Jack Kirby’s The Losers


By Jack Kirby with D. Bruce Berry & Mike Royer (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-184856-194-6 (HB)

There’s a glorious profusion of Jack Kirby material around these days but much of the best and rarest stuff is still – unforgivably – somehow hard to access. This astounding collection of his too-brief run on DC war comic Our Fighting Forces is, for far too many, an unknown delight. You can still find it in the original 2009 hardback edition, but as far as I know, there’s neither digital or even an English-language trade paperback edition to satisfy the desires of fans lacking an infinite bank balance…

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, the King was a decent, spiritual man from another generation, and one who had experienced human horror and bravery as an ordinary grunt during World War II. Whether in the world-weary verité of his 1950s collaborations with Joe Simon or the flamboyant bravado of his Marvel creation Sgt. Fury, Kirby’ combat comics always looked and felt real: grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

In 1974, with his newest creations inexplicably not setting any sales records at DC, and while he tentatively pondered a return to Marvel, Jack took over the creative chores on a well-established and compelling but always floundering series that had run in Our Fighting Forces since 1970.

The Losers were an elite unit of American warriors cobbled together by amalgamating three pre-existing war series that had reached the end of their solo star roads. Gunner and Sarge (supplemented by “the Fighting Devil Dog” Pooch) were Pacific-based Marines; debuting in All-American Men of War #67, (March 1959) and running for 50 issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959 to August 1965), whilst Captain Johnny Cloud – Navaho Ace and native American fighter pilot – shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82 (December 1960). He flew solo until issue #115 (1966).

The final component of the Land/Air/Sea team was filled by Captain Storm, a disabled PT Boat commander (he had a wooden leg) who had his own 18-issue title from 1964 to 1967. All three series were created by comics warlord Robert Kanigher.

The characters had all pretty much passed their sell-by dates when they teamed-up as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale in 1969 (G.I. Combat #138 October), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the relevant, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years (and beyond) when their somewhat nihilistic, doom-laden anti-hero group adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 (January/February 1970). Once again written primarily by Kanigher, the episodes were graced with art from such giants as Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, Ross Andru and Joe Kubert.

With the tagline “even when they win, they lose” the team saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a far-too-small, passionate following. In an inexplicable dose of company politics, the discontented Kirby was abruptly given complete control of the series with #151 (November 1974).

His radically different approach was highly controversial at the time but the passage of years has allowed a fairer appraisal and whilst never really in tune with the aesthetic of DC’s other war-books, the King’s run was a spectacular and singularly intriguing examination of the human condition under the worst of all possible situations.

The combat frenzy kicks off in ‘Kill Me with Wagner’ as the Losers infiltrate a French village to rescue a concert pianist before the Nazis can capture her. The hapless propaganda pawn has one tremendous advantage… nobody knows what she looks like.

As with most of this series, a feeling of inevitable, onrushing Gotterdammerung permeates the tale: a sense that worlds are ending and new one’s a-coming. The action culminates in a catastrophic wave of destruction that is pure Kirby magic…

Most of DC’s war titles sported Kubert covers, but #152 featured the first in a startling sequence of hypnotic Kirby illustrations, almost abstract in delivery, to introduce the team to the no-hope proposition of ‘A Small Place in Hell!’ as they find themselves the advance guard for an Allied push, but dropped in the wrong town: one that has not been cleared…

The spectacular action here is augmented by a potent 2-page Kirby fact feature: Sub-machine guns of WWII, and it should be noted and commended that this collection is also peppered with un-inked Kirby pencilled pages and roughs.

Our Fighting Forces #153 is one of those stories that made traditionalists squeak. Behind another Kirby cover, the story of ‘Devastator vs. Big Max’ veers dangerously close to science fiction, but the admittedly eccentric plan to destroy a giant German rail-mounted super-cannon isn’t any stranger than many schemes actual Boffins dreamed up to disinform the enemy during the actual conflict, actually…

That yarn – with two beautiful info-pages on military uniforms and insignia – is followed by a superb parable about personal honour. A bombastic Kirby cover segues into the team’s deployment to the Pacific to remove a Japanese officer whose devotion to ‘Bushido’ has inspired superhuman loyalty and resistance to surrender among his men. The means used to remove him are far from clean or creditable…

Bracketed by 2 pages on war vehicles plus a wonderful pencil cover-rough, and two more on artillery pieces and the pencils for the cover to that issue, ‘The Partisans!’ (OFF #155) takes the Losers into very dark territory indeed, before the team return to America for ‘Good-bye Broadway… Hello Death!’, wherein the lads experience the home-front joys of New York whilst hunting for a notorious U-Boat commander. Naturally there’s more to the story than first appears…

This fast-paced thriller is complemented by a history of battle headgear and another pencilled rough. Issues #157 and 158 comprise a 2-part saga concerning theft, black marketeering and espionage featuring truly unique personage ‘Panama Fattie!’ Her criminal activities almost alter the course of the war; and conclude in the highly charged ‘Bombing Out on the Panama Canal’ with accompanying pages on ships, subs and Nazi super-planes.

Behind the last Kirby cover (#159), ‘Mile-a-Minute Jones!’ details a smaller-scaled duel between a black runner who embarrassed the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics and the Nazi ubermensch he defeated, reigniting on the battlefield with the Losers relegated to subordinate roles.

Kubert and Ernie Chan handled the three remaining covers of this run, an indication that Kirby’s attentions were being diverted elsewhere, but the stories remain powerful and deeply personal explorations of combat. In ‘Ivan’ (OFF #160) the Losers go undercover, impersonating German soldiers on the Eastern Front, and have an unpleasant encounter with Russian Nazi sympathizers whose appetite for atrocity surpasses anything they have ever seen before (supplemented by a 2-page tanks feature) whilst the hellish jungles of the Burma campaign prove an unholy backdrop for traumatic combat shocker ‘The Major’s Dream.’

The volume and Kirby’s DC war work ends with a sly tribute to his 1942 co-creation the Boy Commandos. ‘Gung-Ho!’sees young Gunner training a band of war orphans in Marine tactics only to find fun turn to dire necessity when Germans overrun their “safe” position. This is an optimistic, all-out action romp ending on a note of hope and anticipation, even as the King made his departure for pastures not-so-new. From issue #163 Kanigher resumed the story reins, with artists like Jack Lehti, Ric Estrada and George Evans illustrating, and the Losers returned to their pre-Kirby style and status, with readers hardly acknowledging the detour into another kind of war.

Jack Kirby is unique and uncompromising. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind. That doesn’t alter the fact that his work from 1939 onwards shaped the entire American comics scene, affected the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour around the world for generations, and which still garners new fans and apostles from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. Jack’s work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral and deceptively deep whilst being simultaneously mythic and human.

These tales of purely mortal heroism are in many ways the most revealing, honest and insightful of Jack’s incredibly vast accumulated works, and even the true devotee often forgets their very existence. As Neil Gaiman’s introduction succinctly declaims, “they are classic Kirby… and even if you don’t like war comics, you may be in for a surprise…”

You really don’t want to miss that, do you?
© 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror!


By Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Mort Meskin, Bill Draut, Martin Stein, Ben Oda, George Roussos, Vic Donahue, Bill Walton, Harry Lazarus, Jim Infantino, Bruno Premiani, John Prentice, Jerry Grandenetti, Ernie Schroeder and various (Titan Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-84856-959-1 (HB)

There’s some magnificent vintage Jack Kirby material around these days but tragically a lot of it hasn’t made the jump to digital yet. One such tragic omission is Titan Books’ splendidly sumptuous Simon & Kirby Library: gathering that iconic team’s groundbreaking genre contributions. Today, let’s look at one of the most compelling: a compendium of mystery, suspense and the supernatural…

Kirby’s collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon always produced dynamite concepts, unforgettable characters, astounding stories and huge sales no matter what avenues they pursued, blazing trails for so many others to follow and always reshaping the very nature of American comics with their innovations and sheer quality.

Comic books started slowly in 1933, until the creation of superheroes like Superman unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre. Implacably vested in the Second World War, the Mystery Man swept all before him (very occasionally her or it) until the troops came home and older genres supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Although new kids kept up the buying, much of the previous generation also retained their four-colour habit, but increasingly sought more mature themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychology of society and a more world-weary, cynical reading public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything. Their chosen forms of entertainment – film and prose as well as comics – increasingly reflected this.

Western, War and Crime comics, madcap teen comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, Simon & Kirby introduced Romance comics in 1947 even as pulp-style Science Fiction began to spread. In the real world, another global revival of spiritualism and interest in the supernatural – possibly provoked by the monstrous losses of the recent conflict (just as had happened in the 1920s, following WWI) – led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and even shocking horror comics.

There were grisly, gory and paranormal paragons previously, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in costumed hero trappings (The Spectre, Mr. Justice, The Heap, Frankenstein, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: the Unknown as convenient power source for super-heroics.

Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering, the reader…

Practically every publisher jumped on the monumentally popular juggernaut, but B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launched the first regularly published horror comic in the autumn of 1948. Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon whose impressive single issue release Eerie debuted and closed in January 1947. They wised up late and launched a regular series in 1951…

By this time Classics Illustrated had already long milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of The Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

It was at this time that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap for the line of magazines they autonomously packaged for publishers Crestwood/Prize/Essenkay to supplement Headline Comics, Justice Traps the Guilty, Police Trap, Young Romance and their other anthologies.

They too saw the sales potential for macabre material, resulting in the superb and eerily seminal Black Magic (launched with an October/November 1950 cover-date) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams in 1952.

Marvel had jumped on the bloody bandwagon early, but National/DC Comics only reluctantly bowed to the inevitable, launching a comparatively strait-laced short story title that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

Soon after, a hysterical censorship scandal led to witch-hunt Hearings (see the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April-June 1954) which panicked most comics publishers into adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules…

Just like today, America back then cast about wildly looking for external contaminants rather than internal causes for a perceived shift in social attitudes and youthful rebellion: happily settling on bloodthirsty comics about crime or horror, drenched in unwholesome salacious sex, as the reason their children were talking back, acting up and staying out late.

S&K didn’t do those kinds of comicbooks but they got tarred – and metaphorically feathered too – in the media-fuelled frenzy…

This striking full-colour hardback begins with the essay ‘That Old Black Magic’ by series editor Steve Saffel; delineating the history of the title and tone of the times whilst ‘Simon and Kirby’s Little Shop of Horror’ details the workings of the small but prolific studio of rotating artists who augmented the output of the named stars: creators such as Mort Meskin, Bill Draut, Martin Stein, Ben Oda, George Roussos, Vic Donahue, Bill Walton, Jim Infantino, Bruno Premiani, John Prentice, Jerry Grandenetti and more…

With vast output across many titles, S&K simply couldn’t produce every story and many yarns here are ghosted by other hands, although each and every one does begin with a stunning Kirby splash panel.

As with all their titles, Simon & Kirby offered themed material tweaked by their own special sensibilities. Black Magic – and the Mort Meskin-inspired The Strange World of Your Dreams – eschewed cheap shocks, mindless gore and goofy pun-inspired twist-endings in favour of dark, oppressive suspense soaked in psychological paralysis and inexplicable unease: Tension over Teasing…

The stories presented fantastic situations and, too frequently for comfort, there were no happy endings, pat cosmic justice or calming explanations: sometimes The Unknown just blew up in your face and you survived or didn’t… but never whole or unchanged.

The compendium of bleak cartoon cavortings commences with ‘Last Second of Life!’ (from volume 1 #1, October-November 1950) wherein a rich man obsesses over what the dying see at the final breath, but learns to regret the unsavoury lengths he goes to in finding out, after which ‘The Scorn of the Faceless People!’ (#2 December 1950-January 1951) relates the meaning behind a chilling nightmare.

It’s not hard to believe this one must have prompted the creation of the spin-off Strange World of Your Dreams. Issue #2 also provided a chilling report on a satanic vestment dubbed ‘The Cloak!’ whilst an impossible love in the icy wastes of Canada ended with ‘A Silver Bullet for Your Heart!’ in #3 (February-March 1951).

Issue #4 provided ‘Voodoo on Tenth Avenue’ as a disgruntled wife went too far in her quest to get rid of her man, whilst in #5 ‘The World of Spirits’ recounted the uncanny predictions of Emanuel Swedenborg in a brief fact feature before #6 described psychic connection and a ‘Union with the Dead!’ and a ravaged mariner survived meeting ‘The Thing in the Fog!’ (#7) – an encounter with the legendary Flying Dutchman…

Black Magic #8 (December 1951-January 1952) details the sacrifice a woman made to save her man from ‘Donovan’s Demon!’ (mostly illustrated by Bob McCarty) whilst ‘Dead Man’s Lode!’ (#10 March 1952 – the series now being monthly) related a ghostly experience in an old mine and ‘The Girl Who Walked on Water!’ in #11 showed the immense but fragile power of self-belief…

Meskin & Roussos illustrated #12’s ‘A Giant Walks the Earth!’ as a downed pilot lost his best friend to a roving colossus in India, after which the utterly chilling and unforgettable ‘Up There!’ kicks off three stories from the landmark 13th issue…

The saga of a beguiling siren of the upper stratosphere is followed by ‘A Rag – a Bone and a Hank of Hair!’ (Meskin) and a walking pile of trash that learned to love, whilst ‘Visions of Nostradamus!’ (by Al Eadeh) tracks and interprets the prognosticator’s predictions.

‘The Angel of Death!’ in #15 outlines a horrific medical mystery and ‘Freak!’ (#17, possibly by Bill Draut) exposes a country doctor’s deepest shame.

Black Magic #18 (November 1952) is another multi-threat issue. ‘Nasty Little Man!’ gets my vote for scariest horror art job of all time as three hobos discover to their everlasting regret why you shouldn’t pick on short old men with Irish accents…

‘Come Claim My Corpse’ (Martin Stein?) offers a short, sharp, shocker wherein a convict discovers too late the flaw in his infallible escape plan, before an investigator tracing truck-wreckers learns of ‘Detour Lorelei on Highway 52’ (McCarty)…

‘Sammy’s Wonderful Glass!’ in #19 (December 1952) shows the tragic outcome of a retarded lummox whose favourite toy can expose men’s souls, after which two shorts from #20 (January 1953) follow. ‘Birth After Death’ retells the true story of how Sir Walter Scott’s mother survived premature burial, whilst ‘Oddities in Miniature: The Strangest Stories Ever Told!’ offers half a dozen uncanny tales on one page.

Issue #21 provided ‘The Feathered Serpent’ in which an American archaeologist uncovers the truth about an ancient god, before #22 (March 1953) slips into sci-fi morality play mode with UFO yarn ‘The Monsters on the Lake!’, and ‘Those Who Are About to Die!’ from #23 sketches out the tale of a painter who can predict imminent doom…

A brace of tales from #24 (May 1953) begins with a scholar who attempts to contact the living ‘After I’m Gone!’, complemented by half-page fact feature ‘Strange Predictions’ (Harry Lazarus) after which ‘Strange Old Bird!’ is the first of three stories from the (again bimonthly) Black Magic #25 (June/July 1953).

In this gently eerie thriller, a little old lady gets the gift of life from her tatty old feathered friend, whilst ‘The Human Cork!’ precis’ the life of literally unsinkable Angelo Faticoni, before a man without a soul escapes the morgue to become ‘A Beast in the Streets!’

There’s a similar surfeit of sinister riches from #26, beginning with ‘Fool’s Paradise!’, wherein a cheap bag-snatcher makes a deal with the devil, even as ‘The Sting of Scorpio!’ sees a rude sceptic wish she’d never taunted a fortune teller.

‘The Strange Antics of the Mystic Mirror!’ terrified nurses in a major metropolitan hospital and ‘Demon Wind!’ (Kirby inked by Premiani) finds a brash Yankee learning the efficacy of a primitive tribe’s justice system…

‘The Cat People’ (#27) mesmerise and forever mark an unwary tourist in rural Spain, and the same issue exposes a seductive Scottish supernatural shindig hosted by ‘The Merry Ghosts of Campbell Castle’, whilst #28 finds an unwilling organ donor reclaiming his “property” in ‘An Eye for an Eye!’ The same issue reveals with mordant wit how a mummy returns to make his truly beloved ‘Alive After Five Thousand Years!’

From an issue cited during those anti-comic book Senate Hearings, ‘The Greatest Horror of Them All!’ (#29 March-April 1954) tells of a freak hidden amongst freaks, before Black Magic #30 exposes the appalling secret of ‘The Head of the Family!’ (Kirby & Premiani) whilst #31 provides both alien invasion horror ‘Slaughter-House!’ and a cautionary tale of a child raised by beasts in ‘Hungry as a Wolf!’ (Ernie Schroeder).

‘Maniac!’ from #32 is another artistic tour de force and a tale much “homaged” in later years, detailing how a loving brother stops villagers taking his simple-minded sibling away, before the Black Magic section concludes with a terrifying fable of atomic radiation and mutated sea creatures in ‘Lone Shark’ from #33 (November/December 1954).

With the sagacious, industry-hip, quality-conscious Simon & Kirby undoubtedly seeing the writing on the wall, their uniquely macabre title was wisely cancelled in 1954, not long before the Comics Code came into effect. A bowdlerised version was relaunched in 1957, long after they had dissolved their partnership and moved into different areas of the industry.

However, the eerie treats don’t end yet, as a short but sublime sampling from their other mystery title is appended here.

We Will Buy Your Dreams’ discusses features and stories from abortive, revolutionary title The Strange World of Your Dreams: inspired by studio-mate Mort Meskin’s vivid night terrors. The premise involves parapsychologist Richard Temple explaining and analysing storied nightmares with pictorially dramatised dreams sent in by readers.

The too short comics section begins with ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ from #1 (August 1952); a “typical” insecurity nightmare and the chilling ‘I Talked with my Dead Wife!’, whilst #2 (September/October) provides a trio of taught traumatic tales. ‘The Girl in the Grave!’ is a scary wedding scenario in the ‘You Sent Us This Dream!’ sector, before ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ sees Dr. Tempe describe the extent of self-preservation imagery…

‘The Woman in the Tower!’ comes from #3 (November/December), detailing typical symbolism whilst ‘You Sent Us this Dream’ from the same issue explains away a nightmare climb up an unending tower…

Capping off everything is a spectacular Cover Gallery, reprinting Black Magic #1-33, and a stunning unpublished cover; performing the same service for The Strange World of Your Dreams #1-4, plus the unpublished #5, just to make our lives utterly complete.

The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror! is a gigantic compendium of classic dark delights that perfectly illustrates the depth and scope of their influence and innovation and readily displays the sheer bombastic panache and artistic virtuosity they brought to everything they did. This is a worthy, welcome introduction to their unique comics contributions, and needs the relative immortality of electronic iterations.

It would be far less grim on your hands and wrists, too…
© 2014 Joseph H. Simon and the Estate of Jack Kirby. All Rights Reserved.

Super Powers by Jack Kirby


By Jack Kirby with Joey Cavalieri, Paul Kupperberg, Adrian Gonzalez, Pablo Marcos, Alan Kupperberg, Greg Theakston & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7140-4

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was an astute, imaginative, spiritual man who lived through poverty and gangsterism, the Great Depression, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject. He also always believed that sequential narrative was worthy of being published as real books right beside mankind’s other literary art forms.

Looks like he was right, and – as usual – just ahead of the times, doesn’t it?

Thanks to his recent centenary there’s a magnificent abundance of Kirby commemorative collections around these days (though still not all of it, so I remain a partially disgruntled dedicated fan). This particular trade paperback and eBook compendium re-presents The King’s last complete conceptual outing for DC and one that has been neglected by fans for far too long.

During the 1980s costumed heroes stopped being an exclusively print cash cow as big toy companies licensed Fights ‘n’ Tights titans and reaped the benefits of ready-made comicbook spin-offs. DC’s most recognizable characters became a best-selling line of action figures and were inevitably hived off into a brisk and breezy, fight-frenzied miniseries.

Super Powers launched in July 1984 as a 5-issue miniseries with Kirby covers and his signature Fourth World characters prominently represented. Jack also plotted the stellar saga with scripter Joey Cavalieri providing dialogue, as Adrian Gonzales & Pablo Marcos illustrated a heady cosmic quest comprising numerous inconclusive battles between agents of Good and Evil.

Eschewing any preamble, we hurtle straight into action with ‘Power Beyond Price!’, as ultimate cosmic nemesis Darkseid despatches four Emissaries of Doom to destroy Earth’s superheroes. Sponsoring and empowering Lex Luthor, The Penguin, Brainiac and The Joker, the Dark God’s emissaries and their stooges jointly target Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Hawkman

The combat escalates in #2’s ‘Clash Against Chaos’ with the Man of Steel and Scarlet Speedster tackling Luthor, whilst Aquaman and Green Lantern scupper the Penguin. Meanwhile Dark Knight and Winged Wonder confront an astoundingly-enhanced Harlequin of Hate…

With Alan Kupperberg inking #3, an inconclusive outcome leads to a regrouping of evil and an attack by Brainiac on Paradise Island, as in ‘Amazons at War’ the Justice League rally until Superman is devolved into a brutal beast who attacks his former allies.

All-out battle ensues in ‘Earth’s Last Stand’ before King Kirby steps up to write and illustrate the fateful finale: a cosmos-shaking conclusion designated ‘Spaceship Earth – We’re All on It!’ (November 1984, with Greg Theakston suppling inks)…

A bombastic Super Powers Promotional Poster then leads into the second Super Powers miniseries, spanning September 1985 to February 1986.

Scripted by Paul Kupperberg, the Kirby/Theakston saga ‘Seeds of Doom!’ recounts how deadly Darkseid despatches techno-organic bombs to destroy Earth, a diabolical deed requiring practically every DC hero to unite to counter the threat.

With teams of Super Powers travelling to England, Rome, New York, Easter Island and Arizona the danger is magnified ‘When Past and Present Meet!’ as the seeds warp time and send Aquaman and Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz back to days of King Arthur

Super Powers #3 (November 1985) finds Red Tornado, Hawkman and Green Arrow plunged back 75 million years in ‘Time Upon Time Upon Time!’ even as Doctor Fate, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman are trapped in 1087 AD, battling stony-faced giant aliens on Easter Island.

Superman and Firestorm discover ‘There’s No Place Like Rome!’ as they battle Darkseid’s agent Steppenwolf in the first century whilst Batman, Robin and Flash visit a far-flung future where Earth is the new Apokolips in #5’s ‘Once Upon Tomorrow’.

Eventually Earth’s scattered but indomitable champions converge on Luna to spectacularly squash the schemes-within-schemes of ‘Darkseid of the Moon!’

Jack Kirby was and remains unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures comprise an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover can possibly resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s life’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene – and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations. Most tellingly, he is still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and there will never be another.
© 1984, 1985, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sky Masters of the Space Force: The Complete Dailies


By Jack Kirby, Dick & Dave Wood, Wally Wood & Dick Ayers (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-129-8

Sky Masters of the Space Force was – and remains – a beautiful and eminently readable newspaper strip but one with a chequered and troubled back-story. How much so you can discover for yourself when you buy the book.

Even ever-upbeat and inspirational comics mega-creator Jack Kirby spent decades trying to forget the grief caused by his foray into the newspaper strip market during the height of the Space Race before finally relenting in his twilight years and giving his blessing to collections and reprints such as this one from Hermes Press.

I’m glad that he did because the collected work is one of his greatest achievements, even with the incredible format restraints of one tier of tiny panels per day, and a solitary page every Sunday. More than 50 years later this hard-science space adventure is still the business!

And that’s despite the acrimonious legal manoeuvrings that poisoned the process of creating the strip from start to finish. That can of worms you can you can read for yourself in Daniel Herman’s forthright ‘Introduction: Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, and Sky Masters’ which precedes the astronautical adventures contained herein…

Just for context though: against a backdrop of international and ideological rivalry turned white-hot when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik in 1957, the staid George Matthew Adams newspaper syndicate decided to finally enter the 20th century with a newspaper feature about space.

After approaching a reluctant DC Comics (then known as National Periodicals Publications) a deal was brokered. The project was steered by editor Jack Schiff and he convinced Jack Kirby, inker Wally Wood (later to be replaced by Dick Ayers) and scripters/brothers Dick and Dave Wood (no relation to Wally), to begin bringing the conquest of the cosmos into our lives via an all-American astronaut, his trusty team of stalwart comrades and the philanthropic largesse of the newly-minted US Space Force…

The daily strip launched on September 8th 1958 and ran until February 25th 1961; a scant few months before Alan Shepherd became in reality the first American in Space on May 5th.

The Sunday colour page told its five extended tales (The Atom Horse, Project Darkside, Mister Lunivac, Jumbo Jones and The Yogi Spaceman) in a separate continuity running from February 8th 1959 until 14th February 1960. They are sadly not included in this superb monochrome hardback archival collection, but at least that gives us fans something to look forward to…

This tense, terse and startlingly suspenseful foray into a historical future begins with ‘The First Man in Space’ (September 8th – November 21st 1958) as Major Schuyler “Sky” Masters becomes the second man in space. Romantically involved with Holly Martin, he is hurled into orbit to rescue her astronaut father after the bold pioneer encounters something too horrible to contemplate in the pitiless reaches above Earth…

The human tragedy and ever-impinging fear of the unknown of that moody tale informs all the following stories and as Holly Martin’s feisty brother Danny and burly Sgt. Riot join the cast (who do they remind me of?) for ‘Sabotage’ (22nd November – 7th March 1959), the quintessential components of all great comics teams are in place.

In this second encounter the stage expands enormously and a member of the vast Space Force contingent sinks into derangement: convinced that the colonization of the void and abandonment of Mother Earth is an unholy abomination.

That’s bad enough, but after he is despatched as one of the six pathfinders constructing America’s first permanent orbiting space station, disaster is assured unless Sky can expose him and stop his deadly machinations…

Even as grim yet heady realism slowly grew into exuberant action and fantastic spectacle the strip moves into high dramatic gear as woman pilot (or “aviatrix”) ‘Mayday Shannon’ (9th March – 9th May) joins the squad. The Brass have high hopes that she will prove females can thrive in space too but didn’t reckon on her publicity-hungry greed and selfishness.

Luckily, the magnetic allure of the stars overcomes her bad side and Sky is on hand to deal with her ruthlessly unscrupulous manager…

A medical emergency tests the ingenuity of the dedicated spacers when project instigator and patriarch Doctor Royer is taken ill and Sky must ferry a surgeon to him in ‘To Save a Life’ (11th May – 10th June) after which the tireless Major and an unsuspected rival for Holly’s affections are stranded together on a New Guinea island of cannibals after losing control of ‘The Lost Capsule’, (11th June – 23rd September)…

During that heady meeting of ancient and modern cultures, inker and finisher Wally Wood was replaced by Dick Ayers (although the signatures remained “Kirby & Wood” for years more. Maybe the credit was for the writers?).

The incalculable terrors of space manifested with the next saga as ‘Alfie’ (24th September 1959 – 13th January 1960) carried the heroes of the New Frontier into the next decade. When young astronaut crewman Marek joins the orbiting space wheel he is soon periodically experiencing bizarre fits. Every four hours, for seven and a half minutes the young American seems to channel the personality of an aging East End cockney thief called Alfie Higgins. With the fear that it might be some kind of infectious space madness, Sky and Riot head for London to link up with Scotland Yard in a gripping mystery drama blending jewel robbery and murder with the eerie overtones of Dumas’ Corsican Cousins

The ever-present tensions of the Cold War and Space Race come to the fore in ‘Refugee’ (14th January – 19th February) as Sky and the US Space Force aid the most unlikely and improbable Soviet defector escape to the West…

Now a fully-trusted and dedicated member of the squad, Mayday Shannon returns to solve an astronaut’s romantic dilemma by arranging a ‘Wedding in Space’, (20th February – 20th April) before the true threat of the outer depths is tackled as Sky meets astronautical guru and maverick Martin Strickland. A tempestuous but invaluable asset of the Space program, the intellectual renegade has proof of alien life but won’t share the ‘Message from Space’ (21st April – 22nd June) unless the military and civil authorities give him carte blanche to act on humanity’s behalf…

Counterbalancing such speculative sci fi aspects, the penultimate adventure is very much Earthbound and grounded in contemporary science and economics. In ‘Weather Watchers’ (23rd June – 27th December) greedy capitalist entrepreneur Octavius Alexia realises he can make huge profits by scamming insurers if he has access to the advance weather predictions afforded by the growing web of satellites orbiting the world.

To secure that valuable information he targets Mayday with the latest in espionage technologies and a male honey trap named J. Mansfield Sparks III. It might have all gone his way too if the woman hadn’t been so smart and his hired gigolo had remained unencumbered by conscience…

The strip ended in a rather rushed and rapid manner with ‘The Young Astronaut’ (28th December 1960 – 25th February 1961) wherein a new recruit proved to be too good to be true. Excelling at every aspect of the harsh training, Frederick T. “Fission” Tate had ulterior motives for getting into space. Luckily, suspicious Major Masters was right beside him on that first flight into the Wide Black Yonder…

As well as these stellar tales of stellar wonder, this volume also contains an abundance of visual extras such as a numerous covers and samples of Kirby’s contemporary comicbook work and original art panels in a ‘Focus’ section, which almost compensates for the absence of the Sunday colour pages. Almost…

This compilation comprises a meteoric canon of wonderment that no red-blooded armchair adventurer could possibly resist, but quite honestly, I simply cannot be completely objective about Sky Masters.

I grew up during this time period and the “Conquest of Space” is as much a part of my sturdy yet creaky old bones as the lead in the paint, pipes and exhaust fumes my generation absorbed. That it is also thrilling, challenging and spectacularly drawn is almost irrelevant to me, but if any inducement is needed for you to seek this work out let it be that this is indisputably one of Kirby’s greatest accomplishments: engaging, challenging and truly lovely to look upon.

Now go enjoy it…
© 2017 Herman and Geer Communications, Inc. d/b/a Hermes Press. Introduction and Focus © 2017 Daniel Herman.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 9


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1846-6 (HB)                    : 978-0-7851-6760-0 (PB)

Cautiously bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) was crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.

In eight short years FF became the indisputable central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: bombarding readers with a ceaseless salvo of new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot. Clearly inspired, Stan Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas that Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – had or has ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed.

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – gathers Fantastic Four #82-93: a rollercoaster ride of incredible imagination and passion spanning January to December 1969 with Stan & Jack riding a wave that no fan realised was imminently ending…

As seen in that unforgettable premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s tag-along teenaged brother Johnny – survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and the kid could turn into living flame, but poor, tragic Ben horrifically devolved into a shambling, rocky freak…

Following another frothy Lee Introduction, the magic resumes with Fantastic Four #82 as Susan Richards takes time off to tend her newborn son and Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal steps in as her replacement. Before long, however, the substitute’s violent past reasserts itself as her mad cousin Maximus again attempts to conquer mortal humanity.

‘The Mark of… the Madman!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Joe Sinnott sees the quirky quartet invade hidden Inhuman enclave Attilan to aid of the imprisoned Royal Family and overcoming an entire race of subjugated super-beings before uniting to trounce the insane despot in ‘Shall Man Survive?’

All-out action then gives way – at least initially – to tense suspense for the start of a 4-part epic starring the team’s greatest foe. ‘His Name is Doom!’ finds Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, the Thing and Crystal making their home after failing to capture Maximus, only to be intercepted by Nick Fury and the super-spies of S.H.I.E.L.D. looking for a favour…

Steel-Shod Dictator Victor Von Doom has apparently devised unstoppable super-robots and Fury needs the FF to infiltrate the sovereign state of Latveria to ferret them out. However, it’s impossible to sneak up on the most paranoid man in the world and the heroes are easily intercepted and captured by the totalitarian tyrant’s security team.

‘Within This Tortured Land’ opens with them “guests” in Doom’s picturebook Ruritanian paradise, but even with their powers hypnotically cancelled out the valiant heroes soon discover the cruel iron within their velvet prison once the Monarch of Latveria begins testing his deadly “Doombots” on his own subjects.

When the automatons go berserk the entire postage-stamp kingdom is imperilled in ‘The Victims!’ and only the last-minute arrival of Invisible Girl Sue Richards allows the FF and the villagers to survive Doom’s cataclysmic failsafe plan.

The shocking final confrontation and conclusion manifest in ‘The Power and the Pride!’, wrapping up the saga in a bombastic blend of super-science, soap opera and mesmerising melodrama seldom seen in comicbooks before or since.

Fantastic Four #88 focuses on the five champions back in the USA and looking at an unconventional new house found by the determinedly domesticated Sue in her perpetual quest to carve out a relatively normal life for her new – and still unnamed – son.

Regrettably the trendy, extremely isolated detached dwelling in ‘A House There Was!’ has been designed by the team’s oldest enemy and no sooner do they all move in than ‘The Madness of the Mole Man!’ turns the deadly domicile against them even as the maniac’s goal of turning the entire world blind and wiping out the extended heroic family entirely comes within inches of succeeding…

The Thing takes centre-stage in the extended epic which completes this potent tome, as he is targeted and kidnapped to another world when ‘The Skrull Takes a Slave!’ in #90. Abducted to fight in gladiatorial games on a colony world patterned after Earth’s 1920s gangster era, ‘The Thing… Enslaved!’ introduces rival Skrull mobs vying for planetary supremacy and a noble slave destined to slaughter our shanghaied champion.

‘Ben Grimm, Killer!’ then ramps up the tension as Ben Grimm and mechanoid marvel Torgo discover that their home-worlds are hostage to their fortune and ferocity in the arena…

Meanwhile Reed, Johnny and Crystal have not been idle. While Ben is at ‘The Mercy of Torgo!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) his Earthly brothers-in-arms are enacting a desperate plan to swoop in, save him and destroy the Skrulls planetary doom-weapon… a task undertaken and accomplished with great speed and in stunning style…

Added attractions here include the cover to the all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #7, a contemporary photo-feature revealing each and every member of the burgeoning Marvel Bullpen, eight un-inked pencil pages from issues #89 and 90 plus the original cover art for FF #90 inked by Sinnott, a graphic bonanza no fan could resist.

These are the stories that confirmed Kirby as the absolute master of superhero storytelling and gave Marvel the push needed to overtake the decades-dominant DC. They’re also some of the very best comics ever produced and as addictively thrilling now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of Fights ‘n’ Tights graphic narrative.
© 1968, 1969, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, restored & edited by Michael Gagné (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-502-0

Comics dream team Joe Simon & Jack Kirby presaged and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just with the Romance genre, but through all manner of challenging modern graphic dramas about real people in extraordinary situations… before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

Their small stable of magazines – produced for the loose association of companies known as Prize/Crestwood/Pines – blossomed and wilted as the comics industry contracted throughout the 1950s.

As the popularity of flamboyant escapist superheroes waned after World War II, newer yet more familiar genres like Crime, Westerns and Horror returned to the fore in popular entertainment media, as audiences increasingly rejected simplistic, upbeat or jingoistic fantasy for grittier, more sober themes.

Some comicbook material, such as Westerns or anthropomorphic “Funny Animals”, hardly changed at all, but gangster and detective tales were utterly radicalised by the temperament of the post-war world.

Stark, uncompromising, cynically ironic novels and socially aware, mature-themed B-movies that would be later defined as Film Noir offered the post-war civilian society a bleakly antiheroic worldview that often hit too close to home and set fearful, repressive, middle-class parent groups and political ideologues howling for blood.

Naturally the new forms and sensibilities seeped into comics, transforming good-natured, two-fisted gumshoe and Thud-&-Blunder cop strips of yore into darkly intriguing, frightening tales of seductive dames, last chances, big pay-offs and glamorous thuggery.

Sensing imminent Armageddon, the moral junkyard dogs bayed even louder as they saw their precious children’s minds under seditious attack…

Concurrent to the demise of masked mystery-men, industry giants Simon & Kirby – who were already capitalising on the rapidly growing True Crime boom – legendarily invented the genre of comicbook Romance with mature, beguiling, explosively contemporary social dramas equally focussed on the changing cultural scene and adult-themed relationships. They also, with very little shading, discussed topics of a sexual nature…

After testing the waters with the semi-comedic prototype My Date for Hillman in early 1947, Joe & Jack plunged in full force with Young Romance #1 in September of that year. It launched through for Crestwood Publications: a minor outfit which had been creating (as Prize Comics) interesting but not innovative comics since 1940.

Following Simon’s plan to make a new marketplace out of the grievously ignored older girls of America, they struck gold with stories addressing serious issues and hazards of relationships…

Not since the invention of Superman had a single comicbook generated such a frantic rush of imitation and flagrant cashing-in. Young Romance #1 was a monumental hit and the team acted accordingly: swiftly expanding, they released spin-offs Young Love (February 1949), Young Brides and In Love, all under a unique profits-sharing deal that quickly paid huge dividends to the publishers, creators and a growing studio of specialists.

All through that turbulent period comicbooks suffered impossibly biased oversight and hostile scrutiny from hidebound and panicked old guard institutions such as church groups, media outlets and ambitious politicians.

A number of tales and titles garnered especial notoriety from those conservative, reactionary doom-smiths and when the industry buckled and introduced a ferocious Comics Code, it castrated the creative form just when it most needed boldness and imagination.

Comics endured more than a decade and a half of savagely doctrinaire self-imposed censorship until changing youthful attitudes, society in crisis and plummeting profits forced the art form to adapt, evolve or die.

Those tales all come from a simpler time: exposing society in meltdown and suffering cultural PTSD and are pretty mild by modern standards of behaviour but the quality of art and writing make those pivotal years a creative highpoint well worthy of a thorough reassessment.

In 1947, fictionalising True Crime Cases was tremendously popular and profitable, and of the assorted outfits that generated such material nobody did it better than S&K. That technique of first-person confession also perfectly applied to just-as-uncompromising personal sagas from a succession of archetypal women and girls who populated their new comicbook smash.

Their output as interchangeable writers, pencillers and inkers (aided from early on by Joe’s brother-in-law Jack Oleck in the story department) was prodigious and astounding. Nevertheless, other hands frequently pitched in, so although these tales are all credited to S&K, art-aficionados shouldn’t be surprised to detect traces of Bill Draut, Mort Meskin, Al Eadeh, George Roussos or other stalwarts lurking in the backgrounds…

Michelle Nolan’s ‘Introduction’ for this rousing full-colour hardback (available in eBook format should you prefer) deftly analyses the scope and meteoric trajectory of the innovation and its impact on the industry before the new era opens with ‘Boy Crazy’ (from Young Romance #2,1947) wherein a flighty teenager with no sense of morality steals her aunt’s man with appalling consequences…

From the same issue, Her Tragic Love’ delivers a thunderbolt of melodrama as an amorous triangle encompassing a wrongly convicted man on death row presents one woman with no solution but the final one…

Scripted by Oleck, ‘Fraulein Sweetheart…’ (YR #4, 1948) reveals dark days but no happy endings for two German girls eking out existence in the American-occupied sector of post-war Marburg whilst ‘Shame’ – from issue #5 – deals with an ambitious, social-climbing young lady too proud to acknowledge her own scrub-woman mother whenever a flashy boyfriend comes around.

Next is ‘The Town and Toni Benson’ from Young Romance #11 – contemporarily designated volume 2, #5, 1949 – which offers a sequel to ‘I Was a Pick-Up’ from the premiere issue (which tale is confusingly included in the sequel to this volume Young Romance 2: The Early Simon & Kirby).

Here S&K cleverly build on that original tale, creating a soap opera environment which could so easily have spawned a series as the now-newlywed couple struggle to make ends meet under a wave of hostile public scrutiny…

On a roll, the creative geniuses began mixing genres. Western Love #2, (1948) provides ‘Kathy and the Merchant of Sunset Canton!’ as a city slicker finds his modern mercenary management style makes him no friends in cowboy country – until one proud girl takes a chance on getting to know him – after which ‘Sailor’s Girl!’ (Young Romance #13/Vol. 3, #1 1949) picks over the troubles of an heiress who marries a dauntless sea rover working for Daddy. She is confident that she can tame or break her man’s wild, free spirit…

We head out yonder once more to meet ‘The Perfect Cowboy!’ (Real West Romances # 4 1949) – at least on set – a well as the simple sagebrush lass whose head he briefly turns, before social inequality and petty envy inform the brutally heavy-handed ‘I Want Your Man’ (Young Romance #21/Vol. 3, #9 1950) wherein a young woman of meagre means realises almost too late the cost of her vendetta against a pretty little rich girl…

In the name of variety ‘Nancy Hale’s Problem Clinic’ (Young Romance #23/Vol. 3, #11, 1950) offers a brief dose of sob-sister advice as “treatment for the troubled heart” before the romantic rollercoaster rides resume with ‘Old Fashioned Girl’ (YR #34/Vol. 4, #10 1951) as a forceful young woman raised by her grandmother slowly has her convictions about propriety challenged by intriguing men and her own barely subsumed passions, whereas ‘Mr. Know-It-All Falls in Love’ (Young Love #37/Vol. 7, #10 1952) takes a rare opportunity to speak with a male narrator’s voice as a buttoned-down control freak decides that with his career in order it’s time to marry. But who’s the best prospect?

Another of those pesky lovers’ triangles then results in one marriage, one forlorn heartbreak, war, vengeance and a most appropriate ‘Wedding Present!’ (Young Love #50/Vol. 5, #8 1953) before this cleverly conceived chronicle takes a conceptual diversion – after one last tale from the same issue – detailing the all-business affair of ‘Norma, Queen of the Hot Dogs’ and her (at first) strictly platonic partner…

In 1955 the Comics Code Authority began its draconian bowdlerising of the industry’s more mature efforts and the Romance titles especially took a big conceptual hit. The edgy stories became less daring and almost every ending was a happy one – for the guy or the parents at least.

Following a superbly extensive ‘Cover Gallery’ featuring a dozen of the most evocative images from those wild and free early years ‘The Post-Code Era’ re-presents the specific conditions affecting romantic relations from the censorious document, followed by a selection of the yarns S&K and their team were thereafter reduced to producing.

Even the art seems less enthusiastic for the wholesome, unchallenging episodes which begin with ‘Old Enough to Marry!’ (Young Romance #80/Vol. 8, #8, 1955) wherein a young man confronts his grizzled cop dad. The patriarch has no intention of letting his son make a mess of his life…

Next, a maimed farmer tries to sabotage the budding romance between his once-faithful girlfriend and the brilliant good-looking doctor who cured him in ‘Lovesick’ from the same issue.

The following four tales all originated in Young Romance #85/Vol. 10, #1 1956, beginning with ‘Lizzie’s Back in Town’ as a strong, competent girl returns home to let Daddy pick her husband for her (no, really!); two guys fight and the winner gets the girl in ‘Lady’s Choice’ whilst another, less frenzied duel results in a ‘Resort Romeo’ marrying the girl of everybody’s dreams even as ‘My Cousin from Milwaukee’ exposes a gold-digger and reserves her handsome relative for herself…

The anodyne antics mercifully conclude with ‘The Love I Lost!’ (Young Romance #90/Vol. 12, #3, 1959) wherein another hospital case realises just in time that the man she wants is not the man she deserves…

This emotional rollercoaster is supplemented with a number of well-illustrated bonus features including ‘Why I Made this Book’, ‘Simon and Kirby’s Romance Comics: A Historical Overview’; a splendid selection of S&K’s pioneering ‘Photo Covers’ (18 in all) and a fascinating explanation of the process of artwork-rehabilitation in ‘About the Restoration’.

The affairs then wrap up with the now-traditional ‘Biographies’ section.

Simon & Kirby took much of their tone – if not actual content – from movie melodramas of the period (such as Mr. Skeffington, All About Eve or Mildred Pierce or Noir romances like Blonde Ice or Hollow Triumph) and, unlike what we might consider suitable for romantic fiction today, their stories crackled with tension, embraced violent action and were infested with unsavoury characters and vicious backstabbing, gossiping hypocrites.

Happily, those are the tales which mostly fill most of this book, making for an extremely engaging, strikingly powerful and thoroughly addictive collection of great yarns by brilliant masters of the comics arts: and one no lover (of the medium) should miss…
Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics © 2012 Fantagraphics Books Inc. Introduction © 2012 Michelle Nolan Schelly. All rights reserved.

Challengers of the Unknown by Jack Kirby


By Jack Kirby, France “Ed” Herron, Dave Wood, Roz Kirby, George Klein, Bruno Premiani, Marvin Stein & Wally Wood (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7719-2

The Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept between the fashionably all-American human trouble-shooters who monopolised comicbooks for most of the 1950s and the costumed mystery men who would soon return to take over the industry.

As superheroes began to return in 1956 here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of uniforms and the most dubious of motives… Suicide by Mystery.

Yet they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are quite rightly millions of words written (such as Paul Kupperberg’s enthusiastic Introduction and John Morrow’s pithy Afterword in this superb Trade Paperback and eBook compilation) about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

I’m going to add a few words to that superabundance in this review of one of his best and most influential projects which, like so many others, he perfectly constructed before moving on, leaving highly competent but never quite as inspired talents to build upon.

When the comics industry suffered a witch-hunt-caused collapse in the mid-50’s, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he produced tales of suspense and science fiction for the company’s line of mystery anthologies and revitalised Green Arrow (then simply a back-up strip in Adventure Comics) whilst creating the newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

He also re-packaged for Showcase (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and long-time collaborator Joe Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunately ill-timed Prize/Essankay/Mainline Comics ventures.

After years of working for others Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing company, producing comics with a much more sophisticated audience in mind, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham.

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if more conservative and less experimental, companies.

The Challengers were four ordinary mortals; explorers and adventurers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we’d now call “adrenaline junkies”, pilot Ace Morgan, diver Prof Haley, acrobat and mountaineer Red Ryan and wrestler Rocky Davis summarily decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, naturally, Justice.

The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ in Showcase #6 (cover-dated January/February 1957 – so it was on spinner-racks and news-stands in time for Christmas 1956).

Kirby and scripter Dave Wood, plus inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, crafted a creepily spectacular epic wherein the freshly introduced doom-chasers were hired by the duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers.

This initial story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates and Jack’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism, which grew even greater for the sequel: a science fiction drama instigated after an alliance of leftover Nazi technologists and contemporary American criminality unleashes a terrible robotic monster.

‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, March/April 1957) introduced a necessary standard appendage of the times and the B-movie genre in the form of brave, capable, brilliant and beautiful-when-she-took-her-labcoat-off boffin Dr. June Robbins, who became the no-nonsense, ultra-capable (if unofficial) fifth Challenger at a time when most funnybook females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conventional, repressive era.

The uncanny exploits then paused for a sales audit and the team didn’t reappear until Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) as The Flash and Lois Lane got their respective shots at the big time. When the Challengers returned it was in alien invasion epic ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’.

Uniquely engaging comics realist Bruno Premiani (a former associate and employee from Kirby’s Prize Comics days) came aboard to ink a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today, and by the time of their last Showcase issue (#12, January /February 1958) the Questing Quartet were preparing to move into their own title.

‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and inspired ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein adding subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused), but the biggest buzz would come two months later with the first issue of their own magazine.

Challengers of the Unknown #1 (May 1958) was written and drawn by Kirby, with Stein on inks and presented two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature logo for the team. ‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pitted the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabbling loosed dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet, before the team were actually abducted by aliens in ‘The Human Pets’ and had to win their freedom and a rapid rocket-ship (sphere actually) ride home…

The same creators were responsible for both stories in the second issue. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning to sabotage a mission in the Australian Outback for the very best reasons, after which ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against super-criminal Roc who can conjure and animate solid objects out of his thoughts.

Issue #3 features ‘Secret of the Sorcerer’s Mirror’ with Roz Kirby & Marvin Stein again inking The King’s mesmerising pencils, as the fantastic foursome pursue a band of criminals whose magic looking-glass can locate deadly ancient weapons, but undoubtedly the most intriguing tale for fans and historians of the medium is ‘The Menace of the Invincible Challenger’ wherein team strongman Rocky Davis is rocketed into space only to crash back to Earth with strange, uncanny powers.

For years the obvious similarities of this group – and especially this adventure – to the origin of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (#1 was released in November 1961) have fuelled fan speculation. In all honesty I simply don’t care. They’re both similar but different and equally enjoyable so read both. In fact, read them all.

With #4 the series became artistically immaculate as the sheer brilliance of Wally Wood’s inking elevated the illustration to unparalleled heights. The scintillant sheen and limpid depth of Woody’s brushwork fostered an abiding authenticity in even the most outrageous of Kirby’s designs and the result is – even now – simply breathtaking.

‘The Wizard of Time’ is a full-length masterpiece of the art form and opens with a series of bizarre robberies that lead the team to a scientist with a time-machine. By visiting oracles of the past rogue researcher Darius Tiko has divined a path to the far future. When he gets there, he intends to rob it blind, but the Challengers deftly find a way to follow and foil him…

‘The Riddle of the Star-Stone’ (#5) is a full-length contemporary thriller, wherein an archaeologist’s assistant uncovers an alien tablet bestowing various super-powers when different gems are inserted into it. The exotic locales and non-stop action are intoxicating, but Kirby’s solid characterisation and ingenious writing are what make this such a compelling read.

Scripter Dave Wood returned for #6’s first story. ‘Captives of the Space Circus’ sees the boys shanghied from Earth to perform in a interplanetary travelling carnival, but the evil ringmaster is promptly outfoxed and the team returns for France “Ed” Herron’s mystic saga ‘The Sorceress of Forbidden Valley’, wherein June becomes an amnesiac puppet in a power struggle between a fugitive gangster and a ruthless feudal potentate.

Issue #7 is another daring double-feature both scripted by Herron. First up is relatively straightforward alien-safari tale ‘The Beasts from Planet 9’, but it’s followed by a much more intriguing yarn on the ‘Isle of No Return’ as the lads face a super-scientific bandit whose shrinking ray leaves them all mouse-sized.

Concluding Kirby issue #8 (July 1959) offers a magnificent finale to a superb run as The King & Wally Wood went out in stunning style with a brace of gripping thrillers – both of which introduced menaces who would return to bedevil the team in future tales.

‘The Man Who Stole the Future’ by Dave Wood, Kirby and the unrelated Wally Wood, introduces Drabny – an evil mastermind who steals mystic artefacts and conquers a small nation before the team dethrones him. Although this is a tale of spectacular battles and uncharacteristic, if welcome, comedy, the real gem here is space opera tour-de-force ‘Prisoners of the Robot Planet’, (probably) written by Kirby & Herron. Petitioned by a desperate alien, the Challs travel to his distant world to liberate the population from bondage to their own robotic servants, who have risen in revolt under the command of the fearsome autonomous automaton, Kra

These are classic adventures, told in a classical manner. Kirby developed a brilliantly feasible concept with which to work and heroically archetypical characters. He then tapped into an astounding blend of genres to display their talents and courage in unforgettable exploits that informed and affected every team comic that followed – and certainly influenced his successive landmark triumphs with Stan Lee.

But then Jack was gone…

The Challengers would follow the Kirby model until cancellation in 1970, but due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The Kirby magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with. Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were bitching, bickering and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

But that’s meat for another book and review…

Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventurers in that ideal setting of not-so-long-ago in a simpler, better galaxy than ours.
© 1957, 1958, 1959, 2003, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

The Demon by Jack Kirby


By Jack Kirby & Mike Royer (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7718-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Christmas Chiller to Warm the Coldest Nights… 9/10

Jack “King” Kirby shaped the very nature of comics narrative. A compulsive storyteller, Jack was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression and World War II. He had seen Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject.

He began at the top of his game, galvanising the comicbook scene from its earliest days with long-term creative partner Joe Simon: creating Blue Bolt, drawing Captain Marvel and adding lustre to Timely comics with creations such as Red Raven, Hurricane, Captain America and The Young Allies.

In 1942 Simon & Kirby moved to National/DC and hit even more stellar highs with The Boy Commandos, Newsboy Legion, Manhunter and The Sandman before the call of duty saw them inducted into the American military.

On returning from World War II, they reunited and formed a creative studio working primarily for the Crestwood/Prize publishing outfit where they invented the entire genre of Romance comics. Amongst that dynamic duo’s other concoctions for Prize was a, noir-ish, psychologically underpinned supernatural anthology Black Magic and its short-lived but fascinating companion title Strange World of Your Dreams.

All their titles eschewed traditional gory, heavy-handed morality plays and simplistic cautionary tales for deeper, stranger fare, and until the EC comics line hit their peak were far and away the best and most mature titles on the market.

Kirby understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and always strived diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the comics medium – especially from industry insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies world” they felt trapped in.

When the 1950s anti-comics comics witch hunt devastated the industry, Simon & Kirby parted ways. Jack went back to DC briefly and created newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force before partnering with Stan Lee at the remains of Timely Comics to create the monolith of stars we know as Marvel.

After more than a decade there he felt increasingly stifled and side-lined and in 1970 accepted an offer of complete creative freedom at DC. The jump resulted in a root and branch redefinition of superheroes in his quartet of interlinked Fourth World series.

After those controversial, grandiose groundbreaking titles were cancelled Kirby looked for other concepts to stimulate his vast creativity and still appeal to an increasingly fickle market. General interest in the Supernatural was rising, with books and movies exploring the unknown in gripping and stylish new ways, and the Comics Code Authority had already released its censorious choke-hold on mystery and horror titles, thereby saving the entire industry from implosion when the superhero boom of the 1960s fizzled away.

At DC’s suggestion Kirby had already briefly returned to his supernatural experimentation in a superb but poorly received and largely undistributed monochrome magazine. Spirit World launched in the summer of 1971, but as before, editorial cowardice and back-sliding scuppered the project before it could get going. You can see what might have been in a collected edition re-presenting the sole published issue and material from a second, unreleased sequel in the recent Jack Kirby’s Spirit World

With most of his ideas misunderstood, ignored or side-lined by the company Kirby opted for more traditional fare. Never truly defeated though, he cannily blended his belief in the marketability of the mystic unknown with flamboyant super-heroics to create another unique and lasting mainstay for the DC universe: one that lesser talents would make a pivotal figure of the company’s continuity.

This Trade Paperback (and eBook) compilation gathers the entire eerie 16-issue run from August/September 1972 through January 1974 and opens with a fulsome Introduction detailing how The Demon came to be from Kirby’s then-assistant Mark Evanier before the astounding adventures begin…

Inked by Mike Royer, The Demon #1 introduces a howling, leaping monstrosity (famously modelled after a 1939 sequence from Hal Foster’s Arthurian epic Prince Valiant) battling beside its master Merlin as Camelot dies in flames: a cataclysmic casualty of the rapacious greed of sorceress Morgaine Le Fey.

Out of that apocalyptic destruction, a man arises and wanders off into the mists of history…

In our contemporary world (or at least the last quarter of the 20th century) demonologist and paranormal investigator Jason Blood has a near-death experience with an aged collector of illicit arcana. This culminates in a hideous nightmare about a demonic being and the last stand of Camelot.

He has no idea that Le Fey is still alive and has sinister plans for him…

And in distant Moldavia, strange things are stirring in crumbling Castle Branek, wherein lies hidden the lost Tomb of Merlin…

Blood is wealthy, reclusive and partially amnesiac, but one night he agrees to host a small dinner party, entertaining acquaintances Harry Mathews, psychic UN diplomat Randu Singh, his wife Gomali and their flighty young friend Glenda Mark. The soiree does not go well.

Firstly, there is the painful small talk, and the sorcerous surveillance of Le Fey, but the real problems start when an animated stone giant arrives to “invite” Blood to visit Castle Branek. This shattering voyage leads to Merlin’s last resting place but just as Blood thinks he may find some answers to his enigmatic past, Le Fey pounces. Suddenly he starts to change, transforming into the horrific beast of his dreams…

Issue #2 – ‘My Tomb in Castle Branek!’ – opens with wary villagers observing a terrific battle between a yellow monster and Le Fey’s forces, but when the Demon is defeated and Blood arrested, only the telepathic influence of Randu in America can help him. Le Fey is old, dying, and needs Merlin’s grimoire, the Eternity Book, to extend her life.

Thus, she manipulates Blood – who has existed for centuries unaware that Merlin’s hellish Attack Dog the Demon Etrigan is chained inside him – to regain his memories and awaken the slumbering master mage. It looks like the last mistake she will ever make…

Kirby’s tried and trusted approach was always to pepper high concepts throughout blazing, breakneck action, and #3 was one the most imaginative yet.

‘The Reincarnators’ finds Blood back in the USA, aware at last of his tormented history, and with a small but devoted circle of friends. Adapting to a less lonely life, he soon encounters a cult able to physically regress people to a prior life – and use those time-lost beings to commit murder…

The Demon #4-5 comprise one single exploit, wherein a simple witch and her macabre patron capture the reawakened, semi-divine Merlin. ‘The Creature from Beyond’ and ‘Merlin’s Word’s… Demon’s Wrath!’ introduced cute little monkey Kamara the Fear-Monster (later used with devastating effect by Alan Moore in Saga of the Swamp Thing #26-27) and features another startling “Kirby-Kreature” – Somnambula, the Dream-Beast

It seems odd in these blasé modern times but The Demon was a controversial book in its day – cited as providing the first post-Comics Code depiction of Hell and one where problems were regularly solved with sudden, extreme violence.

‘The Howler!’ in issue #6 is a truly spooky yarn with Blood hunting a primal entity of rage and brutal terror that transforms its victims into murderous lycanthropic killers, whilst #7 debuts a spiteful, malevolent young fugitive from a mystical otherplace.

‘Witchboy’ Klarion and his cat-familiar Teekl were utterly evil little sociopaths in a time where all comicbook politicians were honest, cops only shot to wound and “bad” kids were only misunderstood: another Kirby first…

An extended epic, ‘Phantom of the Sewers’ skilfully combines movie and late-night TV horror motifs in the dark and tragic tale of actor Farley Fairfax, cursed by the witch he once spurned. Unfortunately, Glenda Mark is the spitting image of the departed Galatea, and when, decades later, the demented thespian kidnaps her (in ‘Whatever Happened to Farley Fairfax?!!’) to raise the curse, it could only end in a flurry of destruction, death, consumed souls and ‘The Thing That Screams’

This 3-part thriller is followed by another multi-part masterpiece (The Demon #11-13). ‘Baron von Evilstein’ is a powerful parable about worth and appearance featuring the ultimate mad scientist and the tragic, misunderstood monster he so casually builds. It’s a truth that bears repeating: ugly doesn’t equal bad…

Despite all Kirby’s best efforts The Demon was not a monster hit – unlike his science-fiction disaster drama Kamandi – and by #14 it’s clear that the book was in its last days. Not because the sheer pace of imagination, excitement and passion diminished – far from it – but because the well-considered, mood-drenched stories were suddenly replaced by rocket-fast eldritch romps populated with returning villains.

First back was Klarion the Witchboy who creates a ‘Deadly Doppelganger’ to replace Jason Blood and kill his friends in #14-15, before the series – and this wonderful treasury of wicked delights ended in a climactic showdown with the ‘Immortal Enemy’ Morgaine Le Fey…

Kirby carried on with Kamandi, returned to The Sandman, explored WWII in The Losers and created the magnificent Omac: One Man Army Corps, but still could not achieve the all-important sales the company demanded. Eventually he returned to Marvel and new challenges such as Black Panther, Captain America, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

As always in these wondrously economical collections it should be noted that the book comes stuffed with un-inked pencilled pages and roughs in bonus feature ‘The Art of Jack Kirby’, and Evanier’s fascinating, informative Introduction is, as ever, a fact-fan’s delight.

Jack Kirby was and is unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover could resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations and still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and time has shown that the star of this book is one of his most potent legacies.
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Devil Dinosaur by Jack Kirby: The Complete Collection


By Jack Kirby, Mike Royer & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9037-0

Jack Kirby was – and still is – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are millions of words about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

Off course I’m going to add my own two-bobs’-worth, pointing out what you probably already know: Kirby was a man of vast imagination who translated big concepts into astoundingly potent and accessible symbols for generations of fantasy fans. If you were exposed to Kirby as an impressionable kid you were his for life. To be honest, the same probably applies whatever age you jump aboard the “Kirby Express”…

For those of us who grew up with Jack, his are the images which furnish and clutter our interior mindsets. Close your eyes and think “robot” and the first thing that pops up is a Kirby creation. Every fantastic, futuristic city in our heads is crammed with his chunky, towering spires. Because of Jack we all know what the bodies beneath those stony-head statues on Easter Island look like, we are all viscerally aware that you can never trust great big aliens parading around in their underpants and, most importantly, we know how cavemen dressed and carnosaurs clashed…

In the late 1930s it took a remarkably short time for Kirby and his creative partner Joe Simon to become the wonder-kid dream-team of the new-born comicbook industry. Together they produced a year’s worth of the influential monthly Blue Bolt, rushed out Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for overstretched Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely Comics, co-created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the original Marvel Boy, Mercury, Hurricane, The Vision, Young Allies and of course million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby were snapped up by National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were never really comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two moribund strips to play with until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.

They turned both around virtually overnight and, once established and left to their own devices, switched to the “Kid Gang” genre they had pioneered at Timely. Joe and Jack created wartime sales sensation Boy Commandos and a Homefront iteration dubbed the Newsboy Legion before being called up to serve in the war they had been fighting on comicbook pages since 1940.

Once demobbed, they returned to a very different funnybook business and soon left National to create their own little empire…

Simon & Kirby heralded and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just by inventing the Romance genre, but with all manner of challenging modern material about real people in extraordinary situations – before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

Their small stable of magazines – generated for the association of companies known as Prize, Crestwood, Pines, Essenkay and/or Mainline Comics – blossomed and as quickly wilted when the industry abruptly contracted throughout the 1950s.

After years of working for others, Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing house, producing comics for a far more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom.

Hysterical censorship-fever spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and opportunistic pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham led to witch-hunting Senate hearings. Caving in, publishers adopted a castrating straitjacket of draconian self-regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis and emblem of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, even though the market’s appetite for suspense and the uncanny was still high. Crime comics vanished and mature themes challenging an increasingly stratified and oppressive society were suppressed…

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Jack soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies. As the panic abated, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow (at that time a mere back-up, page-filler in Adventure Comics and World’s Finest Comics) whilst concentrating on his long-dreamed-of newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

During that period Kirby also re-packaged an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and Joe Simon had closed their innovative, ill-timed ventures. At the end of 1956 Showcase #6 premiered the Challengers of the Unknown

After three more test issues they won their own title with Kirby in command for the first eight. Then a legal dispute with Editor Jack Schiff exploded and the King was gone…

He found fresh fields and an equally hungry new partner in Stan Lee at the ailing Atlas Comics outfit (which had once been mighty Timely) and there created a revolution in superhero comics storytelling…

After a decade of never-ending innovation and crowd-pleasing wonderment, Kirby felt increasingly stifled. His efforts had transformed the little publisher into industry-pioneer Marvel but now felt trapped in a rut. Thus he moved back to DC for another burst of sheer imagination and pure invention.

Kirby always understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and strived diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the comics medium – especially from industry insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies world” they felt trapped in.

After his controversial, grandiose Fourth World titles were cancelled, Kirby looked for other concepts which would stimulate his own vast creativity yet still appeal to a market growing ever more fickle. His follow-ups included science fiction themed heroes Kamandi and OMAC, supernatural star The Demon, a run of war stories starring The Losers, and even a new Sandman co-created with old Joe Simon, but although the ideas kept coming (Atlas, Kobra, Dingbats of Danger Street), yet again editorial disputes ended up with him leaving for promises of more creative freedom elsewhere…

Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in 1976 was much hyped at the time but again turned out to be controversial. His new works and creations (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Eternals, Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur,) found friends rapidly, but his return to earlier creations Captain America and Black Panther divided the fanbase.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity, and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on titles as another “Day One”: a policy increasing at odds with the close-continuity demanded by a strident faction of the readership…

Devil Dinosaur is possibly his most divisive creation: sheer anathema to those fans who scrupulously policed the Marvel Universe, perpetually seeking out infractions to the holy writ and demanding “does this fit in?” They were apparently blind to the unfettered, joyous freedom of imagination run wild, the majesty of pulse-pounding thrills and electrically galvanising BIG ART!

For 25 years I taught comics-creation skills and techniques to pre-schoolers through to college graduates and let me tell you, nothing caused more heated debate amongst the adults and generated greater sheer, open-eyed, awestruck glee from the kids.

It’s a monkey man, riding a big red dinosaur, fighting monsters and aliens, for Pete’s sake!

And that is the reason this collection is so welcome. Jack’s commitment to wholesome adventure, breakneck action and breathless wonderment combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill make for a captivating read. His comics should be on every School Curriculum if we want youngsters to get into Graphic Narrative…

Collecting the entire 9-issue run from April to December 1978, this sleek paperback chronicle begins with ‘Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy’ as we are taken back to an unspecified time in Earth’s prehistory where various emergent species of hominids eke out a perilous existence beside the last of the great lizards and other primordial giants…

In that perilous world a wide-eyed innocent of the timid but clever Small Folk rescues a baby tyrannosaur from humanoid hunters known as the Killer-Folk. They have already slaughtered its mother and siblings with cunning snares and now torture the little lizard with blazing firebrands which turn its scorched hide a livid, blazing red…

Under the roaring light of a blazing volcano Moon Boy and Devil bond; becoming inseparable companions wandering the vast lush valley which is their home.

The scarlet saurian is no ordinary beast. Blessed with uncanny intelligence and unmatchable ferocity, it soon becomes an equal partner in a relationship never before seen in the world. That does not, however, prevent the duo becoming targets for the ambitious new chief of the Killer-Folk.

Arrogant Seven-Scars wants to be undisputed master of the valley and has devised a lethal scheme with deadly traps to destroy the red terror and its feeble pet…

Sadly for them, the Killer-Folks’ schemes ensnare trusting Moon Boy but his scaly brother is not fooled and ‘Devil’s War!’ soon proves who truly rules in the dawn age…

Issue #3 concentrates on the sheer variety of humanoid life as ‘Giant’ pits our heroes against a monumental man-thing frenziedly hunting for his missing offspring, after which terror descends upon all when bizarre and merciless strangers erupt out of an ‘Object from the Sky’

We’d call them robotic aliens but the only certainty the assorted Earth creatures know is that the monsters are coldly hostile butchers. When the newcomers snatch up Moon Boy amongst their many specimens, the wily crimson colossus strikes up a tenuous alliance with Hill Folk survivors Stone-Hand and his aging mentor White Hairs before leading them in a terrifying ‘Journey to the Center of the Ants!’

Intent on using giant termites to invade the alien ship, the strange bedfellows encounter yet another frantic fugitive in the form of furious female ‘Eev!’; allowing Kirby to set up a telling biblical pastiche of the Garden of Eden…

After the termite-wave eradicates the invading metal ship, all that remains is a semi-autonomous computer system the natives deem a ‘Demon-Tree!’ The fancy-speaking thing seduces Stone-Hand, White Hairs and Eev into an idyllic preserve where it grants their every wish, but its increasingly harsh mandates soon make the hominids realise they are prisoners, not guests…

Happily, Devil and freshly-liberated Moon Boy are on hand to offer some destructive assistance…

Having gone back to their inquisitive wanderings, mammal and reptile soon find more peril when Devil is targeted by anthropoid ‘Dino-Riders!’ who want the mighty lizard for their greatest beast of burden. This time it’s Moon who does the saving, but only after convincing his meek Small Folk brethren to unite against their mutual beast-piloting oppressors…

The last issue is certainly the most intriguing as ‘The Witch and the Warp’ sees Devil fall into a naturally-occurring space-time fault seemingly controlled by a peculiar hag and her quirky disciple.

It takes all Moon Boy’s persuasiveness to get her to bring the beast home again, and even after the friends are reunited Devil has no way of relating the details of his shocking adventure in Nevada, circa 1978 AD…

With extras including a complete cover gallery by Kirby, and inkers Royer, Frank Giacoia, Dan Green, Joe Sinnott, Steve Leialoha, Walter Simonson and John Byrne, plus a selection of house ads, editorials by Kirby and ‘Dinosaur Dispatches’ letters columns from the period, this compilation is a dose of utter, uncomplicated comics magic: bold, brash, and completely compelling. How can you possibly resist the clarion call of sheer eccentric escapism?
© 1978, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Newsboy Legion volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with Arturo Cazeneuve, Gil Kane & others (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2593-3

Just as the Golden Age of comics was beginning, two young men with big dreams met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes. As kids they had both sold newspapers on street-corners to help their families survive the Great Depression …

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented young man with five years experience in “real” publishing; working from the bottom up to become art director on a succession of small paper such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American.

He then moved to New York City and a life of freelancing as an art/photo retoucher and illustrator. Recommended by his boss, Simon joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering Funnies Inc.; a production “shop” generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses all eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its stellar attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely Comics (now Marvel) and became acquainted with young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his stride with the Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon and Kurtzberg (who went through a legion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed a stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even sub-genres.

They produced the influential monthly Blue Bolt, rushed out Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the first Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and of course the million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

Famed for his larger than life characters and colossal cosmic imaginings, “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual hard-working family man who lived though poverty, gangsterism and the Depression. He loved his work, hated chicanery of every sort and saw a big future for the comics industry…

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were not comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two strips that were in the doldrums until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.

They turned both around veritably overnight before, once established and left to their own devices, creating the “Kid Gang” genre (technically “recreating” as the idea was one of the duo’s last innovations for Timely in 1941’s Young Allies) with a unique juvenile Foreign Legion dubbed The Boy Commandos.

The little warriors began by sharing the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics, but before long they had won their own solo title which promptly became one of the company’s top three sellers.

Boy Commandos was such a success – frequently cited as the biggest-selling US comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing the Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for when their star creators were called up.

S&K assembled a creative team which generated so much material in a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Pitched halfway between a surly bunch of comedy grotesques and charming naive ragamuffins as seen in the Our Gang/Little Rascals film shorts (1922-1944), the Newsboy Legion comprised four ferociously independent orphans living together on the streets, peddling papers to survive. There was earnest, good-looking Tommy Tompkins, garrulous genius Big Words, diminutive, hyper-active chatterbox Gabby and feisty, pugnacious Scrapper, whose Brooklyn-based patois and gutsy belligerence usually stole the show. They were headed for a bad end until somebody extraordinary entered their lives…

Their exploits generally offered a bombastic blend of crime thriller and comedy caper, leavened with dynamic superhero action and usually seen from a kid’s point of view. The series debuted in Star-Spangled Comics #7, forcing the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy off the covers. The youngsters remained lead feature until the end of 1946, when without fanfare or warning issue #65 found them gone: ousted and replaced by Robin, the Boy Wonder.

His own youth-oriented solo series subsequently ran all the way to SSC #130 in 1952, by which time superhero romps had largely been supplanted throughout the industry by general genre tales.

This first superb hardback collection reprints the first 26 episodes, spanning Star-Spangled Comics #7-32 (April 1942-May 1944), includes all the stunning covers by Kirby, inker Arturo Cazeneuve, Fred Ray and teenager Gil Kane) and opens with a lyrical and revelatory reminiscence from Joe Simon himself. His invaluable Introduction ‘Birth of the Legion’ leads straight into a potent tale of skulduggery pitted against idealism to create optimism in the darkest of urban outposts as ‘The Story of the Newsboy Legion’ introduces rookie cop Jim Harper walking a beat in the inner city hellscape dubbed Suicide Slum.

When he is jumped by a gang of thugs and severely beaten, Harper takes an unlikely step: raiding a costume store and putting together an outfit to obscure his identity (complete with mask, shield and crash-helmet) before hunting down his attackers and giving them the thrashing they so richly deserve…

Happily, his illegal actions accidentally result in the capture of an infamous kidnap ring, and the mysterious figure is dubbed the Guardian of Society by the newspapers selling like hotcakes on street corners. Harper has no intention of repeating his foray into vigilantism but when he catches Tommy, Big Words, Gabby and Scrapper shoplifting, his life changes forever.

The tough little monkeys are headed for reform school until the cop makes an earnest plea for clemency on their behalf and the judge appoints him their guardian. They are far from grateful and send him packing but when their next get-rich-scheme gets them involved with armed bandits the kids realise the mettle of the man they’re saddled with…

Now hopelessly implicated in the crimes of murderous mobster Frankie the Fence – and witnesses to his crimes – the boys are about to die when a human thunderbolt in a mask and helmet comes to their rescue.

In actual fact it’s unclear who saves whom, but the in the end the Newsboy Legion are finally set on a righteous path, but with their suspicions are aroused. Frustratingly, no matter how hard they try, the boys can’t prove that their two Guardians are the same guy…

And so the scene was set: the kids constantly looking for broadly legal ways to make a living whilst Harper hovered over them as a guide and his alter ego worked tirelessly behind the scene to keep them alive and extricate from the trouble that always found them on the streets and alleys of the most-crime-infested slum in America…

The very next month Tommy stumbled onto the hideout of fugitive killer Black Leo Lucas and his abduction to ‘Last Mile Alley’ led the fighting mad Guardian to a confrontation with the latest Big Boss who thought he was untouchable, after which ‘The Rookie Takes the Rap’ saw Harper framed by devious gambler Sure Thing Kelly and only cleared by the actions of his now-devoted foster-kids…

To be frank, the relationship between Jim and the boys was never properly defined. Although he was responsible for keeping them out of trouble, they never lived with him and generally provided for themselves whilst – presumably – still sleeping on the streets…

Having now made a few headlines of their own, the boys were offered the chance to be ‘Kings for a Day’ in Star-Spangled Comics #10: running various municipal departments in a grand civic publicity stunt. Sadly, the event was hijacked by mobster The Mark, whose plans to plunder the entire city would have succeeded had he not underestimated those pesky kids temporarily in charge of the emergency services…

Many stories worked powerfully against a pervasive backdrop of crushing poverty and social injustice. Issue #11 saw the boys arrested by a heartbroken Jim for burglary and sent to the State Reformatory. What he didn’t know was that the boys had learned of corruption at the ‘Paradise Prison’ and were determined to expose unctuous, sanctimonious Warden Goodley for the sadistic grafter he truly was…

With little kids starving in their hovels and resorting to petty theft, the boys next decided to make a documentary with borrowed film equipment. Naturally their hunt for perfect locations dropped them right in the laps of a gang of bank bandits resulting in a ‘Prevue of Peril’ requiring another last-minute save by the blockbusting blue-&-gold mystery man with the pot on his head…

With the clue in their name, the Newsboy Legion still made the majority of their living vending newspapers. Whenever the tabloids weren’t selling, things got tough and in SSC #13 falling sales spurred the lads to create their own local periodical. With Harper’s assistance the premier issue of the Slum Sentinel proved a huge success but ‘The Scoop of Suicide Slums!’ made the area too hot for the crooks in their warrens. However, in trying to crush the little newsmakers, the city’s biggest racketeer only exposed himself to the Legion’s scrutiny and their Guardian’s furious fists…

Philanthropist Wilbur Whilling was a man with a plan. Using the Legion as his unwitting shills, he convinced the slum dwellers to donate everything they had to build a new modern apartment project to house them all. ‘The Meanest Man on Earth!’ never expected the kids to uncover his fraudulent alliance with the lawyers and planners to repossess the spiffy new complex, and certainly wasn’t ready for the personal retribution doled out by Scrapper and the man in the mask.

Arturo Cazeneuve came aboard as prime inker with ‘Playmates of Peril!’ in #15 as Patrolman Harper’s frequent absences led to his being partnered with an ever-present supervising sergeant. That didn’t stop his trouble-magnet wards wandering into another criminal caper and being taken hostage, necessitating a storm of frantic improvisation to save the kids, his job and his secret identity…

After Tommy saved a little boy from being run over he was eagerly adopted by rich banker Willis Thornton. He didn’t want to go but his pals forced him to take his shot at escaping the ghetto. All too soon ‘The Playboy of Suicide Slum!’ was framed for a robbery at the Thornton mansion and needed his true brothers to clear his name, after which ‘The Newsboy Legion versus the Rafferty Mob’ found the boys in a turf-war with a rival gang of street toughs led by the toughest girl they have ever encountered. Hostilities ceased as soon as a gang of gunsels started using the distraction as a way of trapping the Guardian…

‘The Education of Iron-Fist Gookin’ saw the slum’s most brutal thug taking elocution lessons from Big Words, and picking up a few morals – plus a pardon and new start – along the way, after which ‘The Fuehrer of Suicide Slum’ focused on Scrapper and took the odd narrative liberty to depict the boys battling Nazis after a sneak attack and invasion of New York City…

Steve Brodie inked the return to comicbook reality in Star-Spangled Comics #20 ‘The Newsboys and the Champ!’ with the kids helping hillbilly boxer Zeke Potts negotiate the lethally crooked fight biz in the big city before ‘The House Where Time Stood Still’ (Cazeneuve inks) found the kids – selling war bonds – invading a derelict house and discovering a pair of be-whiskered hermits who had shunned the world for decades.

The belligerent old Presby brothers soon changed their isolationist attitudes after Nazi spies moved into their home so it’s a good thing the Legion didn’t take that first “no” for an answer…

Gabby wrecks an automobile and incurs a dubious but huge debt in ‘Brains for Sale!’ (Cazeneuve), and his proposed payment solution only leads the entire team into deadly danger from an underworld surgeon after which ‘Art for Scrapper’s Sake’ (inked by John Daly) sees the bellicose boy discover his extremely profitable creative side. Typically, he’s far from happy to find that he’s just the patsy for a high-end art fraud…

Cazeneuve returns as regular inker with ‘Death Strikes a Bargain’ in SSC #24, as a crackdown on crime in Suicide Slum leads to the kids being parachuted into a luxurious new life in a bold social experiment. Sadly, however, the reformer in charge has a murderous ulterior motive for his seeming benevolence…

A vacation growing vegetables on a farm in ‘Victuals for Victory’ only lands the kids in more trouble as their nearest neighbours turn out to be bucolic bandits hiding out after a big city crime spree whilst ‘Louie the Lug Goes Literary’ sees the masked Guardian bust a major felon and inadvertently spark a massive hunt for the racketeer’s favourite tome and the incredible secrets it holds

Star-Spangled Comics #27 finds the lads volunteering as fire-fighters just in time to encounter an arsonist-insurance inspector eager to ‘Turn on the Heat’ whilst #28’s ‘Poor Man’s Rich Man’ sees kindly night watchman Pop O’Leary inheriting a fortune. Immediately lavishing largesse on all the others unfortunates in Suicide Slum, Pop only starts to worry as his unpaid bills mount and the lines of credit dry up, and the Newsboys discover the generous geezer is the victim of a cruel plot by saboteurs. They furiously take appropriate action, with the two-fisted Guardian coming along for the ride…

Always looking for a sold investment, the kids then hop on the publishing bandwagon in ‘Cabbages and Comics’; hoping to make a million peddling their own strip magazine. Their big mistake is incorporating local hoodlums’ likenesses and overheard snippets of gossip in the final mix, but naturally their masked protector is on hand to prevent them perishing from the rightful indignation – and guns – of the plunderers they inadvertently exposed and plagiarized…

In SSC #30 a reformed crook is framed and ‘The Lady of Linden Lane’ suddenly abandons her miserly ways and starts acting very strangely, leading the lads to uncover a devilish fraud after which neophyte Gil Kane illustrates ‘Questions, Please?’ with brilliant Big Words and even his less cerebral comrades becoming radio quiz sensations on the very night the dread Purple Mask gang raid the studio.

This stunning assemblage of astounding articles then concludes with Star-Spangled Comics #32 as the boys act as ‘The Good Samaritans!’ (Kane & Harry Tschida), unknowingly sheltering a gang of impoverished and starving thieves who have millions in hot cash they can’t spend… yet…

After years of neglect the glorious wealth of Jack Kirby material available these days is a true testament to his influence and legacy, and this magnificent and compelling collection of his collaborations with fellow pioneer Joe Simon is another gigantic box of delights that perfectly illustrates the depth, scope and sheer thundering joy of the early days of comics.
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