that his predictions were correct; at least some of the Easter Island Maoi were full figure statues, not just heads or busts. Secret Sun readers have come to expect that kind of thing by now.

But the same Kirby motifs would repeat themselves some years later, and the motifs of ancient civilizations and giant stone faces would have a stunning, real-world echo, bringing us full circle back to the beginning of our story...

And here we see the same themes yet again, only nearly two decades later (like I keep saying, Kirby never let a good obsession go to waste). The cover of Eternals #1 has it all; the intrepid explorers, the underground temple and the giant stone head (representing yet another race of giant aliens). Something was bugging this guy- he could not let go of these motifs.

And all of it is wrapped up in a package that Kirby described in a 1984 interview as an expression of his personal "mystical" beliefs.

The only difference between this giant stone head/lost civilization and all the others is that Eternals #1 was cover-dated July 1976, the same month the Viking photos revealed the "Face" on the plains of Cydonia.

So a series of essentially identical stories that revealed a "Face on Mars" in 1959, climaxed 17 years later with the release of Eternals #1, which coincided with the revelation of a real "Face on Mars" on the plains of Cydonia.

What's even more remarkable is that most of these stories were obscure in the extreme, published in low-selling titles during a major recession in the comics market and long-forgotten by fandom until the rise of the Internet. Indeed, the miserable conditions in the comics market of the time allowed for an anything-goes mentality that allowed guys like Kirby to tell whatever kinds of stories they wanted, so long as they met their deadlines.

Kirby's career was on a definitely downward slope in the late 50s-- his once-successful partnership with Joe Simon lost steam and dissolved, he was out of favor at market leader DC and was having trouble dealing with prestige houses like Classics Illustrated.

So when Kirby ended up back at Marvel in 1958, it wasn't cause for celebration. Marvel was run out of a tiny, one-room office and they paid the lowest rates of any major publisher. But Stan loved Jack's work and recognized he had an idea factory at his disposal.

Kirby biographer Ronin Ro wrote that Lee handed Kirby the script for his first gig as a Marvel full-timer, "I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers," but it's far more likely he handed Kirby a rough outline which the artist promptly ignored entirely.

The story has absolutely none of the hallmarks of a Lee script and reads like a laundry list of Kirby obsessions. The dialogue has little of the usual Stan Lee snap, either. Given that the lead character is a lifelong sci-fi fan turned UFO obsessive it reads like a Kirby confession, more than anything else.

And of course the main conceit of the story- that UFOs are telepathic entities living in the skies- had been explored by Kirby in "Fireballs" at Harvey and in Challengers of the Unknown at DC (see above). Several variations on the theme would show up in Kirby's 70s work as well; Brother Eye in OMAC, Pyra in Kamandi and Doughboy in Captain America.

Telepathic aliens were everywhere in Kirby's work from the late 50s on, leading you to wonder if all of the bizarre and startling prophecies in his work were something a bit more than a bunch of strange coincidences after all.

Now, let's be clear: a lot of people may not have heard of Jack Kirby before, but he is not only the most important superhero creator in comics history he's also had an enormous impact on movies and video games as well (Joss Whedon didn't make just another superhero movie with The Avengers, he made a Jack Kirby movie, and Captain America and Thor are filled with Kirby concepts and high weirdness).

Hollywood and Silicon Valley are filled with people who grew up reading Jack Kirby comics, which is why his original art is so expensive today.

So we have three elements that we need to sort out here:

• First, is Kirby's overwhelming obsession with aliens, UFOs and ancient astronauts.
Despite what a lot of people might think this is unusual for comic book artists and sci-fi writers, who tend to cleave to a materialist/reductionist worldview.

• Second, is what we can only call paranormal phenomena, a consistent and repeated tendency to predict future events in allegorical form. Kirby was also obsessed with paranormal phenomena himself, and wrote stories about Nostradamus, psychics prophetic dreams and all the rest of it.

Kirby wrote a semi-autobiographical story about a remote viewer (that we looked at here), that I thought was particularly remarkable since Kirby's methods were identical to the Stanford RVs; sit in an isolated room, reach deep into the unconscious mind and draw.

Kirby repeatedly said that he simply traced what he visualized on the paper, a fact repeatedly confirmed by people who watched him draw (essentially like an inkjet printer, drawing from upper left to lower right, with very few construction lines).

It's worth noting here that rumors circulated that RVs had previously drawn the Mars Face before the Viking mission (which was why Cydonia was targeted for an overfly), and that SRI view Joe McMoneagle later sketched the Face ( I prefer Kirby's version, naturally).

• Lastly, Kirby has a lot in common with another Hollywood obsession who lived his life in relative obscurity (and poverty, in Dick's case) but changed the way science fiction stories were told: Philip K Dick.

Dick was 11 years younger than Kirby but they both immersed themselves in the same kind of pulp sci-fi from an early age. Like Kirby, Dick was frighteningly prolific. This can't be underestimated, although in both men's cases, economic pressures were as much a driving force as creative obsession.

I've long felt there's a transformative power in that kind of creative commitment, as if the harder you work the deeper you often go (Max Ernst and Alan Moore are other examples of this).

But the transformation is more subtle and elusive. It's as if the creator reaches a state in which creativity pierces a boundary most of us never realize exists. At the other side are entities which wait to communicate with those who've earned the right to do so. With Ernst and Moore, those entities are transformed into whimsical trickster figures, Loplop and Glycon. With Kirby and Dick there seemed to be an obsession with communication with alien entities, usually by means of telepathy.

Kirby kept this all in the realm of fiction, but Dick obviously did not. We have no way of gauging whether there was any objective truth to these entities, other than the results of this contact. After Dick's contact experience in 1974, he became to slowly recover from a lost decade of drugs and madness. Dick even claimed this entity with diagnosing a dangerous condition in his young son in time to have it treated before it killed him.

Kirby kept all his alien telepathy stories in the funny pages but concurrent with his high weirdness obsessions was a remarkable development in his draftsmanship and his creativity. A "man possessed" would not be too strong a term to describe Kirby in the 1960s.

He was as prolific in his page count as he was in character creation, designing heroes still topping the sales charts today. Stan Lee might have been the driver but Kirby was undoubtedly the engine behind The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Thor, The X-Men, The Avengers and even had a hand in the development of Spider-Man, Iron Man and Doctor Strange.

Not bad for a "has-been" who no one would hire just a few years before. It seems there is something transformative at work, whether you want to chalk it up to psychological forces, or whether you see a deeper reality at work.

What can't be argued with are the results.
Whatever forces were at work they are still very much alive in one of the last vestiges of pop culture that still manages to inspire and uplift.

POSTSCRIPT: Even though the screenplay was heavily rewritten by other hands, Dick's Total Recall (originally the 1966 story "We'll Remember It For You, Wholesale") was prefigured by an early 60s Kirby yarn called "Prison, 2000 AD." In it a man is convicted and breaks free of his jailers and heads for the Asteroid Belt (the Hammered Bracelet, again).

There he helps out a poor, imperiled band of miners and starts a new life as a productive member of society. Of course, it turns out it's all an implanted virtual experience (just like the one in the Face on Mars) that is all part of his rehabilitation. If you're like me, that's the ending you were expecting during the first Total Recall, but they chickened out.


  1. why you say that Total Recall chickened out? Paul Verhoeven stated in interviews that they tried really hard to make the story ambiguous.

    also, there's a STRONG rejection from viewers when a movie ends with the trick "it was only a dream" and I'm sure they took it in account

    same way they left Mars out of the recent remake of that movie - people "don't like" movies about Mars, but I think you know and also blogged about that...


    ps - I think I've never commented before, but just to let you know your blog is one of my recent favourites - even if I don't subscribe to most of your craziest ideas! keep it up :)

  2. why you say that Total Recall chickened out? Paul Verhoeven stated in interviews that they tried really hard to make the story ambiguous.

    also, there's a STRONG rejection from viewers when a movie ends with the trick "it was only a dream" and I'm sure they took it in account

    same way they left Mars out of the recent remake of that movie - people "don't like" movies about Mars, but I think you know and also blogged about that...


    ps - I think I've never commented before, but just to let you know your blog is one of my recent favourites - even if I don't subscribe to most of your craziest ideas! keep it up :)

  3. Getting a strong whiff of PROMETHEUS off all this - the stone head, holographic record of the builders destruction, and so on. Also, more in Kirby's vintage, I'm reminded a little of the underground remnants of the Krell civilization in FORBIDDEN PLANET. Must also re-watch THE BOX, since the backdrop of the '76 Viking Mission was one of the most intriguing aspects of that film.

  4. another great post chris! really loving this material, just a very beautiful reminder that surprises can be pleasant too. staying open to the idea of new inspiration from strange people and places.

    i also got a strange insight about the stone sentinels. something about kabbalah and hypnotism, the idea of making men of mud and golums. also this gengis khan effect where one godlike giant creates a whole world of men in his image, just rewatched cabin in the woods and its take on giant elder gods. hybrids and lovecraft and the deep ones what else not.

    this ultimate lifeform, plasma or something. i had a thought that stars and starlight could be more than just life giving. perhaps in the same way many people are jealous and envy psychopaths who eat everything around them and know nothing but hunger, like ameobas, also these entities in the upper atmosphere. perhaps its the difference in scale between complex life, made of many cooperative cells all sharing reproduction and information and nutrition, and symbiotic life in the digestive tract. many schools of thought regard the colony in the gut to be the emotional and most advanced frontal cortex cognition, a computing cognitive center composed of many different lifeforms different and yet cooperating. and if plasmas are present anywhere in space, its in stars and their birthing grounds, huge clusters potential complexity. our planet and its magnetic fields seems trivial relative to that. just the idea of plasma as a medium for life took me there, and the idea of germs spirits and suffering and our own emotional vs. logical nature. cooperation vs. competition in the realm of hungry ghosts, to escape from hellish materialism and discover the intangible.

  5. The Cover of the Externals looks very similar to the Alien Engineer that will not make an appearance (at least to us unwashed masses) until ALIEN in 1979. And I seriously doubt Geiger was influenced by Kirby...

  6. Chris any time I get political/predator drone like collective guilt, someone deletes my post. All I am saying is give peace a chance. Too weird how everything on the net is censored,eh. I was saying how the myth person in recent posts is spot on. The Catholic universal church is whack. Xtians are lost in their rhetoric and folly, but the silent majority thinks no-thing about anything but their trips to Burger king. Wake up///wake up. Shineforth brave souls. Dennis

  7. As it happens, in the summer of 2008 I was working on some timelines of events on the extreme right in 1969-82, trying to sort out the strange connections among old fascists, movement conservatives, and self-proclaimed counter-terrorism experts. I just mentioned this at the Facebook page and quoted some of my tentative conclusions, and Chris asked that I post them here as well.

    I've done so below, and I've also uploaded the timelines to my own website -- though it's going to take additional work and links to make them intelligible to anyone who isn't already familiar with the subject. (

    Here are the first four of my conclusions/speculations:

    1. The 70's were all about fascism. In 1970, the old Nazis and neo-fascists start to come out of the shadows and implement an explicitly fascist agenda, emboldened both by the passage of time since World War II and by the radicalism of the late 60's. Stefano delle Chiaie initiates Gladio-type false flag events beginning in 1969. Former Nazi Otto Skorzeny consciously sets out to create a fascist revival in 1970. (Sometimes referred to as the Fascist International or the International Fascista.)

    2. The explosion of Islamic terrorism in the early 70's, much of it directed against Israel, may have been part of a Gladio-type strategy by fascist instigators. The ongoing attempts in the late 70's and through the 80's to blame Middle Eastern terrorism on Soviet masterminds could then be seen as serving as both a coverup of a fascist anti-Semitic agenda and a strategy of tension to pave the way for suppression of the left and increasingly autocratic regimes. (Michael Ledeen's attempt to blame the Bulgarians for the attempt by the Turkish fascist Grey Wolves to assassinate the pope in 1981 would be a particularly clearcut example.)

    3. Fascist groups allegedly wrest the heroin trade out of the hands of the mob in 1972-73. (See Henrik Kruger, The Great Heroin Coup.) This has something to do with Mitch WerBell and Lucien Conein, two of the old OSS guys who were involved in drug enforcement along with E. Howard Hunt in the Nixon White House. Drug-smuggling Cuban exiles (Alpha 66, Operation 40) also play a significant role. If this is true, it could be an extremely important part of the puzzle, explaining the new sources of wealth that are sometimes fancifully attributed to "Nazi gold" or "Japanese gold."

    4. Whatever the cause, it seems clear that extreme right-wing groups begin to enjoy unprecedented wealth in this period, and raises the possibility that even the rise of New Right in the US in the 70's may been involved with fascist heroin networks. It may be a coincidence that figures like Scaife and Coors start lavishly funding the right around 1973, just when the fascists are alleged to have taken over the heroin trade -- but it's also entirely conceivable that some of that money may have come from drugs or other overseas sources and merely been laundered through wealthy US donors.

  8. It's as if the creator reaches a state in which creativity pierces a boundary most of us never realize exists.

    Nicely put, Christopher. I happen to've just read the following in one Robert Fripp's recent diary entries:

    How to cover a lifetime of a guitarist – 55 years – in one interview? The main difficulty for me is to explain, in a reasoned and reasonable way, the determining and governing experiences that directed my trajectory when those experiences are more direct, instinctive and intuitive than reasoned (albeit nourished by reflection)? Andrew Keeling might explain this in Jungian terms, with the Unconscious leading the way one of the best available descriptive models IMO

    Or: I follow my feet when they go walking. The metaphor is applicable to instinctive action; its limitation when applied to a point of seeing, a creative insight, which is instantaneous. Something like, the-feet-arrive-where-they-are-going before they actually leave-to-get-there. In creative time, the future leans back and attracts the present towards it.

  9. Christopher what you're basically pointing out here's whereas Stan Lee cannibalised everyone and everything in his pursuit of becoming the great American story teller Jack Kirby was more akin to a philosopher-archaeologist dragging his discoveries into the light of day without fanfare via the medium of comics.

    But there's another difference between the two which you've probably pointed out elsewhere.

    It's in their attitude to young people.

    Stan seems to see young people as individuals who need to grow up whereas Jack seems to view them as respositories of natural perennial wisdom.

    Stan depicts them as finding out life's hard and trying to hold down a job while being perpetually frustrated by endless confusions in their attempts to find acquire and settle down with a partner with whom they can build a structured marriage based career.

    Jack depicts them approvingly as romantic souls who like music and art and fun and don't want to hold down a job or get married but gambol through fields of daisies in the sunshine hanging out with their homies thinking lofty thoughts of how perfect the world could be made with just a few careful egalitarian tweaks and making the sort of lighthearted love that may or may not turn into something deeper but isn't using or abusing others.

    I think it's that recognition of youth culture as wave after wave of an admirable future which ultimately distinguished him from Stan who ultimately seemed to hark back to the past as a somehow superior time to now.

  10. They didn't chicken out of it in Brazil & Repo Men.

  11. Life imatates art and sometimes art imatates life