Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
      ( 5/05/2009 06:08:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME IN COMICS -- THE WIDE ANGLE SCREAM!" Safe to say that comic books would've been a whole lot different were it not for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. If they weren't, as Mark Evanier notes in one of the interconnecting essays contained in The Best of Simon And Kirby (Titan Books), the first writers and artists to take advantage of the visual possibilities of a comic book page, they were arguably the first true giants. Bringing an unmatchable boyish energy to the medium, Simon & Kirby produced comics that popped right off the page.

Spanning the duo's career as two of the hardest working talents in the comics biz, the 240-page Best opens with their groundbreaking superhero work from the early forties, then takes us through examples of the twosome's various genre comics (s-f, war, romance, crime, western, horror and sick humor) from the forties and fifties. With perhaps the exception of the Mad-styled humor entries -- closer to Al Feldstein's Panic imitations than to the divine insanity that was Harvey Kurtzman's creation -- each section shows two artists at the top of their game, finding new ways to expand the medium.

Much of the earliest work presented in this handsomely produced coffee table book collection is the hero stuff: Captain America, Sandman, and the Vision. With the oldest pieces you can see the two struggling to see how far they can push the parameters of comic book tier storytelling -- the Vision entry, for instance, contains a page where one of the panels seems to slip out of the sequence altogether -- though the learning curve is pretty steep. In the Sandman adventure, created a year after the Vision story, we're provided a full-page brawl between NYC cops and Viking gangsters that practically kicks you in the face. In the Stuntman episode from 1946, the two are producing the kind of panoramic shots that Kirby would make his trademark in the sixties Marvel comics. Compare the panel displaying the story's circus performance with a similar image in an early Hulk comic introducing the Ringmaster and His Circus of Crime. If anything, the Stuntman panel is even more dynamic.

Per Evanier's essays, it's difficult to tell where the two writer/artists begin and end, though plenty of the visual compositions that they developed were carried on by Kirby when the two ended their partnership. To readers who grew up on the jaunty blend of wisecrackery and post-adolescent angst that characterized Kirby's work with writer Stan Lee in the Marvel Age of Comics, the superhero scripts, in particular, can read as stiff as too much of the comics work from the Golden Age. The art has more personality than most of the heroes, though for Kirby fans that's probably sufficient.

It's in their other genre work where the real surprises come. Simon & Kirby basically invented the romance comic in the late forties, and they did it with heroines who were a far cry from the weepy ingénues who'd later dominate the form. These were sturdy women in the mode of the best movie tough gals, and their stories reflected this. Reading 1950's "The Savage in Me," for instance, you can imagine Barbara Stanwyck playing the missionary's daughter in love/lust with a scoundrel; the moment when she lets her hair down is sexy in a way that a later generation of romance comics would never dare to be.

The war comics prove equally revelatory, most specifically in an atom bomb cautionary from 1947 that ends with New York City under a mushroom cloud. It's as strong as anything EC would've produced in one of its apocalyptic fantasies. In terms of uncompromising storytelling, the duo's "true crime" comics are as commendably ruthless as any Warner Bros. gangster epic. Their take on "Scarface," for instance, contains the killing of an underling that's as startling as Al Capone's murder of a fellow gangster in Brian DePalma's Untouchables.

The collaborators' horror comics also prove atypical for the era in which they were produced. Where other horror comics creators worked to duplicate the grisly pulpishness of The Crypt of Terror, Simon & Kirby focused on more psychological frights, producing a book focused on recreating and analyzing its protagonists' nightmares. EC returned the flattery by later devoting a comic to Psychoanalysis, though The Strange World of Your Dreams got there first. If the more subdued approach wasn't as unsettling as the all-out horror comics of the fifties, the samples in Best have some great visual moments: the dream depiction of an "old and dismal town," for instance, visually anticipates the monster comics Kirby would later be producing with Lee -- as well as his even more personalized "Fourth World" series for DC comics.

Titan Books' collection features work done for big name companies like Timely (later: Marvel), DC, Archie and Harvey, as well as long-forgotten entities like Hillman and Prize. While the DC and Marvel work is somewhat familiar to comics aficionados (Captain America has had several archive collections published over the years), the lesser-known material definitely deserves to be rediscovered. My interest has been particularly piqued by the Stuntman, a former circus high-wire acrobat named Fred Drake who turns out to be a double for the fatuous actor and self-proclaimed amateur detective Don Daring. Together, the two solve crimes in a Hollywood setting, and you can see this show biz milieu sparking the excitement of its movie mad creators.

Though the full story isn't reprinted in the collection, the book's hardcover features an opulent two-page spread from that series, showing our hero in costume on the set of a Robin Hood movie. According to the introduction by the still-vital Joe Simon, the complete tale will be reprinted in a second upcoming collection from Titan, The Simon And Kirby Superheroes. Reason enough to reserve a copy of that rascal.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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