Editor’s note: Jeet Heer conducted this roundtable on the occasion of Charles Hatfield’s book, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. The participants include Jonathan Lethem (novelist and comic book writer), Glen Gold (novelist and comic art collector), Sarah Boxer (cartoonist and critic), Doug Harvey (art critic), Dan Nadel (co-editor of The Comics Journal website), and Robert Fiore (comics critic). The roundtable took place over email from February to April of this year.
This is the first of three parts. In this part, Kirby’s work in general is discussed. Hatfield’s book is examined in greater detail in parts two and three.
ONE: OPENING REMARKS
In a memorable 1995 exchange with Art Spiegelman, Gary Groth tried to make the case for the stature of Jack Kirby in the comics pantheon but acknowledged that the man who did so much to create the Marvel universe (as well as much else) could be hard to defend. “No one I’ve heard, not even Gil [Kane] has mitigated my skepticism about Kirby’s work,” Groth said. “Whereas Mike Barrier wrote a great book telling us why we should like Carl Barks’ work and I agreed entirely with his argument as to why Barks was an important creator, I’ve never really read anything that’s done that for me [with Kirby]…”
I think it’s fair to say that Charles Hatfield’s Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby is the book that meets the challenge that Groth thought had gone unanswered. While acknowledging everything that is problematic or even disreputable about Kirby’s work, Hatfield makes a compelling case that Kirby’s lifetime of “delirious graphiation” makes him central to the history of American comics.
The questions below are designed to pick up some of the central ideas of Hatfield’s book with an eye towards measuring the scope of Kirby’s achievement. I’ve often posed these questions in terms of dualities with a mind towards pointing out some of the tensions and contradictions in Kirby’s career, but also (I hope) as a way of spurring conversation about how Kirby in fact transcends some of the categories we might try and impose on him.
1. Kirby the cartoonist versus Kirby the visual artist. A key argument that Hatfield makes is that Kirby was a cartoonist, that almost all his drawings were done with narrative intent and need to be seen as storytelling rather than illustration. “The guiding idea behind Hand of Fire is that Kirby’s drawing is storytelling and that, conversely, his storytelling almost always used drawing, not scriptwriting, as its vehicle; the narrative and the drawing were coextensive, mutually animating and reinforcing, and inseparable. Kirby was a cartoonist (a word whose glory we have sacrificed in our haste to give respect to ‘comics creators’ and ‘graphic novelists’). Cartooning, as I define it, is emphatically not the same as illustrating a prior text; Kirby generated stories through drawing.” (p. 18) As articulated by Hatfield, these ideas almost seem like common sense but isn’t there another way of seeing Kirby, as a visual artist first and foremost? Since Kirby’s death, there have been important museum exhibits of his work as well as an increasing market for his original art (and publications like the Jack Kirby Collector reprinting copies of his pre-inked pencil work). I myself on occasion find myself often gliding over the textures of Kirby’s art, enjoying them simply for their surface pleasure without a mind to their narrative content. This question is perhaps most pertinent to Doug Harvey but everyone should be free to weigh in: is there is a case for valuing Kirby’s visual art divorced from its narrative intent?
2. Kirby the collaborationist versus Kirby the auteur. For most of Kirby’s career, he worked within a comics production system based on a division of labor, collaborating with editors, writers, and inkers. The long-terms collaborations with Joe Simon and Stan Lee were the most famous examples of Kirby being a team player but even after he took an auteurist turn in 1970, he worked with inkers and, for better or worse, had to follow editorial dictates (as with DC cancelling the Fourth World books or Marvel trying to integrate the Eternals into their continuity). At the end of the book Hatfield reflects that, “The underlying problem for the critic has to do with, again, the need to locate Kirby’s authorial voice, if not autonomy, in the face of a market and a genre justified mainly in heteronomous terms. Simply put, it is hard to find Kirby the Auteur amongst all the commercial imperatives, the ‘failed’ projects, the unexpected hits, the feints and reversals, the very things that made his career arc in comics the looping, whirling, crazy dotted line that it was…” (page 252). Interestingly, the tension between individualism and group effort was a major thematic concern for Kirby (think of how the many groups he created like the Fantastic Four were riven by internal disputes, how they fought against each other as much as against the villains or think of how Kirby’s soldiers are often drawn as having uniform faces while his heroes are often grotesquely distinct, as with the Thing or the Hulk). I’m wondering, though, if collaboration should be seen as always a failure to live up to an auteurist ideal. Didn’t Kirby’s collaboration provide the necessary precondition for his productive career, just as the Thing found expression for his heroism in the context of the Fantastic Four?
3. Stan and Jack. Related to the question above, it might be worth revisiting the much disputed (and litigated) authorial battle between Stan Lee and Kirby. Hatfield offers a balanced account of their team efforts, arguing that Kirby “provided the conceptual material, the character designs, the unmistakable graphic style, the pace, and, eventually, the plotting and overall direction of the Marvel books with which he was linked [he] did not solely author any of the seminal Marvels of the period. His work was constrained and subliminally altered at the editorial level, with text that reshaped and at times redirected his plots. Furthermore, Lee’s vitalizing influence saturated Marvel and determined its editorial ethos. Kirby worked harder but, commercially, Lee made things happen.” (p. 95). Is this a fair assessment or is there more to be said about the troubled partnership between Lee and Kirby?
4. A superhero cartoonist or a master genre mixer? Perhaps the most conservative aspect of Hatfield’s account is his placing of Kirby within the framework of superhero comics. We’re given only a cursory account of the Simon and Kirby era (when his major genre was, surprisingly, romance comics but also included boys adventure, westerns, war comics, science fiction, horror and many others). The bulk of Hatfield’s book is taken up with Kirby’s work for Marvel in the 1960s and DC in the 1970s, when he re-invented and re-invigorated the superhero genre. Again, this approach seems like common sense but I’m wondering seeing Kirby through the prism of the superhero genre doesn’t diminish his originality as a genre mixer. Here’s another way of seeing Kirby: during the long apprenticeship of the Simon and Kirby years, he mastered the rules for the many genres he worked in and then in the 1960s he confidently started to splice these genres together to create a new meta-genre that was nominally superhero comics but actually had a much wider scope. Thus the Fantastic Four can be seen as a mixture of Challengers of the Unknown style exploration stories, Skymaster-style science fiction, monster comics (the Thing), romance and soap opera (the Reed-Sue-Submariner love triangle), space opera (Galactus and the Silver Surfer), a repurposing of older superhero and science fiction ideas (the stretching man in the tradition of Plastic Man, the human Torch, a character who can turn invisible), and many other genres. Hatfield touches on Kirby as a genre-mixer on page 22, but I’m wondering if more can’t be said about this. To put it another way, Hatfield describes the Fourth World books as “the climax of [Kirby’s] career in superheroes” (p. 143) but, thought these comics have superheroes in them, I’m not sure if they are superheroes or some new genre, a mutant cosmic fantasy.
These are some points to start off the discussion. Feel free to answer which ever ones strike your fancy and also to raise new issues and problems.
TWO: MODERNISM, COLLAGES AND THE WAR
GLEN DAVID GOLD:
[Jeet Heer wrote:] “1. is there is a case for valuing Kirby’s visual art divorced from its narrative intent?“
Haven’t gotten the Hand of Fire book yet, but that don’t stop me from wanting to talk. I assume that everyone else knew about Andrei Molotiu’s writings about this long before I did. The Dream Machine should be right below. This is one of the very few non-collage pieces of art Jack is known to have done for himself. I.e., there was no client. (His collages are a whole other topic we could jump on. Does Hatfield?) It’s gigantic and I can’t look at it enough. Neither could he — it was over his desk for the last fifteen years of his life.
Now, I’m not an art scholar, so please excuse my flailing. Is this abstract? Or representational? I feel like all of the small parts of this could be constructed in some 3D sculpture. They are pistons and turbines and valves and switches. But when you add them up, they become shapes and ideas rather than objects. That face on the far right? The white part, like the front quarters of an insect? Is there a narrative here? I feel like there’s an implied narrative (i.e. the machine probably hums to life and one part influences another, a narrative of something functioning) but not an overt one. If I look at it I might assign meaning and movement to it — it’s God’s iPod — but does that mean I’m bringing storyline to the party? Because there are other times where it’s a just visual feast, as abstract as you want to get. There was no commercial intent to this piece.
Exhibit #2. This is currently my favorite Kirby cover from the Silver Age, and it couldn’t be more different than The Dream Machine in its intent. Once you get beyond the positioning of the characters, how the eye follows in circles and jumps around the page, the expert direction of our attention, just try to unpack all the levels of observation and TIME going on here. An enemy hand is pushing a button while Fury, alarmed, draws his pistol. There’s an element of depth of field — I can’t remember the critical term — it’s what von Sternberg was obsessed with, the space between his camera and Dietrich’s face, which he filled with flats and scrim to indicate distance. Unknown hand in foreground pushing a button on a machine observing (and x-raying — another level of space) an image of Nick Fury, who is reacting while, in the background a Hydra agent recoils because…well, because he’s evil, I suppose. It’s not a busy image, or overloaded with places we can look, but it tells such a winding narrative in a single panel that it makes my head spin. This is about getting you to buy the comic book — it’s very much about commercial intent.
My hunch is that this is about as close to pure Kirby storytelling as you’ll see from his peak period. I find it literally impossible to make this abstract. It was drawn, however, for people who had already bought the comic. It was about giving them their money’s worth, and for Jack that meant in this case two guys beating the stuffings out of each other in such a way that the reader is drawn into their bodies.
I’ll have more as I think about it or as you do…
GLEN DAVID GOLD:
Also I truly don’t know what the state of Kirby scholarship is and I don’t want to restate the obvious if everyone is already talking about this. But:
[Jeet Heer wrote:] In a memorable 1995 exchange with Art Spiegelman, Gary Groth tried to make the case for the stature of Jack Kirby in the comics pantheon but acknowledged that the man who did so much to create the Marvel universe (as well as much else) could be hard to defend. “No one I’ve heard, not even Gil [Kane] has mitigated my skepticism about Kirby’s work,” Groth said. “Whereas Mike Barrier wrote a great book telling us why we should like Carl Barks’ work and I agreed entirely with his argument as to why Barks was an important creator, I’ve never really read anything that’s done that for me [with Kirby]…”
In that discussion, Spiegelman also said, “I suppose there’s something about Kirby’s sensibility, the optimism of it, that just puts me off. There’s an unpleasant exuberance, like a teenager chattering so excitedly he keeps spritzing you with his saliva… I wouldn’t even use the word ‘respect’ for Kirby, because I sort of like [his work], but I don’t really respect it… I don’t study his work.”
Which is too bad, since Jack Kirby is the only major cartoonist to have killed Nazis. And he didn’t do it from a distance — he killed Nazis using the same hands that later drew Thor, the Aryan God of Thunder, hammering Mangog (old testament villain name, more or less) in the snout. Kirby shot and stabbed Nazis for about six months in 1943 and 1944, and I would argue that experience didn’t just change his life but shaped his work from that moment forward, in that an underlying PTSD worldview took him places he wouldn’t have gone otherwise. For instance: Kirby deepened the emotional realm of the Marvel Universe by the re-introduction of Captain America in Avengers #4. There has been plenty of talk of Lee and Kirby developing “Heroes with Problems” in the 1960s, but look at what they did first. The FF (they bicker a little), Thor (his girl loves him, but not his human alter ego, a la Superman — not much of a revelation there), Ant Man (come on!), the Hulk (strictly a monster book when Kirby was handling it). The heroes’ problems were pretty minor.
Avengers #4, with the introduction of Captain America, now had a hero with a truly nuanced, complex unsolvable problem: Post traumatic stress disorder. Cap responded from his thaw by freaking out, flashing back, displaying hypervigilence, remorse, guilt, nightmares, delusions…the list goes on. And with that, the Marvel universe was really born. Every character had to have emotional layers like that from then on. And the world of Marvel was based on a trauma that Kirby suffered through.
(If you’re wondering why I credit Kirby with the cap revival rather than Lee — I suspect that Martin Goodman suggested the Sub Mariner, the Torch and Cap returns and Lee told Kirby to do it. But as far as specifics, what are the odds that Lee, who served stateside, and who hadn’t written a single word about world war two combat until then, would create a Cap without a Bucky, a Cap damaged by wartime experience? Or that Kirby, who had seen horrors of the battlefield, would do so?)
When discussing whether Kirby is worth studying, I’d say that makes him a prime candidate for analysis. And we haven’t even gotten to what his art LOOKS like.
Glen, you’ve given us a lot to chew on even before most of us have had a chance to crack open Hatfield. A few quick comments:
1. Hatfield doesn’t write about Kirby’s collages in any substantial way, although they are alluded to. A significant omission?
2. What Hatfield does do is trace the evolution of Kirby’s style from his early attempt to master the illustrational realism of Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff to his subsequent move towards greater abstraction and glyph-like forms. There’s an argument to be made that late-period Kirby is closer in spirit to Gary Panter and Lynda Barry than he is to Foster and Raymond — that is to say he’s a cartoonist interested more in abundant, florid mark-making and jungle-thick visual saturation than he is in representational accuracy.
3. Roundtable members might want to check out Hatfield’s comparison of Kirby to Futurism and Cubism (pages 45-46): “Though often described as cinematic by admirers, in a sense his style represents a distinctly uncinematic approach to evoking movement in static form, a way that recalls, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Futurism in its decomposition of movement and Cubism in its all-at-once depiction of different perspectives.”
4. All of which suggests that Kirby can be seen as a vernacular modernist, to borrow J. Hoberman’s phrase.
[Jeet Heer wrote:] “1. is there is a case for valuing Kirby’s visual art divorced from its narrative intent?”
I’m also waiting eagerly for the Hatfield to arrive, but here’s an off-the-cuff response to a couple of the already remarkable ideas zinging around here. First, while I’m all for the valorization of “cartoonist” (and “comic book” as opposed to “graphic novel”) I’m a bit leery of the false choice being proposed here between frame/still/fragment and narrative/movement/storytelling. It feels imported from film studies, where the risk of a visual study of the stylistic meanings of, say, film noir, based too much on stills — frame enlargements and, even worse, promotional photos of the actors on set taken by set photographers and often lit or posed differently than in the film — has raised alarms at times… but precisely what defines the very strange difference between comic book and film narrative aesthetics (and in my mind makes comics’ adaptation to film such a disaster area) is that comics are a medium of stopped-and-framed narrative moments, of punctuated equilibria, to borrow a term from evolutionary science. And an art equally made, it can’t be emphasized enough, of the gaps or silences, abyssal vacancies, between. Film smooths, surrounds, and interpenetrates our sensorium — comics rupture it and force us to make constant on-the-spot repairs. Kirby was always-already making individual artworks with little frames, even when he draws a page like that kickfight with Batroc. The more so when he draws a cover, obviously — and the leap to that magnificent Dream Machine painting isn’t so distant, I think — it’s full of narrative implication of the kind that Kirby had learned to master, precisely in the way it demands you make little (or, huge) leaps of resolution between the abstraction and the signification. Forget the red herring of “commercial intent” (which plenty of abstract painters had, by the way.) No 20th-century painter would ever have conjured up such a thing. It’s a psychedelic-modernist comic book without gutters.
A different thought on the same subject: the fundamental gesture of modernism toward the non-modernist artifacts it encounters — premodern art of all kinds, commercial culture, new media like film or sound recording etc. — is to fragment it.
And so, it is precisely by doing this to himself, in that prodigy-turned-consummate professional-turned-outsider artist way Kirby has — moving through Milton Caniff to Gary Panter on his own imperatives — that makes him, in this wonderful phrase, a ‘vernacular modernist’ (and then we’re back to borrowing from the vocabulary of film criticism, of course.)
GLEN DAVID GOLD:
[Jeet Heer wrote:] “1. Hatfield doesn’t write about Kirby’s collages in any substantial way, although they are alluded to. A significant omission?”
As a reader I felt the same way about Kirby’s collages as I did the harp solos in Marx Brothers movies — they were things I didn’t like but put up with because they made an artist I revered feel happy, and besides, the good stuff would start again in a moment.
But as an art collector I think they’re often quite beautiful. Like Monsignor Lethem, I think the idea of an artist having commercial intent is as relevant to critique as an artist being hirsute or smelling like lilacs when he paints. Nonetheless Kirby was denigrated throughout his career by guys like Will Eisner, who told me face to face that Jack lacked artistic intent, that he only wanted to keep his family fed. So everyone here might all be smarter than that, but the condemnation has been in the air for quite a while. I suppose the collages make the argument more complex, in that they never really worked in print, they were hard to do, they had to be sent to a different printer to be incorporated into the comics, and the complexities of creating and printing them couldn’t be evidence that Kirby was just trying to keep his family fed. They’re WEIRD, which strikes me as being the first place to look for artistic intent — weirdness.
[Jonathan Lethem wrote:] “I’m a bit leery of the false choice being proposed here between frame/still/fragment and narrative/movement/storytelling.”
Damn. I forgot we could argue with the precepts of this whole thing. Me too! What he said.
[Responding to a comment from Lethem on PTSD:] Where it gets really dire (for me at least) is Silver Star. Kirby’s last personal creation is a revamp of Captain America in which a super soldier is born in a moment of combat stress. His superpower is disassociation, the hallmark mental PTSD state. His enemy, Darius Drumm, is vague and shape shifting, with uncertain powers. By the final issue, Drumm is the angel of Death, and Silver Star is turned to a desiccated husk. It makes little narrative sense unless you read it as a man wrestling with communicating the sense of dis-ease that was overwhelming his ability to see straight.
I’m wading into the Hatfield book but am currently bogged down by his discussion of Charles Pierce.
Anyway, as to the collages… I don’t think Hatfield can be faulted for giving them scant notice since his primary focus is on Kirby the storyteller and these collages wonderfully do not tell a story in the a-b-c way the rest of his narratives function. I love these collages. A lot. A few notes: Kirby was known as an inveterate consumer of magazines — Look, Life, and tons of science mags. I always imagine these collages arising from perhaps a chance encounter with, say, Rauschenberg, in an issue of Look or some other general interest mag and it making a passing impression that melded with his love of science mags. This is an oversimplification, but it accounts for the sheer abstraction of things combined with their “science” edge. Here’s wonderful collage on top of art by Pollock, Dubuffet, Picasso and others, I think. Richard Prince eat your heart out.
More than anything else it reminds me of Oyvind Fahlstrom or about a dozen mid-career artists in NYC right now. Glen is correct that Kirby did these “for fun” and then inserted them when needed. That need, I would speculate, might’ve arisen from wanting to articulate the awe he must’ve often felt. That thing that can’t be articulated that, to my mind, he gets closest to in narrative terms in projects like Silver Star, where he’s grasping at ways of speaking, ways of feeling.
I like Jonathan’s use of the term vernacular modernism to describe Kirby’s standalone visuals. They occupy a place not unlike, say, Sister Corita (wait, stay with me) in that it’s art created for mass production without a gallery/museum in mind. But it’s as “pure” as anything else. As to Kirby and the “I just needed to make sales” thing. I love that that was the way he deflected questions of motivation. I’m sure he meant it, and it was very real — I mean, he really DID need to make sales — but, that drive to do so came from somewhere (i.e. his childhood, etc.) and the fervency with which he went about doing so goes far beyond anything necessitated by money. In other words, Don Heck needed to make sales, too. So did Eisner (thus his work for the army). More interestingly, I think that “need” allowed him cover to work through his fantasies. It was the trick he used to fire himself forward. We all need those little tricks internally and externally. That may have been his.
Anyway, all of this is to get around to saying in response to Jeet’s first question: Yes, there is a major case to be made for looking at Kirby’s art apart from its narrative. Individual panels, whole pages, covers — these are all art objects that need examining — both as raw Kirby (e.g. pencils, in which you can see and begin to understand his gesture) and as collaborative works (e.g. all his many inkers). The pencils, in particular, give it away — those drawings (because they’re more “drawings” than comics at that stage are so passionate and so heavily rendered/worked-on that they didn’t need inking, really. Kirby completed the art. And he didn’t need to. That’s what really gets me — he could have roughed-in more areas, left out backgrounds more often, etc. But he drew the picture he needed to get down on paper — not just the schematic an inker might need to embellish. Those pencils give the lie to Kirby’s own dismissal of his work.
Jonathan and Glen have raised a host of interesting points, so I’ll add a few comments to push us along.
1. The characterization of Kirby’s “optimism” was from Spiegelman and does seem like a misreading, particularly if we’re mindful of the pessimistic work Kirby did in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m wondering though if there wasn’t some optimism or ebullience in the 1960s Marvel work (perhaps because of the writerly balance provided by Lee?). Those 1960s comics do, at least superficially, seem to be brimming over with a gleeful delight in world-building.
2. Hatfield eschews a biographical approach to Kirby in favor of formalism but Glen and Joanthan are right of course that a psychobiographical approach to Kirby could be potentially very rewarding. Ideally we’d have a full-dress biography of Kirby along the lines of Ellmann on Joyce or Michaelis on Schulz. The experience of the war is, of course, central but I think it also has to be seen as reinforcing the lessons of the Kirby’s childhood in the tenements of the lower east side.
3. Furthering the biographical interpretations and the importance of war, there is one particular experience that might have been formative. As a solider during the war, Kirby helped liberate a concentration camp, so he would have been one of the first (and few) Americans who had some eye-witness experience of the Holocaust (I was told this by Dan Nadel and am curious if he has any more information about it). I’m struck by how frequently Kirby allergorizes the Holocaust in his work from the mid-1960s on (which the late, great historian Peter Novick argued was the period that the Shoah started being seriously addressed in America). Of course, Kirby being Kirby he did so in pulp science fiction terms of space monsters that threaten to destroy humanity (from Galactus onwards). To pick one example of many, Machine Man: The Fight Robot #3 (June 1978) is a fairly typical late-period Kirby: a badly printed 35 cent comic about a robot with an identity crisis. But the villain is Ten-For, the Mean Machine, described as “a Holocaust specialist.” As Machine Man says at the end of the comic, “Didn’t you hear that space-devil?! He said he was a Holocaust-specialist! This entire planet may be in danger!” This brings us, interestingly enough, back to Spiegelman since one could easily argue that it’s a strike against Kirby that his response to the Holocaust was to recast it as a space opera. In a sense, Kirby and Spiegelman represent two opposite reactions to the Holocaust: Spiegelman’s instinct is to make make the Holocaust something that can be plausibly narrated by scaling it down into an animal fable (i.e. going down from a human level to the level of mice and cats) whereas Kirby achieved the difficult feat of making the Nazis even more grandiose and over-the-top than they were in real life (i.e. the Red Skull, Hydra and all the other totalitarian bullies Kirby created). But that’s what Kirby did: take all the bits and pieces of the world around him — historical events, personal experiences as well as the visual environment — and translate it into comic book terms.
4. I once wrote a slightly overheated paragraph about Kirby’s relationship with big-H History which might be pertinent here: “Jack Kirby was the immigrant crowded into the tenements of New York (‘Street Code’). He was the tough ghetto kid whose street-fighting days prepared him to be a warrior (the Boy Commandos). He was the patriotic fervour that won the war against Nazism (Captain America). He was the returning veteran who sought peace in the comforts of domestic life (Young Romance). He was the more than slightly demented panic about internal communist subversion (Fighting American). He was the Space Race and the promise of science (Sky Masters, Reed Richards). He was the smart housewife trapped in the feminine mystique, forced to take a subservient gender role (the Invisible Girl). He was the fear of radiation and fallout (the Incredible Hulk). He was the civil rights movement and the liberation of the Third World (the Black Panther). He was the existential loner outcast from society who sought solace by riding the waves (the Silver Surfer). He was the military industrial complex (Nick Fury). He was the hippies who rejected the Cold War consensus, and wanted to create their own counterculture (the Forever People). He was the artist who tried to escape his degrading background (Mister Miracle). He was feminism (Big Barda). He was Nixon and the religious right (Darkseid and Glorious Godfrey). He was the old soldier grown weary from a lifetime of struggle (Captain Victory). There was hardly any significant development in American 20th century history that didn’t somehow get refracted through Kirby’s whacko sensibility. Jack Kirby was the 20th century.”
GLEN DAVID GOLD:
About the concentration camp — In the Jack Kirby Collector #27, they reprint an interview with Ray Wyman where Jack says the following (transcription errors are my own):
[Jack Kirby quote:] Once I had an old guy with a little gray beard run over to me. I can hear his thin little voice as he looked into my eyes. Tears were running down his cheek. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He blinked a couple of times and he said, “You’re Jewish.” I said, “Yeah, I’m Jewish.” So he said, “Come with me.” So I ran after this little old guy with the rest of my squad behind me. It’s a long road; I remember some farm buildings and a factory. It could have been an ambush but we figured that it probably wasn’t. I mean, what would the Germans be doing with this little gray beard? Then we came to this walled-in place, this stockade, and he pointed; “There, there,” he said. I stopped. German guards were leaving by the dozens…They knew that I am a Scout. They knew that this big division was right behind me. I was standing there looking at them as they yelled out “fuck you” in English…I thought I was going to see prisoners of war, you know, some of our guys that got caught in some of the early fighting, but what I saw would pin you to the spot like it did me. Most of these people were Polish; Polish Jews who were working in some of the nearby factories. I don’t remember if the place really had a name, it was a smaller camp, not like Auschwitz, but it was horrible just the same. Just horrible. There were mostly woman and some men; they looked like they hadn’t eaten for I don’t know how long. They were scrawny. Their clothes were all tattered and dirty. The Germans didn’t give a shit for anything. They just left the place; just like leaving a dog behind to starve. I was standing there for a long time just watching thinking to myself, “What do I do?” Just thinking about it makes my stomach turn. All I could say was, ‘Oh, God.”
In many ways I think that war was the last human war. We were just a bunch of guys with guns. The danger was always very real — there wasn’t an unknown enemy figure coming up against you, you could see their faces and you fought them at very close quarters.
I’ve been compiling Kirby quotes about WWII from every interview I can find. My idea has been to do exactly what you’re talking about, a way to accommodate Kirby’s personal experience when discussing his artwork. I started out thinking about violence but one of the first quotations I saw stopped me dead long before I got to “violence.”
[Jack Kirby quote:] There was one shell that had hit, and I saw these Germans laying in a perfect circle except the bottom half of their bodies were missing, see? The shell evidently hit right in the middle of this group. You see a lot of these nice designs if you’re an artist.
Glen’s “only major cartoonist to have killed Nazis” riposte to Spiegelman’s Kirby-bashing is LOL brilliant, and the “You see a lot of these nice designs if you’re an artist” quote is one of the best “artist statements” – by any artist, ever – but Kirby was a way better collagist than Harpo a harpist.
This research of yours, Glen, suggests a fascinating and horrible inquiry that could explode the bounds of our round-table on the book completely. I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the subject of the change in the work of those who really did go and serve in the European hell –apart from macho war novelists like James Jones or filmmakers like Sam Fuller, who made it central to their career, it was a rare case (i.e., Kurt Vonnegut), who later chose to dwell on the subject directly (if they were willing to mention it at all). But the saturation of those facts through the art is a profound thing. Case in point, Jimmy Stewart, who returned from his very distinguished and extensive career as a commander on bombing runs (there’s some reason to believe he may even have been over Dresden — certainly he helped destroy any number of cities) refusing to talk about it, but who then plunged into a series of Hitchcock films and Anthony Mann films (and a couple of others by Ford and Preminger) that excavated the dark, cynical, even nihilistic depths of his previously sunny, resilient star image.
This in particular is just beyond nearly anything I’ve ever heard from a veteran. Incredible —
[Jack Kirby quote:] There was one shell that had hit, and I saw these Germans laying in a perfect circle except the bottom half of their bodies were missing, see? The shell evidently hit right in the middle of this group. You see a lot of these nice designs if you’re an artist.
Kirby seems to have only once discussed the war with this kind of depth. He tells stories in other interviews, but not like this.
Anyway, two striking things about the below:
1) We never find out what happened after Kirby said “Oh, God”. What he did next would, I imagine, determine a lot about what he felt in the future.
2) The “design” bit is completely amazing, and jibes with “I had to make sales” matter-of-fact attitude. Something about that way Kirby dealt with things at the surface level.
And, to respond to one of Jeet’s questions:
[Jeet Heer quote:] 1. The characterization of Kirby’s “optimism” was from Spiegelman and does seem like a misreading, particularly if we’re mindful of the pessimistic work Kirby did in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m wondering though if there wasn’t some optimism or ebullience in the 1960s Marvel work (perhaps because of the writerly balance provided by Lee?). Those 1960s comics do, at least superficially, seem to be brimming over with a gleeful delight in world-building.
The optimism reading is a fair one. Glen brings up a good point, re: the mournful vibe around Captain America, but otherwise those comics are peppy, crisp, and verbally ecstatic. A lot of that is Lee, but Kirby, particularly in FF, and perhaps owing to Sinnott’s inking, was creating a gleaming and soft future vision. The hard edges of his work were dulled a bit (this opens up a whole discussion about what inking does to meaning) and he probably WAS a bit happier. He was on top again and creating for an audience of kids. So, there is a sunniness there. But lurking behind it is… everything else. Thor is VERY dark and sad, for example. So I think with a small amount of effort anyone can get past the optimism. There’s a great case to be made (and Hatfield sort of does it by asking us to think about narrative drawing) for reading Lee/Kirby as drawings, not as dialogue & story. If you just read the drawings it’s a very different experience. It’s not fair, of course, but so what.
THREE: KIRBY’S MASKS AND RAGGED SURFACE
I can’t bear Kirby’s overheated, crowded pages, so I end up focusing on his surfaces. First thoughts about Captain America: I prefer a super-smooth superhero. What are those fish scales doing on Cap’s back? Are they chain-mail? Hair? Rippling muscles? (My son says definitely chain-mail.) I looked it up on the web and was charmed by the answers offered:
“so he can wield his mighty shield,” which made no sense to me (my son says it does make sense because the chain-mail allows him to grip the shield in case he loses a hand) and “good on thermodynamics,” which also made no sense.
I conclude that the fish scales are a triple-thick layer of protection – chain-mail, hair and rippling muscles – all in one. And now that you ask me to be Freudian, I see a triple-thick psychological defense. The marks of Captain America are all defensive – the shield, the Hermes-type helmet, and the scales. I asked my son what Cap’s superpowers are, and he said he doesn’t really have any. He just has ordinary weapons but he’s still awesome. (Is that true? I mean the part about no superpowers?) And what about that white A? Is that the symbol of Cap’s inner shame?
Another thought: Glen mentioned the Silver Star and his bizarre superpower – dissociation. What does this mean? How does he use it? In any case it does seem related to ptsd. When your psychological defenses fail you – when your chain-mail skin fails you – you get dissociation, ptsd. (Or perhaps dissociation actually is another layer of defense.) All this also makes me wonder about the Silver Surfer, whose layers fall away to reveal a super smooth superhero, totally frictionless, totally undefended.
As to Kirby & modernism, I don’t see it. It’s pure narrative fantasy with every inch crammed with meaning & emotion. That ain’t modern. It’s horror vacui. Which is also a defense. Against vacuums.
P.S. I loved Glen’s comment linking Kirby’s collages with Harpo’s harp
P.P.S. I don’t yet have the book you’re discussing.
Welcome Sarah — I have to say, I’m delighted by the level of conservation and debate we’ve managed to achieve even before Hatfield’s book has arrived. I love the comment about Captain America’s “fish scales.”
About Captain America’s powers, I have to confess I didn’t know the answer to this one. I knew he was a “super soldier” thanks to a serum but what does that mean? Here’s what I found on the web (and Captain America experts can correct if it’s wrong):
“Captain America has superhuman powers that include increased agility, strength, speed, endurance, and reaction time superior to any Olympic athlete who ever competed. The Super-Soldier formula that he has metabolized has enhanced all of his bodily functions to the peak of human efficiency. Notably, his body eliminates the excessive build-up of fatigue-producing poisons in his muscles, granting him phenomenal endurance. He also has the ability to heal very quickly.”
GLEN DAVID GOLD:
I love your kid. Tousle his hair for me, if he’s up for that sort of thing. If he’s anything like a Kirby kid, he’ll say, “Aw, g’wan Ma.”
[Sarah Boxer wrote:] “And what about that white A? Is that a symbol of Cap’s inner shame?”
Yes. Yes it is. I’m glad we’re all on the same boat here.
[Sarah Boxer quote:] “Another thought: Dan mentioned the Silver Star and his bizarre superpower – dissociation. What does this mean? How does he use it?”
The first ten pages of Silver Star are among the most bizarre Kirby ever drew. You’ll get some scans to confirm I’m not lying here, but: it begins with a little girl playing guitar in some ethereal place, trying to “reach out” to a soldier — Morgan Miller — so she can sing him a birthday song. We intercut between her and the battlefield, with her lyrics as narration. Morgan is fired upon, his buddies are blown up, he starts to fade into “Kirby Krackle” (Scan #1) and then he picks up a tank and throws it. Back on the little girl as she walks away dejected. “I thought you’d project to me if I wrote this song…There’s no light here. It’s very dark…and I know that you could change this into a fun place.”
We cut to a battlefield hospital, where Silver Star “ACTS like a weirdo,” meaning the doctors are arguing whether his complete unresponsiveness means he’s gone into a coma.
No, he hasn’t. He’s projected himself out of his body and into…well, Scan #2 & #3…a place just called Elsewhere. Into which the villain, for no easily explained reason, also projects. While (remember) Silver Star is still non-responsive in a field hospital.
And the little girl? We find out later: trauma victim. After her family farm blew up, she’s a child “frozen in time and space for ten years! — A child — Alive in stasis!”
[Sarah Boxer wrote:] “As to Kirby & modernism, I don’t see it. It’s pure narrative fantasy with every inch crammed with meaning & emotion. That ain’t modern. It’s horror vacui. Which is also a defense. Against vacuums.”
Very quickly on a busy morning (and stalling until that book arrives) —
Those Silver Star pages are insane. Who knew Kirby was the secret auteur of “What Dreams May Come?”