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Lee, Kirby and the Cosmic Imagination

Between the end of the 1950s and 1970, a creative explosion took place in comics. As has been previously discussed, Stan Lee, becoming frustrated in his career as a comic book editor, decided to write stories the way he had always wanted to write them. At around the same time, legendary artist Jack Kirby arrived back at Marvel Comics. Kirby was known for being prolific, partly because of the poor pay rates for artists at that time: he would often spend 12 to 14 hours a day at his drawing table at home, producing eight to twelve pages of artwork, drawing all genres, from romance to war to Western to crime and especially in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, appearing in titles like Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense. This was in addition to large amounts of freelance work for others.

But it was at Marvel that the creative forces met with huge success. Collaborating with writer and editor-in-chief Lee, Kirby produced The Fantastic Four #1, released in November 1961, a series which revolutionised the entire industry with Lee’s relatively life-like characters and banter coupled with Kirby’s cosmic imagination, which captured the youth culture of the 1960s.

Artist Gil Kane, speaking at a forum on July 6, 1985 recalled:

Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel's fortunes from the time he rejoined the company ... It wasn't merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but ... Jack's point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field… Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation.

Hugely successful Lee/Kirby collaborations and character creations included the Hulk, Iron Man, the original X-Men, Doctor Doom, Uatu the Watcher, Magneto, the Inhumans and the Black Panther, comics' first known black superhero, and many others - but perhaps the height of a particular kind of imagination was reached with Thor, especially between issues 158 and 162. Lee and Kirby had introduced the cosmic being Galactus to the world through issues 48 to 51 of The Fantastic Four, and comics historian Les Daniels noted in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics that ‘[t]he mystical and metaphysical elements that took over the saga were perfectly suited to the tastes of young readers in the 1960s’. Perhaps when Lee discovered that the story was a favourite on college campuses, he was inspired to re-introduce the planet-consuming threat in Thor.

But the experiment that was Marvel Comics during this time was to inspire Lee and Kirby to try new techniques and include concepts that stretched the comics medium itself.

In Issue 159, Thor is contemplating his own identity. Until that point, the Thunder God superhero had been built on a fairly standard foundation for the medium, beginning as frail Dr. Don Blake who had discovered an apparently innocuous wooden stick while fleeing from invaders into a cave. On striking the stick, Blake had been transformed into a powerful, costumed hero, a personification, he quickly realises, of the Norse god of thunder.

With his red cape, superhuman strength and other larger-than-life powers, Thor was at first Marvel's answer to Superman. His lightning-like transformation from crippled mortal to god also had echoes of the at-that-time defunct Captain Marvel. For his first adventures, Blake/Thor had fairly conventional superhero encounters on Earth, but as the series got into its stride, Lee began to push the boundaries of dialogue, sounding more and more Shakespearian, while Kirby was remoulding what we could expect to see in a conflict between super-beings.

Then, in Issue 159, Lee decided to tackle the paradigm of ‘superhero-ness’ and ‘secret identities’ head on: he had Donald Blake, having reviewed his classic origin story in the previous issue, question his own identity. The ‘omnipotent Odin’ (himself a very close parallel to the Christian God) intervenes to reveal that ‘Donald Blake’ was an illusion all along, an earthly persona created to introduce humility into his son Thor’s personality. Instead of the conventional ‘human weakling is actually disguised super-being’ template, Lee and Kirby had created a whole new world of hero-centric fiction, in which mortal identities were not so important.

It was a risk. Cutting free of any need to ‘identify’ with a youthful readership through any kind of resemblance to ordinary human life, Lee was abandoning a successful model which had stood him in good stead since the creation of his phenomenally successful protagonists such as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, whose chief asset was their ‘ordinariness’. The main mechanism through which the superhero genre worked to hook in its readers - i.e. the connection with daily life, seen in characters like Superman, Batman, the Hulk and so on, who had all had ‘secret identities’ which both helped them to blend into the tableau of the reader’s existence and which had been particularly exploited by Lee with more human-friendly and humorous central characters - was in this issue of Thor dismantled. We were left with a god, pure and simple. He came from Asgard, was surrounded by god-like friends, and was the direct son of a figure very closely resembling God Himself.

It should be no surprise, then, to discover what happened immediately after this perilous step: the character of Thor was summoned into space and undertook an adventure on a cosmic scale, far from the concerns of the earthbound public. Called upon by Tana Nile, a Colonizer from the planet Rigel, Thor journeys into interstellar space to encounter the planet-destroying Galactus. As if in order to compensate for the lack of a ‘human interest’ angle, he is accompanied by the android Recorder, a machine intelligence who questions his own humanity along the way.

While Lee was pushing the boundaries of the story, Kirby was experimenting with the art. Kirby not only invented and composed new elements to convey vast scope, creating a vision of the home of the gods, Asgard (which was not surpassed even in the recent Thor movies) but he also evolved his own ideas of how to depict energy by extending and exaggerating what became known as the ‘Kirby Krackle’, patterns of swirling and electrified dots which communicated the concept of raw energy, like this image from another Thor story:

Then Kirby did something completely unique: in Issue 160, he placed comic book art over a photo panel showing abstract black and white shapes and a human face, representing Ego, the Living Planet. Nothing like this had been seen before.

He followed this up in Issue 161 with a double page spread as Thor and his companion the Recorder, float into space.

Super-villains like Galactus weren't two-dimensional -they had motives. And their actions had consequences: Galactus didn't simply destroy worlds, he created displaced populations, like the richly-imagined Wanderers:

The photo imagery and these ideas were breathtakingly original and are still uncannily impressive today. The suggestion was that we were entering a whole new era of comics. Though the photo-motifs didn’t continue, their spirit did. Not willing to settle for all this cosmic grandeur, the story also tackled philosophical questions such as the humanity of an android (ending with the Recorder being acknowledged as having life) and love matters between the gods, with Balder the Brave dreaming of Karnilla, Queen of the Norns, and Thor rushing off to rescue Sif.

It was as if Lee and Kirby were drunk on their own creative fertility - the pace of the stories quickened, plots were interwined, characters sprang from the page with humour and depth. It seemed as though the simple, rectangular panels were not enough to contain the flow-lines and action:

Thor would have to return to our world eventually, and in a wide arc of stories the series slowly came down to Earth literally as even the Lee/Kirby duo’s apparently inexhaustible ‘power cosmic’ ran down. But for that brief window of time, a generation’s eyes had been opened as to what was possible within what had been, and still was by many, regarded as a shallow, two-dimensional medium.

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