Monday, July 2, 2012

The Kirby Codex: Cosmic Journeys

(This post is a chapter in a book  I have begun working on, tentatively to be called "The Kirby Codex". Stay tuned for much more!)

A recurring mythic theme in Jack Kirby's work is the cosmic journey: an ordinary person is taken on a trip across the universe, and is forever transformed by the experience. Knowingly or not, Kirby was telling the most ancient of myths, one which goes back to those first shamans who ventured beyond the mundane world and returned to share their acquired wisdom with the tribe.

One of the earliest examples of a Kirby cosmic journey is from the story "Donnegan's Daffy Chair," published in Alarming Tales #1 in 1957:

In this tale, a lowly office sweeper named Timothy Donnegan is asked to watch a very special chair, which he can't help but try out. The chair soon launches him faster than light into deep space, where he vanishes among the stars. Five years later, Donnegan returns to Earth, wearing strange garb and speaking an alien language. As the final panel puts it: "Timothy seemed to have forgotten his own language. And no one could interpret his new one! To this day! Nobody knows where Timothy has been and the things he has seen!"

This story seems almost autobiographical, because it was around this time that Kirby's work took an unmistakable turn toward the cosmic. It was as if Jack too had gotten a glimpse of a world beyond and no longer spoke his old mundane language. The question is, where did he go and what did he see?

Two years later, in 1959, Kirby wrote "The Great Moon Mystery," which wouldn't be published until 1965 in Blast-Off #1. In this story, astronauts discover a million year-old alien monolith on the moon, which sends them on a psychedelic journey through alien landscapes. Sound familiar? Somehow Kirby seems to have foretold Kubrick and Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1959!

Fittingly, in 1976, Kirby would get a chance to tell that tale in its full glory, in the pages of the 2001 Treasury Special, and in the short-lived 2001 series:

It's interesting to see how Kirby revisited and expanded on his favorite esoteric themes over the decades. Donnegan and his "cosmic chair" would be more fully realized in the pages of the New Gods via the character of Metron to me Metron is Donnegan, the humble earthman transformed by his shamanic journey into a new god.


Metron to me is perhaps the definitive Kirby creation. When I see Metron in his Mobius Chair, I can't help thinking of Jack, sitting at his battered drawing table in his basement, taking us on journeys to the very edge of the cosmos and beyond.

One more cosmic journey of note is contained in the pages of Fantastic Four #49 part one of the incomparably epic "Galactus Trilogy." Here, Johnny Storm is sent on a quest across the cosmos by another shamanic guide figure, Uata the Watcher, and is permanently transformed by the experience:

After completing his quest, Johnny Storm asks himself, as many college students must have asked themselves who were exposed to Kirby's four-color magic,
"Did I do the right thing, coming here? What can an ordinary college life hold for someone who's travelled beyond the galaxy... Someone who's had a glimpse of the wonders of the unknown cosmos!"
This story must have been quite a revelation to comic book readers in 1966! It was this incredible tale that launched the Cosmic Age at Marvel, and in the process transformed comic books and our culture at large forever. And while I don't want to detract from Stan Lee's undeniable genius, I hope it's clear by now that this revolution was primarily the work of one inspired mind: the great cosmic comic shaman, Jack Kirby!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Wondrous Worlds of the Sorcerer Supreme

Hello again from the cybernetic plane, fellow comic cosmonauts! I have returned at last, and let’s just say that my mind is officially blown! For many moons I have journeyed through demon-haunted dimensions, into dreams and nightmares, across aeons of time and space to the very ends of the universe – yet I live to tell the tale! Yes friends, I have been travelling in some of the strangest territory in the entire comic book multiverse: the far-flung astral realms of the surreal Sorcerer Supreme himself, better known as Doctor Strange!

As one who was somehow never turned on to Dr. Strange during my misspent youth, all I can say about this character now is WOW!! The Master of the Mystic Arts must rank as the most mind-blowing of all the superheroes introduced during the mythical Marvel Silver Age, and probably of all time. After reading the entire Lee-Ditko run of Doctor Strange from his introduction in Strange Tales #110 to issue #146, along with select issues of his solo mags, I feel like I’ve been on some kind of strange shamanic journey. Comic book creators are, after all, our modern shamans, and what better way to fully express their wizardry than through the adventures of the global super-shaman called Doctor Strange?

After this epic reading experience, I have no choice but to place Dr. Strange right at the top of the Marvel pantheon of cosmically cool and important characters, above other personal favorites like Silver Surfer and Thor. Think about it: most superheroes only have to worry about protecting our planet from a few galaxies worth of uglies like the Skrulls and the Badoon – the Sorcerer Supreme has to defend us from infinite dimensions full of demons, demiurges and gods! Dormammu! Nightmare! Eternity! The Living Tribunal! Satannish! Shuma-Gorath! These are not your garden-variety evil-doers – these are primal forces of the cosmos!

One of my favorite things about Doc Strange’s world is his Sanctum Sanctorum, with its collection of omnipotent occult objects like the Book of Vishanti and the Orb of Agamotto. Is there anything cooler than a levitating globe that can detect black magic anywhere on the planet? And then to be able to project your ectoplasmic body to the scene within seconds to investigate, or break out that nifty Eye of Agamotto amulet on your neck whenever you need to…do just about anything! Batman in his Batcave is a kiddie hero compared this guy! Only Superman in his Fortress of Solitude can compare to the power of Dr. Strange in his Greenwich Village Sanctum, and I wouldn’t bet on the Kryptonian if those two ever went to war!

Steve Ditko’s surreal, psychedelic style really defined Doctor Strange, and when he left after Strange Tales #146 things went a bit sideways for a while. There were a few highlights during the brief Roy Thomas/Gene Colan run, but it wasn’t until 1973, seven years after Ditko’s departure, that the House of Ideas was able to return the Sorcerer Supreme to his former glory. That was the year Steve Englehart and John Brunner took over as creative team, with Marvel Premiere #9.

Englehart and Brunner wrapped up the rather convoluted "Shuma-Gorath Saga" in mind-blowing fashion in issue #10; I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say that the way they handled the "death of the Ancient One" is one of the high points of Marvel’s late '60’s/early '70’s "Cosmic Age". And Steve and John were just getting warmed up! Following that climactic confrontation, it seems that Stephen Strange was no longer merely Socerer Supreme of Earth, but of the entire freaking cosmos!. Not a bad upgrade to the ol’ resume, eh? I love the early '70’s, "one with the cosmos", navel-gazing vibe that Englehart brought to the character – like in this sequence from Marvel Premiere #12:

 "Dude, the cosmos is everything! This lizard is like, the whole cosmos, and I’m responsible for it." Talk about a God complex! Sheesh!

More great stories followed, including the "Sise-Neg Genesis" story in Marvel Premiere #14, in which Dr. Strange follows a 31st century sorcerer-turned-God to the very creation of the universe. Apparently Stan Lee thought the storyline was controversial enough that he wrote a fake fan letter from a fictional Texas preacher in an effort to persuade editor Roy Thomas to run the story! Two months later, Strange once again had his own solo book, which kicked off with the supremely bizarre “Silver Dagger” story arc. More epic battles with Baron Mordo, Dormammu, and Eternity would soon follow which took the Lee/Ditko creations into new cosmic territory.

I’d have to say that I prefer the Englehart/Brunner run even to the Lee/Ditko original series (gasp!). The stories weren’t as visually trippy as Ditko’s (how could they be?), but Brunner’s art is gorgeous and Englehart’s writing is far more sophisticated than Lee’s campy dialogue. The vast, quasi-theological themes and Lovecraftian, cosmic-occult feel of some of these stories has rarely been equaled in the comic book medium. This was cosmic comic storytelling at its finest, and every comic cosmonaut owes it to himself to read them, and to explore the wondrous worlds of the Sorcerer Supreme!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We Need a New Universe!

I would like to take a detour from discussing my favorite classic comics for a moment to post some ideas that have been rattling around in my brain about what the comic book medium needs if it is to continue to be entertaining and commercially viable. In five words: we need a new universe!

OK, I admit that I’m not that hip to what is currently going on in the Marvel and DCU’s, but my overall impression is that things are convoluted, confusing, self-referential and quite jaded. Both companies have so much baggage after decades of creative work that it seems no amount of "Crises" or "Secret Wars" can quite make sense of their respective messes.

I hear these complaints everywhere in the comic blogosphere, and it seems to me that the solution is obvious: build a new comic universe from scratch. This is exactly what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did back in the 1960’s, as a much-needed reaction to the stale and stultifying state of DC’s line of comics, and look at the way they revolutionized the medium! Why can’t we do something similar today by starting fresh with a brand new line of comics — perhaps one that is published entirely on-line — and really take advantage of the power of the internet in the process? I know there are thousands of talented artists and writers out there who would love a place to publish their work; could "open source" comics be the wave of the future?

We could call this new publisher “Cosmic Comics” or “Singularity Comics” or something similarly appropriate to the universe I have in mind. I have a large and growing Word document full of ideas for this new universe, and I’ll go ahead and throw out a few here in hopes of stimulating some discussion.

Some Ideas for the “Cosmic Comics” Universe:

A general emphasis on cosmic, mythic and science fictional themes in the spirit of great cosmic Marvel characters like Galactus, Silver Surfer and Thor.

De-emphasis on costumed superheros (gasp!). OK, this is controversial and might be commercial suicide, but I just think the mask-and-tights wearing hero has been done to death, and really needs to be given a rest. Most of my favorite characters have never worn silly costumes (Silver Surfer, Hulk, Swamp Thing, Conan, Deathlok, Ka-Zar, Shang-Chi, etc.), EC comics were brilliant without men in tights, so I don’t see them as necessary for great comics.

Robots! Robots! Robots! I would like to see stories that explore the problems of super-intelligent machines and how they will lead to "singularities" (aka "robot apocalypses") on Earth and throughout the universe. What role can human heroes play in a universe increasingly dominated by superhumanly intelligent machines? Perhaps an elite corps of "robot fighters" or "Butlerian jihadists" already exists to combat the machines as they spread outward from "the Core" via "singularity waves" across the universe, and also to preempt singularities on worlds that are approaching superhuman AI technology (such as Earth).

Cosmic, spacefaring heroes in the vein of Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel, Adam Warlock, Starhawk, Dawnstar, etc. If we must have costumed heroes, these are the kinds I would find most interesting.

The Gardeners: god-like cosmic beings who create, maintain and destroy life throughout the universe.

Sowers (they seed worlds with life)
Cultivators (they monitor, maintain and modify life as it evolves)
Harvesters (they harvest life forms of interest for various uses)
Reapers (they destroy threatening life forms)

The Transhumans: cybernetically and genetically enhanced humans created by corporate-military interests to serve as living weapons. After going rogue, they are persecuted by their former employers and by various fundamentalist groups who consider them an unholy abomination. Obvious influences here are Deathlok, William Gibson, the X-Men and Jason Bourne.

Godwave Zero: a flux of energy that sweeps over the earth, mutating all life and giving birth to super-powered humans. I'm mainly thinking of enhanced mental powers — telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, super-intelligence, etc. — not super-strong green guys!

Master of Kung Fu in Space:

A "cosmic Shang-Chi" from an interstellar order of fighting monks (somewhat like the Jedi knights?) wanders the galaxy fighting injustice, perhaps hounded by the evil mastermind who trained him (think Fu Manchu/Darth Vader). A galactic empire modeled after feudal Japan?

Perhaps there are two schools, the "Shaolin", or peaceful fighting monks, and the "Ninja", a cult of assassins who serve the Emperor. The Emperor often tries to destroy the Shaolin, resulting in the ongoing "Shaolin-Ninja Wars". (Note that Shaolin and Ninja are just placeholder names to give you the general idea).

The above scenario would take place in a "Singularity-free" region of the universe, where intelligent machines are strictly forbidden and the inhabitants have instead developed the powers of their minds and bodies to superhuman levels (a la Dune).

"Savage Eaarth": adventures in a post-apocalyptic future "Eaarth" in which rising oceans have flooded the cities, civilization has largely collapsed, climate change and runaway biotech have thrown the environment into chaos, and scientists who control technology have the status of wizards. Engineered life forms and formerly extinct animals such as dinosaurs and mammoths terrorize the wild lands, and outposts of the former American, European and Asian empires struggle to survive in remote areas of the world like sub-Saharan Africa that have returned to barbarism following the great Resource Wars that ended industrial civilization. An anything goes adventure series in the spirit of Tarzan, Conan, Kamandi and Thundarr, but with an edgy "doomer" realism.

"Fifth World": a different take on apocalypse, set in the world after 2012, when the reptilian Annunaki have returned to enslave humanity. New pyramid-shaped temples rise above the ruins of the "Fourth World" as symbols of the new order, while heroic bands of humans struggle to liberate the world from the yoke of the shape-shifters. The cataclysms of December 21st, 2012 not only laid waste to the old world, but they brought forth new mystical/psychic abilities in humans, empowering a a wide variety of superheros. "Fifth World" would combine elements of Chariots of the Gods, Planet of the Apes, Killraven, The Eternals, Graham Hancock and David Icke to create a rich environment for science fantasy adventure.

Well those are a few of my ideas, none of them terribly original, but hopefully there’s something here of interest to comic book fans. Let me know what you think of my ideas for a new "Cosmic Comics" universe, and help me brainstorm further!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Saga of the Silver Surfer

As we continue our survey of the most cosmically cool characters in comicdom, the next logical stop is the original spacefaring hero in the Marvel universe, and one of my all-time favorite comic book creations: the one and only Silver Surfer!

As I’ve discussed before, the Surfer was introduced as part of the incomparably epic Galactus Trilogy that kicked off the cosmic comics era. At the end of that saga, the Surfer is imprisoned on earth by Galactus as punishment for betraying him and saving our planet from his world-devouring hunger. Now, this is a beautiful development in a tragic sort of way, but for fans of the Surfer it was a most unfortunate turn of events, because for the next 22 years he would spend most of his free time moping about his fate, pining for the beautiful Shalla Bal he left behind on his home world, and taking out his frustrations by slamming himself against Galactus’ impenetrable barrier. Not exactly the stuff of cosmic legend!

In 1968, at the peak of the Marvel explosion, the Surfer was given his own mag, along with Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain Marvel and several others. Surprisingly, the Surfer series was the shortest lived of these by far (along with Captain Marvel), ending after only 18 issues. Maybe it doesn’t say much for the commercial viability of cosmic-themed comics when Marvel’s two spaceborn heroes flamed out so quickly in their own series, but I think there’s an obvious explanation for their failure (which I’ll get to in a minute).

Silver Surfer, volume 1 started out brilliantly, with issue #1 recounting the epic tale of the Surfer’s origins on Zenn-La, his transformation into the herald of Galactus, and his later betrayal of his master and imprisonment on Earth. I really enjoyed going deeper into Norrin Radd's background, learning that he had been an idealist with dreams of heroism who felt horribly stifled by the life of comfort and complacency that prevailed on his home world. Here is an excerpt from this classic tale by Stan Lee and John Buscema:

I absolutely loved this story &mdash my only disappointment being that it was drawn by John Buscema rather than the godfather of cosmic comics, Jack Kirby. I think most of us who read comics can identify with Norrin’s dissatisfaction with the mundane world around him, and the way that problem gets resolved in his case is far beyond any comic nerd’s wildest fantasy. “You say you’re gonna coat my body in silver, imbue me with the power cosmic and give me a surfboard on which to soar the cosmos and scout out worlds for you do devour? Yeah, I think that oughtta take care of my little boredom problem, Mr. Galactus! Sign me up!”

Unfortunately, the incredible cosmic promise of the Silver Surfer could never be properly explored so long as he remained stuck on earth. Trying to make an interesting series about an earthbound Surfer is a bit like sending the Sub-Mariner to the 19th century American Southwest to do battle with cowboys and Indians – it kinda misses the point! So the Surfer’s first run fizzled out quickly after a promising debut, featuring mostly forgettable adventures with various less than stellar foes (Flying Dutchman? Dr. Frankenstein? Abomination? Spider-Man? Nick Fury? WTF?). Marvel made a similar mistake by confining Captain Mar-Vell to earth, and his initial run lasted only a little longer (though they did wise up and turn him into a truly cosmic character a few years later).

The Argent One would guest star in numerous comics throughout the ‘70’s, but it seems that Marvel couldn’t quite figure out what to do with this awesomely imagined, yet poorly developed character. Stan Lee was apparently so proud of his creation that he demanded to retain creative control over it long after he gave up his writing and editing duties for the company, but this was a rare case where Stan dropped the ball. The Surfer actually disappeared for about four years at the end of the decade, in what must have been a dark hour for comic cosmonauts.

Finally, in 1987, sanity prevailed and Marvel saw fit to give the Surfer his own series once again, but this time without the Terran tether. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank Galactus almighty, I am free at last!” At least that’s what I’d be saying, if I was freed to roam the cosmos after being stuck on this crazy rock for so many years. So began the Silver Surfer's finest hour since the original Lee/Kirby conception, as, in the gifted hands of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, he was sent to the furthest reaches of the universe to do battle with suitably cosmic foes like the Elders, Skrulls, the Kree, Galactus, In-Betweener, the Celestials, Firelord, et al. I’m still in the early stages of reading this fine series — my comic book erudition being generally limited to the Silver and Bronze Ages proper — so I don’t have much more to say about it except that I’m really digging it so far! I’ll probably say more about the Surfer’s second, much longer run in a future post, so until next time, keep on surfin’ the comics cosmos!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

All Hail the God of Thunder!

Today I’d like to heap praise on a series that deserves more recognition as one of the all-time great cosmic comics: the Mighty Thor. Thor has always been one of my favorites, because it combines intergalactic sci-fi, fantasy and mythology in a way that no other comic has before or since. Is there anything more epic than the Asgardian Astronomer Royal counseling Odin about a dire new threat out of the Black Galaxy, or a Rigelian robot and the God of Thunder sailing the cosmos together as friends on a quest to save the universe? I say thee nay!

Here's Thor's first encounter with the awesome Ego-Prime, the Living Planet. The Colonizers/Ego Saga from issues 131-133 was probably Marvel's second cosmic epic after the Galactus Trilogy, and it set the tone for Thor's many intergalactic adventures to come:

Comic Cosmonauts have to love Thor, because with the possible exception of the Fantastic Four, he has explored more of the Marvel universe than any other character. Look at the incredible places Thor has visited and the powerful entities he has defeated: Asgard, Olympus, Rigel, the Black Galaxy, the Dark Nebula, Blackworld, the Doomsday Star, the Colonizers, Ego-Prime, Mangog, Loki, Surtur, the High Evolutionary, the Destroyer, Firelord, Exitar (a 20000 foot tall Celestial Terminator!) — the guy has literally been to Hell and back, the End of Time, and survived Ragnarok, for Odin's sake!

One of my favorite things about Thor's world is his spacefaring wooden Viking ship, the Starjammer — what a perfect symbol for what makes this series so unique, and so cool! Thor and his merry band of Asgardians sailed this beauty on numerous intergalactic quests, stopping off on an asteroid to repair its sails from a meteor storm at one point, and later arming it with twin laser cannons!

And let’s not forget the humor – despite the heavy, cosmic themes, the Lee/Kirby Thors have some of the funniest comic moments I’ve ever read. Here's one from Thor #132, back in the days when comics didn't take themselves too seriously:

So to summarize: classic Thor is pure comic book magic, and required reading for all explorers of the Marvel universe!