December 2011

Martyn Pedler


Golden Age Obituaries

December wasn't kind to comic book legends. Joe Simon died only a few weeks ago. His work encompassed superheroes, romance, horror, and satire -- but as every obituary headline reminded us, he was best known as the co-creator of Captain America. And Jerry Robinson died one week before him, the key creator behind the Joker, and Robin, and other enormous chunks of the Batman mythos.

Critic Sean T. Collins said that interviewing Simon about comic history was "like getting to ask Peter about the Last Supper." As Jerry Robinson's son wrote, his father was "one of the last remaining links to the Golden Age of comic books in the 1930s and '40s." These links are disappearing, and soon -- failing the kind of last-minute miracle that appear in their comics with astonishing regularity -- they'll all be gone.

I don't think the classic comics created by men like these are revered in the same way as classic films or books. We mightn't be living in the Golden Age of Comics, but it's hard to argue the fact that this is the Golden Age of Reprints. And yet while every film buff has seen Citizen Kane, do superhero aficionados bother to go back to read these stories from the '30s, '40s, and '50s? We mostly praise these men for their creations, and not the tales told. The stories themselves seem to be considered primitive (if frighteningly valuable) blueprints. Quick sketches for all the adventures to follow.

So -- with gallows predictability -- Joe Simon's death was finally impetus for me to pull down a massive volume from the shelf that I'd been meaning to read for months: The Simon and Kirby Superheroes. Titan Books have released hardcovers of Joe Simon and Jack "The King" Kirby's early work together; first published was a Best of collection illustrating the wide range of their collaborations that made them the dream team of comics: war, horror, crime, romance, westerns, and more.

Superheroes, though, focuses on the lesser known characters they created between 1940 and 1960, outside of what would become the "Big Two" of Marvel and DC Comics. The Black Owl! Stuntman! The Fly! The Shield! Captain 3D! The Vagabond Prince! The most famous of these heroes is probably the Fighting American, a patriotic Cold War hero whose adventures take up most of the volume. He's an echo of Captain America, of course, who Simon and Kirby invented together a decade earlier. But only one of these characters appeared in a hundred million dollar blockbuster movie this year, and it wasn't Johnny Flagg, the Fighting American.

These men are responsible for some of the most well-known icons of popular culture. So what was wrong with this batch of heroes? Why didn't they make it? That's one question is what makes The Simon and Kirby Superheroes a fun and fascinating read. You can read these comics as a laboratory in which writer and artist can slam concepts and gimmicks and animal totems and bad jokes together, just to see what produces fresh sparks.

For example, Stuntman has an exact double who is an actor and amateur detective -- a conceit that splits the traditional secret identity in two. The Shield, drafted after his first adventure, also leads a double life. It's no longer civilian versus superhero, but soldier versus soldier. The Fighting American begins as the weak younger brother of a crippled war hero and patriotic broadcaster, who is then placed into the rejuvenated body of his dead brother to fight evil...

...and, uh, that origin story is never mentioned again. It's the most striking difference about these comics when compared to contemporary superheroes. Now they're always looking back, desperately drilling down into earlier stories to find the fuel to continue. Denny O'Neil, writer and editor at DC Comics, once said that the origin story was "the engine that drives Batman"; the Fighting American doesn't even seem to remember his own. (Sorry, dead brother.) Simon's writing allows no time for reflection, and the blurbs at the beginning and end of each of these issues always propel you forward to the next adventure, and the next, and the next. "Buy it! Try it! You'll try it again!"

The Fighting American doesn't have Hitler to punch on the nose like Captain America did; he fights the looming menace of communism. It quickly turns from propaganda to pastiche. Even communist agents in the story admit that their homeland is a place "where everyone wishes he was dead!" One splash page lists its villains with the bemused command: "Don't laugh -- they're not funny -- POISON IVAN and HOTSKY TROTSKI." And the Fighting American's own skewed notion of patriotism includes his suspicion of a man because he skips TV shows to watch the commercials, a woman because she doesn't find Liberace attractive, and a kid because he doesn't read comics.

Simon's obviously having a blast, and the series becomes stranger with each page-turn. The famous dynamism of Kirby's art is already in place, though his Dutch tilts are muted at first, and his faces tend toward an odd hangdog expression. The flat colors can be surreal, too, with murderers' faces suddenly turning bloody red. (Captain 3D's stories are represented in good ol' 2D here, in case you were wondering.) The collected stories of all these heroes are silly and strange and packed with action until the margins could burst.

My favorite new discovery was the Vagabond Prince. Ned Oaks, a mild-mannered descendent of a long line of cowboys and buccaneers, discovers he owns the city's entire East Side. Walking the streets, he shocked to see it's a slum and decides to fight for "his" people against crime and poverty. He speaks in cultured verse not because he's so-called royalty, but because he writes poetry for greeting cards. There's beauty and dignity in the lowest cultural forms. If comics teach us anything, it's that.

It's easy to forget, wrapped up in the desperate web of superhero continuity, that all of these are stories. Whether or not their characters became household names, these are more than just raw material for later writers and artists to turn into something else, something more. And battles over creator's rights are another reason characters are prioritized. That's where the money is, or at least, where it should be. Joe Simon fought Marvel for his piece of Captain America for years; Jerry Robinson campaigned tirelessly for artists' rights, and was instrumental in restoring Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's names as the creators of Superman.

In the world of superheroes, characters are considered more important than anything else. It's part of what allows them to feel so mythic. Unfortunately, it also means their creators and their human stories and needs are relegated to the status of necessary evils. Artist Steve Lieber recently wrote something on Twitter that struck me hard: "The cartoonist is regarded as, at best, a necessary piece of supporting equipment, and at worst, an actual threat to the hero."

Reading the obituaries of these men is a reminder of what popular culture can cost its creators. As Jerry Robinson said: "It was a new industry and we were pioneering a new mythology. We had no past so we had very few rules. We also didn't expect any of it to last."

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.