Home > CR Interviews
CR Sunday Interview: Charles Hatfield
posted April 5, 2012
I've known Charles Hatfield
since he was one of the go-to writers at The Comics Journal
in the mid- to late-1990s. He has since become one of my windows into the world of academic writing about comics, although I'll take his views any place and in any context I can access them. Hatfield's second major book-length work on the medium -- after 2005's Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature
-- has just dropped. Hand Of Fire: The Comics Art Of Jack Kirby
presents the California State University (Northridge)
professor's body of thinking on the seminal comics figure. I had a blast reading it, and it's hard for me to comprehend how much fun it would be to take a course with this work as the core of its required reading. As has always been the case with my enjoyment of Hatfield's writing, it's the side arguments and component theories that are for me as much fun as any overarching conclusion. I believe that particular focus for my enthusiasm is reflected in the following interview, which at times becomes a series of "And what about this? And what about that?" questions. I am grateful Hatfield took the time to indulge me, and I'm pleased this work is out there. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: You mentioned in your introduction some of your history with reading Jack Kirby comics, and that this stretches back to childhood. How much of your childhood perspective on Kirby do you maintain in your current way of looking at the artist, do you think? Do you think it helps or hurts to have read Kirby then in terms of the kind of analysis you want to bring to him now?
I like to describe Hand of Fire
as a tug o'war between the ten-year-old me and the older, professorial me. But I don't suppose it's a tug o'war so much as an overlaying of one on top of the other. The ten-year-old me is still at work in there somewhere, whispering or nudging or just making trouble. Or perhaps just supplying the initial oomph, the enthusiasm that gets me going and propels the whole thing.
I had worried that working on Hand of Fire
for so long -- six years, at least -- would suck the air, the joy, out of reading Kirby for me, but thankfully that hasn't happened. My guess is that a childhood perspective is part of, though not necessarily the biggest part of, what motivates my work on Kirby and keeps me going. There's also the buzz of new discovery, or rediscovery, to fuel the work.
As I say at the front of the book, I couldn't have done what I do in Hand of Fire
as a child, or even half a lifetime ago as a young adult. I don't think I could have done it as well even as recently as, say, 2000 to 2005, the period when I finished my PhD thesis and turned it, very gradually, into what became my first book, Alternative Comics
. I couldn't have pulled off Hand of Fire
then. The childhood perspective needed to steep a while, and various adult perspectives I had learned in the meantime had to be adjusted, challenged, or unlearned in order for me to move forward.
Until I started writing for The Jack Kirby Collector
back in the '90s, I had put a lot of time and distance between me and my ten-year-old, Kirby-mad self. I got trained as a traditional sort of literature scholar. Pretty well trained, I'd say. In fact the path I took to studying comics academically was roundabout, and crazy: I didn't do any dedicated coursework on comics anywhere, nor in cultural studies per se, and the comics were something apart from my schoolwork: my escape valve, I guess.
When I did my MA and PhD, my coursework and official interests were mostly in traditional literature, that and composition studies, the latter because I was learning to teach writing. Of course I got some literary, rhetorical, and cultural theory in the process. But the courses I was taking were solidly in fields that were already known to be important, in the English department sense of things. Already consecrated. So my way into comics studies at the PhD stage was about belatedly taking my extracurricular, unofficial passion and insisting that I get official credit for it.
Some of what I learned during all those years may have gotten in the way of Kirby, but some of it helped me see Kirby in new ways (ahem, cue the long excursus on semiotics
in Chapter One!). As I said, learning and unlearning. The main thing was to unlearn some of the suspicion of childhood pleasure I had learned in the meantime. Thierry Groensteen
, in one of his essays, says we comics scholars might as well admit that many of us are just reaching out to our childhood selves. I see that: I'm reaching back across that gulf, though now equipped with a different sort of knowledge. As someone who teaches and takes an interest in children's reading and culture, I don't feel any hesitation about claiming that!
SPURGEON: We're approximately the same age. Something I always find interesting about those that came to Kirby in the '70s is the strange reputation he enjoyed at the time. All the kids I knew that read comics -- not that there were a lot, mind you -- loved the Kirby reprints and maybe enjoyed some of the New Gods stuff when we were younger. Yet as we became little 10-14 year old sophisticates, we really didn't like Kirby's newer stuff all that much, finding it silly and even crude in that surface manner of 1970s comics. We love that stuff now; we didn't then. Did you struggle at all with how you processed Kirby as you got a little older? Why do you think there was a backlash against what Kirby was doing in that era?
The backlash question comes to a point in the last chapter of my book, where I focus on The Eternals
but also take in the rest of Kirby's mid-'70s Marvel
run, which the most vocal fans of the time -- the letterhacks -- seemed to regard as a pure embarrassment, a disaster. I never got that, as a kid. I admit, though, that my interest in all comic books petered out in late 1977, so that I missed the last several months of Kirby's output there, the first time around (no Devil Dinosaur
s for me as a kid).
I really liked the early Eternals
, and got a kick out of Kirby's Black Panther
, too, for a while. I followed his Captain America And The Falcon run
, though that's one I decided to part with as I got older (not The Eternals
-- I kept those!). I remember that 2001
, the monthly, was the one book that bugged me as a kid, and I can remember why: it had no ongoing story, no continuity, and didn't explain the fundamentally mysterious stuff going on in 2001
. Of course it didn't! Naturally, what bugged me then thrills me now. (Think about it: in Kirby's 2001
you usually get a mix of Kirby primitivism and Kirby futurism in one crazed story. What's not to like?)
I had an odd window onto Kirby, as a kid with no reliable access to comics that were more than a few months old. Two years ago was distant history, to me, not because I lacked interest but because the work was out of my reach. My exposure to the Fourth World
was limited to the wan DC
revivals of the late mid-'70s, that and the first issues of New Gods
and Mister Miracle
, for which I paid the, to me, unbelievable sums of $3.50 and $3.00 respectively (this was in 1977). But Kamandi
and The Eternals
were the cat's meow for me, and I also dug into OMAC
and most of the other Kirby of the time. Being distanced from organized fandom, and being just ten years old, probably spared me that too-sophisticated attitude of the dedicated letterhacks back then, an attitude that mystified me: Why didn't they like this stuff? I admit, I had enough of a fannish attitude to pine for the continuity missing in 2001
, but I didn't have a reverence for Steve Englehart
or Don McGregor
As I say in my book, there was a fan culture in place by the early '70s that looked upon Marvel's continuity, and also its efforts toward obvious social relevance, as the destiny of comics. Kirby, while full of ideas -- in hindsight, some pretty disturbing, provocative ideas -- didn't fit in with that. Congenitally restless is how I describe him. I don't think he wanted to be the conservator in a museum already filled with a lot of his creations. And, in a way, his approach was less cozy, less ingratiating, than the Bullpen Bulletins POV. He was wild.
has an autobiographical essay
about collecting and defending, but not really liking, '70s Kirby. He says that Kirby hit the stage of "great/awful" during that period. I disagree (I'd say maybe that came a bit later, though I have a soft spot for almost all Kirby). What's clear is that Kirby went spinning off in his own wild orbit.
It helps to remember that most of Kirby's comics, though not at all condescending, were basically children's comics. They had a kind of undiluted graphic and symbolic intensity. Whereas most -- not all, but most -- of the Marvel comics then had an air of restive adolescence. Bradford Wright
has a good essay on the culture of malaise and self-interrogation that blanketed comics in the mid-'70s, a kind of entropic and self-regarding period that Kirby, I have to believe, couldn't have had much patience with.
SPURGEON: More generally, is there a period of Kirby or a sustained part of his output for which you don't have a particular passion? Is there a period of his career output that may be possibly overlooked even today?
I've been working my way back into what I call post-semi-retirement Kirby, that is, the direct market era stuff: Pacific
. The 1980s. It can be rough going. It's hard, because that stuff is pure, undiluted Kirby -- heady, hell-bent stuff, so I want to like it -- but it's also ungainly, like a caricature of the prime '70s work. Of course a lot of Kirby fans don't think so, and so maybe they'll howl at those parts of the book where I dismiss that period. Sure, I get a kick out of those comics -- I lost anything like objectivity a long time ago -- but it does seem clear to me that Kirby's powers were failing then, and that he wasn't well served editorially by the environment he was in, though surely he felt much freer. I think the years over the drawing board wrung a lot out of Kirby: when his work started to fall off, he fell hard, and the results could be pretty distressing -- though even a patchy work like The Hunger Dogs
, which has some really awkward narrative lurches in it, also has stuff in it that speaks to me, stuff that's poignant.
As far as overlooked stuff goes, I think the new Titan Simon & Kirby
reprint project may help show just how good Kirby's late '40s to early '50s work could be. The level of craft and the inky atmosphere of some of those comics bowl me over. A whole run of Black Magic
in tip-top shape, or a nicely restored volume, would be great. On the occasions when the S&K workload allowed, or required, Kirby to wholly pencil and ink a story himself -- there's gold there. Whatever the genre.
I'm just now digging into Michel Gagné's collection of S&K's Young Romance
. It's lovely to have that. Although Simon & Kirby tends not to be my home base -- as a reader, I prefer the "unleashed," mythopoeic Kirby of the '60s-'70s -- the most "overlooked" stuff, I think, comes from the S&K shop era.
SPURGEON: A couple of questions about the book project itself. Where do you think this book fits in in terms of existing works or even the broader thinking about Kirby. What was it that you felt you brought to the table that hasn't been put out there about Kirby as of yet?
I like to boast that Hand of Fire
is the first academic monograph on Kirby in English (the first, period, as far as I know, is Harry Morgan and Manuel Hirtz's Les apocalypses de Jack Kirby
, from 2009). True enough, but that doesn't really explain what the book is up to.
There are three key things going on in it. Two are new to the Kirby discussion, I believe. The first of these is an emphasis on Kirby's process of drawing as fundamentally narrative drawing, that is, as generative rather than merely illustrative. I try to get a new handle on that issue, examining the process of cartooning and what it means to "write," i.e. compose, through drawing. This has implications for many cartoonists besides Kirby, in fact for cartooning in general. The axial idea in the book is: cartooning equals narrative drawing, and narrative drawing has its own pressures, its own rules. This crystallized for me some time after I had started the book, when a brief coda in Groensteen's The System of Comics
touched off a spark and I starting thinking more and more about drawing. It's not just the craft of Kirby's drawing, but its relationship to storytelling -- as impetus, goad, inspiration -- that fascinates me. I wanted to write a book that paid respect to cartooning, rather than tiptoeing around that word.
The second is also new to the discussion, or at least newly articulated. That's my emphasis on Kirby's technological sublime, his habit of using technological metaphors -- that awestruck SF mode he internalized as a kid -- to depict what he called "the maximum state," that is, extreme states, extreme conditions: transformation, transfiguration, epiphany, apocalypse, self-annihilation, rebirth. Kirby is constantly gesturing toward the ineffable, toward the place where rationalism fails, where words are rendered pitiful, halting, inadequate, where all of us re-experience the young child's sense of being overawed, and stunned, by the grandeur and terror of the universe. He clearly loved, though I think also feared, technology's capacity to unlock experiences the likes of which we've never had before. Essentially, he used SF to channel a spiritual feeling, one in which sublime fear renders us slack-jawed, overborne. I see a lot of this in Kirby, this tendency for the story and art to strive together toward the inexpressible.
The third thing is a more comprehensive examination of what is, for devoted fans, familiar ground: Kirby's key contribution to Marvel Comics, and the controversies that surround that; Kirby's revitalizing of the superhero, which to me is as much a re-creation, a complete redefining, as a revitalizing; overall, what Kirby did for and to the comic book field. Along the way, I get into some issues that I believe will resonate beyond the study of Kirby himself. For instance, several chapters wrestle with the practice of continuity in comic books, and Chapter Three offers a capsule history of the whole superhero genre, as compressed as I can make it.
SPURGEON: My second question... you're an academic. I know why writers-about-comics do books about people like Jack Kirby, but how does creating a book like this one fit into your wider career responsibilities. Is it advantageous to you to have a book like this to your name? Are you expected to publish?
Heh. The easiest thing to say would be that Hand of Fire
is a post-tenure book.
Seriously, I felt freer with this book than with any other big project I've done. Perhaps more deeply obligated too, more anxious about screwing up, because the subject matter means so much to me personally -- but also freer. Freer rhetorically, freer with style, freer to "season to taste." I enjoy the prose in it more than the prose in Alternative Comics
, which now, at times, seems stiff by comparison. Of course I also felt freer conceptually, or else the writing never would have limbered up.
I think getting to this point was, again, a matter of unlearning certain careerist anxieties: about status, security, perceived seriousness, etc. Perhaps I could have written Hand of Fire
, or something like it, years ago; I doubt it would have caused me any troubles, career-wise. Where I work, people are good to me. But I wouldn't have believed it possible back then. What I didn't have then that I've had in the last few years is a mind unburdened by the need to prove myself for tenure. That doesn't mean completely unburdened, mind you, but the yoke feels lighter now.
Certainly I'm expected to write and publish. Goes with the gig, and it's something I like to do. Exactly what and how much you're supposed to publish, and how freely you can do it, are questions that are answered differently at different universities. In my case, I've been lucky to have an unblocked path, research-wise, and no sense of being trammeled by old, out of date expectations. Seriously, I can't believe how fast and freely the comics studies work has been coming this past decade. It's exploding.
I do a fair amount of writing that doesn't qualify as "academic" in the strict sense, including trade stuff, blogging, all that. I consider that part of my profile as a public intellectual. Hand of Fire
of course was born out of writing like that, but it's been ratcheted up several notches, and held to a different standard of evidence and rigor, because it's a university press monograph, a full-on academic text. But the line between that which I write for pleasure and that which clearly fulfills career responsibilities can be pretty porous: I'm now collaborating with Craig Fischer
on an academic book about Eddie Campbell
, and that came about through blogging.
You asked if it's advantageous to do work like this. It can be. But the biggest advantage for me is that it keeps me learning. I heard someone say at a conference once that we professors are lucky to have a job that allows us to spend part of time working on "problems of our own devising." I like that. I agree with that. If it was comics that kept me in academia -- and I think that's true -- then, conversely, academic work keeps me coming back to comics, from new angles, and has probably kept me a fan. I like framing and then working on research "problems."
SPURGEON: What did you bring to this project that you learned while doing
Alternative Comics? How do you look back on that experience more generally?
HATFIELD: Alternative Comics
was a springboard for me, in a double sense. It was a springboard into working as a professor for a living, since the book began as my PhD thesis (2000), which enabled me to finish grad school. Of course finishing the thesis didn't guarantee anything beyond the "PhD" I could put after my name. I had to take part-time work, apply for jobs, interview, and then, at last, get a job, move cross-country with my family, start a new life in essence, and work like mad between 2000 and 2005. That's when my thesis, drastically transformed, finally hit the book market as Alternative Comics
. Writing the thesis was prerequisite to that, as opposed to a guarantee of work or security.
Essentially, Alternative Comics
is a radical adaptation of the thesis. During the run-up to its publication, 2000-2005, I was starting to bridle at the terms of the literary approval that I had sought in the thesis. I started trying to bring my academic field, literature, toward comics, in all their messiness and craziness, their historical complexity, their lovely, irreducible populist weirdness, rather than other way around, bringing comics toward conventional literariness. I was starting to build a more confident case for studying comics academically on comics' terms. This required discarding a bit of the thesis, and vaulting over some of the worries I had inevitably had when I was a grad student. So, the final revisions were liberating. Some of the stuff that ended up in the introduction and conclusion to Alternative Comics
-- stuff that wasn't in the thesis -- ended up stoking the fires for the Kirby book.
I had learned a lot from doing the thesis -- from finally completing a big project. Not least, I'd learned something about my own habits as a writer, and how to exploit, or evade, those habits as needed. Also, I'd worked up a formal vocabulary for writing about comics (with the help of so many other sources: [Scott] McCloud
, [Will] Eisner
, etc.). And I had learned to enrich and complement the nuts 'n' bolts formalist stuff, which I already loved, with more context: economics, history, ideological concerns, ideas about comics reading as a social practice, etc. The tough stuff. That was key. I was, and am, proud of the way Alternative Comics
puts all those things together.
So I'd come a pretty long way from my original thesis proposal of the mid-'90s, which I had titled "The Rise of the Graphic Novel" (groan). That was my version of "The Comics Grow Up," I guess, a theme that just reeks of status anxiety. Between filing the thesis in 2000 and at last releasing the revised book in 2005, I earned my way out of that anxiety.
Still, it hadn't occurred to me that doing a monograph on Kirby could be my Next Big Thing. It didn't occur to me until my publisher, Mississippi, announced a new monograph series, "Great Comics Artists
," founded by Tom Inge
. I was at a conference (was it as long ago as 2003?) with my good friend and grad school crony Gene Kannenberg
not long after that series was announced, when Gene leaned over and said to me, basically, "If you don't submit a book on Kirby to this series, you're nuts." Bingo! Cue the cartoon light bulb over my head. Why hadn't I thought of that before?
I think I had to get Alternative Comics
out of my system before I could seriously think about it. But I did. By then I had all the formalist and sociocultural background I needed to get started, thanks to AC
. So the first book was a springboard in that sense too: demanding enough to prep me for what came next.
Doing Kirby turned out to be different enough from AC
that it felt like a bit of personal reinvention -- as I said, there was some unlearning as well as learning going on. So I had a sit-down with the ten-year-old me, and started delving into Kirby yet again. I'm really happy with how it turned out.
SPURGEON: I think this was more of a throwaway line than anything you go into in great detail, but you claim at one point that Kirby's development of the superhero team was directly related to his kids gang comics. Can you talk a bit more about that? What makes the team books specifically tied to that genre as opposed to drawing more generally from ensemble works in a variety of genres and media?
When I think of Kirby's team books, I think of two kinds of teams, both familiar from bygone pop culture: the kid gangs, of course, and the old war movies, with their reliably multicultural casts of GIs, all pitching together, all fighting and suffering and revealing their characters together. These formulas are similar. Kirby's kid gangs always consisted of a handful of contrasting, symbolically loaded personalities: Big Words, Scrapper
, the usual mix of unlike types. From Big Words and Scrapper to Reed Richards and Ben Grimm
isn't that big a leap.
Of course that contrastive approach is a tried and true way of striking sparks in a team format. You can see it all over popular serial storytelling. Call it the "mixed nuts" approach to story generation. But for Kirby the kid gang was the template closest to hand, the ensemble formula he knew best.
You can see the Challengers of the Unknown
as a riff on this, too: Rocky versus Prof, that sort of tension. But in that case the personalities weren't so distinct. The Challengers
were defined more by generic roles (pilot, scientist, etc.) than by tempers. The Fantastic Four
is a better, sharper riff on the same premise -- but with the added influence of romance comics.
This contrastive ensemble approach is not unique to Kirby or comics, obviously. I see it in all sorts of series fiction, in TV of course, and especially obviously in sitcoms. It's a formulaic way of generating variation and complexity. I think Kirby's particular version of it came from the kid gang comics, which were a mashup of his own boyhood experience and the Hollywood "kid" groups: "Our Gang
," the Dead End Kids
, etc. It seems to me that Kirby's real-life experiences drew him toward groups of boys as a subject, and that dividing up personality traits among the boys was a way of venting various aspects of his own character: not just the Brooklyn/Scrapper type, but also the genius, the brooder, etc.
SPURGEON: You make a point in your introduction and again later on that Kirby's work has a natural tendency towards violence. Can you focus on specifically what about Kirby's natural proclivities plays a role makes his work different as opposed to his just engaging in the requirements of some of the genres in which he works. You go so far as to suggest Kirby's quieter work is about the still time preceding violence.
Kirby himself likened the stylized violence in his early comics with the rough-and-tumble violence of his own boyhood -- and with the struggles born of his class, his poverty, his growing up on the Lower East Side, at that time one of the densest, most tumultuous neighborhoods on Earth. For this, his late story "Street Code
" serves as a kind of autobiographical key, a long-deferred personal reflection. It shows how the rough intensity of his work came from an intense, violence-fraught boyhood. I note that his most powerful work even in the genre of romance comics, which are often assumed to be fundamentally different from the hyper-masculine hero comics, bristles with the threat of violence. The good stuff is always storm-wracked, intense.
Once, in an interview, Kirby countered [Fredric] Wertham
's argument (in Seduction of the Innocent
) that comic books would ruin children for gentle, quiet reflection by saying that children are not about gentle, quiet reflection in the first place. That they, we, are creatures of emotion, feeling everything with a terrible urgency that comics like his could express. That tells you a lot about his mindset. Kirby had a revved-up sense of life, based in conflict. Of course he did, given where he came from. That's why he was able to throw himself into superheroes without condescension. He was never patronizing toward that material, or that audience. I think it jibed too well with his experiences.
It's funny. When I first started writing about Kirby's Kamandi
, my boyhood favorite, I remembered Kamandi as a combination of gumption and innocence. I remembered a quality of wide-eyed simplicity, far from the sort of fretful adolescence that later writers tried to inject into the character. I suppose that's a fair enough description. But when I actually reread those comics with my older son, I was struck by how blood-curdlingly violent they were. To understand Kamandi, you have to think of him as a wide-eyed boy who kills.
SPURGEON: Why is the lack of refinements in a lot of commercial comics art a problem for the academic study of comics art? Is it just we don't have multiple drafts, which would be beneficial, or is it more about the work that results from a lot of reflection and care?
I'm not saying it's a problem because the comics aren't any good. I'm saying it's a problem because a certain academic mindset -- I'll call it the literary, because that's my neighborhood -- has a hard time getting reconciled to the rough energy of the work.
It's not just the surface qualities of the comics -- their brusque, energetic, violent quality -- that complicate literary reception. It's their nonstop serial nature, the way the production demand forced so much roughly finished, or barely finished, work onto the market. When academics -- I should say more specifically literary critics, because of course there are other academic mindsets out there -- pay attention to graphic narratives these days, they often frame them in terms inimical to old-fashioned periodical comics, terms learned from [Art] Spiegelman
and a handful of other comics that have shifted the terms of reception over the past 25 years or so. Those are great comics, monumental works, and I wouldn't for a moment push them aside, but I don't think they prepare readers for grappling with the larger history of the medium.
So, my comments about lack of revision and refinement in old comics are really directed toward critics and academicians, not to apologize for the comics' rough edges, but to urge readers who are coming at these comics for the first time to step into a different mind-frame. Again, this is not necessarily a problem for all academics -- after all, some social historians are more interested in popular periodical comics than in any of the post-Maus
stuff -- but specifically a problem for people in my discipline, literary studies, where the popular is still often derogated with an "asterisk" or qualifier. What I'm after is a deeper historical understanding of all comics, including those typically excluded from literary study (but of course essential to understanding where Maus
and so many other contemporary works come from).
SPURGEON: You call romance work the open secret of Kirby's career. Why that phrase?
Things are changing now, because we're seeing reprints and a new appreciation for Kirby's romance books. But for a long time his romance period, if it was written about at all, was viewed as one of steady but disengaged make-work, incompatible with or separate from his now more famous stuff. Bracketed off, not factored into what he did later. It wasn't "secret," of course, but it was somehow difficult to assimilate into the larger narrative about Kirby that fandom had in mind. I recommend Harry Mendryk's blog series on the Simon & Kirby romance books
as an antidote -- that and Gagné's book.
I think it was Jeet Heer
who gave me a wonderful line about how Kirby never discarded a genre, but always carried the lessons of that genre forward into his new work. He did this with romance, in the Marvel superhero books. Seriously, how can we imagine the Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four
, or for that matter the Claremont/Byrne X-Men
, without the history of romance comics behind them?
SPURGEON: How aware do you think Kirby was of the elements of social class as a determinant in his work?
I don't know if Kirby was always so aware of it that he could put it into words at the drop of a hat. But a good starting point would be the interview he did with Will Eisner, in Shop Talk
, where he clearly links his artistic development to his self-consciousness about class. That conversation suggests that even his relationship to Joe Simon, his most important true partner in the business, was shaped, at least at first, by his awareness of class differences. Kirby thought of Simon as a middle-class guy. He didn't think of himself that way.
Kirby truly was a child of the tenements, a battle-scarred survivor who had to remake himself by dint of continual effort. His sympathy for kids like that shows through in a lot of his work, so I have to believe that, yes, he carried his feelings about poverty and social striving with him throughout his life. I cannot imagine the rise of Marvel Comics, for instance, without Kirby's desperate economic need, his fear of poverty, and his ingrained understanding that a man must bust his ass to provide for his family. Kirby always worked hard, and I believe not a day went by that he didn't remember why.
SPURGEON: I thought this was a key moment in your book, this phrase here: "Kirby's handling of movement and action continually urges his iconic renderings of form towards the symbolic." How much do you think that idea works against misapprehensions of Kirby's work, and how much do you think people have accepted this as a natural outcome to how Kirby made art?
I realized while working on the book that superhero or action-oriented comic book art is usually a tense tug o'war between naturalism and cartooning. You can see this even in Joe Shuster
's original Superman
, which is so much a take on Roy Crane
's strip work in Captain Easy and Wash Tubbs
(the early Superman almost is Easy, right?). Crane's compromise between naturalism and caricature, which anticipates Caniff in that important respect, is cartoony, boisterous, but rooted in real-world appearances just enough to give the depictions of roughhousing action some kick, some sense of danger. I see this tension throughout superhero comics, even though so many of the pivotal artists there -- take Lou Fine
, or Neal Adams
-- have been about infusing the drawing with more realism, or classicism. More Alex Raymond
, right? Kirby's work sits smack dab in the middle of that tension: he dug Raymond as a young man, but what makes his work exciting to me is the way he couldn't quite hit that mark. By the time he laid down the Marvel blueprint in the '60s, he had pushed that tension into a kind of hyper-energized graphism, a super-graphic symbolic shorthand.
To me Kirby is the key artist in this tug o'war because there was something so unstable and vital in his approach to drawing. The endless arguing among fans about which Kirby inker was "best" -- [Joe] Sinnott
, [Wally] Wood
, [Mike] Royer
, Kirby himself, whoever -- reflects this, because Kirby's raw pencils presented a kind of stark choice to his inkers. Which inker you dig probably says something about where in that tug o'war you prefer to be. Kirby's graphic symbolism is often so brutal -- I'd say he surrendered all pretenses to refinement as he got older -- that his art has this tightrope-walking quality. The "iconic," from the passage you mentioned, refers to likeness, similitude, realism; the "symbolic" refers to Kirby's own desperate, inspired ways of trying to find a code for physical action in a static medium.
My friend and colleague Rusty Witek
has an excellent essay on different "modes" of comic art in the new book Critical Approaches to Comics
(ed. Duncan and Smith, 2011). In that essay, which I've been using in my teaching lately, he distinguishes precisely between the cartoon mode and the naturalistic mode, with much greater precision than people usually make that contrast. Each mode is not just a style, or a stylistic range, but also a set of narrative expectations that tends -- tends, mind you, because we're not talking about absolute rules here -- to come with each style. To gloss this in class, I contrast Raymond and [George] Herriman
, showing images of Rip Kirby
and Krazy Kat
dailies. In Kirby you have the varied compositions, the cinematic influence, the dynamism of the naturalistic school, post-[Milton] Caniff
, post-[Hal] Foster
, post-Raymond, all those adventure cartoonists, but on the other hand you also have a shorthand and a graphic energy that tack toward Herriman and Crane's end of things. The anti-classicism, the brusque symbolism, and the sheer momentum of drawing that is animated more by concept than by standard ideas of beauty.
I think of Kirby's cartooning as narrative drawing not only because he used it to tell stories but also because he used it to generate stories. It was the pressure of coming up with stories that caused that instability and vitality in the artwork. So one misapprehension about his work is that it is a flawed realism or a flawed illustration, that he "couldn't draw" certain things correctly, or that he needed a slick inker to tame the drawing. I think this misapprehension lives on in the way some readers prefer an Alex Ross
sort of approach to polish up Kirby's concepts -- even though the results of plugging Kirby into photorealism are, for me, laughably out of whack. These days, though, I'm glad to see what I take is a growing appreciation of Kirby as a cartoonist who cartooned.
SPURGEON: When you talk about Kirby's eccentricities, are you making a distinction at all between those developments in his work and more standard workplace solutions? Or is "eccentricities" to be understood not in the context of Kirby but more in the context of art in comics generally?
Kirby's work had enough power to make his eccentricities into standard workplace solutions! Pity artists like [Don] Heck
, [John] Romita
, [John] Buscema
, etc., who were told to do it "the way Jack does"!
Some of those "eccentricities" are due to the usual demands of narrative drawing: its radically streamlined and typified nature, its simplicity, its reliance on standard symbolism. Those eccentricities are widely shared, and were shared well before Kirby. But some of Kirby's own peculiar problem-solving did become industry standard for comic books. Kirby's approach to graphic narrative is the DNA of today's superheroes, yes? It's the vintage "Marvel" style. In some ways it's still the Marvel template, despite the surface differences between his cartooning and the reigning hyperrealist styles today.
SPURGEON: I was impressed with your use of the phrase fuzziness when it comes to the comics made at Martin Goodman's comics company; you even note how that extends to what we call the place. That said, is there a trap at all in kind of putting that imprimatur on the process, the way it kind of absolves multiple points of view on who did what and to what extent?
Oy, this issue is very much on my mind in the wake of the news about Marvel v. Kirby
: the judge's decision last summer, Stan Lee
's deposition in the case, the current appeal, all that. The question pains me a bit, because what I'd like is a world where things aren't fuzzy and justice is done.
By "fuzzy," I mean that the business, that the business of creating Marvel, and the proces of it, is poorly documented. The documentary record is scant. Personal memories are marshaled to the cause because we have so little else -- apart from the evidence of the comics themselves.
The comics themselves tell me that Kirby, as I say in the book, was the beating heart of most of the Marvel comics. The fuzziness that surrounds the issue has to do with both the interests of the people and corporations now involved, and the sheer elusive cageyness of Martin Goodman's way of doing business. There are a few long, drawn-out footnotes in my book just for the sake of getting the company's history right!
My book gives an elaborate argument against naive auteurism, that is, blunt, one-sided attributions of authorship (the whole Kirby v. Lee issue, which most CR
readers know well by this point). I make that argument tactically, to show that I know about the fuzziness. I get it. But my intent there is not to dethrone Kirby. Quite the opposite, my intent is to put the case for Kirby's authorial role on what I hope is firmer footing. In my mind, Kirby is the essential co-author of Marvel Comics, and the source of most of what was and is interesting about Marvel's line ([Steve] Ditko
's seminal work being the important exception). I want readers to appreciate how hard it is to judge these matters due to that aforesaid "fuzziness," but I also want them to come away understanding that Marvel is really a testament to Kirby's miraculous imagination and sheer hard work.
You said it well: trying to be nuanced, and to avoid oversimplification, can lead to a moral relativism, which is, yes, a trap. On a personal level, I'm participating in the current Marvel boycott because what I know about Jack Kirby's work cuts through all the fuzziness.
SPURGEON: You say that Jack Kirby may have underappreciated at the end of his Marvel run, even cognizant of coming to the end of his commercial effectiveness. This stuck out to me because of some of the stuff you wrote earlier about the development of Kirby's career, which didn't seem marked by self-reflection. On what did you base that specific appraisal?
Well, Kirby took quite a shellacking in the letter columns of those late Marvel books, so much so that he made a last-ditch effort to reroute the mail to his California address rather than Marvel's NYC offices. He must have heard quite a bit of painful criticism in those days. Historical accounts of this period are full of shadowy insinuations about adversarial Marvel staffers too, people who had come up from fandom, who disparaged Kirby's late work. Kirby may have believed that they had it out for him. In any case, it's often said that the weight of negative fan comment bore down on him.
Kirby was never in a position to assert artistic automony regardless of sales. For someone of his generation and outlook, sales and positive fan response were very important. As he told Ken Viola in an interview, his inspiration was "the fact that I had to make sales." So the spate of short-lived projects he ending up doing in the seventies, the vocal hostility of some fans, the editorial troubles he had with Marvel, the rejection of his final Black Panther
and Captain America
runs, the cancellation of so many new projects, the lack of a commercially viable way forward for some of his most personal work -- I have to believe that all that weighed down on him. I don't find much evidence for that in the interviews he gave; it would have been unlike Kirby to complain publicly about poor or disappointing sales. But my sense is that he left monthly comic books in 1978 with bruises.
Consider: Kirby was so at home in comic books. He wasn't really at home anywhere else, not in newspaper strips, not in storyboarding animated cartoons. Comic books were the base of his working life. So why would he leave them? Well, his options then, at around age 60, were few. He had run his course with the only two comic book publishers that managed to resist the overall drastic drop in sales during the '70s, DC and Marvel. Options were closing. He was getting older, and the work was telling on him physically. Getting a gig in animation, ultimately as a development artist and producer in animation, without having to do the plodding work of scripting or storyboarding episodes, must have been a godsend. But even then he couldn't quite stay away from comic books, right? Imagine what it must have taken from Kirby to leave behind him to leave behind his full-time comic book work in 1978.
To the extent that Kirby indulged in self-reflection, I think he did so because the comic book business seemed to be failing and because he himself was getting older, and at a crossroads. There is a sense in which comics used him up, and spat him out.
SPURGEON: I was intrigued by your section on the misapprehension a lot of fans have towards the realism of Marvel Comics; what ultimately is the biggest distortion that comes out of seeing those comics that way?
"Realism" plays an important role in the stories that Marvel likes to tell about itself, and that Stan Lee tells about his career. It's so often touted as the difference, the X factor, that gave Marvel the edge in the sixties. Realism, we're told, is the key that separated Marvel from its predecessors in superhero comics. Realism is also a goal that results in the continual revising and reshaping of the Marvel myth: the standard that justifies the rehashing and polishing of Kirby's stories in the form of revisionary efforts like [Kurt] Busiek & Ross's Marvels
, and so on. This "realism" is a bit of a totem. It's become important as something to strive for but also to rebel against in superhero comics, a problem that my friend Marc Singer takes up in his new book about Grant Morrison (UP of Mississippi, 2011)
, where he examines the claims for realism in the Watchmen
generation, and how Morrison first bowed to, but then resisted, that trend.
I think realism is an inoculant against social change. [Frank] Miller
invoked it in Dark Knight
, but being realistic wasn't really the overriding goal of that comic, right? Recuperating the genre, making it hip, topical, a bit dangerous -- that was more Miller's goal. Injecting it with a dose of social and psychological realism, or ambiguity anyway, was enough to reframe the icon (Batman), to destabilize the genre productively and make it less predictable. Realism was a tool there -- but ultimately Dark Knight
ends with two superpowered, square-jawed demigods slugging it out! Watchmen
shoots for realism in a more thorough, more comprehensive way, but it too has other fish to fry. Its lasting virtues, to me, are formal, philosophical, and analytical. And, DC's recent moves notwithstanding, Watchmen
was a terminal experiment, not a franchise defibrillator like Miller's Batman.
I remember when readers were saying that they wished Mike Grell's Green Arrow
really patrolled their neighborhoods -- yipes! No thanks. At bottom, the superhero is a wish-fulfilling genre. Never mind the physics -- the psychology, the morality, the politics are wish-fulfilling, schematized, and self-contradictory. Those tensions speak to us, but the results aren't "realistic" in any sense I can recognize from literary realism. How can realism, as a yardstick, help us appreciate "This Man, This Monster"?
Part of the difficulty here is that comics can reach for hyper-realism in visual style while flouting realism in so many other ways. Again, there's that tension between realism and symbolism, naturalism and stylization.
Also, I think that too exclusive an emphasis on realism tends to flatten out the comics, over-exaggerate the role of scriptwriters, and underplay the role of cartoonists. Implicitly, the selling of "realism" by Marvel and Lee implicitly reinforces a view of comics production based on the strict division of labor, writer v. artist, a model that puts the wordsmiths in charge and diminishes the generative and improvisational nature of cartooning. I don't buy that.
SPURGEON: Your reading of X-Men is pretty much the best case I've ever seen put forward for why that title was important in the overall scheme of what Kirby contributed to the genre. What's kept others from seeing that same thing?
Gosh, Tom, I don't know. I wrote that portion of the argument way back in 1994 (a version appeared in The Comics Journal
's Kirby Memorial Issue), and I don't know why the argument hasn't been picked up and expanded since.
I suppose the argument depends on seeing a likeness between X-Men
and The Fourth World. Also the Inhumans, The Eternals, and various late Kirby works, with their divided pantheons of good and evil superbeings: mutant v. mutant, Black Bolt
, New Genesis
, and so on. It may be that, for a long time, the shockingly different aesthetic of the New Gods, etc., kept fans from examining the likeness between those comics and X-Men
. But I came to the early X-Men
by, basically, reading backwards: reading the Fourth World first, and then X-Men
reprints later. So I saw the later work as the departure point, and the earlier work as flashback: a peek into the roots of the idea.
Perhaps part of what has kept others from seeing the same things is that they think of Kirby's 1970s comics as "Kirby comics" and his 1960s comics as "Marvel comics." My argument is that comics from both eras speak to a common set of obsessions, and use a common set of narrative strategies. Kirby's.
SPURGEON: I maybe missed this in your section on the Technological Sublime and Kirby -- why did this develop for Kirby so much later on his career, as opposed to being present throughout?
It may have been present throughout, but kept in check by the lack of a fitting context for such explorations. Marvel provided that context, by enabling Kirby to rejigger the superhero. Also, the world was changing so fast; it must have been dizzying to an old-time SF fan with a prophetic streak, like Kirby. His mind always had to outrun what he saw in the world around him; prophesying via fiction was one of his habits. Kirby was king of the what-if scenario. As the world changed, he reached farther. Apocalyptic SF of the Cold War era may have had something to do with it, as did Kirby's own experience of ageing. I think this penchant just got stronger over time.
Part of the answer to your question must be the sheer intense pressure of production in the sixties, which drove Kirby so hard but also gave him more license. The Marvel juggernaut generated its own crazy momentum (most of it coming right off Kirby's drawing board). Kirby was riding that. Lee didn't have control over plotting by the mid-decade. Kirby burst out, fizzing, exploding. Marvel was a license to go nuts. Kirby, who was living over his drawing table without a break, week after week, had a license to invent like never before. Imagine him sitting at home, working like mad, day and night, and all these bottled obsessions starting to spill out. Damn!
Part of the answer also has to be graphic. Kirby's imagination answered to his drawings, as well as vice versa, so the increasing grandeur, the expanded scope, of the drawing must have been a goad. Part of cartooning is envisioning stories that provide you with endless pleasure and challenges in drawing. Kirby drove himself onward, outward.
In a curious way, the very commercial superhero comics of Marvel, and the unrelenting production rhythm they demanded, allowed, or made, Kirby dive deep, deep into himself. As I say in the book, it was then that Kirby began seriously plumbing the sublime: pleasure in terror, in the feeling of being overwhelmed by life. After all, from Kirby's point of view -- his workroom, at home -- the experience of creating Marvel comics was mainly a solitary one. What we get are the lovely results of that tremendous pressure.
SPURGEON: You seem to endorse the view of Fourth World as a treatise on fascism; do you have any sympathy on the view that it's more about war and violence itself?
Yeah, good point. It's about fascism if you insist it's about Darkseid
, and what Darkseid wants. But if, instead, you say it's about Orion
, who is a piece of Darkseid that opposes Darkseid, who hails from Darkseid's world but prizes something else, then you can make the case that the story is about ambivalence. The ambivalence of Orion: of having to resort to violence to stop the Darkseids of the world. There's a terrifying ambivalence behind stories like New Gods
#5, 6, and 7.
From that point of view, the Fourth World is about a price exacted from all of us. Even the morally pure, nonviolent way represented by Izaya
is terribly compromised, because Scott Free
, Izaya's son, is sacrificed as the cost of that "purity." New Genesis has its part to play in this war, not just Apokolips, yes?
If we say simply that the Fourth World is a treatise on fascism, we're off the hook, scott free. Almost everybody says they hate fascists. But if we say it's about our own complicity in warring and violence, we're left dangling -- which I prefer. I think that's the better way to read it, because it's less easy.
SPURGEON: Is there any way in which the culture of Kirbyana limits our view of what Kirby did and how he did it? Do you feel more comfortable seeing this book as a part of that spectrum or standing a bit apart from it?
That's a challenging but fair question. Again, I think of Hand of Fire
as an academic project, because I see it as rising to a style of argument -- as I said earlier, a standard of evidence and rigor -- that I learned academically. It's an extension of my life as a professor -- and I consider myself lucky that I get to write about Kirby under that banner. Very lucky. I'll never stop saying thanks for having a job that allows me to come up with my own research problems, in this case Kirby, and address them as I see fit. As I said before, it's a blessing to have a gig where, for at least part of the time, you get to tackle problems of your own devising.
As I say, it was a handful of years ago that I realized that Kirby could be such a "research problem," that I could, once again, integrate into my academic life something that until then I had kept apart. My lifelong obsession with Kirby could become, as we say, a research monograph: my next big thing. Who'da thought? Again, lucky.
Of course I'm a Kirby fan. Have been for almost as long as I can remember. So I've been a keen participant in the culture of Kirbyana. What working on this book confirmed for me, though, is that I had to keep hagiography and special pleading at a distance. I couldn't give way to sentiment. I had to make a case for Kirby in the widest terms possible. I had to find a way to write simultaneously for Kirby fans and for the uninitiated. I also had to try to improve my writing, to show by style as well as substance that Kirby is an inspiring, complex subject.
Comics fandom is a double-edged sword. It inspires us to projects like this, but it can also blind us. This is what I say in chapter three about fandom's take on the superhero as the be-all and ened-all of the whole history of comic books. That view, I think, is too settled and insular, to be a wholly reliable guide. Fandom is about special pleading in a sense -- or often about not pleading at all, but simply enjoying a conversation among friends: comfortable, specialized, inward-turning. I like that, actually: the clubhouse feel. It's when fandom turns outward that the special pleading starts. Often it just turns inward, to reaffirm that sense of group identity, of belonging. On a gut level, I feel that sense of belonging, too. But when I started Hand Of Fire
I had to ask myself what it would be like to write a book about Jack Kirby, and therefore about superhero comics, without assuming the reader's love of the genre? What it would it be like to write for readers who might approach Marvel Comics with a tabula rasa
Only in that sense do I see Hand of Fire
as standing apart. The fan histories I grew up with -- All in Color for a Dime
, Steranko's History of Comics
, and so on -- used the inclusive "we," the in-group pronoun, a lot. They assumed an audience of comics lovers. I happen to like those books a lot, but I knew from the start that Hand of Fire
would have to be something different. Because of who I am, because of the multiple audiences I'm trying to reach, and because I really did want to explain the strange and thrilling qualities of Kirby's work without leaning hard on nostalgia.
SPURGEON: What can we learn about Kirby from artists like Tom Scioli and Jose Ladronn that at least part of the time work very closely to some of the same visual motifs he worked?
I would have loved to say even more about Kirby homages and parodies in the book. One thing I do say is that "Kirby's style" in itself has a huge sentimental, thus ideological, value for experienced comic book readers. It is a magnet of sorts, a holy symbol. Doing something in a Kirby-esque style, or with Kirby-like elements, almost always carries with it an element of tribute, whether it's Scioli, Ladronn, [Keith] Giffen
, or [Bruce] Timm
, or someone doing something a bit farther afield, but still indebted to Kirby imaginatively (I'm thinking of David Mazzucchelli
's wonderful story "Big Man
In the book I argue that there's something ironic about these homages, at least the ones that cleave very closely to Kirby's drawing style. A distinctive personal style like Kirby's is the result of that artist's own hard work, his own problem-solving. Kirby's style is a unique high-wire act, an individual and quirky way of balancing mimesis (I mean the imitation of real things), symbolism, and the physical act of drawing. The results are highly imitable, but by rights they shouldn't be. After all, Kirby's style grew in response to his own narrative inspirations, his speed of working, and the rhythms of his working life. It embodied his own conflict-filled view of life, his agon. The animating impulse, the animus, the struggle, was all his. So it's strange to see other artists yoking themselves to his style, to see them slavishly follow the outward results of Kirby's inward process. Kirby, by all accounts, didn't want to dominate other artists' visions that way.
I do enjoy some Kirby homages. To me Scioli's work is interesting and fun because he taps into some of the flat-out weirdness of late Kirby, the sense of a personal cosmology and symbology that "works" despite, or rather because, it is so severely stylized. I get a kick from that. But I have a hard time imagining Scioli drawing the stories in Young Romance
, or the splendid, very sentimental last scene in Captain America's Bicentennial Battles
, or even the melodrama and moralizing of "This Man, This Monster." Ditto Ladronn. They're responding to particular aspects of Kirby, and, even though those are probably the same aspects I love the most, I can't help but be reminded that what they're doing is a partial take on Kirby, whereas Kirby himself gives off so many different notes and feelings, up and down the scale.
SPURGEON: Fifty years from now, do people still care about Jack Kirby? How do you think it will be expressed differently than what we see now, when there are still people that remember him as a creative force from their childhood?
Here we go, back to childhood again. Yes, I do believe that people -- some
people, which after all is the best you can hope for -- will care about Kirby. Anything that strange, yet also that organically consistent, anything with that kind of idiolect, that peculiarly personal visual language, and yet so scruffy and populist in nature, so abundant, so widely diffused in the culture -- people will always pay attention to that. That kind of cultural overgrowth, that ripeness, generosity, and craziness, will always attract. From an aesthetic point of view, the prime Kirby comics are out of this world. They have personality. They also, obviously, have had influence. From cultural and ideological points of view, people will continue to wonder about the ways Kirby's comics reflect or distort tensions and troubles in the popular imagination. Kirby always bottled the Pop obsessions of the moment, then gave them a wild, personal spin. So I have to believe that the archive of work he left behind will draw both cultural critics and art lovers in perpetuity. The interest may turn out to be more historical and formal than sentimental, but Kirby did so much that, yes, hell yes, interest will persist.
Naturally the terms of interest are changing as comics culture, and popular culture generally, get farther and farther away from the time when "comic books" (in the ephemeral magazine format) made sense as an everyday commodity, a truly mass entertainment. Already things aren't what they were 30-odd years ago, when I was a kid buying Kirby comics. They're not what they were back in 1994, when Kirby died and when John Morrow
launched The Jack Kirby Collector
. So I think that the interest in Kirby will be differently expressed. I expect and hope that he'll be widely acknowledged as what he was, a great American artist, and one of the preeminent storytellers of the 20th century.
* Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby
, Charles Hatfield, University Press Of Mississippi, hardcover, 304 pages, 9781617031779 (ISBN13), December 2011, $65.
* Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby
, Charles Hatfield, University Press Of Mississippi, softcover, 304 pages, 9781617031786 (ISBN13), December 2011, $25.
* a splendid Jack Kirby image
* cover to the new book
* 1970s Marvel Kirby (from The Eternals
* Captain Victory
* Hatfield's previous book
* image from the Simon & Kirby Newsboy Legion
* from "Street Code"
* a romance cover
* early '60s Marvel Superheroes Kirby panel
* 1970s Black Panther
* panel from "This Man, This Monster"
* an X-Men
* some of that Kirby tech drawing
* cover from the Fourth World
* spectacular Kirby spread
* Kirby folding romance into superheroes (below)
all characters depicted except for the image implied on the cover of Hand Of Fire
and the images on Alternative Comics
created or co-created by Jack Kirby