Monday, May 28, 2012

The Return of the Cosmic Techno-Gods from Space

by Robert Boyd

Within the comics community, Jack Kirby is revered. I have mixed feelings about his work. There is something inherently juvenile about it. It doesn't have the richness, the multivalence I look for in art. There is not a sense of deep humanity in the work, nor irony. But at the same time, it has a vigor--the vigor of certain folk art or of expressionist painting. He was no folk artist, but he was the industrial age's equivalent--an artist whose training and early career lead him to be a journeyman artist toiling within the commercial entertainment industry. But within this field, which has a tendency towards uniformity, he stood out drastically. One can think of certain respected comics artists who were his peers--John Romita, John Buscema, Neal Adams--and although each of these artists had a distinct style, compared to Kirby they were virtually the same artist.

Kirby, on the other hand, was unique. No one really imitated his style--not until much later, when such imitations were the results of deliberately post-modern strategies. If I had to describe Kirby figures, particularly from his work in the sixties and seventies, I would say they look like a rough-hewn wood carvings of figures that have somehow been coated with multi-color chrome. His work was simultaneously crude and futuristic.

And he created a genre, a type of character, that was unique. These are cosmic techno-gods. The first he created was Thor and his fellow Asgardians, which were created in 1962. Stan Lee was the co-creator of these characters. I won't try to parse the credit more finely than that. Of course, anonymous Norse holy men created this mythology. But Kirby and Lee turned these eternal myths into technological creatures. The technology was not ever really explained, but you could see it in the way that Asgard was portrayed--as a gleaming, high-tech megalopolis in space.

Jack Kirby, Galactus

I think the next cosmic techno-god was Galactus, the planet-devouring giant whose herald was the Silver Surfer. He was a bit more impressive as a god--much larger than humans, Galactus seems to be the embodiment of some elemental force of nature. But despite that, he also is a technological being. He has a space station and he must use equipment that he constructs to consume planets.

Jack Kirby, Galactus' space station

Kirby (sometimes with Lee and sometimes alone) created any number of techno-gods in the 60s and 70s to menace or mystify his super-hero characters--the Watcher, the High Evolutionary, Ego the Living Planet (who for obvious reasons is quite hostile to Galactus), Darkseid and the inhabitants of Apokolips, the Highfather and the inhabitants of New Genesis, the Eternals, and so on. It is my understanding that these characters and more are discussed at length in a new book called Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby by Charles Hatfield, but I haven't read it yet. (It's on my to-read list.)

Jack Kirby, The Eternals

The reason I bring up Kirby and his creation of this type of character is that I've recently come across three comics that seem directly influenced by Kirby, but which come out of the world of art comics. These are Vortex by William Cardini (The Gold County Paper Mill), By This Shall You Know Him by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press), and Forming by Jesse Moynihan (Nobrow Press). As I mentioned in a review of the latest Kramer's Ergot, there seems to be a movement in art comics away from the quotidian, the realistic, the autobiographical. This is a big deal. Since the mid-70s, the default position for comics-as-art has been to tell narratives of ordinary lives. It was an extreme reaction to the continued reliance of "mainstream" comics on juvenile fantasy as its primary subject matter. In some ways, the realism of such comics as American Splendor or Palookaville could be said to be a reaction to the work of Jack Kirby. While there have always been exceptions to the realism trend (for example, Jim Woodring), around 2000 there was a major swing away from realism as an artistic ideal towards a use of the motifs of children's genre comics. (To clarify, when I say realism, I am not discussing the drawings style. Sometimes the drawing is quite expressionistic. I refer instead to the content of the stories.)

If the motifs of children's comics are fair game for art cartoonists, then Jack Kirby is likewise an acceptable source. In each of these comics, the basic ideas of Kirby's techno-gods are reused. Each artist picks and chooses what aspect of Kirby's project he will employ. And they also feel free to call on other sources and also to subvert Kirby's approach. The results are varied but fascinating.

William Cardini, cover to Vortex #1

There have been two issues of Vortex so far. I have discussed Cardini's work before here (an exhibit at Domy). That review from a year and a half ago contained this confession:
If it sounds like I haven't fully digested this art movement (and it is a movement), you are right. I've known the Fort Thunder artists for over a decade and I'm still trying to understand them--to devise a framework or theory that makes sense of their work. I feel I am about halfway there.
This is still true. Maybe I'm 2/3rds there now.  Vortex continues Cardini's project of creating a universe of techno-gods.
Welcome to the psychedelic space fantasy cosmos of the Hyperverse, a realm filled with immensely powerful beings who battle over worlds with strange geologies, and hoard advanced technologies left by ancient starfarers.
Mountains shift from molten to crystal in moments, and clumps of rock are inhabited by malevolent intelligences ready to hurl face-melting spells. [from the introduction to Vortex #1]

 William Cardini, Vortex #1 page 3

Vortex tells the story of Miizard. He is lured to a world where he does combat with an extremely powerful alien creature. The battle, which takes up the entirety of the first issue, recalls mythologies. Miizzard is sliced into bits by his adversary, but the bits are alive and become multiple Miizzards, like Krishna. He defeats his opponent by devouring him, as Cronus devoured his children to prevent the prophecy of his being defeated them to come true.

William Cardini, Vortex #1, page 32

Cardini draws with a thick, watery line and fills the spaces between with a variety of patterns. His work recalls Kirby's in a way-both use thick black lines and black shapes in a non-chiaroscuro way (which reinforces their lack of realism). But Kirby's techno-gods had a connection to the human world. They looked like people and engaged with human beings. Cardini creates a pitiless, inhuman universe. The motives of the characters may not be "evil" (they include curiosity and a desire to be released from bondage), but all the characters are violent and selfish. I believe Cardini is thinking of these characters in terms of natural forces--erosion, volcanism, planet formation, novas, etc. Forces that shape worlds but are vast and impersonal. But I think by making his characters so venal, he weakens this metaphor.

Jesse Jacobs, By This Shall You Know Him, cover

Jesse Jacobs plays homage to Kirby on the cover of his book By This Shall You Know Him. The technological structure open to space appears to be made of wood, and in this is similar to the way Kirby often drew such structures (Kirby's were shinier, though). If Kirby had drawn this cover, all the crenulations would appear to be inexplicable technological apparatuses. Here they seem to be a remarkably complex piece of carpentry--made of purple wood.

The story here is about a group of techno-gods Ablavar, Blorax, Zantek and their teacher, who is unnamed. Their relationship to their teacher is much like art students to their professors. They work on projects that they show the teacher in a critique session (aka a "crit"). The other students are permitted to comment on the work as part of the crit. (In my review of Kramer's Ergot, I proposed an admittedly vague theory about artists who I called "The Art School Generation" and their willingness to dive into genre. This "crit" undertaken by techno-gods weirdly confirms this theory.) One of the gods, Ablavar, creates the Earth (populated by dinosaurs) as his project. Zantek criticizes it harshly and Ablavar decides to destroy the dinosaurs with a a meteor storm and start over.

Jesse Jacobs, By This Shall You Know Him, cover p. 18

Ablavar then creates mammals, birds and non-dinosaur reptiles, which his teacher and Blorax appreciate highly in the crit. Even the "exalted one," a techno-god who seems to be the superior to the teacher, appreciates them. Only Zantek disdains them, but his dislike for them appears to be the result of jealousy. He comes up with a plan for revenge--he creates humans. His Adam and Eve are like cave-men, with Eve being the smarter of the two.

Jesse Jacobs, By This Shall You Know Him, cover p.47

Zantek seduces Adam by teaching him to eat animals. Eve decides that Zantek is a bad influence and forbids Cain and Abel from associating with him. (It should be said that Jacobs never names these first humans, but the seem to be acting out a version of the Genesis story, so I am using the Biblical names.)

 Jesse Jacobs, By This Shall You Know Him, cover p.73

And as in Genesis, Cain commits the first murder--because Abel, under the influence of Zantek, has been killing Ablavar's animals. Once Ablavar learns how Zantek has been subverting his world, he begins to fight with him. Like Kirby's Eternals or Galactus, Ablavar and Zantek are giants. The Earth and its inhabitants are usually depicted in shades of purple, while the techno-gods are mostly blue. So even when they are on Earth, they seem separate from the Earth. And as Ablavar and Zantek battle, civilization appears around them. Their fight, which is appears to be completely physical (punches thrown, stuff hurled), apparently takes place over millenia.

Jesse Jacobs, By This Shall You Know Him, cover p.80

A key difference between Kirby and Jacobs is that Jacobs is willing to make his techno-gods into actual gods--they create the Earth and populate it with animals and humans, just as most of the gods of myth and religion did. Kirby was working in a context of commercial comic books aimed at children.  He wasn't in a position to supplant established religions with his own mythology--it might have caused controversy, And controversy might keep the Red Ryder BB gun manufacturer from buying ads in Thor or The Fantastic Four. Jacobs is free to explore religious ideas more directly than Kirby. He can posit Genesis as an art school crit, and no one will be too bothered.

Jesse Moynihan, Forming, cover

Forming by Jesse Moynihan likewise is willing to take on actual religions and myths, suggesting a creation of the Universe and of Earth that is similar to but distinct from the origins told in various world religions. His characters come from Greek mythology (including late Graeco-Egyption fusion), the Torah and Kabbalah, Zoroastrianism, medieval folklore, Dogon myth, and maybe a few I have missed.

Jesse Moynihan, Forming, page 6 bottom panels

The story begins in 10,000 BC (although it flashes back to a much earlier time later on). Mithras has been sent to Earth to exploit it in the classic colonial way. Humans on Earth, at this stage, have a telepathic oneness with nature. Mithras lands in Atlantis and immediately starts creating a crappy mining colony with  giant slaves. To placate the humans, he marries one, Gaia.

Jesse Moynihan, Gaia and her offspring

This leads to one of the most bizarre aspects of the story, the mixture of myths. Noah and Gaia secretly have two children, Iapetus and Themis (who are two of the Titans in Greek mythology). In the meantime, the androgyne Serapis lands in Africa with the intention of setting up his own outlaw mining colony. His first encounter with humans, Adam and Eve, doesn't go well.

Jesse Moynihan, Forming, page 29 bottom panels

But Adam is eventually co-opted  by Serapis. Just to complicate matters, we see a flashback in which a battle between Lucifer and Michael (who with his blue skin looks very Krishna-like) causes the universe to come into existence. Lucifer is punished by being placed in the center of the Earth.

Jesse Moynihan, Forming, page 24 bottom panels

Lucifer influences things by communicating with people on the surface. Likewise Ain Soph (the Kabbalah's word for God prior to his self-manifestation) is influencing Noah through visions.

Jesse Moynihan, Forming, page 39 top panels

And the gnome king Ghob is trying to undo the mess that Mithras has made. He communicates secretly with Mithras and Gaia's children (various Titans), influencing them to revolt against Mithras.

Jesse Moynihan, Forming, page 51 top panels

The number of characters in Forming is huge, and their motivations are complex. And this is just volume 1. The story is serialized on Moynihans' website--you can follow the continued story there. But despite the complex plot and numerous characters,  the basic story is one of colonialism and the problems that persist after the colonial power has been driven out. Ghob is outraged that Cronus starts building cities after overthrowing Mithras. He wants things to go back to the way they were before. But this is a new age. As one character puts it, "You will wake at the end of the Third Age: the Age of Total Bullshit, to save us."

That is one thing that distinguishes Forming (and By This Shall You Know Him and other related art comics) is the language of the characters. Instead of using the elevated speech that Kirby and Stan Lee gave to Thor and Galactus, these characters use a vernacular that sounds decidedly un-god-like.

Moynihan's art doesn't try to blow your mind the way Kirby's often did. In fact, despite its subject matter, it has a kind of matter-of-fact quality. (This quality is reinforced by the unvarying grid pattern of the panels.)  And yet the cumulative effect of it is powerful. The book is printed in an over-sized format, which helps you see just how beautiful it is. Moynihan's water-coloring deserves special mention.

It is impossible for me to imagine these comics existing without the example of Jack Kirby. And like Kirby, we don't have any complex, realistic human characters here. None of these artists are trying to create, say, a story like Jaime Hernandez's "Browntown" (from Love and Rockets: New Stories vol. 3), a powerful, realistic family story. But using techno-gods permits the artists to deal with subjects in interesting, metaphorical ways (art school, colonialism). It also acknowledges the history of comics, finding a way to be in dialogue with the past without replicating it endlessly, as most modern mainstream comics do. Forming, Vortex, and By This Shall You Know Him are also valuable as exemplars of a current practice in the world of art comics that doesn't have a particular name, but which definitely exists. I wish I had a clever word or phrase for it. Post-realism? Something like that.



  1. A fascinating, provocative post, Robert. Thank you for making these connections and highlighting these works!

    I disagree with you regarding Kirby's alleged lack of depth and human complexity, but I grant that what Kirby does is incompatible with quotidian realism, or indeed any kind of realism. I would also say that Kirby's work hits real complexity over the long term, in those rare cases where Kirby got to work on one project for a fairly long time and got to build and shade his characters as he went along (e.g., Orion, in New Gods). The serial comic book form enabled Kirby to dig in a bit. I don't see an effect quite like that happening in these works, but I do think these cartoonists are tapping into Kirby's brand of mythopoeia.

  2. Charles, thanks for your comments. Perhaps when I read your book, I'll change my mind. But I have to confess, I find Kirby comics (including the Stan Lee collaborations) to be a pretty tiresome reading experiences. They worked for me when I was a teenager (although even as a teenager I found The Eternals a tough slog), but for whatever reason, as an adult, every exclamation point makes my brain hurt.

    But, I love his art and visual storytelling.

    But my main point is that Kirby, like, say, Herge or Schulz or Chester Gould or Frank King or any other iconic cartoonist in the past is up for grabs. A contemporary cartoonist can take his concepts (if not the actual characters, who still remain in the protective bosom of corporate copyright, which has lead to stagnation and boredom) and play with them at will.

  3. "Up for grabs." Yes. I like that!

    I can understand that reading for a long time in a very emphatic mode can be tiring. By the same token, for me reading in a very muted mode can be tiring too. I just finished reading Clowes' WILSON, finally, and I confess I found it a drag. But it is unquestionably more controlled and sophisticated than anything in the Kirby canon, and of course I value it because it's by Clowes, whose work I've often loved. I guess as I get older I'm seeing the limitations of comics' putative new realism as well, and the limitations of the ironic mode.

    Let this not be interpreted as a broadside against Jaime Hernandez, whose "Browntown" I regard as, already, a classic!

  4. I think "realism" (broadly defined) is a bit of a blind alley for comics. Comics-as-art embraced it because it seemed so liberating after several decades of 4-color fantasy. It was a way to declare its independence from comics-as-entertainment. (Obviously realism was just one of the many tools in the toolkit of comic strips, which have always been much more varied than comic books for some reason.)

    But it's interesting that you bring up Clowes, because so many of his best works are quite surreal or magic realist (Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, David Boring). But his most popular work, Ghost Town, was quite realistic with the occasional Bunuelian touches.

    I think a healthy comics world is one that includes a wide variety of approaches and subject matters. That said, I think there is an interesting tendency amongst art cartoonists to "go genre", as Moynihan, Jacobs and Cardini did.

  5. I think a healthy comics world is one that includes a wide variety of approaches and subject matters.

    Hear, hear!

  6. Robert, connecting Cardini to Kirby was a clever move that I hadn't thought of. I've been reviewing his work since the very beginning of his career, when it owed so much more to the work of Mat Brinkman, even if it was obviously more light-hearted. Vortex really is a precise fusion of Kirby and Brinkman. That less human quality and the melty quality of his figures is straight from Brinkman, while the thicker line and dialogue is much more like Kirby.

    I don't know if you've read Moynihan's earlier work, but it combines surreal storytelling with an emotional narrative that is obviously very personal. Forming is certainly a departure from that, but as you note it's far more complex and even nuanced than it might seem at first glance. It's a book about colonialism, to be sure, but it's the colonialism of the corporation as much as it is of the state. The revelation that all of this muckery on earth was simply a matter of rival mining concerns takes the piss out of high-faluting mythology and gives it a banal origin--even as events on earth from its natives are more complex than initially perceived. I'd also say that Forming is a sly critique of language, as well, at an ontological level.

  7. I think Mat Brinkman draws on mainstream comics--including Kirby--to a certain extent. When I visited Fort Thunder, those guys had a huge collection of some of the worst mainstream comics ever.

    Don't forget that colonialism was a business venture before it was a political imperative. The colonization of the Indies was all about growing sugar and making rum. Spanish colonization started off as a treasure hunt and evolved into multiple mining operations. And it was the East India Company that brought Britain into India--not the Royal Navy. They came later.

    The book Roadside Picnic (which was made into the movie Stalker) has modern humans fruitlessly trying to figure out these "zones" where aliens apparently left some inexplicable and very dangerous stuff. One of the characters suggests that it's just the left-over garbage after a visit, as incomprehensible to us as a discarded Coke can is to an ant. And there is the famous case of the cargo cults--New Guinea natives who were fed and given things by American soldier when they set up airbases during World War II. After the Americans left, the tribesmen kept trying to get them to come back by building imitation airbases. Anyway, Forming reminds me of all of this stuff.

  8. Fascinating post and comments. One thought: Kirby was the bridge between Hal Foster/Alex Raymond type illustration and Gary Panter type abstraction. There's a constant tug-and-pull in the comics world over this bridge, with some artists trying to pull Kirby back to Foster (i.e. Buscema, John Byrne, Adams) and some -- like the ones you discuss -- pulling the Kirby legacy towards Panterism.

  9. Great discussion and OP folks. Thanks for it! I just finished By This Shall You Know Him, and have been a fan of FORMING for about a year now, and this is a conversation that needs to be had by folks like you before it gets done by lesser lights.