Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Best of Simon and Kirby by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Golden Age masters of multiple genres
In the Golden Age of Comic Books, from the late 1930s through the 1940s, few comics creators achieved the renown of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The two were among the first writers and artists ever to sign their names to a comic book, and the phrase “by Simon and Kirby” was a badge of quality sought after by readers of that era. The duo operated their own independent studio, and produced comics for a variety of publishers. Their innovative style broke new ground in comic storytelling and exerted an enduring influence on the development of the art form. Published in 2009, The Best of Simon and Kirby publishes an impressive collection of this creative duo’s work, interspersed with brief informative essays by comics historian Mark Evanier.

Though Simon and Kirby are probably best known for the superheroes they created, the superhero stories included here are surprisingly disappointing. A Captain America story is included, as is the Fighting American, Simon and Kirby’s own self-knockoff of Captain America for another publisher. The Vision, the Fly, the Sandman, and Blue Bolt all make rather lackluster appearances. This version of the Sandman bears no resemblance to later characters with that name, and doesn’t appear to have any superpowers at all, just a silly generic purple and yellow costume. The short-lived character Stuntman shows some promise, but in general these 1940s superhero tales come across as somewhat amateurish, both in storytelling and art, especially when compared to Kirby’s later Silver Age glories in the genre. Likewise, the stories in the section on science fiction are nothing to write home about either.  

Though organized thematically, not chronologically, the comics definitely get better as the book goes along. Once past the superheroes and sci-fi, the quality of the stories improves considerably, both narratively and visually. The stories representing the romance, crime, western, and horror genres are excellent; so good, in fact, that they really make you wonder how superhero fiction became the dominant genre in comics at the expense of those other pulp fiction categories. Simon and Kirby’s stories were the result of collaboration both in story and in art, but in the second half of this book one can see the development of Kirby’s mature style, and it is a vast improvement over the stories earlier in the book. My favorite section of the book is the western chapter, largely because the art is just incredible. Nobody could draw western comics with such vivid detail and thrilling action as Kirby. Regrettably, the book ends on a low note with a final chapter entitled Sick Humor. Simon and Kirby produced a comic magazine called Sick to compete with MAD magazine, but the humor is neither very sick nor very funny, just stupid and juvenile.

There’s no denying that Simon and Kirby were groundbreaking creators who changed the course of comics history. Their prolific output and the staggering variety of projects they tackled is truly admirable, and the fun they had producing these comics is contagious. They didn’t hit it out of the park every time, however, and with daring experimentation sometimes comes failure. A lot of the comics in this book feel antiquated and clumsy, particularly when compared to the works of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, two individual writer/artists from this era whose works still come across as timeless and innovative when viewed today. Still, this book is a great nostalgia trip back to comics’ Golden Age and at least half of its pages are packed with some really great comics. For anyone interested in comics history, particularly fans of Kirby, this is a must-read.
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