The latest entry in Titan Books’ handsomely mounted “Simon & Kirby Library,” The Simon & Kirby Library: Science Fiction looks to the start of this groundbreaking duo’s history as comic book collaborators and then jumps to its final years. If the results aren’t as smooth as the material in S&K’s Crime collection (where all the work came from the late Forties), it does provide a good lesson in the evolution of comics visual storytelling, particularly as it was practiced by Jack Kirby.
The volume opens with early solo work by each of the collaborators, both of which turn out to be built around space cops battling alien menaces and space pirates and both of which, amusingly feature the word “Solar” in their title (“Solar Patrol” and “Solar Legion”). Looking at both works – rather mild space operas in the mold of “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon” – you can see hints of the greatness that was to come (note the explosion-packed panels in Kirby’s “Legion”), though their visual debt to the newspaper strips that inspired them proves a distraction. Looking at Joe Simon’s and Kirby’s early solo work, though, does provide a clue as to who was the greater innovator when it came to comics page layout: Simon’s “Patrol” remains hemmed by its more strictly tiered panels, while Kirby already is striving expand and play with them.
It’s with their first full partnership, 1941’s “Blue Bolt,” that comic book history was made. Blending superhero comics with Alex Raymond’s “Flash Gordon,” the series centers on Fred Parrish, a Harvard football star who becomes a “human lightning streak” thanks to benevolent mad scientist Dr. Bertoff (note the similarity to Dr. Zarkov). Bertoff has transformed our hero to combat the Green Sorceress, Empress of the Hidden Green Empire, a subterranean kingdom packed with monstrous beasties. The shapely sorceress uses a combination of magic and strange science to realize her dream of conquering the outer world, though of course she’s repeatedly thwarted by our hero.
Science-Fiction reprints “Blue Bolt” entries from his comic’s first 10 issues, and you can see the duo’s distinctive slam-bang style grow over those ten pieces, most notably in a two-parter pitting BB and the Sorceress against a lumpy faced gangster named Rocky Roberts. If the Blue Bolt tales aren’t quite as sexy as the Raymond strips which inspired them, these are, after all, comics meant to appeal to a predominately younger boy readership.
The volume skips through the bulk of the Forties – when the pair were primarily concentrating on superhero fare like Captain America, the Vision and the Sandman – into the mid-Fifties when capes had briefly become passé and the space race had become the had become the big deal. Simon, who primarily worked as the writer in the team, succeeded in packaging several anthology titles for Harvey Comics in the Fifties, bringing Kirby along as artist.
Under titles like Alarming Tales and Race for the Moon, S & K produced a series of engaging old-style s-f tales that showed the influence of both straight pulp titles like John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction and George Pal’s Destination Moon. While not as groundbreaking as some of their other work (EC’s Weird Science got there first), the s-f comics prove playful and inventive, and in several pieces you can see Kirby developing visual ideas that would later show up in his work for Marvel and DC.
To these eyes, the more appealing entries from this period are those that take average shmoes and place them in fantastic situations – as in “Hole in the Wall,” where a elderly fired newsman finds a hole that takes him to another dimension. Reading these, you can’t help wondering whether Rod Serling (or another Twilight Zoner like Richard Matheson) hadn’t picked up copies of the 10-cent comics off a city newsstand. In entries like “The Fireballs” (where “great balls of fire” that appear in the country woods turn out to be intelligent life forms), you can also imagine a struggling Stan Lee looking at the results and saying, “I’ve gotta get Jack penciling some Tales to Astonish for me.”
Simon and Kirby severed their long-standing working arrangement in the late Fifties, though the former continued to work packaging s-f comics into the Kennedy years. The last 60 pages of comics in Science-Fiction are devoted to works from this period, and a case could be made that the bulk of them don’t really belong in a “Simon & Kirby Library” as only a couple of these (“Lunar Goliaths” and “The Great Moon Mystery”) appear to have been penciled by Jack, while none of the eleven tales appear to have been scripted by Simon. Still, the art that is displayed in these pieces by period greats like Wallace Wood, Reed Crandall and Al Williamson is so choice that I, for one, can’t complain.
Most old school fans primarily go to Simon & Kirby for the superhero stuff, but the fact of the matter is these guys produced top-of-the-line work in whatever genre they chose. Heartily recommended to lovers of good, basic comic book storytelling.