One week ago, the trailer for The Eternals –the latest upcoming addition to the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) – was dropped on the Internet; followed by the expected deluge of opinions, rants, and raves, from fans all over the world who are desperate to re-experience dorky ecstasy from a screen larger than that of their home entertainment system.
While some comments on social media showed excitement for the film that will officially commence Marvel’s ‘phase four’ (the continuation of the MCU after the defeat of Thanos, the death of Tony Stark and the retirement of Steve Rogers. Umm, spoiler alert?) and many welcomed the diversified cast of characters (we Mexicans already knew Salma Hayek is a goddess) many others were less than impressed with this new attempt by the Disney Octopus to maintain their blockbuster hegemony; and there were even others who complained about how dull and muted the colors of the trailer looked –a seemingly deliberate artistic decision from the director, Chloé Zhao, who previously won the Oscar for Nomadland– which clearly runs contrary to the psychedelic intensity found in the pages of the comic books’ original creator: the legendary Jack Kirby.
But what bothered me the most, is that nowhere in all this online buzzing were there any comments with regards to the different sources of inspiration behind one of Kirby’s most personal pieces of fiction. And that is when I realized that not even the pop culture geeks are possibly aware of the intimate obsession Kirby had with topics that, even in this age of UFOs becoming more mainstream, are still considered too out there: ancient aliens; artificial interference with the evolution of mankind; psychic powers and super abilities as the result of traumatic ordeals; the boundaries between modern science and ancient magic eroding to the point of becoming indistinguishable from one another; oh, and let’s not forget demonic beings living in subterranean chambers beneath our feet, as well!
To truly comprehend pop culture in the XXIst century, one needs to take a deep dive into the murky waters of Esoterica from which this great artist drank deeply –and almost drowned in the process.
Jack Kirby (née Jacob Kuterberg, 1917-1994) was a high-school dropout who had an early start in the comic book industry, and despite co-authoring many of the characters that have earned trillions of dollars in movie franchises and diverse merchandise, always suffered financial struggles and had lots of failures during his long career.
He got drafted in 1943, but not before co-creating with Joe Simon one of the first superheroes of the so-called ‘golden age’ of comic books: Captain America. His drafting skills earned him the most dangerous missions as an advance scout sent behind enemy lines to sketch maps (talk about suffering for your art!) and it is during this time that Kirby suffered many unspeakable experiences; a trauma which author Jeffrey Kripal suggests he continuously attempted to exorcise through his exaggerated poses and tortuously contorted human figures, a sublimated reminder of the twisted bodies of his comrades that lied scattered throughout the battlefield.
We can almost see in Kirby’s WW2 ordeal a sort of shamanic initiation ritual. The cosmic egg got cracked through the trauma of war, and through it poured in cosmic visions and space gods which cast a spell on thousands of young readers who could never get enough from the Magus of Kapow!
“I don’t think it’s any accident that at this point in their history, the entire Marvel universe and the entire DC universe are now all pinned or rooted on Kirby’s concepts.”Michael Chabon
All the work Kirby did first at Marvel –Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, X-Men– and then at DC when he got tired of Stan Lee hogging the spotlight (only to return to Marvel just a couple of years later) did not happen in a vacuum: The United States was going through the tumultuous years of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and the counterculture revolution, and comic books were a fantasy reflection of the Cold War zeitgeist –Marvel’s mutants, the X-Men, were the perfect metaphor of how many segments of society have a hard time accepting those who are perceived as ‘different’.
At the same time the UFO phenomenon continued to capture the public’s imagination, making many people wonder if the flying saucers storming the skies of our cities had also done the same thing hundreds if not thousands of years ago, prompting the ancient myths about ‘the gods coming from the heavens to teach mankind’. And the fact that all of this was frowned upon by the mainstream ‘squares’ meant it was a veritable goldmine for underground publications and magazines; something pulp fiction entrepreneur Ray Palmer learned early on when he was the editor of Amazing Stories, and he serendipitously stumbled upon the seemingly deranged texts of one Richard Shaver.
If the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby partnership had an undeniable influence in the shaping of the early superhero genre –and of post-modern pop culture, as a result of the XXIst century mass market commercialization of those stories– a similar thing could be said about the Ray Palmer/Richard Shaver partnership, and the way they helped shape the early flying saucer mythology with undercurrents that still ripple throughout the UFO field to this day.
It all began in September of 1943, when Palmer’s office received a strange letter, to say the least, from Shaver in which this citizen from Barto, Pennsylvania, claimed to possess knowledge about an ancient twenty-six lettered alphabet whose roots, he claimed, came all the way back to the lost island-city of Atlantis. When an intrigued Palmer asked for more information, Shaver replied back with a ten-thousand-word, poorly typewritten essay entitled “A Warning for Future Man;” in it, Shaver delineated an entire secret history of our planet and how Earth’s early inhabitants fled the surface and proceeded to inhabit the underground, when the sun’s radiation became too extreme around twelve thousand years ago –an idea that is still championed by alternative historian and geologist Robert Schoch, one might add.
Out of this ancient catastrophe the denizens of our world divided into three groups: the immortal Titans (or Atlans) who fled the underworld civilization and ventured into the stars; the remaining population further split into two divergent races: the sinister Deros (short for ‘Detrimental Robots’) and the noble Teros (short for ‘InTEgrative Robots). While the Teros mostly keep to themselves and don’t like to interfere in the affairs of surface-dwellers (a.k.a. us) except for for the occasional encounter at the foot of Mount Shasta (an early epicenter of New Age culture) the Deros on the other hand find great delight in torturing hapless humans using the advanced technology left out by the Atlans, which they employ to send out ‘mental beams’ to confuse the minds of troubled individuals –like poor Richard Shaver himself, who claimed to hear discarnate voices and malignant whispers while working as a welder, which he attributed to the ancient machines controlled by the Deros from their subterranean abodes.
Knowing when to recognize a good yarn when he found one –even if it came from a clearly deranged individual– Ray Palmer ran with it, and after extensively rewriting Shaver’s “A Warning for Future Man” in order to make it legible, he published it under the title “I Remember Lemuria” in March of 1945 – Lemuria has long been a popular trope in Western occultism ever since the Theosophical society led by Madame Blavatsky borrowed the term from an outdated scientific treatise. Even though Amazing Stories was a magazine devoted to science fiction, Palmer ingeniously left his readers to decide whether this particular story was entirely fictitious, or merely presented in the guise of fiction.
The response was completely unexpected: Amazing Stories’ sales went through the roof, and Palmer’s office was inundated with thousands of letters from readers who claimed to corroborate Shaver’s account with their own personal experiences of the demonic Deros inside their hellish kingdom. Palmer kept churning out what eventually came to be known as the ‘Shaver Mystery’, until his employers eventually grew tired of how Palmer kept conflating the lines between facts and fantasy –especially so when the flying saucers irrupted into the American consciousness in the summer of 1947, and Palmer kept devoting more and more text space to the sightings of what surely could only be either the Deros’ airships flying out of the hollow Earth, or the Atlans returning to our world after millennia of absence.
Palmer eventually left Amazing Stories to start his own publication – Fate magazine – which fully embraced the paranormal and is still around to this day. And as we said earlier, the influence of the Shaver Mystery is still present in modern day UFOlogy – whenever you stumble upon tales of underground alien bases where horrific experiments are conducted using humans as guinea pigs, just swap ‘gray aliens’ with ‘Deros’ and you’ll instantly take a trip to the 1940s.
Which brings us back to Jack Kirby and The Eternals: While the ancient aliens theme in this comic book series (and upcoming major motion picture) is patently clear to anyone who is even mildly aware of the Giorgio Tsoukalos memes – Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods? was published in 1968, while Kirby began to draw (AND write) The Eternals in 1976 – the savvy Fortean can also perceive a patent reference to Shaver as well.
In the ‘origin story’ Kirby concocted, a race of space gods called ‘the Celestials’ came to Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago and directly tampered with early primates (2001: A Space Odyssey anyone?). From their genetic tinkering came forth two types of beings: the grotesque Deviants, who live in the inner Earth and attack humans with their ‘z-ray guns’ –just like the Deros with their mental zapping machinery; the fair-looking Eternals (the Teros) endowed with long lives and great mental powers (including the ability to levitate or even fly) who were the embodiment of “mind and matter working in perfect harmony” –similar to how Orthon and all the human-looking Space Brothers of the 1950s were meant to represent a step up the physical and spiritual ladder; and, to complete the triad, the humans: as capable of great deeds as the Eternals, as well as horrible nightmares worthy of the Deros’ mischievousness.
To what extent Jack Kirby believed in this technicolor mythology of his in which he encompassed everything from ancient religions, alien visitation, hermeticism, psychic phenomena, and the ultimate destiny of the human species as divine denizens of the Cosmos, is hard to tell. “Can you prove it couldn’t have happened that way?” was the ambiguous response he gave to a friend and collaborator. Indeed, can you?
And ultimately, it is of no consequence if the Pencil Prophet believed in his own shtick or not. What matters is to recognize that the crackling tendrils he weaved throughout hundreds of pages full of superlative onomatopoeia found fertile soil in our subconscious, and there’s hardly any major example of pop culture that doesn’t have even a small trace of ‘kirbinfluence’ – Star Wars, for example, owes a great deal to his DC series’ The Forever People and The New Gods (Darkseid is pretty much Darth Vader’s step-daddy).
At the same time, one of the reasons Kirby’s fiction has aged so well, is because he himself was tapping into mythologies and folklore that go beyond the pulpy pages of comic books, and are still influencing the way we interpret the UFO mystery – when Tom DeLonge said to Joe Rogan how he was told by his government sources that the Greek gods were ancient aliens, one wonders how many copies of The Eternals’ omnibus are to be found inside the corridors of the Pentagon…
It is actually curious to note how the crosspollination between fiction and fantasy keeps occurring to this day: Here we are, waiting for the Pentagon to release a report which may or may not reveal the extent of their knowledge of unidentified flying objects, and here comes the new Marvel trailer in which Chloé Zhao chose to replace Kirby’s bejeweled beetle-like spaceships with a monolithic black boomerang –a veiled homage to the famous Phoenix lights’ sightings of 1997 perhaps, of which actor Kurt Russell (who was featured as a Celestial in the MCU) was a witness?
The word for such cultural coincidences is synchromysticism, and once you read books like Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics, you realize these are more common than one might care to imagine.
Back in 1984, the teen comedy film Revenge of the Nerds made us fantasize about a future in which geeky kids, who liked to read comic books instead of playing sports, would get to be winners instead of the eternal losers. Sixteen years later, the movie X-Men paved the way for many successful superhero movies which have forever altered the shape of popular culture – the least profitable Marvel or DC movie still makes more money than the most successful sports-based movie. Take that, jocks!
Yes, the nerds had their revenge. But it was because of Shaver-loving artists like Jack Kirby that it was we –the flying saucer weirdos– who were the ones that ultimately won. KAPOW!