Tyger! Tyger!

By: Joshua Glenn
April 16, 2010

The comic book artist, writer, and editor Jack Kirby (a HiLo Hero) was a giant of both Golden Age (1934-63) and New Wave (1964-83) science fiction. Without diminishing the man’s contributions to science fiction and comics, I’d like to point out that — like all Golden-Age and New Wave sci-fi authors, no matter how talented or original — Kirby was heavily influenced by Radium Age (1904-33) science fiction and fantasy. A piece of art upon which I recently stumbled offers incontrovertible evidence of this!

But first, some background…


In 1938, at age 21, Kirby got his start drawing science fiction comics — e.g., the strip, The Diary of Dr. Hayward, in Wild Boy Magazine. In the early ’40s, working for the publisher that would become Marvel Comics, he drew superhero comics like The Blue Beetle and co-created Captain America. Superhero comics are a subgenre of science fiction; as I’ve noted before, the superhuman meme first appeared in the late 19th century. However, it was refined into a recognizable subgenre of science fiction by Radium Age science fiction tales like J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder, Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, John Taine’s Seeds of Life, Erle Cox’s Out of the Silence, Philip Wylie’s Gladiator, Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved,” and George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah.

In the late 1950s, Kirby helped create DC’s Challengers of the Unknown (1958-59), he drew a newspaper comic strip called Sky Masters of the Space Force; he also pushed DC’s Green Arrow comic in a sci-fi direction. Challengers of the Unknown and Sky Masters of the Space Force are examples of the “space opera” subgenre of science fiction. Like the superhuman meme, the space opera meme first appeared in the 19th century: e.g., Star ou Psi de Cassiopée: Histoire Merveilleuse de l’un des Mondes de l’Espace (1854) by C. I. Defontenay, and Lumen (1872) by Camille Flammarion; George Griffith and Robert Cromie are later 19th-century pioneers. The space opera meme was refined into a recognizable subgenre of science fiction by Radium Age authors like Garrett P. Serviss, Ray Cummings, Edmond Hamilton, J. Schlossel, and — crucially — E. E. “Doc” Smith.

In ’58, at age 41, Kirby returned to Marvel (then called Atlas Comics) and drew some of the greatest sci-fi comics stories ever: e.g., “I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers” (Strange Worlds #1, December 1958); and innumerable sci-fi stories for Marvel’s Amazing Adventures, Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Strange Worlds, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and World of Fantasy. Near the end of science fiction’s Golden Age (in what, confusingly, is known as Marvel’s Silver Age), Kirby and Stan Lee co-created trail-blazing sci-fi superhero comics like The Incredible Hulk (1962) and Iron Man (1963); as well as three Argonaut Folly sci-fi superhero series: The Fantastic Four (1961), The Avengers (1963), and The X-Men (1963). Olaf Stapledon’s 1935 novel, Odd John, about an international band of teenage and twentysomething “supernormals,” is perhaps the first sci-fi Argonaut Folly; its publication date situates it on the cusp between the Radium Age and the Golden Age of science fiction, though Stapledon is a Radium Age author.

GOLDEN-AGE SCI-FI at HILOBROW: Golden Age Sci-Fi: 75 Best Novels of 1934–1963 | Robert Heinlein | Karel Capek | William Burroughs | E.E. “Doc” Smith | Clifford D. Simak | H.P. Lovecraft | Olaf Stapledon | Philip K. Dick | Jack Williamson | George Orwell | Boris Vian | Bernard Wolfe | J.G. Ballard | Jorge Luis Borges |Poul Anderson | Walter M. Miller, Jr. | Murray Leinster | Kurt Vonnegut | Stanislaw Lem | Alfred Bester | Isaac Asimov | Ray Bradbury | Madeleine L’Engle | Arthur C. Clarke | PLUS: Jack Kirby’s Golden Age and New Wave science fiction comics.


Having helped pioneer the comic-book version of Golden Age science fiction, in the mid-1960s Kirby helped pioneer the comic-book version of New Wave science fiction. New Wave SF is characterized by an ambitious, self-consciously artistic sensibility; in fiction, the movement took off in 1964, when Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of the British science fiction magazine New Worlds. New Wave science fiction was less interested in outer space than in the nature of perception, mass media, entropy, and politics. Precisely at this moment, Kirby’s Marvel comics began to blow minds with their experimentations in form and content; and — once he moved back to DC — he explored perception, mass media, entropy, and politics in his writings.

A Kirby photomontage from Fantastic Four no. 29 (August 1964)

Kirby’s proto-psychedelic photomontages were first seen in ’64, which helps demonstrate my theory that the Sixties began that year; and his proto-psychedelic energy fields, known to fans as the “Kirby Krackle,” were first seen in ’66. He also co-scripted and drew the Argonaut Folly superhero comic series The Inhumans (1965). If The Avengers (1963), and The X-Men are examples of work on the cusp between the comic-book science fiction’s Golden Age and New Wave eras, The Inhumans is New Wave. Again, many themes from The Inhumans are anticipated by Stapledon’s Odd John.

In the early 1970s, the New Wave movement in science fiction literature peaked; by 1983, Cyberpunk was the dominant paradigm. In 1970, Kirby returned to DC and began to crank out a series of weird, interwoven New Wave science-fiction titles — including The New Gods (1971), Mister Miracle (1971), and The Forever People (1971) — under the blanket sobriquet “The Fourth World.” In the Fourth World comics, which were cancelled in ’73, Kirby’s heroes were young outsiders who championed human freedom; his villains were powerful tyrants determined to colonize not outer space, but inner-space; that is, to negate freedom entirely. (Forever People No. 5: “If someone possesses absolute control over you — you’re not really alive!”) We find precisely the same themes in Radium Age science fiction classics like Stapledon’s Last Men in London, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

One of Kirby’s final New Wave science-fiction series was DC’s Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (1972), each issue of which explored perception, mass media, entropy, and politics. Kamandi is a teenage boy on a post-apocalyptic Earth that has been ravaged by the Great Disaster. As I’ve written before, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is another meme that appeared in the 19th century, and was refined into a recognizable subgenre of science fiction by Radium Age science fiction and fantasy tales. These include: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Moon Men, Karel Čapek’s The Absolute at Large, M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913), William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men.

NEW WAVE SCI-FI at HILOBROW: 75 Best New Wave (1964–1983) Sci-Fi Novels | Back to Utopia: Fredric Jameson’s theorizing about New Wave sci-fi | Douglas Adams | Poul Anderson | J.G. Ballard | John Brunner | William Burroughs | Octavia E. Butler | Samuel R. Delany | Philip K. Dick | Frank Herbert | Ursula K. Le Guin | Barry N. Malzberg | Moebius (Jean Giraud) | Michael Moorcock | Alan Moore | Gary Panter | Walker Percy | Thomas Pynchon | Joanna Russ | James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) | Kurt Vonnegut | PLUS: Jack Kirby’s Golden Age and New Wave science fiction comics.


Which brings us to the incontrovertible evidence of Radium Age science fiction and fantasy’s influence on Jack Kirby. Just in case you’re still not convinced by my argument, here’s a smoking gun.

Below are a few panels from the first issue of Kamandi. In this scene, we get our first glimpse of the tiger chieftan, Great Caesar. Though he uses a gun, he dresses like a Roman military leader — breastplate and segmented torso armor (lorica segmentata, or sometimes lorica squamata), feathered helmet, cape, and so forth.

Now check out the chromolithograph, below. It’s by V. Timorev, from Ivan Andreevich Krylov’s 1913 book, Two Fables — that is, it’s from Radium Age fantasy fiction. I stumbled across it yesterday, while admiring A Journey Round My Skull’s Flickr photostream.

To quote Stan Lee: ’Nuff said!



MORE FURSHLUGGINER THEORIES BY JOSH GLENN: TAKING THE MICKEY (series) | KLAATU YOU (series intro) | We Are Iron Man! | And We Lived Beneath the Waves | Is It A Chamber Pot? | I’d Like to Force the World to Sing | The Argonaut Folly | The Perfect Flâneur | The Twentieth Day of January | The Dark Side of Scrabble | The YHWH Virus | Boston (Stalker) Rock | The Sweetest Hangover | The Vibe of Dr. Strange | CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (series intro) | Tyger! Tyger! | Star Wars Semiotics | The Original Stooge | Fake Authenticity | Camp, Kitsch & Cheese | Stallone vs. Eros | The UNCLE Hypothesis | Icon Game | Meet the Semionauts | The Abductive Method | Semionauts at Work | Origin of the Pogo | The Black Iron Prison | Blue Krishma! | Big Mal Lives! | Schmoozitsu | You Down with VCP? | Calvin Peeing Meme | Daniel Clowes: Against Groovy | The Zine Revolution (series) | Best Adventure Novels (series) | Debating in a Vacuum (notes on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad) | Pluperfect PDA (series) | Double Exposure (series) | Fitting Shoes (series) | Cthulhuwatch (series) | Shocking Blocking (series) | Quatschwatch (series)


In 2012–2013, HiLoBooks serialized and republished (in gorgeous paperback editions, with new Introductions) 10 forgotten Radium Age science fiction classics! For more info: HiLoBooks.

MORE RADIUM AGE SCI FI ON HILOBROW: HiLoBooks homepage! | What is Radium Age science fiction? |Radium Age 100: 100 Best Science Fiction Novels from 1904–33 | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912 | Radium Age Science Fiction Poetry | Enter Highbrowism | Bathybius! Primordial ooze in Radium Age sf | War and Peace Games (H.G. Wells’s training manuals for supermen) | Radium Age: Context series | J.D. Beresford | Algernon Blackwood | Edgar Rice Burroughs | Karel Čapek | Buster Crabbe | August Derleth | Arthur Conan Doyle | Hugo Gernsback | Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Cicely Hamilton | Hermann Hesse | William Hope Hodgson | Aldous Huxley | Inez Haynes Irwin | Alfred Jarry | Jack Kirby (Radium Age sf’s influence on) | Murray Leinster | Gustave Le Rouge | Gaston Leroux | David Lindsay | Jack London | H.P. Lovecraft | A. Merritt | Maureen O’Sullivan | Sax Rohmer | Paul Scheerbart | Upton Sinclair | Clark Ashton Smith | E.E. “Doc” Smith | Olaf Stapledon | John Taine | H.G. Wells | Jack Williamson | Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz | S. Fowler Wright | Philip Gordon Wylie | Yevgeny Zamyatin



What do you think?

  1. Welcome, io9 readers! I look forward to your constructive criticism about my periodization scheme. The eras I call the Golden Age (1934-63) and New Wave (1964-73) of science fiction don’t correspond exactly to what fans consider the Golden and Silver Age of comics, though they’re not too far off; however, they do correspond exactly to the type of work Kirby was doing in science fiction comics during the same periods (i.e., from 1934-63 and from 1964-73). Which indicates, to me, that Kirby’s Golden Age doesn’t correspond exactly to that of comics generally; or else it indicates that the periodization of comics’ Golden Age is incorrect.

    Please note that this post in no way suggests that Kirby was not a visionary or a uniquely creative artist-writer-philosopher. Every great artist has influences; here, I’m just teasing out one important influence on Kirby’s imagination. Also please note that by insisting so ham-fistedly on the “incontrovertible evidence” I’ve discovered, I’m signaling that I realize it’s anything but that! The found image simply provided a good excuse to air my Kirby periodization.

    I should note that although sci-fi scholars agree about the dates of New Wave science fiction (1964-73, as I’ve noted), the Golden Age’s dates are disputed.

    GOLDEN AGE BEGINNING: In his introduction to a 1974 collection titled Before the Golden Age, Golden Age star Isaac Asimov notes, condescendingly, that although it may have possessed a certain vigor, in general SF published before John W. Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding Stories in 1937-38 was “clumsy, primitive, naive.” If you buy into this Great Man theory of history, then the Golden Age of SF begins in 1937-38; however, Kingsley Amis argued in New Maps of Hell, his 1958 survey of science fiction, that during the mid-1930s “science fiction established itself, separating with a slowly increasing decisiveness from fantasy and space-opera.” I don’t agree with Amis’ blanket dismissal of pre-Golden Age SF (“Neither culture not dreams warm it; it exists as propaganda for the wares of the inventor”), which is only true of Hugo Gernsback’s and Gernsbackian fiction; however, I do agree with Amis’ periodization. I see the years 1934-37 as a transitional period or interregnum that saw the advent of the campy Flash Gordon comic strip, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s pseudo-scientific Lensman series, and innumerable post-King Kong Hollywood “sci-fi” blockbusters.

    Even as “speculative fiction” (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which appeared in ’32, was an early exampl) began to distinguish itself from mere “sci-fi,” in other words, these wildly popular phenomena distinguished themselves from Huxley and other pre-Golden Age writers of his ilk. The Golden Age was made possible by a mutual divorce between SF’s escapist and fantastical aspects (i.e., what Asimov faintly praises as its “vigor”) and its literate, analytical, socially conscious aspects — between SF’s id and its ego, if you will. Amis, Asimov and others praised the “mature” SF of what they dubbed the Golden Age; “immature” SF was relegated to kiddies and proles: it was the stuff of movie serials and comic books. The fascinating thing about pre-Golden Age (or, as I call it, Radium Age) science fiction is how writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Capek, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and even Huxley reject the mature/immature or ego/id dichotomy. From about 1964 on, Kirby also rejected this dichotomy.

    GOLDEN AGE END: You’ll read, on Wikipedia and elsewhere, that science fiction’s Golden Age ended in the mid-to late 1950s. Why? Because science fiction pulps, and TV and radio shows, began to vanish during that period. Fantastic Adventures and Famous Fantastic Mysteries folded in ’53. Planet Stories, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories folded in ’55; the shows Captain Video, Space Patrol, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet were canceled that same year; and EC’s comic book Incredible Science Fiction also folded that year, in part because of the introduction of the Comics Code in ’54. Other Worlds and Science Fiction Quarterly folded in ’57; Imagination, Imaginative Tales, and Infinity folded in ’58.

    I disagree that this shakeup in the industry ended the era of Golden Age science fiction. True, many pulp magazines began to vanish, but the market was over-saturated. Survivors included: Astounding Science Fiction, which became Analog in 1960; Amazing Stories and Fantastic; and Galaxy and If, which were taken over editorially by Frederik Pohl in ’61. Plus, Damon Knight launched the bookazine anthology Orbit in ’66. As for TV shows, Twilight Zone started in ’61, and Doctor Who in ’63. Besides, the early 1960s was the heyday of the paperback book; and this was the era in which, for the first time, science fiction books regularly hit the best-seller list. Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon, and Harry Harrison’s Deathworld came out in 1960; Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came out in ’61, Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse in ’62, and Pierre Boule’s Planet of the Apes (in French) in ’63.

    True, the end of the Golden Age overlapped in no neat, orderly fashion with the beginnings of SF’s New Wave era. However, if we were forced to choose a year during which New Wave began, I’d say 1964: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a marker about which I think we can all agree.

  2. Excellent. Will you be providing helpful Readers’ Guides such as this after each post? I vote yes. Especially after posts not your own.

  3. Thanks for the link. I’ve gotten wrapped up in a book project about the relationship between comic art and museums, but I still plan to research and write an article about the Kirby collages. They still fascinate me.

  4. Haha, I don’t think it’s incontrovertible! Animal/human mixes are a pretty common fantastical element, no?

  5. I did say “Also please note that by insisting so ham-fistedly on the ‘incontrovertible evidence’ I’ve discovered, I’m signaling that I realize it’s anything but that!” However, you’ll have to do better than that to argue that it ISN’T incontrovertible evidence. It’s not just any old animal/human mix, after all.

  6. Evidence of what exactly? That Kirby saw that specific image and was influenced by it decades later? It’s possible, though it was published before his birth. But it’s also possible he saqw other instances of similar images that you haven’t uncovered — or that he came up with the idea independently.
    Interesting essay, but I think you’re overly focused on making up categories and names and dates for them, and then trying to fit work into your categories (“periodization”) — rather like re-arranging items on your bookshelf — instead of talking about the work itself and why it’s interesting, why it’s great, why it’s not so great, how it related to what else was going on at the same time, etc. But, to each their own. To me, arguing about what to name different “ages” and when they started or ended seems kind of trivial. It’s more about organizing labels than appreciating the actual work. In real life (or history) things often can’t be neatly pigeonholed into these categories anyway — they’re “more like guidelines,” as the saying goes.
    That is a cool chromolithograph, though, as are all the Kirby panels! :-)

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