When I was a kid, I never quite knew what to think of Jack Kirby. This was the late 1970s, the latter part of Kirby's long career, when his drawing style, always dynamic and increasingly abstract, had hardened and reached a level of grotesque brutishness that filled me with equal parts revulsion and fascination.
All my friends who read comics hated him; I went along with them, but I couldn't stop looking at the random issues of his Captain America and the Falcon or The Eternals that I piled up in a secret stash. I was only vaguely aware of Kirby's legacy—that he had, with long-time creative and business partner Joe Simon, invented Captain America in the '40s and, with Stan Lee, the Fantastic Four in the '60s. But I knew that his blocky, brutal figures and cold, monumental sci-fi settings were completely at odds with the naturalistic style of Neal Adams and John Buscema that was dominant in the '70s.
Why did Kirby draw the way he did? I could sense that it wasn't a lack of talent—it was clear that his characters looked the way they did because he wanted them to. I just couldn't understand why. And I wasn't the only one. The '70s marked an inglorious and humiliating end to Kirby's mainstream comics career: first with DC Comics' unceremonious cancellation of his multi-title superhero space opera, the Fourth World, in 1972, and then with the overwhelmingly negative fan reaction upon his return to Marvel in 1976. In 1978, Kirby left Marvel for the second time and turned to animation. His comics work between then and his death in 1994 was sporadic, and the work he produced for small publishers like Pacific and Eclipse is still considered an acquired taste.
His critical rehabilitation since then has been gradual, but nearly complete. The '70s Marvel stuff is still widely regarded as a mess, but the Fourth World series—The New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle, and Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen—are now among the essential documents of DC continuity. It's conventional wisdom that Kirby is one of the most important comic-book artists of all time, and probably the single greatest superhero artist ever.
Comics scholar Charles Hatfield doesn't wade into those fanboy rankings in his new book, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby (University Press of Mississippi). But he does offer perhaps the most serious and sustained critical appraisal of big parts of Kirby's career. Hatfield, a professor of English at California State University, Northridge, takes a hard academic approach to Kirby as an artist and writer, citing semiotics, Kant, and Edmund Burke in addition to fan magazines and, of course, Kirby's original comics. (Read a Comics Journal roundtable on Hatfield's book here.)
Hatfield offers three related arguments: First, that Kirby was a narrative artist and graphic storyteller—that is, that the very act of drawing inspired and generated the stories Kirby's comics told, even when collaborators like Simon and Lee provided plot outlines or full scripts. It's basically an argument for Kirby as an auteur in a collaborative and commercial industry.
Second, and complicating the first argument, Hatfield maintains that the '60s creative partnership between Lee and Kirby, during which they produced epochal work and laid the foundations for the existing Marvel Universe, was more complicated than we'll probably ever really know. Since the 1980s, when The Comics Journal uncovered a creative-rights dispute between Marvel and Kirby (the company refused to return Kirby's original artwork unless he gave up rights to the characters he had created), Kirby has been revered as a martyr for creators' rights, and Lee presented as a stooge for corporate greed. The assumption is that Kirby was the real creative force behind the Kirby/Lee comics of the '60s, and Lee's equal billing in the partnership is evidence of the writer/editor's shifty hucksterism. Much of this is based on a 1989 Comics Journal interview in which Kirby claimed sole credit for those comics, which, as Hatfield shows, couldn't have been the case.
"The collaborative process behind the seminal Marvel books was irreducibly complex, unpredictable—and messy," Hatfield writes. "It is also thinly documented.... To treat the torrent of Marvel Comics in the '60s, or any part of that outpouring, as work uniquely, singly attributable to one author takes a great leap of faith."
Hatfield's final argument is that the Fourth World comics, virtually ignored during their initial run in the early '70s, are Kirby's true creative peak. The Fourth World—a complex, ambitious saga of a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil that spills over into our dimension—began with a bang, expanding the sci-fi and high-fantasy aspects of The Fantastic Four and Thor into an epic allegory about freedom and tyranny. A race of supreme aliens, led by the warrior Orion and the patriarch Highfather, protect Earth from Darkseid, whose goal is to crack the anti-life equation and subjugate all living beings to his will. Kirby had been promised full editorial control for the crossover series, but poor sales led to its abrupt cancellation in 1972. The fact that the series ended the way it did, Hatfield argues, makes it an even more powerful representation of its creator.
"Like much of Kirby's work, the Fourth World suggests a fiercely active mind—untutored but intellectually engaged, even supercharged—always searching for ways to personify grand ideas," Hatfield writes. "That said, it is difficult to imagine how the saga could have ended in such a way as to do justice to its sprawling, inexhaustible, endlessly explorable worlds."