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“How Can I Refuse You, Mother Box?!” Abjection and Objectification of Motherhood in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World

By Annamarie O’Brien

According to Scott Bukatman in “X-Bodies: The Torment of the Mutant Superhero,” superhero narratives “present a significant somatization of modernist and postmodernist social concerns. … Superhero bodies are mysterious, invested with magical abilities and a metaphoric pliability; if they are marginal bodies in the body of literature, this still should not blind us to their importance” (49). Undoubtedly, the body plays a central role in many superhero comics. This inherent importance is reflected in the growing number of discourses that critically examine the hyper-muscularity of heroes and hyper-sexualization of women in mainstream comic books. However, maternal and reproductive female bodies are often overlooked in these critiques. If the superhero body, often portrayed as “an accident of birth, a freak of nature, or a consequence of technology run wild” (Bukatman 49), is essentially problematic, the symbolic grotesquery and annihilation of the mother’s body is significant in these tales.

Jack Kirby, an influential artist, writer and creator of many major canonical superhero comics, explores themes of reproduction and family in his “Fourth World” saga, published in the early 1970s. Despite its overt narrative concerns regarding life, death, and familial ties, a deep ambivalence about reproduction and maternity is manifest in the treatment of mother figures in “The Fourth World.” The problematic treatment of the female reproductive body emerges in both the monstrous depictions of mothering gone awry via the recurrent villainess “Granny Goodness,” and the idealized “Mother Box”—a sentient device used frequently in The New GodsForever People, and Mister Miracle. To explore Kirby’s portrayals of motherhood, and the way they both reflect culturally constructed archetypes and support the saga’s narrative emphasis on paternal lineage, this examination compares various appearances of Granny Goodness and Mother Box. Ultimately, the depiction of motherhood through the monstrous feminine and the ideal female essence in the Fourth World departs markedly from hyper-sexualized depictions of women, representing a different sort of discomfort with the female body. In “Supermoms? Maternity and the Monstrous Feminine in Superhero Comics” Jeff Brown suggests that because the superhero genre is “so obsessively concerned with maintaining borders (be they legal, political, bodily or ideological), the maternal comes to represent the most feared aspects of femininity and/or chaos” (86). Kirby’s maternal characters in the Fourth World can be considered unique and symbolic tools for the negotiation of these fears.

The New Gods, first published in 1971 along with with Mister Miracle and Forever People, exhibits particularly notable interest in addressing the nature of life and death. Issue #1, “Orion Fights for Earth,” situates the main characters on the twin planets New Genesis and Apokolips, taking great pains to frame their clash as the battle between life and death. Both planets reference their symbolic function in their nomenclature, but in case the significance is lost on readers, the ruler of New Genesis and leader of the New Gods, Highfather, narrates the differences. In this first issue, Kirby depicts New Genesis through beautiful vistas that feature ample foliage and young people, and establishes that it is connected directly with the “Source,” which harbors the eternal life equation. Highfather instructs Orion, member of the New Gods, to bow to the young children upon his arrival to the planet. He explains, “First we bow to the young—they are the carriers of life! They must remain free Orion! Life flowers in freedom!” (Figure 1). Within this interchange and the panels that follow, Highfather both establishes himself as paternal authority figure, and links his planet and guiding principles to the propagation of life.

Figure 1: “Orion Fights for Earth” Jack Kirby’s New Gods (New York: DC Comics, 1998).

In much of The New Gods, patrilineage is a central concern that is represented through accounts of reproduction and family without significant mother figures. While Charles Hatfield asserts that the Fourth World’s foundational tenet is freedom in Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, he notes that it is often expressed through Kirby’s use of narratives about children. Hatfield explains, “the Fourth World is a story about children: not only the obvious examples … but also those grown children of Apokolips and New Genesis, Orion and Scott Free, protagonists of The New Gods and Mister Miracle respectively” (263). Similarly, Jason Tondro highlights Kirby’s narrative of family and paternal relationships in the Fourth World in Superheroes of the Round Table: Comics Connections to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Tondro asserts, “Highfather and Darkseid stand at the center of large families, and despite the Biblical overtones of the saga of The New Gods, this is also a tale about fathers and sons” (73).

The story of paternal lineage is explicated in first issue of The New Gods, when Metron and Highfather discuss the secret of Orion’s true descent from Darkseid, ruler of Apokolips. The trade of sons, Scott Free and Orion, between Highfather and Darkseid was meant to establish peace between their two planets. Conflicts between father and son arise in the first issue, but are elucidated in “The Pact” when the sons become aware of the trade and come to terms with this revelation (Figure 1). Because of this trade, Orion and Scott Free were forced to live in environments diametrically opposed to their “true nature” as established through their paternal fathers. The agreement between Highfather and Darkseid to exchange sons is a core conflict that obscures the paternal lineage, and is portrayed as an act that undermines the core value of blood relations and proper reproduction.

Although reproduction on New Genesis is not discussed in great detail in The New Gods, the improper reproduction that takes place on Apokolips or is enacted by villainous parties, is explicitly admonished. The mechanisms of procreation on New Genesis are carefully shielded and relegated to the symbolic. In “Orion Fights for Earth,” Highfather explains that Apokolips is dedicated to the destruction of life, proclaiming that unlike New Genesis, “Life is the evil here! And death, the great goal!” (Kirby, “Orion Fights for Earth”). Interestingly, reproduction of life on Apokolips is consistently a plot point. For instance, Darkseid and the inhabitants of Apokolips grow human beings collected from living Earth specimen in huge vats in a creepy laboratory, and in similarly perverse creation of life, “Giant biological mutations are bred in Apokolips’ laboratories!—turned loose to pillage and kill!!” (Kirby, “Evil Factory” and “The Pact”). In fact, the anti-life equation that is formulated as the impetus for all of Darkseid’s actions appears to not be truly about the negation of life, but rather about the control of life.

Given the consistent diegetic attention to familial ties, the absence of mother figures, or references to matrilineage (outside of one panel in “The Pact”), is suspect. An apparent ambivalence toward maternity and mothers underscores the value of paternal lineage in the Fourth World. In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva explains the abjection of maternity as a narrative embedded in patriarchal culture. She finds that the “fear of the archaic mother turns out to be essentially fear of her generative power. It is this power, a dreaded one, that patrilineal filiation has the burden of subduing” (77). The New Gods and Mister Miracle model some ways in which superhero narratives have grappled with this burden while protecting the hegemonic masculinity of the heroes. While mother figures in the Fourth World are not objectified for visual consumption as other women characters may be, they represent an equally problematic rejection of the female reproductive body. This is accomplished through both the visual and character degradation of maternal characters and the annihilation of the maternal body altogether. The formation of motherhood expressed in the Fourth World can be examined through the polarized treatment of woman parent figures: the monstrous and abject mother, Granny Goodness, and the pure, bodiless mother, Mother Box.

Contemporary conceptions of motherhood set up stringent expectations of mothers, which often results in the denial of agency for women. In an essay about reproductive rights discourses, “Morality and Personhood,” Rosalind Petchesky suggests that modern social and cultural forces rather than innate spiritual or biological characteristics construct definitions of motherhood. Petchesky explains the denial of agency and subjectivity of women in debates about fetal “personhood” as “part of the modern definition of motherhood as total and selfless devotion to one’s biological children … a thoroughly ideological—invention” (256). The assumption that the essential nature of femininity and womanhood is innately oriented toward the reproduction and protection of children relegates the woman to inferiority within the patriarchal bourgeois family. Not only does this discourse devalue women who are mothers, it also constructs those women who do not heed their biological or spiritual calling as unnatural. Petchesky explains, “there is the Augustinian image of woman as ordained by God to procreate; the passive receptacle of male seed,” and that she is considered “‘selfish’ and ‘sinful’ if she evades that destiny and directs her sexuality to nonprocreative ends” (260). The condemnation of women who are not appropriately maternal, as well as the monstrosity of the abject maternal body described by Kristeva, is embodied in the depiction of Granny Goodness.

Recurrent villainess Granny Goodness figures prominently in both The New Gods and Mister Miracle. Though her name suggests family affiliation, Granny Goodness is not related biologically to Orion or Scott Free. She does, however, help raise Scott Free when he is put under her care in an orphanage on Apokolips through the pact. Charles Hatfield notes that “Granny christens the boy ‘Scott Free'” and that “no other name is given, nor any information about his mother or his birth” (215). The time that Scott Free spends at the orphanage as Granny Goodness’ ward causes his conflict with Granny Goodness in the second issue of Mister Miracle. In “The X-Pit” Oberon and Scott Free have the following exchange:

Oberon: What is it like—where you come from, Scott—? You said it was a sort of orphanage—run by this old harpy—Granny Goodness!!
Scott Free: You saw her, Oberon. … I’m certain you found her quite impressive! Well, she’s in charge of one of many institutions where the young of Apokolips are raised and trained to develop their inherent powers!! (Kirby “The X-Pit”)

Granny Goodness is thus introduced as an “old harpy” inhabiting the role of mother to the youth of Apokolips.

Figure 2: “The X-Pit” Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle (New York: DC Comics, 1998).

Unlike many of the other villains introduced in the Fourth World, the pro-New Genesis crew hates Granny Goodness. “The X-Pit” introduces Granny Goodness as a character with the caption: “To know her is to hate her—Granny Goodness” (Kirby, “The X-Pit”). In this story, Darkseid gives Granny Goodness a gift, “Overlord,” who grants her wishes and is a tool for destruction. This gift is openly lusted over by Granny Goodness, and seems to be one of her central concerns—aside from, of course, the destruction of Mister Miracle and Oberon. The obsession with the Overlord establishes Granny Goodness as a selfish character, as she demands much of her followers and has material goals. The characterization of Granny Goodness as cruel and terrible mother is not lost on Fourth World readers. Hatfield describes the presence of the character Overlord in “The X-Pit” as a means of characterizing Granny Goodness “as a monstrous parody of motherhood, perversely alternating between cream-puffery … and despotic ‘discipline'” (189). As an archetypal caricature of mothers, Granny Goodness continuously nags throughout her appearances and is overly expressive in her speech.

Granny Goodness’s defining trait of selfishness is matched with her exaggeratedly aged physical features. Her age referenced in her name is a central part of her identity. According to Samantha Holland in her examination of the relationship between body and gender, the degradation of the body, represented by birth, aging, or death, is highly problematized in dominant culture (11). As an aging body, Granny Goodness evokes this degradation of life, and represents the loss of her function as a mother—she is no longer “useful” as caretaker or vessel. Her body and its materiality are not masked, but are emphasized and become one of the primary signifiers of her baseness. Visual markers used in Mister Miracle to characterize Granny Goodness tend to relate to the grotesquery of the feminine body. She is featured in the panels of “The X-Pit” both in full body, and in extreme close-ups with drawings emphasizing her lumpy, sagging skin, her heaviness and mass, and her emotive face (Figure 3). Additionally, she is masculinized to a certain extent and wearing a powerful superhero costume, complete with a full suit of armor and cape, and holds a rod used to fight and discipline her subordinates.

Figure 3: “The X-Pit” Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle (New York: DC Comics, 1998).

Granny Goodness has outlived her procreative function, and instead of resigning herself to the passive aging model of elderly femininity, seeks to increase her power. This assertion of power is linked to societal views of reproduction. Petchesky suggests that a woman who refrains from reproduction, defying “the concept of motherhood as total self- sacrifice for the sake of others,” simultaneously asserts “her capacity to exercise control over life and death—and this makes her particularly, ineffably dangerous” (262). This capacity to exercise control over life and death is actively pursued by Granny Goodness. When she is not taking away life (rather than making or passively serving it), she has directly been involved with the removal of children from the home in her work at the orphanage. Scott Free’s stay at the orphanage in Apokolips is one of the central traumas explicated in The New Gods and Mister Miracle. On Apokolips, she is powerful, making decisions with real consequences, is manipulative and withholds love, is temperamental and unstable, and a disciplinarian. Within each of these traits Granny Goodness violates traditional paradigms of motherhood and femininity.

If Granny Goodness symbolizes the monstrous feminine and the abject, Mother Box symbolizes the ideal mother. Mother Box is Granny Goodness’s mirror image, demonstrating the same set of essentialist assumptions about the nature of femininity and motherhood through positive example, rather than negative. In The New Gods, Mother Box is introduced in the first issue alongside the father-son conflict, and becomes a recurrent ‘character’ that figures centrally throughout the Fourth World saga. According to Charles Hatfield, Mother Box is a true symbol of motherhood, providing strength and reassurance to the characters in the Fourth World. Hatfield writes, “the Mother Box is an omnipresent idea in the Fourth World, a device that guides, reassures, and protects Kirby’s heroes … A Mother Box has great and unspecified powers” (191). Her maternal nature is a lauded and a source of great adoration by the Forever People and The New Gods.

Although Mother Box is presented as object rather than body, “her”—never “its” as she is always referred to with gendered pronouns—presence is both a significant plot device, and a vehicle for moral messages. The portrayal of the truly good Mother Box as an entirely bodiless entity parallels the consistent separation of women’s sexuality from motherhood in contemporary culture. Iris Young explains in her essay “Breasted Experience” that the separation between motherhood and sexuality supports the notion that women ought to be selfless:

The ideal mother defines herself as giver and feeder, takes her existence and sense of purpose entirely from giving … Such a mother-giver establishes a foundation for the self-absorbed ego, the subject of modern philosophy, which many feminists have uncovered as being happily male (Schemen 1983; Flax 1983). Thus … she cannot have sexual desire in her mothering because this is a need, a want, and she cannot be perfectly giving if she is wanting and selfish … Woman is both, essentially—the repository of the body, the flesh that he desires, owns and masters, tames and controls; and the nurturing source of his life and ego. Both are necessary functions bolstering the male ego, which cannot be served if they are together, hence the border, their reification into hierarchical opposition … (130)

The “mother-giver” ideal identified by Young is perfectly encapsulated by Kirby’s Mother Box, and her non-human form ensures that the boundary between sexual object and maternal object remains intact.

Perhaps one of Mother Box’s most noteworthy characteristics, given the established constructions of ideal femininity, is her selflessness. Unlike many portrayals of sentient cyborgian entities, Mother Box is emotive and can feel pain and “human” emotion. In fact, Mother Box is defined by her capacity for love. Hatfield describes her paradoxical nature: “though a machine, a Mother Box is sentient. Though powered by the Source and thus ‘linked to the infinite’… a Mother Box can be injured. It (she?) can also be healed, or revived, by an outpouring of ‘love’ and ‘belief'” (194). For instance, in “The X-Pit,” the first appearance of Granny Goodness, Mother Box is weakened by an explosion and must be resuscitated by Scott Free with his psychic expression of love.

Figure 4: “The Murder Missile Trap” Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle (New York: DC Comics, 1998).

Mother Box is portrayed as especially caring, as she worries and calculates on behalf of her “masters,” and sacrifices herself again and again (even committing suicide in The New Gods). She is also characterized by her mysterious or mystical connection with the Source, her private nature (she can only converse with her master, is worn close to the body, and does not perform for others), and her ability to provide life or act as a guide for those in need (Figure 4). Motherbox calms the subjects who carry her by singing to them in a private language, evoking the lullaby between mother and child. In Mister Miracle‘s first issue, “The Murder Missile Trap,” Scott Free uses Mother Box to comfort the elder Mister Miracle (Thaddeus Brown) as he dies after being sniped by Steel Hand with her diminutive “pings” (Kirby, “The Murder Missile Trap”). Mother Box can save and heal the person or persons she is protecting, but is almost never explicitly involved in destruction (and when she is, it is obscured and mystified as in the use of the Mother Box in “The X-Pit”). Though her power is unlimited, or at least not clearly delineated, she is only powerful in the service of others. For this reason, she may be viewed as an object of interaction, rather than a subject, despite claims of her sentience in the narrative. This is in direct opposition to Granny Goodness who is portrayed quite negatively as a subject with “children” as her objects of interaction.

The visual characteristics of Mother Box are in clear opposition to the unruly and monstrous feminine described by Kristeva. She has a simple “clean” form with secure boundaries, unlike other objects in the Fourth World that can exert force either by ejecting laser beams/cables or used in direct combat, such as the “multi-cube” or Wonder Staff. As indicated by her name, Mother Box is by nature, a vessel. Though her walls are opaque, and her contents unknown/unexamined, presumably she conducts life. The technologization of her exterior denies any organic qualities and evokes Samantha Holland’s description of “womb envy” in cyborg narratives. Holland writes, “there is a clear history of (male) desire to create life without the mother” and that this ‘womb envy’ is “apparent in the cyborg film where narrative structures juxtapose the questions of biological and technological reproduction” (22). Indeed, Mother Box may be viewed as a device that allows the New Gods and Forever People access to and control over reproductive processes.

Figure 5: Mother Box in Who’s Who in the DC Universe Vol. 1 #16 DC Comics, 1986: 11.

Mother Box, in her visual and narrative characterization, is a counterpoint to the negative associations with motherhood and femininity presented by Granny Goodness. Unlike Granny Goodness she is not messy, or visibly sexed (Figure 5), compacted into a box with very stable boundaries, and her body cannot age or degrade. Though sentient, she is totally non-consumptive, apparently needing only love to survive. She is also not a harpy, though she can alert and express to a certain extent, she totally lacks the power of speech. Furthermore, she is totally possessed by her “children” the Forever People and New Gods. Mother Box, while defined by her status as a mother with magnificent capabilities and worthy of worship, is ultimately the slave to her “child” possessor. Her depiction as a sentient box without true agency, adheres to other traditional depictions of motherhood in contemporary Western culture. Rosaline Petchesky explains that it is common in political and cultural discourse to refer to maternity in purely functional terms because “reducing motherhood to a passive biological state is a way of dehumanizing it, stripping it of dependence on women’s consciousness” (263). Mother Box is totally reduced to function as a box or vessel for external (and primarily male) needs, effectively negating her supposed sentience.

The Mother Box seems to be a perfect symbolic solution for patriarchal anxieties about reproduction and motherhood, which has in other contexts been ‘solved’ by attempts to objectify and technologize the womb. Samantha Holland, citing Julia Kristeva, suggests that cyborgian narratives represent the fear of motherhood that comes from the way that it innately “deconstructs conceptual boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’—throwing into question traditional assumptions about ‘self”-hood and personal identity” (263). In contemporary popular texts, Holland writes, “technology is thus looked to to control, limit, and regulate the maternal” (263). The control and regulation of the maternal that is evinced in cyborgian narratives (like Terminator and Ghost in the Shell) is paralleled by the treatment of the Mother Box. Although her presence certainly reveals problematic notions about women as possessions with reproductive power, the Fourth World stories often condemn more blatant attempts to technologize life, as evil forces frequently use unnatural reproduction. The Mother Box may be seen to express anxieties about reproduction and the role of women as mothers while allowing naturalistic and essentialized ideas about gender to remain intact.

According to Jeff Brown’s analysis of the abjection of motherhood and the maternal in superhero narratives, the problematic depiction of motherhood is the rule rather than the exception. In superhero comics, pregnancy and motherhood is largely portrayed negatively. However, Brown notes, “while maternity is suspect in superhero comics, paternity is often glorified. In a genre obsessed with hegemonic masculinity superheroic male characters almost completely displace mothers as parental figures” (84). The recurrent theme of paternity and need for fatherly guidance in the Fourth World is reliant on fantastical depictions of the maternal beings. The demonization (in the case of Granny Goodness) and objectification (as Mother Box) of femininity and motherhood protects the paternal authority model that is featured so heavily in The New Gods and Mister Miracle, and structures the superhero genre as a whole. Because the abjection of motherhood and maternal authority allows for the “proper social regulation with paternal law” (85), the patriarchal authority model that underpins Kirby’s Fourth World narratives is reinforced. Although the surface narratives revolve around embracing life and love, the embodied processes of living and reproduction is heavily policed, revealing deep anxieties about the nature of femininity and the female body.

Works Cited

Brown, Jeffrey A. “Supermoms? Maternity and the Monstrous-Feminine in Superhero Comics,” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 2.1 (2011): 77-87. Web.

Bukatman, Scott. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham (N.C.: Duke University Press) 2003. Print.

Hatfield, Charles. Hand of Fire: the Comics Art of Jack Kirby. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. EPUB file.

Johnston, Jessica R. The American Body in Context: an Anthology. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2001. Print.

Kirby, Jack. Jack Kirby’s The Forever People. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1999. Print.

—. Jack Kirby’s New Gods. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1998. Print.

—. Who’s Who in the DC Universe Vol. 1 #16 New York, NY: DC Comics, 1986. Web.

Kirby, Jack, and Vince Colletta. Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1998. Print.

—. Jimmy Olsen. New York, NY: DC Comics, 2003. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.

Tondro, Jason. Superheroes of the Round Table: Comics Connections to Medieval and Renaissance literature. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Weitz, Rose. The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

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