A Burning Hand of Fire / by b.woo

I just finished Charles Hatfield's new book, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, which is the latest addition to the University Press of Mississippi's "Great Comics Artists" series. I'm not a Kirby expert or acolyte, though I've always appreciated the manic, insane energy of Kirby's work--most especially of his Fourth World comics of the 1970s. But I really enjoyed this opportunity to revisit Kirby's artistic output as guided by a real fan and really insightful critic like Hatfield. It's smart and sharp and learned, but accessible to the interested layperson and shot through with genuine love for the material. Hand of Fire is not a biography of Kirby, nor is it exactly a critical appreciation (for those, see the books appendix), as Hatfield focuses on a narrow slice of Kirby's oeuvre (of the six "periods" of his career (21-33), only two are discussed in significant detail). Instead, Hatfield asks us to consider a smaller sampling of examples in light of a couple of main points.

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The book's major argument and contribution is Hatfield's concept of comics art as "narrative drawing." Writers have arguably driven the recent transformation and consecration of the "American" comic book cum graphic novel as art form. Hatfield develops a more complex idea of authorship, one which recognizes the contribution of visual artist to the finished work:

Cartooning, as I define it, is emphatically not the same as illustrating a prior text; Kirby generated stories through drawing. His stories and characters were affordances to his graphic sense; vice versa, his graphics were inspired by imagined narratives.

Comic-book artists are not merely "illustrators"; they decisively shape the "text" and, consequently, the reader's experience.

In the "Marvel method" of production, developed in Stan Lee's collaborations with Kirby and Steve Ditko, artists worked from a story outline but made all of the decisions about breaking down, pacing, and laying out that story themselves, and the writer later returned to add captions and dialogue. Over time, Kirby was given ever freer reign by Stan Lee, who was increasingly disinterested in day-to-day editorial oversight, and became more and more responsible for what actually ended up on the page. According to Hatfield, Lee was a unifying presence without whom Marvel Comics as we know it would not exist, but Kirby should be seen as the primary author of the Marvel universe.

Kirby serves as an extreme case for this line of argument. Despite being celebrated as the "King of Comics" and his unmistakeable style, Kirby was--as Hatfield takes pains to remind us--the quintessential work-for-hire cartoonist. Over his forty-year career in comics, he produced an estimated 21,000 pages of comic art (7), and while on contract to DC in the 1970s was required to draw 15 pages a week (176). Yet, in the midst of this prodigious workload, Kirby improvised characters, concepts, and stories that are still inspiring readers and creators today--and still generating revenue for DC and Marvel (and their respective corporate owners, Warner Bros. and Disney). Borrowing from Bourdieu, Hatfield argues that Kirby managed to carve out a sphere of "relative autonomy" within a very heteronomous form of mass-media production.

The first four chapters develop this argument about authorship through Kirby's working methods and career. Afterwards, the book loses some of its structural coherence. A chapter on the "technological sublime" in Kirby's work, two on the Fourth World saga, and one on Kirby's return to a very different Marvel Comics in the '70s follow. They're interesting and important contributions in their own right, but also could conceivably have worked as standalone essays. The book's real strength is the first part and the way Hatfield uses Jack Kirby and his wonderful, crazy art to redefine what it means to be a "Great Comics Artist."