To understand the reverence in which Jack Kirby is held by (much of) the comics culture, one need only look to the title of Mark Evanier’s biography of the artist, Kirby: King of Comics. Or consider the epithets attributed to the post-mortem version of Kirby in Alan Moore and Rick Veitch’s love letter to the man in Supreme: The Return #6: “Regent,” “Monarch,” “Creator,” (ensconced, in fact, at “the central aleph-point of all existence!”), “Ruler,” and, inevitably, “King.” His treatment in the industry verges, some might say spills over freely, into the reverent, transferring the man himself into a mythic force of creation. This is no doubt spurred, in part, by the treatment of myth that characterizes much of his work.
The focus of this piece is one of Kirby’s later engagements with myth, one that shows up in one of his least popular titles, the Marvel-published Devil Dinosaur. Issues 6 and 7 contain stories titled “Eev!” and “Demon-Tree!” (You can see where this is headed, right?). In order, however, to appreciate the light in which these mythic Kirby stories are cast, it’s important that we look back to some of his more famous uses of the structures of myth. Canadian literary theorist Northrup Frye tells us that fiction can be classified by “the hero’s power of action,” and if a hero is “superior in kind to other men and to the environment of other men…the story about him will be a myth.” We can certainly apply this definition to such heroes as Thor, one of Kirby’s earliest, and most successful, uses of myth in comics. The 1962 debut of the character, according to Ronin Ro, depicted “a futuristic costume whose red cape, yellow belt, and ability to fly evoked Superman,” himself the most significant mythic creation that has emerged from the young genre of the superhero. In Thor, as in his red-caped predecessor, we see an unbridled optimism for the power these mythic heroes can inspire. Thor is a hero, he joins the Avengers, and, even to the present day, evokes the noble qualities endemic in a character “superior in kind” to his or her fellows.
Part of the myth of Kirby, a part almost as important as his artistic ability, is his lifelong battle against the corporate forces of the comics industry. We might actually be able to argue that this is the more important part of his myth, the lesson we can derive from the myth, as opposed to his stories and art, which can entertain and inspire, but perhaps not teach quite as much. Upon leaving Marvel in the early 70s, Kirby created the deeply-revered Fourth World saga at DC. Once again this (mostly) original mythology was full of the optimism that fueled Thor. The foci of the stories were the altruistic residents of New Genesis and their villains, the utterly evil and despicable residents of Apokalips. There were no shades of grey here, no questions of who was hero and who was villain. What we rarely see in Kirby myth (though, I will admit here to not having read his entire output) is the anti-hero. Heroes are good and noble, and fight for what is right.
As a side-note, and to allay any virulent arguments to my above statement, Kirby’s The Demon, which engages with Arthurian myth, certainly can be classed as a kind of anti-hero. The reason for its exclusion from this discussion is that the Arthurian myths, enduring and influential as they are, do not have roots in divinity, which is one of the touchstones of the mythic appropriations currently under discussion.
The late 70s, after the collapse of the Fourth World imprint, saw Kirby return to Marvel. It is here that some of his most interesting mythic experiments occur. Though 1976’s The Eternals were a little more morally murky than the black and white ethics of Thor or the New Gods, and though they were ostensibly the race that inspired the Greek legends (with names like Ikaris and Makkari), this mythic interrogation was still, at its heart, a superhero story, one that began questioning the historical depth to which the archetype of the superhero extends. The series also plays with notions of mystic spirituality, or exemplifies Kirby’s thoughts on such matters, as he notes in his introductory note to the series that “[w]e can’t leave it all to the professors, pundits, and paperback prophets. The puzzle [of our origins and beliefs] belongs to you and me as well.”
What, then, do we do with 1978’s two-part Devil Dinosaur tale, one that skewers one of the fundamental myths of Western civilization quite brutally?
On the surface this story is simply a science fiction re-telling of Adam and Eve’s (or Eev’s) time in and expulsion from the Garden of Eden in Genesis. The story begins with an alien invasion, one that leaves behind a computer that resembles, to the primitive dawn of time mind, a tree. However, even before the creation by this computer of an Edenic prison, our Adam stand-in notes of Eev that she “must have taken counsel of evil spirits” already. The story thus heaps upon Eev a patriarchal denigration, even before the ostensible temptation in the Garden that has fuelled much misogyny throughout the ages. Indeed, after finishing their battle with giant ants, Eev provides Stone-Hand (perhaps a play on Adam’s formation from the earth, adamah in Hebrew) with sustenance that, far from cursing him to wander the Earth, actually sustains him and demonstrates her efficiency and ability in their brutal environment. Before the elements of the Genesis story come to the fore, then, the difference between this mythic appropriation and Kirby’s previous experiments is clear: there are no superheroes here, no clear-cut lines of good and evil. In fact, as the tale unfolds, more and more we see that this retelling is laden with a deep pessimism.
One of the most disturbing moments in this tale occurs as the trio (Stone-Hand and Eev are accompanied by “White-Hair,” an elder of Stone-Hand’s tribe) make their way across a wasteland, and Eev decides to return to her own tribe. Stone-Hand wrestles her to the ground, crying “Don’t you understand!? I like you! I want you! The spirits have brought us together! Would you defy them?” White-Hair objects to this treatment, which earns him a blow from Stone-Hand, and the episode concludes with a panel of Stone-Hand, his face a picture of rage, claiming “I am your leader now! Disobey me and learn the meaning of Stone-Hand!” Before him he clutches Eev’s arms by the wrists, all we can see of the subdued female.
Throughout the rest of the story, in this and the subsequent issue, Eev is subservient to Stone-Hand in all things, acquiescent and gentle. If we read between the lines and acknowledge the implication of the rape that has occurred in this part of the story, her behaviour is that of a victim who has no wish to provoke the violence of the person with whom she appears to be stuck.
All of this occurs in the tale even before the trio enters the “Garden of Eden.” It is only at the close of this issue that the tree/computer is revealed, and it tempts all three into its welcoming clutches. In his book on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Ronin Ro ascribes to Kirby the words “‘I love God, and I believe in God…even though I don’t go into the temple’,” uttered around the same time that the Fourth World books were at their apex. The proof of his mystical engagement with the origins of humanity, and his brutal retelling of the Eden myth less than a decade later, point to the idea that such a love can indeed include, and should include, a constant questioning of the status quo. The second part of the story shores up this questioning. Devil Dinosaur, who to this point in the tale has played an ancillary role, recognizes (as super-intelligent, giant red Tyrannosaurs are wont to do) the evil of the computer tree, and tries to save Stone-Hand, White-Hair, and Eev from its influence. After Devil is violently rebuffed, i.e., shot by a laser, it is Stone-Hand who cleaves to the tree, albeit briefly. He sees in Devil Dinosaur a weakness in contrast to the Demon Tree, and thus attaches himself to its superior power. It is only when the “tree” tells him that he may not leave, and that it will provide for them, only when his own power is threatened, that Stone-Hand breaks with the tree and tries to leave. Unfortunately for all three, the tree has set up a force-field and has trapped them. It tells them to “Stay calm…we shall function together for all time!” After an interlude in which Moon-Boy and Devil Dinosaur are reunited, we return to the trio, now enclosed in a paradisiacal dome, full of lush plant life and flowing streams.
While White-Hair and Eev seem content to accept the gifts of the machine, Stone-Hand still wishes to escape. Eev, offering him some suspiciously apple-like fruits, says “Here…take this fruit…It will help to keep you content…” Her pauses here, her desire to keep him content, all speak to the portrayal of her as victim and survivor. White-Hair too attempts to keep Stone-Hand complacent, but eventually succumbs to his old age and dies. Only after this event, after the wisdom of age is lost, does Stone-Hand manage to damage the tree, which inevitably allows Devil Dinosaur to burst through the force field and destroy the computer. The ensuing explosion levels the garden, reducing it once more to the wasteland that the characters have been trudging through. In the end, Stone-Hand acknowledges Devil’s power, and he an Eev take their leave to, as she puts it “seek the trees that grow, but never speak.” The story ends with this epitaph: “The tale of the Demon Tree will be told, of course – many times, in many ages – and each time it is told, there will be slight differences and changes, so that the original version will be lost – and remain true – only to those who took part in it…”
I reiterate the question, then: what do we do, in light of Kirby’s other engagements with myth, with this story? What do we make of the shifts in the characterizations of Stone-Hand and Eev? What of the blatant condemnation of patriarchal authority, and the reversal of blame, so to speak, with “Adam” being responsible for the expulsion from the Garden?
We can read the story in the context of Kirby’s growing disillusionment with the industry for which he had laboured so long. If the early mythic tales are infused by clarity and optimism, this tale, and Eternals before it, shows a pessimism toward the superhero and its mythic roots that is clearly reflecting Kirby’s thoughts on the industry. With Thor, Mister Miracle, and even Jimmy Olsen, the male leads of the early mythic Kirby are altruistic, talented and gifted with a notion of right and wrong, characters who are, returning to Frye’s conception, “superior in kind to other men and to the environment of other men.” Stone-Hand, at the other end of the spectrum, is violent, power-hungry, and changeable. He brutally attacks both his elder and his companion, devaluing both their physical and intellectual presences, but in the face of power greater than his own is small and acquiescent. Stone-Hand, in fact, cannot be considered a hero, and instead he partakes in Frye’s farthest conception of character from the mythic, that of the ironic, a character that we “have the sense of looking down” upon. If these characters can be considered reflections of their creator’s sense of the industry in which he worked, it is no surprise that Kirby left comics shortly thereafter for the greener fields of the animation industry.
And then there is the issue of Eev to be dealt with. Re-reading this story in preparation for writing this piece, I was profoundly disturbed by the treatment of this character at the hands of her male cohort, and struck by what I perceive as Kirby’s nuanced approach to both the mythic character of Eve and the all-too-real victim of sexual violence. Eev’s story does not have a happy ending, regardless of the smile she leaves us with at the tale’s conclusion. Early in the story, while Eev and White-Hair are revelling in the garden’s plenty, Stone-Hand says he will be “content when these strange walls are gone – and I am free to go–!” On the final page of the story, Eev reiterates this notion of freedom, saying of Devil Dinosaur, “He has freed us to live the way we were meant to live! – by our own wills – and ways!” In trying to content Stone-Hand, Eev performs a 180 degree shift in her perceptions and personality, and has taken on his ideas and conceptions on how to “properly” live. From fiercely independent to cowed and acquiescent, we see here the subjugation of a woman through both the violence of fists and of text. Though we cannot ascribe intent to Kirby, the blatancy of the Biblical appropriation and the violence done to the female lead are inextricably linked; a link that forces us to consider the violence done to Eve in the ostensibly original story.
Devil Dinosaur lasted only 9 issues, and though it did not mark Kirby’s complete withdrawal from the comics industry, it does mark one of his last attempts at truly mythic storytelling. Later works such as Captain Victory and The Silver Star lean more toward superheroic and science fiction tropes. There are traces of myth, but never so plainly as the work he did at DC and Marvel in the 60s and 70s. The fact that this work was published when it was is a tribute to both the creator behind it, and perhaps to the open-mindedness of the time that we, in the contemporary moment, occasionally forget. Simply think of Rick Veitch’s trials with DC over his Swamp Thing story that would have featured the crucifixion of Christ, the refusal of late 80s proto-Vertigo to allow Christian myth to be featured in a “mature readers” comic. Kirby’s brutal and pessimistic retelling of the Biblical origin of humankind would fit well in an early Vertigo comic… proof, perhaps, that, love him or hate him, Kirby really was well ahead of the curve as a creator of comics.