Friday, April 20, 2012

Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby

I was talking with one of my colleagues at the PCA conference last week when he told me how fortunate we were, as comics critics, to have two fantastic books come out in the same year. One of the two books he praised so fulsomely was Charles Hatfield's Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. I won't get into the other book except to assure you it was not mine. It was probably yours.

Anyway, my colleague's praise dwelt especially on Charles's prose, to which the adjective "soaring" was applied, and I am always interested in learning from good prose. So that night while we all had dinner, I logged on to Amazon and lo and behold there was a kindle edition for one fourth the price of the hardback. I am only halfway through the book right now, but it provokes a lot of reaction and I want to get some of that down now before I forget it in the second half.

Academics know better than to call anything "definitive", but if we think of definitive instead as a scale of increasing definitiveness, then Charles's book is positioned to be pretty far along that scale. And I was struck by this because, of course, Kirby is dead. That is, his career is entirely and "definitively" over. This is in contrast to, say, Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, who have also been the subjects of single-author monograms recently. No matter how good Marc's book is, or Annalisa Di Liddo's Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel, Moore and Morrison are still working, still creating, and in ten or twenty years someone else is going to put out a book that is informed by those authors' entire body of work, instead of "just" a few decades of it, and Marc or Annalisa's take on these authors will no longer be "definitive". Not that either author expects it to be, but as authors and scholars we do hope our take on a subject demonstrates staying power and longevity.

Charles, however, is writing from a more traditional lit crit vantage point: that is, his subject is dead. Like Shakespeare or Chaucer. But unlike those two subjects, the subject of Jack Kirby is still fresh in academic circles. Indeed, this is the first book length academic treatment of Kirby. And god knows we needed it. But when you add in these facts -- that Charles can write about Kirby's career as a totality rather than as a work in progress, and that Charles is basically writing in a field that is sparsely planted -- what we see is that Hand of Fire is positioned to be the definitive analysis of Jack Kirby for, oh, one academic generation. That is, until one of our current students, someone entering grad school in the Fall, decides to write a better book sometime around 2025.

Provided, of course, that the book does not suck. And it does not. There are a lot of things for me, personally, to like about this book. Let's get to a couple of them.

Hand of Fire is a big sloppy wet kiss to all of us who think that the author is still relevant. One of Charles's arguments -- and there are several -- is that Kirby's life experience, the shape of his career and the conditions under which he worked, had a huge influence over the art and stories he produced. Charles spends plenty of time doing textual analysis of Kirby's pages, looking at how they work and what they say, but he always does it in the context of the argument that these pages are expressions of Kirby's values, values shaped by very real forces which can be traced and outlined. I'm a historicist by training and this kind of argument goes a very long way with me. I'm not arguing that we can know what Kirby "meant" with any individual page, but I agree that we can come to a better understanding of these pages if we know where Kirby was at, personally, financially, and in a literary sense, when he made them.

Speaking of theory, Charles spends a lot of time writing about semiotics in this book, and that's one of the reasons I really like it. As the study of signs, semiotics is a natural partner to comics analysis and I am ashamed to admit I don't know as much about it as I should. But Charles shows a keen awareness of his reading audience when he walks us through semiotic theory, and an awareness of the audience is no less refreshing in a scholar's second book than it is in a freshman essay. Most of my academic life is spent teaching, and when Charles walks us through some of his classroom experiments teaching semiotics to his students, this is nourishing food to a starving man. It makes the book useful beyond its title. If Charles had "only" written an informed, articulate, and thorough examination of Kirby's art, that would still have been damn impressive. But it is also a practical handbook on how to teach semiotics theory in the classroom and how to put it into practice on the page. The first book was totally necessary; the second is an exciting surprise.

This book also surprises in its occasionally personal nature. Frankly, I did not expect Charles to have as clearly audible a voice as he has in this book. But I am glad it is there. In the course of reading, I have learned that Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth is Charles's favorite Kirby comic, one which he read as a child. I have learned that Charles really doesn't like modern superhero comics in the "realistic" mode, most especially the art of Alex Ross, which Charles targets for special disdain. An emphasis on the detailed heroic form, on the posed "picture" instead of on narrative drawing, has taken the life and drama out of the genre, he argues. I wonder what he would think of something like All-Star Superman, where Quitely's art definitely falls under the category of "hyper-detailed" without -- at least in my opinion -- sacrificing narrative power.

I'm only halfway through Hand of Fire. But this is a start, and as you can see, it has given me a lot to think about. Which is a good thing in and of itself.


  1. One of the two books he praised so fulsomely was Charles Hatfield's Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. I won't get into the other book !!
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