The Simon and Kirby Superheroes

The Simon and Kirby Superheroes

B+

The Simon and Kirby Superheroes is a fascinating, if uneven, look at early collaborations between two giants of the comics industry. This beautifully-bound and produced book presents its material in chronological order and includes collections of stories from seven different non-Marvel/DC (Timely/National?) superheroes these two worked on in the 1940s and 50s. Given that, I’d like to spend a little time talking about each segment individually, especially as the heroes and stories represented in this book cover a lot of diverse ground.

The Black Owl: Joe & Jack’s very first superhero collaboration, this for-hire assignment stars a very Batman-esque character (playboy socialite/costumed adventurer with no powers) as he combats criminals both common (petty thieves, pirates) and uncommon (evil mages). Although these issues certainly have historical importance, I find them fairly forgettable, beyond perhaps giving us an inkling of the excellent Jack Kirby art that was yet to come. Grade: C

Stuntman: Fortunately for us, this character, a creation of Joe & Jack’s, receives the second-longest segment in this book. Stuntman is former circus acrobat Fred Drake. When tragedy strikes his partners, he vows revenge and dons a costume, putting his circus skills to the test. The similarities to a certain famous sidekick stop there, though, because in his civilian life Stuntman is hired out as a bodyguard by Hollywood actor Don Daring, to whom he also bears a striking resemblance. Unbeknownst to everyone but Daring, Drake also fills in as a literal stuntman in Daring’s difficult scenes, as Daring himself displays a heavy streak of cowardice and ineptitude, despite his amateur interest in detective work.

If that seems like a lot to be going on in a mid-1940s comic, it is. I find Stuntman to be as daring as its title character, especially in how it gives us a really interesting twist on the superhero trope of a secret identity by introducing a third persona in the mix–Fred can play Stuntman or Don Daring. That’s a really clever device for any comic to incorporate, made moreso by the fact that Stuntman came into being when the superhero genre was only eight years old. Another clever aspect: Don Daring’s alliterative name and love of crime-solving would lead many to suspect him of being the series’ heroic star, but although Don often believes that himself, this is simply not the case. Stuntman experiments so boldly that, besides some off-putting dialog about race and gender, it feels incredibly fresh even by today’s standards. Grade: A

The Vagabond Prince: Another Simon/Kirby creation, The Vagabond Prince stars a wealthy and foppish greeting card writer named Ned Oaks. When Ned learns he actually owns half of the city he lives in due to a botched business deal decades ago, he vows to clean up its streets and make it safe for its downtrodden residents as the titular hero. While not quite as exciting as Stuntman, I love that we have a main character writes greeting cards for a living–I do believe he may be the only superhero in existence that can make that claim. Further, these stories have pretty significant liberal leanings, which I find refreshing in a book from the 40s, especially given what’s to come later in this collection… Grade: A-

Captain 3-D: Captain 3-D is a superhero who leaps to life out of the pages of an ancient book when you look at him with 3-D glasses so he can fight Cat People. Really. I suspect the 3-D craze of the 50s was as much a fad as the 3-D craze of today, and this was just an attempt to piggyback on its success. Other than the intriguing notion of seeing some Kirby artwork literally jump off the page, though, I don’t see the appeal of these fairly pedestrian stories. Grade: C

Fighting American: Unfortunately for us, Fighting American takes up the bulk of this book; almost half its pages are devoted to this 1950s Captain America rip-off. If only Fighting American‘s sins stopped at plagiarism, though–here we have a series which is jingoistic, racist, sexist, and about every other kind of negative -ist you can think of. And not only does it display pretty much all the worst traits of America in the 1950s (there is truly a scene where the narration boxes tell us that homeless people like living that way and wouldn’t change it if they could!), it completely forgets how to tell a basic comic-book story. Where Stuntman always managed to keep its interesting hero-triad in play, Fighting American never mentions its rather novel origin story (in which a war hero’s nerdy brother takes over a clone of his bro’s body after the brother is murdered by his enemies) after the first issue, instead having our hero and his sidekick who only goes by his super-hero name, even in his civilian guise and in public! mindlessly bash “Reds” and “Commies” from an unnamed foreign nation almost every issue. This is truly awful stuff, just barely redeemed by the fact that anything drawn by Jack Kirby is at least worth looking at. But in this case, please don’t look too long. Grade: D-

The Double Life of Private Strong: Here we have another military comic, but luckily one much less prone to the empty-headed mentality that informed Fighting American. However, Private Strong’s book is not much better–an update of the 1940s hero the Shield, Lancelot Strong is the product of his father’s experiments in producing super-powered human beings. He goes to live with a kindly rural couple on a farm (the woman is even named Martha) and then gets drafted into the army. It almost sounds like a set-up for a bad comedy movie, but it could be worse. Still, there’s nothing that really stands out about this series. Grade: C

The Adventures of the Fly: Another fairly generic superhero tale from the 1950s, The Fly has a few advantages over Captain 3-D and Pvt. Strong. For one, it incorporates the “powerless child becomes superhero” trope that made Captain Marvel so popular. The way young Tommy Troy accomplishes his transformation–with a magic ring and a catchphrase–reminds me of Masters of the Universe, which I have a soft spot for. Secondly, the Fly stories are the first in this book to incorporate two-page splashes, which really let Kirby’s work shine. The Fly segments here probably bear the closest resemblance to the Kirby style we all know and love, which allows this book to end on something of a high point. Grade: B-

In general, I think The Simon and Kirby Superheroes would have been much stronger had it only focused on the 1940s material (The Black Owl, Stuntman, The Vagabond Prince), because the 50s material simply is not as interesting or strong. One might speculate reasons for this: a weaker superhero comic market, perhaps, or the desire of both these men to move on to bigger and better things. As we all know, they both did. Given that fact, there’s no denying that The Simon and Kirby Superheroes is, at least, a very interesting historical artifact. Some of it is a revelation in comics history, and some of it is an embarrassment, but overall I think we’re much better having this book than not. Titan Books has done a bang-up job putting these stories together for us, and serious comics fans out there should probably want to take a look.

tags: jack kirby, joe simon

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  • Aaron

    This sounds pretty awesome! I wouldn’t be surprised if someone started passing around scripts for some of these.

  • http://nerdynothings.com Rebel Rikki

    Certainly Stuntman could make a great movie–it’s already got the Hollywood tie-in. I’d be worried about Fighting American BUT there’s already a Captain America movie coming in a few years, so possibly crisis averted?

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