Jack Kirby, a pioneering American comic book artist, created or co-created such well-known superheroes as The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Iron Man, The Silver Surfer, Thor and The X-Men. Since their very first appearances in comic book form way back in the 1960s, these larger-than-life characters have taken on an almost mythological significance in the public consciousness, thanks in no small part to a spate of recent film adaptations that have been extraordinarily successful… almost as successful as the always-burgeoning subgenre known as “conspiracy theory”. In fact, it could be argued that superheroes and conspiracy theories have experienced a parallel rise in prominence – and that Kirby represents a nexus point between them.
In today’s popular media, the subject of occult conspiracies has become common fodder for best-selling novels, multi-million-dollar blockbuster movies and long-running television shows, but Kirby’s fascination with such fringe subject matter can be traced back far earlier than that. As with so many other popular trends, Kirby was decades ahead of the pack. He took a close interest in the paranormal from early in his career, perhaps due to his upbringing. In an interview in the early 1990s, Kirby revealed that when he was very young the rabbis in his neighbourhood had introduced him to the concept of demons which could possess human beings. “This kind of thing was very real,” he said, “and I think it added to the type of storytelling that I would do later on in life.”
This notion of invisible forces controlling human beings from behind the scenes runs right through Kirby’s œuvre. Sometimes, this interest manifests itself in the form of epic stories about gods and goddesses interfering with the course of human lives. The Mighty Thor (on which Kirby worked from 1962 to 1970), The New Gods (1971–72), and The Eternals (1976–78) are just three examples. Sometimes, this obsession takes a far more prosaic form: stories about secret societies composed of powerful beings – sometimes human, sometimes not – quietly affecting the course of human affairs from within the shadows. Sometimes, these beings were attempting to affect the course of civilisation solely for their own benefit. Others believed they were attempting to help humanity, while in truth they were destroying it. And sometimes these beings acted as selfless benefactors of the human race. There are numerous examples of all three of these story-types throughout Kirby’s work. An example of the first story-type can be found in Kirby’s “Madbomb” saga, which was published in the pages of Captain America #193–200 (Jan to Aug 1976) while America eagerly looked forward to its bicentennial celebration. The story involves a secret society of British-sympathising bluebloods who fancy themselves “the ‘chosen’ Elite” and attempt to use a high-tech sonic wave projector to artificially induce racial strife and riots throughout the country in order to cause as much chaos as possible among the benighted underclass. This plot sounds so close to the real-life accusations of such conspiracy theorists as perennial Presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche (who believes the Queen of England still runs America) that it’s hard to imagine Kirby wasn’t aware of these theories when he wrote the “Madbomb” story. Kirby’s science fiction series The Eternals (originally entitled The Return of the Gods) was inspired by Erich Von Däniken’s cosmic conspiracy tome The Chariots of the Gods (1968), which attempts to prove that the entire course of human civilisation was manipulated by a different sort of “chosen Elite”, one that hails from the stars (see FT169:30–37; 270:34–39). Since The Eternals was published around the same time, it’s not illogical to deduce that Kirby was aware of LaRouche’s convoluted conspiratorial musings as well.
An example of the second story-type is Kirby’s “Him” storyline published in Fantastic Four #66 and 67 in the summer of 1967. As originally conceived by Kirby, this story was about a secret society of scientists so obsessed with Objectivism that they attempt to create a perfect being, per the philosophy of Ayn Rand and her libertarian peers. This perfect being (known only as “Him”) turns on his creators and destroys them since he cannot tolerate the flaws of lesser men. Unfortunately, the subtler nuances of the tale were altered drastically in the published version by editor and dialogue-scribe Stan Lee.
An example of the third story-type is Kirby’s early 1960s series The X-Men. This series deals with a secret society of mutants who use their paranormal powers to help humanity from behind the scenes. It’s very possible that Kirby drew his initial inspiration for this series from one of the earliest and most successful books about occult conspiracies published at that time. By the late 1960s, this particular book had become something of a cult sensation, inspiring SF writers such as Philip José Farmer, Michael Moorcock and William Kotzwinkle. The book in question is The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, published in France in 1960. It covers a wide variety of esoteric subjects, including Hitler’s obsession with the occult, vanished civilisations, fortean phenomena, covert psychokinetic research, secret societies, the invention of the atom bomb, and so on. This literary cabinet of wonders would be plundered by any number of lesser writers as “New Age” topics grew in popularity with the advent of the psychedelic age. But the Summer of Love was still many years away in September of 1963 when Lee and Kirby’s The X-Men #1 hit the newsstands. The English translation of The Morning of the Magicians was published earlier that same year. The final chapter of the book bears the evocative title “Some Reflections On the Mutants”. It’s interesting to note that just as the working title of The Eternals reflected its source material, the original title of The X-Men was, according to Marvel editor Stan Lee, The Mutants. It was altered only at the last minute when Marvel’s publisher, Martin Goodman, insisted that the average child buying comics at the local newsstand wouldn’t know what the word “mutant” meant.
In the final chapter of The Morning of the Magicians (chapter 10, denoted by the Roman numeral “X”), the authors set forth their theories regarding the unquantifiable effect that an active secret society of mutants might bring to bear on world affairs. They wonder whether “under the influence of forces that are still mysterious, a new race of men is appearing, endowed with superior intellectual powers… Does this point to a mutation of the human species? Shall we see a new race of beings who resemble us outwardly, but yet are different? This is the formidable problem we must now examine… Einstein at the end of his life declared: ‘If I had known [the effects of notoriety], I should have been a plumber.’ Above Einstein’s level, the mutant is clever enough to conceal himself. He keeps his discoveries for himself. He lives as discreetly as possible, and only tries to remain in contact with other intelligences like his own… Do these mutants form an invisible society?… The human society we know has shown only too well its hostility towards an objective intelligence or a free imagination: Giordano Bruno burnt, Einstein exiled, Oppenheimer kept under observation. If there are mutants answering to our description, there is every reason to believe that they are working and communicating with one another in a society superimposed on our own.”
If anything can be said definitively about Kirby’s imagination, it’s that he had the unerring ability to explore an idea to its utmost limits (and beyond) within seconds of it having taken root inside his head. Kirby biographer Mark Evanier, for example, has spoken about the evening when he watched Kirby flesh out the entire concept behind his 1970s Demon series during a single dinner.5 Therefore, it’s not difficult to imagine such phantasmagoric speculations as those set forth by Pauwels and Bergier being more than enough stimulus to set the gears of his almost-limitless imagination in motion.
As early as the 1940s, Kirby was already applying his interests in fringe subject matter to the comic book medium. In at least one instance, this led to some unwelcome attention from the FBI, when as a result of reading “an obscure magazine” that contained an article about experiments allegedly being performed by Nikola Telsa at that time, Kirby created a comic book story based around Tesla’s research. He was contacted by FBI agents who demanded in a rather forcible manner that he reveal how he had gotten access to “Top Secret” information.
It’s impossible to know what Kirby had been reading, but the main point is that the magazine was obscure enough to be discussing Tesla’s research at a time when the previously infamous scientist had almost fallen off the map of popular consciousness. Clearly, then, Kirby was hunting down esoteric information even then, no doubt as inspiration for his comic book stories as well as for his own personal illumination.
Of course, I have no idea if Kirby actually read The Morning of the Magicians, but given his documented interest in similar explorations of occult conspiracies and the paranormal, and given the fact that the English publication of the book coincides with Kirby developing The X-Men, it seems not unreasonable to suggest that Pauwels and Bergier may have served as the original springboard for one of Kirby’s most famous creations.
Despite the fact that he could often give the impression in interviews of being a practical, down-to-earth realist, Kirby was at heart a seeker after truth. His editors and publishers expected nothing more from him than the creation of crowd-pleasing yarns delivered on schedule, but Kirby expected something far greater from himself and his audience. What he wanted most was a platform from which to pass along covert messages of transcendence to an audience in desperate need of more than just entertainment. His personal fascination with the occult and the paranormal no doubt helped him accomplish this goal, providing depth and dimension to what in lesser hands would have been nothing more than genre adventure stories for mass consumption.
1 Interview with J Michael Straczynski on the Los Angeles radio show Hour 25.
2 Jack Kirby: Captain America and The Falcon: Madbomb, Marvel Comics, New York, 2004, p139.
3 Mike Garland: “A Failure To Communicate: Part Four”, The Jack Kirby Collector 24, April 1999, pp12–17.
4 Jacques Bergier & Louis Pauwels: The Morning of the Magicians, Avon, New York, 1963, pp399–411. Published as The Dawn of Magic in UK.
5 Mark Evanier: Introduction, Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps, DC Comics, New York, 2008, p4.