Hand of Fire – The Comics Art Of Jack Kirby by Charles Hatfield (book review).

One is always wary when the academics get their hands on popular culture. I was recently re-reading Kingsley Amis on the subject in his introduction to the anthology ‘The Golden Age Of Science Fiction’. Academic himself, Amis nonetheless thought that the Science Fiction field became too self-conscious and was irreversibly changed when literary types stopped spitting on it and began to treat it with respect. Raymond Chandler also had mixed feelings on his pulp fiction being something that intellectuals clawed each other about. However, once it’s done, it’s done and the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. For better or worse, comics are now the subject of academic enquiry.

It could be worse. At least Charles Hatfield is a genuine fan and he calls them comics. He doesn’t try and tart them up as ‘graphics’ or some other euphemism. Moreover, he is quite clear in his view that Jack Kirby produced commercial work to a deadline in order to feed his family with very little pretensions to making ‘Art’ in the higher sense. Indeed, Hatfield says, the nature of the work that he produced and the way it developed are a direct outcome of the nature of his professional life. He had to work fast and the stuff had to sell, otherwise he was out of a job. The ‘Art’ has to be viewed in that context. As with old pulp fiction writers, there was no time for revision or reflection on how it might be improved. You turned out the pages, cashed the cheque and went on to the next blank page.

While giving some consideration to all of Kirby’s forty year career, Hatfield’s analysis is focused on the later decades. The works examined here are the 60s Marvel comics, ‘The New Gods’ and other series done for DC in the 70s and his work on ‘The Eternals’ when he returned to Marvel. As the author points out, most of this stuff is now available in various Essential and Omnibus editions. In preparation for reviewing this book, I have read all of it several times over the last forty years and have most of it to hand in my bookcase. That Kirby’s art is strangely wonderful is common knowledge to his many fans. How it works and why it works is something this book sets out to explain. This takes many words. One picture is worth a thousand words they say and Kirby produced an awful lot of pictures. Happily, some of them are reproduced here.

A word of warning: if you’re not a bit familiar with academic writing, this book may drive you up the wall. The analysis of art in words is a complex business and may even seem pointless to persons not of a scholarly bent. Hatfield uses semiotics as his starting point and tells us that the drawings in comics are signs. A sign has several meanings: an icon, a likeness of the thing it represents. A portrait is an icon of the person portrayed. A sign can also be a symbol, bearing an artificial relationship to its referent. The word ‘gun’, for example, is a symbol of a real live gun. You can’t pick up a g a u and an n then shoot someone. It’s just a symbol, not a gun. Finally, a sign may be an index of its referent – caused by or produced by its referent. A spinning weathervane is an index of wind. I have paraphrased the above from Chapter One of the book to give a flavour of this part of the work. In the following pages, the author goes through a panel by panel analysis of some pages from ‘The Demon’. Later chapters have in depth looks at ‘The Pact’ (New Gods # 7) and ‘Himon’ (Mister Miracle # 9). Hatfield regards the Fourth World series as Kirby’s apogee, the point where he was at his most Kirby-esque, most true to his own vision, and also at the height of his talent. Later works, such as ‘Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers’ were so Kirby-esque that most readers simply couldn‘t cope with them, though the author likes them, he says. The Fourth World was Jack unleashed for the first time, no Joe Simon or Stan Lee to constrain him. The drawings, too, once Vince Colletta was replaced, were more exact reproductions of the original pencil art. Mike Royer changed almost nothing. Joe Sinnott and other Marvel inkers had usually toned him down, replacing squiggles with more standard strokes. One can argue that this was not always a bad thing but obviously Kirby preferred that the reader get the raw Kirby vision, undiluted. He never complained about inkers simply because his own working class ethics utterly forbad putting another man out of work.

The review would be as long as the book if I went into much more detail but be aware – beware! – that it persists in a very academic vein. The chapter entitled ‘How Kirby Changed The Superhero’ informed me that those costumed vigilantes are ‘super-mobile navigators of the impacted spaces of utopian modernity’. Not a lot of people know that. In the following chapter, ‘Kirby’s Technological Sublime’, Hatfield goes into definitions of the sublime before analysing Kirby’s famous technology, those vast gadgets and huge vistas that dwarfed the characters. We use ‘sublime’ nowadays as a substitute for ‘nice’. Hatfield goes into more exact definitions quoting Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and other notables and delving into the aesthetics of the Romantic movement. Romance is another word where the simple modern meaning does not apply. Grandeur, cosmic awe, delightful horror and similar terms are used to evoke the effect of the sublime. In photo collage and graphic art, Kirby attempted to convey a vision of outer space and of stranger spaces, too, like the Negative Zone and the Promethean Galaxy, the place of giants. Maybe he felt at home there.

Hatfield rightly states that ‘Thor’ was the seed bed of the Fourth World. It was on ‘Thor’ that Kirby really got into mythology, starting with the blending of Greek and Norse myths when Thor fought Hercules and then had to rescue him from Pluto’s Netherworld. Beginning in ‘Tales Of Asgard’ but taking off in the main strip at the start of 1966, this new mode of storytelling led to a blend of gods and Science Fiction that prefigures Kirby’s best work. After Pluto came the Colonizers, Rigel, Ego the Living Planet, the High Evolutionary and all the other great stuff. Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four met the Black Panther, the Inhumans, Galactus and the Silver Surfer then went on to encounter the Kree villains like Ronan and the Sentry in a cavalcade of new characters that has seldom, if ever, been matched and that provided the basis for much of the Marvel Universe we know and love. It’s always struck me that 1966-67 were also the years when the Beatles and other great groups were really hitting their stride as well. It was a good time to be a teen-ager. Being seven wasn’t too bad neither, as I recall.

This is a fascinating analysis of Kirby’s greatest works and I enjoyed it immensely, even when it was a struggle to follow the abstract aesthetic reasoning where it became high flown. Flying high is no bad thing and this is a book that will stretch the mind. It’s not easy reading but it is satisfying. Whether comic art deserves this kind of close textual analysis is a moot point but if it’s to be done then it should be done well, by a well-educated academic with genuine devotion to the work and earnest intent. This writer has both. Hats off to Hatfield!

Eamonn Murphy

November 2012


(pub: University Press Of Mississippi. 304 page illustrated small paperback. Price: $28.00 (US), £24.64 (UK). ISBN: 978-1161703-178-6)

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Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His works are available on Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited.

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