Criticism is a touchy subject at the best of times, but subjecting popular culture to academic analysis is particularly dicey.

With most of the commercial arts—film, TV, comic books, pop music, comedy—the pleasures of the product are primarily experiential. Populist works are by design neither dense nor particularly allusive, because those mediating qualities make it more difficult to “enter” a work.

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And so they neither beg for nor benefit from intensive explication. No work is entirely without subtext, of course, but for the most part populist art makes a virtue of being immediate and immersive—you have to experience it for yourself to really get it. Trying to nail that experience down can be like pinning a butterfly to a card—killing the very thing you wish to examine.

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But if there's any pop artist who can stand up to the rigors of academic dissection and flap away unscathed, it is comic book legend Jack Kirby (1917-1994), whose legacy is explored in Charles Hatfield's new study Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby.

It was Kirby, more than anyone, who codified the grammar of comics, who gave the medium its immediacy, its narrative oomph. In his mature work, that visceral punch is married to a rare thematic depth and unity that invites close reading and examination. The wonder of it is that Hand of Fire is the first full-length scholarly study of Kirby's work. Professor Hatfield has written a book that is both welcome and long overdue.

Hatfield is that rare creature—an academic who writes plainly and with panache. Too much academic writing on art dissolves into a hail of buzzwords, forcing an artist into a particular theoretical framework—not so much pinning the butterfly as breaking it on the wheel. Hatfield treads lightly around the jargon. When he does evoke semiotic theory, he does so playfully, staging the encounter between artist and theorist as an opportunity to interrogate the limits and usefulness of the theory itself. (It's more fun than it sounds.) In the main, though, he confronts Kirby in the context of his themes and their intersection with his biography. 

And Kirby’s history is the history of comics itself, as both art form and industry. Upon his death, Kirby left behind a staggering body of work—an estimated 81,000 pages of comics—dating from the infancy of the medium to its auteurist heyday. Much of that original work is now gone forever, either purposely destroyed or lost to the ravages of time; much more has never been reprinted. But even using only the volumes of Kirby's work currently available in mass-market editions—volumes that represent a tiny fraction of his total output—you could easily fill a 9-foot shelf. And those works that directly derive from and build upon Kirby's characters and concepts would fill a whole library. Kirby created or co-created some of comics' most iconic properties: Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Thor, the Avengers, Darkseid, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer and the X-Men, to name only a few.

There was scarcely a genre to which Kirby did not turn his hand, even if he had to invent it himself—and he invented several, including, most notably, the romance comics that were his bread and butter during the lean years of the 1950s, before the superhero revival of the early '60s. Those formulaic 12-page love stories are largely forgotten today. Few have ever been reprinted, and many superhero fanboys regard them as an embarrassment.

But Hatfield argues that romance was the training ground where Kirby developed the narrative tool kit that would revolutionize superhero comics. By injecting superhero stories with soap-opera reversals and ironies—the latter, Hatfield notes, often mischaracterized as "realism"—Kirby transformed the genre, ushering in the Marvel age of comics.

Hatfield lays out the history—of the shady publishing practices, of the fraught collaborations with Joe Simon and Stan Lee, of the feints toward autonomy and the simmering bitterness—about as well as anyone can, given that the accounts of the persons involved vary widely and are inevitably self-serving. But his finest work comes in delving deep into the themes that both haunted and sustained Kirby: the totalitarian mind-set, the horrors of war, the promise of youth and friendship.

Hatfield singles out for extended analysis the key work of Kirby's later period, the “Fourth World” saga. In these four interlocking titles (The New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle, and, um, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen), Kirby is preoccupied with nothing less than Man's Search for Meaning in the Universe. (Random capitalization seems somehow appropriate, when talking about Kirby.) His was not an orthodox piety, but Kirby was perhaps the most God-haunted artist that the comics world has yet produced, channeling his existential anxieties and hopes through a series of proxies. Whether benevolent, malign or terrifyingly indifferent, these God figures are, even at their most anthropomorphic (e.g. the loving-but-stern patriarch figures of Odin and Highfather, or the demiurgic Darkseid), ultimately unknowable.

But if the Absolute cannot be understood, it can, as Hatfield reminds us, be imagined. For Kirby, imagination was always the more important thing.

Born in the fiery heart of a cosmic cataclysm, “Jack Feerick” now walks among you—as “Critic-at-Large” for “Popdose!!” But is his fate to save the Universe—or—will he destroy it—!!??!