In early April 2012 I interviewed Charles Hatfield via email in order to complement my review [Portuguese only] on his then recently-published Hand of Fire. The Comics Art of Jack Kirby (University Press of Mississippi). The original English exchange was never published before. Once again, I’d like to thank Professor Hatfield for his time.
Pedro Moura: It’s very interesting that you have written one of the most important books on alternative comics in contemporary comics scholarship and now you’re moving to the very heart of mainstream comics. Reading your work, we know that instead of considering—even within the US only—this as a divide, we should consider these areas as parts of a continuum. The Hernandez Bros and Gary Panter are excellent examples of the mix of alternative and mainstream comics traits and themes (given by you). Is it important to stress the differences or the similarities? Or to consider both? And how does this relate to your own choice of dedicating your time to two book-length projects that seem to be about two entirely different creative worlds?
Charles Hatfield: I’ve thought about this question a lot. For one thing, I’m interested in how readers who have read both books may perceive my work. Also, I keep asking myself this question because I find my own motivations for a project a bit of a mystery—at least until I’m so deep into the project that there’s no turning back!
I believe it’s important to consider comics culture as a continuum, yet not to underplay the very real differences in economy, ideology, and tradition that tempt us to separate “mainstream” from “alternative” (I always have to put air quotes around those terms, since they’re so fuzzy).
Regarding comics as a continuum, the alternative draws its vocabulary and often its inspiration from the so-called mainstream. Look at Spiegelman with Kurtzman or Gould, or Panter with Kirby, or Los Bros Hernandez with Harry Lucey, Bob Bolling, Owen Fitzgerald, Ditko, and their whole diverse palette of influences. Conversely, the mainstream draws inspiration and renewal from the alternatives; comics artists, in whatever sector, tend to be aware of what other comics artists are doing, and draw on that to refresh and inspire their own work.
Here’s an off-the-wall example: look at Chris Ware’s intense formalism, and then see how Eleanor Davis draws on some of those same strategies in her children’s comic The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook—that’s an odd kinship, but it’s there. Or consider a book like Seagle and Kristiansen’s It’s a Bird…, which splices alternative-inspired autobiographical, or semiautobiographical, work with the superhero genre. Actually, this kind of crossover was happening as early as the ‘70s, when some mainstream comic book creators clearly were reading and digging underground comix.
And then there are those figures who seem to cross boundaries: take David Mazzucchelli, whose work both in and out of superhero comics has inspired a number of superhero artists. His Asterios Polyp is a work deeply indebted to both mainstream and alternative aesthetics, from Steranko to Spiegelman.
It gets harder and harder to police the supposed borders between mainstream and alternative aesthetics. Increasing experimentation with genre—as in some of the fantastical work produced by the post-Fort Thunder and Kramer’s Ergot generation of art comics creators—has blurred the boundaries pretty drastically. Look at what C.F. or Brian Chippendale has done with action comics. Or consider Tom Scioli’s American Barbarian, which distills late-Kirby weirdness under the banner of AdHouse, a boutique publisher with art-comics cred. Scioli’s aesthetic derives directly from Kirby, and treads the line between homage and fresh new creation. The result is a poker-faced but still funny riff on Kirby’s mannerisms that isn’t exactly parody but which does wear its influence proudly.
Also making the distinction harder to maintain is internationalism: the way comics creators borrow from one another across cultural borders. Manga styling is just the most obvious example of that. I thought a lot about Moebius’ influence after his recent death, not only because I was busy eulogizing him, but also because I happened to be reading comics by Brandon Graham and Simon Roy, and also thinking about Otomo’s Akira and Miyazaki’s Nausicaä. Frank Miller was tapping the Moebius influence as early as Ronin (and Miller and Paul Pope could probably have a great conversation about Hugo Pratt). In the U.S. we owe much of our understanding of these artists to alternative presses, and to The Comics Journal. Proponents of alternative comics often have classical tastes in world comics!
The “alternatives” also testify to comics’ history. What can we say about the mainstream/alternative divide when one of North America’s most important publishers of alternative comics, Fantagraphics, has Schulz, Herriman, Crane, Segar, Foster, Mauldin, Gottfredson, Barks, Bushmiller, Blazing Combat and EC reprints in its roster? It’s clear that comics devotees cultivate an understanding of the form that leapfrogs over genre distinctions.
I like the idea of reading Kirby “alternatively.” One reason I decided to write a monograph on Kirby—besides the basic autobiographical reason, which is my helpless love of his work—is that it has become easier to write about alternative comics academically, so I thought I should move to less traveled ground that might make me work a bit harder as a writer and thinker. Ironically, writing a book on a figure sacred to “mainstream” comics is harder, where I hang my hat, than writing further about the kind of alternative comics celebrated in my first book. What I wanted to give was an alternative reading of Kirby that nonetheless grappled seriously with his influence on mainstream comics. I wanted Hand of Fire to make a case for Kirby as a narrative artist in terms that would muddy the whole mainstream/alternative divide.
(I should note, by the way, that there is a Kirby example in Alternative Comics too, something I’m proud to have put in there, so the seeds of my new book were present years ago!)
Now, having said all that, I maintain that there are important distinctions—economic and ideological—between mainstream and alternative comics production. Mainstream comic books are rooted in rapid serialization, relentless production demand, editorial intervention and manipulation at almost every level, and the often-debilitating practice of work-for-hire. The most important distinction between mainstream and alternative work, and the one distinction that still applies despite all I’ve said, is the difference between a publisher-focused and an author-focused mindset. Both may be market-driven to some extent—even alternative cartoonists have got to reckon on the market somehow, if they want to eat—but mainstream comic books, of the familiar DC, Marvel, Archie, etc. variety, entail an outsized and intrusive editorial apparatus, one that extends to altering the creators’ work substantially to fit long-range editorial plans or imagined market imperatives.
Being an economic determinist (more so as I get older), I maintain that these distinctions matter. It’s not whether or not a comic features superheroes that matters; it’s how the work is created, and under what conditions. The prototypical mainstream comic book—and this includes the bulk of Kirby’s work—is something done to deadline, under a strict editorial regime. Mainstream comic books, practically speaking, are about the aggrandizement of the editorial regime. The miracle of Kirby is how he managed to produce many very personal and quirky comics under those conditions. And yet Kirby’s work was often subject to editorial manipulation and rude “patch jobs” (much more often than that of, say, Barks). Kirby’s career story is complex and often disheartening—another reason to want to write about him, to show what it’s like to do auteurist work on a figure who so seldom had untrammeled artistic freedom. I want to help make sure that the emerging field of academic comics research always understands these problems.
PM: The kernel of this book is to be found on Kirby’s creative specificities in his narrative art, but you draw from several areas of information that buttress that discussion. Practically every single theme you’ve touched upon your book—Kirby’s formative years, his enterprise with Joe Simon, his years at Marvel, his so-called collaboration with Stan Lee, his disenchantment and falling with the company, his “cosmic” work at DC, etc.—could have book-length projects on their own. Can you take us through the choices you’ve made for this particular book?
CH: Kirby is daunting for the same reasons he is so interesting. He was so prolific, restless, and wide-ranging, so anxious to make sales, to feed his family, to keep his head above water, and yet produce innovative, distinctive, boundary-pushing comics. He got around! So there could be, and hopefully will be, a whole range of monographs focusing on different aspects of Kirby’s work.
I wanted to write a book focusing on Kirby’s mature work in the ‘60s and ‘70s, partly because I think that is his most distinctive and exciting work, and partly because that’s the work that accounts for present-day attitudes toward Kirby, including the controversy over his founding role at Marvel. When we talk about things being “Kirby-esque,” it’s usually work from the ‘60s and ‘70s that we have in mind—and the Kirby of that era has fingerprints all over the superhero comics of today. So, besides the practical fact that I needed to start with what I knew best, I also thought that a book stressing the cosmic, otherworldly, and gigantic, the superheroic, and the technological sublime, would be the best way to start. I wanted to focus on the period when Kirby’s distinctive graphic language crystallized into its most familiar, but also strangest, phase, that which screams “Kirby!” whenever you see it.
When I started, I didn’t intend to focus on costumed superheroes as much as the finished book actually does—but the questions of Kirby’s vexed relationship to Marvel, the impact of what he created there, and how all that prompted his later creations, plus the realization that Kirby changed the genre fundamentally, led me to focus more and more on the superhero. I found myself unable to put that subject aside, even though I believe Kirby’s art has virtues and quirks that are fascinating quite apart from the superhero. And from the start I intended to give pride of place to Kirby’s Fourth World, a choice that required a more sustained focus on the superhero as genre—and which ultimately pushed me to read or reread a lot of post-Kirby comics that adapt or attempt to fine-tune his creations.
One result of this emphasis is that, late in the game, I ended up having to cut a chapter on Kirby’s Kamandi for the sake of space and coherence—a choice that made me sad, since Kamandi is one of my favorites, and, for me, one of Kirby’s signature works. (I’m now working on expanding and repurposing that Kamandi material.)
Also late in the game, I started to think that we need whole scholarly books about the Simon & Kirby partnership and studio. I still think that.
PM: When we read works such as Earth X, Final Crisis, or the new versions of The Eternals, etc., it is very clear that contemporary authors are trying to create a coherent system out of Kirby’s wild ideas. Once I wrote that these new creators were acting as gospel writers to Kirby’s John-like feverish voice in the desert. People are trying to make sense (or use) of his creations now, trying to see how everything fits within the respective “universes” of Marvel and DC. Do you think this is a symptom of a particular dead end in creating new stories, or a proof of the richness of Kirby’s raw output?
CH: Emphatically both! Kirby’s notions are rich, generative, and inspiring. One of the attractions of adaptation—whether in new comics retelling Kirby stories, or in films based on his concepts—is the appeal of fleshing out what he provided, of realizing, with the luxury of a more relaxed schedule than Kirby ever had, the grand world-building potential of his ideas. There’s a fannish appeal in that: imagining how Kirby’s characters and concepts might be gathered into a coherent world that can be described from the ground up, rather than hastily improvised as was so often the case with Kirby. Fans love systematizing, and Kirby provides so very much raw material for that. I can imagine an epic series of fantasy novels based on The Eternals, or a never-ending film or TV series based on Kamandi.
At the same time, though, this is a pleasure I’m leery of, because the heat and inspiration in Kirby’s comics came from him, from his nonstop graphic and narrative improvising. For me, the appeal of the work rests in what Kirby did with it. Frankly, the notions that seem so grand in Kirby’s hands often become merely histrionic and absurd when they are separated from the generative process of Kirby’s cartooning, his narrative drawing. Systematizing and rationalizing his story-worlds can be so deadening—and Kirby himself didn’t have a taste for that, an issue I explore in my chapter about The Eternals versus the so-called continuity of the Marvel Universe.
The “dead end” you mention also needs to be understood economically, in terms of the usual work-for-hire practice at Marvel and DC—a practice that now seems a very rearguard, reactionary standard, and which actively discourages the development of new properties at those companies. Nowadays creators with brand-new ideas generally know better than to surrender them to Marvel and DC. So the kind of creativity that flourishes in the Marvel and DC Universes is of a limited kind, one based on the elaboration or retroactive redefining of existing concepts, i.e. the retcon. In the ‘80s, Alan Moore and his collaborators showed how dramatically, even fundamentally, a retcon could redirect an existing property without creating something considered brand-new. More recently, when Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker briefly revived Iron Fist by making it a multigenerational “legacy” story and introducing new worlds, or when Geoff Johns et al. refracted the Green Lantern mythos into a whole “spectrum” of colors, they were following that method, the retcon. Those are some of the best examples of world-building you can find in contemporary superhero comics, and yet they are not building from the bottom up. The persistence of work-for-hire disincentivizes fresh creation. In that context, writers and artists end up playing with what Kirby left behind.
PM: One of the the tantalizing things about your book is that you address directly Kirby as an artist (and not solely as a awe-inspiring creator). You point out that Kirby was never a perfect artist, but that his energy is what made him probably the best creator of superhero comic art. In a sense, he reminds me of William Blake (I wrote this before coming to your brief discussion of Kirby’s Interpretations of God portfolio), an artist whose grasp of human anatomy is sometimes awkward and bulky, but whose cosmic scope lead to a body of work whose resonance is still felt today. Do you think that Kirby’s continuous influence and fascination is due to the genre of superhero itself, the specificities of his art, or other factors?
CH: Kirby’s art enacts a tension basic to superhero comics: their tense compromise between realism and fantasy. Superheroes tilt toward realism in style but flout it in substance. To paraphrase a new essay by my colleague Rusty Witek (see Critical Approaches to Comics, ed. Smith and Duncan), superheroes, and adventure comics more generally, tend to operate in the “naturalistic” as opposed to “cartoon” mode of comics—yet what fascinates me about Kirby’s art is how it straddles or blurs these modes. Kirby pushed the adventure-strip naturalism of his influences (Foster, Caniff, Raymond…) into a drastically stylized new realm. He “failed” to hit the mark set by his influences, but in the process became, to me, more interesting as a cartoonist. That tension, or uncertainty, that strange mashup of pictorial realism and radical abstraction, animates his art, and happens to make him perfectly suited for superhero fantasy.
So I think Kirby enacts the superhero genre perfectly. His work embodies what I find interesting about that genre. Arguably, it’s the union of Kirby’s narrative art with the conventions of the superhero that accounts for the buzz and excitement of his best-known work.
Having said that, I enjoy looking for those same qualities in Kirby comics that aren’t devoted to costumed superheroes. For me, Kirby’s virtues and quirks exceed any one genre. I know that the Marvel Universe, and to a lesser extent his late creations for DC, are the things most responsible for keeping him in the popular imagination, but I believe the specificities of his art have an appeal that well exceeds that.
PM: Was the concentration of Hand of Fire on Kirby’s superhero output dictated by the availability of the texts, their continuous presence in the “myth”-making of the Big Two, because you consider that Kirby’s natural milieu, or other reasons?
CH: Again, this was mainly because the subject of the superhero, once broached, seemed to demand a more intense focus and greater scope. I didn’t want Hand of Fire to be simply a book about superheroes—and I certainly didn’t want the book’s focus to be dictated by the corporate preservation of superhero “universes”—but I did end up saying a great deal about the genre, because it gave such license to Kirby as an artist, and so well suited his sensibilities.
There’s a huge difference between the founding superhero comics of the late ‘30s and the ‘40s and what Kirby did in the mid-60s and after. There’s a difference between the Simon & Kirby superheroes of the ‘40s and The Fantastic Four, Thor, The New Gods, and The Eternals. Locating that difference helps bring to light what made Kirby tick: what excited his imagination and got him to push himself, as an artist. Hand of Fire, even in its title, obviously leans toward exploring that “difference”: cosmic Kirby!
PM: Do you think that as soon as other materials from Kirby are made available (such as the very, very recent Fantagraphics’ volume on his romance comics), both general readers and scholars will redefine their view and appreciation of his output?
CH: Yes. I certainly hope so. I’ve been rereading Michel Gagné’s Young Romance collection this week, and I can’t wait to see even more work done in that area. While I don’t think romance comics get us as close to the heart of Kirby’s thinking as does, say, The New Gods, I do think they reveal a lot about Kirby’s facility and versatility as an artist, the specificities of his art, the still poorly-understood nature of the comic book market back in the late ‘40s and the ‘50s, and the necessities of the profession back then. Plus there are some lovely comics there!
The Titan Books reprinting Simon & Kirby comics are another great gift to fans and scholars. (The Crime volume is particularly revelatory.) Again, to see what drove S&K commercially, but also how Kirby sought to make different genres his own, is enlightening. I’d love to see a high-quality volume devoted to S&K’s Black Magic.
I hope to see scholarly work that explores the less-studied aspects of Kirby’s career, using these reprints as a springboard. A biography of the S&K “shop” would, I believe, be a real advance—such a book wouldn’t be much like Hand of Fire, but could have tremendous value as historiography and in terms of lending texture and specificity to our understanding of that era.
PM: I found your discussion of Kirby’s influences quite persuading. Instead of just pointing out the names of the people who have influenced his output, you go a long way to explain exactly what traits he inherited and from whom and how he changed them. Do you think that Kirby’s limitations as a draughtsman is exactly part of his success as a comics artist? You explain this also, especially taking in consideration your discussion of “narrative drawing,” but I want to understand the centrality of this idea for the study of comics. We must look at specific relationships of the images and their purpose within comics instead of coming at them with analytical tools developed elsewhere (drawing per se, visual arts, illustration, etc).
CH: Kirby had mad skills as a draughtsman, but his intense, crushing workload pressurized his work, pushing him more and more toward abstract signs or ideas of things rather than detailed and specific likenesses. I believe Steranko’s History of Comics makes the point too: that Kirby’s style responded to deadline pressure, to the industry’s overwhelming production demand. And Kirby was so much more interested when generating stories graphically, as opposed to following rote scripts; his enthusiasm for narrative drawing caused him to mis-learn, or simply abandon, the gorgeous classicism that some of his inspirations, for example Foster, encouraged.
Kirby seldom hit the Foster/Raymond mark, though some of his early work, with its shiny, feathered inks and beautiful forms, shows him trying very hard to get it. Kirby ultimately sacrificed that to narrative momentum, and I think that helps account for his long-term enthusiasm for and success in comics. That artists of great technical skill and gorgeous surfaces, such as John Romita and John Buscema, were eventually forced to imitate Kirby’s reckless dynamism, his brawling, violent approach to action, is ironic.
When I look at John Buscema’s work, which is always solid and sometimes gorgeous, I have the sense of an illustrator condescending to comics. The gut interest, the investment in the narrative, the drive to cartoon, is not there. But in Kirby the drawing is almost always energized by some unfolding, notional story in his head—by his determination to get the story out, to realize it and express it in as distilled and dramatic a way as possible. When you’re in thrall to that kind of storytelling drive, you end up sacrificing grace to energy. To me, that’s one of Kirby’s defining qualities.
That said, it’s important to think about drawing as drawing, to embrace the images as images, to think visually. That’s one of the challenges to any literary or thematic reading of comics. You’ve got to confront the pictures in all their unruly picture-ness. They’re not reducible to paraphrases, to ideas abstracted out from form. Comics are a medium-specific form of visual narrative. And at times the storytelling is frankly an excuse, a license, for ecstatic image-making. Yet Kirby always insisted that he was a writer—that’s the basic conundrum.
In Kirby, the images don’t just illustrate the narrative; they generate it. Kirby’s process of ideation was visual, and extended to his drawing hand. To take a cartoonist like Kirby seriously is to read him as a writer in images, yet never only a writer. He is also a maker of endlessly fascinating drawings: inexhaustible images, worth so much more than the proverbial “thousand words.”
My insistence on the term narrative drawing—which I lifted from Thierry Groensteen—is my way of trying to get at that seemingly paradoxical truth. It’s all about cartooning!
PM: Would you agree with Alan Moore (and others) when he describes the comics industry as being constituted by “gangsters”? In your discussion of the development of Atlas-to-Marvel, you point out the shady aspects of Martin Goodman’s enterprise, and in some respect, it comes as no surprise the way Kirby was treated. Today’s practices and audience awareness is very different than that from the 1960s-1970s (and before). But at the end of the day perhaps we have to realize that Marvel treated Kirby badly but legally. Or do you think that no matter what technicalities the company could summon, they should try to assure more respect (including financially-wise) to Kirby?
CH: “Gangsters” is a loaded term, though, truth to tell, there is some historical evidence of links between organized crime and the business of magazine publishing and distribution, including comics (cue Gerard Jones’ colorful account in Men of Tomorrow). I think “shady” does fairly describe many aspects of the comic book industry, Goodman’s operations in particular.
It helps to remember that comic book publishing was originally little more than an extension of the rag trade. It was hardly regarded as publishing, let alone an artistic field, and there was no prevailing notion of artistic autonomy, or an artistic tradition, there. Goodman was entirely indifferent to artistry. He was an opportunistic market-flooder of exceptional shrewdness and undisguised mercenary avidity. But there’s no point in excoriating figures like him, without which we would have no comic book history, no tradition, no nothing. Instead, I prefer to celebrate the unlicensed creativity that was allowed to express itself under the cover of making sales for entrepreneurs like Goodman.
The question of legality has to do with ex post facto rationalizations of soupy, undocumented, or poorly documented working arrangements. There is no legal fiction or technicality that can account for the circumstances that gave rise to the new Marvel Comics in the ‘60s. “Work for hire” is wholly inadequate to describing the issue. In my view, Marvel, the company, should acknowledge that fact through its actions and policies, so that what it does (and what it pays) matches the nostalgic rhetoric it uses to appeal to fans. In other words, Marvel ought to treat the Kirby legacy much differently.
PM: I may be wrong here, but I think yours is the first North-American comics scholarship book I’ve read that makes extensive use of a broad scope of existing studies, quoting not only North American scholars and fan-scholars (we’ll get back to this) but also an array of European investigative production (Groensteen, Morgan, Peeters, Marion, etc.). This is a discussion that has taken place elsewhere, including your article “Indiscipline,” [“Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies”, in Transatlantica no. 1, 2010, American Shakespeare/Comic Books] about the state of the art of comics scholarship, but I’d like to hear from you about the importance of integration of comics scholarship (instead of a “starting anew” attitude that was much the norm until recently), and about non-American sources.
CH: Thank you for noticing the diverse scholarship behind my book! Of course I’d like to encourage a more diverse and international use of sources. I’m proud of the way Hand of Fire grabs hold of and incorporates ideas from a wide range, including a number of sources I came to know only during the process of writing the book.
Your question raises many larger issues!
A robust scholarly field will be one that does not simply reinvent the wheel over and over, but rather gives scholars, including students, the tools to recognize what debates have already been settled, what debates are ongoing, what toolkits and concepts are available to the scholars, and what areas have barely been mapped (or mapped not at all), areas that might cry out for study. What’s needed, in my view, is twofold: one, a massive effort of integration, or at least encounter, across disciplinary, national, and cultural lines; two, new degree programs, i.e. majors and minors, that allow instruction in comics history and theory to proceed beyond what the usual one-term course in comics and graphic novels can achieve. I so often see students proposing to study issues that have already been well studied, but without knowledge of the scholarship that has come before. This is a frustrating situation, but understandable given the absence of sustained, focused teaching that goes beyond one or two courses.
Regarding international scholarship, I must confess that, despite sustained study of French, German, and Spanish, I can speak only English, and can read in those other languages only in a partial, halting, unfluent way—and only then with dictionaries and much wait time. I do work at it, but, whew, it’s hard work, the kind that reminds me always, and frustratingly, of my limits. I long to know these languages better, particularly so that I can access scholarship and criticism across linguistic lines. I’m very grateful to scholars and translators like Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen, Jan Baetens, Laurence Grove, Mark McKinney, Ann Miller, and Joel Vessels, to the journals European Comic Art and the International Journal of Comic Art, and to the International Comic Arts Forum, for formally introducing me to European comics and their scholarship and giving me inroads to French-language scholars like Groensteen, Peeters, Morgan, and Smolderen. For more than a decade I’ve been, er, highly incentivized in this area, and yet I’m only scratching the surface!
Recent translations, such as Beaty and Nguyen’s work on Groensteen and Jean-Paul Gabilliet, have been very helpful, and I’m pleased to know that more such projects are on their way.
PM: How important is “fan scholarship”? It seems to be that, especially where Kirby is concerned, the writings of other artists, the contributors to Jack Kirby Collector, and even blogs, sites and listservs is quite important, and not only where hard data is concerned. The appendix in your book about these sources is great, but how important is for an academic-based researcher to pay attention to these sometimes elusive and contradictory sources?
CH: Fan scholarship is crucial! It gets a bad rap, partly because sentimentality is in its DNA, and partly because it usually doesn’t aim for the same standards of evidence and documentation as academically approved work—yet it would have been simply impossible to complete, or even conceive, a book like Hand of Fire without it.
Though fan work can be very problematic—witness for example the constant recirculation mythological accounts of comics history, often clouded by nostalgia and/or barefaced cultural nationalism—it is an important form of knowledge production, particularly in a field like comics that has been academically neglected until very recently. The challenge for academic researchers is to sift through and evaluate this material, not to simply outgrow or ignore it.
Hand of Fire was frankly built on a foundation of fan scholarship, but strives to hit a different standard of rigor so that it can have a lasting impact on academic as well as fan discourse about comics. To the extent that fans and collectors have been the keepers of knowledge about artists like Kirby, we academics must work with, critically examine, argue with if necessary, but also express our profound gratitude to them. Fandom is an unofficial repository of history and lore: a veritable “money bin”! Some of that lore is questionable, some misleading, but all of it is important to consider because it’s a vital, living part of comics discourse. I like to think that Hand of Fire draws the balance between comics fandom and academic research in a new way.