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The Simon and Kirby Superheroes

1/12/2010. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy The Simon and Kirby Superheroes in the USA - or Buy The Simon and Kirby Superheroes in the UK

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The Simon and Kirby Superheroes by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. pub: Titan Books. 480 page hardback. Price: GBP35.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84856-365-0.

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This luxurious, thick hardback volume contains super-hero tales taken from over two decades of Simon and Kirby collaboration, from ‘The Black Owl’ in 1940 to ‘The Fly’ in 1959. This shows how Kirby's art developed over time. It also shows how it stayed the same, funnily enough, for there are poses and scenes that look familiar even in the early stuff. Some of the art looks to be by Joe Simon and some other stuff is perhaps by men in the studio but most of it is unmistakeably Kirby. A lot of the inking is presumably by Joe Simon and, as for the stories, who can tell. They worked together very closely. The works are credited Simon and Kirby and I think it’s fair to assume a 50/50 contribution. Certainly Jack never accused Joe of taking credit for his work and they were life-long friends.

First up is the Black Owl alias Doug Danville, a society playboy. His blonde girl-friend, Terry Dane, is a private detective who gets herself into scrapes. Black Owl gets her out. He is a costumed acrobat with no super-powers and of no great interest, to be honest. The stories are very ordinary and so is the art, which I think is by Joe Simon.

Stuntman, alias Fred Drake, starts out as a trapeze artist, one of the Flying Apollos, but falls in with handsome film actor Don Daring and blonde actress Sandra Sylvan. Daring is an amateur detective investigating a murder at the circus. It so happens that he and Fred are doubles, except for a little moustache, so when the other Flying Apollos get killed, Fred agrees to become Don Daring's stuntman. Actor Don does not like those rough action scenes. They tell no one about the duplication and no one guesses. They tangle with a variety of murderous gangsters and evil-doers in stories that are more comic than serious. Kirby's comedy art is pretty good as his dynamic style is well suited to slapstick. I enjoyed the Stuntman stories which date from 1946.

In 1947, the team gave us the Vagabond Prince, who is very odd. Ned Oaks writes lyrics for greetings cards but he is the descendant of the pioneers who owned the land on which Esten city is built. When the city bought the land off his ancestor, the deed was never signed, so unknowingly, Ned still owns it. Boss Tweed, who controls the slums on the east side, discovers the error and decides to get Ned to sign the land over. This is illogical because if he never told him Ned would never know, but forget that. Ned is glad to sign until he discovers that the east side is a slum and the people suffer under Boss Tweed's cruel reign. When wandering the streets, Ned tells someone he owns the city and they laughingly call him the Vagabond Prince, which title he assumes when he dons a costume to fight crime. This enjoyably potty nonsense would never get published today, which is a shame. Neither the art nor the concept seem very Kirbyesque so I'm guessing this is Joe Simon's baby.

Next up is Captain 3-D. Back when we were cavemen the world was ruled by the evil cat people who fought another race for control of the Earth. Captain 3-D was turned into a two-dimensional creature and put into a book which was given to the humans to look after. The cat people met disaster when their land sank beneath the sea in a terrible earthquake and only a few are left. Meanwhile, the Book of D was passed down the centuries from father to son. It falls into the hands of young bookshop owner Danny Davis and when he looks through the 3-D glasses that come with it...Captain 3-D leaps off the page! Cap had his debut in 1953 and Kirby's art is looking more like his later stuff.

Fighting American came out in 1954, apparently in response to a Timely revival of Captain America. He started off fighting communism and the stories go on about communism but the villains are enjoyably daft which redeems it somewhat. Fighting communism probably seemed the right thing to do at the time in America but the constant harping on by a man named Flagg, wrapped in the flag, about how great it is to be American, freedom and so on ring uncomfortably at the moment. I am writing this on the day after mid-term elections in the USA, largely influenced by a far right movement that spits the word socialism in the same manner as Fighting American did communism. The only thing they have in common with a moderate British person is that we all like a nice cup of tea. I suppose a book review should be apolitical but it can't be when the book reviewed isn't. Fighting American is pure fifties American propaganda. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, 'it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.' Simon and Kirby were probably nice men but they were caught up in the passion and action of the time. We should not judge them too harshly. It’s also worth noting that Simon and Kirby demonstrate an active social conscience in many of the stories, notably the Vagabond Prince and the Fly and they were both from poor backgrounds. Americans are madly patriotic in a way that is odd to most Europeans. The Fighting American stories are generally short, about seven pages and the art is very good. There's a nine panel sequence of our hero fighting Poison Ivan that's very reminiscent of a Captain America versus Batroc fight scene in Tales Of Suspense # 85. I guess Kirby is allowed to plagiarize himself.

The art is pretty good on 'The Double Life Of Private Strong', too. In these stories most pages appear to be by Kirby but some are by Simon or another artist in the studio. The concepts are distinctly Kirbyesque - a man using that nine-tenths of the brain that most of us don't use and an evil scientist shrinking people down to sub-atomic worlds. Our hero was left abandoned when evil reds ran his scientist dad's van off the road and found by a nice old couple who raised him as their own. His dad had been using a super-scientific Kirby helmet to get him using his whole brain and he discovers his powers when he grows up and an alien lands in the district. Using more than one tenth of your brain enables you to fly, shoot lightning bolts, dodge bullets and withstand extremes of temperature. I look forward to getting command of those spare grey cells. The super-hero is called the Shield, with a patriotic American costume, and Lancelot Strong is his secret identity. When he joins the army he becomes Private Strong and is a 'goof-up' who annoys the sergeant, rather like a certain Steve Rogers. However, apart from the flag and the double life, the two have little else in common. Again, these are short tales of about seven pages.

Finally, the Fly. Tommy Troy discovers that the boss of his orphanage is stealing funds meant to feed the half-starved waifs within. Powerless to resist, he is sent out to stay with Ben and Abigail March, a local couple rumoured to be wizards. In their attic, he finds a fly ring and when he rubs it a doorway opens and out steps...Turan, emissary of the fly people! They now live on a dimensional plane outside our galaxy but once lived on Earth and controlled terrible magic power. Despots took over and there was a mysterious gaseous explosion. Those who could not escape to the far dimension were reduced to flies. The fly people have been waiting for someone pure of heart to take up the fly ring and become...The Fly. This is a batty origin even by the meanest comic book standards. Tommy Troy simply rubs the ring and becomes a fully grown man in long underwear with the power to walk up buildings, to see in all directions and the strength of a hundred normal men. He also has a buzz gun that shoots needles which put people to sleep, just like a real fly. By shouting 'Tommy Troy' he resumes the form of a little boy and by rubbing his heels together and saying, 'I want to go home, I want to go home' he can get back to Kansas. He can't really. I was taking the Mickey there. The Fly combats criminals, a hypnotist and a leprechaun who commands giant robots. The stories are entirely daft but the art has the usual Kirby charm.
The Fly stories, too, are short. I was wondering why the fifties comic stories shrank to seven pages and I may have found the answer. Will Eisner's 'Spirit' was seven pages long but it was a prestigious and well paid newspaper strip. Perhaps the creators were trying to prove they could produce stories of a suitable length for newspapers. Then I came across a quote by Neal Adams in an on-line extract from ‘The Jack Kirby Collector’ which said that in the fifties you didn't do comicbooks unless you wanted to do comic strips. Comicbooks were considered toilet paper. This may explain the absurdity of the stories in the latter part of this volume. Of course, Kirby got a strip eventually, the very famous 'Sky Masters Of The Space Force'.

This is a handsome hardback book on quality paper reproducing essentially disposable children's stories of a bygone era. Basically, it is an exercise in nostalgia for an age most of us can't remember because if you were a kid in the 1940s you're in your seventies now. It is also cashing in on the Jack Kirby industry. For some, the great man has become a hero almost as cosmic as the ones he drew in the sixties and seventies. Kirby's art is a bit like marmite, you either love it or hate. For those that love it, and I count myself among their number, this here is a valuable historical document chronicling the development of a star.

Eamonn Murphy

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