Looking For The Awesome – 7. The Well Diggers Legacy

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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

THE WELL DIGGERS LEGACY

There’s no record exactly when Jack left the Boys Brotherhood Republic. From published illustrations we know that he was involved in 1937, and stayed in contact into 1938, when he attended a testimonial dinner in Harry Slonaker’s honor. Yet the experiences and the teachings of the BBR never left him. It is no surprise that when Jack Kirby finally had the freedom to create his own books that he would use the slums, the BBR and Harry Slonaker as his inspiration.

With the formation of the legal partnership with Joe Simon, Jack was no longer an artist assigned by the editor to a strip; he was now a full participant in the creative process. With the creation of The Newsboy Legion, Jack had found a place to tell his stories. This was Jack’s book, it didn’t matter if it said Simon and Kirby on the splash page, and there was no doubting who the captain of this series was. This was Kirby’s chance to pay homage to the man and group that had guided him to manhood, and responsibility. This was Jack’s way of paying the debt forward, and continuing the legacy of Harry Slonaker.

The Newsboy Legion was a group of slum dwelling orphans rescued from a stretch in Juvenile Detention by a do-gooder cop. The origin is a direct swipe of the romanticized version of the founding of the BBR, with kind hearted copper Jim Harper substituting for Harry Slonaker. When Harper sees the judge about to sentence the boys for some petty crimes, he steps forward and begs the court to turn them over into his care. The judge relents and makes Jim Harper their guardian. Back on the street, the boys get into some serious trouble, and this time the young policeman is forced to change out of his police uniform and don a colorful costume in order to save the boys from a mobster. Thus the guardian becomes The Guardian- the new scourge of criminals and protector of the innocent of Suicide Slum. Jack Kirby would note: “We thought we could take on the world, as kids always do. Nothing is impossible. The Newsboy Legion came from that period of my life. Of course we never had a Guardian, but Harry Slonaker came close.”

 

While Harry Slonaker didn’t really save the founding members from a cruel stay in JD, the success of the BBR would lead some judges to turn over young charges into its care. The records show that in one instance a boy was even turned over to the BBR in lieu of going to the penitentiary.

The members of the Newsboy Legion were all facets of Kirby’s adolescent fantasy self, and one was the spitting image of the young turtle neck wearing Jacob Kurtzberg. Scrapper was always the one getting into trouble, leading with his fists instead of his brains. The group also included the handsome leading man/boy archetype named Tommy, the ever loquacious Big Words, and a curly haired terror with a big mouth named Gabby. . “The kid gang comics were a natural part of my life, and it was something I knew very well,” Kirby explained. “What I did was take the kids from my environment and put them into strips. There was always one tough kid in every strip, and that kid would be modeled on myself.”

In one early story, the evil of back store gambling was the starting point for a spirited tale of mob control over gambling, and the Newsboys and the Guardian’s determination to break it. In 1934, the BBR Reporter ran a report of an investigation by a BBR committee on gambling-especially the penny slots found in the back rooms of candy stores. The head of the investigation was Kirby’s best friend Georgie Comet.

SSC30

The slum boys take on da rackets

“Two weeks of watching, and playing in these stores, resulted in a mass of information that astounded the citizens, It was found that families who receive emergency relief from the city have their money spent by sons who hang out at these game rooms all day. The proprietors encourage truancy from school, because they do not

The boys printed their own paper and ran the city for a day

object when boys come in during the day to stay away from school. It is in these game rooms that 16 and 17 year old boys make the contacts that take them into backyards to shoot craps, and up tenement fire escapes to rob and steal…… No official notice has been given to this evil, and it is up to the BBR to do something.”

When the BBR’s new City Hall was dedicated on Jan. 19, 1934 Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia officiated. George Comet gave an update of their investigation to the Mayor and Judge Samuel Seabury. Comet ended by promising the Mayor “My men and I are hoping to get the goods on these penny game rooms soon.” A NY Times reporter wrote of the broad smile that crossed Judge Seabury’s face when Georgie made this promise.

A copy of the BBR’s investigation was sent to the Mayor’s office and the New York City police. The new Police Commissioner was then given thirty days to rid the city of all slot machines. After one trial Mayor LaGuardia made this pronouncement: “I want to serve notice now on the owners, operators. racketeers, criminal, the riff-raff and the pimps who own them. (penny slots) They will find no comfort now. The imposition on the people is clearly described by the penal law. The player hasn’t even a gambler’s chance. It is plain, mechanical larceny.”

 

They learned responsibility – Sci-fi was never far

Lived their civic duties

Taking the cue from other BBR experiences, Kirby’s Newsies would start up their own newspaper, very similar to the BBR’s Reporter, and there was Scrapper/Kirby as staff photographer. In another tale, they even get to run the city for a day, just as members of the BBR did when invited by New York Gov. Lehman to Albany. There were the brushes with the uptown swells, and it was common for celebrities and sports figures to stop by and kibitz with the BBR kids, and in one Newsboy Legion story the Newsies were feted by a galaxy of Hollywood’s finest.

Every issue would have plot elements and characters ripped from Kirby’s child hood memories and his time at the BBR. The villains were big time mobsters, slum lords, street gangs, and crooked politicians; the human rats of Jacob Kurtzberg’s past, as well as a new threat that had wormed its way into the American fabric, Nazi bundists and fifth columnists. And when things got tough, the mysterious Guardian was always there to help bail the Newsboys out. The stories are fun action filled super-hero fantasy tales, but rooted in the real life experiences of Jacob Kurtzberg and his life in NY’s Lower East Side, and his time with the BBR.

The story doesn’t end there.

In 1940, Harry Slonaker took his beloved wife Besse back to Chicago. In 1942, while waiting to be drafted, the Slonaker’s moved to California so that Besse could stay with her brothers. While out West, the Overage Exemption law was passed, and the 38 year old Slonaker learned he would not be drafted, but Harry had fallen in love with the San Jose area, so he and Besse chose to remain in California.

Harry was restless, the time away from his kids gnawed at him, so in 1944, while working for a wholesale cosmetics firm, Harry spotted a group of youngsters playing in the rock strewn, litter filled area of San Jose, known as Backestro Park. He noticed the lack of supervision and poor quality of the facilities. His response was to recruit a new group of boys and form the Boys City Boy’s Club. Just as in New York, the group patterned themselves on republican styled government, elected their own officials, and policed themselves.

From 1944, till 1971, the man known to thousands of boys as Uncle Harry directed the Boys City Boys Club of Santa Clara County. From a rent free vacant neighborhood grocery, the BCBC moving pillar to post would eventually outgrow 8 temporary homes, until in 1951, Harry cajoled, pleaded, and otherwise convinced a consortium of architects, building supply companies, labor unions, public officials, and other concerned citizens, to pitch in and build a permanent site on land leased from the city of San Jose for one dollar a year.

Jack stayed in touch with his Guardian, and when asked Jack provided some cartoons for a San Jose newspaper article on the Boys City Boys Club.

In 1947, the New York chapter of the BBR established the Harry Slonaker Association in honor of this man.

In 1964, Santa Clara County in California named a new Elementary School after him.

Despite such accolades, Uncle Harry remained a humble and gracious gentleman. In announcing his retirement he likened himself not to the Captain of the ship, but more as a “kind of navigator and harbor pilot serving with many a Captain and crew’ whose role was to offer guidance to help the ship maintain “its proper, direct, and even course”.

In 1969, Jack Kirby would move to California, and finally settle in the Thousand Oaks area, several hours south from San Jose. In 1970, now with DC, and given the freedom to again produce his own stories, Jack Kirby would revive the Newsboy Legion and a new generation would thrill at their exploits, and the Guardian was still there to watch over them. In his magnum opus, the Fourth Word tetrology, Kirby introduced a new character, one who would be a bridge between the young Scott Free’s savage life on the slum-world Apokolypse, and his dream of a world of self-fulfillment and civility. Himon was to become one of Kirby’s more symbolic, intriguing, and iconic characters.

Jack may have moved to California, but his presence is still felt back at the BBR. Peter Boyle, recreation director remembers: “Kids don’t have an awful lot of role models,” “You can talk about Jimmy Cagney, but that was 50 years ago. But Jack is still a role model for these kids because, well, it’s comic books. It’s great that this guy who was here so long ago is still giving kids hope. Many of these kids really feel that they’re going to end up on the street with no future, but when they see that Jack Kirby, the father of Marvel, went to the BBR, it gives them a little more hope. That’s why we keep his picture up downstairs.”

Harry Slonaker died on Jan. 6th, 1989. Jack Kirby attended the funeral. The obituary in the San Jose Mercury News stated that; “He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Besse Slonaker, of San Jose. They had no children.”

Never was an obituary more wrong. Harry Slonaker had thousands of children, and they would grow to be writers, professional athletes, policemen, actors, and even Presidential advisors. One would die heroically, spitting in the face of terrorism, and one would become the greatest storyteller of his generation.

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