Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, October 24, 2010
      ( 10/24/2010 11:52:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THE NEW CHAMP OF SPLIT-SECOND ACTION.” Though two of their more enduring creations -- Captain America and Sandman -- were featured in Titan Books’ opening entry to the “Simon & Kirby Library,” follow-up Simon & Kirby Superheroes focuses on the prolific creative team’s less familiar heroes. Featuring comic book work from the forties and fifties, the hefty beautifully packaged 480-page collection gathers lesser-known supertypes like the Stuntman, Fighting American, Captain 3-D and the Shield into a spiffy digitally remastered hardcover. For admirers of Jack Kirby, in particular, the book provides an enjoyable overview of this inventive comic artist’s ever more dynamic compositional sense.

If the first Simon/Kirby collabs, a trio of tales from the early forties starring a forgettable costumed detective named the Black Owl, seem more than a little conservatively hemmed in, the next set of works from 1946 prove much more action-packed. Starring the Stuntman, an acrobatic hero who body doubles for a wannabe detective movie actor, the series (which was frequently credited as a “Simon & Kirby production”) put many of its mysteries in show biz settings to good effect. Scripter Joe Simon, writing for a young boy readership, balanced action and comedy deftly in this series, which unfortunately only lasted two issues before dying in the midst of the era’s publishing glut. (Superheroes includes stories from an unpublished third issue, along with a couple of two-page splashes for unfinished stories.) To these eyes, the Stuntman stories are some of the best superhero material this pair ever produced.

More interesting from a social history perspective -- if not exactly a story one -- is the guy who receives the most space in Superheroes, Prize Comics’ Fighting American. A Cold War creation, the series centers on commie hater and radio commentator Johnny Flagg, who dons the fighting tights to take on the red menace. Initially written by Simon as a straight-faced fifties era super comic, Fighting American slid into broader and broader satire, making the Russian baddies grotesques who wouldn’t look out of place in Dogpatch. In one of the last Fighting American adventures, for instance, our hero and his boy companion Speedboy tackle Super-Khakalovich, a Russian “superman” whose primary power is his overwhelming body odor. Perhaps writer Simon was gearing up for Sick Magazine, the Mad imitation he’d be editing in the 1960’s, but the results are still a bit much.

Much more successful are those comics where the humor was better modulated. In The Vagabond Prince stories from the forties, for instance, greeting card poet Ned Oaks takes on crooks who prey on the inhabitants of a city slum or the greedy manufacturer of interior automotive deaths: a social crusader with a penchant for spouting doggerel. One thing that many of the proponents of camp criticism never seemed to get was the extent to which comic book writers like Simon were intentionally complicit with their readership, winking instead of nudging ‘em in the gut with their elbows. It was easy to miss because his artist Kirby was so boyishly serious about his own visual outlandishness.

In Captain 3-D, Simon and Kirby imagine a superhero who steps out of the mystical Book of D to take on hostile feline cat people. (The original comic, which was printed in green and red to work with 3-D glasses, has been refitted into regular color comics format for this book.) If ever there was a comic book artist suited to the eye-popping compositions of 3-D, it was Jack Kirby, and you can see him modifying his increasingly more kinetic style to make maximum use of the format.

With the exception of one comic published in 1966, the material in Superheroes predates Kirby’s ascent into graphic arts royalty through his collaborations with Stan Lee in the 1960’s and his solo groundbreaking “Fourth World” expansions done for DC in the seventies. One thing that Superheroes makes clear, though, is how much Kirby owed to his former collaborator when it came time for him to begin scripting his own comics: his writing voice was much closer to Simon’s than it was the chattier Stan Lee. None of the material in Superheroes is as enjoyably grandiose as comics would later become in Kirby’s free-wheeling hands -- these are six- to twelve-page stories written by Simon as self-contained little adventures for a young readership, after all -- but they still remain a treat for fans of All in Color for a Dime storytelling.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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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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