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!