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Bedlam and Baby: Parables of Creation in Jack Kirby and Chris Ware

As writers on the letters pages of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics made clear, these stories dealt with some heavy shit. The New Gods, Forever People, and Mister Miracle were not only cosmic in their plots, but philosophical in their themes. Rather than rehashing the familiar battle between good and evil, Kirby uses superhero conceits to explore Freudian theories of the mind, the ‘battle of the sexes,’ and competition between political systems like capitalism, socialism, and fascism. As allegorical fantasies, Kirby’s galactic operas were as interested in 1970s America as in imaginary goings-on in deep space. Yet Kirby’s greatest theme was even closer to home: his own power, his imagination, and his process of creation.

The title character of Kirby’s Mister Miracle fights evil and performs as an escape artist, managing issue after issue to free himself from elaborate traps, such as this one:

The theatrical aspect of these comics make them the perfect place for Kirby to stage demonstrations of his imaginative powers and process. It’s not the heroic Scott Free (Miracle’s alter ego) who acts as Kirby’s true doppelganger, but one of the series’ villains, Dr. Bedlam. With this creative cosmic criminal, Kirby reminds us that superhero comics should really be called super-villain comics: evil orchestrates the chaos and excitement that dominates eighty percent of every issue. The super-villain is the hero’s raison d’être. Without him, the hero’s just a jerk in a silly costume.

In Mister Miracle #3, Kirby frequently employs theatrical metaphors to dramatize aspects of comics-making that the artist had long since mastered—figure drawing and settings:

The “animates” tell us about their master’s (Kirby’s) precision and dramatic flair: “These furnishing must be placed in precise order” — “All this must be set as a stage.” The featureless animates who arrange this stage recall a staple of drawing instruction, the familiar poseable wooden figure:
The transformation of Dr. Bedlam from a blank animate to a “doctor of evil” acts as a drawing lesson, in which Bedlam talks us through Kirby’s process in highly conceptual language:

The Kirby Method: from “pure energy” and imagination, to familiar shapes, to “line and contour” that express the cartoonist’s ”startling individuality.” (I like to imagine Kirby smiling and congratulating himself for his own startling individuality as he draws these panels . . .)

Allegories of creation often involve the rhetoric of sexual reproduction, and Kirby follows in this tradition: one animate tells another that a character must be “in a favorable position to await ‘entry’ by the ‘mind-force!’

To put it crudely, creation is a mind-fuck. Even the galactic transport known as “the boom tube” (which the New God Orion tells us comes “from the waves of the {Kirby} mind”) “penetrates” dimensional space to deposit characters on the page:

If there’s one textural drawing gesture most associated with Kirby, it’s ‘Kirby Krackle.’ These energy dots are his signature—a symbol of his “mind-force” on the page—and they hover around the emerging Bedlam:

An animate says the blank “will bear the master’s image!” Does Bedlam look a little like Kirby, with hair combed back high on the forehead with a “widow’s peak?”

Using Dr. Bedlam again, Mister Miracle #11 gives us an even more explicit drawing lesson, showing how Kirby designs and animates his characters, how “line by line the personality emerges—gaining contour and distinctiveness of feature!”:

Surrounded by Kirby Krackle, Bedlam is pure mind and its manifestation on paper. When interpreting fiction, as well as dreams, we often think of each character as an avatar of the writer/dreamer; one of Kirby’s characters says to Bedlam/Kirby, we “are fragments of yourself! Whatever you are about to do—we shall do!”

Dr. Bedlam is the playwright; the other characters perform his script.

While morally good characters play an important role within Kirby’s Mister Miracle, they (with the exception of Miracle himself) rarely have the imaginative and creative power of villains. Himon, a mentor to the young Scott Free, acts as a Kirby surrogate in issue #9, and even looks a little like him (Is Himon a reference to Joe Simon, Kirby’s former partner?)

Himon is called “Master of theories,” and on letters pages writers often pointed to the conceptual aspects of Kirby’s comics as his great strength; he was not only an artist, but a theorist. Yet the good mentor is less important (and less interesting) than the evil creator—the Kirby double—who performs in service of  creation and “pure mind.” Even a villain like the Overlord from Mister Miracle#2, whose classic Kirby machinery defines and overwhelms the grid’s borders and gutters in the following sequence, seems more Kirby-esque than Himon:

As an Overlord, the writer/artist of violent stories must be both creator and destroyer–the aggressive plots demand it. Dr. Bedlam brings a similar opposition together in his name, which evokes intelligence and chaos.

When Kirby uses “goodness” in a character’s name in Mister Miracle (e.g., Granny Goodness), he’s being ironic. But with Bedlam he’s deadly serious. Evil, not goodness, is intimately connected to drawing and instantaneous creation. Convention demands, of course, that evil must fail in the end, as is the case of the not-so-effective “The Head” in Mister Miracle #10; though he can strike with the speed of thought, he ultimately loses.

Mister Miracle is a creator, too, and miraculously gets out of every trap “scot free,” a silly Kirby pun that somehow works. But without fail, Bedlam and Kirby continuously bring into being the many imaginative and elaborate traps that propel the narrative and, indeed, drive all of Kirby’s cosmic sagas.

* * *

Like Kirby, Chris Ware explores “the cosmic.” But in Acme Novelty Library #20, this interest soon disappears. As part of a hyper-complex schematic of comic book creation, the first panel begins far out in the cosmos, as galaxies swirl around in deep space.

We then follow a tenuous thread—a thin ink guiding line (like the connecting wire in an electronic schematic)—that leads to our solar system, earth, Omaha, Jordan Lint’s house—and then, depending upon which path we follow, to Ware’s workshop and inside his mind. We then arrive at a kind of library, in which all of Ware’s issues of the Acme Novelty Library stand upright, and finally to issue # 20 itself.  The library, which we are led to by a path that emerges from Ware’s opened head, is the cartoonist’s phenomenological cosmos, his “Being in the World.”

Starting out in the real cosmos could be read as a joke, a version of Ware’s trademark self-deprecation: Acme Novelty Library #20 begins with the results of the biggest act of world-making—the Big Bang’s formation of the universe—only to arrive at a slightly less dramatic creation: a comic book. Is all of creation a complex path that leads to Acme Novelty Library #20 and the birth of Ware’s child, Jordan Lint?

In the schematic comic, Ware draws himself both as a character within, and the creator of, his Rusty Brown serial, using only circles and lines.

These two cartooning tools appear in the scene of issue #20 that most interests me: the construction of the infant Jordan with circles and lines.

This sequence is not a parable of creation in the same way that Kirby’s Mister Miracle sequences are; they model the drawing/emergence of a character from lines to a fully-formed person. Ware’s is perhaps more material, emphasizing the comic’s physical origin—the blank page—by including an empty page:

It is also more abstract. But like Kirby, Ware moves from the tools of traditional cartooning (Kirby’s line, Ware’s color dot) to a person.

The red circle resembles the Ben-Day dot of old-school comic-book coloring and printing. On this page, the dot literally becomes the “the image made flesh,” as pink and red dots reappear as the infant’s skin and features. Ware’s method reveals something primal about the emotional-visual architecture of cartooning as he practices it; he strips down a character to the basic materials of line and circle (the binary code of cartooning), which he then assembles on the 2-D ‘ground’ of paper. (I think that for Ware Character-Building is more important than World-Building, though it’s a false opposition, of course). Ware’s narratives are formally complex, but there’s something irreducible about his characters’ emotions that seems to be connected to the minimalism of his tools.

Echoing Mister Miracle—who always reveals the mechanics behind each escape—Ware explicates “the magic of narrative comics” in an idiosyncratic “how to create a real child out of paper, circles, lines, and color.” Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of hat—or a person out of paper and ink—the page offers a series of illusionist transformations: the gradual revelation of Jordan’s face from dots, and the transformation of the black panel that houses his face into the black mouth in the next panel.

Note, too, that the right eye within the first “face” with a mouth is blown up in the next “panel” (as the series of large red dots with black ones in the middle), which echoes the shape of the prior panel.

On Ware’s pages, creation is not quite as linear as it is in Kirby. It’s a bit of a mystery; the “panels” could be read in different sequences, yet would still form a valid narrative. (The “sequence with multiple legitimate reading paths” is another Ware trademark.) Ware creates an infant before our eyes. The opening pages form a parable of reading/seeing comics: we are watching a slowed-down reconstruction or symbolic reenactment, not so much of a birth, but of a character coming into being before us, as Bedlam did on Kirby’s pages.

The location for Ware’s page’s “punch-line” (its last panel) holds its most important revelation, one that reflects the cartoonist’s deep interest in the male-maternal figure relationship.  In the page’s other “panels,” we are looking directly at Jordan, as if we are seeing what his mother sees (we are figuratively positioned as the mother). But in the last panel, the narrative point of view shifts. Through Jordan’s fuzzy perception, we see not what’s in front of him, but what’s in his mind. He wants, and so imagines, his mother’s breast.

 

On the next page (shown below), he is denied, receiving only a substitute: the bottle. In this sequence, the imagined breast becomes the circle of the mother’s face as she moves closer to him, and this circle becomes the bottom of the baby bottle.

Young Jordan is not happy. The internal representation of the breast is not gratified in external reality; it does not appear at the end of the sequence or in his mouth.

As the above interpretation suggests, I think that the first few pages of the story could be read as an enactment of some of the key tenets of “Object Relations Theory” (ORT), a post-Freudian psychoanalytical theory particularly interested in the mother-child relationship (note how unimportant the father is in the opening of #20.)

In ORT, the child is “the subject” who creates various internal representations of the “object” that’s the most important thing in his world: the mother. Comics, which can quickly shift between objective and subjective (external and internal) imagery, is particularly good for showing the representational aspects of this theory in action. We can see the ways in which Jordan’s internal drives and desires are fulfilled (or not) through his relationship with the maternal object.

Ware indicates what Jordan actually sees with a conventional cartoony “sight line” and what he imagines internally with an unusual “thought panel” (the idealized representation of the mother):

The child creates “internal objects” that often involve a “part object” (part of the mother’s body). Ware represents part objects with repeated panels of mouths and hands. The organized chaos and skewed angles of this page—which offers no clear reading path—replicates Jordan’s developmental and situational uncertainty: what is he seeing, what will satisfy him? Hands loom large as one of Jordan’s internal objects—monstrously large, in fact, as they threaten to overwhelm him.

For the punch-line/pay-off of this page, Jordan’s head is missing, obscured by the mother’s words. Like the mouths, the large hands that tower over Jordan seem to be “bad objects”; they don’t deliver a safe emotional connection with the maternal object—and they are not the breast.

In ORT, the resolution of a child’s drive is not the gratification of a need (e.g., hunger is satisfied by milk), but the formation of a consistent and meaningful relationship with the maternal object, who here withholds herself by withholding her breast from Jordan. In Melanie Klein’s ideas about ORT (she’s its most important figure), the infant develops its ego and super-ego based largely on his relationship to the mother/the breast. Many of Jordan’s problems later in the comic are anticipated in the problems he experiences here. Jordan searches for stability and a meaningful connection between himself and his mother, yet never finds it. As the opening of Ware’s comic shows us, young Jordan’s troubles with women are just beginning.

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19 Responses to Bedlam and Baby: Parables of Creation in Jack Kirby and Chris Ware

  1. Genius is the inability to perceive barriers where they exist, so this well-justified erudition on comics’ king of pop and its master of sophistication is genius. I’ve long thought of Kirby’s krackle-dots as the Pollack-drip of comics, standardized but slipping, the ben-day basic unit fuzzing into infinity through rich imagination and poor registration. In this context those points of dark could also be seeds of life, and if the boom tube is a phallus then Ware’s circle could be an egg; certainly Ware himself is of a more “maternal” generation of cartoonists, and Kirby seems to have been clear about when the masculine and feminine principles were at work — New Gods was martial and relatively womanless while Mister Miracle was based around the union between Scott and Barda, and whenever the boom tube blows, whether it’s dispatching heroes or villains, it’s usually nothing happy.

  2. patrick ford says:

    Mister Miracle #1
    Thadeus Brown: “Ha! I don’t believe it! Scott Free, eh? (laughs) Forgive me boy, but the name does evoke a reaction.
    Scott Free: It has in the past sir. I was raised in an orphanage, and many of the foundlings there were given such names to sort of–well–make them feel as individuals.”

    Mister Miracle # 5
    Oberon: “His name is even goofier than your’s! Did all you orphans get tagged that way?
    Scott Free: “I’m sure you’ve read Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The kids in that situation had such names—”Artful Dodger”—Oliver himself.
    When Granny Goodness gave him that name, the fool took it seriously. He literally acts on the fantasies he built up around it.”

  3. Rob Clough says:

    regarding masculine/feminine in New Gods–how could you not mention Motherbox? Kirby would likely laugh out loud at the new Smartphones and how similar they’ve become to Motherbox.

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    There’s a lot of strangely conflicted feelings about women/motherhood in the New Gods and Fourth World series. Not just the Motherbox but also “Granny” Goodness (an anti-mom counterpart to Darkseid, the ultimate bad father) and also the strange hive-mother that rules over the insect people on New Genesis. In general, parenthood is a major thematic thread in the Fourth World series.

  5. Chris Mautner says:

    The dots and colors in the opening sequence have another important significance as well. Newborn infants can only discern three colors at birth, white, black and (eventually) red, and they discern simple shapes like circles and faces earlier than they do other objects. My initial reading of that sequence is not that it’s Jordan’s face taking shape, but Jordan looking at his mother and father, who gradually come into better focus as he grows older.

  6. Ken Parille says:

    Adam, Thanks! — I think there’s a lot more to be said about the maternal in both cartoonists. and I agree with Jeet about the conflicted feelings.

    Chris: “My initial reading of that sequence is not that it’s Jordan’s face taking shape, but Jordan looking at his mother and father, who gradually come into better focus as he grows older.”

    I think it could be, and kind of is, both at the same time–that part of why I talk about it as a parable of creation and seeing. The dots lead us into the more fully formed face, but the face is looking out at us in the place of the mother. The sequence is very tied into cartooning materials — and in that way is connected to the schematic comic of creation on the opposing page.

    That’s an interesting point about color and perception.

    Rob: I think the mother box is a great Kirby concept; clearly allegorical and maternal as well. Kirby’s ideas seem ridiculous and great at the same time.

    Barda is an odd mix of masculine and feminine; a sexbomb who looks kind of like a dude.

  7. patrick ford says:

    Kirby commented in Amazing Heroes #47.
    “Big Barda, Scott Free’s wife is just as important as anybody else in the series. The women in the Hunger Dogs are going to be the big surprise. Women are important to my work. ”
    In the Forever People Kirby revealed Beautiful Dreamer was along with Darkseid at fulcrum of the conflict. Since Beautiful Dreamer held the anti-life equation Darkseid was after, she was in reality the most powerful figure in the conflict. The power was simply one her personal nature was at odds with so she didn’t make use of it’s ability to drain people of their free will. She had her “gift” so insulated that Darkseid was unable to pry it from her.
    Other women who have major scenes of importance in the series.
    Eve Donner: The extended scene on her terrace in New Gods #9 is one of the most revealing in the series.
    Heggra (Darkseid’s mother) who delivers a classic Kirby line: “I like you Metron. You’re a nice boy. Does it bother you to create the means for mass slaughter?”
    Tigra (Orion’s mother) Hand picked by Heggra to produce a child with Darkseid. She mothered the young Orion, while Darkseid was an absent father.

  8. patrick ford says:

    BTW in the Amazing Heroes interview Kirby comments on Himon.
    “Himon is not a mechanic like Metron. Himon is a survivor in a very, very hard world. He inspires people, he loves beauty. He’s the kind of guy who will go through life trying to make something good out of it. He’s not out to find the ultimate knowledge, or conquest. He’s a guy who finds life, and treats it just as it is: life.
    He was named after my father-in-law. We used to have wonderful times when I was dating my wife. I enjoyed every minute talking to him. For me he was a real find. Being a street kid, to find people who really give you attention makes life wonderful. Himon represents that to me.”

  9. Ken Parille says:

    Patrick,

    Thanks for the Kirby interview material.

  10. patrick ford says:

    Thanks for the very interesting article Ken.
    The Amazing Heroes interview is one of those unfortunate (in my view) examples where an interview is chopped up, with the quotes embedded in the body of an article. It would be nice if someone was able to track down the original tape, and present it in a Q&A format.

  11. Jeet Heer says:

    Patrick: who did that interview? It might be possible to track them down. The interview could also be one of the many as yet untranscribed or partially transcribed tapes in the Fantagraphics basement.

  12. patrick ford says:

    Jeet the article/interview was done by Peter W. Dodds, Jr.
    The article is full of interesting quotes.
    For example:
    “We try to fix our faces. Don’t we look great today? Do we look like the people who built Dachau? No we look great. We look as if it never happened, but it happened. Do we look like the people who committed atrocities in WWll and all the wars before that? No, we don’t look like those kinds of people.
    I think we live in medieval times. It was only 40 years ago that we cooked people in the death camps. How sophisticated is that? We can pat ourselves on the back, and say we’re living in a high-tech age, but I think we’re still medieval.”

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  14. “Himon [....] even looks a little like [Kirby]“.

    There is a vague resemblance to Kirby in those panels, but I understand Kirby based Himon’s appearance on Shel Dorf.

  15. Ken Parille says:

    Rodrigo–Thanks for that; I looked at some pictures of Dorf and that may be right.

    If I had had more time, I would have connected Ware’s and Kirby’s approaches more than I do now, perhaps looking at their shared ‘epic impluses’ and the ways they both connect creation to female and maternal figures . . .

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  17. Sabin says:

    This is a terrific insight… what makes both Ware and Kirby’s work so profound visually (and perhaps goes without saying, although I’m not sure if it’s true) is that they both write using the image. The text is largely unnecessary as the symbols in the imagery tell the story… you can read entire Kirby stories without “reading” a single word, everything is conveyed through the art… Ware is a bit different, but the mood and the overarching emotion of his work comes through without need for text. Two of the greatest artists the world has ever seen… and that is NOT hyperbole!!!

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  19. Michael Avolio says:

    I apologize, as I’m extremely late to the party and I don’t know if anyone’ll be reading this comment, but I thought it worth my time to point this out:

    In the excerpt from Ware’s LINT, I think the white circle with a dark spot in the center is not an imagined breast replaced by a bottle, but rather the image of the light fixture above the baby’s crib. This is why we see it in two colors (lights on, lights off) in the top right and middle right panels of the second page shown here, framed by the sides of the crib.

    Very interesting read!

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