You 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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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..”
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.