Monday, August 13, 2012

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

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.

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.