Looking For The Awesome – 6. Love, Betrayal, And The Rumors Of War

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We’re honored to be able to publish Stan Taylor’s Kirby biography here in the state he sent it to us, with only the slightest bit of editing. – Rand Hoppe

LOVE, BETRAYAL, AND THE RUMORS OF WAR

Jack was drawing 40 or more pages a month on Captain America and another 6-7 on the Vision, plus the occasional spot illustration for the pulp magazines. His life settled into a routine – a busy routine – but at least one that allowed him some time with the family, and with Roz. Jack and Roz would double date with Joe and his various girlfriends. Jack would occasionally bowl with his colleagues, and even once tried horseback riding; much to the hilarity of Roz when he couldn’t get the horse to move. Jack had even less luck with a bicycle. Jack had never ridden a bike while growing up, and Roz was determined to teach him. Roz recalled “So the first time he went on a bike he hit the back of a truck and he went flying into the horse drawn wagon.”

Captain America’s success emboldened Martin Goodman into another round of expansion. If one title with Captain America sold well, could another be far behind? With the publication of All Winners Comics, Goodman collected all his best sellers into one title. Headlined by Captain America, it also had tales of the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, and the Angel. Simon and Kirby would provide the art for Cap’s stories in the first two issues.

From the very first issue of Captain America, there was an effort to get the kid readers directly involved. With the formation of the Sentinels of Liberty, S&K asked the kids to join in the fight to stop Nazi terrorism– and it would only cost a dime! As the series progressed, a small group of Sentinels would show up to help Cap and Bucky in their exploits. It was a quick step for a small band of teenaged Nazi fighters to get their own book. The Young Allies would introduce Tubby, Knuckles, Jeff and Whitewash Jones (an African American) as Sentinel of Liberty members joining Timely’s two teenage super heroes, Bucky and Toro (The Human Torch’s buddy) in deadly battle against saboteurs. The first issue even guest starred the Red Skull.

The idea of kid gangs – even integrated ones – was not a new concept. Kid groups were the stock in trade of the juvenile series books that both Joe and Jack grew up reading. Titles like Boy Spies, The Rover Boys, Motor Boys, and Boy Allies were staples for the kids during the pre-comic era. In the movies the Dead End Kids, and Our Gang were both very popular long running series. The Dead End Kids even had their own comic strip in The Shadow comic books for a short period. Yet the idea of unsupervised civilian kids forming their own group and fighting saboteurs was unique for comic books, and fed into the fevered patriotism of the time. Jack recalls; “Well the kid gangs had been around and, of course, I’ve had the experience in my own childhood. I’m quite familiar with them, and I draw what humor I can from them. I feel that kids have always bunched together and had a good time. It’s a form of group activity and the color of the gang depends on the kind of atmosphere around them.”

Giving the super hero kid sidekicks their own book and exploits separate from their adult supervision was also a nice touch. Jack would provide the cover, and some splash pages for the first issue, and Charles Nicholas, a Fox veteran who had joined the Timely staff penciled the rest. Gil Kane said that Charles Nicholas had an agreement with Joe Simon that he would go wherever Simon and Kirby went; mostly as an inker.

Sometime in the spring, Joe got a phone call from Al Harvey. Al had left Fox Publications and joined an ad agency, but his heart was still in the funny books. He had come up with an idea where by folding a regular sized comic in two, making the books smaller, the page count could be larger, and the reader would feel like he was getting more for his or her dime–yet the cost to the publisher would be less. Al was looking for a partner to go in with him. Joe thought the idea novel, but he had a good thing going with Timely and begged out of the deal. He did offer to help out by providing a cover for the presentation. Al took his idea and sold it to a national distributor, who bankrolled him in his new venture named Harvey Publications. Joe then provided a few covers for the digest sized books. Unfortunately the digest sized books proved more a temptation to theft than a sales strategy, and were quickly abandoned.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly, Captain America was selling, the artwork continued to improve. Simon and Kirby became a recognized brand name. The new books were a success, and Timely had become a major player in the comic biz, yet Joe had a gnawing feeling that he and Jack weren’t being rewarded to the level called for in the personal agreement. Then, according to Joe Simon, he ran into Morris Coyne, one of Goodman’s accountants, and oddly enough, a part owner of MLJ Publications, the company that would become Archie Publications. Coyne, for some inexplicable reason, told Joe that Martin Goodman was stiffing them on the royalty payments for Captain America. “They’re piling salaries and overhead for most of the operation on Captain America. You’re getting the short end, but I doubt if there’s anything you can do about it.” It has been speculated that Coyne said this to try to get Simon and Kirby to jump Timely and come over to MLJ- something that MLJ had coveted for a while. Earlier, during a dispute over the CA villain named the Hangman, John Goldwater, the head of MLJ came right out and openly courted the boys in front of Goodman. Whether it’s true or not, no one knows. They did supply one cover to MLJ.

What we do know is that Joe Simon was relentlessly ambitious. He never stopped wanting to get the best deal he could for himself, and now, his new partner. If the team of Simon and Kirby were coveted by MLJ, then maybe it was possible that DC was also interested. DC was the pinnacle of comic art success. They were the New York Yankees of the comic book business, and the nirvana for all would be comic professionals. Whether Timely reneged on their deal or not, it was inevitable with Joe’s drive that contact with DC eventually would be initiated. Joe Simon called Jack Liebowitz, the operating manager at DC and was pleasantly surprised that in fact, DC was aware of Simon and Kirby and they were intrigued with the idea of S&K joining their stable. A meeting was set up.

A couple of stories up, and a world removed from Fox Publications, Joe and Jack were shown into the spacious office of Jack Liebowitz. Treated with a respect and warmth unimaginable from Victor Fox or Martin Goodman, the boys felt appreciated, and wanted. Harry Donenfeld stopped by and after the proper introductions, welcomed the pair into the DC family. The business negotiations went smoothly, and ended with Liebowitz promising to have his lawyers draw up the proposed contract. Jack Kirby was ecstatic! Even though the Cap and the Blue Bolt stories were signed Simon and Kirby, there really wasn’t a partnership. As editor, Joe was always Jack’s boss, and Kirby just an artist assigned by Joe to certain strips. With the new contract at DC, that would change. Simon and Kirby was now a legitimate 50/50 partnership with both rewarded equally.

The DC brass Harry and Irwin Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz in the middle

The DC brass Harry and Irwin Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz in the middle

Things began slowly at DC. The editors and Joe and Jack would throw ideas out and most were thrown back. Concepts like a super powered Sherlock Holmes were shot down for fear of legal problems. The editors sent them scripts for current back up strips, which were refused or rejected.

Not sure why they were worried, all comics were selling. No matter how silly the premise, if the lead character wore a multi-colored union suit, the title sold. New companies were crawling out of the woodworks, and many old characters were updated into super-heroes. The timing was remarkable, a perfect storm of financial collapse, and foreign disaster combined to create a need for cheap entertainment and for fantasy figures powerful enough to face the daily onslaught of bad news. The now growing military presence was a huge captive audience for every new feature.

Yank Magazine Nov.23, 1945
”At PX’s in the states purchases of these (comic) books run 10X higher than the combined sales of the Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest. What’s more, we’ve got market research’s word for it that 44 percent of all Joes in training camps read the books regularly and another 13 percent take a gander at them now and then.”

A Joe Simon drawing for inker George Roussos Jack did one for George also 1942

The first accepted project was a revision of an earlier DC hero. The Sandman was originally a pulp style hero in the Green Hornet vein. He had donned a skin tight costume, and taken on a kid sidekick several months before Simon and Kirby had arrived, but the stories were as dull as the artwork, and the character was seemingly headed for the scrapheap. When Simon and Kirby took over in Adventure Comics #72, cover dated March 1942; they ramped up the action and added in a thematic aspect centered on dreams. They updated his gadgets and modernized his appeal. Sandman and Sandy became top flight Simon and Kirby action figures and soon took over as the cover character for Adventure Comics. They also became part of the Justice League of America in All-Star Comics.

In the following issue of Adventure Comics, Simon and Kirby would take a little known back-up strip and completely redo the character, concept, and genre. The earliest incarnation of Manhunter was a plainclothes detective assigned to find missing persons, and track down criminals. Jack and Joe’s adaptation was a big game hunter who dons a colorful costume and tracks down the deadliest human quarry and brings them to justice.

The same month that Manhunter appeared on the racks; the first all original Simon and Kirby strip debuted in Star Spangled Comics. Star Spangled Comics was a title that had never featured a breakout character. Neither the Star Spangled Kid, the Tarantula, nor Captain X had caught the buyers fancy. With issue #7 (April 1942) the title became the showcase for S&K’s Newboy Legion, a group of inner city kids about to be sent to juvenile detention for petty crimes. To their rescue comes a policeman who promises to watch over these kids and lead them to the straight and narrow. Unfortunately these tykes couldn’t stay out of trouble and it became necessary for the cop to remove his police uniform and put on a cowled mask, a tight blue costume and a shiny gold helmet and shield to become the Guardian. Part Dead End Kids, and part Boys Brotherhood, the action was furious and joyous. This was Kirby at his most eager. This was Jack smacking down the gang from the next block, the small time hoods, slum lords, and crooked politicos- as well as fifth columnists and Nazi sympathizers. Simon and Kirby were on their way.

SSC7-cover

After the initial problems with the digest sized comic books, Al Harvey had rebounded nicely. Al was the eldest son of Russian Jewish immigrants, originally named Alfred Harvey Wiernikoff. He had met Joe over at Fox. He had quit to work in advertising when providence came by. With his brothers he had been able to buy up some failing comic companies and turn them around and restarted the titles. He dropped the last name, rented an office and began in earnest. He turned to his friend Joe Simon and asked for some covers to spark up some interest for the revitalized books at the news stands. Joe and Jack provided a dozen or so covers for titles such as Green Hornet, Speed Comics, and Champ Comics, sometimes signing them Jon Henri, but usually with no credits. Speed Comics featured a character named Captain Freedom, a typical patriotic character with a red, white and blue costume similar to Captain America. Several of the covers that S&K provided appear to have been unused Captain America covers with a few minor modifications. Jack and Joe could never get Captain Freedom’s costume correct, and none of them ever matched up. I don’t think Jack ever understood that Captain Freedom had bare legs. Why would a super-hero have bare legs? Al would always call on his friends when in need.

Jon Henri or Simon and Kirby help Al Harvey

On Dec 7 the inevitable happened. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered the war. Yamamoto’s secret plan worked to perfection, as wave after wave of Japanese planes bombed, torpedoed and strafed the anchored American fleet.   Jack recounted, “We went to a show at the Roxy and when we came out, people were crowding around on the sidewalk, talking and looking worried.  It turned out the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were going to war.  That’s how we heard.  It was a moment I’ll never forget The comic world had to adapt to the new reality.”

DC had always kept a hands off approach where Hitler and the European war were concerned. Where Timely and some other companies had been boldly using Hitler and the Nazis as villainous foils for months, DC was more cautious. Now that was to change. Simon and Kirby were given the go ahead for their next new series– one that would strike deep to the heart of the Axis powers.

The idea started when they asked themselves what would happen if the Newsboy Legion went to war. Not an unusual question since they were also asking the question; what would happen if we have to go to war? The answer became the Boy Commandos. The Boy Commandos were a rag tag group of orphans, thrown together by the horrors of the war. They represented the U.S. (Brooklyn) and Great Britain,(Alfy) France (Pierre Chavard and later Andre ) and Holland (Jan). Trained and led by American Captain Rip Carter, they would work behind the lines paving the way for the advancing Allied armies. With a more realistic and serious tenor than Captain America, this strip portrayed the heroism and sacrifice of the everyday soldier and those who would oppose tyranny. There was craziness, and slapstick, and lots of comic book humor, but there was also death, and loss of innocence. The concept was absurd, the idea of teen aged uniformed soldiers doing commando raids behind enemy lines is ridiculous, but as portrayed by Joe and Jack, it was easy to suspend disbelief. Joe said one inspiration was the juvenile series books The Boy Allies, about a couple kids caught up in World War 1 battles.

Almost as an apology for their earlier timidity, National felt the need to explain the Boy Commandos to an audience not used to pure nationalistic fervor. At the bottom of the first page was an explanation;

“What is this strip doing in Detective Comics, you say? The supercriminals who hold an entire continent in shackles can tell you! From the cauldron of war have risen new agents of justice, striking swiftly…silently! From across the Channel comes a new challenge! The Nazi brute cringes in fear…for the day of liberation is on its way…Nothing can stop it! The Commandos are coming!” Thank god since the other DC heroes kept their distance.

The Boy Commandos first appeared in Detective Comics #64, June 1942, as a back-up strip to Batman and Robin. The cover to Detective #65 would feature the group being welcomed by the dynamic duo. The Batman art was drawn by Jerry Robinson. Jerry explained at a panel discussion; “I remember collaborating with Jack so I was very pleased about that. The only time I think that Jack collaborated with anyone on the creation of a cover, except for Joe Simon.” A few months later, the Boys Commandos would get their own title. With stories also appearing in World’s Finest, the strip was regularly found in three different titles, an honor shown to only a few characters. BC was the perfect title for that captive audience of new military recruits.

Great layouts and colorful covers

Jack Schiff, an editor at DC recalled the team with fondness, despite a later altercation with Jack Kirby. He told noted pop culture journalist Will Murray: “I still regard him (Kirby) as one of the finest artists in the business. Both as a writer and artist, he has enormous talent. Now Joe Simon was a great part of that team. Most people don’t realize it because Jack came to the fore all the time. Joe was in the background. Joe did the business arrangements, Joe did the inking. I personally think that in some ways, Joe had the better story sense.” He added: “Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos, two great features we had for quite some time. And they were very popular. I would say that Jack was more creative, but wilder. Joe was the guy who would pull it all together.”

Simon and Kirby’s art took another giant step forward. Perhaps at a command from DC higher ups, or a personal decision to separate themselves from their Timely style, they stopped the crazy zigzag and “s” shaped borders between the panels. The circular panels continued, and in fact increased, but always as part of a rectangular larger grid. This cleaned up the art, but never diminished the flow of the action. Several strips were now set in the urban milieu, and Kirby’s architectural rendering was magnificent. From the slum shanties to soaring skyscrapers, and great Art Deco palaces, Kirby’s attention to detail astonished. The inking added to the atmospherics with the addition of a geometric approach to the shadows. Instead of realistic shaped shadows, they became bold abstract geometric patterns that focused the attention on the characters and directed the flow of attention from panel to panel. There was a pattern of arcs and circles that would dominate the backgrounds of Kirby’s art for years to come; abstract black snakes that wound their way through the panels, and great circular designs that spotlighted the action. It was masterful and unique; it was the beginning of Simon and Kirby’s rococo period.

The boys were really cooking. In the space of a few months, they were back to producing 40 or more pages a month, and seen in 6 different books. They had matched the success at Timely, and surpassed it. Siegel and Shuster didn’t have 4 concurrent titles, and neither did Bob Kane. Yet it was not all loves and kisses at DC. Several editors, Mort Weisinger chief amongst them would rag on the team: jealous of their independence. Complaints about S&K’s inking style, and rejections of scripts found their way to deaf ears at the DC office of Jack Liebowitz. Simon and Kirby were in a class to themselves. Their names were highlighted on the covers- an honor no other creative team received.

Frank Dorth, an artist who started in the forties and spent a lifetime in comics had this to say;

“My biggest complaint about the New York comic book publishers in the 1940’s was that they were all like a herd of circus elephants. They grabbed the tail of the one in front of them and followed each other around in a circle. They were not interested in quality, only what some accountant told them was selling.”

“I think that there’s a cultural thread underlying the superhero concept,” says Will Eisner, whose The Spirit is still being reprinted, more than 60 years after its creation.

They loved their Holywood Names in the books

They loved their Holywood Names in the books

Jack’s personal life had been idyllic. His family was now comfortable and secure in Brooklyn thanks to his steady $75 paycheck. Roz was helping out working for a lingerie shop producing lacy ladies undergarments. They were saving for their wedding, which they personally bankrolled. Work at DC was proceeding smoothly, with no let up in sight, and Roz was a rock, who doted over him and smoothed out his rough edges. Jack was flush and wanted to show it. He bought a used Lincoln-Zephyr. One of those large 12 cylinder jobbies that looked like the King of Siam would own. Jack had a problem, his mind wasn’t wired for the simple tasks we take for granted. His attention span was amazing when focused on stories or drawing. He could focus like a laser. But the mundane tasks of everyday life could never hold his attention and his mind would wander to the outer reaches of the universe. One day while driving the beast with Rose in the back seat, he took a turn into Central Park. His mind wandered for just an instant when he ran into one of those big granite stanchions with the big round ball on top. The ball broke free and rolled menacingly towards some picnicker. The impact jarred Rose and hurt her back. Jack soon got rid of the beast. Jack became gun-shy towards driving ever after.

On May 23rd, 1942 Jacob Kurtzberg and Roz Goldstein were married. Roz related a chilling tale about the wedding day. “Nearly all our friends were being drafted, and I remember the day that we got married, we were all dressed up. He (Jack) wore a tux and I wore my gown, and we were going to the reception, and people were yelling through the car, calling him a draft dodger because he was getting married.” Jack added: “Yeah, on our way to the ceremony, they were calling me a “slacker”.” The irony must have been palpable; the creator of Captain America, and the Boy Commandos being called a damned “slacker”!

They moved into a spacious apartment in Carlton Place near the beach. Roz recalled: “The apartment was so large that we could have a party and sit 12 people in the foyer. That’s how large it was.” Nights were spent with long walks by the ocean, often working as air raid wardens, making sure that the blackout was followed. “It was a very lonely time, because Roz and I would walk down Broadway, we’d go…anywhere we’d go, we’d walk around Brighton Beach and there were no young people there. It was a ghost town” Jack recalled.

The fear of going into the service, and leaving families with no steady paycheck worried everybody. DC was worried that the loss of Simon and Kirby would leave them with a less than satisfactory product. Jack and Joe instituted a plan, for as long as possible, they would work unceasingly to stockpile as many covers and stories as they could, so when they were in the service, DC would still have S&K stories to print and continue to send paychecks to the families.

It was during this stretch that Jacob and Roz Kurtzberg went to City Hall and filled out forms to officially and forever be known as Jack and Roz Kirby. Momma Kurtzberg wasn’t happy. Jack would bristle when people would claim that he was trying to hide his Jewish background. To Jack it was simply adopting an Anglicized name that was easy to remember, and sounded more American and artistic.

Once again, the boys hunkered down and with some additional inkers and writers began cranking out page after page. They opened a studio in Tudor City, a great Art Deco structure near where The United Nations building now stands. To enter, one had to cross a foot bridge that spanned a moat in front of the entrance. The studio consisted of a large room, bathroom and small kitchen. “We were in the shop at all hours.” Kirby told biographer Ray Wyman; “I don’t recall that we ever slept there, but I’m sure that at one point or another we all wanted to.” Now the Tudor City apt. was no hole in the wall. Tudor City was the brainchild of Fred French, the same developer as Knickerbocker Village. The difference being that KV was built as a low income residence, while Tudor City was upscale and high class. French built this as an enticement for the well to due to move back into the city proper—urban sprawl had begun a decade earlier. Built on the historic area known as Corcoran’s Roost it was French’s idea of utopia. It was the first skyscraper hotel development—consisting of twelve buildings, the largest residential unit in the U.S. Called Tudor City after the design style of medieval Britain, the architecture was actually neo-Gothic. The beautiful lobbys, mini-golf course, and grounds were breathtaking-quite a step up from the Lower East Side—no wonder they spent so much time there. It was originally built as a combination residential, hotel, and retail location all in one. Will Eisner also opened up a shop in Tudor City. Comics were getting swanky. On TV, the building was used as the Jefferson’s residence after they moved on up to their deluxe apartment in the sky. All rooms faced away from the East, due to the slaughterhouses and heavy commerce—this changed when the United Nations bought the land and erected their modern building. The project is listed as an historic district.

Tudor City – the boys were moving on up

One of the artists brought in to assist was Gil Kane, just a young boy of 17 or so. In an interview with Gary Groth, he remembered the time well. “Simon was business-like. He did all the handling, all the talking, he did all the standing. He didn’t write—it was Jack who wrote, Jack would either write a script or get one and adjust it as he saw fit.” “Jack was always sitting and working. Jack would take the scripts and he’d either write them or re-write them. Jack was simply a workhorse who never sweated. It just came to him.” Kane elaborated. “Jack was straightaway, he used to share confidences with me about himself, about his life. Simon wasn’t like that, Simon wasn’t my pal. But Simon was easy-going.” “he (Jack) used to confide, he used to talk intimately with me as a co-worker. I never felt anything except kindness and friendship.” “He was like an accountant: Always chewing on his cigar and always working. When you looked at his taboret, it was just littered with dozens of No. 2 pencil stubs. He would just wear them down; put them aside, until ultimately there was a logjam on top of his board!”

It wasn’t all work, Jack found ways to squeeze in some quality time with his sweetie. Kane talked about times when Roz would visit Jack at the Tudor City studio. “When his wife used to come up, I used to get so uncomfortable with the two of them there that I had to leave. It was familiar, you know? But still it was enough to show that they were warming up. So I would just sigh and go home.”

National service was no longer avoidable, Joe enlisted into the Coast Guard, where he was given a horse and told to patrol the beaches of New Jersey. Meanwhile Jack had been issued a temporary deferment due to his “sole provider” status for 2 families. He knew that it was a short term stay, so after closing down the Tudor City studio, he continued stockpiling inventory from the DC studio. Though short, the time at the DC studio was entertaining. Surrounded by Mort Meskin, Joe Shuster, Jerry Robinson, Jack Lehti and others, Jack’s amazing talents were often the center of attention, and a source of bemused consternation to the other pros.

Jack Schiff told Will Murray of a meeting of the Masters. “We (DC studios) once had a sort of race in the front office. We had a big artist’s room. Jack and Mort Meskin were sitting next to each other and there was some copy we needed pretty quickly from both of them. Each of them turned out five pages of pencils. Beautifully. It was really something. After a while, people began to crowd around watching. And they would both go ahead undisturbed.”

Gil Kane again: “…I was there for six months — first Joe Simon went into the Coast Guard in late spring and during the summer Jack finally gave up the studio and started to work right in the bullpen at DC. He went in mid-summer. I remember Mort Meskin saying that he just hated Jack working up there because Jack would sit down, working on those 13-by-18 page sizes and he would simply draw five to seven pages a day — once I saw him do ten pages in a fucking day — just incredibly beautiful. I mean, he demoralized everybody he worked next to. Meskin… who was a superb artist, and at that time he was really rolling, used to look at that stuff and just eat his heart out because it was so strong.”

Jerry Robinson on Kirby: “Jack was unique. As I recall he was very quiet, very self-contained, very unassuming. When I looked at his work, I thought, “Where does this come from? He looked like an ordinary mortal but he did this fantastic work. It seemed like all his inner fires and energies that you didn’t see on the surface came out on the page. He could take a piece of paper, and make–instead of two dimensions–ten dimensions. Dimensions that didn’t exist, perspectives that you couldn’t imagine; things that were impossible.”

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