The Persistence of Spiritual Vision: the Symbols of Jack Kirby

1. Humanity’s heritage: Symbolic thought

I’m 71 years old.. I used to read the first science fiction books, and 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.  I found it in Thor.  I found it in Galactus.

Jack Kirby, 1988

Logic can make very strong arguments.  Christopher Hitchens’ claim that we help others not because of the dictates of a God, which would imply we are incapable of reaching that conclusion on our own, but because we depend on others to make our Earthly experience as positive as possible, shows that the intellect alone can generate altruism.

In debate with Sam Harris, Hitchens was asked: on what do you base the value of your life, if there is no transcendent God to serve?  His answer was that he had spent his life trying to be free, and trying to help others be free.  There is no rational or religious argument which could ever discredit such a view.

Kirby’s inspiration for the Hulk came from a news story of a mother who lifted the back of a car to save her son trapped underneath.  “I feel we all have this ability, to transcend our limitations, in times of crisis.”

Regardless of the reasoning, to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or that “whatsoever ye do unto the least of all thy brethren, that do ye also unto me”, shows we understand that human life can be used to help others, and such a life embodies what religion might call a spiritual impulse.  It is not devalued by an intellectual source just as a harmful act (such as a punch in the stomach) cannot be made acceptable by claiming it comes from a spiritual one.

So Hitchens’ life shows that even someone who does not believe in a spirit can still create a spiritual outlook.  Their anti-theism might even be understandable if based on ancient characterisations, and perhaps denial on those grounds supposes archaic concepts to be the only cloth available; if so, one could criticise medicine, physics, astronomy, plumbing, marriage, business and table manners using the same restricted view.

But ancient symbols must have been limited by the evolutionary capacity of their day, and this is an allowance we factor in whenever looking at societies from ages past.  To criticise spirituality today, rather than attack a fundamentalist who is somehow trapped in a byegone era due to some quirk of his own, making him an easy target, it would be better to take into account recent discoveries linking spiritual practices to biology, neurochemistry and epigenetics, and their effect on genius and creativity.  This is something the more militant critics of religion, men such as Richard Dawkins, prefer not to do, and it shows an internal blind spot which is taking more and more defensiveness to avoid.

Jack’s lettering from Prize Comics, circa 1949

Every language is a specialised collection of symbols enabling intangible to be communicated.  We understand that early languages must have given way to more complex ones as the brain evolved.   Religious symbols fulfil the same function as language, but for a separate area of thought unrelated to mundane objects, and this means the evolution of these two areas may well not proceed at the same pace.  The remarkable thing about language is not the drastic differences between them or that their forms change over time, but that they all arose from the urgent need to express some aspect of the evolving human brain.  In this light, religion represents a very curious abstraction whose colossal presence throughout every society and every age of man, including the 20th and 21st centuries,  has never been satisfactorily explained.

It’s surprising to find we humans cannot form an accurate mental picture of more than about seven objects at a time without losing track.  The racial brain working through genius has produced symbols, which we call numbers, that are not objects themselves, but stand for a further abstraction, enabling us to manipulate completely unmanageable mental concepts.  It is said that the gap between developing pictograms for objects of trade, around 8000 BC, was only followed by the next logical step, that is, separate pictograms representing their number, was a full five thousand years, showing the very gradual rate of progress of the human brain at that time – a gap which is covered today in no more than a few years within the developing child.  The difference in capacity between these two brains is absolutely immense.

The ten cent logo will seldom strike anyone as an example of vast evolutionary milestones, but it is precisely that.  Kirby and Simon were the first to bring the romance genre to comics, with Young Romance (1948)

In the animal kingdom we alone conceive such complex symbolic thought; some primates can be taught a certain amount of it but do not develop it independently, which makes clear the giant leap made by us at some point in the distant past.  The elegance of the digit 1  is a reminder of these first crude markings, whose value becomes clear considering how long they withstood all the embellishments of geometry, equations, physics and vast astronomical measurements which, in time, proceeded out of the human brain.

Such ideas represented leaps which we take for granted now, but which could only arise from individuals prone to thinking things over and coming up with inspiration: the modern role of humans as teachers to primates perhaps mirrors this early, slow chemistry between the forward thinking types and the mass mind.

A very early work from around 1941, in which wisdom is passed from generation to generation and death referred to as “the long sleep”

Spiritual symbols must have predated such elements of trade by a huge distance.  The animism of the Aborigines is supposed to date from 60,000 years ago, the Aurignacian cave paintings (presumed to have more than just decorative purpose, as they are found in inaccessible caves not used for habitation) about 32,000 years and I believe the temple of Gobekli Tepe is reliably dated to about 12,000 years ago.

The ennobling effect on the mind of elegant, overwhelming spiritual symbols was understood by Kirby, and used as a sign of an emotionally sophisticated society.  The same conclusion was arrived at by James Watson in his book “DNA”, when evaluating Neandertal funerary rites

We know that 200,000 year old burial sites in Africa show evidence of funerary rites; the Neandertal also developed these rites, and their race dates from 600,000–350,000 years ago, and we know such beliefs existed at least 300,000 years ago.  It would hardly make sense for early man to suddenly develop abstract ideas which changed only slightly over the next 300,000 years, especially when a much more evolved specimen took at least five thousand years to go from symbolic objects to symbolic quantities, so it seems reasonable to believe that religious beliefs and the language to articulate them could easily have emerged as long as half a million years ago.

Therefore if we agree that order in time correlates to order of fundamental importance, the spiritual symbols must have been of huge importance to society, followed only much, much later by a systemised set of symbols encoding objects and their quantity.

Kirby also understood that an image of a God must have an overwhelming, inspiring impact on the mind. “I don’t know if there’s an ultimate, or where the ultimate lies.  Possibly I’m not equipped to answer that question.  But the question intrigues me.  I feel it intrigues everybody.  Like with everybody, it’s a question of faith.  That whatever the ultimate is, I have to have faith that it exists.  And of course, the hero does, too; otherwise he would never lay his life on the line.”

The vast gulf needed to be crossed to assimilate these concepts can be appreciated by the five thousand year gap which apparently exists between symbolic representation of objects and the much harder abstraction of their symbolic number.  Bonobo apes have been taught to communicate using symbols but the additional learning required to conceive of organised agriculture for the purposes of trade, the concept of payment values to purchase other goods, as well as the assessment of integrity of character of the trader, are vast, vast leaps into the future.

Symbolic thought is, without doubt, one of humanity’s most precious and hard-earned evolutionary steps, and those who can manipulate symbols with agility are powerful influences on the rest of us.

Kirby’s elegant characterisations from the 1950’s hit, Boys’ Ranch

In well-attended debates where atheistic opinions are based on logic alone, resting a defence of religion on a recollection of ancient events is of dubious worth, and also a little pointless, just as the value of medical science cannot be reckoned by referring to its murky origins or courageous proponents living centuries ago, but by benefits and facts which are to hand today.

If these audiences are polarised into two camps attracted by two completely different things, as if watching the brute force of Hulk Hogan compared to the golden voice of Shirley Bassey, then small wonder that nothing is ever resolved convincingly: each side walks away feeling much the same sympathies as before, and perhaps a little puzzled by the failure of two intelligent minds to somehow communicate the truth of something they both feel so passionately about.

Early Kirby work in partnership with Joe Simon.  The fluid lines and dramatic shading were all self-taught under pressure, as were the anatomy and storytelling technique: Kirby’s colleagues insist that he never once used an eraser.  “Someone told me once that using an eraser just wasted time.  I couldn’t afford to waste time – I had to make a living.”  The gangsters and their molls came straight from his childhood

If one can justify humanitarianism by logic, one should also be able to justify spiritual beliefs by present day knowledge.  If not, there is no point in debating.  Convincingly resolving the question of God is perhaps for distant generations.  The biology which is somehow already in motion must be the thing which concerns us the most, along with what we can do to affect it, just as a driver speeding over a collapsed bridge thinks not about its architects or the technical drawings for his car, but where the brakes are!

Kirby borrows a chair from Patrick McGoohan’s TV show The Prisoner, to characterise Victor von Doom

2. Misunderstanding the persistence of religious faith

“We all have a kind of feeling that I think we’ve had for thousands of years, that there are higher beings somewhere.  I think all our spiritual feelings stem from that.

The truth is that the Greeks had Hercules, even as the Norsemen had Thor, and through the ages we’ve had heroes similar to them, who’s no more than a superhero.  And today, we have our superheroes: we believe in them because we believe in ourselves.”

But before you wonder why this blog isn’t just called Science and, the idea behind this post is a much stronger proof of the persistence of spiritual beliefs.  Richard Dawkins once claimed in an interview that religion is perpetuated solely because children are indoctrinated by their parents, who then indoctrinate their own children, and so on.  This idea has become blithely repeated ever since as a criticism of religion, but it shows a complete failure to think, and thereby reversing the accusation altogether, as well as explaining why such minds find this argument entirely credible due to their own failure to think.

The tendency to listen to one’s parents was attributed by Dawkins to a natural selection in which those who did not listen – for example, rebels who disobeyed the urging to avoid snakes or the edges of cliffs – did not tend to survive.  According to Dawkins, it was not religion so much as the tendency to obey authourity figures which was the genetic foundation of religion’s persistence.  This idea supposes that rebels are generally so liable to catastrophe that they die before procreative age and therefore should have been eliminated over the course of tens of thousands of years, producing a docile race of sheep unable to think for themselves.

How does a thinking man propose a theory so completely at odds with observed fact that to refute it, one hardly knows where to start?  The urge to discredit religion seems so great that essentials like simple logic, observed evidence, and even common sense are all desperately jettisoned like hampers of food from a hot air balloon plummeting to the ground.

“I realised I had to find with something new..I couldn’t depend on gangsters forever. And so for some reason I went to the Bible, and I came up with Galactus. And there I was, in front of this tremendous figure, who I knew very well, because I always felt him in my life, and I knew I certainly couldn’t treat him the same way I would have treated any ordinary mortal character. And I remember in my first story I had to back away from him, in order to resolve that story… of course the Silver Surfer is the fallen angel: when Galactus relegated him to Earth, he stayed on Earth, and that was the beginning of his adventure.”

It is only the mentally sturdy rebel able to conceive and energise inventions and advances, corrections to restrictive systems, and resultant changes in society’s direction; therefore, far from being the type found bitten by snakes at the foot of cliffs, he forms the quick-thinking engine of all historical progress.  And since every development is, for a time, a rebellion against the norm, its adoption by the mass mind requires a kind of intuitive faith in the rebel, further accenting the strength of his perceived character – as we can see from the development of symbolic thought.

Whatever symbols, concepts, forms and institutions which have arisen and survive today, are solely down to this class of men.  Without them, man would follow the same direction as the animal world, and our social forms would remain static for millions of years.  Instead, in evolutionary heartbeats, we see a constant drive for change accompanied by colossal jumps in understanding.  In fact it seems as if change is part of man’s mental makeup, and it is the biological urges – eating, sleeping, romance and procreation – which remain constant, and in some cases vary little from the animal world, perhaps as a reminder of our origins.  So while man remains in some way imprisoned by his biology, his mental abilities are his true heritage, and they are free to grow: no one can say where they would lead us as a race.

Metron of the New Gods reaches the end of the Universe, and finds those who tried to broach it came to a sticky end

Another fact so obvious that it should never need pointing out to a champion of evolution is that, apatr from the reforming rebel, it is the willfully disobedient youngsters who account for most – if not all – illegitimate births today, and probably all through history too. These individuals tend to have more partners because the sacrifices and discipline required by pair bonding is not for them, and they must therefore produce the largest number of genetically varied offspring in geographically separate areas, giving their traits by far the most chance to survive.  I know one such free spirit who has a child in England, one in Vancouver, one in Toronto, and one in Egypt; for all I know he may be working on a fifth.

If natural selection were a genuine shaping force – and it clearly isn’t – then common sense tells us the race would be comprised mainly of irresponsible, non pair-bonding individuals by now.

When I created the Silver Surfer and Galactus it came out of a Biblical feeling. I couldn’t get gangsters to compete with all these superheroes, so I had to look for more omnipotent characters.
I came up with what I thought was God in Galactus; a God-like character.

Still thinking about it in the Biblical sense, I began to think of a fallen angel, and the fallen angel was the Silver Surfer. In the story, Galactus confines him to the Earth, just like the fallen angel. So you can get characters from Biblical feelings.

Still another unavoidable fact is that teenagers all go through a stage of rebellion, questioning the dictates of parents, for the simple reason that they must develop the ability to reason for themselves; this mental development and eventual merging with the complexities of wider society is why the childhood of a human being is by far the longest in all the animal kingdom.  As soon as we call a mammal human, even a prototypical human, this period of rebellion is guaranteed.  Not all will go as far as getting a child by the age of 13, but they will question the parents to re-evaluate their ideas, as surely as a toddler entering the “terrible twos” will reflexively answer “no” to everything you suggest.

But why stop at examples of individual behaviour?  A recent experiment which flatly contradicts the idea that religion is propagated by the sheepish took place in Communist Russia – perhaps you heard of it?  The experiment involved hundreds of millions of individuals, in which three or perhaps even four generations were forbidden any exposure to religion by the sternest authority of the state, with ferocious penalties for those who disobeyed.  Without membership of the Communist Party, one could not even own an apartment in a crumbling block.  Dissent was dealt with by imprisonment or the reverse of natural selection a natural Siberian exile.

If religious faith were a simple matter of obedience to parents, these beliefs should have been gladly jettisoned if only to avoid exclusion from society.  In the Soviet Union it would be impossible for any child born after about 1925 to have any idea of religion as an acceptable outlet; still less for one born in the fifties and sixties.  Not only did the country remain separate socially from others, the government’s influence was so all pervasive as to affect every nook and cranny of daily existence. This experiment was as complete and as ruthless in efficiency as it could ever be possible to orchestrate.

By reviving the Norse Gods, as imagined by Kirby, Marvel Comics introduced something new to popular culture.  In fact, they were advised that youth would not buy it – yet it became one of their biggest sellers, especially on campus

But no sooner did the Soviet Union fall than the churches in Eastern Europe sprang back into life, lovingly restored to a state exceeding their former beauty. To give you a taste of the Russian mentality: when Stalingrad was surrounded in WWII, the citizens swore no German would set foot in their city.  The Nazi blockade meant starvation set in, alongside constant bombardment.  The city did not fall.

Residents eventually boiled wallpaper to make some thin kind of starch soup, and slept under dozens of layers of cloth and blankets to survive the subzero temperatures.  Death hovered around every doorway. A few gave way to cannibalism, betrayed by their rosy faces and good health.  But these were the exceptions.  The city survived under the harshest and most sadistic pressure.

These were not latte-sipping, ipad-tapping, cosy armchair scoffers and caviar conoussieurs.  These were a people possessed of an inflexible iron will and indifferent to suffering, to whom all else came second to their patriotic pride.  For this reason, WWII is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, a war in which at least 40 millions lost their lives.  When they see programs showing how Britain claims to have won the war, they literally fall silent with astonishment.  So either the religious minds which survived generations of war and repression in secret were the sternest and strongest of all, or, if you prefer, those minds which gravitated to religion only after the fall of the USSR must have been expressing the most hardy, perennial, and captivating sentiments of the soul.

Either way the phenomenon of spirituality, or the mental fabric which dresses it to give form to its ideas, by that I mean religion, has nothing to do with external pressure from family or society, nothing whatever to do with sheepish weakness, and nothing at all to do with escapism.  The urge remains intact because it is generated internally. You could no more remove it from the mass of mankind than you could eliminate the urge to procreate, using banners, leaflets and threats.   Such an idea only seems viable to those who are the spiritual equivalent of eunuchs, and by their own condemnation of a healthy instinct in others, they reveal the startling lack of it within their own selves.  Their childish diatribes against those of simple faith serve to further amplify the warning signs emerging from their own twisted and dissonant personality.

As a matter of fact the sole reason the Communist experiment failed – a reason greater even than the corruption which ate its way throughout the entire structure – was because the ordinary human being was denied a choice of thought.  This state of being is so repugnant to human nature – not surprisingly since, as I have easily shown here, freedom of thought is man’s only true heritage and marker of evolutionary progress – that the amassed resistance was enough to topple a regime so callous that an estimated forty million people were also sent to die in slave labour camps for their crime of free thought.  This staggering statistic is never taken into account by those seeking to criticise religion on the grounds of sheepish continuation because it makes their argument seem puerile and stupid, but there seem to be no other words to describe it.

Kirby’s X-Men were based on an extension of the idea of evolution: genetic mutations developing superhuman powers

All these examples show that a propagation of religious faith solely by external pressure is a nonsense, and in any case something which experience of everyday people shows would be an impossibility.  Religious faith seems to be an internal concept limited only by the capacity of that particular mind to which people return, as readily as they do to that source of infinite warmth, the sun.  The variation in forms shows an evolutionary capacity of the mind and the widespread acceptance of each shows the large numbers which simultaneously achieved that particular level.

The widespread and simultaneous resistance to oppressive regimes today in middle east countries, among populations which meekly accepted such dictatorships without protest for ages before, shows the same tendency.  The evolution of mass consciousness is the evolution of the brain, and it is expressed in man’s symbols.  The gifted individuals able to create and manipulate appealing symbols are gifted with an insight into the mind of society at that level of evolution, and they serve an important evolutionary purpose.

3. Spirituality in symbols: the creative life of Jack Kirby

“I don’t know what spiritual beliefs are comprised of.  I only know that I have senses.  And I bring them all into play.  I don’t know what these senses are.. I cant define them.  All my senses are hidden from me.  but they move me…”

But examples of countries we have never cared for and whose character we can only dimly sense, might still be unconvincing.  So the subject of this post is a man who, more than any other single individual, contributed to the visual language of 20th century story telling by the force of his personality, the courage of his convictions, and by sheer genius.  This man is Jack Kirby, one of the true heroes of 20th century America.

It is telling that in the Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins speaks of his amazement as a child, on being told about the pending arrival of “our train”, at the idea the train actually belonged to his family.   Christopher Hitchens’ mother once declared, “if there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it.”  This context of assumed privilege was fateful, as they propelled both individuals in to the forefront of academia and social influence from the very beginning.  It is no wonder that their ideas grew from a position of security.  Give Dawkins a cockney accent and a ragged suit, and, spouting the same 19th century Saint Darwin nonsense, he would be laughed off stage.

The young Jack Kirby could never have had such delusions of grandeur: he had no boost up the ladder and no halls of academia to echo his words.  All he had was natural talent, but even so, whatever he would earn with it he would  have to fight everyone else to keep hold of, from the very beginning.

Kirby gets to grips with microcircuits a decade or so before their use in electronics

At the turn of the 20th century, immigrants flooded into New York from Europe.  Those with family already in America might have followed routes out towards the farmlands of the mid-west or the west coast; those with nothing but the clothes on their backs stayed where they landed, in New York.  They had no other choice: and there were vast numbers of them.

Among the huddled masses yearning to be free who arrived probably around 1913 were an Austrian Jewish couple – Benjamin Kurtzberg and his wife.  Settling in the poorest, cheapest, and most densely crowded slum in all of America’s history, “the couple endured some of the most abject conditions that overpopulation and neglect had ever contrived anywhere.. with 1500-1800 people crammed into a single block” (Mark Alexander, The Wonder Years).  But Benjamin found work in a garment factory, and his family produced two children, the first of whom, Jacob, was born August 28, 1917, later attending elementary and Hebrew school in PS 20.

Kamandi was Kirby’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth arising from man’s inability to manage his technological powers.  The animals, meantime, had developed larger brains and complex societies, while man had degenerated back to prehistoric mental levels

My father was Conservative. We were never Orthodox, but we were Conservative. I went to Hebrew school. It was above a livery stable, the Hebrew school.

Until the day I die I’ll never forget that wonderful table we used to sit at. Hebrew school was a rough place. An airplane flew over one day and I ran over to the window and everyone was pushing and shoving each other, and some guy really shoved me out of the way — I knocked him clean out.

I was about 12. Because I wasn’t bar mitzvahed yet. They had to pick him up. But I was so eager. That was such an innovation to hear the sound of the motor of an airplane flying overhead. I just had to get there in front. I was attracted by everything that seemed to be new and advanced.  I saw the Time Machine.

(Interviewed by Gary Groth)

Jacob showed early promise in art, sometimes angering the landlord by sketching over the corridor walls in their slum tenement.  Hardened by constant gang fights and anti-semitism in the densely packed quarter, his character mirrored the resilience of the spiritual beliefs growing inside of him, and forced him to rely on instinct to better himself.  Of the crowded, hostile slum, he said:

I hated the place because I… well, it was the atmosphere itself.  It was the way people behaved.  I knew that there was something better, and instinct told me that it was uptown, and I’d walk every day from my block to 42nd Street where the Daily News was, where I could be near the Journal, the Hearst newspapers.

I’d run errands for the reporters.  My boss was playing golf in the office, and he was shooting golf balls through an upturned telephone book, see?  That’s the kind of job I wanted!

By age 18 in 1936 the entirely self-taught Kurtzberg was already working with the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate, drawing newspaper strips and editorial cartoons.

I was drawing editorial cartoons for the syndicate, and I drew a thing called “Your Health Comes First.” I was called in once for drawing an editorial cartoon when Chamberlain made that pact with Hitler.

By using different styles and aliases for each (such as Jack Curtiss, above) Kirby’s output gave the impression of a large stable of artists

“Where does a young squirt like you,” he says, “get the nerve to do an editorial cartoon on Chamberlain and Hitler?” And I told him I know a gangster when I see one, see?  Hitler was gobbling up all of Europe.

Jacob Kurtzberg eventually changed his name to Jack Kirby not to disown his Conservative Jewish roots – but because he wanted to be an American.  This ambition took a huge amount of personal confidence – after all, he might still have been a failure, except now, one disowned by his family.

On each comic strip I put a different name: I was Jack Curtiss, Jack Cortez… I didn’t want to be in any particular environment, I wanted to be an all-around American.  I kept Kirby.  My mother gave me hell.  My father gave me hell.  My family disowned me.

This act shows Kirby was not the kind to give in to the dictates of others, even though the mother in those days was sacrosanct.  In one childhood incident Kirby was beaten unconscious by a rival gang, then carefully left at his parents’ door.  The other kids took the time to make his clothes presentable and straighten out his hair, only to reduce the shock to his mother.  Even against this all-powerful maternal influence, Kirby was ready to rebel if it meant he could closer approximate his vision of himself.

This beautifully rendered sequence revealed why Black Bolt, the leader of Kirby’s genetically altered raced of  “Inhumans” remained silent his whole life

How could such an individual maintain that most intangible belief in the spirit – without it arising internally and continually renewing itself?

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.

Distribution ad showing rapid saleability of Kirby’s ideas in the early 1960’s (Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years, Mark Alexander).  After Kirby left Marvel in 1970, the company failed to produce any further ideas of note

Using Kirby as an example, we can see that far from being a sign of meek obedience spiritual ideas are a source of strength and of inspiration, growing from an internal discussion, and feeling.  Though in the light of history there can be no religious or historical group under more pressure to abandon their beliefs altogether than Judaism, spirituality can never be judged by those who are indifferent to the very idea of the spirit.  Spirituality, like creativity and genius, hunger and thirst, instinct and reaction, is a property of each individual, and is dealt with afresh by each generation.

Ragnarok, the “Twilight of the Gods” (Götterdämmerung in German) was intended by Kirby to bring the series of Thor to an end, and to introduce a new language comprised of godly concepts more in keeping with scientific thinking

In fact, if we believe in evolution, this has to be the case.  The question remains, from where did all these spiritual ideas emerge?  Myths, certainly, arose from genius of ancient times – minds which were more advanced than the average.  But men such as Kirby were not men of compromise or shifting allegiance.  The Austrian Jewry who arrived penniless in America’s new world may have been refugees but they were also bold adventurers, bringing only one thing of value – their spiritual faith.  Simon Baron-Cohen in his Zero Degrees of Empathy calls the confidence given by a positive and loving family “the internal pot of gold” whose currency is equally life-saving in any adverse situation.

“The Silver Surfer is the way I feel when I read the Bible,” Kirby admitted in a 1989 conference.  Part of the surfer’s appeal was his serenity in the face of opposition; ancient myth held that the soul of man was tied to the flesh by a silver cord, broken only in death

A similar claim can be made for an active spirituality, that the resilience it lends to the individual is a connection with natural intelligence.  Nowhere is this dynamic more present than in men of genius such as Kirby.  By their raw power, inspiration and appeal they become not the pernicious infection of lazy, unthinking intellectual capitulation, but the driving force behind mental expansion.

Bored of the repetetive nature of the plots, Kirby intended to herald the end of one series, and the beginning of a new one.  On discovering this, the publishers forbade it and quickly rewrote the climax

Spiritual ideas are formless until combined with a given medium – whether music, art, literature, poetry or the spoken word – just as a fabric draped over an invisible object reveals its form.  This is the secret of all talent and genius, and perhaps of life itself: the intangible combining with a mysterious, undefined energy, impresses its complexity and beauty in a form bearing witness to the nature of that intangible spirit itself.

Ordinary ideas, too, remain formless until they emerge in the communicative symbols of an alphabet – necessarily restricted and limited by this defining act – and rise to higher levels, by words, by grammar and syntax, and even rhythm and abstraction.

Compare the different ways a mere 493 characters can be used.  Firstly, this enchanting pre-nuptial sentiment expressed by a highly educated and proficient lawyer, representing a desire for a harmonious betrothal immune from base material concerns.  To all thinking people, this, my friends, must be the purest poetry:

The parties enter into this agreement to provide for the status, ownership and division of property including future property owned or acquired by either or both and wish to affix respective rights and liabilities that may result from this relationship.

The parties recognize the possibility of unhappy differences and accordingly desire that the distribution of any property that either or both may own will be governed by the terms of this Agreement

..and insofar as the statutory law permits intend that any statutes that may apply to them by virtue of legislation will not apply to them.

I could read that all day for inspiration.  But now, try to wade through this incomprehensible rant by an unhinged mind which neither knows nor cares for the wonderful precision of language:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

With which writer should you build a secure matrimonial ladder to the stars?  I am sure the conclusion is obvious!

This variety of emotion can never belong to lifeless marks on paper but only to the mind bent on manipulating them, to communicate its otherwise intangible thought.  The thought and the language must arrive together, as does the spider’s web and his ability to create and manipulate it.   This synchronicity is all around us in nature, so that every living form can also be seen in the surroundings it creates, always organised and designed in a specific and creative manner.  The mythical vampire who cannot be seen in a mirror reverses the intuitively understood fact that the normal mind reflects itself in every medium it touches.  This tendency is so automatic and immune to fakery, that its opposite is not a misleading impression, but no impression at all.

Kirby often recycled classic film ideas and wrapped his own plots around them: note changes in layout and character size, to make the design more dramatic and easier to read on the newsstand

Take formless patriotism, requiring a symbol designed by creative intelligence – from an individual who feels patriotism in themself.  Divinity likewise requires expression in a symbol of some kind – the variance in forms is to be expected: the consistency being in the tendencies they symbolise.  Emotions in the viewer are thus generated or stimulated by the more powerful original ones within the creator.

“I tried to make my characters relate to the human condition. The Hulk, I feel, is someone who is inside all of us… the ability to transcend our own limitations when the need arises.  I made Captain America very patriotic… patriotism is a feeling that runs very deep. I feel that the deeper the appeal of a character, the larger the audience it will gather.”

A persuasive sense of reality – not a scientific sense, but a symbolic one – arises in the mythical symbols of beings possessed of some definite aim creating energetic forms and thereby imbuing meaning within an otherwise formless and meaningless material.  The nature of the creating energy is encoded within the form itself.  Thus the concept of symbolism is both explained, and put to use.

This is certainly the active principle in the life of Jack Kirby: armed with nothing more than a pencil and paper he created his own symbolic language.  When we compare these to the first crude carvings made tens of thousands of years ago, we are seeing evolution, and its form and direction has always been dictated by men of genius.

After being forced to abandon his own idea for the purposes of sales, Kirby quit Marvel and went to rival DC, where he began by illustrating the death of his previous pantheon of Gods including Thor, who is seen at mid left

“You’re born with a soul–God wants you to do something with it, not give it away.  Nobody has the right to tell you what you should do with it.”

“What I try to say is that you’ve been given a life, and you have to live that life. I couldn’t live it for you.. and I can’t die for you either.. when it’s time for you to die, you’re the one that has to go, not me.”  (1989 discussion with a fan at conference).

“They were the first gods in comics, and so I began thinking along those lines. I began to ask: everybody else, other societies, all had their gods, but what were ours? What was the state of our society, and where were our mythic figures?  I’m a guy who lives with many questions.. because I was never able to resolve them.”

“I try to ask what’s out there, and I can’t resolve that.. I don’t know if anybody can. I sure would like to hear the answers.. to know the ultimate answer, and I find that search entertaining.  You know, if my life was to end tomorrow, I would be satisfied.. I’d have to say the questions have been teriffic.”

Kirby eventually developed his idea of New Gods who each had their own character, purpose, and tragedy. Izaya (perhaps a mutation of Israel) was forced to exchange his newborn son, to keep peace between planets.  His inheritance became The Source, a place where the wisdom of the old gods was expressed in revelations, which men were free to follow or discard, forming the principle of life.

He cheerfully worked at fever pitch and never missed a single deadline in more than forty years.  Always pushed for time and money, he once tried to cut back by using cheap pulp paper after which Mike Royer, his inker at the time, despaired of being able to keep up with him, as he had to actually iron the pages to stop them from curling during inking.  He rang Kirby in a panic.  “This new paper you’re using is terrible – it’s curling up as soon as I put ink on it,” he complained.  Kirby just laughed, “well, I didn’t have any problem drawing on it!”

While his imagination searched for the possibilities in our universe, his intellect tried to define man’s relation to it.  He reasoned that Earth was a tiny speck of matter in an infinitely large creation, and that forces far beyond our control would not concern themselves with our fate.  Despite this, he emphasised the mind of man as the key to all questions, perhaps even the question of immortality itself.

The gods in his work seemed to emerge from somewhere beyond his conscious thought, and the strangeness puzzled him at times; when asked about it at various conferences he would try to rationalise it as best as he could.  “I must have a hangup of some kind.  I’m prone to my own environment and express it in terms of gods.  Maybe I was oriented to some sort ofm ythology.  I speak in terms of mythology.  I’m communicating in my own way.”  This paradoxical state in which created ideas seem to have bypassed the intellect altogether has been experienced by many artists, including Neil Diamond, who sought to understand why his output would lean towards a mysticism not arrived at step by step but already fully formed in words and music.

A terrified pilot trying to evade capture behind enemy lines fails to realise he has already died, but finds relief  at the warm and understanding nature of the next world, in this moving story story from 1970

Gopi Krishna’s poetry, the content of which often took him by surprise, would appear in his mind in rhyming couplets, he said, multiplying like snowflakes which grew bigger and bigger, written down as fast as was humanly possible, but many of which would necessarily be lost as the brain struggled to keep up.  The end result was a kind of revelation with messages he could never have arrived at consciously.  This same idea appears in religious literature throughout history, meaning that the creative mind shares attributes attributed to one ni touch with a higher form of intelligence.

The experiences of Ayrton Senna in which he felt an overwhelming and greater intelligence than his controlling his car at dangerous speeds, or the despair of Russian painter Isaak Levitan felt at his inability to completely capture on canvas the depth of mystical feelings within, and the puzzling appearance of creatively perfect ideas in dreams, such as the complete melody for Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” have all been well documented.  These observations indicate the creative brain is liable to influences beyond its normal capacity, giving birth to ideas which arrive already surrounded by mystery.

In one memorable Kirby story, Thor supervises the release of warlike Trolls captured in Asgard.  The goddess Sif protests they should all be slain for the evil they had planned.  He replies, “Thou hast no inkling how precious is all life, even such as theirs.”   Jack believed in life because he believed in himself, and people believed in his work because he, in turn, believed in them.  He once claimed that you could take any four-issue story from his comics and turn them into a film, as he had already worked out the best pace at which the arcs of plot and elements should be interwoven, and the angles which would make each scene the most interesting.

Although he hardly profited from them in his lifetime, and his family still maintains a legal battle to gain some share of their continuing turnover, his ideas have become a billion dollar film and entertainment industry, and his own life was a testament to the redeeming power of faith creativity: that a boy from the slums could raise himself to a world famous name through his talent alone.

Farewell, Jack Kirby!

God, by Jack Kirby. And Jack Kirby.. by God

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
This entry was posted in Evolution, Genius, God, Intelligence, Intuition, Jack Kirby, Natural Intelligence, Richard Dawkins, Science and Religion, Spiritual Genius, The Brain and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Persistence of Spiritual Vision: the Symbols of Jack Kirby

  1. Jim Denney says:

    Fascinating article! I was a huge Kirby fan back in the “Silver Age” of Marvel and DC comics, and this was an intriguing look at Kirby’s spiritual side.

    • Thanks very much – we arrived in Virginia in 1968 and I was amazed, at the age of 10, by these colour comics the like of which we had never seen in England. Kirby was an amzing artist, because everything he drew came from imagination – anatomy, story, backgrounds, characters, the whole lot. That is extremely difficult to do well – humanly impossible, really. A friend of mine has a blog called MarsWillSendNoMore and suggested I try putting something on Reddit – Glad you enjoyed it

  2. Nandakumar says:

    ‘Cosmic Consciousness’ reminded me of an issue of ‘The Thing’ that I read when I was a kid.. It’s funny how certain memories stay in your head, I must have been about 7 when I read it. It was Captain Marvel’s face that caught my imagination, It’s funny how it so aptly describes what I experienced.

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