Emerging from the shadows of the Great Depression, artists learnt to fight with pen and ink, not guns, to help forge a new entertainment: the comic book. Siegel and Schuster have been credited with the birth of superheroes with the creation of Superman. However, another team was equally hard at work during the same period and working across a whole range of genres.
Their reputation and recognition grew over the decades with one of them even being crowned ‘The King’, but both are giants in their field. Their names – Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. This first volume of rare reprints celebrates the diversity of their pioneering work from 1940s to ’60s.
The collection begins where you would expect, in the world of superheroics, and we’re treated to Captain America’s first encounter with the Red Skull, an early adventure for the Golden Age Sandman, and the first incarnation of the Vision. More intriguing is their Stuntman strip with its striking double-page spreads, an innovation that came to define their style. Their forays into science fiction offer a lively imagination with early solo work from Joe Simon including Blue Bolt and Solar Patrol.
Grittier tales of gangsters surface in real-life dramatisations including Scarface and ‘Ma’ Barker, who narrates her tale from Hell. These look rougher and tougher in spirit, helped by Simon’s meaner, edgier dialogue exemplified in such titles as Headline Comics. When they tackled romance, love was secondary to the emotions and passions as well as the locations which the characters found themselves in.
Titles such as Young Romance revolutionized the industry in the late-40s setting which the characters were faced with. The westerns bristle with dirty deeds and the blurring of right and wrong, with heroes such as Clay Duncan of Boys’ Ranch and Bulls Eye meting out their own brand of justice.
War adventures are prominent too, inspired, no doubt, by the creators’ own experiences. Humanity remains at the centre, with the stories neither jingoistic nor cynical. It’s an approach offering curious tales such of the saga of the Boy Commandos, which starts as an eulogy to their collective deaths. Perhaps more surprising are the Simon & Kirby ‘horror’ tales which emerged during the 50s, at the peak of the reign of (and controversy over) the gruesome output of EC Comics.
Simon and Kirby veered away from graphic detail in favour of more atmospheric terror, with stories based around the interpretation of nightmares. Black Magic was their most successful title, offering a darker, shadier texture to the storytelling. They even tried their hand at comedy, with Sick shadowing the rise of Mad magazine, and spoofs such as Walt Chisley’s 20,000 Lugs Under The Sea, as well as more cutting-edge material sourced from Lenny Bruce.
Each section of this hardbound, coffee table-sized book is introduced by comic historian Mark Evanier, who offers useful pointers to their skills and influences, including comments from contemporaries. The selection of stories has been shaped as a tribute by editor Steve Saffel who worked closely with Simon over the years. However, it’s the work itself that demonstrates the energetic force of their power, initially crude but always growing with confidence and originality. Throughout, Kirby’s dynamism is evident in the framing or the pose of his figures. Body posture as much as dialogue bring a raw and ready edge to their adventures.
Simon’s career may have been overshadowed by Kirby’s position in co-creating Marvel’s mightiest heroes, just as the company celebrates its 70th anniversary of its timely originated characters such as Captain America.
This panoramic trek through their formative strips underlines the enduring strength of their partnership. Well-respected by their peers, they were considered to know everything about writing and drawing, the consummate professionals. Simon and Kirby are the foundation stones for comics as we know them, crossing all genres depending on public tastes and exploring new storytelling techniques. Their legacy is a legend that has shaped our reading pleasures and inspired generations of comic-book creators.
The Best of Simon and Kirby is out now.