By Mark Rodgers
We all have those childhood memories that warm our souls. Mine was walking to 7-Eleven on Sunday morning a few blocks from our church between the service and Sunday school to get a Slurpee and a .20 cent comic book.
A comic book illustrated by Jack “The King” Kirby, who would have been 100 years old this year.
Kirby’s artwork mesmerized me. I came into comics during that sweet spot of adolescence, ages 10-15, which coincided with the short stint that Kirby came to DC Comics, where he developed his own stories for five years.
Kirby is probably the greatest comic book illustrator in history and developed stories with the greatest writer in comic book history, Stan Lee. Together, they produced some of the greatest comic books in history, including the Fantastic Four. A prized possession on my wall are framed Fantastic issues #1 and #100 signed … by them both!
However, it wasn’t just Kirby’s art that attracted me. At DC he had full control over his content and explored not just superhuman but spiritual themes. He created his own mythology, The Fourth World Saga, which was distinct from the DC Universe although interacted with it through Jimmy Olsen’s titled series.
This was the trippy 70’s. Kirby’s art both shaped and reflected the expanding spiritual sensibility that the Beatles explored a few years earlier in The White Album, with Kirby’s art taking a cosmic turn:
“I began to learn about the universe myself and take it seriously. I know the names of the stars. I know how near or far the heavenly bodies are from our own planet. I know our own place in the universe. I can feel the vastness of it inside myself. I began to realize with each passing fact what a wonderful and awesome place the universe is, and that helped me in comics because I was looking for the awesome.“
The Fourth World was his take on Roman and Greek mythology. For years, Kirby had illustrated Thor, but DC gave him the opportunity to muse philosophically and spiritually on his own terms through titles like “The New Gods”, “The Eternals”, and “The Forever People”.
In retrospect, I think what I appreciated about Kirby, coming from the certainty of my Sunday School, was his permission to ask and explore spiritual questions through the story:
“I feel that life is a series of very interesting questions and very poor answers. But I myself am willing to settle for the questions. If the questions are interesting, I feel I evoke them in what I do. I feel that should be good enough for everyone else.”
But this wasn’t the untethered pursuit of self actualization that was beginning to dominate comics, or the postmodern ambiguity that was taking over pop culture (famously embodied in Swamp Thing by Alan Moore; who would later pen the penultimate postmodern myth The Watchmen). What I came to appreciate is that the answers to the questions Kirby was raising were always there in his work, rooted in his own religious background and a worldview that embraced a moral universe:
“A character to me can’t be contrived. I don’t like to contrive characters.They have to have an element of truth.“
Kirby was Jewish, and the moral clarity of World War II and the evil of the Holocaust wouldn’t allow him to embrace moral ambiguity:
“I‘ll never speak to another person without telling the truth. I‘ve been a cruel man in my time. I‘ve been a devious man in my time, like everybody else. I‘ve told lies in my time. But I‘ve seen enough suffering to experiment with the truth.“
Although he rarely talked about his own beliefs, Kirby was shaped by his Jewish upbringing as were many, if not most of the early comic book pioneers including Stan Lee:
“Underneath all the sophistication of modern comics, all the twists and psychological drama, good triumphs over evil. Those are the things I learned from my parents and from the Bible. It’s part of my Jewish heritage.“
Kirby’s life-long companion, wife and best friend, Roz, said about him:
“You need to know he wasn’t a religious man who would go to the temple every day and on weekends like his father did. He still believed in his faith, and he liked to read the Bible. He liked to read about the gods and things like that. He enjoyed drawing the gods the way he would see it. In his eyes, everything was so big. We’d go to the temple on holidays, and New Year’s and things like that, and I said, “Don’t you think we ought to go more often?“And he said, “I love God, and I believe in God. And I’m still a good person even though I don’t go into the temple.“
Darren Aronofsky, who is also Jewish, when asked about the Biblical themes in his recent film, Mother!, expressed similar sentiments:
“These are myths that belong to the world. They are some of the oldest stories that we’ve been telling repeatedly since the beginning of humankind.We’d go to the temple on holidays, and New Year’s and things like that, I said. “
Although Kirby believed in God, like others in the Jewish community post-World War II, I am sure he struggled with the challenge of theodicy (the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil):
“All life on Earth is subject to the rumbles and rockings of the parent structure which has no control over the disastrous effects of its stresses and strains on whatever thrives on its surface. The ambitions and dreams of men are irrelevant to this planetary giant which pursues its own way in its own manner. Man is its child, tenant and still, to this date, its captive.“
But this challenge didn’t slow Kirby’s own spiritual quest and questioning, which he continued to pursue through story. One of the Marvel universe characters he created that served as an avatar for God was Galactus, who is rumored to be central in the next Avengers film:
“Galactus was God, and I was looking for God. When I first came up with Galactus, I was very awed by him. I didn’t know what to do with the character. Everybody talks about God, but what the heck does he look like? Well, he’s supposed to be awesome, and Galactus is awesome to me. I drew him large and awesome. No one ever knew the extent of his powers or anything, and I think symbolically that’s our relationship [with God]“.
As we know, the stories told to us in our youth stay with us throughout our lives, and for creatives are retold both consciously and unconsciously. Steven King’s landmark book series The Dark Tower, as well as the film and the upcoming series based on it, was influenced by King’s religious upbringing, which some suggest is the case with all of his work:
“I was raised Christian, and I was raised to believe in the idea of the Antichrist. My wife said that — she was raised a Catholic — the attitude of the Catholic Church is, give them to me when they’re young, and they’ll be mine forever. It isn’t really true. A lot of us grow up, and we grow out of the literal interpretation that we get when we‘re children, but we bear the scars all our life. Whether they’re scars of beauty or scars of ugliness, it’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder.”
Next week at ComicCon in New York, we will be launching a small comic book and graphic novel effort called Cave Pictures Publishing, named after Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, to serve as a “wall for modern myth-making.” It is our hope that like Kirby, the stories will be an outlet for the writers’ and illustrators’ own journeys, raising guiding questions for people like us on the quest for truth, and leading us to the place Plato said he is waiting:
“Welcome out of the cave, my friend. It’s a bit colder out here, but the stars are just beautiful.“
Happy Birthday, Jack “The King” Kirby. Thank you for being part of my Sunday strolls, and for the many souls who were shaped by your stories:
“There was power in the work of Jack Kirby that changed the way I looked at things.There was no one else like him and there never will be.“ — Guillermo del Toro