Super Powers!

Simon and Kirby: Superheroes: written and illustrated by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby with additional illustration by Mort Meskin, Gil Kane, and others; Introduction by Neil Gaiman; text pieces by Jim Simon (Original comic-book material 1940-1966; this edition 2010): Before and after there were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, there were Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Unlike Lee, Simon could draw, and the two writer-artists also ran a studio for some time in the 1950’s. Britain’s Titan Books have been doing a fine job of reprinting the work that Simon and Kirby still hold the copyright on, which is to say most of their work for comic-book companies other than Timely/Atlas/Marvel and NPP/DC.

This over-sized, lengthy collection brings together Simon and Kirby’s superhero output from the 1940’s and 1950’s, along with some pages from a brief revival of Fighting American in the mid-1960’s. It’s both historically compelling and terrifically entertaining.

After a brief stop with a character (the Black Owl) Simon and Kirby didn’t create, the volume takes us on a tour of the superhero genre during the time of its great decline. Without the debilitating censorship of the Comics Code Authority in the mid-1950’s, it’s entirely possible that American superhero comics would have been reduced to a tiny niche of a much larger marketplace with a much broader and more adult-focused comic book audience. Superheroes were already dying off before World War Two ended, and the post-war years only accelerated that decline.

With 1940’s and 1950’s characters that include Stunt-man and Fighting American, one can see Simon and Kirby striving to move the superhero genre into a different mode of comedy and satire. As Simon notes in his introduction, Fighting American didn’t last long, but it did last longer than the proto-Marvel-company’s attempt to revive Captain America in the 1950’s (the Captain being one of Simon and Kirby’s most popular creations).

Both Stunt-man and Fighting American play for the most part as comic takes on superheroes. Fighting American did begin as a serious comic in which the eponymous star-spangled hero fought assorted Communist menaces, but that approach rapidly went from straigghtforward to seriously loopy to intentionally ridiculous. By the time Fighting American and his sidekick Speedboy (!) battle a Communist villain whose superpowers derive from his body odour, we’ve pretty much left conventional superheroes behind for something a lot more like Mad magazine.

Simon and Kirby’s art throughout is a lot of fun. Single- and double-page spreads abound, and there’s a pleasing looseness and dynamism to the composition, which generally involved Kirby pencilling and Simon inking. Some of the later Fighting American material is clearly drawn by artists other than Simon and Kirby, but for the most part this is the Real Right Thing.

With the Silver Age underway at DC in the late 1950’s, competing companies turned to more straightforward superhero comics again. The Shield and The Fly, both short-lived efforts for the Archie Comics superhero wing, remain satire-free while nonetheless continuing with an out-sized loopiness that’s pure Silver Age.

The Shield, yet another star-spangled hero, has powers more like Superman’s than Captain America’s. The Fly’s origin is completely nuts. Benevolent aliens who look like flies (and indeed sometimes are flies) invest the title character with the power of the Fly in order to fight evil. None of this involves eating crap, much less possessing a penis several times longer than his own body. Well, there was a Comics Code.

Other stories include the use of 3-D glasses (in Captain 3-D, natch) and an experiment with an anomalous three-person crime-fighting team. Uncompleted stories, unused covers, and some solid historical essays from Jim Simon round out the volume. It’s an outstanding piece of entertainment and scholarship, with remastered art that often looks much better than what the big boys at Marvel and DC have managed with their reprints. Highly recommended.

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