Hand of Fire Roundtable

Beatrice Addressing Dante (1827) by William Blake

Here’s a link to part Three of Jack Kirby: Hand of Fire Roundtable (Part 3). By: Jeet Heer

There are a lot of great comments in the series. It’s great to see Kirby discussed in a scholarly context by all of these passionate art historians and comics history experts. I hope you all read the entire series. Hatfield’s Hand of Fire book is great and I’m glad to see he’s getting some well-deserved feedback on what he put together.

Here’s one of the many quotes I enjoyed. Kirby historian Kenn Thomas has made the comparison between William Blake and Jack Kirby as well.


The interesting question here is not how Jack Kirby is like William Blake but how William Blake is like Jack Kirby. He is both a poet and a painter. More to the point, he is a printer, which in the 18th Century is to say a publisher. While it isn’t mass art, he does develop a method of producing illuminated manuscripts in multiples. Given his revolutionary principles the intent is to create art for an anonymous public rather than to seek patronage among the nobility. The signal difference here is that he makes no attempt to make his art comprehensible to a general public; they would have to come to him on his terms, and they didn’t. Robert Christgau coined the term semipopular art, meaning that which has every characteristic of popular art except popularity. William Blake might be said to be the father of semipopular art.

Imagine a William Blake born in Lambeth in 1917. During the war he’s producing graphics for the Ministry of Information. He’s known in bohemian circles as a talented fellow but a bit of a roughneck and not quite the right sort — his father was in trade, after all. After the war he picks up a couple of bob here and there drawing and writing for the comic weeklies. Eventually he lands at The Eagle and then in the 1950s it’s Hampson, Bellamy, and Blake, and Blake is the one who writes his own scripts. He gets talked to about the unorthodox religious ideas that get into his scripts. Frequently. You know he’s going to be one of the first people on Earth to take LSD. And then as ’60s start to swing, which old stager do you suppose is poised with the means and motive to blow open the doors of perception . . .

One of the participants, Glen David Gold made a comparison between a Blake painting and a piece of Jack’s work. I also think the painting below Jack’s image, called “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun” (1805), was an influence as well, probably the primary influence for Jack’s image.

William Blake (1757 - 1827)

Here’s my comment that I posted at the end of the Hand of Fire roundtable series.

Hey folks, I really enjoyed the series and the discussion.

There are a hundred things to comment on, but I’ve posted a lot of my thoughts on Jack Kirby here already, so I hope some of you will check it out:


I wanted to throw a few things in there. First of all, I think Charles did a terrific job on Hand of Fire. He could’ve written about any subject, but I’m glad he chose to examine the career of Jack Kirby, and because of that now we have a solid, serious quality academic analysis of Jack’s work on the bookshelves. Hand of Fire will be part of just about any serious bibliography in the future if a student wants to write a legitimate literary analysis of Jack Kirby’s work (or the whole history of comics in general).  You could argue Kirby was the Shakespeare of comics, so if comics scholarship – which I guess is a kind of hybrid form of analysis combining literary theory and film theory — is really going to flourish, there had to be a book like Hand of Fire in the libraries. For myself as a Kirby fan who would like to see Jack’s work given the respect it deserves, I personally thank Charles for the hard work he put into this project.

Charles is also a wonderful Kirby ambassador; he’s out there promoting Jack and answering questions about Jack always with grace and insight. To top it off I think his book is exceptional. It gives future Kirby historians a springboard to jump into their own theories and interpretations of Jack’s work and its impact on the culture. Will there maybe one day be a better book than Hand of Fire on Kirby’s work? Sure, probably. But as you all know that’s the point of the process — Charles’ book is a great first step (you could argue a giant leap) in Kirby scholarship, and Hand of Fire will have to be in the works cited section of pretty much any serious future dissertation on the literary merits of Kirby’s oeuvre. Let’s  not forget there are still plenty of people out there who see Kirby’s work as nothing more than disposable garbage for children, so let’s not take Charles’ work for granted just because there are inevitable criticisms of the book, such as something like complaints about the cover.

I also found the cover disappointing, but let me throw in a few of my own experiences dealing with this topic. About 10 years ago, I thought about trying to put together a fairly simple documentary film about Jack, but I discovered it would be tremendously risky to use Jack’s 60s Marvel artwork in a film because clearly they own that material, and they could derail a motion picture with Jack’s work prominently displayed in it (especially if the film was critical of Marvel Comics) with even the threat of any kind of legal action. No one is going to invest serious money in a project like that.

A few years ago, I was working on my Master’s Degree in English Education at the University of Central Florida, and I thought about doing my thesis on the visual rhetoric of Jack Kirby. UCF has an incredibly strict policy when it comes to getting permission to use every single image in a thesis for publication, so because I was not 100% certain I would be able to use every single Simon/Kirby, DC, Marvel, and Kirby Estate owned image I wanted to use in that project, I decided to focus on something else.

Recently I considered doing a book called “Kirby Dynamics” or “Kirby Storyteller” or something fun like “Kirby Rocks” that would have been a fun all-ages book that featured a single large panel of artwork from every month in Jack’s career with some text on the opposing page discussing what Jack had been doing that month. Again, the problem is that you have to have permission from all of the owners of all of that material to use it, and that’s not easy to get, especially from all the parties involved if you want to comprehensively cover Jack’s entire life.

That’s why I do Kirby Dynamics. It’s the only way I can use all of Jack’s art. The day may come where for some reason that site gets shut down. But it was a fun ride while it lasted.

The point I wanted to make is that Charles is lucky he was able to use any Kirby art at all in his book. I suspect Charles would have loved to use a Jack Kirby image for the book cover, but he couldn’t, or at least he couldn’t use one that reflected his vision for the project. So I do hope people will (I hate to use the cliché) not judge the book by the cover.

If anything, the Hand of Fire cover is a reflection of the climate Charles wrote the book in. We are in a transitional phase where what constitutes fair use is still being debated, and the work of an artist like Kirby is worth billions of dollars so the copyright to that material is going to be ferociously protected by its owners, so I have tremendous respect for Charles for forging ahead on a Jack Kirby project despite roadblocks set up by the owners of Jack’s art. People like me simply gave up on doing a Kirby book and chose other avenues.

I believe John Morrow’s Jack Kirby Collector is not-for-profit specifically so he can use a couple pages from a Kirby story under fair use; if his publication was for-profit he might face legal obstacles; the Kirby Museum is also not-for-profit. I talked to Ronin Ro about his book Tales to Astonish a few years ago, and he suggested he decided not to have images in his book because of legal issues. I heard the cover-decision for Mark Evanier’s King of Comics was also based on legal deliberations. So even if you don’t like the cover of Charles’ book, just consider that it was one of many obstacles Charles had to overcome to get this project off the ground.

The final decision in the Kirby court case may result in a legal precedent or a change in company policy at Marvel that will impact the very future of published comics’ scholarship. Who knows what images (if any) a future Kirby historian will be able to use if they want to comprehensively discuss the life and work of Jack Kirby in a published book. Because of the legal issues swirling around Kirby, and the slow demise of paper publications, in many respects, anyone who can get a book on Kirby out to the public is a pioneer.

So despite the non-Kirby cover, I think we are all pretty fortunate Charles Hatfield put together Hand of Fire, I think it’s a book we’ll be discussing for years, and it’s great to see so many eloquent experts and historians chiming in here on the subject. Great job to everybody involved in the roundtable and thanks for sharing your thoughts on Jack’s work with all of us.

Robert Steibel