By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Dec. 14, 2010 -- Titan Books has released the second volume in its library of comics by the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and it’s like finding the Rosetta stone of superhero comics.
As most comics fans know, Simon and Kirby were the rock stars of the early comic-book industry. They created Captain America and at least two genres (romance comics and kid-gang comics), and mastered all the rest. They were the first creators to get their names on covers as a selling point, and most of their work still holds up.
The first volume in the Simon & Kirby Library was an overview. The Best of Simon & Kirby covered the team’s long history together with a chapter on each genre in which they worked. Now comes The Simon & Kirby Superheroes ($49.55), devoted to a single genre (as the rest of the library will be).
Since superheroes are the industry’s best-sellers, today’s fans will probably flock to this book. But they’re in for a surprise: Superheroes doesn’t contain Simon & Kirby’s best-known superhero work, which is still owned by major publishers, who jealously guard those valuable trademarks. So you won’t see Sandman (DC Comics) or Captain America (Marvel).
Instead, Superheroes contains runs (sometimes comprehensive, including unpublished stories) of the pair’s long-underwear characters whose series were cut short by the industry’s notorious boom-and-bust cycle, or failed for other reasons. (Reasons, I’m quick to point out, which did not include poor quality.) Each is fascinating for individual reasons:
* Black Owl (1940-41): A rare Simon & Kirby series without much humor, as Black Owl (whose silhouette resembles a certain Dark Knight) was positively grim.
* Stuntman (1946): Fred Drake was a former circus aerialist, which gave him plausible reason for both costume and abilities. He used his athleticism as a secret stuntman for movie star Don Dashing (whom he closely resembled) and as a masked crime-fighter. As a twist on the secret-identity schtick, Dashing and the Drake frequently masqueraded as each other, hopelessly confusing the men’s love interest (and sometimes the reader) and as grist for zany comedy bits.
* Vagabond Prince (1947): The character’s name comes from a play on an old myth, where greeting-card writer Ned Oaks discovers he owns the east side of Esten City (New York) due to an ancestor’s deal with local Native Americans. As the “prince” of the area, which became a slum in the 20th century (like Kirby’s childhood neighborhoods, New York’s Lower East Side), Oaks protects the downtrodden citizens from crooks and greedy capitalists alike. It’s as much social commentary as superheroics.
* Captain 3-D (1953): OK, it was a fad, and Simon & Kirby had fun with it. Wait – what’s that you say? You mean 3-D is back?!??
* Fighting American (1953-66): This character started out as an old-fashioned, patriotic hero straight from the team’s Captain America playbook. But as McCarthyism gained steam in the 1950s, Fighting American became a deliberate satire of the country’s worst paranoid fears.
* The Double Life of Private Strong (1959): A remake of the 1940s “Shield” (still owned by Archie Comics, and currently published by DC), where Simon dropped everything but the name. This Shield didn’t have a bulletproof suit, but instead played on the common (and erroneous) belief in the ‘50s that humans could only use one-tenth of their brains, whereas Private Strong could use all of it.
* The Fly (1959): The Fly anticipated the modern Green Lantern (created the same year) with a magic ring from an alien, which instead of making him a space cop, riffed on the original Captain Marvel by turning orphan youngster Tommy Troy into an adult superhero. The Fly’s insect-themed powers also anticipated Spider-Man, created two years later, and since Kirby had a hand in Peter Parker as well, there is still a dispute about how much the Wall-Crawler owes to his predecessor. (Editor's Note: While most of the characters listed here are reprinted in toto, The Fly is represented only by his first issue and three short stories from elsewhere. The entire series was reprinted in 2002 by Archie Comics, and the cover of that trade is shown above.)
In summary, Superheroes allows the reader to trace not just the evolution of these powerhouse talents over decades, but also the maturation of the industry itself through these secondary characters. And adults, then and now, can find second levels in stories for kids that included bawdy humor, social/political commentary and even the seeds of Marvel Comics (which Kirby essentially co-created with writer/editor Stan Lee in the 1960s).
Simply put, Simon & Kirby Superheroes fills in the blanks in the history of pop culture you didn’t even know were there.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.