The Simon and Kirby Library – Science Fiction by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and Dave Gibbons (graphic novel review),
‘The Simon and Kirby Library – Science Fiction’ another fine big themed collection of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby from Titan Books, printed on high quality paper and lovingly restored. This one focuses on their Science Fiction work. The book is divided into decades and we are provided with stories, all very short, from the 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s.There are nice introductory essays to each decade by Peter Sanderson and an overall introduction by Dave Gibbons who drew ‘Watchmen’. He’s done lots of other good things, too, but will forever be known as the artist who drew ‘Watchmen’. I hope he doesn’t mind.
It‘s better than being known as the artist who drew ‘Solar Legion’ from Crash Comics Adventures # 1-3 in the summer of 1940. Happily, Jack Kirby is better known as the artist who co-created the dynamic Marvel Comics of the 1960s and the fabulous Fourth World series for DC in the 1970s but he is the man who drew ‘Solar Legion and what’s more, he wrote it, too. Joe Simon wrote and drew ‘Solar Patrol’ from Silver Streak Comics # 2 (Jan. 1940) and he’s got nothing to boast about neither. Perhaps they met and said: ‘Neither one of us can write worth a damn and we’re both terrible artists. Let’s team up!’ They then went on to produce Blue Bolt # 1-10 between August 1940 and March 1941 and, though it was slightly better than their solo efforts, the difference is not huge.
Context is everything, of course, and all comics were crude in those early days, turned out at a rapid clip in cheap studios to fill pages. Before long Simon and Kirby were hailed as ground-breaking maestros of the form so Lord knows what everyone else was putting out. It has to be admitted that the stuff from the early 1940s was pretty bad. I have seen strips from the mid to late 40s ‘The Newsboy Legion’, ‘Sandman’ and ‘Boy Commandoes’ strips which were reprinted as back-up strips in Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ books when DC briefly went for bigger formats. They weren’t brilliant but they were dynamic, well-constructed and often quite good. The team obviously progressed quickly.
Oddly, this book skips from 1941 to 1955, a considerable leap in time which is mirrored by a gigantic leap in quality. The art on ‘The Emissary’ from Win A Prize Comics # 1, (Feb. 1955) is recognisably Kirby and might have come from an early issue of ‘Fantastic Four’. The story, about aliens inviting Earthmen to join the Galactic Federation of Planets, is routine SF but nicely done with a human touch. The next one ‘Mystery Vision!’ from Black Cat Mysteries # 58 (Jul. 1956) is even better. A lazy fellow picks up a pair of spectacles that enable him to see the real character of whoever he looks at. ‘The Ant Extract’ and ‘Shadow Brother’ are light-hearted tales, almost whimsical, as is ’Donnegan’s Daffy Chair’ which has a comedy Irishman messing with a new invention. Quite a few of these stories are written in the first person and they are heavy on captions, a habit Kirby never lost as a writer despite Stan Lee’s good example, though captions are probably necessary to convey all the information when you only have five pages and the writing might well be by Joe Simon. As with pulp magazine Science Fiction of the same era, great ideas are used up with careless abandon.
Not all the great ideas are entirely original. ‘The Cadmus Seed’ from Alarming Tales # 1 (1957) has men grown like vegetables, a clever notion which featured in the film ‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951). On the other hand ‘The Great Stone Face’ from Black Cat Mystic # 59 (Sept. 1957) features primitive people worshipping huge aliens that landed ages before. When Kirby did ‘The Eternals’ for Marvel, we all figured he was influenced by ‘Chariots Of The Gods’ (1968) but he was really re-doing his own stuff on a bigger scale. In ‘The Last Enemy’ from Alarming Tales # 1 (1957) a man travels into the future to find a world ruled by intelligent talking animals! I will note that the original novel ‘Monkey Planet’ aka ‘Planet Of The Apes’ by Pierre Boulle was not published until 1963. ‘Kamandi’ was Kirby re-doing Simon and Kirby ideas, not anyone else’s. However, there is no copyright on ideas and they are rife in fantasy, frequently done over and over again. It’s how you do them that counts. ‘I Want To Be A Man’ from Alarming Tales # 2 (Nov. 1957) has a giant computer called Fabiac, which sounds similar to Asimov’s Multivac. On the other hand, Fabiac being self-aware and having feelings pre-dates Heinlein’s Mike from ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’. I’m not sure who first came up with the notion of a living planet but it’s here in ‘Garden Of Eden’ from Race For The Moon # 3 (Nov. 1958). Anizaar the Living Planet also has a big ego, though she presents herself as a leggy blonde to distract our brave spacemen. The credits on the contents page say ‘writer unknown’ but I wouldn’t mind betting it’s a Kirby idea.
Stories from ‘Race For The Moon’ make up the second half of the 1950s segment of the book. They are set in space: the Moon, Jupiter, Mars and, the asteroid belt. There are a few obvious attempts as getting a series started with ‘The Three Rocketeers’ and the ‘Moon Scouts’, teams that haven’t gone down in comicbook history but were not without a certain charm. Most of the stories are inked by Al Williamson, an excellent artist in his own right as proved here by ‘King Of The Ants’. Jack and Al are an odd fit because Williamson’s art is realistic and Kirby’s art is…well, Kirby: dramatic, frequently wonky, often rushed and yet somehow always dynamic, powerful and beautiful despite its flaws. At first glance, I didn’t care for Williamson ink on Kirby pencils but when you get used to the look it’s really very good. In his foreword, ‘Of Future Convicts And Grubby Spacemen’, Dave Gibbons praises the combination and also lauds mightily the ‘Race For The Moon’ comic. I’m inclined to agree with him.
So the 1960s. What the devil! Simon and Kirby split in the1950s so how can there be a 1960s section? The answer: this is Joe Simon – half the credits on the front cover, remember – who put together a couple of anthology titles for Harvey Comics. ‘Alarming Adventures’, ‘Blast Off’ and ‘Unearthly Spectaculars’ are of little interest to Kirby fans but they do feature some great art by Reed Crandall, Al Williamson and Wally Wood, three recognised greats of the good old days. Most of the stories are ‘writer unknown’ but a young Archie Goodwin scripted ‘Hermit’ from Alarming Adventures # 1 (Oct. 1962) and an older Wally Wood scripted ‘Clawfang The Barbarian’ from Thrill-O-Rama # 2 (Sept. 1965), though he didn’t draw it. It was in the days of the 60s Conan revival when heroic fantasy was becoming popular again. This section also features two more tales of ‘The Three Rocketeers’ which I would bet a small amount of money were scripted by Kirby. Nicknames of gadgets and men are in ‘inverted commas’ and there’s some s-stuttering speech. Like wordy captions these are habits displayed in his 70s scripts. ?
There is no 1970s section here. Even though both Simon and Kirby were working at DC Comics in that decade, Kirby doing his thing and Simon doing ‘Prez’, they only got together for one issue of the revived ‘Sandman’. Could they have done great things if they had teamed up once more? Probably not. It might have been interesting though.
As with all great collaborators, there is the question of who did what. According to Gil Kane, who worked for them at one stage, Kirby did all the pencilling. Joe Simon certainly did some inking and he possibly wrote the scripts, too, and may have designed the covers. They probably came up with the ideas as a team. Simon was reputedly the business brains of the partnership and would make the deals with publishers that netted them a lot of work and quite a lot of money. They laboured together for about fifteen years, prospered and split amicably when the business hit the skids. Joe wanted to try other things and Jack wanted to stick to comics. In the decades since, they never spoke ill of each other. That’s not a bad epitaph for two creative gentlemen of a bygone age and this big, entertaining volume is a fine tribute. Ironically, it’s about the same size as a tombstone.
(pub: Titan Books. 352 page hardcover. Price: £35.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84856-961-4)
check out website: www.titanbooks.com