Jack Kirby and Comic Book Mysticism

Jack KirbyYou may not recognize the name Jack Kirby, but if you’ve ever argued with your friends over who gets to be Cyclops when you were playing X-Men in your backyard, then you’ve been touched by his creations.

Jack “King” Kirby was a comic book artist/writer/creator between the 30s and the 70s, whose work is arguably the most influential in the medium.  He created and co-created some of the most recognizable superheroes: Captain America, Thor, the Silver Surfer, the Hulk, the X-men, the Fantastic Four, the New Gods, and on and on.

His era of the comic industry is marred by poor pay-rates and draconian business models, where more often than not, artists were handing over their creations for pennies, and were happy just to get their name in the credits.  To make any money at it, Kirby would sit at his drawing board for twelve to fourteen hours a day, pushing out four or five comics a month.  And we’re not talking about hack junkers.  His books were vital, exciting, and changed the face of comic books.

He introduced the dramatic forced perspective that has become the norm, as well as the epically-proportioned cosmic stories that we’ve all come to expect from the medium.  His more realistic characterization of superheroes in The Fantastic Four (1961) would single-handedly establish the tone of Marvel Comics for the following decade; challenging the portrayal of superheroes as clean-cut boy scouts with square jaws, and replacing them with psychologically flawed neurotics and monsters.

The lasting effect of his work on the medium can still be felt today, but there may be more to this story than just a talented artist and prolific creator.  Author Christopher Knowles (Our Gods Wear Spandex) has toyed with the idea that Kirby’s creations may have been the result of a mystical experience, making him a twentieth-century version of a shaman.


I was creating a mythology for the forties, see?  Which the forties didn’t have.

Mondo Kirby interview

Too bad myths went out with ethics and powdered wigs.  Just ask anyone.  We hate myths so much, we’ve made the word synonymous with false stories.  Like Richard Gere’s gerbil or Rod Stewart’s stomach pump.

Merriam-Webster’s second definition of myth (after, “an idea or story that is believed by many people, but that is not true”) is, “a story that was told in an ancient culture to explain a practice, belief, or natural occurrence.”

We regard these myths as cute and embarrassing ways that our ancestors made sense of things that their tiny minds couldn’t comprehend.  They invented storm gods, because they didn’t know what electricity was.  They invented the Devil, because they didn’t understand human nature.

Silly primitives.

But there were still some goofballs out there bucking progress and good sense.  Like the famous psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that myths were an integral part of human existence.  As he said in his autobiography:

“The need for mythic statements is satisfied when we frame a view of the world which adequately explains the meaning of human existence in the cosmos, a view which springs from our psychic wholeness, from the co-operation between conscious and unconscious.  Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness.  Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything.”

Then there’s Joseph Campbell: “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

They seemed to think that these stories were the building blocks of a culture’s paradigm and identity.  All cultures—

Well.  Except ours, of course.  We don’t have our own myths (other than Slender Man and the female orgasm), but prefer to catalog and alphabetize other peoples’ before officially labeling them as “kids’ stories.”

Unless you ask Kirby, that is.

But just saying that your stories are myths doesn’t make them so.  To be mythic, they require some kind of allegorical resonance, featuring archetypal figures playing out narratives that establish a culture’s values and worldview.  And they have to endure the trials of time, becoming reinvigorated as each new generation discovers them.

Luckily, Kirby can back it up.  From the Freudian Father/Son relationship of Darkseid and Orion to the elemental associations of the Fantastic Four, Kirby’s work is bursting with allegory and archetype.  The Manichean war between control and freedom described in The New Gods rivals almost anything found in the world’s myths when it comes to epic proportions (and Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal maintains that there is a underlying Kabbalistic influence, as well).  The X-Men has often been cited as allegorical commentary on racial intolerance (or the Red Scare, according to Julian Darius).  And one glance at Captain America’s flag-themed costume is all it takes to instantly know what he’s a symbol of.

As for longevity, many of Kirby’s creations have been around for three generations.  And the recent rash of blockbuster movies based on his creations (Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, The Avengers) can attest to their continued popularity.

In these respects, Kirby’s comics more than meet the criteria for being called “mythic.”  They tell symbol-heavy stories of larger-than-life heroes which express the values of our culture and have been passed down from parent to child over multiple generations.

But there is arguably one more component to push a story from mythic to myth: the social role of the storyteller.

kirby blacklight

I come from a storytelling family.  All of the immigrants on the lower East Side were storytellers.  My family happened to be Austrian immigrants, and they told their share of stories.”

Hour 25 interview

In shamanic cultures, storytelling prowess went hand-in-hand with magical knowledge.  It was the shaman who would travel to the incorporeal realms of the spirit and return with stories, which in time would become the myths of the group.

There is a theory that the practice of shamanism may go as far back as the Paleolithic Era, amongst the Animist cultures of the world.  This theory also suggests that Animism is the source of all religions, meaning that all of our myths may have originated from the storytelling shamans of prehistory.

Now, there’s a funny thing about being a shaman: You can’t be trained or groomed like you can for most other jobs.  A shaman must be made in a process referred to as “shamanic initiation.”

In most magical and religious traditions, initiation consists of a candidate going through a series of rituals followed by practice and study under the tutelage of a teacher.  The shaman, on the other hand, is initiated through some kind of traumatic event in their life.  Psychotic breaks and epileptic seizures are often signs that a person has been “touched” by the divine and is ready to begin a life as a shaman, but the most common sign is a near-death experience, by way of extreme illness.

kirby astral thor

I’m a nine-year-old boy, and ten rabbis are dancing around my bed.  And they’re all saying, ‘Come out of this boy, demon.  What’s your name demon?  Don’t hurt this boy, demon.’ (…) and I think it added to the type of storytelling that I would do later on in life..”

-Mondo Kirby

Kirby described a scene from his childhood, where he was struck down by double pneumonia.  With no penicillin to save him, his traditional Jewish parents brought in a group of rabbis to perform an exorcism.  Geoff Olsen of the Vancouver Courier has mentioned his theory that this was Kirby’s theoretical initiation.

However, Christopher Knowles has pointed to Kirby’s time as a combat infantryman in World War II as another potential source of traumas.

Kirby would come home with a number of harrowing war stories, which he would later put to use in a few of his comics.  He served for a time as a scout behind enemy lines, drawing maps for the troops following him, a job that would offer up countless scenes of violence and death for him to witness.

His final war adventure occurred in 1944, when he developed frostbite in his legs and feet after weeks of sleeping in the snow.  He laid in an English hospital for over a year, facing the possibility of amputation after barely escaping death.

Knowles has also hinted at a suspicion that Kirby may have received entheogen therapy to deal with his wartime trauma sometime in the 60s, before the practice became frowned upon.  Kirby, himself, never mentioned a psychedelic experience, but Knowles points to a psychedelic change in the style and themes of his comics around the late 60s as possible evidence (either of entheogen intervention, or the intervention of something else, entirely).

He also points out certain thematic parallels in the work of Kirby and another pulp master, Philip K. Dick.  Namely, the ideas of telepathic aliens and artificial intelligence-driven satellites (as seen in Kirby’s OMAC and Dick’s Valis).  Dick’s mystical experience has been well-documented, and the reason behind Knowles’ comparison is clear.

One particularly creepy and eyebrow-raising example is a story Kirby wrote called Children of the Flaming Wheel, a photo-comic that appeared in Spirit World #1 in 1971.  In it, a California religious cult (note that Kirby moved his family to California in 1968) performs a ritual that puts them into telepathic communications with an alien mind.


But even with all of this seeming evidence, the truth is that Kirby never claimed or even hinted at having had a religious experience; either as a child, during his time in WWII, or through any psychedelic therapy.  We’re still left only with our suspicions.

In any case, it speaks to the power of Kirby’s stories that anyone would spend their time hunting for proof that he was a real modern-day shaman.  It may also say something about the incredibly human desire to have our own myths and heroes.

So: let’s assume for a moment that a society cannot exist without mythology (no matter how much we resent it), and that the shamans who create these myths continue to be born (whether we have a place for them or not).  That mythology would have to escape somewhere, and those shamans would have to find some way of expressing it.

What better place than in the shitpile of tasteless sludge we call “Pop Culture”?

Keep that in mind when you take your kids to see the next X-Men movie.

Frater Isla

Frater Isla also writes under the name Joshua Lee. He lives in Albuquerque, NM.For more of his work, visit sittingnow.co.uk .

62 Comments on "Jack Kirby and Comic Book Mysticism"

  1. Ted Heistman | Jun 2, 2014 at 2:41 pm |

    I need this inspiration right now I am such a pussy/lazy fuck!

  2. Benjamin Joshua | Jun 2, 2014 at 2:45 pm |

    So. I might be slow, but what is the obvious thing Captain America’s costume symbolizes?

  3. Ted Heistman | Jun 2, 2014 at 2:45 pm |

    There was definitely some psychedelic influence. BTW, my favorite artist is Moebius, who I think collaborated on “The Silver Surfer” Jon Jean Giraud was definately a psychonaut.

  4. Ted Heistman | Jun 2, 2014 at 2:49 pm |

    Frater, do you think some Conspiracy theorists qualify as Shamans? Can conspiracy theories me “myths” in both senses of the word? BTW, Kick ass article!

    • Simon Valentine | Jun 2, 2014 at 2:51 pm |

      false dichotomies with magnitudes now
      this is going to be good
      like to Turing machines mating

      • Ted Heistman | Jun 2, 2014 at 3:22 pm |

        I would say Grey Aliens, Reptoids, Dulce, etc. are “mythic” in many ways. I don’t see it as a false dicotomy at all.

    • Frater Isla | Jun 2, 2014 at 5:27 pm |

      Thanks, buddy. And that’s an interesting idea…

  5. Simon Valentine | Jun 2, 2014 at 2:50 pm |

    just what the hell is with all the claimancy?
    bitches still don’t know gravity, so stuff it. stuff the fucking jokes and answer gravity.
    aint no right, aint no rite, and no wrong, aint no … loops? yeah the fuck right.

  6. erte4wt4etrg | Jun 2, 2014 at 5:21 pm |

    i loved reading Knowle’s stuff

  7. BuzzCoastin | Jun 2, 2014 at 9:01 pm |

    aMerkins are myth junkies
    myths like:
    Land of the Free
    With liberty and justice for all
    Give me your tired and huddled masses
    In God wee trust
    The Fed
    The Constitution
    the list is endless

    • George Carlin, ‘It’s Bad For Ya!’ (2008):

      “There’s just enough bullshit to hold things together in this country. Bullshit is the glue that binds us as a nation. Where would we be without our safe, familiar, American bullshit? Land of the free, home of the brave, the American Dream, all men are equal, justice is blind, the press is free, your vote counts, business is honest, the good guys win, the police are on your side, god is watching you, your standard of living will never decline, and everything is going to be just fine. The official national bullshit story. I call it the American Okie-Doke. Every one of those items is provably untrue at one level or another, but we believe them because they’re pounded into our heads from the time we’re children, …”

      • BuzzCoastin | Jun 2, 2014 at 10:00 pm |

        It’s called the American Dream,
        because you have to be asleep to believe it.

  8. ‘And one glance at Captain America’s flag-themed costume is all it takes to instantly know what he’s a symbol of.’

    Rancid Jingo brainwashing, for tots.
    Why is this endearing?

    • frednotfaith2@aol.com | Jun 3, 2014 at 12:10 am |

      Actually, in some of the very early Superman stories he did go after corrupt politicians, as well as wife-beaters, etc. But that didn’t last long. In the 1973 and ’74, in stories written by Steve Englehart, Captain America went after corrupt policemen, propagandists and the leader of a criminal organization intent on taking over the country who turned out to be a very high-ranking government official whose suicide was hushed up (it’s rumored his initials were RMN).

      • Frater Isla | Jun 3, 2014 at 2:11 am |

        Or the Captain America/ Falcon “Madbomb” story. Or the more recent and not-too-great “Civil War” with a revolutionary Cap going against the US government..

        Yeah. I’m pretty sure Mr B has never read a comic before.

        • frednotfaith2@aol.com | Jun 3, 2014 at 7:21 am |

          Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot on the cover of the very first issue of Captain America, he’s punching the jaw of one of the most thoroughly corrupt politicians in history, Adolph Hitler! And this was well before the U.S. became officially involved in WWII. A lot of people may still think that was pure propaganda for a “warmongering” FDR administration that really wanted to go after Nazi Germany, but that’s baloney. Every rational, humane person on the planet should have been opposed to Hitler and the vile insanity of his government.

          • Matt Staggs | Jun 3, 2014 at 4:36 pm |

            Quite true. I wrote an article on Captain America for a freelance job. Apparently his creators were just kind of ahead of the curve when it came to Hitler.

        • Pretty esoteric.
          To quote the final scene from 1978’s ‘Superman’ film:

          [Prison] Warden: “This country is safe again, Superman, thanks to you.”

          Superman: “No, sir. Don’t thank me, Warden. We’re all part of the same team. Good night.”

    • Check out Transmetropolitan.

    • Simon Valentine | Jun 3, 2014 at 12:17 pm |

      Boondock Saints?
      the history of law in the US isn’t disgusting until you interact with it
      keeping enemies closer than friends = realize that you’re next to your enemies all the time != re-position one’s self or one’s friends and enemies

      history of US law: they kept the law by breaking the law and taking advantage of people getting confused about the conditionalities of purported facts

  9. mannyfurious | Jun 2, 2014 at 11:11 pm |

    One of the things so-called “psychonauts” don’t (refuse?) to understand is that many, if not most, of the states of mind induced by psychedelics can be accessed without them. Quite easily for some people.

    • Rey d'Tutto | Jun 13, 2014 at 12:30 am |

      Sleep Deprivation, Fasting, & Limited to Complete Exposure depending on environment and desired disciple survival rate.
      Severe Fever also works; it may Permanently damage the brain, but may just give it the desired “Tweak”.

  10. Simon Valentine | Jun 3, 2014 at 11:58 am |

    ‘been wonder’n about alternate – less linear – notions of time lately. shapes, mostly – that we’re located on a surface of a shape that is time which exhibits *mostly* linear-compatible stuffs … but that evidence may yield more concerning the time-shape in a way not very different from deduction involving gravity. there’s more to co-reliance than meets the mind here – to seek that specific gravity is required for systemic gravitation or vice-versa is but one of the sample dichotomies plethorant throughout *all* the sciences, not just physics. that measurements of specific gravity cannot be correct without simultaneously (though perhaps disparately) correct systemic gravitation is a make-or-break point for science … and ‘life’ as ‘we know it’. i swear H-berg was just mess’n have’n fun when he was like “correct informations are inversely proportional”, cuz there’s a silly number of explosive ‘interpretations’ … symmetries … emergence … speciation … from the “actual thing he was working with”.

    and all i see in the future is semi-accurately a headlining title “people prove that correct is not correct; argument ensues”. false dichotomies with magnitudes indeed.

    • Rey d'Tutto | Jun 13, 2014 at 12:51 am |

      What I understand so far:
      Strong, Weak, & Electromagnetic forces are essentially various expressions of the same elemental force, easily reconciled at the quantum scale, and appearing as “Stuff” and “Electricity” to us Relativistic Scale creatures.
      Gravity is the supposed 4th Force.
      We perceive a 3 dimensional framework (Space) on the relativistic scale we inhabit (the consensual shared hallucination of existence) that supposedly has a fourth dimension we perceive as Time.
      Mass (Higgs Lebo Quarks, or whatever) expresses or is an expression of Gravity, which is a deformation of the space-time framework. More Mass = More Gravity = More “Drag” on Time, Or Time Slowing Relativistically.
      What is missing here?
      Also, Acceleration = Gravity (as far as Time is concerned)… WTF!?!

      • Simon Valentine | Jun 13, 2014 at 1:04 pm |

        i was just working on this today actually.

        i am totally in line with this “object oriented programming” approach of “the forces are specific instances … of what!” … a non typed super class that itself has no super? nothing, i say – nothing is the force behind it all, hiding within and without the sticks – sticks which are not Planck, no no, that’s a relativistic scale. that’s a zoom percentage. which turns out to be not so linear as to be proportional, mostly because the Fourier space of graphical laminations that is a ‘brane’ or ‘program’ or ‘entity’ or ‘contrivation’ doesn’t “have to” use a “proportional” type of “zoom” – there is no perfect lever – things transform, transmogrify, translocate, otherwise undergo morphogenesis due do the “frame of mind”, the brane, the entity ‘perceiving’ them … taking them as parameters, all too often in a far to “integer” fair – they use floor, they use ceiling, the lop off digits, they guesstimate parallax – it’s terrible! aweful!

        typed calculus = bad. untyped calculus = decent. non-typed calculus = … seems pragmatically “blackboard” enough to me to begin chalking onto.

        firstly, delete all concept of “unit” and “dimension”. they cause the “event horizon” paradox and stuff. instead, dealing solely with numbers, acceleration involves polynomials. gravity involves algebra. time is a misnomer, a cheat word that hypnotizes the mind. replace the concept of time with big O notation, and consider that *idea* to be a class in object oriented programming and we’re good to go. now, it is quite clear that “forces” are merely notations per “algorithms” for “someone’s method of solving graph (theory) problems”. gravity involves acceleration because [insert overly analyzed confuscation of an algorithm that has a big O notation of n^2].

        you know what i see when i see failure in physics? i have flashbacks like graph theory was Nam. i remember going over and over and over graphs with an algorithm, learning, trying to prove a way that P = NP. it is exactly the roteness of “trying to solve NP” or “trying to solve Reimmans” or “trying to square the circle” that cranks my dreams so much i can’t help but see my own struggles as the same struggles of physics.

        that said, i can use integrals to factor. it’s still problematic, but i can use an almost identical method to evaluate NP problems in “polynomial time and space”. what i don’t know is what to do with any of it, let alone how physics is going to evolve – even if only in me – because of it.

        so for now i’m just toying with this idea of “the blackboard is the non typed force, vacuum, power, energy – what makes it go”. “the chalk is what makes the specific things and experiences – what makes the go stop”. man do i have a headache right now though.

        • should one wish to non-type the calculus for the following eventualities:


          ÿ am partial to the second theorem, but it is the #’s that dictate such an affinity! (begahst! it is not the twittering of the crickets of the urban canyons)

          (admittedly it is for the tots, but it is for the wu tang style ÿ proofv)

          • Simon Valentine | Jun 13, 2014 at 9:45 pm |

            do 8 = 10 without it being cylindrical they said
            easy, i said
            would you also like it to explode?!?
            when their face went, i dubbed.
            i thought you said “without it being cynical”

            also i swear i’ve seen a music video with someone tightrope walking but the camera remains (not) relative to them 🙂

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  12. Awesome read. Thank you.

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