Mars Will Send No More is pleased to present the third and final chapter of this examination of the relation of Jack Kirby’s works to religion and science, by Iain Carstairs. We encourage you to visit Iain’s site Science and Religion for more thought-provoking essays.
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.”
– Jack Kirby
Examples of populations in countries we have never visited and can only dimly sense the character of 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.” He interpreted this to mean the train actually belonged to his family. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens’ mother once declared, “If there is going to be an upper class in thic country, Christopher is going to be in it.” These benevolent, fateful conditions propelled both individuals 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.
The young Jack Kirby could never have had such delusions. Whatever he would have in life, he had to fight everyone else for, from the very beginning.
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 their numbers were vast.
Among the huddled masses yearning to be free who arrived 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). Benjamin found work in a garment factory. His family produced two children, the first of whom, Jacob, was born August 28, 1917, later attending elementary and Hebrew school in PS 20.
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.
(Jack Kirby, 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. Of the 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. He recalls:
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 1936, at age 18, the entirely self-taught Kurtzberg was 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.
“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 could still have been a failure, except now, one disowned by his family. He remembers:
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.
How could such an individual maintain that most intangible belief in the spirit – without it arising internally and continually renewing itself? Kirby said,
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.
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 the Jews, 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.
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 Zero Degrees of Empathy, calls the confidence given by a positive and loving family “the internal pot of gold” whose currency is life-saving in any adverse situation.
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.
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 ladder to the stars, a marital haven secure from future storms? I am sure the conclusion is obvious.
This variety of emotion does not belong to lifeless symbols but the mind bent on manipulating them to reflect its otherwise intangible thought. The mythical vampire, whose reflection cannot be seen in a mirror, reverses the intuitively understood fact that the normal mind reflects itself in every medium it touches. It is so immune to fakery that its opposite is not a misleading impression, but no impression at all.
Take formless patriotism. It requires a symbol designed by creative intelligence from an individual who feels patriotism in himself. 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.
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, its form and direction always dictated by men of genius.
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.
(Jack Kirby, 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.
– Jack Kirby on the creation of the New Gods
Kirby eventually developed his idea of New Gods who each had their own character, purpose, and tragedy. Izaya 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.
Kirby cheerfully worked at a feverish 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. 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,” Royer complained. Kirby just laughed and replied, “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 of mythology. I speak in terms of mythology. I’m communicating in my own way.” Many artists have experienced this paradoxical state in which created ideas seem to have bypassed the intellect altogether. Neil Diamond 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.
Gopi Krishna said his poetry, the content of which often took him by surprise, would appear in his mind in rhyming couplets, multiplying like snowflakes which grew bigger and bigger, written down as fast as was humanly possible, many of which would necessarily be lost as his 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 shows qualities attributed to one in 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. 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 legal battles to gain some share of their continuing turnover, his ideas have become a billion-dollar film and entertainment industry. Jack Kirby’s life was a testament to the redeeming power of faith and creativity: that a boy from the slums could raise himself to a world-famous name through his talent alone.
Farewell, Jack Kirby!