Saturday, September 04, 2010

3: Refusal of the Call

Jack Kirby had pretty much created Marvel Comics in the 1960s. But the organisation has and had deeply ambivalent attitude to its founding father. On the one hand, they obsessively emulated him: to draw in "Marvel Style" was to mimic Jack Kirby; to use "The Marvel Method" was to collaborate as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborated; the "Marvel Universe" was and is an ill-fitting patchwork of Kirby Koncepts. On the other hand, the company tried very hard to pretend that Kirby didn't exist. Every single Marvel comic bore a copy of Stan Lee's signature, but Kirby's name was hardly ever mentioned. When the company changed hands in 1968, the new owners were led to believe that Kirby had been a hired illustrator of concepts wholly originated by Stan Lee. There is a persistent oral tradition that staff in the Marvel archive were required to destroy priceless pages of Kirby artwork as an initiation rite. Kirby had been a mainstay of Marvel Comics when Stan Lee was only an office boy – in a classic parapraxis in his book Origins of Marvel Comics Lee actually refers to Kirby as "my boss". Little Stanley Lieber clearly felt that in order to grow up, he had to slay and thereby become the founding Father of the company which would soon become an extension of his own ego. But the grown up Stan Lee knew only too well the punishment for Patricide. So he overcompensated. He insisted on always being photographed with a cigar. And his cigar was bigger than Jack's! He obsessively signed himself Stan "the man". Stan Lee's castration complex was


When Jack Kirby returned to Marvel Comics in 1976 after a self-imposed exile at DC he worked on half-a-dozen new series including Captain America, the Black Panther, Devil Dinosaur and the Eternals. He, of course, believed in every one of them absolutely: but none of them were terribly good.

People like me are prone to say that since Kirby created the Black Panther and Captain America, he couldn't really be expected to know or care about the sophomoric literary edifices that others had erected on his foundations. (Who reads Steve Englehart or Don McGregor nowadays?) He had a prefect right to clear the ground, go back to basics, and do his characters his way. Unfortunately, "his way" turned out to involve time travelling frogs and evil royalist mind control bombs. And rocket powered skateboards. "Kirby's way" at this time in his career, was to treat all characters as men in superhero suits and throw whacky Kirby stuff at them. I happen to like whacky Kirby stuff. But I can't deny that Kirby's heroes were increasingly interchangeable. The Panther could have been Captain America and Captain America could have been the Panther and Ikaris was clearly Orion.

Possibly, that was the point.

During his years at the Distinguished Competition, Jack Kirby had created a mythological comic called the New Gods, a work of insane genius from which the American comic book industry has never recovered. The New Gods pointedly begins with an "epilog". The Old Gods – which a lot of people assume must mean Thor and his Marvel buddies – are wiped out in one of those Ragnorak Gotterdamerung thingies, and a new race of hippy superheroes emerge from the ashes. Some of them are good and some of them are bad, and they have fights.

Back at Marvel, the Eternals was a new take on some very similar material. But if the New Gods was an epilogue or sequel to all the mythology that there had ever been, the Eternals was more in the nature of a prologue or a prequel. The New Gods had been derived from the Gods of Olympus and Asgard: the Eternals were what those gods had been derived from.

You remember the set-up. In the Fantastic Four, Kirby had created the inscrutable Galactus to fill the God-shaped hole in the Marvel Universe. In the Eternals, he proposed a whole race of Galactii, giant faceless aliens who were the secret originators and manipulators of all human history. A gadzillion years ago, they had performed genetic experiments on primitive ape-men and turned a few of them into immortal super-heroes (the eponymous "Eternals"). Their first experiment went wrong and produced a race of hideous mutants (the "Deviants").

The concept that this is the mythology which lies behind every mythology was hugely compelling. But the concept was a whole lot stronger than the actual comic book. After the mythos is established (by the end of issue 3) the series grinds to a halt. The New Gods was really only ever one big extended fight scene: the warring planets of New Genesis and Apokolips primarily existed so that an endless stream of superheroes and super villains could flow into Metropolis and have big battles without exposition or explanation. But Kirby seemed to be actually interested in his Fourth Host and his City of the Deviants: the back story matters more than the one at the front. Once you've grasped that all human legends about gods and demons are based on the doings of the beautiful Eternals, the ugly Deviants and the cosmically cosmic Celestials you've really experienced all the Sense of Wonder which the series has to offer. It isn't clear where, left to himself, Kirby would have taken it. (I'm guessing not a three issue long fight with a robot replica of the Incredible Hulk.)

In issue 13, the Eternals bugger off to perform the ritual of Unimind (you don't need to know) leaving only Sprite, the Eternal child, behind. While they're away, the Deviants decide to nuke the Celestial's mothership, which Sprite feels is a bad idea. So he elicits the aid of "the forgotten one"; who is "like an ancient myth no longer remembered".

"Once," explains the Forgotten One "I roamed the world among the humans and shook it to improve their lot. I toppled the palaces of tyrants and slew the beasts they could not conquer. The humans knew me by many names, but here I have none."

So the hero (or very possibly the Hero) goes off on one final adventure. The last we see of him he is being taken on board the Top Celestial's starship. Kirby had a genius for turning up the volume: the Eternals are the gods; the Celestials are the gods who the Eternals look up to; so the One Above All is the gods' gods' god. The Forgotten One was – literally was – Hercules and Samson and Gilgamesh and every other hero in history; but compared with the top Celestial, he is only a flea.

But (all together now) "he is a flea who has proven worthy of the gods."


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