Jack Kirby might be most revered for his part in the creation of a whole slew of Marvel Comics mainstays in the ‘60s—among them the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Nick Fury and SHIELD, the Mighty Thor and the X-Men—in other words, much of the recent cinematic revenue-generating stream for Marvel Comics. But his career far predates his involvement with Stan Lee and the creation of those legends. Kirby began working in the ‘40s, creating such stories as the “Solar Legion” series in Crash Comics and “Planet Patrol” for
, as well as the character of Blue Bolt. In the ‘50s, his range expanded further, from the humorous “Donnegan’s Daffy Chair” to the Twilight Zone-style twists of “This World Is Ours” to the straight up, otherworldly sci-fi of “Forbidden Journey” and “Lunar Trap”.
Kirby’s frequent writing partner throughout these years, and well into the ‘60s, was Joe Simon, and their fruitful relationship is chronicled in The Simon & Kirby Library: Science Fiction, which brings together these disparate stories and many others into one handsome hardbound package. As with previous collections of crime and superhero stories, these tales are unified by genre and arranged chronologically, allowing the reader to witness the development of both artist and writer as their work became more sophisticated and confident.
Here’s a confession: as a teenager reading comics in the ‘70s, I never much liked Kirby. None of my comics-devouring buddies did, either. We found his line work too clunky and his poses too wooden, especially in comparison to the fluid style of Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, the hallucinatory surrealism of Jim Steranko or the bold aggressiveness of Frank Miller. Kirby seemed a relic from a bygone era, and it didn’t help that the titles he produced in the ‘70s seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. (Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy, anyone? How about Machine Man?) Well, except for DC Comics’ Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, which flat-out ruled. But then I’m a sucker for talking animals.
The older I get, though, the more I appreciate Kirby’s immense talent. For starters, his imagination was boundless. Never mind drawing all those characters and situations—most of us mortals could never even have conceived of them. A quick glance at Kirby’s Wikipedia page reveals upwards of 320 characters ascribed to him, a hefty output by any measure. Considering how many of these have become mainstays in popular culture, that total becomes even more impressive.
Then there’s the matter of the art. Sure, early works are clunky and of their time, but Kirby would improve as the decades passed and as inking techniques grew more sophisticated. (Like many pencil artists, Kirby was beholden to the skill of his inkers in terms of how his final product would look.) The second half of this volume in particular holds many visual delights. The splash page for “This World Is Ours!” is worth the price of admission by itself: as flaming meteors rain down on a panicked city, each face in the crowd mirrors horror and panic, even as buildings crumble and smoke billows skyward. Clever coloring foregrounds the human figures and the fireballs, lending an almost 3D look to the page.
Other highlights include just about any story from the ‘60s, which feature Kirby’s most detailed and subtle artwork. “Hermit”, “Trapped in the Human Aquarium” and “The Secret of the Mountain” all feature nuanced shading and colors that elevate the stories well above their simple, five-page plotlines; Kirby’s human figures and gestures are all far more naturalistic as well. Finally, “Clawfang” shows the kind of anything-goes, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach to storytelling that comics of the era often gleefully adhered to. “Clawfang” utilizes an approach that combines high-tech gadgetry, barbarian swordplay, Stone Age skills and futuristic wonders all within the parameters of a single story. It’s all great fun, and Joe Simon deserves the credit for this verve.
As for the first half of the book, well, the enjoyment is not so obvious. For students interested in the history of comics, this collection will prove valuable, and for older readers willing to indulge in a nostalgic interlude, there is plenty of that as well. Certainly, comics in the ‘40s and ‘50s reflected a simpler time and a clearer—or less sophisticated—worldview. There were few problems that couldn’t be solved by a brave guy and a pair of fists, or at least a ray gun; and the guy holding the gun was always a guy, always white, always right, and always—presumptively at least—American.
The production of this volume is up to Titan Books’ usual exacting standards. The paper is heavy, the printing quality is excellent and the colors pop off the page. Both hard covers are sweetly illustrated, even beneath the dust jacket, and the end pages contain more artwork as well. There is a heartfelt, three-page introduction by Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) and brief intros for each of the succeeding decades. Additionally, there is an album cover gallery and some examples of rough artwork for a couple of projects that never made it into print, Tiger 21 and Check Mates.
Certainly this is an important historical document concerning the evolution of American comics, but it’s also a good deal more than that. Simon and Kirby wrote stories that can still be read for enjoyment today—some of them, at least. They predate the ‘80s “alternative” era exemplified by Frank Miller and Alan Moore, or “gritty” ‘90s characters like the Punisher, Spawn and Lobo, and thus, act as windows to a simpler, less cynical time. Although it lacks Kirby’s better-known work for Marvel and DC, there’s an abundance of material here that will delight, or at least divert, most comics fans.