'Art of Simon and Kirby' is the foundation of American comics

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Dec. 25, 2014 -- With 2014 ending, it’s a good time to look back – way back, to some great comics from the past.

One new collection is not only a terrific book, but is a foundation for any discussion of pop culture. The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio (Abrams ComicArts, $60) is an oversize (9” x 12 ¼ ”) coffee table book presenting artwork from the men who virtually invented the visual vocabulary of the American comic book.

Comic books began in the 1930s as collections of comic strips from the newspapers, but by the late 1930s publishers were commissioning new stories, sometimes done in-house, but more often bought from “shops” that would write, draw, letter, color and package entire books. One of the first shops was Fox Publications – and it was there in 1939 that history was made, when Jack Kirby and Joe Simon met.

Even in their early twenties the two were already virtuosos with pencil, pen and ink, and both were terrific writers – when Kirby was asked years later who did what, he would invariably answer “we both did everything.” But in addition Joe excelled as a businessman, while Jack was a stronger idea man – plus, Kirby was the fastest (and best) penciller anybody had ever seen. The two went on to become, as everyone likes to phrase it, the Lennon & McCartney of comic books.

Like the famed duo from The Beatles, Joe & Jack took the quality of every existing genre in their field up a notch – in comics of the time, that would be crime, Western, horror and superheroes. And, like The Beatles, they created a few new genres  – such as “kid gang” comics (with titles like Boy Commandos and Boys’ Ranch) and romance books (i.e., Young Romance, Young Love). And, oh yeah, they created Captain America.

And like The Beatles, everyone wanted to work with Joe & Jack, the first guys to get their names on covers as a selling point, the only guys who could negotiate with publishers from a position of strength. Their shop, for the time that it lasted, was a hotbed of creativity for some of the best and brightest of the early days of comic books.

But unlike Lennon & McCartney, Simon & Kirby were lifelong friends. Even when the harsh economics of the late 1950s forced them to dissolve their partnership, they were still pals, still looked out for each other. And they were still great – while Simon went on to triumphs in other fields, Kirby co-created (with Stan Lee) almost the entire Marvel Comics stable of the 1960s, from Avengers to X-Men.

This story – both historic and heartfelt – is explicated beyond the summary above by Mark Evanier in this new book. Evanier is the perfect man for the job, being both a well-respected writer in comics and animation, and a Kirby expert (he apprenticed with Jack, and authored Kirby: King of Comics).

And that’s just the introduction! What comes next is more than 350 pages of some of the best artwork to grace the pages of early comic books, most of it shot from original art, all selected by Evanier. There are covers and pages from crime comics, Westerns, romance books, war comics, science fiction sagas, superhero stories and more, plus several complete “Boys Ranch” stories that are simply magnificent (and would make great movies).

Not all of the work is by Simon & Kirby; as the name of the book implies, studio hands are represented as well. There are more than a dozen names found therein, many of them famous, such as Bill Draught, Mort Meskin and Leonard Starr. As you’d expect, the work here shows those worthies at the top of their game.

The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio isn’t just a beautiful book that rewards second and third reads, it’s an important one. When today’s artists say they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, they’re talking about Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Speaking of early comic books, another historian named Mike Madrid has done some yeoman work for all mankind – and all womankind, as well.

Madrid is author of The Supergirls and Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of the Golden Age, so you can guess he knows his beans when it comes to the good girls of comics. With his new book, Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of the Golden Age of Comics ($16.95, Exterminating Angel Press), he shows he knows the bad girls, too.

Madrid confines himself to the "Golden Age of Comics,” roughly 1938-1951, but even with those restrictions, he finds an assortment of femmes fatale whose variety is really quite amazing. Unlike 1940s good girls – invariably white, well-to-do and demure in their civilian roles – villainesses are free of the gender roles and expectations of genteel society. Once they declare themselves evil, they can be who or what they want to be. They were even free to not be white – several were women of color, otherwise hard to find in the Golden Age.

In fact, Madrid makes a compelling case that the only way a woman could escape a dull life as a devoted wife and homemaker in the 1940s and ‘50s was to be evil. “By abandoning any connection to society and living as outlaws, these women gain autonomy,” Madrid says. “They give up any semblance of a normal life in order to control their own lives. The irony is that they have to steal, cheat and kill in order to have their freedom.”

Madrid has found a variety of stories starring bad girls, and broken them up into categories: Vicious Viragos, Beauties & Beasts, A Rainbow of Evil and Crime Queens. But even in categories, these women insist on declaring their individuality. Amid the unavoidable Dragon Lady knock-offs and greedy socialites, Madrid gives us He-She (half male, half female), Madame Muscles (strong and aggressive), Mable Reine (“a hobo Joan of Arc”), Nang Tu (a Buddhist priestess) and the anti-Mom, Shoebox Annie French (a murderess and drug dealer, with her son as accomplice).

These are some awful women – far worse than some of today’s villainesses, who are only bad to attract a hero’s attention, or secretly have a heart of gold. These Golden Agers commit some genuinely terrible crimes. But even so, at some level you have to admire them. They were going to be free or die … and no man was ever going to be their master.

Speaking of terrible crimes, there’s no better expert than writer/artist Rick Geary, who has been chronicling some of the greatest American murders for years at NBM Publishing, with his “Treasury of Victorian Murder” and “Treasury of 20th Century Murder” series.

Geary meticulously researches each murder, and presents all the evidence to the reader in as objective a fashion as he can, in a faux-woodcut style that really could pass for the kind of illustrative artwork that preceded photography – if it wasn’t so much better. For one thing, there wasn’t much irony in those days, and Geary is forever arching an eyebrow artistically at the deadpan captions.

All of which serves the narrative, which is invariably gripping. You can see for yourself with the latest collection, A Treasury of Victorian Murder Compendium II (NBM, $29.99). This hardback collects five of Geary’s murderous milestones, including the famous Borden case (“Lizzie Borden took an ax …”), the murder that inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Mystery of Mary Roget” and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As ever, Geary shares his research on each spine-tingling story with useful maps, old newspaper articles and a handy bibiliography.

So ring out 2014 properly – by feasting on the great stories and characters of the past. Maybe that will inspire 2015 to try a little harder!

Reach Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), the Internet (comicsroundtable.com), Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or Twitter (@CaptainComics).

 

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Lady Serpent is probably where Princess Python came from

Movies used to give women more options to play strong characters, although, again, mostly by being "bad", Lana Turner in Madame X, for instance. You don't see that much anymore, The Fugitive's wife was a much nicer person in the movie than the one in the old tv series.

In fact, Madrid makes a compelling case that the only way a woman could escape a dull life as a devoted wife and homemaker in the 1940s and ‘50s was to be evil.

You mean like Fiction House's Sheena, Firehair and Senorita Rio, all the other jungle queens, Wonder Woman and the other Golden Age superheroines, Lois Lane, Harvey's Girl Commandos (Speed Comics), Quality's Betty Bates (a lawyer heroine, later a DA, from Hit Comics), Hillman's Black Angel (Air Fighters Comics), DC's Lady Danger (Sensation Comics) and Tony Barrett (from "Overland Coach" in All-American Western), Novelty's Toni Gayle (Young King Cole), and Dale Evans in DC's licensed Dale Evans Comics? I do not know how someone who had previously written a book on Golden Age heroines could argue this.

The Black Widow was evil. And the Red Tornado pretended to be a man. And Fiction House has a reputation for being the most looked at but one of the least read publishers. Sheena has developed a reputation for being cheesecake, which was a way to escape a dull life all right, but didn't  exactly give the woman posing for pictures much power or independence. And Dale Evans had trouble getting herself taken seriously. The Roy Rogers Show in the 50s had Trigger's name in the opening credits before hers.

Sheena was fierce and proactive in her stories, a dominating figure. The other jungle queens were also commonly portrayed as good fighters. (I'm talking about the headline characters, not the ones who were the girlfriends of Tarzan-types.) The superiority of Lorna's abilities to those of her boyfriend Greg was a running joke in Marvel's Lorna, the Jungle Queen.

Fawcett's version of the serial heroine Nyoka the Jungle Girl was one of its most successful characters after Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. (Her solo title ran much longer than Mary's.) Unlike Sheena and her imitators she didn't live in the jungle and wore normal clothing. She started out as a heroine who often needed to be saved by her boyfriend, but later the boyfriend was dropped and she was portrayed as a top jungle hand, like Jungle Jim or Congo Bill.

Fiction House's heroines were commonly independent and capable. It's a mistake to suppose cheesecake and glamour imagery is always associated with helpless heroines.(Some of the best artists at such material are women.) I might also have mentioned Gale Allen and her Girl Squadron, Mysta of the Moon, and Futura from Planet Comics, although all these features were set in the future. Futura's adventures began with her kidnapping by horrible aliens, but she subsequently refused to be passive or a victim.

DC's Dale Evans Comics ran for 24 issues from 1948-52. In the story I've seen it represented its heroine as Dale Evans, the movie star. Only the final three issues appeared after the start of The Roy Rogers Show in Dec. 1951. I'd be surprised to learn Roy appeared in the title; Dell was publishing comics starring him. Dell published Queen of the West Dale Evans later in the 50s. For context, movie star comics, and particularly western ones, were a phenomenon of the era.

Another western heroine was "Two-Gun Lil" in Quality's Crack Western. Marvel did a short-lived, apparently comedic Annie Oakley title in the later 40s, and another, adventure-focused one in the mid-50s when an Annie Oakley TV show came out. Dell did comics based on the TV show. Charlton also did Annie Oakley stories in the later 50s and early 50s, and again from the mid 50s. To my surprise there weren't a lot of Calamity Jane stories. Using the GCD I was only able to find a couple. "Calamity Jane" in Fiction House's Cowgirl Romances #1-#3 was instead about a teen cowgirl called Tony Tyler. (This was a remarkably action-oriented romance comic. I didn't know such a thing existed.)

Most of the features I mentioned in my first post had decent runs. The shortest-lived one was "Lady Danger" (10 instalments), which was about society debutante crimebusting reporter. Her rejection of passive femininity was an element in the series. Other features to appear in Sensation Comics included "Dr. Pat" (13 instalments), a series about a young woman doctor which apparently initially had a romance element, and "Astra Girl of the Future" (8 instalments), about a young woman reporter of the twenty-second century.

I'll also mention "Undercover Girl" from Magazine Enterprises (13 non-reprint instalments in Manhunt and Trail Colt; her reprint appearances include three Uncover Girl issues from the A-1 series), "Corsair Queen", a series about a vengeance-driven pirate-fighter from Quality's Buccaneers (3 instalments), and "Calamity Jane", a feature about a tough private eye that Bill Draut did for the Simon and Kirby studio (3 instalments).

(revised)

Let's say A way to avoid gender expectations, and not THE way. Better?

Then there was Tomboy, who had all of four appearances. From the stories I'd say she became a crimefighter because her brother was constantly making fun of her for acting so feminine. She didn't seem to really mind him mocking her since he was simultaneously saying how it was too bad she wasn't more like Tomboy. Sort of a Flash Thompson prototype.

I should also note for the record that it's my poor phrasing of Madrid's thesis that is at fault here.  He wasn't as exclusionary as I phrased it.

But also, the jungle queens more or less support his argument, in that all of them had to step outside of the bounds of ordinary society to achieve agency in their lives. They didn't become villains, but they didn't stay home and do what they were told, either. To achieve personal freedom, they had to leave civilization altogether.

And the superheroines of the day were addressed in the book (and briefly in my column as well). While they did run around doing as they pleased in their superhero roles, in their civilian IDs they were conventional, sometimes ultra-conventional, in being the dutiful daughter or girlfriend, deferring to the men in their lives. It was only by pulling on a mask that they were able to self-actualize, because they had stepped outside society's constraints.

And by the definition of male society at the time, that made all of them "bad". Sheena wouldn't have put up with living in a city very long.

In the sf movie Black Scorpion the hero repeatedly belittles the Lois Lane like reporter, asking her when she's going to quit her job and be a real woman, and finally at the end tells her she has to quit because he's going to marry her and no arguments. And she agrees.

Even as a costumed hero, Wonder Woman ended up the JSA's secretary. And it's no wonder Ma Hunkel didn't join the way they laughed at her losing her pants.

...So how many COMPLETE STORIES are there in this S&K collection ??????????

Doesn't say but the stories are in black and white. 384 pages. 350 color illustrations.Amazon is selling it for 43.33.

Emerkeith Davyjack said:

...So how many COMPLETE STORIES are there in this S&K collection ??????????

You're going to put me to work, aren't you?  Here are the complete stories:

"The Case of the Hapless Hackie" (Calamity Jane)

"The Madness of Doctor Altu" (Vagabond Prince)

"The Furnished Room" (Police Trap the Guilty)

"The Affair of the Man From Out of this World" (Kid Adonis)

"Credit and Loss" (horror)

"The Man Who Hated Boys" (Boys Ranch)

"A Very Dangers Dude" (Boys Ranch)

"Mother Delilah" (Boys Ranch)

"Fight to the Finish" (Boys Ranch)

"Last Mail to Red Fork" (Boys Ranch)

"Masher!" (crime)

"The Beefer" (crime)

"Though Beat" (crime)

"The Mountie" (crime)

"Duel to the Finish Line" (Fighting American)

"Fruit Salad" (Foxhole)

"Find and Fire" (Foxhole)

"Weekend for Three" (Young Romance)

"I Was a Gangster's Girl" (First Love)

"Take Off, Mister Zimmer" (Black Cat Mystery)

"Jim Bowie Makes a Magic Knife" (Western)

"Fireballs" (SF)

"The Big Hunt" (SF)

"The Thing on Sputnik 4" (SF)

Lunar Trap (SF)

"Island in the Sky" (SF)

"The Face on Mars" (SF)

"Saucer Man" (SF)

"Space Garbage" (SF)

"Garden of Eden" (SF)

"The Great Moon Mystery"

"Danger: Atoms" (SF)

"Lunar Goliaths" (3 Rocketeers)

"The Old Hulk" (Shock!)

"When Time Ran Out" (Shock!)

"The Strange New World of The Fly"

"The Fly DIscovers His Buzz Gun"

"Magic Eye" (The Fly)

"The Double Life of Private Strong"

The Hide-Out" (The Fly)

"Myster of the Vanished Wreckage" (Shield)

"The Menace of the Micro-Men" (Shield)

"Tim O'Casey's Wrecking Crew" (The Fly)

"The Master of Junk-Ri-La" (The Fly)

...Thank you .
 
Captain Comics said:

Emerkeith Davyjack said:

...So how many COMPLETE STORIES are there in this S&K collection ??????????

You're going to put me to work, aren't you?  Here are the complete stories:

"The Case of the Hapless Hackie" (Calamity Jane)

"The Madness of Doctor Altu" (Vagabond Prince)

"The Furnished Room" (Police Trap the Guilty)

"The Affair of the Man From Out of this World" (Kid Adonis)

"Credit and Loss" (horror)

"The Man Who Hated Boys" (Boys Ranch)

"A Very Dangers Dude" (Boys Ranch)

"Mother Delilah" (Boys Ranch)

"Fight to the Finish" (Boys Ranch)

"Last Mail to Red Fork" (Boys Ranch)

"Masher!" (crime)

"The Beefer" (crime)

"Though Beat" (crime)

"The Mountie" (crime)

"Duel to the Finish Line" (Fighting American)

"Fruit Salad" (Foxhole)

"Find and Fire" (Foxhole)

"Weekend for Three" (Young Romance)

"I Was a Gangster's Girl" (First Love)

"Take Off, Mister Zimmer" (Black Cat Mystery)

"Jim Bowie Makes a Magic Knife" (Western)

"Fireballs" (SF)

"The Big Hunt" (SF)

"The Thing on Sputnik 4" (SF)

Lunar Trap (SF)

"Island in the Sky" (SF)

"The Face on Mars" (SF)

"Saucer Man" (SF)

"Space Garbage" (SF)

"Garden of Eden" (SF)

"The Great Moon Mystery"

"Danger: Atoms" (SF)

"Lunar Goliaths" (3 Rocketeers)

"The Old Hulk" (Shock!)

"When Time Ran Out" (Shock!)

"The Strange New World of The Fly"

"The Fly DIscovers His Buzz Gun"

"Magic Eye" (The Fly)

"The Double Life of Private Strong"

The Hide-Out" (The Fly)

"Myster of the Vanished Wreckage" (Shield)

"The Menace of the Micro-Men" (Shield)

"Tim O'Casey's Wrecking Crew" (The Fly)

"The Master of Junk-Ri-La" (The Fly)

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