There's a certain cult about Jack Kirby these days. The King of Comics is deified by his most enthusiastic fans, who deliver a certain kind of endless, passionate at times overly intense mantra of "Kirby can do no wrong!" and "Kirby is the King" and "Kirby was the greatest comic book artist of all time" that resembles at times the worst excesses of religious fanatics trying endlessly to tell you all about the love that Jesus can bring them, as if trying to persuade themselves that their opinion is the only right and true opinion. Eighty years or so ago, God handed stone tablets to Mama and Papa Kurtzberg from Brooklyn, NY, and designated their first born son Jack to bring the Word of Comics to the world.
The thing is, that cult is actually right in most respects. Jack Kirby inarguably was a transcendent figure in comics history, a man who actually was an integral part of many of the most important and influential moments in comics. I don't have to tell you about how Kirby basically created Marvel Comics as we know it, along with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, or how the world of comics today would never have come to exist without Jack's amazing work on that transcendent line of books. He was also crucial in the creation of crime comics, superhero comics and — most amazingly for me — romance comics.
Most everything created by Jack — whether in tandem with Lee or with his other main partner Joe Simon — is in print these days, and nearly every one of those projects is really exciting to see. Kirby's Fourth World work has been thrilling to reread, and the exploration of the nooks and crannies of the King's Marvel work has been fascinating, and now Titan Books continues their Simon and Kirby Library with a collection of the King's seldom-seen crime comics. And, yeah, this is amazing, brilliant, exciting and fascinating comics. Of course it is. It's by the King of Comics.
This book is crammed with nearly three dozen short crime stories by the Simon and Kirby team. We get over 300 pages of great comics under hardcovers with immaculate reproduction. This is porn for those of us who are fetishists for gorgeously presented classic comics. And while not every story is a classic, editor Steve Saffel does a great job of selecting a wide range of fantastic stories by the S&K team.
There are so many wonderful stories in this book, presenting content that covers an absurdly large range of topics, from the Old West to the 1930s to the death of Guy Fawkes, from the boxing ring to several illegal casinos and banks being robbed, and a few dozen other places. This book is a blur of fascinating men and beautiful women in fascinating places, a world of brazen and intense lawlessness and wild and exciting action. And they also present a world that's long lost, making this book a wonderful look into a long-lost era.
Each story brings another bit of craziness. "Murder by Wave Length" involves an old-style radio that provides a clue to a murderer. This story features an intense shoot-out on city streets, as pure a Kirby action scene as any fan would ever want to see.
The epic 15-page "Get Me the Golden Gun" offers a beautiful femme fatale, an amazing golden gun, a Frenchman with an awesome beard, and yes, lots of awesome Kirby action. Anyone who doesn't think Kirby could draw beautiful women should see how he draws the literally breathtaking Velvet Silver in this issue. She's so gorgeous that I'd be tempted to knock over a bank with her!
"The Terrible Whyos" tells the story of a group of the most feared criminals in New York in the 1870s, cutthroats who gloried in enforcing mob rule — until they meet their ultimate fate for their crimes. There's a hysterically awesome moment in this story where the Whyos list the costs of each of their crimes like a restaurant owner might list the prices of his specials on a chalkboard. "Both eyes blacked —- $4.00 One good beatin —- $12.00 (with trimmings 12.50) Da big sleep — $100.00" The scene is so campy, but it's so cleverly done that I'm sure that Simon and Kirby meant the scene seriously.
"To My Valentine" tells the story of the St. Valentine's Day massacre in all its bloody and awesome glory. The story is full of many awesome moments of tension and violence; the tension builds magnificently as the story proceeds.
Over and over we get stories that are awesomely intense and fun in this book. "A Phantom Pulls the Trigger" tells the story of a killer in a small French town, full of Malthusian beliefs about over-population, who massacres people with a gun in is wooden leg. It's completely outlandish and totally crazy but awesome as hell.
"The Life and Death of Public Enemy Number One" tells the bloody and awful story of the notorious John Dillinger, who became famous in the 1930s for being a cold-blooded killer. The action and intensity of this story is great, including a fight with an angry femme fatale, a scene of dozens of eyes staring at Dillinger, and probably two dozen machine guns firing.
It's awesome because the Dillinger story is just as bloody and crazy and over the top as every other story in this book. The cumulative effect of reading "Pay Up or Die" right after "The Massacre of Eddie the Doll" and before "The Life and Death of Public Enemy Number One" is what really pushes this book over the top and makes it worth its hefty $50 price tag. It's hard to not step away from this book with a giant, gleeful smile on your face as you contemplate the completely crazy violence and sex of these stories.
The art team of Simon and Kirby is fascinating to see. You can see Kirby's influence through every single scene in this book, in the pure unending kinetic action of this book and in the completely unadulterated joy that he clearly feels at drawing this book. What's also really striking is that almost every character in this book is really extremely ugly. Even the most handsome men in the book has a craggy face that seems to be suffused by pain and horror and the corruption of the criminal life. It's as if we're seeing slightly below the surface of these peop
le and watching the evil sides of their personalities ooze out of every pore in their bodies. Only a few women are drawn beautiful, and those women are mostly innocent.
These comics are clearly pre-Code tales intended for adult readers of the late '40s, or at least more mature kids. It's easy to see how a Fredric Wertham and his ilk would overlook the gleeful artfulness of these stories and instead scream for censorship out of fear for the corruption of youth. These comics are really intense — gloriously, hilariously, over-the-top intense. And they are proof that the King of Comics deserves his accolades. This book reminds me why I'm part of the Kirby Kult.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.