Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pop (Culture) Has Eaten Itself

A look at the 2011 top 20 grossing films in the US should send bolts of terror down the spine of any Hollywood mogul.

The number one film was a Harry Potter sequel, the last in the series. Number two was a Transformers sequel everyone agreed signaled the death knell of the franchise. Twilight, another franchise that's ending, was number three.

Going down the list you have a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel (based on a theme park ride), the fifth Fast and Furious film, a Mission: Impossible sequel (a franchise from the 1960s), a Sherlock Holmes film (created over a century ago) a Planet of the Apes reboot, three movies based on Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics from the early 60s, a couple comedies, a drama, a Smurfs film (another ancient franchise), some kiddie flicks (including Puss in Boots, based on an old fairy tale) and God help us all- an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.

Given that nearly all of these films could have been made almost fifty years ago, it's more than safe to assume there is an absolute drought of creativity in Tinseltown, which is merely a microcosm of the drought in creativity in the larger culture. A look at what's been released so far in 2012 is even more depressing, a list of mostly forgettable castoffs with only two films having broken that crucial $100m mark.

We keep hearing how massively huge and awesome Geek culture is, but the numbers don't bear it out. Sure, nearly all of these movies have some tangential connection to Geek culture but more importantly they appeal to chronological children, and taking your kids to the movies is one of the few (marginally) affordable sources of entertainment available to families these days.

Hollywood tried marketing a film solely for the mythical Geek market, and spent a fortune on production and promotion doing so.

The film was called Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a cute little romp based on a popular series of graphic novels. They pulled out all the stops on this one, spending upwards of $85,000,000 on production and who knows how much on promotion (you couldn't turn on SyFy or Cartoon Network in 2010 without being hammered by ads for the film).

Let's be conservative and say they spent thirty million dollars on promotion- that's an investment of $115M on a film that grossed $48M worldwide ($30M US, $18M int'l) and did a paltry $15M on DVD. Given that the exhibitors and the retailers get half and there are always random legal fees to worry about, this film needed to hit the $250M mark to break even (being conservative, again) and barely grossed a quarter of that. Ouch.

Then there's this:
"John Carter" is now officially a flop of galactic proportions.
The Walt Disney Co. said Monday that it expects to book a loss of $200 million on the movie in the quarter through March. That ranks it among Hollywood's all-time biggest money-losers.

Directed by Pixar's Andrew Stanton, the 3-D effects-laden movie about a Civil War veteran transplanted to Mars was already headed to the "Red Ink Planet," according to Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz. Yet he expected a write-down of about half that size.
I haven't seen the film yet (I want to), but several people on the Secret Sun Facebook group have and really liked it. Critical opinion doesn't mean jack anymore since sites like Rotten Tomatoes include movie bloggers that literally have no readers in their aggregate scores, but Harry Knowles seemed to love the film and other critics did as well.

My theory on the backlash to this film has less to do with the quality of what's on the screen and what it represents; a pre-postmodern America of the pulps and the frontier, an America of possibility that's lost to us now. John Carter, Warlord of Mars is definitely not a postmodern superhero, and can't be revised to postmodernity the way Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes was.

John Carter, Warlord of Mars is also an unwelcome reminder of an America in which mystically-minded creators like Edgar Rice Burroughs actually created-- you know, had actual frickin' ideas.

An America where movies weren't built around god-damned board games:
Battleship director Peter Berg has a rather amusing way of acknowledging the skepticism about a movie based on a Hasbro board game: ”It didn’t lend itself to the most logical interpretation for a film.” But at the panel for Battleship at WonderCon in Anaheim, Calif., Berg seemed determined to convince the crowd that there is in fact a strong movie tucked inside a game that consists of calling out coordinates to try to sink your buddy’s ships. Joined by costars Brooklyn Decker and Alexander Skarsgård, Berg pointed out that when you do end up hitting one of those plastic ships, you and your friend are “trying to kill each other as mercilessly as possible,” and that indeed does make for a compelling story.
Or of constant rebootings of tired, dated franchises:
Michael Bay Responds to Outrage Over Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Plot Changes

“Fans need to take a breath, and chill. They have not read the script…Our team is working closely with one of the original creators of Ninja Turtles to help expand and give a more complex back story. Relax, we are including everything that made you become fans in the first place. We are just building a richer world. When you see this movie, kids are going to believe, one day, that these turtles actually do exist when [we] are done with this movie.”

Then there's TV, the great hope for auteurs and science fiction and fantasy fans.
With the success of Lost (and the critical success of Battlestar Galactica) networks trotted out a parade of series meant to recapture that lightning in a bottle-- Flash Forward, Invasion, The Event-- but most of them failed. The most recent attempt- ABC's The River, seems destined to follow suit.

Nerds will lecture you until the cows come home as to how Fringe is superior in every way to The X-Files, but Fringe is limping to its death at a time (its fourth season) when The X-Files was romping, and garners ratings (just above a dismal one-share) only a fraction of TXF at it's lowest, final-season ebb.

Fox seems reluctant to announce its cancellation because its already catastrophic ratings would collapse to Dollhouse levels, but when your showrunner is talking doing a "fifth season" as a comic book, you know which way the wind is blowing:
Though the producers have previously said they hope to wrap up as much as possible in the fourth season finale if the network pulls the plug, producer Jeff Pinkner says the writers would also put out a one-off comic book to wrap up the rest of the lingering storylines.

"It would be really elaborate, and we would go to town on it and make sure that everything you needed to understand about the show would be in that and pay off that way," he said. "That's our backup plan."
SyFy-- which is to science fiction what MTV is to music today-- recently put the kibosh on a new Battlestar Galactica series, after unceremoniously slaying BSG prequel Caprica. Ringer-- starring geek goddess Sarah Michelle Gellar-- is limping to cancellation, and most of the geek-friendly CW lineup (Vampire Diaries, Nikita) struggles to hit a one-share. Fox killed Spielberg's Terra Nova (though Netflix is talking about picking it and The River up, at much lower fees, surely) and JJ Abrams' Alcatraz and a Napoleon Dynamite cartoon are not the sure-things they should have been.

We'll leave aside the dismal spectacle of pop music because it's been so terrible for so long that I really have to wonder about people who can still be bothered to get upset about it. What I'm hearing on Top 40 radio sounds like an endless late 80s tape-loop, so much so that I'm almost expecting Exposé, T'Pau and Taylor Dayne to be reanimated any minute now.

It does seem that the sickening Nicki Minaj and Madonna spectacles earlier this year aside, quasi-occultism in pop seems to be on the way out, and none too soon. The only thing worse than actually seeing it all was the ridiculous hysteria it engendered.

Comics-- which should be a beehive of pure, unbridled creative madness-- are puttering along, catering largely to an audience of middle-age men (superhero comics) and a much smaller audience of hipster creator/readers (indie comics).

The big headline on industry site ICV2 was that February's sales were up over Feb. 2011, an impressive feat until you see how frickin' flat-out disastrous 2011 figures were. DC's recent reboot rules the Top 10, but that's simply a 90s vintage makeover of a late 50s makeover of early 40s superheroes. An endless nostalgia loop.

Having been involved in fandom since the mid 70s, I can say that I've never seen the ideal of true creativity have a lower cache in comics than it does today.

Sure, all these wacked Kirby concepts we look at here took a good 20 years or so for the rest of fandom to warm up to, but even then you had your mystic madmen like Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, your Robert Crumb's and your Richard Corben's and your Doug Moench's, your hippie phreaks spiking the funnybook punchbowl with four-color blotter.

In the 80s and 90s you had your British Invasion which gave us mystic madmen Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis. I doubt any of these guys would get their feet in the door the way things are going. The readers simply wouldn't tolerate it.

With Borders gone, graphic novels aren't as welcome in the more conservative environs of stores like Barnes and Noble. A look at what's selling at B& doesn't fill my heart with hope- most of the graphic novels in their top 1000 are Walking Dead volumes, whose success is surely fired by the overwhelming success of the AMC series. But Walking Dead is not a series that most people associate with comics, it's just a George Romero knockoff.

Well-crafted, but I mean, come on. Pay the guy royalties already.

And no matter how hard the sociologists apologize, the zombie meme is a warning sign. It's a symptom of surrender, of collapse. I wonder if zombie stories-- or something like them-- were popular in late-period Rome.

What all of this is symptomatic of is the process of Disenchantment. This, in the end, is a conscious process. And for all of the brave talk about science, rationalism and reason, Disenchantment is an auto-destructive process for societies. History teaches us nothing else.

I'm hearing how successful the Skeptics and Atheists have been in recruiting geeks to their cause, and so the concomitant withering of creativity in Geek culture in the past ten years makes perfect sense: the repetition and remakes, the superficiality, the so-called "hard science" which exists only on paper and probably always will, the imposition of identity politics which repel most readers outside of the incessantly fractious in-groups.

Because true creativity is neither rational nor scientific, as Alan Moore will tell you and as our immersions into Kirby's weird worlds have proven.

Even though Lovecraft and Roddenberry gave lip service to science and rationality, it seems mostly politically motivated (Lovecraft's aristocratic loathing of the superstitious masses he saw in Red Hook and Roddenberry's Hollywood-liberal loathing of his Southern Baptist roots) or perhaps even a kind of protective totem, a lifeline to pull them back in from deep, chthonic realms both men traveled to in their imaginations.

True rationalists write forgettable hard sci-fi crap that no one reads anymore; authors like Asimov, Niven, Bova, Clarke. Guys whose brave predictions of our future have yet to come to pass and probably never will.

So, to approach creativity with the rational mind is profoundly irrational.

Of course I've been here before, most recently looking at Fringe's implosion. Given the quasi-rationalist mindset currently in vogue in Geekdom (which is driven by its need to be seen as intellectually superior without doing any actual science), it's no surprise that Fringe was used as a hammer to bash the mystical X-Files. But the problem is that weird science is usually purely theoretical science, and as such is hard to build gripping drama around:
Simply put, I don't believe any of the science in Fringe. Having followed the press releases of the theoretical science special interests (including DARPA) for the past three decades I've seen a lot of stuff that exists on paper and nowhere else and probably always will. In its admittedly righteous struggle against religious fascism, Science has oversold itself to credulous journalists, and in many ways Silicon Valley has done the same.

What's more, the omnipresence of Massive Dynamics and its subsidiaries tells the truth about science and technology-- it's the almost exclusive province of the rich and powerful.

And as such it offers very little to the rest of us, aside from more surveillance, more disease blowback, more tech-driven redundancy and internet-enabled unfair competition.
And I've talked about how MythBusters and the Skeptic (sic) movement (the JREF is the big player in this game, co-founded by the recently convicted Dayvi Pena, aka Jose Alvarez aka "Carlos"- watch this space for more on that story and any news pertaining to related criminal and civil action against Pena, Randi and the JREF) is creating a kind of pissy, reactive reductionism in fans that is directly antithetical to the attitudes of the creators of their favorite franchises.

Licking government boots is the ultimate Skepdick sacrament

It's all a kind of armoring, a retreat to the cold comforts of reduction for its own sake. It's a profound form of cowardice, and as time goes on, and this armoring fails to deal with the psychological dysfunction that used to be channeled into creativity, we'll see a lot of meltdowns in public, like the jerk on Mythbusters, Penn Jillette, the Amazing Atheist and much much more.

But the damage will be done to the culture first- the bed will be shat in:
I can't help but notice how bitter and angry so many of our skeptic friends are, and how all that rage addiction ends up carving ruts into their faces. Since I'm such a fan of myth-building I couldn't help but notice how often that walrus-looking chap on MythBusters looks like he's about to stroke-out from stoking his raging rage-on.

I also can't help but notice how the virtual armor so many people wear online seems to be oxidizing into a virtual iron maiden, with all of the "EPIC FAIL" snotiness and the post-irony we see.

I also can't help but notice how all of this reduction-worship is playing havoc on geek culture, which is stuck in an endless rut of remakes, revamps and reboots. A lot of this is down to the elephantitis (or Elephantiasis for the smarty pants set) plaguing the media monopolies, but a lot of is simply down to the atrophying of the mental muscles that enable the suspension of disbelief.
Ironically, given the mania for "science", or the fetishization of a Humanist religious ideal people refer to as "science" (true science can be as visionary and mystic as art, as Newton, Tesla and Crick taught us), the absolute parade of sludge that we're seeing in pop culture is the direct result of the imposition of scientistic principles on the creative process.

You want science? Look at what's playing on your radio or at your local multiplex. There's your "science," rationalists- in our pop culture. Own it. You made it. Take a bow.

Your average blockbuster movie is created by committees who consult sales charts and graphs and scientifically-designed test surveys, which they use to endlessly bombard the creatives with revisions. Most big-budget production exists in a totally digital environment, with actors reduced to puppets hitting marks in sterile green-screen rooms under the thumbs of dictatorial technocrat directors.

All of it is is test-marketed according to scientistic principles in front of sample audiences who are required to fill out excruciating, scientifically-designed questionnaires, which are then fed back into the system for the requisite changes. Even the production of most comedies and dramas are as spontaneous as the construction of a lawn mower.

That no one loves most of this stuff is a given. Hardly anyone remembers most of these films after a few months. Sure, there are exceptions, but in most cases- Harry Potter, the better superhero movies, Twilight-- the creative DNA has been imported from literary sources, and based in the vision of a single (irrational) creator.

What you're hearing on the radio might as well be created by guys in lab coats- it's almost completely electronic. Even the vocals are becoming increasingly robotic with the use of Auto-Tune. "Artists" are interchangeable, aside from a handful of superstars or genuine talents whose voices can't be simulated by technology. Yet.

So come on, science nerds; you own the Top 40. It was made for you. Hell, it's all made by you- by people who view the world as a dumb, mindless machine meant to be screwed to death, the same way you do. The same way you really do, when you're not trying to impress some pink-haired feminist with some environmentalist patter you heard that the ladies like.

Much keener minds than my own have wrestled with all of this, particularly Max Weber:
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world.' Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together.

If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.

"The Disenchantment of Modern Life" by Max Weber
Although "Science" is waved about like a religion today, science is simply a tool. It's an elaborate system of measurement. And there are sciences that exist that are valid even if not recognized by pedantic pedagogues like James Randi.

Spot the difference

What we are actually seeing is the emergence of an atheist religion. It's nothing new and it's not a religion with a great track record for self-replication. What the Randi's and the Schirmer's and the Dawkins' won't tell you is that atheism and skepticism were all the rage during the decline period of Ancient Rome, and schools of thought like the Cynics and the Stoics offered a similar philosophy as well.

If you want to scare the shit out of yourself, read up on Ancient Rome, particularly the late Imperial period. It will be like looking in a mirror. Everything this country is going through today, they went through. This is one of the reasons that I argue that History is cyclical and not linear.

But the comfortable cosmopolitans of the Roman Empire were not stupid; I'd say most were smarter than the average American. You even had slaves with high degrees of education. And they too embraced reason and atheism as the hallmarks of a modern cilivized Roman.

They became obsessed with fitness and business and pleasure. And birthrates plummeted far below replacement rate among these fine, educated souls. Not so among the superstitious masses. Their religious leaders used demographics as a weapon and realized that they would one day overwhelm their refined rivals by force of sheer numbers. And, of course, they did.

Atheists and freethinkers ended up being burned at the stake for the next thousand years or so after Rome became a totalitarian theocracy and science, art, technology and medicine utterly collapsed until the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the old gods of Europe awoke from their slumber once again.

For all of the brave talk about the inevitable march to an atheist, rationalist future the numbers again fail to bear all of that out. Read this bit of number-crunching, from an atheist blog:
Atheist Decline in Recent Past and Near Future

In the last few decades atheists have been a rapidly declining percentage of world population. They are now 2.5% of world population. Agnostics and those who are indifferent to religion are also a somewhat more slowly declining percentage of the world's population, they are now 11.5%.

There are two factors. First, the end of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the loss of faith in communism elsewhere, particularly China. Atheists and non-religious people are overwhelmingly concentrated in communist countries. About two thirds of the world's atheist population is in China.

Second, religious people have far higher birth rates.
For the future the low birth rates among the more radical atheists and anti-religious people, and the agnostic and religiously indifferent will tend to lower their percentage in the population. There also maybe a vast decrease in the atheist and non-religious population as communism continues to lose its grip in China.
So if you believe in science and reason than you have to acknowledge the fact that this reductionist, atheist mindset has been a death-knell for cultures, going back thousands of years now.

The science has been done, people. Atheism is the religion of the graveyard. And now the same patterns are repeating themselves, as predicted. The canary in the coalmine is our pop culture, the last thing that Americans did better than anyone else.

While the Religious Right was taking over local governments and school boards,
the shills at Skeptical Inquirer were screaming about Loch Ness and astrology

Why someone wants to subscribe to what is ultimately the religion of the cubicle, no matter how cheap an ego fix it gives you, I have no idea. All of the skeptics and atheists talk tough now when the Religious Right are in relative decline, but spent their time worrying about palm readers and flying saucers when the Moral Majority were taking over tens of thousands of school boards, township committees, state legislatures and all of the rest.

In other words, they're just a bunch of cowards and shills. Or in some cases, something much, much worse. More on all that in the next Secret War Against the New Age post.

There is another way- an excluded middle between self-annihilating scientism and mindless fundamentalism. Between formless urbanism and airless tribalism. The problem is that you have to work at it, you have to struggle. You have to overcome the perfectly human need for self-worship and operating within limited comfort zones.

And if you're like me and believe-- no, live-- the concept of the microcosm and macrocosm, then you realize the same principles apply to everything you do, and that everything is a creative act.

So, in other words, our pop culture sucks because our culture sucks. And it sucks because we're focused on the wrong things, and we mistake self-aggrandizement for self-actualization. We've been sold a bill of goods, only the goods were routed to China and now we're stuck with the bill. We're all trapped on the same ride, the only difference is that some of us realize it.

I work very hard to keep this blog focused on its original mandate. This post may be a bit of root canal, and a lot of it might have been said before, but I'll keep saying it until I feel like enough people are listening. There are a lot of hopeful signs, and a lot of people are waking up.

But there is a tendency among some in the excluded middle to throw up one's hands and take the easy way out and fall in line with either side of the dichotomy. I see that as nothing short of treason, if not suicide.

Those people will never accept you, no matter how many of your old friends you turn against, or how many of your old beliefs you disavow. They'll always laugh at you behind your back. They'll always see you as stained, defective, stupid, no matter how far you bend over for them.

Keep fighting, because it's the weirdos and the outcasts who have made things happen, who have moved things forward. Sure, the System loves to appropriate countercultures and subcultures, and now they're doing it with the Geeks. But they do at their own peril. True creativity can't abide by all of that, ultimately it will stop negotiating. And the Golden Goose will be cooked. And we're seeing just how catastrophic that can be, as creativity withers away in the cultural conversation.

But the means to create viable art and culture have never been more available and the means to distribute it have never been more democratized. The question is the will to create it, and yes, to appreciate it.

Breaking through the endless static of 2012 will be the challenge. Having something meaningful and compelling to say and the talent to say it in an interesting way will be the way to meet that challenge.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Soul-Sucking Vampires from Space

A funny thing happened after I finished the Wizards, Workings and Walk-Ins opus; I started looking through some of Kirby's late-period Marvel work for variations on the themes we explored. 

And one storyline in particular stood out...

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Wizards, Workings and Walk-Ins: On the Lam

Click here for Part One and Part Two

Most UFO researchers point to the Barney and Betty Hill event in September of 1961 as the start of the modern "alien abduction" era, the same way that occult researchers point to Aleister Crowley's 1918 Amalantrah Working as the first appearance of a classic (or near-classic) Grey-type in the modern era.

Tuesday, March 06, 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.