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Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby

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Jack Kirby (1917-1994) is one of the most influential and popular artists in comics history. With Stan Lee, he created the Fantastic Four and defined the drawing and narrative style of Marvel Comics from the 1960s to the present day. Kirby is credited with creating or cocreating a number of Marvel's mainstay properties, among them the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, and the Silver Jack Kirby (1917-1994) is one of the most influential and popular artists in comics history. With Stan Lee, he created the Fantastic Four and defined the drawing and narrative style of Marvel Comics from the 1960s to the present day. Kirby is credited with creating or cocreating a number of Marvel's mainstay properties, among them the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, and the Silver Surfer. His earlier work with Joe Simon led to the creation of Captain America, the popular kid gang and romance comic genres, and one of the most successful comics studios of the 1940s and 1950s. Kirby's distinctive narrative drawing, use of bold abstraction, and creation of angst-ridden and morally flawed heroes mark him as one of the most influential mainstream creators in comics. In this book, Charles Hatfield examines the artistic legacy of one of America's true comic book giants. He analyzes the development of Kirby's cartooning technique, his use of dynamic composition, the recurring themes and moral ambiguities in his work, his eventual split from Lee, and his later work as a solo artist. Against the backdrop of Kirby's earlier work in various genres, Hand of Fire examines the peak of Kirby's career, when he introduced a new sense of scope and sublimity to comic book fantasy.


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Jack Kirby (1917-1994) is one of the most influential and popular artists in comics history. With Stan Lee, he created the Fantastic Four and defined the drawing and narrative style of Marvel Comics from the 1960s to the present day. Kirby is credited with creating or cocreating a number of Marvel's mainstay properties, among them the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, and the Silver Jack Kirby (1917-1994) is one of the most influential and popular artists in comics history. With Stan Lee, he created the Fantastic Four and defined the drawing and narrative style of Marvel Comics from the 1960s to the present day. Kirby is credited with creating or cocreating a number of Marvel's mainstay properties, among them the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, and the Silver Surfer. His earlier work with Joe Simon led to the creation of Captain America, the popular kid gang and romance comic genres, and one of the most successful comics studios of the 1940s and 1950s. Kirby's distinctive narrative drawing, use of bold abstraction, and creation of angst-ridden and morally flawed heroes mark him as one of the most influential mainstream creators in comics. In this book, Charles Hatfield examines the artistic legacy of one of America's true comic book giants. He analyzes the development of Kirby's cartooning technique, his use of dynamic composition, the recurring themes and moral ambiguities in his work, his eventual split from Lee, and his later work as a solo artist. Against the backdrop of Kirby's earlier work in various genres, Hand of Fire examines the peak of Kirby's career, when he introduced a new sense of scope and sublimity to comic book fantasy.

30 review for Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    Whether you'll find this book useful/interesting depends, I suppose, on how academic you want it to be. After giving an overview of Kirby's career that this relative ignoramus found very useful, Hatfield spends a fair amount of time at the start of the book discussing narrative drawing and how it fits into more theoretical readings of how art conveys meaning. While this is the driest part of the book, it is nevertheless easy enough to understand and sets up the more detailed consideration of Kir Whether you'll find this book useful/interesting depends, I suppose, on how academic you want it to be. After giving an overview of Kirby's career that this relative ignoramus found very useful, Hatfield spends a fair amount of time at the start of the book discussing narrative drawing and how it fits into more theoretical readings of how art conveys meaning. While this is the driest part of the book, it is nevertheless easy enough to understand and sets up the more detailed consideration of Kirby's work that comes later on. Hatfield is to be commended for trying to avoid the excessive opaqueness of much academic work on pop culture and he mostly succeeds. It's in the later chapters of the book where Hatfield really excels, though. His chapter on Kirby's relationship with Stan Lee at Marvel, for example, is not simply a rehash or synthesis of pre-existing accounts of that era, but an attempt to determine to what extent the Marvel way of producing comic books affected the content of the comics themselves. Here Hatfield makes a persuasive case for regarding Kirby as the creative lead at Marvel during the mid to late 60s (what today we might call in another medium the "showrunner"). Not only did other Marvel artists consciously ape his style, but they followed his philosophy of storytelling. Kirby became the "blueprint" for other creators. When the book moves on to Kirby's short-lived stint at DC, Hatfield delves more deeply into Kirby's mythos-building and provides a thought-provoking and highly cogent analysis of two seminal Fourth World issues - 'New Gods #7' and 'Mister Miracle #9'. This is nuanced stuff and highlights the tensions in Kirby's thematic considerations (his loathing of fascism in tension with the very concept of the superman which was co-opted by fascism in the 30s, for example) which makes his work both sophisticated and appealing. Arguably, Hatfield relies a bit too much on a biographical reading of Kirby's work, but that's not to say that he doesn't take the time to place Kirby in his specific historical and formal contexts. Hatfield covers the return to Marvel fairly briefly. I think he's right to focus mostly on 'The Eternals'. The Erich von Daniken-inspired series threatened to destabilise a Marvel continuity that was quickly solidifying and becoming much more coherent than it had been previously, and that awkwardness is worthy of examination. Hatfield does a good job here, but I wish he'd have given more space to Kirby's other Marvel work, particularly his Black Panther which deals very explicitly with what Hatfield identifies as the 'technological sublime' and, in its portrayal of The Collectors as a force for selfishness and, by extension, narrative disruption, perhaps symbolises the vocal group of fans who were too interested in codifying the past to enjoy the current storytelling ride on which Kirby wanted to take them. This is a minor quibble, though. Hatfield's book is beautifully presented, meticulously researched and very well-referenced and indexed. It is clear, informative and, perhaps more importantly, prompted me to view Kirby specifically and comics in general in a deeper, more thoughtful way. It's an impressive piece of work.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Eamonn Murphy

    One is always wary when the academics get their hands on popular culture. I was recently re-reading Kingsley Amis on the subject in his introduction to the anthology ‘The Golden Age Of Science Fiction’. Academic himself, Amis nonetheless thought that the Science Fiction field became too self-conscious and was irreversibly changed when literary types stopped spitting on it and began to treat it with respect. Raymond Chandler also had mixed feelings on his pulp fiction being something that intelle One is always wary when the academics get their hands on popular culture. I was recently re-reading Kingsley Amis on the subject in his introduction to the anthology ‘The Golden Age Of Science Fiction’. Academic himself, Amis nonetheless thought that the Science Fiction field became too self-conscious and was irreversibly changed when literary types stopped spitting on it and began to treat it with respect. Raymond Chandler also had mixed feelings on his pulp fiction being something that intellectuals clawed each other about. However, once it’s done, it’s done and the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. For better or worse, comics are now the subject of academic enquiry. It could be worse. At least Charles Hatfield is a genuine fan and he calls them comics. He doesn’t try and tart them up as ‘graphics’ or some other euphemism. Moreover, he is quite clear in his view that Jack Kirby produced commercial work to a deadline in order to feed his family with very little pretensions to making ‘Art’ in the higher sense. Indeed, Hatfield says, the nature of the work that he produced and the way it developed are a direct outcome of the nature of his professional life. He had to work fast and the stuff had to sell, otherwise, he was out of a job. The ‘Art’ has to be viewed in that context. As with old pulp fiction writers, there was no time for revision or reflection on how it might be improved. You turned out the pages, cashed the cheque and went on to the next blank page. While giving some consideration to all of Kirby’s forty-year career, Hatfield’s analysis is focused on the later decades. The works examined here are the 60s Marvel comics, ‘The New Gods’ and other series done for DC in the 70s and his work on ‘The Eternals’ when he returned to Marvel. As the author points out, most of this stuff is now available in various Essential and Omnibus editions. In preparation for reviewing this book, I have read all of it several times over the last forty years and have most of it to hand in my bookcase. That Kirby’s art is strangely wonderful is common knowledge to his many fans. How it works and why it works is something this book sets out to explain. This takes many words. One picture is worth a thousand words they say and Kirby produced an awful lot of pictures. Happily, some of them are reproduced here. A word of warning: if you’re not a bit familiar with academic writing, this book may drive you up the wall. The analysis of art in words is a complex business and may even seem pointless to persons not of a scholarly bent. Hatfield uses semiotics as his starting point and tells us that the drawings in comics are signs. A sign has several meanings: an icon, a likeness of the thing it represents. A portrait is an icon of the person portrayed. A sign can also be a symbol, bearing an artificial relationship to its referent. The word ‘gun’, for example, is a symbol of a real live gun. You can’t pick up a g a u and an n then shoot someone. It’s just a symbol, not a gun. Finally, a sign may be an index of its referent – caused by or produced by its referent. A spinning weathervane is an index of wind. I have paraphrased the above from Chapter One of the book to give a flavour of this part of the work. In the following pages, the author goes through a panel by panel analysis of some pages from ‘The Demon’. Later chapters have in-depth looks at ‘The Pact’ (New Gods # 7) and ‘Himon’ (Mister Miracle # 9). Hatfield regards the Fourth World series as Kirby’s apogee, the point where he was at his most Kirby-esque, most true to his own vision, and also at the height of his talent. Later works, such as ‘Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers’ were so Kirby-esque that most readers simply couldn‘t cope with them, though the author likes them, he says. The Fourth World was Jack unleashed for the first time, no Joe Simon or Stan Lee to constrain him. The drawings, too, once Vince Colletta was replaced, were more exact reproductions of the original pencil art. Mike Royer changed almost nothing. Joe Sinnott and other Marvel inkers had usually toned him down, replacing squiggles with more standard strokes. One can argue that this was not always a bad thing but obviously Kirby preferred that the reader get the raw Kirby vision, undiluted. He never complained about inkers simply because his own working class ethics utterly forbad putting another man out of work. The review would be as long as the book if I went into much more detail but be aware – beware! – that it persists in a very academic vein. The chapter entitled ‘How Kirby Changed The Superhero’ informed me that those costumed vigilantes are ‘super-mobile navigators of the impacted spaces of utopian modernity’. Not a lot of people know that. In the following chapter, ‘Kirby’s Technological Sublime’, Hatfield goes into definitions of the sublime before analysing Kirby’s famous technology, those vast gadgets and huge vistas that dwarfed the characters. We use ‘sublime’ nowadays as a substitute for ‘nice’. Hatfield goes into more exact definitions quoting Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and other notables and delving into the aesthetics of the Romantic movement. Romance is another word where the simple modern meaning does not apply. Grandeur, cosmic awe, delightful horror and similar terms are used to evoke the effect of the sublime. In photo collage and graphic art, Kirby attempted to convey a vision of outer space and of stranger spaces, too, like the Negative Zone and the Promethean Galaxy, the place of giants. Maybe he felt at home there. Hatfield rightly states that ‘Thor’ was the seedbed of the Fourth World. It was on ‘Thor’ that Kirby really got into mythology, starting with the blending of Greek and Norse myths when Thor fought Hercules and then had to rescue him from Pluto’s Netherworld. Beginning in ‘Tales Of Asgard’ but taking off in the main strip at the start of 1966, this new mode of storytelling led to a blend of gods and Science Fiction that prefigures Kirby’s best work. After Pluto came the Colonizers, Rigel, Ego the Living Planet, the High Evolutionary and all the other great stuff. Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four met the Black Panther, the Inhumans, Galactus and the Silver Surfer then went on to encounter the Kree villains like Ronan and the Sentry in a cavalcade of new characters that has seldom, if ever, been matched and that provided the basis for much of the Marvel Universe we know and love. It’s always struck me that 1966-67 were also the years when the Beatles and other great groups were really hitting their stride as well. It was a good time to be a teenager. Being seven wasn’t too bad neither, as I recall. This is a fascinating analysis of Kirby’s greatest works and I enjoyed it immensely, even when it was a struggle to follow the abstract aesthetic reasoning where it became high flown. Flying high is no bad thing and this is a book that will stretch the mind. It’s not easy reading but it is satisfying. Whether comic art deserves this kind of close textual analysis is a moot point but if it’s to be done then it should be done well, by a well-educated academic with genuine devotion to the work and earnest intent. This writer has both. Hats off to Hatfield! Eamonn Murphy This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/

  3. 4 out of 5

    C. Hall

    The first genuine scholarly work to examine the art of Jack “King” Kirby, Hand of Fire is exhaustively researched and remarkably even-handed. Focusing on Kirby’s peak years (the 1960s and early 1970s), author Charles Hatfield manages to examine Kirby’s contributions to the comics medium while avoiding the fannish desire to gloss over Kirby’s career missteps, a feat too few Kirby analysts seem able to manage. Hatfield also scrutinizes the working conditions at Marvel Comics in the 1960s, and in d The first genuine scholarly work to examine the art of Jack “King” Kirby, Hand of Fire is exhaustively researched and remarkably even-handed. Focusing on Kirby’s peak years (the 1960s and early 1970s), author Charles Hatfield manages to examine Kirby’s contributions to the comics medium while avoiding the fannish desire to gloss over Kirby’s career missteps, a feat too few Kirby analysts seem able to manage. Hatfield also scrutinizes the working conditions at Marvel Comics in the 1960s, and in doing so makes a laudable attempt to answer the question, “Who really drove the creation of the Marvel Universe: Jack Kirby, or Stan Lee?” With commendable academic impartiality, Hatfield examines the transformative effect Kirby’s art had on the field once he hit his stride in the ‘60s, and while there isn’t much here that passionate Kirbyphiles won’t already know, those readers desirous of a one-stop scholarly examination of Kirby—the man and his art—will not be disappointed. The book has only two flaws, though I use that word reluctantly: one, it focuses mainly on Kirby’s peak period, and those hoping for a new emphasis on his less notable periods will have to look elsewhere; and two, like most academic works, there is a certain devotion to form here which does make the reading experience rather dry in places (as in virtually every scholarly work, far too much time is spent telling the reader what will be discussed, as opposed to simply getting to the discussion). This last bit of criticism, however, is more a commentary on the nature of academic writing than it is on the sterling work done by Charles Hatfield with this fine book. Hand of Fire is an intelligent and insightful look at one of comics’ most important talents, and I heartily recommended it to all those with a serious interest in the medium, or a serious interest in Jack Kirby.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ian Carpenter

    Super accessible academic reading of Kirby's influence. Repetitive at times and it can't help but delve into the Marvel gossip as it tries to get at Kirby's contributions to important titles. Super accessible academic reading of Kirby's influence. Repetitive at times and it can't help but delve into the Marvel gossip as it tries to get at Kirby's contributions to important titles.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mike Gibas

    A splendid academic appraisal of Jack Kirby’s work from his “peak”in the sixties and seventies. It’s not dewy-eyed and fanboyish, but is critical in its dissection of The King and his work. The insights into the work offer great insights into the man himself. Some of the close readings of work do drag on and are spectacularly subjective, but you do get the sense of just how many ideas and concepts Kirby riffed on in his work. A mist-read for fans and a must-read for lovers of art and artists tha A splendid academic appraisal of Jack Kirby’s work from his “peak”in the sixties and seventies. It’s not dewy-eyed and fanboyish, but is critical in its dissection of The King and his work. The insights into the work offer great insights into the man himself. Some of the close readings of work do drag on and are spectacularly subjective, but you do get the sense of just how many ideas and concepts Kirby riffed on in his work. A mist-read for fans and a must-read for lovers of art and artists that were truly original and hugely influential.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jon Holt

    On one hand, scholarship of this caliber on Jack Kirby has been long overdue. This is a sustained, focused analysis of Kirby's oeuvre. On the other hand, it is a bit bloated and one can get equally incisive critical attention from the Comics Journal or Jack Kirby Collector, in a much more economical presentation. When Hatfield focuses on specific illustrative or narrative technique, he is good. My problem with this book is that Hatfield feels compelled to retell 10 to 40 issues of a series. Why On one hand, scholarship of this caliber on Jack Kirby has been long overdue. This is a sustained, focused analysis of Kirby's oeuvre. On the other hand, it is a bit bloated and one can get equally incisive critical attention from the Comics Journal or Jack Kirby Collector, in a much more economical presentation. When Hatfield focuses on specific illustrative or narrative technique, he is good. My problem with this book is that Hatfield feels compelled to retell 10 to 40 issues of a series. Why is it necessary for him to explain the plot and narrative arcs of Fourth World? There seems to me a missed opportunity to really track Kirby's growth as an artist. The second of the two chapters on the Fourth World is better precisely for that reason -- Hatfield's analysis of the Pact and Himon holds the attention while his summary of Dc's FW Kirby omnibus does not. The last chapter on the Eternals shows the author out of steam. Chapters 1 and 2 -- maybe good enough alone for the book? I do appreciate the snippets and color plates, which greatly added to the value of Hatfield's story of why Kirby is so deserving of further study.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kris Michaud

    Hand of Fire begins with a joyless but geeky semiotic analysis of Kirby's style. If you can make it through that section, you will be treated to a sadly abbreviated discussion of his work on the Fourth World and the Eternals, and its influence on American comics and the culture at large. Hatfield' chief contribution to Kirby Studies is the notion of the "technological sublime" -- an important element of the King's aesthetic that had been searching for a name. Otherwise, this book is less inspire Hand of Fire begins with a joyless but geeky semiotic analysis of Kirby's style. If you can make it through that section, you will be treated to a sadly abbreviated discussion of his work on the Fourth World and the Eternals, and its influence on American comics and the culture at large. Hatfield' chief contribution to Kirby Studies is the notion of the "technological sublime" -- an important element of the King's aesthetic that had been searching for a name. Otherwise, this book is less inspired than one would hope, and the typos and grammatical errors are distracting. Like Kirby, Hatfield would have profited from a good editor!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Dan Pfeiffer

    A serious look at the first modern master of sequential art. 50 years from now Kirby will be considered amongst such luminaries as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Spillane, Burroughs and Kafka.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rodrigo Lewallen

  10. 5 out of 5

    Shay

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mark Rogers

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tom Shapira

  13. 4 out of 5

    Chris Barber

  14. 5 out of 5

    Paul Spence

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kyle Burley

  16. 4 out of 5

    Marc Sproat

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lynn Walker

  18. 5 out of 5

    Art

  19. 4 out of 5

    Chad Brock

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mark Ricard

  21. 5 out of 5

    Gary

  22. 4 out of 5

    Edgar

  23. 5 out of 5

    Garrie Burr

  24. 5 out of 5

    dedSteph (ded)

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mike Pinkel

  26. 4 out of 5

    Uncivilized Books

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ken

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  29. 4 out of 5

    S_p_r

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jefferson Workman

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