This week marks the centennial of Jack “King” Kirby, arguably the most important contributor to the art form of comics of all-time. Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg (the son of Jewish immigrants; you know the drill), is mostly known for his iconic artwork for Marvel Comics. Working with the likes of Jewish writers Joe Simon and Stan Lee, Kirby co-created the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Captain America, just to name a few that have had staying power. But some of Kirby’s most fascinating, innovative work is (comparatively) less-well known, coming after he switched to Marvel’s competitor, DC, and began to write as well as draw, now in more direct control over his creations.
The main result of this DC period is the New Gods, a complex, space operatic struggle of good-and-evil, with an assembly of weird characters in convoluted conflicts. It’s certainly not as simply accessible as, say, Captain America punching Hitler in the face. But it’s still brilliant.
Kirby, like most of his peers, didn’t insert his Jewishness overtly into his work, so fans have been searching for subtext ever since. For example, Ben Grimm aka the Thing, from the Fantastic Four, has long been viewed as a Kirby analogue, a kid from a rough and tumble Manhattan neighborhood who made good (eventually, another comics writer made Grimm Jewish outright).
But there’s more to be discovered! One issue in particular from Kirby’s New Gods series Mister Miracle has some remarkable Jewish imagery. There’s the main theme of escapism, at times evoking Harry Houdini—Jews and escape artistry often go hand-in-hand, just think of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. But there’s a certain crucial detail that seems to have largely gone unnoticed.
Issue #9 (from 1972) is a pivotal issue in the Mister Miracle series. Its protagonist, Scott Free, has been raised in Apokolips, a repressive society that worships its evil ruler, the arguably Hitler-esque Darkseid. Scott is a warrior, complicit in the horrors of Apokolips, but beginning to yearn to escape. Luckily, he meets an escape artist and inventor by the name of Himon.
OK, yes, Himon isn’t necessarily an alternate spelling of the Jewish name Hyman, but he has a daughter named Bekka (yes, with two Ks), and that makes it an even stronger coincidence. Plus, he sure does look like an old Jewish man. In fact, Kirby visually based him off of Shel Dorf, who was best known for founding San Diego Comic-Con.
Himon may visually be Dorf, but his character seems to resemble Kirby more than anyone else. Take this character rant from Issue #9:
“I’m a dreamer! A visionary! A ‘THINK –TANK’ who pioneered the calculating Mother-Box and linked it with The Source! I found the X-Element and pioneered the Boom-Tube! — I DREAM! I ROAM the universe!! Darkseid wants to OWN it!!”
Considering how much work Kirby put into the Marvel Universe only to butt heads with the likes of business-oriented Stan Lee, it does sound rather familiar.
(Also coming to Scott’s aid in this issue is one Metron, who (1) has a name that sounds vaguely like the angel Metatron and (2) is visually based off of Leonard Nimoy, so there’s some more Jewishness there.)
Another important detail to understand about the world of Mister Miracle is the concept of Mother Boxes (this gets rather confusing, but hang in there). A Mother Box is a device (originally invented by Himon) that New Gods wear that is in some ways the precursor to a smart phone (Kirby was a visionary, after all). They’re tiny supercomputers that can help the wearer do anything from access information, communicate with others, teleport—you name it. And how do they work? This brings us to the Source.
For the Source, essentially think of the Force from Star Wars. It’s the stuff what binds the universe together, and can grant superpowers. It’s also Kirby at arguably his most spiritual; the Source is undeniably divine.
So, got all that? The Source = Divine Spiritual Energetic Force. Mother Box = Personal technology that empowers via the source. Himon = Inventor of the Mother Box, who logically has a supreme one for personal use.
And what does this super-powerful device that Himon bears look like?
Say what you will about reaching for straws with names, with settings, with themes—that is a set of arm tefillin if there ever was one.
Of course, Kirby was living in a mostly Christian society, and it shows. Himon does have a tendency to die a lot, particularly for others, in a Christ-like fashion, after all. But mostly, he’s a guiding father figure to Scott Free, and other societal misfits, creating and and inventing. He feels a bit like a zeyde, or a Jewish uncle, maybe a stand in for the King himself (that is, Kirby), trying to guide Scott to the right moral decision, rather than force him, and holding to his principles of kindness in an unjust world.
And he’s definitely rocking some tefillin while he does it.