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Jack Kirby: Hand of Fire Roundtable (Part 2)


R. FIORE:

Part of what the "Dick-had-a-stroke" theory (which can be no more than speculation) means is that he didn't go nuts or become delusional; something actually did happen to him.  People with an intuitive belief in the invisible world look for objective confirmation and don't always have the highest standards of proof when they think they've found it.  The thing about Dick's story I've always found fishy (God forgive me) is the shocking "revelation" of the fish symbol in Christian iconography.  I've been seeing that all my life, haven't you?

JONATHAN LETHEM:

Well, this is definitely getting to be quite a lot about this, but I'll just say that the fish-symbol was complete news to me when I encountered it in VALIS -- but that is only to say, it was complete news to a 14-year-old secular-Jew kid living in '70s New York -- no great test of your assertion that it would have been widely known, Bob.

SEVEN: UNSATISFYING EPICS AND SINGLE ISSUE MASTERPIECES


GLEN DAVID GOLD:

I just finished the book and am trying to figure out what I think of it.  One problem is that I don't have an academic mind.  And I already accept Kirby's importance.  So I just tended to nod my head a lot -- I think Hatfield makes excellent points throughout (though he needed to find more synonyms for 'bemused') and as I gear my brain up I'll have better things to say.  I'm happy that he gets into the emotional interplay of characters in The Pact, and I'm sad that image clearances seem to have been such a bear.  (Also I found myself wondering why Izaya writes "The Source" with his left hand.)

But: serendipity.  I really liked the chapter on The Eternals, and upon closing the book I happened to see this:

I'm guessing Ridley Scott didn't name any of these characters Ike Harris, but...geez.

I'll have something more concrete when it's set a bit.

JONATHAN LETHEM:

Well-refocused, Glen. I too have finished the book, and I suspect -- fear? -- I do have an academic mind, because this is the kind of thing I really like to see written about work I care for, and I actually read -- or own and skim, and sometimes plunge deep into -- loads of secondary sources much like this one on the cultural stuff I love that invites this kind of book. Call it advocacy-analysis salted with theoretical frameworks to about the medium-rare level. If there are very many books on comics of this type I haven't found them -- most of the stuff I love that attracts writing like this is film -- dozens of volumes about Hitchcock's or Fritz Lang's or Nicholas Ray's films hit me at around this level, and I find myself always open to another. That said, my happy response isn't always so different from that you describe in your value-neutral way: nodding my head a lot. But it's good to be talking about a book we've finally read, rather than guessing about it. A couple of scattershot observations: he seems to defend his isolation of the 1962-1978 framework perfectly well, as well as to make a few efficient and sufficient nods to what lies outside that framework -- and with an artist as proliferate as Kirby there's every good reason to want to carve out an 'area of inquiry'. My one reservation *within* his area of inquiry is that it seems to me he somewhat overvalues -- at least in principle -- the work lying inside the the Grand Projects -- i.e. Fourth World and The Eternals -- at the expense of individual issues of rare intensity and chaotic grace from runs of Captain America, Kamandi, 2001 or even distaff items like Sandman during that same period. Some individual issues of which I stared at for hours at a time, discovering rabbitholes of Kirbyesque non-sequitur intensity. I think he overrates the "overarching mythos" stuff for several understandable reasons: it was, in a way, a conscious prediction of the future direction of comics (or "graphic novels"); Kirby himself proclaimed his grand intentions and you take your cues from the artist's proclamations; the implication of a vast and intricate masterwork sprawling over many dozens if not hundreds of comics is wildly seductive. But: those promises were never remotely delivered. And: Kirby's actual canvas seems by every piece of evidence to have been the individual issue (even if driven by vague and thrilling echoes and premonitions of its place in some vast tapestry). So much so that in attempting to credit the greatness of the Fourth World, Hatfield turns to... individual issues (Himon and The Pact).

Well, I'm here to say that Kamandi #10, in which The Misfit (a weaselly giant orange brain on a dwarfish blue body) maliciously frees up the greatest Killer Germ of all the cosmos, a personified disease named Morticoccus, all against a backdrop of a war against giant humanoid bats, all inside a giant space globe called Tracking City, is pretty fucking great, even if it played no part in any giant scheme whatsoever. It played a major part in the giant scheme of wrecking my brain.



R. FIORE:

In this you may be on the track of the similarities between Kirby and Philip K. Dick.

A thought that comes to my mind when looking at Kirby's collages is that Ditko did this sort of thing much better, without resorting to found objects.  Ditko was the one for taking a peek behind the doors of perception; Kirby on the other hand was a world builder.  His most effective phantasmagorias are constructed.

GLEN DAVID GOLD:

[Doug Harvey wrote:] “Unless he dropped acid!”

I'm told the most potent thing Kirby ever dropped was the cigar.  He did however have teenage kids in the 1960s, and paid attention (at least when at the drawing table) to what they seemed to want.

Some reactions to reactions and so forth:

[Dan Nadel wrote:] “That need [meaning collages], 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 very much like that idea of his awe exceeding the boundaries of the form.  It sounds right to me.  It also hints at Kirby's emotional content being difficult to dissect, in that its inarticulate nature bypasses much of the rational brain.

Jeet brought up the concentration camp that Jack was led to by locals, and wondered if it might have impacted his art.  I have counted four instances at Marvel where Jack drew groups of huddled alien creatures being herded through walkways that somehow ring a bell for me (if for no one else).  Fantastic Four #92, Fantastic Four Annual #6, Thor #162, and Eternals #8 all have strikingly similar images, and the creatures at hand are sometimes the final survivors of a holocaust (Galactus ate the planets of the Wanderers in Thor #162, for instance) and sometimes eliminated by villains during the story (FF Annual #6).   He also put a double splash of Jews being machine gunned into the 1978 Silver Surfer Graphic Novel but it was redrawn to be less graphic.

Like Dan, I responded well to the discussion of the Technological Sublime.  One paragraph I read aloud to my dog was on p. 148, about how the sublime "initiates a crisis" by "threatening our habitual ways of thinking and our presumed mastery."  As Hatfield says, this isn't exactly what Kirby does, but if the beautiful relates to tenderness, the sublime "stirs up fear."  In Kirby, delight and terror are companions, and I really appreciate that explication of something I've felt.  To spin off of that, I think that things that are critically praised soon after their publication tend to be conservative, in the sense that even if elements appear to be new, ultimately they affirm what we already believe and feel comfortable with.  It's the stuff that is radical, in the sense of upsetting the order, that takes time to find its place.  The Marvel work, sculpted in part by Stan, was more beautiful and more conservative, ultimately (maybe echoing Hatfield's survey of who the architect of that universe was versus who "made things happen").  I think the most Kirby-like work of Kirby wasn't accepted for exactly the reason that it incorporates the feeling of the sublime.  It's uncomfortable and brings us not beauty but awe, with all its fear-based potency intact.  I think it's taken 30 years and more to really handle it.

I like Hatfield's point that the Marvel Universe wasn't planned.  That the crossovers seemed to accrete, that continuity was a trial-and-error, shotgun sort of approach.  The irony that he doesn't point out (I think) is that neither Stan nor Jack was very good at continuity.  Hatfield mentions Kirby's aversion to continuity upon his return in the 1970s, but the fact is, even from the beginning, neither Stan nor Jack could remember anything.  The Hulk might appear in six different storylines, and Bruce Banner's name might be Bob in one of them and David in another.  (My current favorite continuity problem is that in Thor #160, Jack has Galactus attacking Ego the living planet.  Which is a relief, as Jack had started that attack in issue #134, two years beforehand.  Not only had he forgotten about that, when he had Galactus appear in the FF in the intervening months, there was no reference to the suspended Ego battle, and when he got back to Thor the next year, there was no mention of the FF adventures, either.  It's especially funny that Stan forgot, too.)  That these two guys with terrible memories created the tapestry they did is inadvertently hilarious.

The change that Kirby underwent around 1966 is as mysterious as Krishnamurti's 1922 transformation, and I think Hatfield takes it apart piece by piece very well.  This is an area I really wish he'd been able to illustrate -- the average issue of the Jack Kirby Collector can provide panel after panel for us to see what Asgard or Mr. Fantastic's laboratory looked like in 1964 versus 1968.  The mythopoesis he describes resulting from "improvisatory graphism" strikes me as right on.  First hand accounts of his process indicate that he might know what the page he was drawing would look like, but the next page was a mystery until he got there and started in on it.  Kirby starts to lift out of "normal" storytelling with comics featuring a March 1965 cover date (that would be Fantastic Four #36 and Journey into Mystery #114, with the tentative but insistent start of continuous storylines).  He really ramps it up by the end of the year, when both of his major books are positively rocking with subplots and new worlds to explore.   If Hatfield emphasizes this, I missed it (and apologies to him for my inadequate read) but I've wondered if those worlds started to get built in part because this was the first time Kirby had been allowed to draw a continuous character for more than about twelve issues.  Like: if he'd done Boys Ranch for 100 issues, would he have gone to every Western state and explored all of Native American mythology while building whole new states we'd never heard about before?   Wow, when I make my universe, I'm going to find room for Kirby to have done exactly that.

As far as the critique of superheroes -- it being a disreputable genre with fascistic overtones (to paraphrase) -- well, sure, sometimes.  But not when Kirby does it.  It's sort of like country music being conservative and being about trucks.  Yeah, that's often true.  And then there's Johnny Cash.  So I don't really give that argument much thought, but I will admit to not understanding why a given argument is or isn't important for most people.  I'm going to follow what Hatfield says about his own limits -- that we'll all have things we wish he'd brought up, and that maybe we can write our own books about that.  Kirby is a pretty huge topic.  To put it another way, as that Lethem guy said:

“Kirby himself proclaimed his grand intentions and you take your cues from the artist's proclamations; the implication of a vast and intricate masterwork sprawling over many dozens if not hundreds of comics is wildly seductive. But: those promises were never remotely delivered.”

Boy howdy.  This is something I don't want to cop to, as I'd love Kirby to be universally praised, but the guy couldn't end a multi-issue storyline for all the oysters in heaven.  I mean, seriously, single issues?  Those were incredible.  The PactThis Man This MonsterWhat Was X The Thing that Lived!  And the set ups for multiissues were often jaw-dropping.  FF #57?  Thor #154?  That Norton of New York issue of 2001?  But then...eek.  Doom is knocked off his Surfboard by a deus ex machina ex deus?  Mangog is eliminated by Odin waking up (only interesting in that so many bad stories end with someone waking up)?  2001 ending with...uh...how did that end anyway?

Kirby was a great set up guy.  And if he had to finish a story in one issue he knew how to O Henry or Paul Bowles his way to an ending.  Otherwise, it got kind of hairy.

Kirby's narrative often stopped making sense.  Hatfield's book made me wonder if that mattered.  Does anyone say that parts of the Vivian Girls didn't really cohere narratively and thus it's not that great?  And then, as I was asking that I noticed Hatfield seeming to quote J. Lethem as if the latter had compared him to Darger already, but that Hatfield felt that Kirby wasn't just an outsider artist.  So let's say he intended to be a narrative cartoonist, and sometimes what he intended (to draw us into the story) failed him but we managed to treasure the effort and the personality and the ideas instead, so Bravo.

There's always more, but I (for instance) channeled much of it into a letter to the Kirby Collector about my theory that Jack intended Galactus to eat Asgard.

GLEN DAVID GOLD:

Death Wagons. Purity Time.


JONATHAN LETHEM:

Tremendous.

GLEN DAVID GOLD:

There are more images like this, but I know it's a tangent, so I won't bombard you with them.  However this one has always fascinated me -- it was omitted from the Silver Surfer graphic novel, possibly because it was too, well, graphic.

The inks are credited to Sinnott, but Mike Royer apparently did those duties.

JEET HEER:

I want to take up a point that both Jonathan and Glen raised, about the fact that Kirby’s epics are always ultimately patchy and unsatisfying as a whole. If you look at all the epics – the various Fantastic Four cycles, the Thor cycles, the New Gods, the Eternals – what you find are strong issues surrounded by dross or wayward improvisation. So in that sense, to peg Kirby as a maker of sagas and epics is to do his work a disservice. Part of the satisfaction of a work like Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns is that they have a coherent wholeness, a gratifying sense that you can read them in one sitting and get a discrete aesthetic experience. “One and done” as the kids say these days. Kirby, coming out of the pulps and periodical publishing world where characters can always return from the dead, never provided that sort of self-reading experience.

Having said all that, there are a number ways of explaining or justifying Kirby’s open-endedness. I very much like the quote Hatfield highlights, where Kirby says that life “a series of very interesting questions, and very poor answers.” (page 149) Works like the Eternals and the New Gods cycle do raise great questions, but also unanswerable ones so they tend just keep offering new concepts and ideas without a sense of going anywhere (leaving aside the commercial exigencies that also throttled these works).

Hatfield himself offers a clue as to Kirby’s inability to do a complete an epic. There’s a long section paragraph on page 205 which I’ll quote at length. One of the virtues of this paragraph is that Hatfield quotes Doug Harvey, who might have further thoughts about this.

Here’s Hatfield:

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 grant ideas. This synthetic mythos represents his boldest attempt to give life to abstractions, to turn a battle of concepts into rip-roaring adventure. It was a project in which, inevitably, the grand ideas spiraled beyond even Kirby’s original aims, so that the premises became humanly messy and unpredictable. Kirby was engaged heart and soul in this effort, the most complex creative undertaking of his career. One can hardly blame fans for saying, as they often do, that it’s a shame he did not get the opportunity to see this dream through to a proper end while still at the height of his powers. (The ill-regarded Hunger Dogs sought to ring the curtain down, but by then Kirby was in decline.) 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. How could Kirby has satisfactorily brought the Fourth World to an end? It was too rich, too exploitable. As Doug Harvey observes, its fragmentary, incomplete, yet endlessly suggestive nature is the essence of its powers; its "every character, event, and detail is saturated with potential meanings," and the sheer proliferation of its ideas suggest an infinitely receding horizon.

Or to put it another way, perhaps Kirby is one of those artists whose suggestiveness is more potent than his substance, who implies much more than he ever explicitly articulates.

DAN NADEL:

This is a good point, which I'll respond to briefly. I agree that Kirby is more suggestive than he is, say, expository. That's partly why my favorite bits of Kirby tend to be things like OMAC or Kamandi, in which he's just going from issue to issue hinting at or exploring scenarios without getting mired down in any continuing soap operas. I've always enjoyed these comics more than the Marvel and even the Fourth World stuff because it's just a quick, forceful nod and then he's on to the next. A micro aspect of his quality was nicely explored in this series of Kirby images at HiLobrow.

It also reflects the improvisatory process he used -- he wasn't structuring things like a novel, so saddling him with those expectations doesn't really pay much. I thought Hatfield occasionally got mired down in the plot descriptions, which, in his defense, are necessary to make sense of his conclusions, but there's something so ludicrous about reading descriptions of such absurd plots, y'know? Kirby resists linear interpretation. I'm not sure what the ideal approach would be. Hatfield is as good as we've gotten, that's for sure... someone else will have to do some kind of Geoff Dyer-esque riff on the work to bring out the full oddity of it.

Anyone else want to take on the book itself?

R. FIORE:

I don't think there's any better-or-worse about Kirby and superhero comics.  It's not as if the superhero were some commercial misfortune that kept Kirby from the truly great art he might have created.  Superhero comics are what you get from Jack Kirby in the same sense that peaches are what you get from a peach tree.  None of the of the other forms of comics he was employed in are any less disreputable than the superhero, and no other form would have allowed him to realize the potential of his particular gift any better than the superhero.  The impediment it might present to appreciation by certain readers is not that it's fascistic but that it's childish.  There's a passage I've quoted before from a book by J.C. Holt about Robin Hood that gets to the heart of the matter:

Robin also foreshadows the world of Superman and the comic strip.  He has no practical scheme for improving the human condition. There is no sense at any stage of the legend’s history that man’s lot might be improved by the sweat of his brow.  Robin simply intervenes.  He succeeds because he is a superlative archer, a consummate swordsman and a master of disguise and stratagem . . . He is invulnerable except to treachery.  Robin belongs to that world of heroes and villains in which the heroes are so supreme, so magical in their mastery that they will always win.  Many of the stories, far from embodying social protest, turn on this and nothing else.  The sheriff hunts the outlaws; Robin turns the tables; the outlaws win.  In such simple adventures lies the legend’s continuing juvenile appeal.

Reading superhero comics after you've grown up is like reading Winnie the Pooh after you've grown up, which is to say something a grown up very well might do.  Children's literature is literature a child can understand and relate to, and though it won't fully satisfy an adult sensibility it's still literature.  In reality superhero comics had an adult readership almost from the beginning, though at the beginning it was a habit they were no more eager to reveal than a taste for pornography.  As Jeet rightly points out, thanks to the movies the superhero is far more common coin in the culture that it would have been fifty years ago.  And Jack Kirby's art is on an altogether higher plane than what you see on the screen.

Kirby's comics aren't literature in the sense that Lewis Carroll or A.A. Milne is, but they are Warholic.  By Warholic I mean that which is not art in any normative sense but has the effect of art nevertheless.  It's a species of counter-kitsch, something that has the content of art without the appearance.  Andy Warhol paints a picture of a commonplace piece of commercial design that looks like nothing so much as the comprehensive layout a designer would produce to show a potential client, and when you hang this picture up in a museum it holds its place on the wall about as well as anything around it.  Go to a museum displaying a Warhol soup can and you see this for yourself.  This means either (a) Andy Warhol magically transformed this commonplace article into a work of art by laying on of hands, or (b) the design had characteristics of art to begin with.  The obvious answer it seems to me is (b).  And each and every element is purely functional:  The horizontal red and white stripes and the lettering across the top are there to tell you that this is a product of the Campbell Soup Company, the medallion is there to suggest that this is a quality product, and the lettering on the bottom is there to tell you what kind of soup it is.

Jack Kirby's comics are not merely functional; they have a point of view.  The grand theme of the Marvel comics, which may have been more Lee's agenda than Kirby's, is that when terrible things happen to people some retain their goodness and others become all the more wicked.  (The hero's powers in Marvel comics are almost always treated either as an affliction or the result of an affliction.)  The theme of the later comics, which is surely Kirby's, is that it is we moderns who were mistaken and the ancients who were correct, that the ordinary life we live is merely veil over a struggle between spectacular beings over our fate.  Comic book notwithstanding, this theme reads on one of the central concerns of 20th Century avant garde literature, the lament that we no longer live in a heroic age about which truly great art can be made.  James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot composed mock epics intended to expose the degraded state of the modern world.  Kirby on the other hand is in a business whose stock in trade is wish fulfillment.

Grand as these themes are they do have a significant dimension that is primarily functional, and that is to provide the adventure characters with another adventure every month so that the cartoonist can make a living creating comics.  That is why they continue long after any point they might have has been made without ever being completed, which would defeat their purpose.  This is the flaw with what is justifiably called the new Golden Age of Television.  From The Sopranos to Mad Men, and going back to Twin Peaks for that matter, what the most highly lauded and laudable modern television series will do is load most of their vital narrative material into their first season in order to ensure that there will be a second, and then when their survival is assured spin things out endlessly without resolving themselves.  While this phenomenon tends to limit the scope of Kirby's artistic achievement, it also provides you with a lot of comics to read, if you want to read a lot of comics.

For the third installment of this roundtable, go here.