So I’m reading the most fascinating new book, and I don’t want it to end. It’s Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby by Charles Hatfield. It’s a terrific achievement, one in which artists and comics fans will find insight and inspiration.
“Hand of Fire” is a 275-page scholarly monograph on Kirby. No one has gone into Kirby’s massive influence on the medium, his creations, his style, his career highs and lows and even his marks on the paper in this depth.
It’s the best book on Kirby and the comics ever. By far.
Here I must confess my bias: I’m one of those people who think that Kirby belongs in any serious pantheon of 20th Century artists; that a list that would include say, Chaplin, Picasso, Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lennon & McCartney or Louis Armstrong should also include Kirby.
“Hand of Fire” makes this case implicitly. Hatfield helps us see, through the rigor and clarity of his writing, the extent to which we’re all still living in Kirby’s world. From his rough and tumble early years, to his co-creation of Captain America, through the War, romance comics, the Marvel years, the Fourth World and beyond, Hatfield takes us deep into the artist’s process and struggle in prose that’s always involving and rich. Hatfield knows his way around the semio-jargon, but makes it accessible to non-academics; you’ll feel smarter for having read this book.
As an artist, one thing I appreciated in particular was Hatfield’s explication of Kirby’s actual drawing, the “marks on paper” I referred to earlier. Hatfield is sensitive to the way an artist’s style is an act of performance, but also the ways in which the marks that make that style create a rhetoric, a vocabulary of signs and references. In this book, Kirby becomes literally the textbook example of an artist whose very strokes, squiggles and yes, dots carry worlds of meaning. Hatfield is alert to the development of Kirby’s style, and his writing on the artists who influenced him, Foster, Caniff, Hogarth, is the best I’ve seen on this little-explored part of the Kirby story.
Hatfield handles both the tangled history and the aesthetic explosion of the Marvel years very well, giving a highly nuanced account of the whole Stan-Jack mishegas, and he is especially fine on Kirby’s Fourth World series and the twinned stories “The Pact” and “Himon”, calling them “Kirby at Apogee”. Yes, exactly.
When they teach Kirby in the schools, and they will, this book will be a vital part of the curriculum and I recommend it very highly.