|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
An Overview of Jack's Occult and Supernatural Themes
by and © Chris KnowlesFrom Jack Kirby Collector #13
With the millennium fast approaching, there has been a mass revival of interest in all things occult or paranormal. The astounding success of the TV program The X-Files (strangely foreshadowed by Kirby as SHIELD's "File 116" in Captain America) has spawned multiple imitators. UFOs, ghosts, ESP and other arcane topics have become mainstream media fodder. There is a growing interest in all the various fields of metaphysics, from shopping mall neo-Paganism to conspiracy theory newsgroups focused on occult secret societies like the Illuminati. Social scientists have many hypotheses for this phenomenon. Some posit that the dehumanizing effect of the technological revolution has inspired an irrational backlash. Others state the hysteria is caused by the uncertainty of the new millennium and its attendant apocalyptic jitters, even though the year 2000 has no Biblical significance. Followers of the Swiss psychological pioneer Carl Jung theorize that human interest in the paranormal is an expression of subconscious symbols and yearnings. Still others simply see it as a recurring fad.
A casual review of Jack Kirby's enormous output will quickly show that occult, mythological and paranormal themes were featured in his work too. Perhaps someday Jungian scholars will analyze his work and present theories on the deep psychological motivations and repressed subconscious symbols of Jack's space age mythography. I have no such expertise. If pressed, I would simply guess that Jack recognized that mysticism and the occult have always been the basis for entertaining stories since the time of Gilgamesh, and he saw himself in that hoary tradition. However, glimmers of a deeper interest sometimes peek through.
In Ray Wyman's biography of Jack Kirby, there is a revealing episode that in many ways foreshadowed Jack's life and career. Wyman recounts how young Jacob Kurtzberg lay dying of pneumonia, a very serious disease in a time where antibiotics were not readily available, and quality health care was not available to poor immigrant families like his own. A group of rabbis were called in to perform an exorcism, in a last ditch effort to save Jacob's life. They chanted in Hebrew, demanding that the demons leave Jack's body. In the type of ritual that is recounted in the Gospels, the rabbis demanded the names of the demons, which in classical Jewish exorcisms allowed the rabbis to gain control over the demons. This ritual is the kind of religious custom that modern man scoffs at, of course. The only problem is, it worked.
Wyman states quite clearly in The Art of Jack Kirby that "Kirby's life was filled with the mysticism of faith and superstition." Although that assertion may seem obvious to serious Kirby fans, it would seem that a further investigation of Kirby's work could reveal just how serious Jack's mystic interests were, and how in some cases his mysticism was deeper than what he may have realized himself.
(Note: In today's idiomatic English, certain terms have taken on meanings that vary greatly from their original definition. Apocalypse, for example, does not mean End of the World or Doomsday, it simply means "to be revealed." Mysticism has become virtually synonymous with magic or divination but it means "the doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths said to transcend ordinary understanding." Occult is another word whose meaning has been distorted. Many people today, particularly the uneducated, think "occult" means devil-worship or sorcery. But if one takes the time to look up Occult, the term actually means "beyond the range of ordinary knowledge.")
Jack was a universe builder. He was clearly obsessed with the pantheon of ancient mythologies, in particular the Greek and the Norse. In fact, Thor first appeared in a Golden Age episode of the Sandman. Jack is also well known for designing pantheons of his own, drawing heavily on those classic fables. His Fourth World titles tell us much: New Gods, Forever People, Mister Miracle. These stories dealt with a dualistic pantheon of gods, good and evil locked in eternal combat. Jack seems to have been deeply influenced here by Manichaeism, an ancient Near Eastern religion that had a powerful influence on religious thought in the West. The Persian faith of Zoroastrianism also professed a dualistic battle between Good and Evil. In this faith, the good or light is represented by Ahura Mazda and Spenta Mainyu and a spirit of evil, Angra Mainyu. However, Kirby expanded upon these theories, and added an all-encompassing "Source" that was invisible and unapproachable, much like the Gnostic vision of God, who is ultimately incomprehensible, and lords over the lower Archons, the powers of the creation that Humankind is more familiar with. George Lucas later hijacked these themes wholesale in Star Wars, conveniently renaming "the Source," "the Force."
The 1970s was the flowering of Jack's interest in the paranormal. Freed from the restraints of more conservative collaborators, Jack delved into these themes with gusto. Although books like Black Magic and Strange World Of Your Dreams dealt with strange phenomena, and books like Challengers of The Unknown were sprinkled with secret societies and sorcery, his black-&-white magazine Spirit World set the stage for his work in the coming decade. In Spirit World, Jack delved into unexplained phenomena like astrology, spontaneous combustion and ESP. With research for Spirit World apparently still fresh in his mind, Jack incorporated a cult story ("The Sect") and a seance into his Deadman crossover in Forever People, and a witchcraft coven story into Mister Miracle. Soon after the cancellation of the Fourth World, Jack dove head-first into the supernatural with The Demon but aside from a smattering of stories dealing with witchcraft, Jack used The Demon to retell classic horror stories from his youth, including Frankenstein, The Wolfman and The Phantom of the Opera. Inspired by The Exorcist, Jack incorporated demonic possession with a sci-fi twist in the Kamandi story "The Exorcism." Jack would revisit this theme a couple of years later with the Argon storyline in Captain America. Jack also developed Satan's Six around this time, although it didn't see the light of day until the Topps Kirbyverse campaign in the 1990s.
Another common theme in the netherworld of Occult studies is the "secret society." Jack had utilized the secret society before, most notably A.I.M. and Hydra in the Captain America/SHIELD storylines in the '60s, but he explored the idea more exuberantly in the '70s. Modern theories about nefarious secret societies spring from the much-embroidered legend of the Bavarian Illuminati, a group of scholars and aristocrats founded in the 18th century by Adam Weishaupt. The Illuminati sought to overthrow the monarchies of Europe and replace them with a government of "enlightened ones," mainly scholars and philosophers, hence the name Illuminati. Although this group was forcibly dissolved two hundred years ago, folk legend has inflated their status immeasurably.
Jack also used the "eye" symbol in conjunction with the Reincarnators,
as shown here from The Demon #3.
To contemporary fringe paranoids now, the Illuminati are the unseen architects of the coming "One World Government," and they use the mythical all-seeing "Eye of Osiris" as their emblem. Jack apparently encountered these theories and incorporated them into OMAC, with the "Global Peace Agency" and the all-seeing "Brother Eye." Another populist conspiracy theory concerns the threat of a revanchist British monarchy who are using the media as a mind-control tool to reclaim America. Jack appropriated these themes and blended them with George Orwell's 1984 for his brilliant "Madbomb" story in Captain America. The theme of a corrupt and conspiratorial aristocracy was also explored in Black Panther with the Collectors. Jack also explored a more benign version of the Secret Society with his aborted Manhunter revival and the Secret City Saga. The theme of a select group of individuals working in secret to change the world, whether for good or ill, was obviously a Kirby obsession.
Occultist and Conspiracy theorists claim the pursuit of holy or magical talismans is of supreme importance to these cultish secret societies. Hitler's obsession with finding the Spear of Destiny, the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant was exploited to great effect by George Lucas in the brilliant Indiana Jones films. Perhaps Lucas was again inspired by his study of Jungian scholar Joseph Campbell when he made these films, but based on his successful appropriation of Kirby's themes for the Star Wars movies, perhaps he returned to the well for inspiration and took cues from Kirby's Black Panther series, since that book dealt almost exclusively with the adventurous search for magical talismans.
According to modern folklore, when these secret cults aren't pursuing these elusive artifacts, they engage in scientific black magic. Kirby depicted this modern alchemy in Fantastic Four with the "Him" storyline and in Thor with the "High Evolutionary." As mentioned before, the nefarious Royalist society developed the Madbomb to advance their ambitions, and the unrepentant Nazi Arnim Zola appeared in all his ghastly splendor in Captain America. The secret society known as New Genesis also seemed to be more scientific than magical with their Boom Tubes and Mother Boxes. And if Arthur C. Clarke is to be credited with inventing a communications satellite simply for writing about one, Kirby should be credited with inventing Virtual Reality, since he first depicted a form of V.R. in Jimmy Olsen, which he named the "Solar Phone."
The Eternals was the book where Kirby said he was trying to get "mystical." In a 1984 interview in Comics Feature, Kirby recounted that he was trying to explore "where we came from." The Eternals was a synthesis of past themes, most notably the Thor/New Gods pantheon theme, but it also incorporated then current pseudo-science, and parapsychology. The Bermuda Triangle theme was visited, as well as apocalyptic and genetic engineering themes, but Kirby's main focus was to explore the themes of ancient alien visitation laid out in Erick Von Daniken's Chariot of the Gods. In this book, Von Daniken proposed that the ancient gods mentioned in pre-Columbian South American mythology were actually extraterrestrial visitors. Kirby went to town with this idea on the first three issues of The Eternals, depicting vast and complex analogues of Mayan and Aztec art and presenting theories of alien genetic engineering. For reasons unknown, these themes were dropped and The Eternals quickly became standard boilerplate, with a Judgment Day backdrop that was never fully developed.
The fact that the Judgement Day angle was never developed was telling. Kirby usually shied away from Judeo-Christian themes in his work. His Bible illustrations were seemingly done for Jack's own amusement and were only released posthumously. And those images tended to be Eternals type depictions of Biblical stories. One of Jack's most famous depictions of God showed him turning his back on a pleading yet defiant humanity, almost like a scene from the Book of Job. The Silver Surfer was clearly developed by Stan Lee to be a messiah figure, but Jack's own view of the character was far more ambiguous. Jack seemed to take a dim view of religious extremism, correctly seeing it as another form of fascism personified by Glorious Godfrey and Darius Drumm. The former was a servant of Darkseid (Jack's Satan-figure) and the latter became the literal Angel of Death.
Jack was understandably hesitant to discuss his own beliefs. He was interested in sharing ideas, but never proselytized. Whereas all the various phantasmagoria of the occult and supernatural made for exciting comics, Jack's spiritual inclination was probably very intimate and personal. He may have come across his personal demarcation with The Eternals, and backed off a bit. Jack's main goal was to entertain and to sell comics, which is probably why the Bible imagery was not released during his lifetime, but as popular culture continues to explore "extreme possibilities," we can celebrate the work of a man who was out on the edge first.
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