We told you about this painting before, but now we have a decent camera. So, let’s immortalize it again for the digital age! Iain Carstairs guest authored a series here on Jack Kirby entitled Persistence of Spiritual Vision. We had discussed our mutual Kirby interest and the idea of painting using aspects of Kirby’s style. While yours truly ran off to put Kirby Krackle on everything, Iain created this enlargement of a panel from the Fantastic Four. Check it out.
A note from your host, Matthew, of Mars Will Send No More.
I received some correspondence about the recent series from guest author Iain Carstairs, The Persistence of Spiritual Vision: the Symbols of Jack Kirby. I will respond to several thought-provoking questions and make some clarifications.
First, the series does not promote any specific religion, doctrine, or dogma. Instead, the series examines the general religious inclination of humanity using Kirby as one example.
Second, despite examining the roots and the benefits of spirituality, the series does not endorse all acts performed in the name of religion. Any serious study of history illuminates numerous horrors committed in the name of religion. On the other hand, the same study brings to light horrifying acts in the name of science, as well as atrocities committed in the name of neither religion nor science. I believe this is a problem with human nature, and not specifically humanity’s religious impulse.
Third, nowhere does the series suggest that indoctrination does not exist. It obviously does, and I am neither insensitive to it nor without some firsthand experience with it. Observation and experience suggests Iain is correct that the religious impulse does not result solely from indoctrination. But, the same experience tells me that specific doctrines, dogma, behaviors, and attitudes do in fact result from indoctrination, the instillation of fear in children, and cultural programming. We must differentiate, in this discussion, between natural human impulses and the installation of specific dogma.
Fourth, I do not contend that a purely logical argument can cause one to have a faith. Belief is distinct from knowledge. Knowledge is the arena of reasoning, logic, and sensory verification. Belief includes feeling, which is the domain of emotion. Belief appears to be a blend of these two psychic functions, emotion and reason, and the blend is most likely unique to each person. (I use “psychic” in the most Jungian sense, not meaning “paranormal” but “of the mind.”) As such, no logical argument can induce belief beyond a shallow intellectual acquiescence, just as no emotional argument can convince on logical grounds.
I do observe that belief has powerful merits in terms of accomplishment – whether belief in a divine creator or overlord, or belief in one’s self, or belief in a code, or belief in the justification of one’s actions. Belief can be a driving force towards successful endeavors and a source of sustenance in hardship. Just as a martial artist envisions striking through the target to achieve a goal, the believer finds the mind directed by a powerful force through life’s storms. We should distinguish between the observable effects of belief and the objective justification of specific beliefs. Again, the series examines a phenomenon of consciousness, not any set of doctrine.
Fifth, I do not in any way propose that the Bible is a reliable source for ethics, morality, or dogma. Kirby took inspiration from the Bible. Like any book of mythology or stories, the Bible can provide artistic inspiration. My personal belief is that the only rational ways to study the Bible are A) as a mythology, as one would study the Gilgamesh epic, the ancient Greek pantheon, or the Fantastic Four, B) as poetry, as one would study the Odyssey, Beowulf, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and C) as an artifact of cultural anthropology.
Sixth, I do not propose that any specific religion or belief in any god is a prerequisite for ethical behavior. True, accepting a given set of standards passed down by a religious dogma does eliminate the often taxing effort of determining ethical standards for oneself. But, as the author clearly states, even one who does not believe in a divine, monotheistic creator can form ethical standards – and even spiritual beliefs. Despite contention with some leading atheist arguments, we are not suggesting that atheists have no morals or are incapable of forming them.
I prefer to think in terms of ethics rather than morality. Morality is a study of right and wrong, and these are very slippery subjects open to much interpretation. Morality is metaphysical and can be argued ad infinitum. Ethics, however, is a study of practical action in a social environment. I propose that the questions of right and wrong (morality) have unreliable answers, but the questions of how we will behave in order to get along and progress as human beings (ethics) have very reliable answers.
Seventh and finally, although it should go without saying, my presentation of this essay should not be construed as my own thoughts. I do not always agree with the author on every fine point he makes. However, I value and respect his level-headed and well-informed point of view and have been greatly influenced by him over the course of the last year.
I am not at all interested in argument or debate to achieve some ideological victory. Our species has had quite enough of shouting each other down to prove to ourselves and others the absolute correctness of our respective positions, a behavior that can only end in violence, misunderstanding, and alienation. What we need now is a dialogue. What we need now is to find common ground and agreement. What we need is to be open to the idea that our own positions are not absolute, not always correct, and can be informed by even those with whom we disagree.
We can work together as a group to find unity, to bring together the diversity of approaches to the human condition, just as each individual can work towards unifying his own psychic functions (cognition, perception, intuition, and emotion) to achieve self-actualization. Too many people in both the atheist and theist camps, in both the scientific and religious worlds, obsess over winning some argument. We would do well to stop arguing to obtain a victory and start conversing rationally and calmly to find the common ground and the common good.
Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful responses. We now return you to our regularly scheduled program of mutants, giant brains, rampaging dinosaurs, and interstellar mayhem.
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!
Mars Will Send No More is pleased to present the second chapter of an 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.
2. Misunderstanding the Persistence of Religious Faith
“We all have a kind of feeling that I think we’ve had for thousands of years, that there are higher beings somewhere. I think all our spiritual feelings stem from that.
The truth is that the Greeks had Hercules, even as the Norsemen had Thor, and through the ages we’ve had heroes similar to them, who’s no more than a superhero. And today, we have our superheroes: we believe in them because we believe in ourselves.”
– Jack Kirby
The idea behind this post is a much stronger proof of the persistence of spiritual beliefs. Richard Dawkins once claimed in an interview that religion is perpetuated solely because children are indoctrinated by their parents, who then indoctrinate their own children, and so on. This idea has become blithely repeated as a criticism of religion. But, it shows a complete failure to think, and thereby reverses the accusation altogether. It explains why such minds find this argument entirely credible due to their own failure to think.
Dawkins attributes the tendency to listen to one’s parents to a natural selection in which those who did not listen – for example, rebels who disobeyed the urging to avoid snakes or the edges of cliffs – did not tend to survive. According to Dawkins, it was not religion so much as the tendency to obey authourity figures which was the genetic foundation of religion’s persistence. This idea supposes that rebels are generally so liable to catastrophe that they die before procreative age, and therefore should have been eliminated over the course of tens of thousands of years to produce a docile race of sheep unable to think for themselves.
How does a thinking man propose a theory so completely at odds with observed fact that to refute it, one hardly knows where to start? The urge to discredit religion seems so great that essentials like simple logic, observed evidence, and even common sense are all desperately jettisoned like hampers of food from a hot air balloon plummeting to the ground.
Only the mentally sturdy rebel is able to conceive and energise inventions and advances, corrections to restrictive systems, and resultant changes in society’s direction. Therefore, far from being the type found bitten by snakes at the foot of cliffs, he forms the quick-thinking engine of all historical progress. And since every development is, for a time, a rebellion against the norm, its adoption by the mass mind requires a kind of intuitive faith in the rebel, further accenting the strength of his perceived character. This we can see from the development of symbolic thought.
Whatever symbols, concepts, forms, and institutions which arose and survive today come solely from this class of men. Without them, man would follow the same direction as the animal world, and our social forms would remain static for millions of years. Instead, in evolutionary heartbeats, we see a constant drive for change accompanied by colossal jumps in understanding. In fact, it seems as if change is part of man’s mental makeup, and it is the biological urges – eating, sleeping, romance, and procreation – which remain constant, and in some cases vary little from the animal world, perhaps as a reminder of our origins. So while man remains in some way imprisoned by his biology, his mental abilities are his true heritage, and they are free to grow. No one can say where they would lead us as a race.
Another fact so obvious that it should never need pointing out to a champion of evolution is that apart from the reforming rebel, it is the willfully disobedient youngsters who account for most – if not all – illegitimate births today, and probably all through history too. These individuals tend to have more partners because the sacrifices and discipline required by pair bonding is not for them. They must therefore produce the largest number of genetically varied offspring in geographically separate areas, giving their traits by far the most chance to survive. I know one such free spirit who has a child in England, one in Vancouver, one in Toronto, and one in Egypt. For all I know, he may be working on a fifth. If natural selection were a genuine shaping force – and it clearly isn’t – then common sense tells us the race would be comprised mainly of irresponsible, non-pair-bonding individuals by now.
When I created the Silver Surfer and Galactus it came out of a biblical feeling. I couldn’t get gangsters to compete with all these superheroes, so I had to look for more omnipotent characters. I came up with what I thought was God in Galactus; a God-like character.
Still thinking about it in the biblical sense, I began to think of a fallen angel, and the fallen angel was the Silver Surfer. In the story, Galactus confines him to the Earth, just like the fallen angel. So you can get characters from biblical feelings.
Another unavoidable fact: teenagers all go through a stage of rebellion, questioning the dictates of parents, for the simple reason that they must develop the ability to reason for themselves. This mental development and eventual merging with the complexities of wider society is why the childhood of a human being is by far the longest in all the animal kingdom. As soon as we call a mammal human, even a prototypical human, this period of rebellion is guaranteed. Not all will go so far as bearing a child by age 13, but they will question the parents to re-evaluate their ideas as surely as a toddler entering the “terrible twos” will reflexively answer “no” to everything you suggest.
But why stop at examples of individual behaviour? A recent experiment which flatly contradicts the idea that religion is propagated by the sheepish took place in Communist Russia. Perhaps you heard of it? The experiment involved hundreds of millions of individuals, in which three or perhaps even four generations were forbidden any exposure to religion by the sternest authority of the state, with ferocious penalties for those who disobeyed. Without membership in the Communist Party, one could not even own an apartment in a crumbling block. Dissent was dealt with by imprisonment or the reverse of natural selection – by a natural Siberian exile.
If religious faith were a simple matter of obedience to parents, these beliefs should have been gladly jettisoned if only to avoid exclusion from society. In the Soviet Union it would be impossible for any child born after about 1925 to have any idea of religion as an acceptable outlet; still less for one born in the fifties and sixties. Not only did the country remain separate socially from others, the government’s influence was so all-pervasive as to affect every nook and cranny of daily existence. This experiment was as complete and as ruthless in efficiency as it could ever be possible to orchestrate.
But no sooner did the Soviet Union fall than the churches in Eastern Europe sprang back into life, lovingly restored to a state exceeding their former beauty. To give you a taste of the Russian mentality: when Stalingrad was surrounded in WWII, the citizens swore no German would set foot in their city. The Nazi blockade meant starvation set in, alongside constant bombardment. The city did not fall.
Residents eventually boiled wallpaper to make some thin kind of starch soup, and slept under dozens of layers of cloth and blankets to survive the subzero temperatures. Death hovered around every doorway. A few gave way to cannibalism, betrayed by their rosy faces and good health. But these were the exceptions. The city survived under the harshest and most sadistic pressure.
These were not latte-sipping, iPad-tapping, cosy armchair scoffers and caviar conoussieurs. These were a people possessed of an inflexible iron will and indifference to suffering, to whom all else came second to their patriotic pride. For this reason, WWII is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, a war in which at least 40 million people lost their lives. When they see programs showing how Britain claims to have won the war, they literally fall silent with astonishment. Either the religious minds which survived generations of war and repression in secret were the sternest and strongest of all, or, if you prefer, those minds which gravitated to religion only after the fall of the USSR must have been expressing the most hardy, perennial, and captivating sentiments of the soul. Either way the idea of religion for the sheepish is looking pretty silly.
In fact the sole reason the Communist experiment failed – a reason greater even than the corruption throughout the entire structure – was because the ordinary human being was denied a choice of thought. This state of being is so repugnant to human nature – not surprisingly, since we have shown freedom of thought is man’s only true heritage and marker of evolutionary progress – that the amassed resistance was enough to topple a regime so callous that an estimated forty million people were also sent to die in slave labour camps for their crime of free thought. This staggering statistic is never taken into account by those seeking to criticise religion on the grounds of sheepish continuation, because it makes their argument seem puerile and stupid.
All these examples show that a propagation of religious faith solely by external pressure is a nonsense, and in any case something which experience of everyday people shows would be an impossibility. Religious faith seems to be an internal concept limited only by the capacity of that particular mind to which people return, as readily as they do to that source of infinite warmth: the sun. The variations in form show an evolutionary capacity of the mind. The widespread acceptance of each shows the large numbers which simultaneously achieved that particular level.
The widespread and simultaneous resistance to oppressive regimes today in middle-east countries, among populations which meekly accepted such dictatorships without protest for ages before, shows the same tendency. The evolution of mass consciousness is the evolution of the brain, and it is expressed in man’s symbols. The gifted individuals able to create and manipulate appealing symbols are gifted with an insight into the mind of society at that level of evolution, and they serve an important evolutionary purpose.
Mars Will Send No More is pleased to present the first of a 3-part examination of the relation of Jack Kirby’s works to religion and science. This essay comes to us with the permission of its author, Iain Carstairs. We encourage you to visit Iain’s site Science and Religion for more thought-provoking essays.
1. Humanity’s Heritage: Symbolic Thought
I’m 71 years old. I used to read the first science fiction books, and I began to learn about the Universe myself and take it seriously. I know the names of the stars. I know how near or far the heavenly bodies are from our own planet.
I know our own place in the Universe. I can feel the vastness of it inside myself. I began to realize with each passing fact what a wonderful and awesome place the Universe is, and that helped me in comics because I was looking for the awesome. I found it in Thor. I found it in Galactus.
Jack Kirby, 1988
In the debates between atheists and believers, some atheists have very strong arguments indeed because they rely only on logic. Christopher Hitchens claimed that we help others not because of the dictates of a God but because we depend on others to make our Earthly experience as positive as possible. This indicates that the intellect is capable of putting people before self interest.
In a debate with Sam Harris, Hitchens was asked, “On what do you base the value of your life, if there is no transcendent God to serve?” He answered that he had spent his life trying to be free, and trying to help others be free. There is no argument, whether rational or religious, which can discredit such a view.
If one abides by the biblical sayings “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or, “Whatsoever ye do unto the least of all thy brethren, that do ye also unto me,” then one must feel that a human life can be amply justified by service to others. Such a life embodies a genuine spiritual impulse, no matter the nature of its justification, just as a harmful act such as a punch in the stomach, easily condemned on humanitarian and logical grounds, cannot be justified by using religious ones instead.
So, even someone who does not believe in a spirit can, paradoxically, create what can only be defined as a spiritual outlook. Perhaps their caution is understandabe if their denial of a Divine Creator is based on characterisations made in ancient religions. Perhaps denial on those grounds supposes archaic concepts to be the only possible such symbols. Even Christ’s detractors found flaws in his message. But, this ignores the input of all modern minds. It would be more sensible for a religious critic today to deal with ideas of today, since ancient symbols can only be expressions of a mind limited by the evolutionary capacity of their day.
Just as language is a collection of symbols which all share a certain flavour per society, created in an effort to make intangible thought presentable to others, so are religious symbols evidence of something inexpressible in any other way. The remarkable thing is not that all languages are different, or that their forms change over time, but that all evolved independently – and continue to do so – to serve the evolving human brain.
Most people are surprised to find we cannot form a mental picture of a number of objects greater than about a dozen. That is, we cannot accurately distinguish this group from a separate mental picture of thirteen objects or eleven. To deal with this disability, the brain has produced symbols – numbers – which are not objects themselves, but an agreed-upon code enabling us to share these otherwise mentally unmanageable ideas. We humans are alone in conceiving such symbolic thought. Some primates can be taught a certain amount of it but do not develop it independently. This makes clear the giant leap made by us at some point in the distant past.
Such symbols began about 8000 BC to represent sheep and other goods, followed around 3000 BC by a further, significant, abstraction: the quantity of these goods represented as symbols in their own right. Such ideas represented leaps which we take for granted now but which could only arise from individuals prone to thinking things over and coming up with inspiration. In fact, the modern function of humans as teachers to primates might mirror this early, slow process of development between the forward-thinking types and the ordinary, slow-moving minds of their day.
Spiritual symbols must have predated such elements of trade by a huge distance. The animism of the Aborigines supposedly dates from 60,000 years ago. The Aurignacian cave paintings, presumed to have more than just decorative purpose – as they are found in inaccessible caves not used for habitation – date to about 32,000 years ago. I believe the temple of Gobekli Tepe is reliably dated to about 12,000 years ago.
We know that 200,000 year old burial sites in Africa show evidence of funerary rites. The Neanderthal also developed these rites. Their race dates from 600,000–350,000 years ago, and we know such beliefs existed at least 300,000 years ago. It would hardly make sense for early man to suddenly develop abstract ideas which changed only slightly over the next 300,000 years, especially when a much more evolved specimen took at least five thousand years to go from symbolic objects to symbolic quantities. So it seems reasonable to believe that religious beliefs – and the language to articulate them – could easily have emerged as long as half a million years ago.
Therefore, if we agree that order in time correlates to order of fundamental importance, the spiritual symbols must have been of huge importance to society, followed only much, much later by a systemised set of symbols encoding objects and their quantity.
The vast gulf we needed to cross to assimilate these concepts is exemplified by the five thousand year gap between symbolic representation of objects and the much harder abstraction of their symbolic number. Bonobo apes have been taught to communicate using symbols. But, the additional learning required to conceive of organised agriculture for the purposes of trade, the concept of payment values to purchase other goods, as well as the assessment of integrity of character of the trader, remain vast, vast leaps into the future.
Symbolic thought is, without doubt, one of humanity’s most precious and hard-earned evolutionary steps. Those who can manipulate symbols with agility are powerful influences on the rest of us.
In well-attended debates where atheistic opinions are based on logic alone, resting a defence of religion on a recollection of ancient events is of dubious worth, and also a little pointless, just as the value of medical science cannot be reckoned by referring to its murky origins or courageous proponents living centuries ago, but by benefits and facts which are at hand today.
If these audiences are polarised into two camps attracted by two completely different things, as if watching the brute force of Hulk Hogan compared to hearing the golden voice of Shirley Bassey, then it is small wonder that nothing is ever resolved convincingly. Each side walks away feeling much the same sympathies as before, and perhaps a little puzzled by the failure of two intelligent minds to somehow communicate the truth of something about which they both feel so passionately.
If one can justify humanitarianism by logic, one should also be able to justify spiritual beliefs by present day knowledge. If not, there is no point in debating. Convincingly resolving the question of God is perhaps for distant generations. The biology which is somehow already in motion must be the thing which concerns us the most, along with what we can do to affect it, just as a driver speeding over a collapsed bridge thinks not about its architects or the technical drawings for his car, but where the brakes are!
Strange things happen sometimes and you find yourself at the nexus of them. Case in point: Jack Kirby artwork.
When we ran a massive Kirby retrospective last summer, we just thought it would be fun. (It was!) Along the way, we connected with Science and Religion and corresponded with its author Iain about our mutual Kirby appreciation. Iain paints, and we like to paint sometimes (when we’re not working on our next guitar masterpiece or creative writing or blogging our butt off…)
Somewhere in that correspondence, one of us suggested the idea of creating paintings inspired by Kirby’s more cosmic works. Because if you look at Captain Victory, there’s a lot more going on artistically than just another space opera comic book. Kirby’s splash panels open up a really unique art style that doesn’t really fit in with any established school. The King took a cosmic vibe he’d been developing for years and just ran it over the top.
So we painted a few things, and Iain was painting, too. We ran the final version of his Silver Surfer painting in our 2011 review of Mars. Then it got weird. Just a few days later, Scott Edelman posted on Reddit about artist Sharon Moody. We read the column and dug a little deeper. We looked at the art gallery that represents her work and also her own web site to get a better understanding of where she’s coming from. That’s when we discovered Sharon had created a photo-realistic depiction of the same Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comic book from which Iain took his inspiration!
Of course, we wrote Iain about it, and he sent us his thoughts on morphological resonance: “When we make advances, people pick up on it in many ways psychically, of course to a faint degree – the internet, being a reflection of advancing towards an already existing universal concept, performs the same function. Nevertheless, even without direct communication, people pick up ideas from the movement of consciousness, reflecting it in their own way.”
Now, you may groove on that like we do, or you may dismiss it as unscientific. One thing we know for sure: things often happen in ways we can’t fully explain, and things seem connected in a deeper way than our conscious intellects can fully grasp. Carl Jung had a theory of synchronicity that closely relates, especially as far as our intuitive faculty goes, and Lao Tsu may have pointed to the mysteriously interconnected workings of the Tao. But this much is true: it gets weirder.
Not five minutes went by after reading Iain’s morphic message when we got a pingback from an artist’s site. Nik Harron – who we admittedly never heard of before – posted a painting of Galactus and linked back to our post on Jim Lee’s version of this character first brought to life by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. What the…?! Were we not just discussing this idea of proliferating Kirby paintings?
How many Jack Kirby-inspired paintings are out there? We don’t know! But it’s one thing to talk about coincidence, and it’s another thing entirely to experience so many ‘coincidences’ coinciding in such a short period of time. Perhaps Mars lies near the nexus of a Jack Kirby morphogenetic field. If so, nothing would make us happier!
Now, get out there and create your own Kirby-inspired works. We’d love to hear about them!