We’re lucky enough to live in an age when bookstores and comic book shops across the world are filled every week with a wide variety of material from which we can choose. Newsstands, largely extinct in all but the biggest cities, have given way to neatly organized and inventoried shelves, not to mention an entire online universe in which almost anything we would ever want is but a point and click away.
It all feels like an ending. Comics still sell in their monthly form, but they’re written to be collected in hardcovers and trade paperbacks, one eye always focused on preservation. We’re witnessing an emptying of the vaults, with everything from complete collections of important daily comic strips to some series’ entire runs being collected in one form or another. The flood gates have opened, so should we head for higher ground or just let it wash over us?
In the case of The Best of Simon and Kirby, be glad you’re soaking in it. This collection, featuring stories produced between 1940 and 1966, is not a bottom of the barrel anthology of best left forgotten stories by one of comics’ legendary duos. These stories, though very much of the time in which they were created, are powerful reminders of the limitless genre applications of comics.
Of course there have been thousands of men and women who’ve produced comics over the last 70-plus years, but Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were more than just workaday artists slumming it in the world of funny books. They were pioneers. Kirby, of course, later gained fame as one of the architects of the Marvel Universe through his work on Fantastic Four, but these stories represent his early work in collaboration with the multi-talented Simon, a distinguished artist, writer, and editor.
Rather than collecting the stories chronologically, the book is organized thematically with superhero, science fiction, war, crime, western, horror, and humor stories. At the beginning of each chapter, Kirby biographer Mark Evanier provides historical context and commentary for the stories to come. These are not critiques or critical overviews, but nor are they simple fluff pieces telling readers how much we’ll enjoy every panel on every page. Evanier gives us a peek behind the curtain at the creators through anecdotes and interviews. Even in these brief essays it’s clear how much of themselves these men poured into their work.
For Simon and Kirby, as with most creators during the boom years of the early ’40s, comics were as much about earning a paycheck as they were about creative expression. The duo was lucky enough to find themselves in a place where those dueling forces met, and the result was Captain America, featured here in “The Riddle of the Red Skull”. Their most famous creation, Captain America played on America’s patriotic sensibilities during the build-up to America’s entry into World War II and, for two young Jewish artists from New York, provided an outlet to vent their disgust against the anti-Semitism of Hitler and the Nazis.
The story features the Red Skull, Cap’s longtime Nazi nemesis, attempting to overthrow the US government by picking off his enemies one by one. The Red Skull is revealed to be a corrupt military contractor, playing to the creeping paranoia of the coming Cold War-era, but what makes the story most exciting is not its prescient depiction of the things to come, but rather its unrelenting action.
Nearly every panel contains a dizzying sense of not just action but actual motion, the feeling that a punch is being thrown every time you blink. Even a simple reaction on a character’s face is rendered with a stop-motion fluidity that breathes uncanny life into the often hokey stories.
Nearly 70 years later and Captain America is still going strong (the character is, at least: original super-soldier Steve Rogers was assassinated in 2007). Simon and Kirby never struck gold with superheroes again, but the stories collected here featuring the Vision (later revamped for Marvel’s Avengers), Stuntman, and the Captain America-rehash Fighting American all contain that same stunning eye for action that bursts out of panels and off the page.
No matter how well the duo did superheroes, they would have starved had they limited themselves to the genre. Superheroes tanked after the war, and as publishing companies folded the survivors scrambled to tap into the next big hit. Simon and Kirby followed their peers into the trenches of genre warfare, finding moderate success with much of their work. They hit the jackpot, though, when they unleashed on the world the romance comic. Simon, noting the popularity of true romance magazines and the dearth of comic books directed at the female population, decided a little romance was just what the struggling comics industry needed.
Based on this premise, one might think the romance work here would read like a rush job created to generate cash, but they’re two of the best stories in the collection. Though by no means groundbreaking in terms of their depiction of gender roles, they’re emotionally-charged and smart, never talking down to the reader. Simon and Kirby weren’t looking for a hit, they were trying for one, and in the process created a template for a wave of increasingly watered-down imitators.
Reading this book, a big idea stands out: these men could shift and morph to suit the needs of whatever the story needed to be, their talents not only following the demands of the market but also their own muses. They weren’t hacks, they were craftsmen, and they didn’t do good heroes, crime stories or Westerns, they simply did good work.
Kirby’s influence on comics cannot be overstated, but it’s primarily his work at Marvel, and later, DC, that gets the most attention. As a result, not only is this diverse era of his work overlooked, but so is his collaboration with Joe Simon. There are unmistakable Kirby panels and pages here, but by all accounts these two men worked together on everything — writing, drawing, inking. They were creative and business partners whose talents complemented one another immensely.
Kirby died in 1994, but Simon is still working (he selected these stories and wrote the introduction to this book). There are more books collecting Simon and Kirby’s work planned, more emptying of the vaults. With treasures like these, that can only be a good thing.