The Best of Simon and Kirby (Titan Books)

simonkirby-header.jpgA loving look back at two men who changed comics forever.

 

240 pgs. full color; $39.95 Hardcover

(W / A: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; Edited by Steve Saffel; Introduction by Joe Simon)

 

Elvis was called "The King." Stock-car racer Richard Petty, ditto. And some guy named Jesus, I hear. And some guy named Kirby.

Jack "King" Kirby is one of those names that make people outside comic geekdom scratch their heads. "Jack who?" Of course, we confirmed comic geeks have a whole list of guys like that – Alex Ross, Jim Lee, Chris Ware, Frank Miller, Dan Clowes, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb…

But Kirby is different. He’s considered a god among gods. In one half-remembered panel from a Simpsons comic, the nerd who runs the Springfield comics shop envisions one of his fantasies: owning a glass display case lined with holy relics — actual cigar butts tossed away by Jack Kirby.

The cover to The Best of Simon and Kirby. Click for a larger image.Kirby, along with frequent collaborator Joe Simon, brought a vivid enthusiasm to comics that completed their transformation from something resembling comic strips to a bona fide new medium. Jack’s gift for drawing terrifically expressive characters, moving dynamically across the page and getting in rip-roaring fights, from all kinds of nutty perspectives, made the adolescents of the ‘40s and ‘50s understand these were not the comics they were used to. "[Simon and Kirby] told me that… when the hero punched the villain, they wanted the reader to feel it. They had invented action in comic books," recalls one industry vet in the new anthology The Best of Simon and Kirby.

They changed the way the story was told, with panels that weren’t always rectilinear or arranged in the usual way. They used wild color choices and combinations. They were the first to come up with the two-page "splash."

During WWII they created Captain America to battle the Nazis, and brought thrilling oomph from real life to the comics. They helmed the company that gave rise to Marvel, where Simon was mentor to Stan Lee. In their heyday, their popularity as a team was so immense that they worked at will for a variety of competing comics publishers, and were soon imitated heavily.

Their list of accomplishments borders on the obscene, and so we’ve given them the ultimate compliment-we take them for granted.

A new oversized anthology from Titan serves to remind contemporary readers of how Simon and Kirby found terra incognita. As stated, the Kirby fanatics have basically turned him into a cult leader, so it’s beyond me to say whether this new volume is a definitive glance back or a torturous selection that ignores the cream of the two men’s famous symbiotic output.

I can say that as much as I feel the pressure to bow down myself, it must be pointed out that by definition we are talking about literature for adolescents here. The Western shoot-outs, the lurid tales of "true crime," the sci fi comics with green-skinned beauties and dastardly villains with curious body deformities – this is the stuff that makes 12-year-old boys happy. This is the stuff that gently warped a generation, including guys like Harlan Ellison, who contributes a blurb on the back cover.

So it’s groundbreaking and fun, but to the adults at whom this new tome is marketed, it is campy nostalgia, too. In one Simon-Kirby collaboration here, "The Savage in Me" from Young Romance Comics (1950), a shirtless man busts into a rural classroom and manhandles a kiss from the schoolmarm, a complete stranger. Naturally, she falls head over heels for him. It was just too funny – it reminded me of any number of graphic tales by Seth where an old man reminisces about his thrilling youth in the comics business-there’s a goofy humor to all this, too many silly clichés to ignore.

Of course, this was before they were clichés, I guess, but still. The various war, sci fi, romance, western, and crime genres reprinted here all offer a degree of that cheesiness, less so than the comics of the 30s that Simon and Kirby learned from, to be sure, but much more so than their graphic-novel-making grandchildren I value so much today. When you read a tribute to the masters like this, you have to remember their milieu, and the innovations they introduced to change it.

With Kirby, I’m sure I’m not alone in preferring his spectacularly idiomatic work on The New Gods for DC in the ‘70s, when he entered his fifth decade in the biz. That work came much later than the material reprinted for this book.

The book does contain an eyebrow-raising piece from 1947, "My City is No More" from The Duke of Broadway. In the tale, our heroes try to save New York from a mad Nazi bomber, and fail-the atom bomb obliterates the city, leaving neo-cavemen wandering thru a post-industrial wasteland. It’s a counter-intuitive ending, on the one hand, with no catharsis, and a reminder of how fortunate we should feel about our fresh victory against Hitler on the other.

Either way, it’s innovative. It’s deeper than the other comics writers of the time were going, and it’s drawn to captivate. Kirby, particularly with Simon, just can’t bore you.

Note that the book’s intro is by the 95-year-old Joe Simon. The man is still around. | Byron Kerman

 

 

 

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