The latest entry in Titan Books’ “Simon & Kirby Library,” Horror! provides a hefty and handsomely reproduced selection of period horror comics work by this prolific and inventive pair of graphic storyteller pioneers. Produced in the late forties/early fifties for titles with evocative names like Black Magic and The Strange World of Your Dreams, this material has been much sought after by old school comic book fans – lovers of the late Jack Kirby’s artwork, in particular.
The early fifties is the period when horror comics were at their peak popularity, so it was natural that a trend-maker like editor/writer Joe Simon would try to find ways to meet the market demand with his own unique take on the genre. Perhaps his most intriguing experiment was Dreams – which presented comic book recreations of what purported to be staff and reader dreams – followed by a pipe-smoking “dream detective’s” analysis of what these dreams “meant.” The results may have been psychologically dubious, but they provided artist Kirby with plenty of visual inspiration.
The majority of the stories in this collection (apart from a few mild short “educational” pieces like “The World of Spirits”) turn out to be more traditional horror comic fare: tales of ghost ships and voodoo curses, physical abnormalities and murder attempts gone awry. In some of them (“Angel of Death,” for instance, which takes place in one of those Middle European villages that Kirby was so adept at creating), you can see precursors to the monster comics that Jack would produce with Stan Lee in the early sixties, while in one of the freak-themed horror tales, “Head of the House,” we find a visual ancestor to one of Kirby’s cult fave Marvel era villains, M.O.D.O.K.
Any collection of fifties horror comics will inevitably be compared to the gold standard, the E.C. titles predominately written by recently deceased editor/artist Al Feldstein. As a scripter Joe Simon may not have been as pulpishly prolix or as gruesomely over-the-top as the prime curator of the Crypt of Terror, but he had a knack for the subtly unsettling. In “The Nasty Little Man,” for instance, an evil leprechaun threatens to turn a hospitalized and amputated tramp into “something else” in place of a living patient. What that something else is we’re not shown, but our minds can definitely do the nasty work.
To my eyes, though, the most enjoyable moments are found in those stories that the duo produced set in the post-war city (e.g., “A Beast Is in the Streets,” where a murderous brain dead corpse stalks the pavements). As with Kirby’s use of NYC in early Marvel superhero comics like Fantastic Four, you can feel the comic creator’s connection to the city of his birth, which helps to ground Simon’s storytelling. Two New York kids who grew up to be major makers in the growth of graphic storytelling: it’s part of what makes the Simon & Kirby Library such a re-readable part of any comics collection.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=1848569599]