Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, Charles Hatfield’s wonderful book-length look at the career of Jack Kirby, reminds me of a few aspects of the King’s career that are worth dwelling on. Here they are in a handy top 10 list.
10. Jack Kirby’s arrival at Marvel was largely the result of plain good luck
As Hatfield reminds Kirbyophiles, Kirby’s career was at a relative low point when he arrived at Marvel around 1958. In that year, the unbelievably prolific artist produced only a trickle of material, and accelerated into near-exclusivity at Marvel by 1959 – more because of a lack of work than any grand design by Stan Lee to keep Jack employed just by him. This arrival followed a disastrous attempt to get involved in the much more lucrative world of newspaper syndication a year or two earlier, and he could only find a job drawing unexciting back-up stories such as the short “Green Arrow” eight-pagers he drew for DC.
Marvel also was at its lowest ebb when Kirby arrived. The company was barely emerging from a terrible financial bust that happened in 1957, and didn’t even include the company’s name on the cover of any of their comics. Kirby ground out dozens of mostly unmemorable monster yarns between ’57 and the first Fantastic Four story. And maybe most ironically of all, Kirby might not have even gotten many assignments at Marvel had Lee’s favorite artist of the time, the tremendously prolific Joe Maneely, not died in a freak accident in June 1958.
9. The rise of the Marvel Universe in the 1960s was basically unplanned
It’s striking how haphazardly everything developed at Marvel in the 1960s. Few things were ever planned in any detail; especially the brilliant Fantastic Four run. As Hatfield reports, the Silver Surfer first appeared because Kirby simply felt that a near-omnipotent being like Galactus would need a much smaller helper to lead the way to the planets that he would eat – and that Kirby thought a shiny alien guy on a surfboard would be a brilliant concept for that character. The whole Marvel Universe grew in that same sort of random helter-skelter headfast no-holds-barred sort of ramshackle manner – which is part of why early Marvel is so wondrously wacky.
8. Jack Kirby took a tremendous creative leap forward during the early years of the Marvel Universe
Hatfield spends a lot of time discussing the tension between Lee and Kirby involved while they were creating their most memorable comics. The tension mostly wasn’t acrimonious – at least not until Stan began being profiled positively in newspapers while Kirby was mocked – but it there was a definite struggle between the art and script. Hatfield discusses how that frustration hardened into a coarsening anger as Kirby became angrier and angrier at the company’s treatment of him over the years. Essentially the more successful Marvel got, and the more acclaim and reward that Lee received, the more Kirby felt that tension. To my eye, Hatfield gets the nuance of that relationship down extremely well.
7. Kirby’s background in romance comics – heck, he co-created romance comics – helped inform his best material at Marvel
We fans of super-hero comics frequently forget that Jack Kirby and his partner Joe Simon created the romance genre in 1947 and delivered material in that genre for the next dozen years (as late as January 1970, five of DC’s 28 books that month were romance titles – including one created by the Simon & Kirby team). Hatfield makes a good point that the resulting attention to the tropes of romance comics helped feed all those wacky interpersonal relationship ideas that were part and parcel of the best Marvel books – all those scenes of beautiful casting longing looks at unattainable men while the men did the same, never seeming to actually talk to each other – was fed by his focus on interpersonal relationships over super-heroic costumes.
6. Many of Kirby’s late period comics were autobiographical in surprising ways
Hatfield writes in extremely thoughtful and often moving terms about Kirby’s work on the Fourth World trilogy, when he was at his creative peak, and on The Eternals, when the King seemed a long way past his former glory. Hatfield sees optimism, hope and an explosion of autobiographical pondering in stories like “Himon” and “The Pact” in the New Gods series while seeing a slow decline from apathy and frustration in Kirby’s The Eternals. For those of us who love the King’s late series, this section of the book gives new perspective on some of Kirby’s fascinating emotional complexity.
5. The Fourth World trilogy encompasses many themes that were specifically relevant to Kirby at the time
It can’t be forgotten that the tumultuous, grandiose and emotional Fourth World books were released at the same time that the United States was going through perhaps its most tumultuous, devastating and emotional eras. Youth culture dominated society, there was a tremendous questioning of the futility of war and leaders and everyday ordinary concerns. The world felt like it was turning upside down, on some level, during that time. Kirby’s work on his brilliant collection of comics reflected that era – most notably the hippie-like Forever People but also in the way
that he presented his young characters and maybe most importantly took pains to show that violence was not the only viable solution to problems – a radically different idea than the ones he explored with Lee and another possible reason why the Lee/Kirby team split up.
4. Much of Kirby’s best work is shambolic and messy, and that is a big part of his charm
Kirby improvised constantly, a personality quirk that Hatfield calls “a flailing exhibitionism”. This is particularly well seen in the Fourth World series, which for all their brilliant and beguiling depth and energy simply do not have any sort of tight focus. In fact, that lack of focus is the double edged sword of those series – the raw energy and incredible unpredictability of the Fourth World saga was also in some ways the ultimate reason why that collection of titles failed. Readers wanted to grasp onto these plotlines, to embrace characters that could be compelling and interesting in the same way that the Fantastic Four were. But that chaotic energy battled against that ability, especially when the comics were first released on a bimonthly basis. Time has done the Fourth World titles some major favors.
3. Kirby’s late period at Marvel was often brilliant, often terrible, and definitely poorly handled
Hatfield devotes a long chapter to the material created in the late 1970s for Captain America, The Eternals, Black Panther and other titles. In retrospect, Kirby’s assignments from that era were poorly chosen. On one hand, he was forced to follow two of Marvel’s most popular writers by taking over Cap soon after Steve Englehart left and the Panther after Don McGregor’s acclaimed run on that character. By assigning Kirby to those series, Marvel management guaranteed that his reception would be problematic. It didn’t help that his writing and art on those series was so bizarre and so different from the common style of the times.
But part of the problem was that Marvel’s young guns of the period actively undercut Kirby as well. The King’s one work of true creative power from that era was The Eternals, a tremendously lavish UFO invasion/universe creation/intense epic that collapsed of its own weight, of his lack of attention to story detail, and to the way that Marvel’s staffers collected reader mail and comments that undercut creative momentum. He was forced to perform under tremendous stress and frustration, never a recipe for great art.
2. Kirby’s comics are fascinating and are continually revealing new aspects of themselves
One thing that Hatfield’s book reminds readers is that Kirby really was an Artist, with a capital A. He represented a specific, very particular view of the world, and he did so in ways that still are interesting and resonant today. We’re able to see new views of warfare, family, peace and emotion through Kirby’s work, and as society and our lives change, so too does the way that Kirby’s representation of our lives change.
1. Kirby was an extremely complicated figure in comics art, and efforts to fit him into a small box are completely ineffective.
It’s easy to be tempted to define Jack Kirby merely by a few of his creations, or merely by a specific approach to his work, or merely by some aspects of his quirky personality. But Hand of Fire reads as much as a biography of a complex creative force as it does a discussion of his creative history. In the hands of Charles Hatfield, we readers are reminded that Kirby’s life was difficult and complex, with its share of frustrating betrayals and painful setbacks. In that reminder, we’re able to see that Kirby’s genius wasn’t simply in the galaxies that he spanned or the worlds that he created; not his brilliant penciling or his imaginative concepts. No, Kirby’s genius was that he changed with the times and created amazing comic book stories that are still celebrated today.
If you love Jack Kirby, you must read Eric Hoffman’s review of the strangest comic Kirby ever created.