New Volume Collects Jack Kirby’s Early SF Work

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The Simon and Kirby Library: Science Fiction edited by Steve Saffel. Titan Books, $49.95

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The Simon and Kirby Library: Science Fiction is a book about tomorrow—on at least two levels. An anthology of comic book stories spanning three decades, this book is about tomorrow in the sense that most science fiction is about the future. However, it’s also about tomorrow because it shows the style and themes that will shape the work of artist Jack Kirby, one of the greats of the comic book field.

Working with Stan Lee, Kirby co-created many of the characters that form the foundation of Marvel Comics, such as the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer and the original line-up of the X-Men. Before Lee, though, Kirby worked regularly with writer Joe Simon. They created Captain America, but this volume focuses on their sf work.

Super heroes are represented, though. In the early 1940s, before Captain America, Simon and Kirby worked together on Blue Bolt, a unique mix of sf and super hero action.  The title character is a surface man brought to an underground world and given super powers in order to fight the evil Green Sorceress.

There are 10 Blue Bolt stories in this anthology. At first the series seems like a minor curiosity, but, as the plot evolves and more surface people learn about the underground world, the story develops a momentum that still works today.  At the same time, Kirby starts to flex his artistic muscles, with widescreen battle scenes and characters like Marto, a floating head with tentacles that’s a prototype for classic Kirby freaks like MODOK and Arnim Zola (the original Zola, the one that still appears in the comics, not the relatively mundane looking one from the Captain America movie.)

Blue Bolt also demonstrates how storytelling principles have changed over the years.  Each segment runs 10 pages or so, and contains a plot that would take 10 issues to play out now. The widescreen battle scenes I mentioned earlier usually ran about half a page.

Two of the stories that stand out in the section devoted to the 1950s are “The Cadmus Seed” and “The Last Enemy.” Kirby introduced the Cadmus Project, an operation very similar to this one, into the DC Universe in the early 1970s.  I think the Cadmus Project is still part of the DC Universe,  but I may be a reboot or two behind on that.

In “The Last Enemy,” a man from the present travels to a future Earth where animals have evolved the ability to think and talk.  This is the basic framework  (without the time travel) of Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, another comic Kirby produced for DC. Kamandi doesn’t have his own comic at this point, but his world is revisited regularly.

The third section of the book is dedicated to stories that appeared in the 1960s. Kirby was working at Marvel during this period, so the stories here are ones that Simon wrote or packaged for other publishers.  My favorites here are Earthman ,  a sword-and-planet story by Wally Wood, and Clawfang the Barbarian, written by Wood and drawn by Al Williamson.  It’s no more than an amusing coincidence, but Clawfang bears a passing resemblance to the Thundarr the Barbarian animated TV show , which Kirby worked on.

This is a gorgeous-looking book, with high production values. Many of the 1950s and 1960s stories are reprinted directly for the original art,  found in Simon’s files. Artist Dave Gibbons (Watchmen and Give Me Liberty, among others) contributes an introduction to the book. Comic historian Peter Sanderson provides commentary for each section.  If you’re a fan of Kirby’s work, or just interested in the history of comics, you’ll want to check this out.

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