Thursday, August 12, 2010

Jack Kirby is Awesome

[I justify this post as gaming related because it discusses an important under-pining of Heroes of Industry.]

Jack Kirby is awesome.  Yes, not exactly breaking news.  But we could paraphrase Chevy Chase's old joke and say that Jack Kirby is STILL awesome.  And I say "is" quite consciously.  Sure Jacob Kurtzberg the man is dead, but Jack Kirby the artist cannot be anything other than alive; gloriously, vibrantly alive.  If you don't think so, then you haven't read a Kirby-book in too long.

I've been wallowing in Kirby recently, having finally gotten a hold of the first volume of Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus.  I missed these comics the first time around due to the fact that I was just being born.  Later, I was a pretty staunch Marvel Comics fan and so managed to miss the occasional appearance by the characters. My first real exposure to the Fourth World Mythos (is that a term? if not, it should be) was that season of Super Friends with Darkseid as the recurring villain.  As bloodless a representation of the Mythos as that was (in all senses) there was something intriguing there.  

One of themes that Kirby so ably tapped into was what I call "Cosmic Mysticism"; the place where Science Fiction and Religion converge.  And the glimpses of Kirby's Astro-Theology (to coin a Kirbyesque term) hinted at something big going on with Darkseid and Apokalips.  Something infinitely more...well, just infinitely MORE than the standard super-villain or evil planet.

An example: Issue No. 2 of the Forever People gives us Glorious Godfrey and the Anti-Life Movement.  Glorious Godfrey is from Apokalips, but seems free of the weird appearances of most of the baddies we see from there.  He is a "Revelationist" and comes to earth to hold great revival-style meetings under a tent.  There he preaches the freedom of "Anti-Life".  When I first heard about the Anti-Life Equation years ago, I just assumed it was some some cosmic Macguffin that would kill everyone.  But in Kirby's theology, Life is literally equivalent to Free Will and thus the Anti-Life Equation is actually the ability to remove all free will from people everywhere.  Now, think for a second about the implications of all that.  

But no!  This is a Kirby comic and we don't have time to sit back and think because STUFF IS HAPPENING!  Glorious Godfrey tells people that life is full of trouble and anxiety and so true happiness can be found by grasping Anti-Life i.e. giving up all personal volition.  And once that is done, you can have perfect justification for doing absolutely anything.  To lack justification requires there to have been options and those without will have no options ergo they are always justified in what they do.

The Hitler analogies are pretty obvious (and Kirby doesn't try to hide them; among other things, he opens the issue with a quote from old Uncle Adolph), but Nazi-stories are a dime a dozen.  The thing is that the lure of Anti-Life is much bigger than Nazism or any of the other great tyrannical -isms.  This is about the way in which a culture can become suicidal in search of happiness and the value of pain.  And, at the same time, it's about some weird space-hippies with a computer that they love and a giant motorcycle that can travel at light-speed and the ability to switch atoms with someone called the Infinity Man who makes the sound TAARUN! when he appears and bends or breaks the normal laws of physics but can still get knocked out by a mere probe from the satan called Darkseid!

Reading these stories is almost literally that breath-taking.  You can actually see the fire of Kirby's imagination pouring out from his brain onto the page and from that page splashing into you.  This fire is too strong to be constrained by conventional narrative technique; the ideas come so fast and furious that he sometimes just skips over properly introducing them.  If you try and stop and say, "Wait, that wasn't where the previous issue ended", you will be run over by the Mac Truck of the imagination.  Kirby doesn't have time to set that scene up, because in the time it took him to draw the first panel, he already thought of nine other things that are even cooler and he only has 21 pages left in the book.

I've written before about kallos and how I hold to that in my writing.  I suspect that Jack Kirby would punch me in the nose if I tried to discuss kallos with him.  And that's fine (seriously, how cool would it be to to show your mangled schnoz  to your kids and say, "See that?  King Kirby gave me that broken nose.").  Maybe I appreciate Kirby in part because I know that I could never create the way that he creates.  As regular, hypothetical readers of the blog have figured out by now, I think things through.  A lot.  I put hours of thought into something before pen ever touches paper (not that I use a pen anymore).  I write a few sentences or put together a mechanic and then I stop, and look at it, and think about it some more.  And though I wish that I could write a little faster, all in all, my method works for me.

But Kirby is the anti-universe of that.  He's got stuff to put on paper and, if tomorrow it's clear that there was a better way of doing that, too damn bad, because yesterday is a million years ago in the Kirbyverse and he's already created and destroyed worlds by then.  That "just go with it, man" attitude must surely account for his attraction to the youth movement of the day and the often awkward writing of the imaginary hippy-slang dialog of the Forever People and the Outsiders  by a middle-aged man.  But even that is really okay, because no hippy was ever as far out as Kirby. 


  1. Kirby is indeed cool, and those New Gods collections probably contain his magnum opus.

  2. Cosmic mysticism, I like that! Man, this makes me want to go dig through my comic collection and re-read these. Unfortunately, a herculean effort to say the least. Going through a largely unorganized collection of 40+ long boxes is like rolling dice to find what you're looking for.

  3. I love Kirby, my house is full of Kirby stuff (I own a complete run of Kamandi and something like 35 of his Thor issues as well as a shit ton of reprints). I'm a huge fourth world fan. One thing I think that doesn't get enough attention is Kirby's kick ass portrayal of Jimmy Olson. The way he stands up to Superman is awesome and for the first time ever, he isn't the side-kick in his own comic. Like Dan Turpin, Jimmy doesn't need super powers to be bad ass two fisted hero.

  4. Jimmy Olsen sort of becomes a ginger-haired Kamandi!