It was already happening

ragnarokSeptember is Cosmic Zap month here at Doctor Xaos Comics Madness, and today I’m talking about its remarkably early onset. It’s probably impossible to nail down a formal exact starting moment, but there’s no question that Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby boosted it into major content during the mid-60s. To repeat from the previous post, Lee & Ditko with Strange Tales 130-146 in 1965-66; Lee & Kirby with Thor: Journey into Mystery 103 – Thor 135 in 1966; and their Fantastic Four 44-60 for Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Cosmic Cube, and lots more. It kept going and exploding with the Kree and Him in 1967 FF, then in Thor with Ragnarok, continuing with more Him, and more Inhumans stuff up through 1969.

God knows how. I mean, going by first and second glance anwyay. A gruff cigar-chomping Brooklyn combat veteran and minor commercial illustrator, pushing 50, grinding out horror and romance strips for a decidedly beta-beta level magazine publisher? Or the very image of the surly self-perceived visionary, pushing 40, who, without Marvel (such as it was, see above), would probably be living like Rorschach and handing out self-illustrated Objectivist screeds on a street corner? I think it’s in his Come In Alone essays, where Warren Ellis is baffled too: how “these weird middle-aged men” could have done what they did, exploding the cheapest of throwaway entertainment into the cultural voice of its age, or what I’m on about this month, that they weren’t coasting on the psychedelic explosion but actually helping to shape it. Kirby and Ditko weren’t seeing painted vans and funky rock posters in 1966 – the people who’d soon be doing those vans and posters were reading these guys. Not even fantasy and SF had broken it open yet; the future Bodhisattvas and apocalyptic runeswords were at best contemporary and most would come later – again, by people who had nursed at the teats of the Negative Zone and dialogues with Eternity in cheap newsprint. Evidence for an amorphous zeitgeist after all? Something in the water (Ellis’ hypothesis)? Beams from alien saucers?

Stare at this (or better the run of issues which includes it)

ditko trippywhile listening to this

No history of 1960s comics is complete without a vague reference to the college scene accompanied by much wide-eyed mystification about how Ditko and Kirby “just happened” to score so heavy with the heads. That’s a well-erected wall no one’s going to scale, especially since the just-say-noers love it: “You don’t have to do drugs to be trippy!” (you’ll see similar in the sanctimonious album liner notes written in the 90s and after, according to which not a single pop musician even knew what pot and acid were at the time). Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying they did acid; I’m saying that the whole discussion of such things is borked. No one became an artist because they tripped, so arguing did-they-or-didn’t is a waste of time.

You can’t even blame the undergrounds (see The way underground). Wonder Warthog and God Nose date back to 1964, but most of that stuff, specifically the cosmic-mystic imagery, and its more general recognition and integration with other media, lay in the late 60s and especially the early 70s. Again, the influence on artists like Rich Corben probably traveled from Marvel rather than to it.

thor 1964The worst thing about discussing this is simple disinformation gumming it all up. 1964-66 wasn’t “the Sixties” yet. The confluence(s) among counterculture, post-Beatnik, Leftism, black civil rights, specific musical genres, so-called Free Love, pop art, intentional communities, Indian civil rights, anti-war, draft resistance, music festivals, pot & LSD, and a few other things had begun in spots, but had not yet become a “thing” or been named. The word “hippie” was at the moment merely an obscure derogatory term among San Francisco Beats for younger arrivals who said “cat” and “pad” but had not published any poetry, insert goatee’d snort. Seven years later, you’ll see all of that and more in Kirby’s New Gods which is hippie to its core, but go back to 1964 – what on Earth was he doing making up characters like this? What on Earth was that growing down, down, down, off the God of Thunder’s freaking head?

lennon 1964Let me explain long hair to you. In 1964, this over here on the right is what “long hair” looked like, and I do mean the longest anyone in Anglo-American culture could begin to conceive for a male human. The Beats grew beards, not head-locks; all those hairy Ginsberg pics come from the 70s. Really long hair appeared when the first round of LBJ’s draftees returned from their tour in Vietnam, having refused to cut their hair in-country as a means of defiance against the draft and the war. These guys came back to the campuses to discover SDS on the rampage – and to provide it with the first organizers for effective draft resistance. They were the first longhairs, and it took a while for everyone else to catch up, hippies included (although a certain 1900-style dandyism was known at the early Haight, it was ear-length). Rockers figured it out first and put the scissors away fast, but otherwise, look at the photos of campus and street protests of the late 60s, shoot, look at the photos of the first performance of Hair: you’re not going to see the manes like they show in the movies. Really long hair like Thor’s didn’t develop for Hair until the actors had time to grow it out, the do’s you see in Woodstock are first-growth on the early adopters, and it wasn’t casually around for men until 1971 at the earliest.

You got me on that one. I have no idea how Kirby did it. To extend back out again to the larger cultural phenomenon. I can at least imagine that he and Lee were somehow in real contact with youth culture, way too savvy to just be reading about it in Life. I dunno about Ditko.

The bridge into the wider realm of Marvel work is obviously Steranko

steranko trippyand I am beginning to think pre-Marvel Dave Cockrum and some other stuff at DC deserves some recognition in this too. From there forward, the zap lived as long as it still held the Kirby and Ditko spark. Starlin dedicated his most out-there Warlock work to them, and a whole lot of people in other art, media, cultural iconography of any kind, should do that too.

Links: Jack Kirby and Frank Zappa, a cosmic friendship

Next: A dangerous vision

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on September 6, 2015, in The 70s me, Vulgar speculation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. There isn’t quite the full-on psychedelic jumble that you see in Kirby. But some of the early Weird Tales covers have the same riot of color, juxtaposition of discordant perspectives, and suggestion of vast cosmic vistas. I can’t remember the title of the CA Smith story — “The Door to Jupiter”? — but there are ranks of multi-colored aliens staring into a hypnotic gout of flame in which they are all longing to jump. There is a popular visual culture of delirium that MIGHT have fed these guys’ minds earlier.

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    • I completely agree, and art academics are quick to point out surrealism and cosmic funkiness in medieval art – and then you hit ancient, non-European traditions and say quite rightly, “Hey, people think and draw like this all the time!” I’m not talking about inventing it outright, but how it showed up in twentieth-century art and culture in what was almost a desert thereof. Perhaps the question isn’t “what is this weirdness,” but rather, why was the prevailing culture so devoid of it until these guys unlocked it, or perhaps “restored” it?

      The thing I most emphasize about the late sixties and all-seventies cosmic zap was its integration and synergy with everything else, rather than being confined to specific genres and media.

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      • I was trying to get at the shared situation of pulp and comics illustrators: tight deadlines, poor compensation, exposure to everything from commercial illustration to avant-surreal composition. I don’t know if McCloud talks about what happens when you put human figures in a visual space with no unified perspective and a clash of vanishing points like what’s going on in your very first illustration from Dr. Strange. Strange is “there” in that weird universe, but not “there” in the sense of being a person at the edge of a cave with strange things inside it or in front of a strange backdrop. The figure/ground relationship in the illustration is utterly unlike any I would see in the real world. If a pulp writer Frank Belknap long ends up writing stories for Green Lantern, and all sorts of themes and situations make it out of the pulps and into comics and T.V. (via Rod Serling), maybe some of the visual techniques might have migrated. Just digging down to the layer of strata just below the 60’s.

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      • And on drugs and modern art. Rimbaud enjoined artists to undertake a systematic derangement of the senses. And boy did folks take him up on it. Witkiewicz used to take commissions for portraits and the patron could choose which drugs he would take while making the portrait.

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        • Very belated reply: the core text for the 60s would be Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which inspired a particular band’s name, and was also perused in detail by my age group a bit later.

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  2. The earlier issue you cite Strange Tales 130 (dated march 1965, so it was published I think in December 1964, and written and drawn months before that), and it’s a good example of the way all this arrived together: in the same issue, the Torch and the Thing did (almost) meet the Beatles, and in the same issue Dr Strange has to flee from Baron Mordo in the first instalment of the long-running epic that really did turn Dr Strange “cosmic”…

    The pulse of what was happening outside in the real world in youth culture and the cosmic, together, right from the start.

    It was definitively “something in the air” that we have forgotten. For example, about long hair, “Carson of Venus” was painted by Frank Frazetta in 1963…
    http://frankfrazetta.net/Carson_of_Venus.html
    A possible influence could be Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” (that Kirby did read, as evidenced by The Demon) that has a protagonist with long hairs. And the age of the authors could be an advantage: instead of being raised in the short-haired 50s, they had read Alex Raymond’s earlier Flash Gordon, the Weird Tales illustrations, a lot of things that were probably unknown to the young people of the 50s.

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