One often encounters the notion that an exceptional artist is touched by genius. People of a different metaphysical perspective might even suggest that such an artist is divinely inspired. Looking at the work of Jack Kirby, I am inclined to agree with both positions. Kirby’s work possesses an energy that is so prodigious that it suggests forces beyond ordinary human comprehension. Kirby seems to be directly accessing what he might refer to as “The Source.”
To describe what I’m getting at, it is helpful to speak of an outdated 19th century philosophy known as Vitalism, which in Webster’s dictionary is defined as “a doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from biochemical reactions.” The term Vitalism was introduced to me by Kirby lister, Peter Sattler, during a debate on the nature of Kirby’s great talent. 19th century chemist and philosopher, Carl Reichenbach later developed the theory of the Odic force, which could be described as a field of living electro-magnetic energy that permeates all things. Kirby, a chronicler of Thor’s Norse mythology and no stranger to all things Odic, appears to have a direct conduit to such an energy source, which is apparent in the extraordinary vitality of his artwork.
It is easy to dismiss a quaint concept such as Vitalism, particularly if one has a scientific reductionist perspective. However, Ernst Mayr, one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists stated, “It would be ahistorical to ridicule vitalists. When one reads the writings of one of the leading Vitalists like Driesch one is forced to agree with him that many of the basic problems of biology simply cannot be solved by a philosophy as that of Decartes, in which the organism is simply considered a machine.”
Vitalism, or something resembling it would continue to evolve as an idea. In the 1930’s, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich developed the idea of a universal life force that he called Orgone.
In Kirby’s magnum opus, The New Gods, the artist refers to The Source, an ineffable power that exists beyond even the comprehension of the New Genesis beings. The New Gods can harness the vital forces, but they are not the source of it. On page 20 of “the Pact” in New Gods #7, Izaya, New Genesis warrior, turns to the power of “The Source” to regenerate him in his new identity as Highfather. Kirby depicts the flaming hand writing its message on the wall, as vivid an image as the Old Testament’s Burning Bush. The hand ablaze is Kirby’s, compelled to create this modern mythology. The wall recalls the monolith from 2001, A Space Odyssey, a concept that Kirby will explore later in his career.
Kirby’s connection to The Source has consistently inspired him to display the fantastic, including the realms of higher beings as well as conceptualizing other dimensions and deeper levels of organic possibility.
One such concept was Ego, the Living Planet, introduced in 1966 in Thor #132 . Ego as a planet is a complete organism, whose natural functions make it a self-sufficient biological entity. Here is certainly something approaching vitalism. The planet pulses with life, with its seething viscera making up the terrain.
Stan Lee’s dialog underscores Kirby’s extraordinary visual conception, describing the world as a bio-verse, an idea that would be applied later to a more holistic understanding of the earth by new age philosophy.
When Thor and his companion, the recorder land on the planet, Ego initially tries to repulse them with various ploys, including an attack of antibodies. As the atmosphere around Thor crackles with some sort of bubbling ectoplasm, an explosion of spinning molecular energy coalesces into an anthropomorphic antigen attacker. The thing develops before our eyes as if it were a higher life form evolving at high speed from protoplasm. Kirby’s brilliant use of black patterning gives the alien being a horrific and virulent character perfectly suited to such a creature.
Kirby seems capable of depicting every stage of life, from its most mundane to its most otherworldly, as convincingly as if he were a witness to the strange events he records. He is plugged directly into the subconscious world of our nightmares as well as our higher dreams and aspirations. He brings vitality to whatever he draws, whether it is cloud formations, flame, lightning, explosions or indescribable cosmic forces. His brilliance finds the artistic shorthand that cuts to the essential nature of his subject matter.
In this sequence below, Kirby depicts a machine fashioned by the god-like Galactus, which is designed to extract the life essence from a planet. Kirby’s design of the machine is simple yet ingenious, a domelike structure with an attachment that fires an explosive energy bolt at earth’s surface. In the next panel, we see the land stripped of ocean, with stranded sea creatures floundering helplessly.
In the final segment, we see the earth completely stripped of life energy. It is a desiccated husk orbiting in space.
In this one sequence of six panels, Kirby shows us the full range of his extraordinary gift. The series of panels can be seen as a metaphor for the exact opposite of what Kirby did best. Rather than extracting, he was able to imbue his vision of reality with indescribable energy and vitality. His work pulses with energy, often evinced by his characteristic krackle.
Whether you call it genius, Orgone, Odic Force or Vitalism, Kirby’s hand is suffused with it. I can see no clearer evidence for humanity’s connection to the Source than the artistry of Jack Kirby.
Image 1 – Jack Kirby, New Gods #7
Image 2 – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Thor #132
Image 3 – Ibid
Image 4 – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Fantastic Four #49
Image 5 – Ibid
Image 6 – Jack Kirby, New Gods #7