Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were most famous for their superhero comics, notably creating Captain America for Timely, but these two visionaries worked in every comics genre imaginable, including science fiction. Titan Books inaugurated the Simon & Kirby Library in 2009 with the full cooperation of the late Joe Simon, and one of the most recent volumes in the series focuses on S&K’s science fiction stories from the early ‘40s, late ‘50s, and ‘60s. The first story is one of Simon’s early solo efforts, Solar Patrol, followed by three installments of Kirby’s Solar Legion, and it’s readily apparent how much better Kirby’s art is than Simon’s early work. These four stories are followed by one of S&K’s early successes, The Blue Bolt, a sci-fi flavored superhero strip that owed much to Raymond’s Flash Gordon, though the strip’s villain, The Green Sorceress came on like a combination of the Witch Queen of Mongo and Caniff’s Dragon Lady. Blue Bolt is pure space opera, but it’s fun as escapist entertainment.
The 10-page stories have many imaginative touches, but the plots are often severely truncated as S&K barrel toward each far-fetched conclusion, as if they were written on the fly, which was probably the case. The writing for the ‘50s strips is much more mature, dealing with concepts such as alternate futures, cloning, interdimensional travel, the impact of alien technologies on earth, and other ideas that made Simon and Kirby’s mid-late-50s science fiction stories rivals to EC in terms of inventiveness and originality, though they weren’t quite as literate. Kirby’s art shows amazing growth over the earlier work, and some of the concepts he uses prefigure the science fiction stories he did for Marvel in the ‘60s and DC in the ‘70s.
Although this book is packed with all the visual delights Jack Kirby fans expect: eye-popping backgrounds, inventive gadgetry, and exciting action sequences, one of the real joys in this volume is Simon and Kirby’s stories for Race to the Moon for Harvey in the late 50s, which boasted some really off-beat story concepts, and were the only occasion when Kirby’s pencils were inked by science fiction specialist Al Williamson. This is a rare treat, and Williamson made the most of the opportunity, turning in some of the best inking Kirby ever received.
It didn’t hurt, though, that Williamson had Angelo Torres and Reed Crandall assisting him. On one page in particular, pg. 307 of the book, in the story “The Great Moon Mystery”, inker Williamson really surpasses himself on a page where the 3 Rocketeers are converted into energy and travel through multiple dimensions and planets, in a sequence that rivals the scope and imaginativeness of Kirby’s best Fantastic Four stories. Also, check out the eerily prescient story, “The Face on Mars”, published decades before anyone noticed the supposed face seen in a 1971 Viking orbiter photo that later probes showed was just an odd-looking Martian hill. “The Last Enemy!” from Alarming Tales #1 is one of the most striking stories in this collection since it directly foreshadows his Kamandi series in the ‘70s with its anthropomorphic animals in a post-apocalyptic setting. Kirby even recycled several of the character designs from this story, which goes to show that Kirby never wasted a good idea, and wasn’t afraid to revisit old work for inspiration.
Kirby was also open to good ideas from others as well. If you look closely at the story “Lunar Trap” from Race to the Moon #2, the spacesuit worn by his hero bears a great resemblance to the one Ed Emshwiller designed for his illustrations for Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel, which came out the same year. In addition to the Race for the Moon work inked by Williamson, Joe Simon also used Williamson as a solo artist, or working with Reed Crandall, Angelo Torres, and Roy Krenkel on minor science fiction classics like “The Little Earth,” “The Space Court,” “I Was King of the Ants,” and one of Williamson’s best solo efforts, “Clawfang the Barbarian,” written by Wally Wood, showcasing Williamson at or near the peak of his powers, an incredible 7-page mini-epic that Williamson knocked out in a week. So, with all the muscular Kirby artwork on display here, ending with Williamson, Crandall, et al., plus the high level of writing, from the straight-out space opera of the early works to the more thoughtful later stories, this book is a must-have for science fiction fans, Kirby fans, and anyone who enjoys good comics.
In addition to the above-mentioned goodies, the book also contains some unpublished art from different S&K projects, including solo work by Simon in which he works with artists other than Kirby. Despite one or two minor color glitches, the reproduction and coloring are just fine. I give it my highest recommendation, as I do to all of the books in the Simon and Kirby Library. Titan’s S&K Library really does feature something for everyone, since it features Crime comics, Horror, Superheroes, and especially the new collection of Fighting American stories, which includes unpublished FA stories that you simply can’t get anywhere else. This series also includes Joe Simon’s autobiography, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, a substantially rewritten and re-edited version of his earlier book, The Comic Book Makers. It’s a fascinating look at the life and career of one of the comics industry’s most innovative creators and particularly recommended for anyone interested in the origins of the comic book business.
All these titles are in print and currently available at the Titan Books’ website: http://titanbooks.com/. When you visit the site and purchase something, please tell ‘em Heavy Metal sent you.