Kirby, Lucas, and Campbell

Thanks to Angelo for his comments on Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish book.

I read this book recently. A fantastic read that’s quite eye opening and shocking at times. I especially enjoyed the part where Jack Kirby and George Lucas have dinner and Jack tells George about a new story he’s working on, the New Gods. He tells George about Mark Moonrider, the “religious presence” known as The Source, his Dark Father, children separated from fathers at birth and the clash between good and evil etc….the book provides many many more details on this. This lunch took place in 1971/1972…..5-6 years before Star Wars was released. I’m not trying to suggest Lucas ripped off Kirby’s idea but there is no doubt Kirby influenced his epic story heavily.

I don’t have the Ronin Ro book at the moment, I loaned it to another Kirby fan, so I asked Angelo for a little more info on the Kirby/Lucas meeting.

I located my book, the dinner included Roy Thomas, Ed Summer (owner of Supersnipe Comic Emporium in Manhattan) and George Lucas. At this dinner George Lucas was relaying his story for Star Wars in which Roy Thomas noticed it sounded a lot like Jack Kirby’s New Gods. In the book, it starts on the first paragraph (middle of the page) on page 199 and continues to page 200. What I took away from this part of the book was that (in my opinion) George Lucas is hugely indebted to Jack Kirby for Star Wars. To me, there are simply too many parallels at the core of the Star Wars story.

Thanks to Angelo for the comment. Believe it or not among some hardcore Kirby fans the Kirby/Lucas debate is pretty contentious. I’m only going to say a few things because we may never really know for sure what exactly took place. And to everyone reading this, please understand I’m just giving my opinion, so don’t take my comments personally. I’ve encountered some people over the years who get very upset when I talk about this topic, especially Kirby fans who despise George Lucas because he’s rich and famous,  but I enjoy talking about this subject, so here goes… Like most debates, there seems to be two camps on this topic, the conservative point of view and the liberal point of view. I hate labels because they’re always imperfect, but I’ll call it the Kirby critics versus the Kirby purists.

I find that even Kirby’s harshest critics tend to agree Jack Kirby was one of George Lucas’ influences. Lucas admits that he read comic books, and I recall a  quote where Lucas says he was familiar with Jack Kirby’s comics. Even people who hate Jack Kirby with a passion are still willing to admit surely Kirby must have been one of the influences on Star Wars — but the Kirby critics main contention is that Jack Kirby is not the pivotal, foundational influence for the Star Wars series, but simply one in a thousand. Seems reasonable, right?

On the other hand you have a very small group of what I call Kirby purists — they suggest that Jack Kirby’s fourth world series was the single most important influence on the first Star Wars movie. George Lucas was so embarrassed by this fact afterwards, he invented a false backstory: after the Star Wars movie was released, George Lucas pretended that he read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces in order to hide his true influence (Kirby and comics). This theory is based on a Salon article called “Galactic Gasbag” (2002).

Here’s my take on this: although I usually disagree with them on many topics, I have to side with the Kirby critics on this one. Attacking George Lucas and accusing him of lying about reading Joseph Campbell’s book seems rather extreme to me — and quite frankly silly unless there’s some evidence. Surely it’s possible George Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces when he was in film school? Maybe someone remembers George Lucas reading the book and that would put the Joseph Campbell conspiracy theory to rest?

I’m not an expert on the subject by any stretch of the imagination (I enjoyed the first Star Wars film, but I found the other five sort of disappointing, and I haven’t really read any of the Star Wars comic books or novels), but quickly: here’s what I think about the Jack Kirby/George Lucas connection based on some reading on the subject, discussing this with some of the experts, and several off the record conversations on the topic.

I think George Lucas read Hero With a Thousand Faces before he made the Star Wars movie. I just don’t see any reason not to believe Lucas on this.

The Hero’s journey, a simple movie template.

There are hundreds of articles online if you want to read about George Lucas and Joseph Campbell. Here is an excerpt from one called Star Wars: Origins, by Kristen Brennan, followed by some screen caps of her chart.

Kristen Brennan: Lucas had already written two drafts of Star Wars when he rediscovered Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1975 (having read it years before in college). This blueprint for “The Hero’s Journey” gave Lucas the focus he needed to draw his sprawling imaginary universe into a single story. Note that the Wachowski Brothers’ wonderful film The Matrix is carefully built on the same blueprint.”

I also think George Lucas saw hundreds of television shows, hundreds of motion pictures, hundreds of movie serials; he probably read hundreds of comic books, hundreds of comic strips, and he combined all of these elements into his first script for The Star WarsThe Fighting Devil Dogs films are one possible influence.

Joseph Campbell’s work gave George Lucas a  template where he could apply the hero’s journey to his film script. For example, the concept of a son at war with his father is a very common mythological motif. Jack Kirby certainly didn’t create that. I think it’s much more likely that George Lucas and Jack Kirby were both mining the same mythological goldmine.

Here are a few more influences on Star Wars posted by Miss Cellania on neatorama.

Here’s an excerpt from the article “Move over, Odysseus, here comes Luke Skywalker” by Steve Persall:

Steve Persall: Campbell defined the Hero Cycle, a course of events that occurs as a rite of initiation in every myth, pinpointing the need for mentors, villains, elixirs and jesters along the way. Each step can be traced in the adventures of Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker. Before Campbell died in 1987, the scholar and Lucas became friends. A storyteller needs a mentor as much as a hero does. “Yes, I consider him a mentor,” Lucas said at a recent New York press conference. “He was an amazing scholar and an amazing person. When I started doing Star Wars, I re-read Hero with a Thousand Faces. After Return of the Jedi, somebody gave me a tape of one of his lectures. I was just blown away by that. He was much more powerful as a speaker than he was as a writer.”

A short time later, Lucas loaned his studios to PBS to produce the Campbell series. Letters and gifts exchanged by the two visionaries are on display in the Joseph Campbell Archives in Santa Barbara, Calif. The founding curator of that museum, Dr. Jonathan Young, said Campbell compared Lucas to the masters. “Campbell was very grateful that Lucas presented the elements of Luke’s initiation so clearly,” Young said. “The idea of a calling, of being drawn away into a place of wisdom, finding allies and mentors, accomplishing the ordeals, and then returning.” In Campbell’s teachings, myths inspire both awe and recognition. They communicate a sense of universal order and show how people should live.

Joseph Campbell