This year, Jack Kirby, one of the most distinct voices in American comics, would have been 100-years-old. It’s appropriate then that Kirby’s influence seems more prevalent than ever before. His characters have been appearing in Marvel movies for decades, but this year characters like Ego the Living Planet, Steppenwolf and the Parademons, and Hela have gained cinematic life. In particular, the colorful, operatic vibrancy of Kirby’s work seems to be on full display in the upcoming THOR: RAGNAROK.

Kirby’s artistic style is often the first thing that comes to mind when considering the King of comics. What people often overlook is Kirby’s power as a satirical storyteller. Kirby comics were more than passive, super-powered slug fests. They were sci-fi parables. It was through these stories that Kirby’s bravery and convictions shined. His comics contained timeless messages that still inspire and instill hope decades after their original publishing.

The Star-Spangled Avenger

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

By now we all know the cover of CAPTAIN AMERICA #1. The image features Captain America, smashing through a glass window, delivering a haymaker to the jaw of Adolf Hitler. It’s one of those iconic covers that has been endlessly parodied, but at the time of its publication, it was a way for Jack Kirby and co-creator Joe Simon to make a political statement.

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First, the publication date of CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 was March 19, 1941, nine months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At this point, America had a pretty egregious isolationist stance. Despite the growing evil of the Axis powers, America chose a path of inaction. Kirby and Simon, two Jewish-Americans, couldn’t stand by while Hitler’s genocidal tyranny ran rampant.

America’s isolationism fanned the flames of pro-Nazi sentiments on America’s shores. The German-American Bund was an organization dedicated to spreading Nazi ideology among American citizens. The group’s apex came on February 20th, 1939, when the Bund held a rally in Madison Square Garden. Nazis were in America.

Captain America Today

It’s easy to look back at the first Captain America comic and see it as another piece of World War 2 propaganda. Make no mistake, CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 was a political statement. Kirby and Simon’s cover made their beliefs clear: America has a duty to fight against tyranny. American Nazis disagreed. According to Jack Kirby’s biographer Mark Evanier in his book Kirby: King of Comics:

“…Jack took a call. A voice on the other end said, ‘There are three of us down here in the lobby. We want to see the guy who does this disgusting comic book and show him what real Nazis would do to his Captain America’. To the horror of others in the office, Kirby rolled up his sleeves and headed downstairs. The callers, however, were gone by the time he arrived.”

It’s probably better for those Nazis that Kirby didn’t end up fighting them; that scrappy kid from the Lower East Side would have taken them apart.

There’s been a great deal of ethical debate in 2017 surrounding whether America’s freedom of speech should protect the rights of Neo-Nazis. Kirby and Simon’s creation embodies that America is a place where everyone is free to express themselves, but forces that demand the extermination of the innocent undermine the freedom of America. Captain America’s punch to the face of Nazism is a visual representation of philosopher Karl R. Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Simply put, a tolerant society cannot accept intolerance.

The New Gods and the Human Spirit

At the heart of the epic space opera of the New Gods is the pact made between the planets New Genesis and Apokolips. Highfather, the leader of New Genesis, and Darkseid, the leader of Apokolips, agreed to raise the other’s son in order to keep the peace between their two worlds. To put it in more conventional religious terms, imagine God raising the son of the Devil, and the Devil raising the son of God.

The most important idea in the New Gods saga is the basic goodness of all people. Highfather’s son would be christened Scott Free. He would be tortured by Granny Goodness in the X-Pit of Apokolips, but his indomitable spirit would never be broken. Eventually, the boy would take the name Mister Miracle. Mister Miracle isn’t a fighter in a traditional sense. Instead, his expertise lies in finding a way out of any situation. The idea of a “super escape artist” is certainly a great comic book gimmick, but the character is also an avatar for Kirby’s sense of unshakable optimism. For Mister Miracle, every problem has a solution, every trap has an exit, and every obstacle can be overcome.

CLICK: How does the new MISTER MIRACLE series stack up to the classic comics? Click here for our review!

Darkseid’s son, Orion, on the other hand, is a warrior through and through. A quiet rage is the foundation for much of Orion’s character. Orion’s lineage quietly haunts him and makes him fear his own actions. He’s often angry, but he’s just as often fighting on the side of justice. In Orion, we see Kirby express his belief in redemption. Jack Kirby believed that people are a product of their environment. In turn, anyone can be turned to act in selfish, evil ways, but those same people can be brought back to the side of righteousness.

When Highfather and the young Orion meet for the first time in NEW GODS #7, young Orion lashes out in a violent rage. His years as Darkseid’s progeny have only taught him to express himself through hate. As Orion charges toward Highfather with a knife, Highfather responds with an open hand.

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

It’s Highfather’s compassion in the face of violence that begins Orion’s turn from the shadow of his father. Jack Kirby’s New Gods tales are biblical in scope, but they contain a fundamental core of humanity. That core is a belief that love and compassion can change people, and even the most wayward of us can be saved.

Jack Kirby vs. Fascism

Kirby certainly had faith in humanity, but he had a realistic view of the world too. He had seen first-hand the horrors human beings were capable of in Hitler’s Germany. When he returned from the war, he returned to comics, but his desire to express his anger towards war and fascism continued to fuel his creative output. Before his work at Marvel, he and Joe Simon created a war comic called THE GUYS IN THE FOXHOLE. According to the Kirby Museum contributor Harry Mendryk: “The premise behind Foxhole was that the stories were told by men who had actually served during a war. This does not mean that the stories were realistic, this was the ’50s after all. What you do get are features that are not your typical war stories.”

Looking at the FOXHOLE #1 cover, it’s pretty clear what Mendryk means.

Jack Kirby
Image courtesy of The Kirby Museum.

The brutal reality of war is on full display, mixed with a bit of ironic juxtaposition. Kirby’s work here seems like it’d be more in line with the EC Comics oeuvre of war comics rather than the type of books Kirby and many of his wartime contemporaries were working on. In future series, Jack Kirby would become more allegorical in his discussions about the war, but he would still be just as hard hitting about how zealotry and politics can be destructive.

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In Darkseid, Jack Kirby created the ultimate symbol of fascism. The villain is so much more than a mustache-twirling nuisance for the good guys to punch. He’s an avatar for the dark ideas that lead down the road to tyranny. His goal is not to simply conquer the world, but to control the hearts and minds of people with the Anti-Life Equation. The Anti-Life Equation isn’t a simple MacGuffin doomsday device. Rather, it is a way to remove free-will and put entire populations in service to Darkseid. As Kirby showed through Mister Miracle, life and freedom are inseparable, so Anti-Life is based around the idea of control and slavery.

With these specific desires, Darkseid surrounds himself with torturers and schemers like Desaad and Granny Goodness. Yet, the henchman that has the most continued relevance is Glorious Gilbert Godfrey.

Glorious Godfrey and the Propaganda Machine

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Godfrey first appeared in FOREVER PEOPLE #3 as Darkseid’s propaganda machine. He preaches the “good word” of Anti-Life and against a force of anonymous “others” to a crowd. The crowd eats up the speech proclaiming: “this is our world! Our world! They have no right to meddle in with it!” Looming above the page is a quote from Adolf Hitler:

“That is the great thing about our movement–that these members are uniform not only in ideas, but even the facial expression is almost the same!”

Just as Anti-Life breeds control, it also breeds homogeneity and conformity. Who are these “others” that Godfrey preaches about? They never say. Through the fact that Jack Kirby draws the crowd as entirely white, it’s easy to see this as Kirby’s critique of post-World War II race relations in America. Godfrey is stirring up fear of some minority boogeyman among the crowd. He hands out weapons to the crowd literally called “Justifiers” to help them fight in the name of Darkseid. Godfrey justifies their hatred by making them believe they’re crusaders in the name of Darkseid’s cause.

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Since his first appearance, Godfrey has often been reinvented as media personalities. In the LEGENDS mini-series he was an anti-superhero crusader and, more recently, he appeared in the JUSTICE LEAGUE cartoon series as a Bill O’Reilly-esque television host who slut-shames Wonder Woman. Each time Godfrey appears he’s a media hack, stoking the flames of hatred, often to drive the public towards loyalty to Darkseid.

Yet, Godfrey’s original appearance in FOREVER PEOPLE #3 took on newfound relevance recently. The Daily Beast’s Elana Levin brilliantly connected the similarities between Godfrey’s hollow words and Donald Trump’s encouraging of violence at his political rallies. Levin’s article was written in December of 2016 but, much like Kirby’s comics, it has new relevance now. Recently, the events of Charlottesville have shown us the result of Trump’s rhetoric throughout his 2016 campaign: swarms of neo-Nazis, feeling justified in their hate, rallying around the idea of an “other” in America.

Kirby’s New Gods epic was never a story about gods in space; rather, they were stories to warn us of how our own hatred and bigotry could soil the promise of America. Darkseid is called that because he isn’t truly a physical being, but rather the monster that lives inside every one of us just waiting for a Glorious Godfrey to justify our hate.

What We Should Learn

As we celebrate Jack Kirby’s birthday, we shouldn’t only remember the artist but also the convictions he stood for. He believed in a world free of bigotry and hatred. He envisioned a comic book community where characters of all races and genders were represented and given proper respect. Most of all, he believed that love was more powerful than hate, but standing up to bullies was necessary to bring about peace.

Jack Kirby’s ideas and art will still be around 100 years from now. Let’s all try to make the world a little more like how Jack Kirby envisioned before then.

“There are people that I didn’t like, but I saw them suffer and it changed me. I promised myself that I would never tell a lie, never hurt another human being, and I would try to make the world as positive as I could.” — Jack Kirby

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