The Art Of The Simon And Kirby Studio by Mark Evanier, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (book review).

December 18, 2014 | By | Reply More

Firstly, I should mention that my copy of this book, ‘The Art Of The Simon And Kirby Studio’ by Mark Evanier, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby is a pdf file sent by the publisher, which is great and I’m grateful but I suspect the whole darn thing will look even better as the real big hardback copy.

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An art book is a tricky thing for a reviewer. If one picture is worth a thousand words, how do you describe several hundred of them? How does anyone describe the bold vitality of the art of Jack Kirby? There are thick lines, of course. There are heroes in spectacular poses with arms and legs spread wide leaping off the page at you. There are ugly monsters, terrible aliens and ordinary people with expressive faces. Yet it’s not easy to sum up how all this fits together to make such a distinctive, dynamic style. Fortunately, most people thinking of buying this book will already be familiar with Kirby’s powerful pencils, so perhaps the best thing to do is describe what you’ll get for your money.

At the beginning, there is a long essay by Kirby biographer Mark Evanier on the background of the work. It tells how Joe Simon met Jack Kirby, how they teamed up and worked together in harmony for many years producing some of the best comicbooks available at the time. This text is interspersed with illustrations, mostly comic covers and photos of the dynamic duo and their team, for Simon and Kirby ran a studio and had a little gang of helpers. As you would expect from the title, the art of other chaps in the studio is also included here.

After the essay, there is a long section of comic pages. Regrettably, the contents information does not list credits for these, so the reader has to take his best guess as to who did what. As well as covers and splash pages by the headline act, this section contains many stories but they are generally very short. Tell the plot and you spoil them, so I won’t. In the text, Evanier reveals that Joe Simon generally drafted the covers and splash pages because he had a good sense of design, having worked for a while in the newspaper industry. Evanier has remarked elsewhere that Jack wanted to tell stories and had little interest in covers. Odd really because he was an excellent cover artist and certainly did most of them for Marvel Comics in the early sixties. In any case, they swapped roles freely but in general Jack did the pencils and Joe or someone else did the inks.

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Preceding Evanier’s essay is a ‘Boy’s Ranch’ splash page featuring the lads at sea in a boat. The style is distinctly Kirby with heavy blacks and looks similar to his early seventies work at DC. This page could easily have been slotted into New Gods # 6. After the essay, there are some ‘Stuntman’ covers and several double page spreads featuring that hero. When I was eleven, I thought Jim Steranko invented the double page spread in Captain America # 110 for in 1971 there were very few books about comics and no Internet to find out everything. Steranko, a great Kirby fan, would have been the first to disabuse me of my faulty notion. The two pagers are not all great. The figures look wonky on ‘The Evil Sons of M. Le Blanc’ but the one for ‘Terror Island’ is a masterpiece of giant insects, collapsing buildings and falling figures.

Next there are a couple of pages of Kirby pencil art with a man being tied down by little people, like Gulliver. The pencils are clean, not sketchy, but with no black areas. I guess the inker was depended on to do that for this particular item. In general, as Gil Kane said, Kirby did ‘the most beautifully complete pencils you ever saw in your life.’ The rest of the pages in the book are inked so don’t buy this volume if you’re after original Kirby pencils. Worth noting here that all the art except for one double page splash is in black and white, which helps appreciation of the pencil/ink work. Apart from the cheapness this is one reason I like the ‘Marvel Essential’ and ‘DC Showcase’ series. Bigger pages and no colour gives a better view of the original art. However, Evanier has also stated elsewhere that Kirby loved colour. He never drew anything with the intention that it be published black and white, not even ‘In The Days Of The Mob’.

There’s an eight page story of ‘Calamity Jane’, a lady detective, in ‘The Case Of The Hapless Hackie’. It doesn’t look like Kirby. ‘A ‘Vagabond Prince’ story, ‘The Madness Of Dr. Altu’, might be early Kirby or Simon. Hard to tell. ‘The Furnished Room’ doesn’t look like Kirby neither. ‘The Affairs Of The Man From Out Of This World’ might be Simon, too, but it could be Kirby doing comedy. Seems to be a Superman spoof. It’s followed by some covers for ‘Headline Comics’ and ‘Justice Traps The Guilty’ which are by the main men. A five page story ‘Credit And Loss’ doesn’t look like Kirby. Some of these might be by Mort Meskin, a stalwart at the studio for many years.

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‘A Boys Ranch’ cover and seventeen page story ‘The Man Who Hated Boys’ are most definitely Kirby. Apparently ‘Boys Ranch’ was one of his favourite strips but it never really took off. Several stories of the boy ranchers follow: ‘A Very Dangerous Dude’ (9 pages), ‘Mother Delilah’ (20 pages), ‘Fight To The Finish’ (6 pages). There’s a double page spread in colour of Clay Duncan squaring off to a dangerous bear followed by several ‘Boys Ranch’ splash pages. For years, I have been reading comments about how marvellous ‘Boys Ranch’ was Kirby’s greatest work and how it should be reprinted. Well, here is some of it at least. It’s certainly good but I don‘t think it‘s as fine as his Marvel work.

The ‘Boys Ranch’ stuff is followed by several crime short stories that don’t appear to be by Kirby. ‘Masher’ (5 pages), ‘The Beefer‘ (6 pages) ‘Tough Beat’ (6 pages) and ‘The Mountie’ (5 pages). Although not by our hero, these stories often have first rate art, especially ‘The Beefer’ and are worth a look on their own merits. The Simon and Kirby Studio did employ talented people. Most definitely Kirby is the seven page ‘Fighting American’ yarn ‘Duel To The Finish Line’ but page 2 appears twice and page 4 is missing. That error on my pdf reviewers copy might be corrected in the final printed book. There’s a return to the western theme with a few pages of ‘Bulls-Eye’ and then an interesting 6 page short story ‘Fruit Salad’ about a flyer bedecked with medals. The theme is heroism. The art is not Kirby but it is good.

The next section is romance comics, which don’t interest me much. Stories from ‘Black Cat Mysteries’ that follow the girly stuff include ‘Take Off, Mister Zimmer’, ‘The Fireballs’ and ‘The Big Hunt’. ‘Jim Bowie Makes A Magic Knife’ is a short western interruption to the fantastic fare. The art on ‘Take Off, Mister Zimmer’ looks understated for Kirby but it’s excellent.

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This impressive volume winds down with several space stories that Simon and Kirby produced in the late fifties but which Joe managed to sell a few years later. These are: ‘The Thing On Sputnik 4‘, ‘Lunar Trap‘, ‘Face On Mars‘, ‘Island In The Sky‘, ‘Saucer Man’, ‘Space Garbage’, ‘Garden Of Eden’, ‘The Great Moon Mystery’, and ‘Lunar Goliaths’. They are all five pages long and the last two feature the 3 Rocketeers. Really great vintage Kirby art and some of it looks to be inked by Wally Wood. For me, this is the satisfying climax of the book. I have seen these stories coloured in another collection but the quality of the art really shows on this black and white version.

After ‘The Old Hulk’ and ‘When Time Ran Out’ – not Kirby – the last bit features ‘The Fly’, who may or may not have inspired Spider-Man in the minds of the many who have laid claim to the invention of that hero since he made it big. It’s all nonsense. Spider-Man didn’t succeed because of his powers but because young readers in the sixties could identify with Peter Parker, who was invented by Stan Lee. Stan may not deserve as much credit as he gets for the Marvel Universe but he‘s entitled to that bit. ‘Fly’ stories are interspersed with some yarns about the Shield, a flag bedecked all-American hero and there’s an Afterword by Jim Simon, son of Joe, to finish.

This magnificent tome is nearly 400 pages and contains a lot of high quality art. Big hardcover books are not cheap nowadays but this is certainly value for money and, if you shop around, you can get a good price. For the dedicated fan of Simon, Kirby, et al, it’s definitely worth it.

Eamonn Murphy

December 2014

(pub: Abrams ComicArts. 384 page illustrated hardback: Price: £30.54 (UK), $60.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-41971-160-2)

check out website: www.abramsandchronicle.co.uk/

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Category: Books, Comics, Illustration

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Eamonn Murphy is a science fiction and fantasy writer and reviewer who lives in the south west of England. If you want to know more visit his website: https://eamonnmurphyblog.wordpress.com/

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