Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

August 22, 2015

CR Sunday Interview: Charles Hatfield



imageI've known Charles Hatfield for a little over 20 years, starting when he as a prolific writer for The Comics Journal while still a student at the University of Connecticut. Hatfield was part of a new breed of academic that bridged the gap between academic writing about comics and popular for fan and paid sources. I always enjoy when I get to read new writing from Hatfield, now firmly ensconced at the California State University at Northridge, at roughly the midpoint of his professional career. He is also a significant driving force and first president of the newly-formed Comic Studies Society.

Hatfield won the first academically-oriented, book-about-comics Eisner Award for his 2011 work on Jack Kirby: Hand Of Fire. I greatly enjoyed many of the essays in that book. I was pleased to hear he was organizing an art show featuring Kirby's work, Comic Book Apocalypse. It opens this week. I stood outside his home holding a boom box over my head playing the Merry Marvel Marching Society song until he agreed to do this interview. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Charles, let me ask you the basic question: where did this exhibit come from in practical terms, and how did you get involved?

CHARLES HATFIELD: The show came about when I wised up and stopped ignoring our splendid Art Galleries on campus!

To be precise, it came about when I met CSU Northridge's Gallery Director, Jim Sweeters, who's always on the lookout for interested faculty who might want to curate a show. As soon as I met Jim, about five years back, he started talking to me about doing a comics show. It wouldn't have happened without his interest and invitation. And patience!

CSUN has terrific resources that sadly get ignored much of the time. Everyone -- students, faculty, everybody -- is so busy rushing around, commuting to and from classes, trying to make the most out of their schedules -- to cram in as much official activity as they can, I mean. As a result, great campus stuff like concerts, recitals, plays, exhibits -- all that can get missed. I was guilty of that when it comes to our Galleries. I was hived off in my own little world, even though my English classes often pulled in Art students and even though years ago I had vaguely pitched the idea of team-teaching a comics class with a studio instructor in the Art Department (an idea I'd still like to pursue).

What happened to change that was a big Robert Williams exhibition at our Main Gallery, along with Williams himself giving a lecture. That got me to the north end of campus (what, a five-minute walk from my office?). The Williams show was incredible, and that's where and how I met Jim. March 10, 2010. Then, five days later, I ran into Jim again at Pasadena City College, where Gary Panter was doing a weeklong residency and a gallery show (the PCC Gallery is curated by my colleague Brian Tucker1). Serendipity! From that time on we were talking seriously about doing a comic art show.

I waffled for a while about what theme to do -- young California artists? Fantasy comics? Something on Los Angeles's place in comic book history? None of these notions took root, and in the wake of Hand of Fire coming out at the end of 2011, I allowed myself to realize, "What the hell, what I really want to do is a pure Kirby show."

For about three years, we've been working in earnest to pull this off. Again, the germ of it came simply from Jim Sweeters saying to me, "Hey, how about a comics show?"

SPURGEON: Can you walk me through one or two vital decisions you made along your curatorial path?

HATFIELD: There are decisions, and then there are decisions. What I mean is, some decisions that stick, and guide you from concept to finished show, and some decisions get lost or sacrificed to practical realities along the way.

One decision, made very early, was to delimit the show to late Kirby, starting around 1965 (a great time for Kirby at Marvel, and coincidentally my birth year). That would give us a chunk of Kirby's career that was well represented among collectors -- there's a lot of existing art -- plus familiar to me and to many fans, and tied to Hand of Fire. And that's something we could just about represent in our 3000 square-foot gallery. We knew we could not do justice to the whole half-century-plus span of Jack's career in one show; we had to define it more strictly.

In the end we did include some Kirby originals from the '40s and '50s, and a number of published comics from those days, so as to give everyone an overview of Kirby's career -- because it was important to me that newcomers understand what a comic book legend Jack was. Even if he had never touched a board again after 1960, he'd be one of the legendary comic book pioneers, and I wanted to get that across. But we're still focusing on the 60s to mid-80s, with the bulk of the show representing the 70s -- something I settled on early.

Another decision was to get published comic books into the show alongside the originals. I always wanted the history and public life of the work, so to speak, to be represented bu pulpy comic books, as originally published, even if they had to be under glass.

SPURGEON: Why published comics and original art? I'm seeing more published works in gallery exhibits, and I wonder how you use them in your show.

HATFIELD: I've seen gallery shows of comic art where the final, published artifacts played little or no part. Huh? That doesn't make sense to me. I think that comic book and comic strip exhibits should take a cue from the kinds of varied display you see in, say, rare books libraries or even history museums. Displays that deal with process, material history, the life of the works. As ravishing as seeing the original art boards is, I sympathize with the view that, in comics, what matters most is their printed form.

What we've done with the published comics is simple: we've put them in display cases near relevant original boards. In most instances we just let the covers show. In a few instances we've opened the books up, delicately. We've also placed a few original boards in the cases, to juxtapose different looks. I approached this aspect of the show as a teacher. One purpose is to remind viewers of the many genres and titles Jack worked in -- to convey the variety and abundance of his work, beyond what we can hang on the walls. Another purpose is to summon up that whiff of comic books as Americana, as bits of American history. They are such evocative objects.

imageWe have several display cases of comic books in the show. Two are big. One of the big ones takes in a lot of early to mid Kirby, including the Simon & Kirby era: stuff from the '40s and '50s, and then on into early '60s Marvel. We have some great loaners there, from the first issue of Young Romance (1947) to stuff from Mainline, Simon and Kirby's self-publishing venture circa 1954. The other big case covers the period that the exhibition is really devoted to, '60s to '80s work.

On a practical level, comic books add color, and adding color to a show that consists mostly of black-and-white boards is a good thing. It enlivens the space. Jim has helped me think through this issue of color, and how to add variety and spice to a show necessarily built around boards that, from a distance, if you squint, all look similar. You have to get close to the boards to appreciate their differences, their nuances. But splashes of color and some large, mural-size images can act as eye magnets, drawing people to the boards.

SPURGEON: Given that Kirby lost control of much of his original work, is there a concern putting together a show like this one about the provenance of the art with which you're dealing?

HATFIELD: Yes. This is always a concern. There's a basic ethical ambiguity when it comes to dealing with the work of an artist who, in essence, was robbed again and again. This ambiguity is constitutive -- you can't get away from it. What you can do, and what I've tried to do, is deal with reputable collectors and people who had personal dealings with the Kirby family. Or artwork where the ownership history is not a mystery. Cases that have been exposed to daylight. I confess, I'm not an expert in the provenance of the physical works, but I've tried to work with people who are. Fortunately I've had guides -- my Virgils in the world of original comic art collecting, people who have helped me find my way around. My colleague Ben Saunders, who is co-editing the exhibition catalog and is an experienced curator, helped me a lot. Collectors like Glen David Gold and Tom Kraft have shared images with me, and "process" stories, and pointed me to collectors they knew and trusted.

Since much of the work in our show hails from later, post-60s Kirby comics, the provenance issue is not as difficult as it might be. But I've always tried to work with people who are known for what they do and who know where the works came from.

SPURGEON: Talk to me about the choice to feature two complete stories. How did that come about, and what are you hoping people take away from that part of your presentation as opposed to comics art more generally?

HATFIELD: Two complete stories! Such madness. One of these stories, a Thor, represents late-60s Marvel. The other, a Kamandi, represents early-70s DC. The idea was to give people a sustained dose of Kirby in the Marvel era, with Stan Lee's dialogue versus Jack's handwritten margin notes, then another in the 70s era where the books were "edited, written, and drawn" by Kirby. I wanted to create a deep, readable experience, for those viewers -- probably a minority -- who would care to focus on one story for a good while.

One thing I've wanted from the start -- and it proved a challenge to do, frankly -- is emphasize the readability of these works. Originally we'd hoped to put some of the sequential originals under plexi, on slanted boards at a comfortable sitting height, a move inspired by Modern Cartoonist, the Dan Clowes exhibition that started at the Oakland Museum in 2013. There would have been stools, to invite people to sit and absorb the stories at leisure. But this proved impossible for us, given our scope, space, and time frame. (That's one of the decisions that get lost along the way that I alluded to.) But I still wanted to do a couple of complete stories, just to underline that what Kirby was doing was narrative drawing.


SPURGEON: You mention the collage work… I know many people love the collages, but do you find them central to what Kirby was doing or a sideshow aspect to the main thrust of his work during that period?

HATFIELD: Central! We have five original collages in the show, including the classic "Negative Zone" splash of Fantastic Four #51, the big spread from the climax of The Hunger Dogs -- the last new collage published in Kirby's lifetime, I think -- and a never-before published one. I've learned (and this is incredible to me) that Kirby kept up collage as an artistic pastime or avocation apart from his already insane workload for comic books. He did collages for relaxation, or for the simple pleasure of making new images out of fragments of old. He had a morgue file of photos and clippings at home that he pillaged in order to make collages. He made a number of them as gifts for family.

I think this tells us something about Kirby's restless creativity, and about the recombinant nature of that creativity. (What is Kamandi if not a collage of borrowed ideas, fragments, cultural clippings?) His ability and drive to recombine old things into new things -- you could say that collages are a metaphor for his whole storytelling practice. Plus, the collages are just plain visually cool: Kirby's own brand of Surrealist appopriation, of détournement and trouble-making.

The collages may really turn people's heads. A CSUN painting teacher came through the Gallery yesterday and I showed him around the show (which is almost but not quite done). He teaches abstract painting, and was wild for the abstract qualities in, for example, some Devil Dinosaur spreads we have. Interestingly, the collages wowed him -- and he remarked that Kirby's visual language for both drawing and collage is the same. Kirby "must have lived inside this world in his head all the time," he said. I think that's exactly right.

Our catalog includes a wonderful essay by Scott Bukatman on the collages, and our in-gallery panel discussion on Sept. 26 is sure to touch on them, because it will include both Scott and the great L.A. artist Steve Roden, who loves them. I think they're going to be a very special part of the show.

SPURGEON: What older material did you feel was important to get into this show? What material from later on? ls there anything that you most regret not getting?

HATFIELD: While searching out Kirby work from the mid-60s on -- the focus of the show -- I lucked into contact with, or was referred to, collectors who had earlier pages. Choosing that older work was a matter of jumping at opportunities; certain collectors were very willing to lend. We tried to tap what we could tap locally, from here in L.A. (though some of the earliest material ended up coming from farther away). The main thing was to get a variety of Jack's work without asking for many early pieces. I wanted several genres to be represented, and we were lucky to get that. Given the show's focus on later Kirby, with so much superhero, SF, and myth fantasy work, I wanted to make sure that romance and other genres at least had a toehold in the show, something to introduce viewers to that larger history.

As for later work, of course there are splendid examples of late Kirby -- for me, iconic, essential Kirby -- that we were not able to borrow (insert self-pitying Charlie Brown-like sigh here). Personally, I'd like to have more Eternals, more Black Panther. More of Kirby's color work. More unpublished drawings. Those things would help me tell stories about Kirby that I'm eager to tell. But there are always questions of scope and budget that hem in what you can do, and what you can get. Some collectors who have key images and issues were not able to lend. This time. I hope and believe that a major museum retrospective of Kirby will come, and soon, and will be able to draw in those collectors and those works. Us, we're just putting on what I believe to be the largest Kirby exhibition yet seen in this country -- and the first at a university. That's alright.

imageSPURGEON: What kind of work are your students doing based on the exhibit, and does that become part of the exhibit?

HATFIELD: I'm shaping up my Fall semester syllabi even now -- yow, I haven't much time -- so I have to be a bit tentative here. The jello is still setting. But I know that I'll be teaching three classes this semester, two on comics strictly, and the third on cultural studies methods and debates, a course that we call "Studies in Popular Culture." The exhibition is relevant to both courses.

I plan to bring my classes into the Gallery itself on several occasions, and to use Kirby's art to prompt visual analyses, historical research, and critical discussions. Some of the projects I've done in past semesters I plan to rejigger for Kirby: for example, the comics class usually does a tracing project, which requires the students to literally trace, then comment on, pages from a comic (an idea taken from Prof. Mark Sample, now at Davidson College, formerly of George Mason). I also plan to have students research particular pieces from the show, dig up as much info about them as possible (using tools like the Grand Comics Database), and place them in historical and genre contexts. And we'll use Kirby as the basis of the formal exercises that we usually do early in the term. Finally, their research project will have to work with Kirby and his influence and/or questions surrounding the exhibition of original comic art in galleries and museums. Along the way, I'll give students a range of Kirby comics for critical analysis, from the '40s to the '80s (from Young Romance to '60s Marvel to The New Gods to "Street Code").

What this means for the comics course is a drastically different design from recent iterations. We'll work through the Kirby, and through comic book history and the superhero tradition, toward newer stuff near the end: recent superhero tales like Hellboy, Ms. Marvel, and The Shadow Hero, and other kinds of fantasy comics, by creators like Jesse Jacobs or Edie Fake. Not my usual overview of the comics field, which tends to have Spiegelman, Nakazawa, Lynda Barry, Schulz, etc., but a new angle instead. As for the Studies in Popular Culture class, I'm planning to have them doing Gallery visits and visual analyses as well, but we'll also look at superhero culture spinning out from comics, including movies (and questions of adaptation), fandom, cosplay, etc. I'm planning to talk about the Marvel movie phenomenon, using Liam Burke's new study, The Comic Book Film Adaptation and so forth.

I've invited many of my CSUN colleagues to consider how to use the exhibition in their own teaching, particularly those faculty in the General Education Path called "Arts, Media, and Culture." And a group of colleagues and I are planning both a series of comics-related film screenings this fall and a student conference on comics next spring that will build on this work. This is all part of a larger, ongoing initiative I'm leading called Comics@CSUN.

SPURGEON: Have you heard from the family at all on this project? Do you expect to? Have you heard from peers or friends of the late artist?

HATFIELD: Yes. I've been in touch with the Kirby Estate from early on, and I've kept them informed of the project. They've been supportive and encouraging, and we expect that many members of Jack's family will be able to see the show. We are sure that some of them will. All along, I've wanted the family to feel included in this project to the extent that they would like to be. Family was the driver for Jack's work, and everything he did was about that, so I've always wanted to honor his family as best I could. That's always been important to me.

Also, we've heard from a number of friends and coworkers of Jack's, some of whom have been able to lend things to the show, and some of whom have just expressed enthusiastic support or asked if we need anything! That's been nice. I wish I'd known some of these folks earlier!

SPURGEON: Talk to me about the catalog. Who's in there, and what was your aim in putting it together. There are certainly plenty of people out there that love talking about Kirby -- probably enough to put together a second catalog -- but what does this set of essays collectively indicate about the art form's relationship with that great artist?

HATFIELD: The catalog is a monster: 20 essays on Kirby, most of them short and punchy, interleaved with more than a hundred images, most shot from original art. It's a joint publishing venture between the CSUN Art Galleries and IDW, under Scott Dunbier's eye and with design by Randall Dahlk, who designed IDW's incredible Kirby Artist's Editions. It's in production even now.

The contributors: Mark Badger, Scott Bukatman, Howard Chaykin, Brian Cremins, Ramzi Fawaz, Craig Fischer, Glen David Gold, Doug Harvey, Adam McGovern, Carla Speed McNeil, Andrei Molotiu, Dan Nadel, Adilifu Nama, Ann Nocenti, Tony Puryear, James Romberger, Diana Schutz, and co-editor Ben Saunders and myself. We've worked for diversity in outlook, voice, and interest; for a mix of scholars', fans', and creators' voices. From academic analyses -- for example Bukatman on collage, or Molotiu on the composition of a signature image -- to appreciations by fellow artists like Chaykin and Puryear, we've got a good and crazy range. That right there tells you something the field's relationship with Kirby -- so many people have bright and passionate things to say about him.

imageTo have Doug Harvey and Dan Nadel in this one book, to have Diana Schutz writing on Kirby and romance, to have Mark Badger writing about his "Daily Kirby" devotional practice, wow, that's so much good fortune for us. Glen Gold's essay on Kirby's wartime experience will be essential reading for Kirby scholars, I think. And Ramzi Fawaz has given us an unexpected queer reading of The Fantastic Four. In other words, the book will be diverse.

I put the book together with my colleague and friend Ben Saunders. Of course one of our goals was to commemorate and deepen the exhibition experience, for those who get to see the show firsthand, but we also wanted to create something more: what we call a "catalog-plus" or companion book of lasting value. The idea is to do deep analysis of Kirby that allows lively voices and personal quirks to come through -- to model a kind of scholarship that preserves individuality and acknowledges how deeply Kirby hits us, as fans, readers, thinkers, makers. We wanted this book to be personal and at the same time solid, documented, smart stuff.

SPURGEON: Tell me something you learned or at least had reinforced working with Kirby's material this way. How much of your relationship to Kirby is still being defined.

HATFIELD: To be around so much Kirby work, and to handle it, is like a dream. It's dizzying, really. Coming back to the collages for a moment, seeing the fragility of those pieces in person, and seeing the marks of history on them -- the fact that some elements are so small and frail, or that glue leaves its traces decades after, that to me was poignant. Also, seeing up close the difference in scale between pre-1968 and later comic book originals was a revelation: it enabled me to think about the physical process of drawing, and how Kirby and his peers had to adjust to production demands that they often had no control over. To see just how much the work I love was shaped by practical and contingent factors -- that's so revealing that it's almost disconcerting. More than anything, though, the sheer physical encounter between Kirby and the boards, and of course the physical handiwork of his inkers and letterers, too, that's hit me powerfully with this show.

There are telltale differences among the boards -- for example, the difference between a pristine Ayers-inked Rawhide Kid page from 1963 and the more, er, manhandled, Colletta-inked, note-covered Thor pages of 1968. There are stories in the boards, like the curious chopping-down of the opening splash in New Gods #1 for publication, as opposed to the version you'll see in the show.

Mostly, I'm left with a sense of awe and gratitude that Kirby's work managed to make it through difficult production processes and reach readers like me. Also, with a sense of the physical continuity between, say, a Kirby war or romance page of the mid-50s and what he was doing on the Fourth World books or Kamandi nearly 20 years later.

I also learned something about keeping my own ideas in check. I had elaborate notions and theses that I wanted to present through the show, but, really, for the most part my ideas have had to yield to the reality of moving artworks around in a space and making an inviting experience for others. That makes curating very different from the sort of monastic effort that Hand of Fire required. To choose works based on certain thematic ideas, but then let the works speak more loudly that the ideas when you finally hang it -- that's the trick.

SPURGEON: What do you think the average pop-culture consumer should take away in terms of knowing about Kirby and his legacy?

HATFIELD: That Kirby was one of 20th century America's gutsiest, strangest, and yet most influential graphic artists and visual storytellers. That the familiar things of pop culture today -- the Marvel movies, and all that -- came from a drawing board, and from a man working his damnedest to earn a living for himself and his family. That Marvel was just part of Kirby's amazing career story. That Kirby not only designed Marvel but took comic books a step further, toward a quirky and wonderful way of representing mythology through superhero conventions and SF. That he was a nonstop idea generator. That he dreamed of past and future, of new worlds and new gods, and did so in an ecstatic graphic style that distilled everything wild, unrepentant, and delightfully crazy about American comic books. And I'd like them to know a bit more about how comic books got made, how Kirby's handiwork got translated into finished books, and some of the other artists who worked with Kirby and helped finish his pages.

imageSPURGEON: Let me switch gears a bit and slip into my newsmans's hat. You and Susan Kirtley and some others are organizing some of the comics scholars into a new group. Can I ask after that group? How are things going?

HATFIELD: Thanks for asking! The Comics Studies Society will be the US's first professional association for comics scholars that runs on members' dues and does the things that a learned society traditionally does: support teaching and scholarship, advocate, build institutional resources, help scholars with career development and networking, recognize outstanding research, and so on. You'll remember that we founded CSS in 2014 at the ICAF, the International Comic Arts Forum, at the Ohio State, where a roomful of people voted in our bylaws and our first executive board. I'm the interim President of that board, serving these first few years to help get CSS from provisional to permanent, working status. Susan is serving on the board, too, and nine other scholars: José Alaniz, Corey Creekmur, Brian Cremins, Jared Gardner, Dave (A. David) Lewis, Ben Owen, Nhora Serrano, Rebecca Wanzo, and Qianna Whitted. Also, the CSS Graduate Student Caucus, which is vitally important, has established its own bylaws and currently has five officers, including Ben, who is GSC President, and Colin Beineke, Elizabeth Nijdam, Theresa Rojas, and Alison Sagara.

For at least our first couple of years, CSS is partnering with ICAF for our conference activity. ICAF has been around for 20 years and has a strong academic reputation, so it makes sense to start there. We're exploring the possibility of continuing with ICAF over the long term. We're exploring quite a few other things too, including the proper format and publisher for the Society's journal -- and the other benefits that we can offer our members.

At the moment, we are incorporating, and soon we'll be seeking 501© tax-exempt status. The organizational and paper work required is taking some time. We expect to launch our first membership drive very soon, and then to hold our second round of elections. (We haven't accepted any dues from any members yet, so you could say we're still at a formative stage.)

CSS recently sponsored a panel at the Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College, and we're on the lookout for other opportunities to sponsor events and spread the word. So things are moving. By the end of this coming school year, CSS will have a much more active public presence.

SPURGEON: There is a big Jack Kirby anniversary coming up soon, and he always seems relevant considering the state of Marvel Comics as a blackbuster-movie factor and licensing hub… What's left for us to discover with Jack Kirby?

HATFIELD: By rights the Kirby Centennial, 2017, should be a big deal. I'm in conversation with a number of folks who are determined to see that it is. Public awareness is starting to tilt toward Kirby -- teaching, exhibitions, art books, scholarship are all parts of making that happen -- and of course the brave, grassroots Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center deserves thunderous applause for continuing to encourage the study of Kirby (they were enormously helpful with Comic Book Apocalypse). I believe that by 2017 there will be a rather different public conversation happening about Jack.

As for what's left to discover, the sheer density and texture of Kirby's work, and life, continue to surprise me, and I've been at this for a good while. The depth of the record Kirby left us, the relevance of his work on so many fronts, and, best of all, the continuing power of the art itself -- these things call for further and deeper study. Deeper digging, and thinking. I'm waiting for Mark Evanier's promised epic biography, years in the making -- and I expect that even then we won't stop being interested in Kirby's mind, his work life, his times, and the pressures he endured. For instance, a study across the decades of Kirby's depictions of war, or of gender, or of race, or of children, could yield great insights. Study of Kirby's work process and how it shifted, from the Simon & Kirby Studio, through the Marvel Method, to his later solo work -- we need more of that. Study of the tug-of-war between narrative and pure graphiation in Kirby's work -- study that does more with Jack's private drawings, paintings, and collages -- I'd like to see that too. Fuller study of the romance genre, where Kirby was so prolific for so long. Study of how Kirby's SF, born of the pulp era, responds to the dystopian 70s and beyond. I took away a lot of unexpected insights from the experience of working with the original art and co-editing the exhibition catalog -- and I know I want to spend the rest of my working life trying to get more of those. This well has no bottom.


* Comic Book Apocalypse
* Comic Studies Society
* PR PDF For New Exhibit: CBA_exhibition_press_release,_5_June_2015.pdf


* poster image for the exhibit
* photo provided by Hatfield
* Young Romance #1
* collage piece
* from "Street Code"
* from Mark Badger's "Daily Kirby" devotional
* Comic Studies Society logo
* collage from Hunger Dogs (below)



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