Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Mercury in the 20th Century

I've just finished reading Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby. This is a collection of the best work done for Marvel Comics for Kirby, one of the greatest artists of superhero comics from the last century, and the man at least 50% responsible for the Marvel style that proved so successful in the 1960s and 1970s, and which still makes a great deal of money today, mainly through movie spin-offs like X-Men and Spider-Man.

The story that I'm interested in for the purposes of this blog is Mercury in the 20th Century, Kirby's first work for Timely, the company that would later become Marvel, from 1940. In this, Jupiter sends Mercury to Earth to stop the wars that are taking over the world, wars prompted by the machinations of the evil Pluto, god of the dead (who is depicted in satanic guise). This was a single eight-page strip that was never picked up again. But it shows Kirby working with the anti-Nazism that would fuel the more famous Captain America, created with his partner Joe Simon the year after. It is, however, notable that, like Charlie Chaplin in the same year's The Great Dictator, he gives Hitler a pseudonym (though unlike Chaplin, not a funny one). It quite obviously is Hitler, but perhaps it was felt in 1940 too risky to directly suggest that the Fuhrer was actually Pluto in disguise. By the time of Captain America No. 1 seven months later, Simon, Kirby and their publishers had no such qualms about attacking Hitler by name - but by then it was obvious that Hitler was not going to win the European war in the immediate future, and increasingly obvious to many that America would soon have to join in against Germany.

What is more interesting is that the Mercury strip also has themes that would recur over twenty years later in The Mighty Thor, a strip in which the Norse God of Thunder becomes a superhero, themes that include the father-son relationship between the divine hero and the chief deity, and the chief villain being another god (in Mercury, Pluto, in Thor, Loki). In Origins of Marvel Comics, Kirby's collaborator in the 1960s, Stan Lee, gives an account of Thor's origins that makes it all his idea, and implies that this was the first time a mythological deity had become a superhero. This is disingenuous on a couple of counts. Firstly, Lee himself had been involved in writing a superheroic version of the goddess Venus in the late 1940s, and had written a story where she confronted the Norse god Loki.

Secondly, though Lee has always presented the classic Marvel characters such as the Fantastic Four and the Hulk as emerging straight from his own head, and then farmed out to appropriate artists, it is now generally accepted by most critics that on those titles created by Lee and Kirby, the ideas were at least 50% Kirby - The Fantastic Four, for instance, derives many ideas from a strip Kirby wrote and drew for rival publisher DC, The Challengers of the Unknown. (Kirby himself claimed that Lee was merely an administrator and had no creative input to the stories, a claim I feel goes too far and denies Lee credit he deserves.) I have always suspected that of all the Lee/Kirby creations from the sixties, Thor, even more than the FF, is the one that is most Kirby and least Lee. This is because the mythological themes recur constantly in Kirby's work after his partnership with Lee ended. Most obviously this can be seen in the Fourth World saga (Mister Miracle, Forever People and New Gods) he created for DC in the early 1970s. But the themes are also in The Eternals, a series he created for Marvel in 1976, that in some ways was simply the New Gods played at a different speed, but also riffs off Greek and Meso-American mythology, work Kirby was doing at the same time in a comic based on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his sixties work in Thor and the Galactus stories from FF. It strengthens my opinion to find that Kirby was playing with mythology as early as 1940.

There are also similarities with the way the Roman gods are depicted in Wonder Woman, another strip that blended anti-Nazism with classical mythology. It would be interesting to know if William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's creator, was aware of this strip - he was certainly aware of Captain America.

Finally, I just want to share this image with you.

Jupiter is running through all the gods,wondering who he can send to oppose Pluto, rejecting them all for one reason or another. At his side is Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, wielder of the aegis, who brought the matter up in the first place - and I like to imagine she is thinking, "pick me, you silver-haired ninny!"

1 comment:

Vaughn Banks said...

I have fond memories of reading a late 1960's or early 1970's reprint of this story.