BOOK REVIEW: "The Best of Simon and Kirby" (2009)

Robert Bee
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"The Comics Dream Team"

During the Golden age of comics, a great deal of the best artwork and stories was created by the “the dream team” of Simon and Kirby, who had one of the greatest creative partnerships in the history of the medium. This anthology does an excellent job introducing the reader to a sampling of their work from the late 40s to 1960 when they went their separate ways. The book is the size of an art album, which allows the reader to appreciate the art’s detail. The anthology is well made and sturdy, and the paper quality a major upgrade over the pulp paper of the comics. The reproductions are excellent and look better that the original comics. The collection contains informative essays by Joe Simon and Mark Evanier and all at a reasonable price (especially if you compare that price to the small fortune the original comics would cost).

Comics, like the movies, are a collaborative medium. Different people plot, script, pencil, ink, letter, and color a monthly issue. Simon and Kirby each did a little bit of everything in their collaboration. Kirby did most of the penciling work and Simon most of the inking, but both artists did some penciling, some inking, some lettering, some writing, and some plotting. They picked up a brush or pencil and added detail to one another’s art. They threw out story ideas and developed one another’s plots in a mutually beneficial partnership. Simon handled more of the business arrangements, and Kirby did more of the artwork, but Simon also inked Kirby’s work effectively, and managed to fill in the sprawling detail that he put into his art, a task that some inkers struggled to manage.

Simon and Kirby are most famous for their superhero comics, especially their creation of Captain America, and the book’s first section focuses on their heroes.

The first selection is an early Captain American story, which is primitive, with simplistic characterization and dialog, but its story and art is fastmoving and entertaining. The story details the first appearance of the Red Skull, who in this tale is very different from the later Marvell archvillain: he has the ability to kill with a mesmeric look (an ability the Marvel character lacked), and when he’s defeated at the story’s end his Red Mask cracks revealing his secret identity (in the later comics the Red Skull has an actual deformed head not a mask). He turns out to be a defense contractor who had been promised a high level position if the Nazis conquered America. His killing stare is actually caused by the Skull secretly injecting his victims with a hypodermic needle full of poison.

Nonetheless, this selection demonstrates why Simon and Kirby were so influential in their day. In the 40s, comic books had not come into their own as a genre; they were often reprints of newspapers comics or at best imitations of the Sunday funnies.

Simon and Kirby created dynamic art that allowed comics to come into their own as a unique medium. Their panels are varied in size and composition reflecting the action rather than consistently being the same square or rectangle size like a newspaper comic. The art explodes with energy as characters tear lose from the panels. In one panel, the bottom rounds itself around a gun holster to emphasize the action of a character drawing a gun, which has the same effect as the close up in a movie. The legs of the Red Skull and a victim the villain is choking kick out of the bottom of the panel. When Captain America punches the Red Skull, his body flies through one panel and into another.

The anthology’s second hero is The Vision, a superhero who can travel through smoke, the gateway to the supernatural world, although he can also be trapped if that substance is not available. Again the art is striking, and is brought to life in the reproduction’s large pages and panels. The story foreshadows the later Marvel character The Vision who can become insubstantial and walk through walls.

In the third comic, Sandman and Sandy battle Thor, the Ancient God of War, who is motivated by hate and ruthlessness as he invades the modern world, which is an interesting depiction of Thor very different from his eventual portrayal in Marvel during the 60s. Thor is not an actual Norse god; he’s a criminal mastermind who covers himself and his men with a clear “Lucite” steel covering that blocks bullets. The art includes one full-page fight scene between the cops and Vikings, which is very dramatic with bodies, helmets, and fists flying. In some ways these golden age comics are more realistic than later examples of the genre: people die, the heroes get injured, Sandy ends up in the hospital with a head injury, and Thor ends the issue in the traction.

“Fighting America” is a Captain American clone that even has a Bucky-like sidekick with the unfortunate nickname Speedboy. His enemy is a two-headed gangster “Double Header,” a grotesque campy Kirby villain who is actually the most interesting character in the script: Double Header’s two heads constantly argue with one another, but his smart head is, of course, a crime genius. He invents a “Telekinetic Energy Flinger” which allows him to fix sporting events and cheat at gambling. These early superhero stories rely on gadgets and science fiction rather than supernatural powers.

“Come into my Parlor” opens with a striking double page spread of the heroic Fly facing his archenemy the Spider on a large stylized spider web with several gangster henchmen in the background also in action poses, a splash page technique that Kirby and Simon created. The art in the script is dark and noir-esque, fitting the character and story.

KIRBY AND SIMON'S OVERTLY SCIENCE FICTION WORK

The rest of the anthology’s selections are a mixed bag. I was especially disappointed in the editor’s science fiction selections, which included two early SF stories by Simon and Kirby from the beginning of their collaboration. The stories are crude but exciting, an example of the first work they did together, drawn more primitively than the other work in the anthology. “Ken Kurage” of Solar Patrol meets the Tree Men of Uranus, who intend to steal rare minerals from Earth. This comic is a transitional work for the collaborators, although you do see touches of genius in the action scenes, which are more dynamic than most comics of the time.

“Blue Bolt” is a Flash Gordon-like space adventurer. The art is more advanced than “Solar Patrol.” It even has a pre-Star Trek hot green alien woman, although she is an evil Queen.

The third of the SF collaborations, “The Thing on Sputnik 4” is one of the last collaborations between Simon and Kirby and is compelling in both art and story.

Since the anthology’s title is The Best of Simon and Kirby, I think the SF selections should have included some of Simon and Kirby’s later work. They did a lot of interesting SF comics in the 50s. The anthology comics Alarming Tales and Black Magic both published a number of SF stories (reminiscent of the Twilight Zone) that were better than the Space Patrol or Blue Bolt.

WAR AND ADVENTURE

The War and Adventure section gives a good sense of the diverse work Simon and Kirby created. The Boy Commandos were one of Simon and Kirby’s WWII comics, and was their most popular comic of the time. This comic is not currently as well known as their superhero work, but it contained brilliant, energetic art and fast moving, clever stories.

“His Highness The Duke of Broadway” is a story that mixes a realistic street view of NYC with high adventure and a critique of atomic war. Again, the larger printing of the reproduction really brings out the detail of the art, especially the stories post-apocalyptic scenes.

“Booby Trap” is a dark, well-paced and drawn story about an ambush during the Korean War, which made me wish for more war comics in the collection.

ROMANCE, WESTERNS, AND OTHER GENRES

“The Birth of Romance” section is intriguing. Simon and Kirby invented romance comics in 1947, when superhero comics weren’t selling and crime comics had oversaturated the market. They needed to do something different to pay the rent. They wrote and drew a couple of hundred romance comics in the late 40s and 50s; I would daresay that actually published as many romance comics as superhero comics. One of their comics, Young Romance, sold a million copes a month.

I enjoyed “Weddin’ at Red Rock!” which was a western love story with a surprise ending. I liked it well enough that I forgot I was reading a love story. The other romance “The Savage in Me!” depicts a repressed, but of course passionate female missionary releasing her hidden desires during a war in China. Simon and Kirby’s romance art really draws out the character’s emotions, making comics an ideal medium for expressing sultry expressions and sexual tension.

The collection continues with westerns, which demonstrate that Simon and Kirby were capable of telling virtually any type of story with pictures. The beautifully drawn Westerns show their mature art.

The collection’s crime comics are moralistic true tales about Ma Barker, a serial killer, and Al Capone. In each case the villain pays for his/her crimes at the end. The dark and noir influenced art depicts the stress and anguish on the faces of the killers, criminals, and cops.

The collection’s horror comics are superb, and I would have liked to see more of them. In the horror section you get two stories from The Strange World of Your Dreams, a short-lived but weird comic that purported to show the real dreams of its readers, but that doesn’t even begin to touch the dozens of horror comics Kirby and Simon created, especially in the anthology series Black Magic.

One of the enjoyable aspects of this collection is the diversity of genres. Golden age comics included dozens of genres, not just superheroes. I’ve been reading a lot of golden age comics in recent months and the sheer range of genres and styles is one of the attractions. The fact that American comics have largely been reduced to a superhero genre for men has impoverished the medium since the 80s.

I recommend this book because of the quality of the stories and art as well as the excellent reproductions. In the book’s introduction Joe Simon mentions that Kirby often felt stymied by the small comic book page because some of the art’s detail was lost. You can see why Kirby felt that way because these large pages really bring out the brilliance of his artwork. I will nonetheless criticize some of the editor’s selections. He does pick some subpar stories in the SF section, and the anthology badly needs some more horror. I would liked to have seen more: more horror, more science fiction, more crime, and more war comics. Needless to say books can only contain so many pages so this is less a criticism that an acknowledgement that Kirby and Simon did a lot of great work together. This collection serves as more of an introduction to Simon and Kirby than a best of collection. But I still found it to be enjoyable books and worth the cash.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Sure. There’s nothing in this collection that would alienate conservatives or liberals for that matter. If anything, the book contains bursts of old fashioned patriotism that conservatives will certainly appreciate.

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Robert Bee, AKA "rightrob" is a freelance writer and non-freelance librarian living in New Jersey. He's also our newest - and most professional - staff writer, bringing a bit of decorum and class to our humble site. For a change.

The Best of Simon and Kirby
By Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Titan Books, 2009
$39.95

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