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Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby by Charles Hatfield

Hatfield devotes a chapter to discussing Kirby’s art and in particular his style. This section was of particular interest to me because it is by using aspects of an artist’s style, particularly seemingly insignificant ones, that an artist’s work can be identified. Much of the books’ discussion concerns applying, or rather attempting to apply, the theories of Charles Sander Peirce to Kirby’s work. I believe that Hatfield does a good job of describing Peirce’s theories, but then again since I was completely unfamiliar with them I cannot say how accurately they are presented. By his own admission applying Peirce’s theories on Kirby’s art is a difficult match but Hatfield feels that there is much to be learned from the attempt. It certainly provided me with an alternate way of looking at things which is the chief value in a book like “Hand of Fire”.

Hatfield also makes use of a definition of Will Eisner that “style results from the failure and frustration, from grappling with one’s own weaknesses as an artist and turning them to advantage”. While there is some truth in this, I feel it is only partial explanation of how an artist’s style is accomplished. Some aspects of an artist’s style may originate from his deficiencies, particularly earlier in a career. Kirby’s penchant for big ears during his first DC period comes to mind. But an artist style usually evolves over time and this generally is not due to any deterioration of his capabilities. Rather artist often go through a process of refining their work by filtering out what they consider unimportant aspects and emphasizing those of greater personal significance. Kirby’s style while working on the Fourth World books was, in my opinion, his best graphical efforts and this certainly not due to his failure to grapple with his weaknesses.

There is a chapter on the history and authorship of the Marvel Universe. It is a balance view which while emphasizing Kirby’s importance does not diminish or discredit Stan Lee’s contributions. I suspect Kirby Cultists will not be pleased but I was. Hatfield’s discussion of two common misapprehensions (that Marvel made superhero stories realistic and that the comics were created with a pre-planned continuity).

Included in the book is a lengthy analysis of Kirby’s work for DC, that what is commonly called the Fourth World. Hatfield obviously feels that this was the most important point of Kirby’s career. I admit that is an opinion that I do not share. But I still find his discussion about this work to be insightful and interesting. In fact the best that I have ever read.

“Hand of Fire” is not the type of book one would pick up to see great art. There is a small color section and some black and white illustrations scattered through the text. All the work shown was selected to match discussions in the text. So this is not a book to pick up just to see great Kirby art. But it is a great book if you want to enter into a discussion about Jack Kirby and his art. You may not agree with everything Hatfield writes, but you will understand why he takes the positions that he does and you may his ideas challenging.