Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Best of Simon and Kirby

I mentioned to Cliff the other night that if people keep putting out collections of Jack Kirby's comics work that I would eventually have to devote an entire bookshelf to Kirby. Not that I would mind, of course, Jack being not only my favorite comic book artist but also a personal hero. The latest addition to the ever growing collection is an absolutely wonderful new hardback called the Best of Simon and Kirby.
As much as I've talked about Kirby here, I don't think I've ever mentioned an important early phase of his career, his nearly two decade partnership with writer/artist Joe Simon. I think it's fair to say that Simon and Kirby were the first superstars of the comic book world. In the early 1940s, when the work of most comic book artists and writers went un-credited, Simon and Kirby's names were not only featured, but prominently displayed on the splash pages of their stories because editors knew that the team sold comics. The Simon and Kirby banner could boost circulation. People looked for that familiar signature.
The team got its start at the 'sweat shop' of Victor Fox, a production facility for comics where many young artists got their first comics work. Reportedly, Fox would employ almost anyone who could hold a pencil and pay them next to nothing for the privilege. But it was work, and in a depression scarred America, work was still hard to come buy for artists. Simon, a savvy businessman as well as an artist, recognized the talent of the young Jack Kirby and got Jack to pencil Simon's own creation, a science fiction super hero strip called Blue Bolt. The dye, as they say, was cast and the two men would go on from there to one of the most successful collaborations in the history of comics, creating characters and books such as The Boy Commandos, The Newsboy Legion, Bullseye, Fighting American, Boy's Ranch (Kid Gang comics, a genre that Simon and Kirby pretty much created, were big in those days) and a character you may have heard of called Captain America. They also drew the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures, though not the first appearance of the big red cheese as is often reported. They also revamped and rejuvenated two existing super heroes, the Sandman and Manhunter.
The Best of Simon and Kirby contains examples of all of S&K's major series. You'll get to see most of the characters mentioned above plus a slew of other material. As times and comics changed, Simon and Kirby moved from super heroes to other genres, drawing crime comics, western comics, horror comics, Archie style humor comics, and they invented Romance Comics while they were at it. All of those genres are featured in The Best of Simon and Kirby. It's interesting to a fan and student of Kirby like myself to see the less bombastic work he produced. The romance comics are a good place to study Kirby's storytelling and his solid drawing skills. Jack is remembered for his explosive, action filled work at Marvel in the 1960s, but he could put just as much drama into anything he drew.
For years people have asked who did what in the team of Simon and Kirby. Jack, a modest man would always say, "We both did everything." An examination of the work shows that Kirby did most of the penciling, especially in the later years of the partnership. Simon did most of the inking and a lot of the writing. He was also the business man of the two and kept the team up to their arm pits in comics work for many years.
The reproduction on The Best of Simon and Kirby is fantastic and the full color reprints are introduced and annotated by Kirby friend and expert Mark Evanier, author of the recent Kirby biography, Jack Kirby:King of Comics. Evanier is the go to guy for information on Kirby. He's also a very talented writer. The book had the cooperation of Marvel and DC Comics and the help and approval of the Kirby family, so this is probably the best cross section of the Simon Kirby team ever produced. Later volumes are promised if this one does well, spotlighting Super Heroes, Kid Gangs, Romance, etc. So get out there and buy your own copy. It's a steal at right at forty bucks for this massive hard cover. No library of the history of comic books should be without The Best of Simon and Kirby.


Steve Saffel said...

Hey There!
I was over at Joe's place yesterday, and one of the things we talked about was the strange way he and Jack collaborated. While it's true that Jack did a lot of the penciling, their approach was perhaps the most organic in comics. Whatever the story needed--writing, penciling, inking, lettering, art corrections--both of them would jump in as needed, or bring in someone to help.
They had one of the best letterers the business ever say, Howard Ferguson, and he was just one of the people they could call upon.
Today we tend to think of each discipline as completely separate, but with Joe and Jack it was a one-of-a-kind relationship. It was all about the story.
Thanks for the kind words about the book! There's more to come.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Thanks for the info, Steve. (Steve Saffel is the editor of the Simon & Kirby book and a long time friend.) Looking forward to further volumes. Tell Joe he's got a lot of fans out here on the net.

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