|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
How I Caught The Mythology Bug From Thor
by Eddie Campbell, award-winning artist of Bacchus and From HellFrom Jack Kirby Collector #21
Volstagg debuts in this back-up story from Journey
Into Mystery #119;
I've been drawing Bacchus, my irreverent take on Greek mythology, for some ten years now but have never had the opportunity to recognize, for the record, the source of my inspiration for it-namely a run of half a dozen issues of Thor: #124-130. This was the unforgettable meeting of Thor and Hercules in the first half of 1966. I was ten years old. I would have first come across the story in Fantastic, one of five weekly comics published by Odhams Press re-packaging Marvel material in black-&-white for British readers. Most of my generation discovered Marvel this way (ask Moore, Gibbons, etc.) between '63 and '69, and we were able to familiarize ourselves with the black-&-white inking techniques of the likes of Colletta at a time when you guys in the US were not able to.
Lee and Kirby were just getting into those everyday-life touches that make their work from this period so special. Thus #124 kicks off with a big splash of Thor stopping to pick up a newspaper on a New York street corner. We talk about 'story-arcs' nowadays, but back then I think the model was the TV soap opera, with a whole bunch of story-threads interweaving, phasing in and out. Thor goes off to the Far East to tie up a loose end regarding a lost Nornstone, while on Mount Olympus a new thread is introduced when Zeus sends his son Hercules to Earth. While the Far East plot gives us the monthly dose of action, the scenes of Hercules just being hedonistic are a thrill to see. Hercules is a delightful Lee-Kirby character interpretation; a big, bluff, lovable hunk of granite who makes Thor a tight-assed prima donna.
What confidence, eh?-to make your title character come off second-best to another hero. While Hercules wows the girls in a restaurant (#125), the plot is set in motion by a Hollywood movie scout.
When hold-up men bust into the restaurant, Stan Lee's daft anachronisms can only add to the charm of the scene.
Another great thing about the Lee-Kirby style, which I find joyously funny now, is the way the battle of 1966 is set up. In one of their typical oddball coincidences, Hercules is wooing Jane Foster.
The crucial thing I learned from these guys is that you can be funny as blazes without upsetting the heroic seriousness of the story; and upon such soapy suds is set the foundation for the next issue, the colossal #126 with Thor and Hercules duking it out on the cover. I did a homage to this cover on an issue of Dark Horse Presents with my own characters Hermes and the Eyeball Kid. I struggled to imitate Kirby's majestic power and got lost in the intricacies. I notice in my defense that the colorist on the original #126 got somewhat lost in the forms of Thor's left hand.
The next story thread is the one that gets rid of Thor so that the main business of the Hercules story can be played out. In Asgard, one Seidring the Merciless-seemingly invented and introduced for this sole purpose-persuades Odin to remove Thor's divine power, it being the major obstacle on his road to taking over Asgard. Odin is a sucker for this ploy as he is pissed at Thor for revealing his identity to mere mortal Jane Foster in #124. This happens right in the middle of the fight and Hercules defeats Thor. (Yet another crashing revelation: The hero of the book can lose sometimes.) Thor goes off to sort out the problem with Asgard-a whole story within a story-and Hercules is persuaded to go to Hollywood by the scout who's been fidgeting in the wings for two issues:
The bathos is typical Lee, and when used in conjunction with mythological heroes, it opened up in this young head vistas never imagined. I've never thought about it precisely before, but the seeds of my conniving villain Chryson were planted here. It gets better. Hollywood producer "J.B." turns out to be Pluto, dark god of the Netherworld who takes off his California shades to reveal blank burning greedy orbs for eyes. The characterization is well-considered. As god of the Netherworld, the under-earth, Pluto was heir to all the precious metals and stones to be found there. That's a fair trade-off for having to spend all your days governing the dead souls of the after-life. Also the name Pluto means wealthy and it survives in linguistic constructions like plutocrat, in spite of Disney having given it away to a mutt. At this stage of course we've never seen these characters before, so to our fresh gaze he is as much a scheming megalomaniacal movie producer as the other-wherein lies some great satire.
The CONTRACT is now introduced. Hyppolita, beautiful queen of the Amazons, in disguise, is to be the bait.
I think Lee and Kirby made up this business about the 'Pact', but it fits well with Hercules' character and his myth to have him pledge his life away in servitude. That's what the Twelve Labors was all about. The next part is a scream and I confess I had it rattling around in my head when we sorted out the From Hell movie CONTRACT. The fictions we take to heart in our youth rest in the back of our brain and become a part of our personalities.
Now the villain reveals himself and Hercules is in the poo. According to the small print, he can get out of it if he gets another to do battle on his behalf against the hordes of Pluto's Netherworld- that other, upon failure in said fight, being obliged to take Hercules' place as governor of the pits of Hades. This gives Kirby a chance to put all the other Greek gods briefly on stage. Thus we see Dionysius (sic) (Bacchus by any other name). It's the little roly-poly corrupted Roman version of the god (vide Fantasia) rather than the noble Greek one. The good thing about this, from my point of view, is that Marvel, being heavily continuity-oriented, is stuck forever with this version. Then we see Ares, God of War, being a bit cowardly (war was out of fashion in the Sixties) and Hermes who cannot hear the plea for the hooves of his celestial chariot. So it's down to the Netherworld with Hercules and to his surprise-though of course it's the big finale we've been waiting for-its the Norse god Thor who arrives to fight his cause. Now we get to meet some more mythological figures, but for some reason the steam goes out of the story at this point.
First up is what I call the Cerberus Mistake. In Greek myth, Cerberus is the three-headed monstrous dog who guards the entrance to the Netherworld. Kirby makes him a big humanoid guard in the manner of Doom's robots or the Leader's androids- and he says things like, "Then let it be an Asgardian who falls beneath my helmet's ray of destruction." We didn't need to go all the way down to the Netherworld for that. What happened?
In the Greek classical period, artistic depictions of mythic characters shied away from the grotesque and everything became idealized along human lines and proportions. Thus "Argus of the Hundred Eyes" might become readable as metaphorical as in a French painting of Poussin's generation where he clearly only has two. I've read that Kirby didn't care to depict the dead walking, as he was requested to do with Deadman in the Forever People, and he was certainly never in the vicinity of the necro-mayhem that came out of EC. But why did he not make the best of Cerberus? Grotesques abound elsewhere in his work: Dragon Man, Modok, the Deep Six, the trolls, ad infinitum. Strange. Perhaps there was a deadline problem and the stopwatch was ticking, for the next heavy is half as interesting again:
I've never thought to check the Crusher's mythological pedigree. By this time the reader's interest shifts to the new thread that has been phasing in back in New York concerning Jane Foster and Tana Nile, and events which will take Thor into novel territory in outer space with the planet Rigel, Ego the Living Planet and a whole bunch of new Kirby concepts. Pluto can't bear to see any more of his domain wrecked by combat, calls a halt to the fray, and tears up the CONTRACT. Thor and Hercules sympathetically observe that he would never have been happy upstairs and the matter is closed.
For a brief moment, Lee and Kirby afforded me a vision of how Greek mythology might be adapted to the comic book page, a vision which I later developed and expanded into my own comic book universe inhabited by Bacchus, God of Wine; Joe Theseus (whose disgruntlement derives from never having received the accolades and divine prize that were given to Hercules - this is mythically sound); The Eyeball Kid, multivisioned son of Argus; Chryson, God of Business; and they taught a wee innocent twelve-year-old to have eyes in the back of his head.
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