Monday, April 15, 2013

The Masterworks Introduction Marvel would not print: "I Sing The Kirby Electric!"

The Introduction Marvel Masterworks would not print: Jack Kirby and A.I. Why? Because I never submitted it! You see, in a three hundred page book, they wanted 295 pages of stories and five pages of introduction. I wanted 295 pages of introduction and five pages of stories. 

Because this is the internet, let me make sure that you know I am joking. Marvel was very kind, supportive and helpful.

I did write the introduction to the Tales of Suspense Masterworks #4. However, I did want to write a longer one. You see, although Mike Vassallo, Nick Caputo, Will Murray and Roy Thomas had written very well about the era, the company, the writers and the artists, I wanted to write about the stories and their themes. TOS Vol. #4 was a very special volume because, in real time, this was the very last comic series featuring the great anthology stories that began in the Atlas age of comics. Here, the art and themes that would be kept well into the Marvel Age would be introduced, and I wanted to discuss them and show how they developed. Sadly, at five pages, I couldn’t. If you look at that intro you will see that I pick out several topics. For example, Jack Kirby returned to Marvel in 1959, drawing mechanical devices that came to life. When he left Marvel in 1977 his last creation was Machine Man, a mechanical device that came to life. T.S. Eliot once wrote, “In the beginning was my end.”

Here is a paragraph as I first typed it, but the red text is what I had to delete:

It is just wonderful to see Dick Ayers’ inks of Kirby pencils. Just looking at one of their splash pages instantly brings me back to that era. Gone now are Kirby’s renditions of construction equipment coming to life and running amok (where I learned that with great power comes high electric bills). Frequent among their work are thoughtful stories about what we today call Artificial Intelligence.

Had I continued the intro would have looked like this:

I Sing the Kirby Electric
Life from Lifelessness

 “Whether Hal could actually think was a question which had been settled by the British mathematician Alan Turing back in the 1940s. Turing had pointed out that, if one could carry out a prolonged conversation with a machine—whether by typewriter or microphones was immaterial—without being able to distinguish between its replies and those that a man might give, then the ma­chine was thinking, by any sensible definition of the word. Hal could pass the Turing test with ease.” -2001

Jack Kirby displayed and used technology in many ways. Often he used it for decoration and humor. It would be wonderful to see Mr. Fantastic with a huge piece of equipment that usually didn’t do much of anything (except drive him into bankruptcy in the early years). So often, huge, complex and wondrous items seemed to have very limited or no function whatsoever. Kirby also used it as a tool to help mankind, usually in the hands of a benevolent hero. Often though, technology was presented as a threat. Whether a scientist should monitor how his inventions were used, especially if they could be used as weapons, was, at times, cause for debate during the cold war, and that might have affected Kirby's outlook.

But these were comic books and Jack Kirby needed machinery to look menacing and/or dramatic. Routinely, he personified technology in the form of robots, androids, computers and other forms of Artificial Intelligence, (A.I.) to appear threatening. Now, A.I. had been used in science fiction for decades, from “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, to Data in Star Trek to Fantoccini Ltd. and Ray Bradbury. In comics we have seen it since the original Human Torch for Marvel and the Metal Men for DC. It has been used to enable an outside observer to see how humanity views itself. Many times Kirby used it to show the link between what makes us human and what makes us afraid.

When we first entered the computer age there was a great deal of discussion about A.I.  Something which, as we have become familiar with computers, we don’t discuss much now. In a 1992 interview with Randolph Hoppe, Kirby said that “Mr. Machine of course is an ultimate machine. Uh, he’s a human machine. And ultimately, now that’s what the machine wants to be. I mean, the machine knows that we’re responsible for it…. That it wouldn’t be there without us…The computer has the possibility of thinking on its own. It’s got a brain.” A computer does not have brain; nor does it think or have judgments. Kirby confuses data retention with intelligence. It has no desires at all, let alone to be human. But Kirby's vision was projected into his creations. Bad science, great storytelling. This view is demonstrated in one of his earliest stories involving A.I.   Harvey Publication’s Alarming Tales #5 (1957), has a Kirby story entitled “I Want to Be a Man!” It features a computer called Fabiac, probably named after the first commercial computer, UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), which was created in 1951. Fabiac is given a great amount of data, and as it acquires it, gains emotions. Working so close to a good, decent human named David, it acquires judgment and wants to be a man. All of Kirby’s A.I. creations are male, no females allowed. I always wondered if that was a comic code restriction; men could not make artificial women. (Tina, Platinum from the Metal Men, is the only obvious female I.A. creature I can remember.) Fabiac commits suicide (self-destructs) when he learns he could never be human.

It was therefore very appropriate for Kirby to have adapted the movie 2001, A Space Odyssey. In this movie, the technology is layered. 2001 shows the exhilaration of technology and its frightening components as well. Since we consider intelligence (artificial or organic) as what makes us alive, in science fiction the problem often arises that since it has no natural life span, is it like killing it when we have to shut it down? If A.I. gives machines humanity, does shutting it down remove it?

Many of the characters of the Marvel Age, biological or artificial, struggled to keep, or gain, humanity over technology. More often than not, when they succeed it is with the aid of a woman. Dr. Doom was not A.I. but represented the height of technology in human form and he certainly looked like a robot. Of course, Darth Vader, a copy of Doom, played to that in the movies. Iron Man, again robotic looking, is also a representation of advanced science. The Thing and the Hulk are examples of science gone wrong and leaving its victims disfigured and emotionally scarred, to say the least. Alicia Masters was introduced in The Fantastic Four #8 as the blind step-daughter of the Puppet Master. It is Alicia who finds the humanity left in the grotesque Ben Grimm and brings it to the surface. When the Hulk went on a rampage, he was often (but not always) stopped by Rick Jones, but only Betty Ross could make him gentle and protective. In fact, the Hulk’s personality softened around other women too.

In Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby’s version of the Silver Surfer (not the one Lee did with John Buscema) the Silver Surfer was life from lifelessness, created by Galactus, the devourer of planets. (Fantastic Four #48-50) The herald of disaster, he arrives on Earth with no empathy. The space travelling duo is the ultimate creations of technology. Galactus needs to consume organic power to survive; that is his only mission. As in our real world, Kirby illustrates a great technological wonder that, in order to preserve his own life, is prepared to use up all the natural, organic resources that humanity depends upon, thus leaving the planet to die. The Silver Surfer exists to facilitate that process, with no emotion, no regret, and for that matter no pride in what he does. They are two technological beings; with no reason to survive except for the sake of it. They are technology without purpose, very much like those wonderful decorative machines Kirby had drawn all these years. The Surfer lacks more than purpose. While Kirby gave him form and Stan Lee gave him substance, neither one gave him pants. He did not need them; he was neither male nor female. His mission was to consume life, not create it.

Jack Kirby was truly a Puppet Master with a pencil, controlling his characters and putting them into dramatic situations. Once again (and not for the last time) Alicia, a blind woman who sees humanity where no one else does, is brought to the forefront. Although she does not have sight, she has, instead, great vision. She isn't prejudiced; she doesn't see race, color or place of natural origin, but sees inside the heart of the people she encounters. Technology, Lee and Kirby reminds us, without humanity, has no purpose. It is Alicia that gives the Surfer empathy, compassion and finally purpose. She, not Reed, not the Watcher, opens his eyes for the first time to what he's actually doing. It is a story that has resonated for decades. Touched by Alicia and a higher purpose, Kirby’s Surfer just wants to be human. (The John Buscema version is beautiful, but the essence of the character was changed to make him a super-hero.) Kirby’s Surfer has no back story.

In Fantastic Four #66, evil scientists (in an era before cloning) create a powerful new biological entity, a product of organic technology, with A.I. (who could speak English before he was even "born") inside their technological “beehive.” Unable to envision what he looks like, they trick Alicia into approaching the beehive and letting them know what is there. Alicia, being a sculptress, can give form to what can't be seen.

Gradually we see that the "creation" mirrors the emotions of those who approach him. The scientists, who have no compassion or empathy, feel only fear and hatred and pass that on to their creation, causing him to feel frightened and isolated. The evil scientists “feel his hatred,” unaware that they are actually feeling their own. They fear and run from him, but Alicia does not. Sensing that he feels isolated and scared in his own cocoon, she says, “Don’t be afraid, I will stay with you. I have known another like you—one who is also powerful (The Thing) but who needs understanding and compassion. For the sake of the love I feel for him…I will not desert you.” Alicia stays and gives this new consciousness not just compassion, but also a purpose. When born, the being (called “Him”) destroys the evil about him (the scientists) and preserves the good: Alicia and her friends. ( “Him” later became Warlock.)

Part of the brilliance of the team of Lee and Kirby was not just coming up with new ideas, but taking old ones and making them seem fresh. A very common theme in Kirby’s work is that menacing technology always seems bigger than life and uncontrollable. But as we learn about it and lose the fear, radically, the items become visually smaller. The Beehive and the Cocoon here are great examples because they get smaller as we gain knowledge of them. In fact, The Watcher gets smaller too, although his height is rarely consistent.

But what happens to A.I. when there isn’t a compassionate woman around to act as a teacher and to give him humanity? You get evil and destructiveness. This brings us to Fantastic Four Annual #5. In a special Silver Surfer story, the Surfer meets up with Quasimodo, a super computer (with a TV face) created by the Mad Thinker. Quasimodo has A.I.; he can think, reason, talk and deceive, and convinces the Surfer to grant him form and life. Now remember, this is a replica of the Surfer's creation - life from lifelessness. And when “Quasi” gains form and life, he announces his mission: To DESTROY!! This is no different from the Surfer’s original purpose! So the Surfer is actually fighting "himself," a common Marvel theme. 

Here, though, there is no Alicia to reach out to Quasi, no Sue Storm to show compassion. In fact, there are no women anywhere and so evil prevails. Soon the Surfer deprives Quasi of both his body and his mind, stating “If a body lacks a soul, only a statue can it be.” Again, technology without a purpose, without humanity, is wasted. Is the Surfer looking back at himself? Another creature with A.I. and no compassion is MODOK (Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing). Like Quasi, he was created by men and has no interaction with women. This fits comfortably into the Kirby and Marvel patterns.

Mind control - by The Puppet Master, The Miracle Man and Mr. Doll - was always a great premise with Kirby and Marvel. Diablo is my favorite because he controls the mind of the Dragon Man, who technically, doesn’t have a mind. Of course, Lee and Kirby make the story work. When brought to life by Diablo, Dragon Man viciously attacks The Fantastic Four. While this is really more witchcraft than science, Dragon does develop A.I. along the way, along with a fondness for blondes, in a King Kong sort of way. In the middle of a battle, when Sue shows him compassion, he responds in turn, a destructive force now turned protector. Not science, but this theme develops over and over again. I don’t want to confuse A.I. with intelligence given in comics to living creatures like the Stone Man. A.I. here refers to independent awareness created by technology, or, in some cases, magic.

When Dr. Trask creates The Sentinels in X-Men #14 (in a story that Kirby co-plotted with Lee) the Sentinels have no interaction with women and become evil. 

A small player in the realm of A.I. is the Awesome Android of the Mad Thinker, although it was invented by Reed Richards. (Actually it was created by Lee and Kirby in Fantastic Four #15)  Again, controlled only by an evil man, the Android knew only how to fight, to battle.

Lee and Kirby continuously shows us that humanity and compassion are contagious. We see that, in the real world or in comics, when science exists without conscience or direction it can be destructive and is something to be feared. But technology tamed and controlled by the right people, can make our lives better.

The Recorder in THOR is a wonderful idea. He is sent by his creators from the constellation Rigel to monitor Thor when he approaches Ego, the Living Planet (Thor #131). Although a machine, he looks human, which is all the more interesting because the Colonizers don’t. They are aliens. Why they made the machine to look like a human is a bit puzzling at first. His color is different in the beginning but grows into a flesh color as time goes by. But, as mentioned earlier, Kirby enables us to accept technology by making it look familiar. We can now guess that down the road Kirby planned to gain our acceptance of the character. The Recorder actually looks like a human size version of the evil Sentinels, from The X-Men. For Lee and Kirby the storytellers, the Recorder has several dramatic purposes. He serves as a narrator, explaining what is going on, as well as building suspense by alerting the reader to upcoming frightening events. He is also a companion of Thor, one who can exist (and talk) in the vacuum of space. He often reminds us that he is there to observe and record, and can feel no emotion. Give him time. He will not be the last of his kind; Machine Man will look much like him too. Appropriate to his name, the Recorder is designed to collect, process and store information, and to inform.

When we first encounter Ego, the Living Planet, (Thor 132-3) the planet wants to do nothing more than demonstrate its power. Later, in issues #160-163, the planet fights against Galactus, as Thor becomes an Ally. The encounter between Thor, Ego, Galactus and the Recorder is fascinating. We have the height of Technology in Galactus, confronting the height of organic growth, the living planet, Ego. Also, there is the height of Mythology in Thor, a god from Asgard, who has the power to actually hurt Galactus, all being observed by a machine with A.I. Brilliantly drawn, the pages are still not large enough to contain Kirby’s characters. Between those two events, Thor has an adventure with The Grand Evolutionary who evolves Earth’s creatures to have human intelligence. This is not quite A.I., because their intelligence is evolved, coming from an organic source that is mutated, but it is still a riff on a similar theme.

Ego the Living Planet, as we get to know and understand it, will also shrink down in size in issue #162, even taking human form. As mentioned, with Kirby, science under control becomes smaller and more familiar. Ego thanks Thor for saving him from Galactus and shows gratitude to his companions by offering them a home.

The Recorder has developed quickly and when saved by Thor says that he feels “gratitude.” Soon he will accompany Thor in his battles in Asgard against Mangog, where he will meet Sif and other Asgardians. He steadily develops more and more human emotions and qualities along with a smoother cadence while talking. Soon he will journey with Thor to meet up with Ego and Galactus, expressing fear, protection and warmth. Again, interacting with humanity has made him human. After his interaction with Thor, Sif and a group of aliens, the Recorder returns home to be threatened with dismantlement, but Thor intervenes.

“Thou didst but shape his form, Thou didst implant a heart. But who can say whence comes the breath of life? …He who is called the recorder doth feel, doth love and therefore doth possess, that which men call, soul!

He has gained life for he has a soul. Women will do that, at least in the Marvel Universe. Is this a Lee or Kirby innovation? I think it is more Kirby than anyone else because this is a theme he uses often. In his last run on Captain America (210-214) Kirby gave us the Arnin Zola, the Bio-Fanatic, the self-proclaimed “Dr. Frankenstein.” Zola creates new life, including Doughboy and Primus. Doughboy is much more pliable and does not give Zola any problems, he performs as "kneaded" (ouch). Primus, when kept with only Zola, expresses devotion and selfishness. When he meets Donna Maria, he at first wants her (Why? We can only guess -remember, he technically has no gender.) Then he grows to be her protector and unselfishly sacrifices himself in a futile attempt to stop Arnin.

Of course, Kirby drew the ultimate creature with A.I.: The Hal 9000 computer from 2001. (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic Computer) Once again, humans give Hal a single mission: to get to Jupiter (Saturn in the original book) at any cost, even deception.

"Whatever way it worked, the final result was a machine intelli­gence that could reproduce—some philosophers still preferred to use the word “mimic” —most of the activities of the human brain and with far greater speed and reliability. It was extremely expen­sive and only a few units of the HAL 9000 series had yet been built.
"Poole and Bowman had often humorously referred to them­selves as caretakers or janitors aboard a ship that could really run itself. They would have been astonished and more than a little in­dignant, to discover how much truth that jest contained.”
--Arthur. C Clarke

In 2001, Hal was cool, efficient and eventually deadly. In his follow-up novel, 2010, Arthur C. Clarke had Hal interact with humans honestly and with no deceptions. At the end of 2010 Hal sacrifices himself for the safety of the crew. ("Will I dream?" he asks.)

Machine Man, first known as Mister Machine, is the last of his kind, as well as being the last Jack Kirby super-hero creation for Marvel. He is also Kirby’s last character to gain life from lifelessness, to live among men and to gain a soul. Although Marvel now avoids mentioning it (probably for licensing reasons) Machine Man is continued from Kirby’s ten issue run of 2001: A Space Odyssey series, where he was introduced as X-51 in issue #8. He was created by Abel Stack for the Broadhurst Center for the U.S. Army.

Machine Man is the only robot of a lot of 51 who gained A.I. (as HAL had) but did not go nuts. This is probably as a result of his exposure to the Monolith from 2001 as well as the way he was treated, like a son, by his creator. Machine Man uses the name Aaron Stack. And just like his great grandfather, from Alarming Tales, he wants to be human. So Aaron takes the last name Stack, from the man who “raised” Aaron at his home, in a father and son relationship. As with all Kirby ventures into A.I., Aaron develops the culture and values of those around him. For the first time in Kirby’s Marvel Universe such a creation is raised, as far as we can see, without females, and becomes benevolent. Like the Silver Surfer and the Hulk, many Machine Man stories feature him interacting with humans who either fear him or mistrust him because he looks different and threatening. In fact, is this Kirby’s version of what the Surfer would have been like if left in his hands?

I realize, now, that Kirby was never creating Artificial Intelligence, he was always creating Artificial Life. Or maybe I should just say, Life.

Of course, these characters would have long comic book lives after Kirby eventually leaves. The High Evolutionary and Him would team up to create Counter Earth for the series Warlock. The Surfer would appear in many comics and even have a brief movie career. Both the Surfer and Warlock would become Christ-like figures, with great insight, great morality and loads of humanity. The Recorder would return to Thor ten years after Kirby left it, in issue #266. He would be more human, certainly more of a friend and ally than when we first met him. But what of the Machine Man? ) What happens to a creature with A.I. when we are finished with it? We would see that Mister Machine could only go forward by reaching back into Kirby’s past. A.I. is what gives something life, to shut it down would be killing it. Human beings age and die, machines do not. This was an issue addressed in 2001, as well as in Stephen Spielberg’s A.I. It was also addressed in “I Sing the Body Electric” by Ray Bradbury, where an Electric Grandmother goes to live with other A.I. creatures until she is needed again.

Technology with purpose and humanity should never go to waste.

“A fable? Most assuredly. But who’s to say at some distant moment there might not be an assembly line producing a gentle product in the form of a grandmother whose stock in trade is love? Fable, sure—but who’s to say?” --Rod Serling

1 comment:

  1. A Pearl of wise interpretation, yet I see why it wasn't right for a Tales of Suspense reprint volume. Thank you for letting us see it all.