12 December 2014
Jack Kirby (1917-94), raised on the rough-and-tumble Lower East Side of New York, forged the visual language for superhero comic books, a feral but lyric violence and is best remembered for his superhero work for Marvel in the 1960s and for DC in the 1970s. But “The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio” (Abrams ComicArts) cracks the door on the days in the 1940s and ’50s when Kirby, Joe Simon (1913-2011) and their cadre of artists assembled comic books for publishers throughout the industry. Kirby and Simon had established themselves as successful creators in the early 1940s with comics like Captain America, Boy Commandos and the Newsboy Legion. And after World War II, the Simon and Kirby Studio’s goal was to meet its clients’ demands for more pulp-paper hits.
“The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio” features more than 350 pages of black-and-white art scanned from the originals, including full stories. Kirby and Simon edited, wrote and drew as their studio cranked out westerns and spoofs, romance and horror comics, war and crime books. Many of the images here are Kirby’s work — hyper-muscular bodies thrusting and bursting out of the panels, breakneck pacing — but the book also includes solid efforts by studio artists like Bill Draut, Mort Meskin and Al Williamson.
The highlight here is the nearly 70 pages of Kirby and Simon’s “Boys’ Ranch” from 1950 and 1951. A charming western fantasia in which boys got to play cowboys-and-Indians for keeps, “Boys’ Ranch” featured some of Kirby’s very best early art.
The book gives us fast and furious art from the early days of comics — work done in an almost punklike frenzy — and it’s fascinating to watch Kirby just warming up for his best yet to come: the creation of the Marvel Universe, with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and his mind-blowing “New Gods” saga for DC.
The Results of True Collaboration: 'The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio'
By Jeremy Estes
Museum in Miniature
As individuals and as a team, the impact and influence of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby on the comic book industry cannot be overstated. Trying to describe it is like wading into a bottomless pool of hyperbole. If they’d stopped working in the ‘40s after their ten-issue run on Captain America that would have been enough, but these two men pivoted as their industry changed, post World War II. Kirby produced art at furious clip, filling pages and pages and even more pages while other artists were still sharpening their pencils. Simon, no slouch at the art desk himself, had a head for business, and helped the studio bearing his and Kirby’s name become one of the premiere producers of content for America’s comic book industry.
Kirby, of course, became the King, the co-creator—officially listed in print as of October of 2014—of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Hulk, and countless other Marvel Comics characters and concepts. That work, along with his ‘70s work at DC, tends to obscure his early collaborations with Simon, but Abrams’ The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio goes a long way toward changing that. This massive book contains stories published in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and created by the artists at the Simon and Kirby Studio. That studio featured some of the greatest artists in the history of comics—Mort Meskin, Steve Ditko, Al Williamson, Jack Davis—not to mention its founders, who were involved in all stages of the production process, from designing covers to tightening scripts and artwork. Together, Simon and Kirby shared all of the jobs required to create a comic.
In his introduction, Mark Evanier, writer and longtime friend of the Kirby family, says the two worked so closely together they couldn’t always tell who had done what what. What was printed in the pages of comics books was the result of true collaboration.
Though it’s difficult to differentiate between Simon and Kirby’s work, in some instances the King is unmistakable. These are primarily westerns, romance, and crime stories, but the cosmic “Kirby dots” the artist later became famous for are lurking somewhere in the rippling blacks he applied to the pages.
In this book, however, we’re not reading finished comic pages. Instead, with the cooperation of the estate of Joe Simon, as well as the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center, the book is filled with beautiful scans of original art. The pages are gray and yellow and speckled with age, but the art remains as sharp as ever. There are half-finished covers, scribbled text acting as placeholders for copy, and rivers of correction fluid winding through the panels.
According to Jim Simon, Joe’s son, whose afterword details the book’s origins amid his father’s failing health, the elder Simon maintained a large collection of original art from his entire career, keeping it in both the attic and basement of the family home on Long Island, as well as in frames, flat files, on shelves, and even under the bed in Simon’s Manhattan apartment. That this material survived is a pop culture miracle. It was created at a time when there was no secondary market for original comic art, nor was there any respect for the work as actual art. Here, it’s presented with the respect and admiration it deserves.
On the story front, this is primarily B-material. Despite introducing characters like the Fly, Fighting American, Stuntman, and the Sandman, the duo never created another character as enduring as Captain America. They did manage to work in nearly every genre available to the comics makers of their day, including westerns, science fiction, crime, horror, and even romance. Simon and Kirby were pioneers of romance comics, practically inventing the genre with their title Young Romance.
These stories all look great, but are pretty standard yarns, twist-ending horror and shoot ‘em up crime tales. One Vagabond Prince tale, featuring a Tennyson quoting superhero wearing what amounts to marching band attire, is basically a condensed comic book version of Atlas Shrugged, except here the well-to-do set out to poison the poor rather than keep their magic metal to themselves. The Boys’ Ranch stories, just one of the “kid gang” features Simon and Kirby created during their years together, stand out here, with strong characters like Wabash, Angel, and Clay Duncan, as well as art which captures the grittiness of the best western films. There’s even a two-page spread of Boys’ Ranch art that’s beautifully colored in the pinks and oranges of sunset in big sky country.
The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio stands out in a sea of classic comics reprints because it’s more than just a collection of stories. Reading this book is like entering the offices of Simon and Kirby and rifling through their files, scouring the slush pile, even breathing in the smoke from one of Kirby’s cigars. It’s a museum in miniature, and like so much else these two artists touched, it’s a wonder to behold.