by Jesse Marinoff Reyes:
Famous Monsters of Filmland
October 1978 issue, #148
Photograph: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation
35 years ago this spring (officially, May 25th, 1977) STAR WARS opened in theaters across the country, and mainstream movies would never be the same again (though, not always a good thing). STAR WARS (I REFUSE to call it “A New Hope” or “episode IV” or any of that claptrap) was a juggernaut, earning $6,806,951 alone during its first weekend in wide release and was still booked in theaters a year later, a veritable ATM for 20th Century Fox. And a pop cultural touchstone—you know where you were when you first saw STAR WARS.
An amalgam of numerous influences, from comic books to the old cliffhanger serials of the 1930s and ’40s—writ large—which had great resonance with audiences then and now. Since last year when I posted a gallery of STAR WARS posters, I’ve had several conversations with people about the film’s origins, including one on that posting’s thread with my colleague Robert Newman, and have expanded my view a bit of what begat Star Wars (and what didn’t). At the time, George Lucas admitted in interviews of his deriving some aspects of the story from philosopher Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero in mythology (embodied by Luke Skywalker), Hero With A Thousand Faces. Well, maybe he did (sounds good anyway). Most of us comic nerds were of course struck by Darth Vader’s resemblance in costume and character to Jack Kirby’s iconic super villain, originally a foe introduced in The Fantastic Four—Doctor Doom—with both a mystical background (the son of a witch) and university-educated science training, but possessing of Narcissistic arrogance and megalomaniacal ambition, horribly scarred (or was he?) in an experiment gone awry. But this was just the beginning of what some suspect was the unrecognized or unacknowledged influence on STAR WARS of Jack Kirby.
Robert Newman posited a parallel to Kirby’s Fourth World saga in DC Comics. For the uninitiated: an interlinked storyline or metaseries that manifested itself over four comics titles—Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (which initiated the introduction to the characters), then primarily in The Forever People, Mister Miracle, and The New Gods—an unheard-of concept in comic books at the time (ended prematurely by nervous and unconvinced editors, it nonetheless serves as an epic touchstone in the history of comic books). “The Fourth World” (as the metaseries is referred to) posited the notion of two warring societies on different, highly-evolved planets. New Genesis, home of “Highfather” and his brood of super-empowered beings, a culture of light and technology and higher evolution—where High Father maintains his people’s connection to a primal energy field known as The Source (an all-connecting “force” or perhaps higher being akin to the concept of god). And Apokolips, ruled by the cosmic demigod “Darkseid”—possessing of great size, strength, powers of flight, and mental control of almost limitless cosmic energy which he could blast from his eyes or hands, as well as mind control itself—thusly a culture of darkness, servitude, and doom. Darkseid seeks the anti-life equation, from which he could eliminate all free will in the universe and reshape it in his own image. Only Highfather and New Genesis could keep Darkseid in check. At one point, there was an exchange of hostages—a child of High Father’s and a child of Darkseid—to keep the peace. Thinking his own child on New Genesis would undermine the fragile truce, Darkseid was stymied by his son Orion’s Oedipal rivalry and championing of Highfather’s ideals. Furthermore, Highfather’s son on Apokolips, Scott Free, defied the torture and cruelty intended to break and corrupt him, instead becoming the super-powered escape artist, Mister Miracle. A great, ripping yarn all ’round. The Fourth World saga debuted in 1970.
STAR WARS had been on George Lucas’s mind even before he began work on his debut film, THX 1138 (1971). Indeed, the very outline of STAR WARS was borrowed nearly in situ from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress. Sure, the early sci fi movie serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon played their part in shaping Lucas’s concept as well, but it comes back to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World where much of what I described above plays its part. More to the point, in 1971 or so according to author Ronin Ro’s history of comics, Tales to Astonish (Bloomsbury, 2004), George Lucas, unknown filmmaker and admitted comic book reader, attends a dinner along with Ed Snipe (a Manhattan comic store owner), Marvel Editor-and-Chief Roy Thomas, and the “King,” Jack Kirby. Prompted by a what-are-you-working-on now query, Kirby outlines the working rough for his current project for DC, The Fourth World: He tells Lucas “about ‘Mark Moonrider,’ the ‘religious presence’ known as The Source, his Dark Father, children separated from fathers at birth and the clash between good and evil,” etc. Naturally, among Kirby fans and Lucas critics, this story is apocryphal. But regardless, it lays down the further genesis of the epic space opera that captured the imaginations of movie-goers worldwide.
No disrespect to Lucas (I’ll save that for a discussion of the “2nd” Trilogy) but c’mon man, nobody cares—in terms of a denigration of your work—that The Fighting Devil Dogs (look it up!) movie serial, Kurosawa, and “King” Kirby played important roles in shaping your creation! Pop cultural appropriation is a hallmark of Postmodernism, and STAR WARS is no different. Darth Vader is an important movie (and now also comic book) super-villain and that he is a child of inspiration primarily influenced by the work of Jack Kirby is no dishonor. Many of us are cultural appropriators—it’s what you do with that appropriation that counts. I know artists whose entire careers are predicated on cultural appropriation. Citing Joseph Campbell because it makes you seem literary shouldn’t also be a barrier (or excuse) to admitting the equally important contribution Kirby made. STAR WARS is really a product of “vernacular” pop culture (serials and comic books) than “academic” philosophy and contributes to elevating that culture by its very success. Give a little credit where credit is due.
Kinda ironic that Marvel, the company for whom Kirby put “on the map” with his creations and style beginning in 1962, would be the first company to adapt STAR WARS to comic book form in 1977.
It certainly helped prolong the life of Jim Warren’s Famous Monsters of Filmland when fantasy and sci fi movies received the boost the success that STAR WARS brought to cinema. Everyone wanted their own “Star Wars” and the competition heated up on screen and on television (Battlestar Galactica anyone?), and it’s not abated since, if anything it’s only gotten better (with Peter J
on’s adaptation of Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings trumping anything Lucas ever imagined, including a Best Picture Oscar, and Joss Whedon bringing the superhero film into uncharted territory as both well-written and action-packed, intelligent entertainment).
But 35 years ago, STAR WARS changed the landscape. And Doctor Doom and Darkseid begat a love child we all love to hate.