November 2012 Archives

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Hatfield, Charles. Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2012)

If the Mark Evanier volume on Kirby seemed a tad too general-interest for the hardcore comics aficionado, this tome should be more satisfying. A more academic audience will certainly appreciate this detailed examination of Kirby, although at the expense of some (thankfully, relatively few) dry technical passages like this:

The great underlying point about him is the generative power of narrative drawing, the irresistible tug of graphiation as an improvised act of storytelling, an autopoesis in which the story-world and its devices are structured by the drawings themselves. Kirby is the ur-example of that process--whereby the restless mind and the tireless hand work in prefect tandem, pursuing dreams, inscribing them against the teasing, empty whiteness of the page, and making imaginative fire. (p. 252)

Hatfield is unabashedly a Kirby fan, bluntly dispensing with any criticism of his subject matter by stating, "I believe Kirby warrants full and unrestrained critical treatment, and so that is the approach I have taken" (p. 18). He spends plenty of time covering Kirby's cosmic bent, from Thor to the Fourth World to The Eternals, which I was glad to see. This ties in with Hatfield's remarks here about Kirby's Fourth World push toward a larger-scale narrative:

It [Fourth World] included several different but interrelated series that launched simultaneously, a new and risky strategy for expanding the scope of superhero comics. This "Stretching" of the genre enabled much that has occurred in comic books since, enlarging the thematic horizons of the field in such a way that the grand structural ambitions of the Fourth World are now commonplace. (p. 9)

Hatfield writes that in the mid-sixties "Creatively, Kirby erupted [and] the power of his artwork took a hurtling, headlong leap forward, its degree of detail and nuance once more living up to the strength of his underlying layouts and rivaling the intensity of his best pre-Marvel cartooning:"

It was as if his art was galvanized by the sheer pressure. His design sense frothed over; his costumes, gadgets, and characters hit a new level of baroque lavishness. At the same time, he began to treat the superhero as a vehicle for high fantasy and science fiction. Mythopoesis--uninhibited world-building--was the order of the day. Kirby chased ideas and visions superhero comics had never before had the nerve to approach. (pp. 106-107)

Hand of Fire's look into that creative ferment has garnered some mainstream attention. Kirkus writes that "if there's any pop artist who can stand up to the rigors of academic dissection and flap away unscathed, it is comic book legend Jack Kirby:"

It was Kirby, more than anyone, who codified the grammar of comics, who gave the medium its immediacy, its narrative oomph. In his mature work, that visceral punch is married to a rare thematic depth and unity that invites close reading and examination. The wonder of it is that Hand of Fire is the first full-length scholarly study of Kirby's work. Professor Hatfield has written a book that is both welcome and long overdue.

"Kirby left behind a staggering body of work," the piece continues, "an estimated 81,000 pages of comics--dating from the infancy of the medium to its auteurist heyday"

Kirby was perhaps the most God-haunted artist that the comics world has yet produced, channeling his existential anxieties and hopes through a series of proxies. Whether benevolent, malign or terrifyingly indifferent, these God figures are, even at their most anthropomorphic (e.g. the loving-but-stern patriarch figures of Odin and Highfather, or the demiurgic Darkseid), ultimately unknowable.

Metro Pulse calls Kirby "one of the most important comic-book artists of all time, and probably the single greatest superhero artist ever," and refers to Hatfield's book as "perhaps the most serious and sustained critical appraisal of big parts of Kirby's career."

The Comics Journal's three-part roundtable has any number of insights into the book and its subject, and is well worth reading. Part 1 features Glen David Gold writing that "Avengers #4, with the introduction of Captain America, now had a hero with a truly nuanced, complex unsolvable problem: Post traumatic stress disorder:"

Cap responded from his thaw by freaking out, flashing back, displaying hypervigilence, remorse, guilt, nightmares, delusions...the list goes on. And with that, the Marvel universe was really born. Every character had to have emotional layers like that from then on. And the world of Marvel was based on a trauma that Kirby suffered through.

Kirby was denigrated throughout his career by guys like Will Eisner, who told me face to face that Jack lacked artistic intent, that he only wanted to keep his family fed.

[Responding to a comment from Lethem on PTSD:] Where it gets really dire (for me at least) is Silver Star. Kirby's last personal creation is a revamp of Captain America in which a super soldier is born in a moment of combat stress. His superpower is disassociation, the hallmark mental PTSD state.

Part 2 contains Dan Nadel's observation that Kirby was "a frustrated visionary -- stymied by his medium, but continually trying to ask the big questions," and R Fiore's statement that "in order to engage with Kirby the reader has to be willing to sign on to the superhero idea:"

It's misleading to apply criteria developed for fine art to art produced to make a buck. In such art the desire to make a buck is the lead melody and personal expression of the artist is the counter-melody, which may harmonize or be discordant. In this type of art having one single artist to point to as the author for instance is not necessarily a great imperative. Superhero comics are an art form that exists primarily because people want to buy it.

The only reason superhero comics exist in the first place is that at a certain point in history children were given the privilege of deciding what kind of stories they were told, in books they bought with their personal pocket money. [...]

I think we can say that on balance, creatively speaking Lee was essentially Kirby's caddy. A caddy might provide direction and advice, but the golfer plays the game.

Jeet Heer remarked that "lots of critics have seen the superhero as inherently authoritarian, if not fascistic:"

This accusation can be contested based not just on Kirby's personal history (his war record and life-long commitment to liberal democracy) but also within the comics themselves where Kirby's persistent embrace of the outsider, the freak and the underdog is as far as possible from fascism.

and commented that:

Works like the Eternals and the New Gods cycle do raise great questions, but also unanswerable ones so they tend just keep offering new concepts and ideas without a sense of going anywhere (leaving aside the commercial exigencies that also throttled these works).

In Part 3, Doug Harvey reminded us that "Shakespeare and Hiroshige were commercial artists. It's important to avoid self-ghettoizing the comics medium," and commented:

I really appreciate the balance of historical information, critical opinion, and academic contextualization Hatfield manages. I imagine it will go a long way to foster acceptance of the comic book medium in American academic circles...

Jeet Heer called Hatfield's book "a great jumping off point for thinking about Kirby and comics in general. Virtually every page of the book offers a fresh way to think about comics as a visual storytelling form." High praise, indeed--and well deserved. Visit Charles Hatfield's blog for more information.

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Evanier, Mark. Kirby: King of Comics (New York: Abrams, 2008)

It's been some time since I wrote about Jack Kirby's legacy (with the exception of the recent Avengers film), and Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics satiated my craving for some Kirby creativity. Although the book has a general-audience feel, lacking in the level of detail a dedicated fan like myself would want, it's still a great read. (Besides, an appropriately thorough biography would take several volumes; for a single volume, this one is nearly perfect.)

Its heft and large 9"x12" size suit its subject well--Kirby's art deserves to be presented in an imposing manner. The dozens of full page images (including sketches, finished pencil art, and even some comparisons between Kirby's original art and the inked and colored published versions) were mostly non-narrative pages, aside from Kirby's ten-page "Street Code" story; kudos go to whoever managed to get permission from the various publishers to include example of Kirby's art from every era of his five-decade career. (I found it odd, however, that the book's only foldout image was an Alex Ross recreation of a Kirby scene; this was a strange editorial decision.)

Early in his career, Kirby's pseudonyms (pencil names, rather than pen names, one might say) were as varied as his output: Brady, Lawrence, Jack Curtiss, Bob Brown, and Teddy. This doesn't seem to be an evasion of Kirby's Judaism, but rather a restless striving for the means to make his mark. Of Kirby's first major superhero creation, Captain America, Evanier observes that "not everyone loved the flag-draped hero," and that Simon & Kirby received "threatening phone calls and anti-Semitic hate mail:"

Another time, Jack took a call. A voice on the other end said, "There are three of us down here in the lobby. We want to see the guy who does this disgusting comic book and show him what real Nazis would do to his Captain America." To the horror of others in the office, Kirby rolled up his sleeves and headed downstairs. The callers, however, were gone by the time he arrived. Years later, he told an interviewer, "I once got a letter from a Nazi who told me to pick out any lamppost I wanted on Times Square, because when Hitler arrived, they'd hang me from it." (pp. 54-56)

The first half of the book covers Kirby's life and career up until his 1960 return to Marvel; the latter half will likely interest fans even more. This anecdote about his "battered drawing table" is perfect:

It was the last thing the movers loaded on the truck in New York, waiting patiently as he finished an issue of Thor. And it was the first thing unloaded in California. They set it up, and Jack started drawing Fantastic Four while the moving men went and got the bed out of the van. (p. 157)

The work he did at that drawing board is still vital and important; Evanier's book helps to explain (and to show) why this is so. Mania is effusive about the book:

Kirby: King of Comics definitely falls into the "must have" category for any serious comic book fan. [...] It really is a fantastic overview of the man's body of work... [...] In all honesty, this book could've been 1000 pages and it probably wouldn't have been enough to satisfy me.

Graphic Novel Reporter writes that "what distinguishes it is Evanier's 'inside baseball' approach to the material, and he clearly makes generalizations about Kirby based upon the quarter century he spent in his company:"

In this sense, Kirby: King of Comics is probably the closest we'll ever get to an authorized biography. In fact, given how close he was to his subject, it's remarkable how even-handed and diplomatic Evanier is in chronicling the various slights Kirby suffered at the hands of industry leaders.

Sean Kleefeld opines that the book "reads like a Jack Kirby comic book...It comes across almost more as an adventure novel than a biography, with great characters and snappy dialogue. [...] "It's almost larger than life:"

No one did comics quite like Jack. And no one did them better. In light of Jack not having drawn his own story in comic book form, Kirby: King of Comics is as close as anyone could hope for.

NPR interviews Evanier, with an excerpt from the book. At BookForum, J. Hoberman writes that "Jack Kirby (1917-94) more than deserves the royal sobriquet with which he's been crowned:"

King Kirby embodies the drama of his medium as well as the drama of its history--how, starting on the eve of World War II, a bunch of mainly working-class, first-generation Jewish kids created a garish, subliterary mythology of fantastic supermen. [...]

Kirby was fantastically prolific--his career output has been estimated at twenty-five thousand published pages. He was also a fast worker who made no preliminary sketches, never erased, and could, when necessary, crank out an entire comic book over a weekend.

"Working with writer Stan Lee," writes Hoberman, Kirby "was instrumental in tilting Marvel toward epic sagas of cosmic struggle:"

For a while, it seemed that he was introducing a new comic (and a new concept) every month, many lasting only a single, collectible issue.

There is a bit of hyperbole here. Although Kirby's imaginative output was unparalleled in its breadth and energy, he generally tended to want to continue shepherding his creations past the point when publishers wanted him to move on to other pastures. Interestingly, many of his creations with short-lived publication histories have been revived (some repeatedly; how many times has DC revisited his New Gods?) by other creators now that markets are more tolerant of catering to niche audiences.

ComicMix's Rick Marshall interviews Mark Evanier, who observes that "I always knew that I was going to write stuff about him, I just didn't know what form it would take or when I'd write it:"

But then, after he passed away, his widow said to me, "Listen, when are you going to write a book about Jack?" I said, "Oh, do you think this is the time?" She said, "Yes, please do it." I agreed to do it and she helped me a lot and gave me all of Jack's personal papers and effects and such.

I've been working since Jack passed away, which is 14 years now, on a humongous-sized book about his life. It's still a few years off in the future, so when the Harry N. Abrams Company asked me to do an interim book to tide people over, I took a look at what I was doing and realized the massive book I was writing was getting too mired in minutia to the point where I thought a lot of ordinary civilians wouldn't be able to make their way through it. So I thought I'd do a sort of simplified version first. [...]

Kirby: King of Comics is about 35,000 words and the other book is over 250,000 and growing, so the minute you write 35,000 words on Jack you're leaving out an awful lot of words. If I read it over, I think, "Oh, I wish I'd added that." But if I had added everything that I wished, there'd be no room for the pictures.

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