kirby (3)

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service

 

July 26, 2011 -- With the arrival of the Captain America movie, Titan has released two excellent books shining a light on the character’s creators.

 

12134111873?profile=originalFor those just coming in, Cap was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in a story lifted almost intact for the movie. While Kirby died in 1994, his partner is still very much with us at age 97, as demonstrated by his new autobiography, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics ($24.95).

 

Given that comic books more or less came into being in the 1930s, Simon’s Life in Comics is also the story of the industry. He was present for most of the major events in the history of comic books, and was the cause of a few of them. For example, Simon was the first editor at Marvel Comics (called Timely in the 1940s), where he hired a teenager named Stan Lee. Simon worked with nearly every major creator through the 1960s, co-created entire genres (including “kid gang” comics and romance books) and worked for publishers as small as Crestwood and as huge as the company we know today as DC Comics. “Simon and Kirby” was such a recognizable franchise that the duo received royalties (which was unheard of in the 1940s), were the first to have their names on the covers of comic books as a sales tool and today have an entire archives series devoted to their works.

 

And as much insight as Simon’s book gives us to comics personalities like Bob Kane (creator of Batman), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (creators of Superman) and Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit), he also managed to be around for a lot of non-comics twentieth century history. Which is how he managed to run into comedian Sid Caesar, actor Cesar Romero, boxer Jack Dempsey, writer Damon Runyon and other luminaries.

 

One can easily glean from the book how Simon managed to be so popular. His easy, affectless prose reveals an affable, flexible, generous and optimistic personality. Add to that Simon’s obvious creativity, and he was no doubt a lot of fun to be around. Since most of us will never have the fortune to meet him, this book is the next best thing.

 

The next best thing after the autobiography are the comics Simon created, and Titan has collected one of the oddest and funniest titles he and Kirby ever did.

 

12134112284?profile=originalSimon and Kirby left Captain America Comics with issue #10 in 1942, after an acrimonious dispute with publisher Martin Goodman. So when they heard Goodman was going to revive the Living Legend in 1953 (Cap had been canceled in 1950), it rubbed salt into a still-open wound. But the proactive Simon, always looking to turn a negative into a positive, had a brainstorm. He quotes himself as saying to Kirby, “You know, there’s no reason we can’t do our own character again. They can’t corner the market on patriotism, after all. Why don’t we show them how it’s done?”


Thus was born Fighting American at tiny Prize Comics, another star-spangled hero in the tradition of Simon and Kirby’s own Captain America … sort of. Naturally, the powerful pencils for which Kirby was known were present, and as bombastic as they ever were on Captain America. But something was different this time: a sense of humor. Fighting American was so over the top in Red-baiting, Commie-bashing, flag-waving hoo-ha that it was practically a parody of itself (and of Captain America).

 

“Sure, the book was full of Commies and offbeat villains,” Simon says in the foreword to Titan’s new Fighting American collection ($19.95). “But it also poked fun at the whole superhero thing.” The ever-earnest and jingoistic Fighting American (and his sidekick Speedboy) battled characters like Poison Ivan and Hotsky-Trotski with the same campy seriousness Adam West would affect in the Batman TV show more than a decade later.

 

The Fighting American trade paperback collects every story in the series, which ran only seven issues (with a two-issue reboot), but was still around longer than the Captain America revival, which died in 1954. (Cap wouldn’t become the popular fixture he is today until his second revival in 1964.) And even 60 years later, the humor and inventiveness shine through every page of Fighting American.

 

Both books offer welcome insights into both Simon and Kirby. Creating Captain America alone would be enough for most, but for this pair it was just a beginning.

 

 Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

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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.

 

12134077074?profile=originalAs 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.

 

12134078056?profile=original* 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 capncomics@aol.com.

 

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What I'd Do With 'Fantastic Four'

What I'd Do With 'Fantastic Four'

When I pared back on comics almost a year ago, one of the titles I reluctantly dropped was Fantastic Four. The reluctance, though, was that of a collector who'd bought every issue for more than 40 years. The reader in me was more than a little relieved. Fantastic Four had become more of a burden than a joy, a title that kept sinking lower and lower in my to-read pile every month. Fantastic Four, the title that taught me how to read, had become a bore.

But although I don't read the title, it's impossible to miss the news stories and house ads touting Jonathan Hickman's "3" storyline, which promises to end one of the member's careers "forever." (I'm not trying to be snarky with the scare quotes. But who really believes anything in comics is forever? Geez, even Bucky came back from the dead!)

And my second reaction to that was to think Hickman, in an attempt to shake up the title or boost sales or put his mark on it, was going in the absolute opposite direction I want. I don't think he should be decreasing the First Famly. I think he should be expanding it.

I must digress here with my first reaction, which was "Ho-hum. Been there, done that, have all the back issues." From what I read online, I'm guessing the member who's leaving/dying is going to be Sue, who has left at least twice before for pregnancy, and a third extended time when she and Reed were having marital troubles. (That's off the top of my head. There may have been more leaves of absence or What Ifs I'm not remembering off-hand.) So her going away is not exactly ground-breaking (especially if she dies, because death is meaningless in comics, and she's "died" a couple of times before, most recently her time-traveling older self not so long ago, so we've already explored that particular piece of emotional real estate, and quite recently.) Meanwhile, if it's any of the other members, that's been done to death as well. Richards has been "dead" or missing for long periods of time at least twice, Ben has quit numerous times and even taken a leave of absence (on Battleworld) for several years, and Johnny used to quit every other issue in the early days (when Marvel thought he was going to be the break-out star). So not only is this story not intrinsically interesting to me, it's also practically a cliche, no matter how it's executed. So, Hickman, whose work I quite enjoy on Secret Warriors and elsewhere, already has two strikes on him for "3," as far as I'm concerned.

Getting back to the point at hand, a few days ago when I read some blurb or news item about "3," I practically bolted upright in my chair. It made me realize what would bring me back to the title. No, not reducing the family by one -- but by expanding it. In a rush, I realized one element of the Lee-Kirby days that has been notably absent for decades: the growth of the Richards' extended family.

Many people, including myself, have written extensively about the great concepts launched in the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four, and for many readers and critics, that's enough to explain the title's Silver Age success and subsequent fame. And maybe so. But concomitant with those big concepts were entire groups or families that became associated with the Fantastic Four -- friends, allies, lovers, hangers-on. For example:

* When the FF met the Inhumans, the Royal Family became an integral part of the Richards extended family, seen consulting on numerous occasions, or jumping in to help out (like in Fantastic Four Annual #5). One became Johnny's long-term girlfriend (Crystal), and two became fill-ins on the team (Crystal, Medusa). Lockjaw popped in and out like an unemployed cousin.

* When the FF met the Black Panther, he didn't disappear after Fantastic Four #53 -- he, too, became a familiar presence on a visi-screen for consults, a source of technology, a guest at parties. Wakanda was mentioned quite a bit, and if the FF weren't actually seen visiting the African nation on vacation (I don't recall seeing it), it was certainly not hard to imagine.

* When Johnny roomed with Wyatt Wingfoot, they became friends in a leisurely way, and eventually Wyatt became a sort-of fifth member for a while. His tribe became a springboard for stories as well. It wasn't forced, it wasn't necessary, it wasn't a familiar superhero trope ... it just sort of happened. Like life. And in the same way he faded in, Wyatt faded out. Just like -- oh, I dunno, an old college roommate.

* After the Galactus trilogy, just about the only place you'd see the Silver Surfer (outside his brief, 18-issue title), was Fantastic Four. Eventually, he even dated Alicia.

* The family proper increased with Franklin in the late '60s, and it made history. Also, it launched a lot of stories, as the FF grappled with their responsibility as parents -- substitute members were required, nannies were hired, suburban houses bought, and so forth. Heck, Franklin's birth was the crux of Fantastic Four Annual #6. This was fun, and gave the series a sense of moving forward, of verisimilitude.

I don' t know if I'm adequately expressing this concept, which is essentially an emotional one for me, below the threshold of awareness. When I read Fantastic Four, they felt like my own family -- because, just like my family, it wasn't just those guys on the page I was reading about, there was an entire support network behind them. Maybe I didn't see the Inhumans every issue, but my like my siblings in real life, I knew they were there if I needed them. Maybe Reed didn't hang with the Panther in every story, but like my own friends, I knew he was just a phone call away, ready and willing. The Richards family wasn't just the immediate members -- it was all their friends and associates, an extended family reaching from Africa to the Great Refuge to the Moon (hey, Uatu!). The Fantastic Four weren't just four people in matching blue uniforms, they were a huge series of linked concepts -- huge, colorful concepts -- all of which were there in spirit every issue, and there in person more often than not. And those concepts came with warm, emotional feelings, just like a real family.

Also, if I wanted to know what was going on with the Inhumans, the Panther, Wingfoot's tribe, etc., I would only find out by reading Fantastic Four. I had the feeling their lives were proceeding apace behind the scenes, and if anything really big happened, it would burst into the Baxter Building and draw the FF (and the reader) into the story, and we'd all know what was going on with them. Reading Fantastic Four was akin to checking your (fictional) friends' status on Facebook.

By contrast, post-Lee/Kirby efforts to extend the family seemed to miss the core concept and fell flat with me. When Luke Cage was (briefly) added as a member, it felt "wrong." Unlike the Inhumans, Black Panther, etc., Cage had his own milieu, his own supporting cast, his own title. He wasn't going to have a romance or change costumes or lose his powers in Fantastic Four -- if any of that happened, it would happen in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. And he wasn't going to be showing up at cookouts or hanging with Johnny. You wouldn't open an issue and see him on the couch watching TV with Ben in the background or on the floor playing with Franklin. In his spare time, he was going to be in Times Square, with his own set of friends. Unlike the other concepts, Cage wasn't introduced in Fantastic Four, and therefore wasn't dependent on it -- he had his own story going on somewhere else. His addition wasn't a natural consequence of story and character; he was shoe-horned into the book as an obvious editorial fiat. As a reader, I knew that intellectually and felt it emotionally. And I didn't like it.

The same with She-Hulk in later issues. John Byrne said at the time and many times since that he added She-Hulk because he liked to draw her. Which is exactly why he shouldn't have done it. Like Cage, She-Hulk had no prior connection to the FF, a supporting cast (and for a while, title) of her own to deal with, and, ultimately, wasn't an addition to the FF family. She was an acquaintance -- essentially an employee. She had to leave the way she came in, unchanged. When Crystal joined the FF, it felt organic. When She-Hulk joined ... it felt like the artist wanted to draw her.

Ditto with Scott "Ant-Man" Lang. It was fashionable at the time to talk about Reed's real super-power being his intelligence, like that was a revelation of some kind. So when Reed was "killed" -- another story that could have been titled "3" -- it must have seemed logical to get a character whose intelligence was more important than his nominal super-power. Enter Ant-Man, whose powers were so irrelevant that it took enormous (and obvious) effort by the writer to make him useful in combat. And, like the others, he felt forced, had no chemistry with the team, and didn't, at any level, "join the family." (Heck, Lang's daughter calls Ant-Man/Wasp "Uncle Hank" -- when, had it been handled right, she would be calling Mr. Fantastic "Uncle Reed" and attached to Fantastic Four, not Avengers.)

I could go on in this vein, but I hope I've made my point. What would make FF more interesting to me would be to make it more like it was when it interested me. That is to say, I want these "imaginauts" to go back out there and meet alien cultures, families and teams, and add them to their extended family, so that henceforth they could appear any time, adding to the excitement and anything-can-happen anticipation. And when said groups became part of the extended family, the Richards (and the readers) should have warm, fuzzy, familial-type thoughts about them, so when they reappeared, it would be both welcome and organic.

And they ought to show up for Thanksgiving. Seriously, that would be a cool scene.

Now, not everyone may agree with this essay. I understand that. This is just what *I* would do with the book, what *I* want to see, and others may have a different perspective or attachment.

But I think Fantastic Four is unique, and want to see more of what makes it unique. It's not exactly a superhero book, but more of a My Greatest Adventure about exploration. It's also a book about family, which stands out in adventure fiction, where the lead character is almost invariably an orphaned, unmarried loner. So, in my humble opinion, Fantastic Four is unique in two ways from the many superhero books around it -- family and exploration -- and I think it ought to make the most of what makes it different.








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