The thesis: continuity of ideas
Jack Kirby's major works, no matter what the publisher, all take place within the same universe of ideas.
True, each character (or team) is alone in their world (unless
editors insist on crossovers, which Kirby resists - e.g. see the
Eternals). But look at the ideas and themes! Each is essentially the
previous character (or team), but taken to the next level. The names and
costumes change, but it is the same evolving idea.
Overview: from Tuk to Captain Victory
Captain America in 1941 introduced us to Tuk, the first "Avenger", to the island of Attilan, and the past. This takes us to present: the Fantastic Four in 1961, and thence to Thor. Thor take us to the near future: the New Gods in 1971. The New Gods take us to the infinite future, Kirby's final epic, Captain Victory, the son of Orion. Kirby was endlessly asking questions, and told stories about what he found. This naturally led him from the simple to the complex, from the past to the future. In this way his stories became the story of mankind.
Kirby on rebirth
Am I reading too much into this? No. Because in his final work, Captain Victory, we finally see Kirby's attitude to death and rebirth. To paraphrase his radio interview, his characters do not die: or if they do, they are reborn. Kirby does not believe that people die, but they are reborn through their influence in others. The example he gives is that a parent lives on through his children. This is a very ancient belief, and one that is literally true. In Kirby's case, he also lives on through his work. And in the case of his characters, Orion lived on through his son Captain Victory, Darkseid lived on through Blackmass, and so on. The surface features do not matter, it is the soul that counts.
Enough introduction: onto the epic story!
Kirby's output can be divided into three ages: stories about the
past, present and future. Or pre-Marvel, Marvel, and post Marvel.
The first era deals with mankind growing up. It deals with humans in their young, formative state: first the distant past, then childhood, then romance, then adulthood and learning about the world. These stories are set in the distant past, in small towns (or small areas of cities), or in the early days of America. In this era the gods are distant: they are the rules and ideals that we follow, and our mythical past. In this era life moves relatively slowly: change takes a lifetime, or sometimes thousands of years. This era is on the scale of the individual human, then the community and then the nation.
Kirby reached his mature peak at the same time as America: the 1960s. His 1960s stories are about the real world as it was then. They were about the real technology that first put man into space in 1961: the Fantastic Four, though it appears to have futuristic technology, is firmly grounded in the technology of the era. Anything extra comes from limited Skrull technology, a symbol of our new discoveries that can take any shape, technologies we barely understand. The Fantastic Four is the American family in the 1960s. In this era the gods are present on Earth, and at least half of them are benevolent. In Thor we see the old gods come to Earth. It seems we can coexist, with the gods are benign, and mankind knowing her place, But this is an illusion: Ragnarök approaches. In the Fantastic Four men see how technology can make themselves into gods. This era only exists for a brief moment, in the 1960s. it is unstable and cannot last. This era is on the scale of the planet, bursting to expand further.
The New Gods is the near future, when mankind has rejected all gods. This is the war we have entered in the 2000s: the war (so far a cold war, and let's hope it stays that way) between the one percent and the rest, between old gods and new atheists, between left and right. At first it seems obvious who is right and who is wrong: each side sees the other as the obvious bad guys. I am Orion, you are Darkseid! This is man versus gods, on a scale of two worlds.
The second and final stage expands to the scale of the galaxy. Now man himself is immortal. The gods are now just voices, and we are in world of ideas. What law should prevail? Will we let ideas defeat violence, or will we always love war? Will we truly understand the infinite scope of what is out there? What began with Captain America ends with Captain Victory. What began with Tuc, the cave boy, ends with Silver Star. The story of mankind is complete.
Captain America: the archetypal hero
Captain America is the overarching symbol of mankind: a lone hero, fighting for freedom. He starts weak, like homo sapiens, but uses technology to become strong. He is really captain human, but Kirby noted (as he said in a late interview) that the name Superman was already taken. Besides, superman was an alien, and Kirby is about ordinary humans. The Kirby universe does have aliens, symbols of powers greater than ourselves. But Kirby's genus, his realism, is to recognise the real world. Lesser writers see aliens as benevolent, or they see humans as strong enough for a lone group of heroes to beat any aliens. But Kirby is more realistic. He has seen real war. He understands the scale of what's out there. He knows that our only hope is not to rely on our illusory strength, but to constantly ask, "what's out there?" And never to worry bout our own life but to see the bigger picture.
Tuk: the first human
Kirby's story of mankind begins here. Tuk is the first Avenger. All these concepts and words were later claimed by Marvel comics, but Kirby invented them first. Kriby begins his epic with our distant past: "Stories from the Dark Ages". Mankind is in search of the island of the gods. That. in nutshell, is the story of mankind.
Attilan, the Kree-tan island of the gods
1942: Boy Commandos
Kirby's next major work after Captain America was Boy Commandos. Like Tuk, these were children, mankind at its simplest, fighting to survive in a world they barely understood. Though based in the present day, is is the same story that mankind has lived since before the dawn of history. It is mankind's beginning state.
1947: Young Romance; Young Love
What stops us simply killing each other until nothing is left? The need to procreate. Masculine violence is restrained by feminine love. So the story of mankind, after it starts with children endlessly fighting, must progress to the story of romance. Romance of course is a word with a double meaning: in classical literature a romance is not a desire for sex, but a journey, a desire for a better world out there somewhere. Jack Kirby invented the entire romance comic genre. he had to, as it was the unavoidable step in his story of mankind.
1947: Justice Traps the Guilty
As civilisation grows (and as young men grow up and get responsibilities and children) we moves from a state of primitive war and reproduction to a focus on law. How do we build a good society? How to we stop bad people destroying it? These are the themes of the true crime genre, under the masterful hands of Kirby.
1950: Boys' Ranch
As societies grow they spread. They expand into new territory. We enter the era of colonialism. Once again humans are like children, discovering the unknown. Boys' ranch is about American colonialism, children finding themselves on the frontier. Unlike the earlier stage of war, that was unavoidable, this is war from choice. Kirby's work asks the hard questions, and shows the Indians in a favourable light. Kirby always sees both sides of any cionflict, plus the third and bigger side, the underlying causes. Kirby knows that both the ranchers and Indians are just people trying to survive, and heroes and bad guys are as likely to come from both sides.
1950: Black Magic
As men expand into new lands they come across new and strange ideas. Ideas about what life has value, or how the universe works, or who harms who. Cherished assumptions are overturned. Anything sees possible. So along with the colonial stories, Kirby explores stories of magic. His book "Black Magic" should not be confused with the shlock horror that caused the backlash against comics a few years later. Kirby's stories are never about gore, but about ideas. They are about mankind's quest to make sense of the unknown out there.
1952: Strange World of Your Dreams
As we learn more about the outside we become re aware of ourselves as part of that world. Human science naturally leads to psychology: what exactkly are we? What are our real motivations? "Strange World of Your Dreams" was no science fiction book, but explored real life dreams in a serious, adult (but entertaining) way. Kirby's story of mankind has grown up, leaving the childhood stage behind.
1954: Fighting American.
Now that mankind is self aware he moves into a higher stage of morality: questioning everything. Fighting American began as comics' first anti communist hero, inspired by Joseph McCarthy. As with romance novels, Kirby was always breaking new ground. But when it quickly became apparent that McCarthy was wrong, Kirby (and Simon) turned the story into a satire of McCarthyism. Whereas in issue 1 the commies were a deadly threat, from issue 2 they were turned into bumbling clowns. The message was "these people are not a threat to us, McCarthysim is a joke". This naturally follows from the focus on psychology, looking inward and looking at your own motivations. McCarthy's red scare only existed in his head, like so many of our nightmares.
1958: Challengers of the Unknown
Having covered psychology (a new science in the early 1900s), and applied that to politics (the major concern of the 1930s-1940s), mankind is ready to turn his attention beyond the confines of this Earth. Kirby's next book was about te question "what might eb out there?" Aliens? magic? Strange biology? Different kinds of politics? What are the possibilities?
In April 1961 a human left planet Earth and returned, for real, for the first time. That same month Kirby planned The Fantastic Four (to be on sale in August, cover dated November). The Fantastic Four is about the 1960s, and how science turns men into gods, and the danger that brings.
This bibliography focuses only on Kirby's most important titles. Right in the top rank is Thor, Kirby's exploration of godhood in the modern world. The title began as a second rank title, just to pay the bills, as Kirby focused on the Fantastic Four. But once the FF hit its stride Kirby looked more closely at the Norse legends, and created an industry-changing backup strip, Tales of Asgard issues.
Until that moment the Thor stories looked like stories produced by Lee on his own. But from this moment Thor's plots had Kirby
all over them. Tales of Asgard forced readers to take comics seriously for the first time. That changed everything.
Previously Thor had referred to Crete and the Greek gods, but all
ancient mythologies tell essentially the same stories, reflecting the
rise of mankind. The Norse gods were especially close to Kirby's heart
because they were about battles that ultimately neither man nor god can
win: ultimately the gods will fall in Ragnarök. Thor tells of a couple
of years when it seemed
like gods and men could live in harmony: the gods helping the men, the
men knowing their place. But Kirby knew that was not how power works.
The gods would want more power, and he men would want to be gods. Thor
is about a reality in the 1960s, when most people still respected
hierarchies and tradition, yet the younger generation rejected both. The
situation could not last.
Kirby's stories always move forwards at a rapid pace. They have to: Kirby was an explorer, not farmer. So by 1966 the pace of discovery leads to Galactus (called by Maximus, provoked by mankind now posing a threat). While most writers naively think the gods will exist for our happiness, that is not how power structures work in the real universe. Kirby fought against higher powers his whole life, He knew what would really happen.
By 1967 Kirby began to move into the future. But Marvel did not like
this. While stories involving the Negative Zone (FF 61-63) and the Kree
(FF 64-65) might be sold to kids old as just crazy alien stuff, stories
about well meaning men creating mankind's replacement (FF 66-67),
families breaking up (FF 68-71) and drugs (FF 74-75) had to be radically
watered down by Stan Lee. Lee changed the dialog, making
it a simplistic story about evil scientists trying to take over the
world. This was the last straw among a series of frustrations for Kirby.
it was clear then that his writing would never be appreciated at
Marvel, and he would never be paid it. To Marvel he was just an artist,
and his art was too abstract for their tastes. From that moment Kirby
treading water, withholding his best new ideas, looking for an
opportunity to tell his story elsewhere. From 1968 to when he left in
1971, Jack trod water, recycling old stories and copying whatever ideas
he saw on TV and movies, until he was able to move forwards at DC.
But Kirby's ideas proved too advanced for DC as well.
In 1976 Kirby give Marvel another chance. He returned to Marvel and tried to fix the damage done to his story. For example, the Kree, originally space gods, had been reduced by lesser writers to almost human level, and the Inhumans, their other creations, had been reduced to just another group of nondescript superheroes. So Kirby re-created them as the Celestials and the Eternals (with the Deviants taking the place of the Skrulls). But readers could not keep up, so the return was short lived.
So in 1978 he found an outside source of income (cartoons) and took a four year break to ensure his financial security. Then he created a new industry: creator owned comics using the emerging direct market. This enabled him to finally tell complete his story with no interference: with the aptly named Captain Victory.
How Kirby ended the Fantastic Four
About that final story
In the FF 70s, when Kirby moved to recycling old themes, he left a
bomb in last "great" FF story, a double sized story, annual 6. In it
Kirby recycles the Negative Zone for one last blast, and introduced his
last major creation for Marvel: Annihilus. Kirby felt his spirit was
being crushed. That Lee was feeding off his ideas. Is it just me, or
does Annihilus' chrome dome look a little like a pre-toupee Stan Lee?
Either way, he can only survive through controlling others. He crushes
Ben (representing Kirby) under a gigantic boot. But Annihilus lost his
cosmic control rod, just as Lee lost Kirby's ideas. Of course he
regained it, but could not prevent the FF from leaving his realm first.
Kirby's last gift to Marvel was a little time bomb called Franklin. The departing message from the King was "You don't want change? You are going to have to live with this child growing up. Enjoy." Franklin's inability to grow up over the past fifty years has become the thorn in Marvel's pretence of realism. They daren't kill the child off (though John Byrne wanted to) but he is a constant reminder that Marvel does not move forwards, while Kirby's next stories leap into the future, leaving Marvel far behind.
The New Gods follows from Thor. Thor was inevitably headed for Ragnarok, and would have reached it circa 1968 if Kirby had his way.
This leads directly to New Gods 1.
And in case there is any doubt, we have this little scene. When sifting through the wreckage of
the old gods, in Forever People 5, they find the unmistakable helmet of Thor.
One day I hope to have time to examine the New Gods and the whole
magnificent Fourth World in more detail. But a person could spend a
lifetime studying Kirby, just as scholars can spend a lifetime studying
Shakespeare (who produced a tiny fraction of Kirby's output). I ill just
note the most obvious message of the epic: those who live by the sword
die by the sword. And so we come to the end of the human story. What
began with Captain America ends with Captain Victory
Kirbys story moves forward in time, each chapter being bigger than
the last. I
began with a lone prehistoric hero Captain America 1, in search of the
mythical island of the gods. moved forward through the past to the
present, then the near future, and finally the future of our
grandchildren and beyond. It grew fro an individual to the community,
the nation, the world, the star system... and now finally reaches the
final stage we can comprehend (right now at least): humans become
immortal, and range across the galaxy
The origin story in issues 11-13 make it clear, in case we did not pick up the earlier hints: Captain Victory is the son of Orion, and hence grandson of Darkseid. It is all the same story. (In this picture we see the captain on Orion's iconic transport.)
* Although published between 1981 and 1984, Captain Victory was plotted in 1976, America's Bicentennial, and was intended as a movie script, a direct response (according to Steve Sherman, Kirby's screenplay collaborator) to Arthur C Clarke's naively optimistic "Rendevous With Rama". Captain Victory is surely Kirby's most underrated work. It is his crowning glory, a showcase of the world's greatest story teller completing the world's greatest story, the story of mankind. I plan to review each issue in great depth on other pages, so will say no more.
In conclusion, what is Kirby's story about? Kirby's entire opus can be summed up in three words, perhaps his favorite phrase: "what's out there?" On the surface his stories are all about fighting. but he knows enough about real fighting to now that only one thing is stronger than the gun: the idea. Kirby was hungry and thirsty for ideas. He knew that the world is bigger and more dangerous than we can imagine, and our only hope of survival is to find out what's out there before it destroys us.
Kirby is the only real comic writer, because he is the only one who understands reality. Alone among comic writers, Kirby actually fought the Nazis with his bare hands. He grew up in the Great Depression, a short Jewish kid who had to fight street gangs to survive. As an adult he lacked a silver tongue, and was constantly robbed of the value of his work. So he did the only thing he could: worked harder, and put his mind in to overdrive, to understand things are as they are. Other comic writers are armchair philosophers, but Kirby understood the real world. Other comic writers write either power fantasies or nihilism. Most superhero comics are power fantasies. They imagine that the planet Earth is super special in the universe, and a lone band of misfits can beat any alien threat. A minority of writers are nihilists: they realise that the power fantasies are dangerous nonsense, and that the universe is very dark. But they do not have answers. They think that even pretending to have answers is dangerous. Both positions are luxuries that only sheltered armchair theorists can afford. In the real world you know that yes, dangers are far worse than you can imagine, and you had better find answers if you want to survive. You had better recognise the Hitlers and the atomic bombs BEFORE they arrive, and you had better understand them or you are dead. Only Kirby had that understanding. Only Kirby writes about the real world.
Kirby's story was not consciously planned. It arose directly from his experience. As Kirby evolved and learned, so did his story. Kirby is probably the most intellectual of all comic writers, because he is the least pretentious, and loves truth the most. He is like Socrates, whom Apollo called the wisest of all because he knew that he knew nothing, and simply asked questions.
That is all Kirby does. He asks questions, about "what's out there?" and "given our technology, what could happen next?" he then tells stories about what he sees. Listen to any lengthy Kirby interview, such as this one. And at first you hear a very humble man, not used to talking, far more used to listening. When asked he just talks about the things he has seen, tempered by the wisdom of ages (what he learned from his culture and from his mother). Like all the greatest sages, at first he seems like just a small man concerned with small things. But listen for longer and he becomes more and more profound. This is the man who foresaw the helicopter and the atomic bomb, who spotted Hitler before others did, who solved the problem of life after death. This sums up Kirby perfectly. If you just glance at his work (especially his later work) you see something very simple. But the longer you stay, the more you re-read his work, the more you slow down and ponder each frame, the more impressive he becomes.
As with Shakespeare, Kirby's work reveals more depth the more you read it. but unlike Shakespeare, Kirby was original.
Practically all of Shakespeare's plays were simply more polished
versions of existing plots. But Kirby produced multiple new "plays"
every month, and they were all original. As for Kirby's dialog, that is
probably his greatest strength, but that topic will have to wait for another time.