Author Archives: Stan Taylor

About Stan Taylor

Avid Jack Kirby fan and scholar Stan Taylor passed away in December 2014. We're honored to be able to present some of his work on the Kirby Effect.

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


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.


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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Looking For The Awesome – 5. Making It Personal

Previous4. 1940, The Year Of Living Furiously | Contents | Next – 6. Love, Betrayal, And The Rumors Of War

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


From the very first issue, Captain America had been a smash. It was soon selling a million plus copies per issue. It became Timely’s best seller, and Cap its most prominent character. Simon and Kirby had produced something unique.

Captain America was neither a Boy Scout, nor a dark detective and his tales were not little morality plays. They were violent clashes between good and evil, with no concern for nuance or moral equivalency. The decision to use Hitler as the central villain demanded that the crimes be realistically evil rather than theatrical scene chewing, and the heroics had to be equally driven. From the very first story the villain murdered a scientist, saboteurs blew up and killed innocents, and the Red Skull assassinated military personnel. Captain America was not designed to bring these criminals to justice, or to help bad people change their ways. Cap was not a cop; he was created to destroy this evil, to wipe it off the face of this Earth. Cap did not debate the morality of an eye for an eye, or worry about the philosophical ramifications of his actions, his job was to affect an almost Biblical retribution on those who would destroy us. Captain America was an elemental remedy to a primal malevolence. He was Patton in a tri-colored costume.


Rare original art Cap #6

Captain America wasn’t bloodthirsty, just single minded, and if that meant being judge and jury, so be it. Admittedly, it was rare that the villain died directly by Cap’s hand, usually it was the result of an evil scheme gone wrong, or an ironic reversal in a planned demise meant for Cap. It wasn’t even that every villain was killed in the end, but whether they were or weren’t, never bothered Cap one way or the other. When the German spy is killed at the end of the origin chapter, Cap nonchalantly remarked, “A fate he well deserved”– no remorse, no questioning. In the Red Skull’s first appearance, after he is unmasked and defeated, the Skull makes one last desperate attempt at escape and Bucky tries to stop him. While Cap stood motionless, the Skull rolls over on a hypodermic filled with poison and dies. Bucky gets up and looks at Cap incredulously and asks, “But you saw it all–why didn’t you stop him from killing himself?” To which Cap casually replied, “I’m not talking Bucky” In one tale Cap dispatched a villain with a well thrown tusk broken off a dinosaur skeleton, and another died when knocked out of the sky by Cap’s shield. Captain America wasn’t Roy Rogers shooting a gun out of a bad guy’s hand, and turning him over to the sheriff. Cap was 007 with a license to kill, leaving a body count that would impress Dirty Harry. Of course, no one really cared, Joe and Jack made sure that the villainy was so ghastly, and the action so breath-taking, that the deadly force seemed the justifiable outcome.

If Captain America was the perfect physical specimen- the super-soldier- than Bucky Barnes was every little guy with a dream of smashing in the face of the bully. He was a scrapper, a perpetual motion dynamo, taking them on five and six at a time and never backing down. He was Jack Kirby’s alter ego. When asked by Will Eisner if the heroes were fighting in his (Kirby’s) mode, Jack explained. “I felt that if I had to fight 10 guys, I’d find a way to do it.” This was Jacob Kurtzberg paying back every taunt and slight he had endured for being the runt. This was Jack Kirby confronting the strong arm goon in Will Eisner’s office. This was Jack Kirby making it personal.

The Holy Grail of comic merchandise

The Holy Grail of comic merchandise

To some Jews, there was a different interpretation.

More from Rabbi Simcha Weinstein and his book, Up, Up and Oy Vey!:

Despite the patriotic appearance, Captain America’s costume also denotes deeply rooted [Jewish] tradition. Along with other Jewish-penned superheroes, Captain America was in part an allusion to the golem, the legendary creature said to have been constructed by the sixteenth century mystic Rabbi Judah Loew to defend the Jews of medieval Prague. “The golem was pretty much the precursor of the Superhero in that in every society there is a need for mythological characters, wish fulfillment. And the wish fulfillment in the Jewish case of the hero would be someone who could protect us. This kind of storytelling seems to dominate in Jewish culture,” commented Will Eisner.

According to tradition a golem is sustained by inscribing the Hebrew word emet (truth) upon its forehead. When the first letter is removed, leaving the word met (death) the golem will be destroyed. Emet is spelled with the letters aleph, rem and tav. The first letter, aleph, is also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the equivalent of the letter A. Captain America wears a mask with a white A on his forehead- the very letter needed to empower the golem.

Jack would revisit the Golem mythology later.

Despite the gruesome undercurrent, these books weren’t grim. They were filled with humor, and light hearted slapstick, and over the top action. This was real stuff, and the consequences were often real, but this was also comic books, and the reality had to be presented in an overly melodramatic and visually exciting manner. If the good guys were costumed super heroes, than the villains had to be just as impressive, and even more visually stimulating. Issue #1 introduced not only Cap and his little buddy Bucky, but also the baddest arch villain of all time. The Red Skull was a sadistic sociopath and as drawn by Jack, a great visual image of pure evil. With his leering smile, burning eyes and blood red visage, he constantly taunted the boys. His goal was not to unmask Captain America, or humiliate him -Simon and Kirby had no use for typical comic book super-hero clichés- the Skull’s aim was to kill Captain America and destroy the U.S. As with all great fictional antagonists, no matter how many times he died, he was just too evil, and too huge to stay dead. He would reappear with great regularity throughout the series long run.

With characters that intense, the art had to keep up. In strips like Blue Bolt, and the Vision, Jack had experimented with exaggerated figures, and extreme action, but nothing prepared the comic reader for the explosive power found on Cap’s pages. Jack literally created his own physical dynamic, not based on human mechanics, or realistic proportion or actual range of skeletal movement, but from Jack’s hyper sense of how a scene needed to be exaggerated for maximum effect. When characters ran, they ran with legs impossibly apart and bent at inhuman angles. Yet they were always balanced and graceful, and when they fought, it was epic. Kirby’s figures never jabbed, or feinted, every punch was thrown from the heels, with the body twisting and torquing for maximum impact. Once hit, the recipients didn’t fall back or down, they flew oftimes completely out the panel.

Jack told Will Eisner how his technique evolved. “It’s (fighting) something that is an extreme form of behavior, and I had to do it in an extreme manner. I drew the hardest positions a character could get into. So I had to get my characters in extreme positions, and in doing so I developed an extreme style which was easily recognized by everybody.”

Jack’s fight scenes were violent ballets of body parts and sweeping movement. The idea of maximum impact was something Jack had absorbed at Fleischer where Popeye’s fights with Bluto were exaggerated to entertain. Jack knew instinctively that super heroes needed that extra cartoon dimension of power and exaggeration to actually make visual sense. If a Superman hits something, the response couldn’t be like a human boxer, the reader needed a different visual iconography to understand the extreme power these heroes represented. Cartoon style histrionics provided the perfect visual template. Jack told historian James Van Hise; “I had a fighter on my hands (Captain America) and I had to make him look like a fighter. You have to see a player from all angles and having an animation experience helped a lot because I put a lot of movement into my figures…..that was a big help in the kind of work I was doing. It made my figures move. It set a style for me which everybody recognized.”

The speed that was demanded didn’t allow for Jack to research and draw realistic machinery, so tanks, planes and guns took on an abstract nature. Kirby told Eisner; “I had no time to put fingernails on fingers. I had no time to tie shoes laces correctly…..I just made an impression of these things. In other words, I would draw a tank, it would look like a German or American tank, but that’s where it ended.”…”No detail, I didn’t have time to do it.” Backgrounds and machinery were important, but detail and factual minutia actually slowed down the reading process and distracted from the storytelling. Kirby’s constructs had mass and a functionality that was immediately obvious. They were loud, gaudy and impossible, and always dramatically impressive. At a later date, it would be called Kirby-tech, but in 1941, it was just Kirby following his storytelling instincts.

Simon wasn’t just a by-stander as Jack grew and experimented. Joe was experiencing his own growth spurt, laying out the covers, and composing the splash pages. Many of the design aspects on those covers and splashes evolved from Joe’s work in the pulp magazines; the figural posing and the title design and blurb placements are traits Joe would return to time and again. The splash page had traditionally been a glorified first page of the story, with a title added on, but in Captain America, they became stand alone little vignettes- presenting the reader with a premise. It was a cinematic prelude to draw the reader in and set a tone. In the same way that a movie trailer sets up a promise of suspense and excitement, the Simon and Kirby splashes became a trademark guarantee of an exciting story. S&K even began using panoramic double page splashes, the like of which had never been done before. They challenged the reader with varied angles, from panel to panel, changing perspective and view point. It was the equivalent of a constantly moving camera, not allowing the reader to get bored with a static POV. Everything was designed to maximize the reading experience by approximating cinematic techniques to control pace and build tension.

They were also experimenting with page and panel formats. Though Jack and Joe were never slavish devotees of the 3 over 3, or 3 over 4 rectangular grids, they had rarely wandered far from a rectangular panel, but from the very first pages of Captain America we see circular panels, and arched or s-shaped gutters between the panels. We see figures outside of the borders on almost every page. Not just to emphasize a main figure, but more to break up a straight line. It could just as well be a hand, or an arm, or a newspaper or some inanimate object. They were trying to elicit a feeling of movement by forcing the eye of the reader to flow from panel to panel, rather than the start and stop of separate panels. Jack literally didn’t want to be boxed in. Kirby explained to Will Eisner, “I tore my characters out of the panels. I made them jump all over the page. I tried to make that cohesive so it could be easier to read.” As the series went on, the borders would become even busier with zigzags and lightning bolt effects. The pages sometimes looked like jigsaw puzzles with the panels interlocking. The circular panels went from small inserts to full panel size, and at times overwhelmed the design. By issue #5 the circular panels came with scalloped edges.

Crediting inkers on Captain America is tough. Joe and Jack took their turns, but were helped by Syd Shore, Als Avison and Gabriele, Arturo Cazenueve, Charles Nicolas, Reed Crandall. Even Mort Meskin. Simon says Al Liderman helped on issue #1. Gil Kane says that Kirby was by far the strongest inker. “Simon only inked a fraction of what they did. Jack was his own best inker, he was superb. He did most of the Captain America splashes.”

The stories were formulaic, but they expanded beyond the “just the red meat” template of Colonel Jacquet. The premises were often ripped from recent movies. Plot elements from movies such as Lost Horizon, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hounds of the Baskervilles, and Mad Love (aka Hands of Orlac) would find their way into Cap’s tales. Logic was not a requisite, but the characters were interesting, and the locales varied and action was always a page away. In one of the better stories, Jack took his never finished Wilton of the West meets Hollywood tale and remade it as a medieval period epic. Private Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are hired as extras in a Hunchback of Notre Dame like film. During the filming, a horrific murder occurs and while sniffing around, they uncover a Nazi plot. Between the jousting, the storming of a castle, and a sword fight the equal of any Douglas Fairbanks movie, the action never stopped. Jack’s rendition of the castle architecture and the period clothing are right out of Hollywood Design 101.

With the introduction of the Ringmaster of Death and his carnival of crime in issue #5 Simon and Kirby would produce another theme that would echo time and time again in their books.

In another interesting twist, one story ended with the battle weary twosome fast asleep in their cots catching some zzzz’s. The next story turns out to be a fairy tale dream by Bucky reminiscent of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and ends with the two waking up from their slumber. A nice bit of continuity and an imaginative way to get a lighter toned imaginary tale mixed in. This would feature Jack’s first full page spread showing Cap and Bucky hoisted on the shoulders of the happy townsfolk whose king had just been freed. They would also break the third wall and have characters speak directly to the reader, inviting them into the story.

Jack and Joe took from every influence they had absorbed and twisted and turned and melded this into a style so individualistic, so readily recognizable, that they had surpassed their influences. The students became the inspirers. Simon and Kirby became a brand. Will Eisner called Captain America, “Simon and Kirby at its purest. You started with an infant form and by sheer might-and-main created a whole new genre.”

The cancer was spreading; most eyes were on North Africa, where at last some good news emanated, an Italian garrison at Tobruk was falling to the Australian 6th Division. Half a world away, Adm. Yamamoto of the Japanese Imperial Navy was proposing a secret plan called Operation Hawai’i- a sneak attack on the island of Oahu, to catch the American Naval base at Pearl Harbor sleeping. On January 27th, the American Ambassador to Japan, William Grew sent a coded cable to President Roosevelt informing him of a rumored surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The rumor was quickly discounted. The U.S. of A. was still neutral–at least officially. No one told this to Jack and Joe.

In Feb. the team began production of Captain America #5. For the first time, a story was located in the Pacific. Call it prescience, or coincidence, but it seems that Capt. Okada of the Japanese Imperial Navy had a secret plan to destroy the Hawaiian island of Kunoa and catch the Pacific Fleet while they are in harbor. It is Cap and Bucky’s job to stop this insidious plot. While not as militarily impressive as Yamamota’s plan, a battleship swallowing sea serpent shaped submarine aiming to detonate a dormant volcano was pretty damn exciting, and a brilliant visual feast. Not only had Simon and Kirby launched a preemptive war on Germany, but now they were kickin’ “Jap” butt, ten months before Pearl Harbor. It also had a wonderful full-page cut-away view of the Japanese dragon ship.

Captain America was a sensation. NY Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a regular comic strip devotee, called S&K personally to express his fondness for the strip. Amazingly, not everyone was happy with Captain America. On occasion the Timely office would get phone calls and letters from Nazi sympathizers threatening the creators of Captain America. Once, while Jack was in the Timely office, a call came from someone in the lobby. When Kirby answered, the caller threatened Jack with bodily harm if he showed his face. Kirby told the caller he would be right down, but by the time Jack reached street level, there was no one to be found.

Previous4. 1940, The Year Of Living Furiously | top | Next – 6. Love, Betrayal, And The Rumors Of War

Looking For The Awesome – 4. 1940, The Year Of Living Furiously

Previous3. Escape To New York | Contents | Next – 5. Making It Personal

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


Once again all of Europe was at war. With its daunted Blitzkrieg, Germany had invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland. Holland, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands were imminent targets. Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia had declared war on Germany. The U.S. was ostensibly neutral, but to the European immigrants of Jewish descent, Hitler had made it personal.

“Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

– Adolf Hitler,1939

Kirby knew that war was coming, everyone knew, but he had his own personal battles to wage. For three years Jack had toiled in the minor leagues of the comic art world. He had worked for many companies, and with many people whose talents were nowhere near his level. Yet he sat at a small cubicle at Fox Publications and watched as Will Eisner would bring in pages by lesser artists like Art Peddy or a Bob Powell. A crude rookie like Jim Mooney had a recurring strip in Fox’s titles. Even his old colleague at Lincoln, Larry Antonette was producing a strip for Timely, and Better Publications. Meanwhile he was stuck doing janitorial work on other’s art and fighting for scraps to fill out his time–so many promising starts, only to see them fall by the wayside. His dreams of artistic success were being crushed in a low paying, menial role.

For all of Kirby’s confidence in his artwork, his childhood had left several psychological scars. The taunting because of his height, his failure to finish high school, and his impoverished upbringing had left him with a feeling of inadequacy which hindered him when dealing with publishers and professional people. As Jack would tell it, “I was 5’4”. The publishers would not look at me, and I took it in stride. I knew they wouldn’t take me seriously.” “I’m a competitor, I made up my mind to beat five guys, ten guys because I was a little guy, and you’ll find that little guys are cantankerous, independent, and they want to be themselves. Of course you’ll find that among big guys too, but more so I think among the smaller people because that had to fight to be noticed.” Will Eisner loved to tell of an incident where he was being pressured by some bent-nosed type to accept inferior towel service at the studio. When the voices became louder, Jack Kirby, working away at his table recognized the sound of strong arm bullying, came out of the art studio and with finger securely pressed in the punks chest, physically confronted the large burly punk, letting him know in no uncertain terms that if he bothered Will again he would answer to Kirby personally. The tough never bothered Eisner again. This ferocity that Jack displayed to the hood could never be found when dealing with publishers or other “suits.” Jack understood the petty hoods, they talked the same language, and they were of his neighborhood. Confronting them was second nature. But the swells or the upper crust could never be understood by Kirby; he would swallow his pride and quietly do what he was asked. His defense was to become more invisible, and work even harder. The overriding fear of becoming like his father and not being able to support his family would never leave him. “The ghetto will scar you for life. I was determined to draw better than five other guys. I was determined to draw better than ten other guys. I was determined to put whatever I knew to work to get me out.”

Being Jewish was also a problem. Getting hired at a fancy syndicate was out of reach. Despite denials from Kirby, he knew that his last name stamped him as an outsider. It wasn’t for nothing that his pseudonyms at Lincoln were all Anglicized. Jewish illustrators and writers entered the comic-book field because other areas of commercial illustration were virtually closed to them. “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew,” explains Al Jaffee. “One of the reasons we Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.” But an Anglo pseudonym made it easier so Eli Katz became Gil Kane, or Robert Pavlowski became Bob Powell. Jacob Kurtzberg became Jack Curtis became Lance Kirby became Jack Kirby—a name to be taken seriously. Gil Kane remembered; “location also played an important role. The comic book was born in New York City, and because the industry was so new, it was wide open to the children of immigrants, particularly those on the Lower East Side. “It never really occured to me that there were an inordinate amount of Jews in the business, although in retrospect I can see that,” says Jack Abel. “But then it just seemed like we were all New York guys. Kids growing up in New York saw themselves as comic book artists and gravitated toward that.” But being Jewish did present problems to the publishers whose readers spanned the whole country. Though created by Jews, the characters were lily white Aryan.

“Most of us, at the time, were trying to ‘pass.’ That was the thing to do,” says Eisner. “As a rule, we tended to try to keep our culture out of our work,” agrees Abel. “But you could say the same thing about the Catholics in the business. You never saw an Italian character, for example.” “In those days, you just didn’t go around writing about Jewish heroes,” adds Simon.

Looking up at the tall slender Joe Simon, there was no reason for Jack Kirby to think of Joe as a major league talent scout, yet Jack was duly impressed by Joe’s twin symbols of status–height and a nice suit. “Joe was highly visible, being 6’3’ and being a reporter on the Syracuse Journal. I admired Joe tremendously for that. I admired him for going to college, and I admired Joe for coming from what I thought was a middle class background.” Jack further recalls, “I gravitated to Joe because I had never seen a guy from Syracuse, New York. I would run home and tell my parents that I knew a guy from Syracuse. Yeah…and he wears great suits. You ought to see the suits this guy wears.”

Kirby’s gross exaggeration of Joe Simon’s background and resume says more about Jack’s own inadequacies than of Joe’s superior qualities. The truth is Joe Simon was from Rochester, New York, and his childhood wasn’t much different than Jack’s. Four years Jack’s senior, his father was also a tailor, who specialized in suits, thus Joe’s natty appearance. The family suffered through periods of unemployment-often brought on by his father’s role in union organizing. If the Simon’s life was any better than the Kurtzberg’s than it was only by degrees, Rochester’s slums weren’t New Yorks. Joe’s early influences were the same as Jack’s; “the highlight of the week (was) when my sister and I finally had our turn at the Sunday Funnies with their spectacular color cartoon pages. We devoured each cartoon strip.”

Joltin’ Joe Simon – The Fiery Mask sketchy, boring and wordy abysmal lettering – nobody cared

Joe lived for the movies; he would talk for hours about the inspiration he got from the great directors. Drawing from a young age, he became serious at Benjamin Franklin High School, where as art director he produced spot art for his year book. The art was so good that a couple universities paid ten dollars for publication rights for their yearbooks. In a scene that would repeat throughout his career, Joe had to fight his school to get his money.

Joe never went to college, when he graduated high school in 1932; he immediately went to work for the Rochester Journal American newspaper in the art department. He began as an assistant, learning the art of retouching photos. He mastered the air brush, and honed the skills of cutting and pasting. He had a knack for laying out well designed photo spreads. After a couple years, he moved on to the Syracuse Herald, where he would become the art director. Among the day-to-day proof up chores, Joe was able to provide original art. He loved doing sports cartoons spotlighting local athletes and upcoming sporting events. He provided spot illustrations for the serialized novels printed every weekend. Unfortunately, the Herald was bought out and in 1936 Joe decided to head to the Big Apple.

Joe’s first job in New York came in the photo retouch department of Paramount Pictures. There he would embellish studio photos of the stars; erasing wrinkles, slenderizing figures, and lifting and enhancing famous bust lines. “I retouched some of the most notable bosoms in pictures” Joe would recall with a wry smile. This was a thankless and joyless career, so Joe continued to look elsewhere.

Early solo Joe Simon – interesting fonts

Bernarr Macfadden had built a fascination for physical fitness into the largest publishing empire of the 20th Century. Macfadden’s’ largest selling magazine was True Story. The main attraction was that these lurid tales were written by “real” people. In fact, most of these stories were written by professional writers using pseudonyms. By 1926, True Stories had a circulation nearing 2 million copies per issue. This success was followed by True Romance, True Ghost Stories and True Detective. Though slicks, these successes would lead to the birth of the pulp industry that expanded on the true confessional genre with even racier, tawdrier and cheaper detective and romance books. Joe managed to pick up work for Macfadden Publications, where he would provide spot illustrations for its line of slick magazines. In his bio Joe explained; “Artist’s were abundant but only a handful made it to the top. These few became rich and famous. Artists such as James Montgomery Flagg, and before him, John Held Jr. were celebrities, but the glamour often vanished abruptly as different styles became popular. One day an artist might be in vogue–the next day a has-been.” Harlan Crandall was a crotchety old guy, but he liked the young man. The art director at Macfadden suggested that Joe try his hand at a different venture in a relatively new industry. Harlan slipped Joe a piece of paper with a name and an address, one that would take Joe to the offices of Funnies Inc.

Funnies Inc. was another early comic art studio, owned and run by Colonel Lloyd Jacquet. Jacquet was an ex-military man, a dead ringer for Douglas McArthur and one of the original editors for Wheeler-Nicholson’s New Comics. Not surprising, Jacquet left Nicholson over a dispute concerning payment. He next turned up at Centaur Publications, a new comic publisher, where he edited some of the books. There he met Bill Everett, an up and coming artist, and decided to open his own shop. Taking Everett with him as art director, plus artists Carl Burgos, and Paul Gustavson, he sought his fortune. After a failed try at a movie premium to be given away at local theaters, he next tried comic books. Funnies soon picked up several accounts; chief among them was Timely Publications, followed quickly by Novelty Press and Famous Funnies. Joe would marvel at his shined shoes and spit and polish military reserve.

First for Funnies Inc. – First Timely for Joe Simon ugly costume bad perspective

The first comic book packaged by Funnies Inc. was Marvel Comics #1 (Oct.1939) for Timely. It contained the first comic book appearance of the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, the Angel, Kazar and several others. It quickly sold through its first printing and a second was ordered up. Marvel Comics was renamed Marvel Mystery Comics with issue #2; the series was a hit!

Bill Everett talked about working at Funnies Inc;

Everett: We formed Funnies in an effort to go into business for ourselves, eventually to become publishers. This did not occur. We remained as an art service, and Frank Torpey, who was sort of a contact man for us, got us our first account with Martin Goodman.

I: What was your capacity at Funnies?

Everett: I acted as assistant art director. I assigned story material to artists, accepted it from them, edited it as it came in.

I: What were Lloyd’s duties?

Everett: Pretty much the same as mine, except that he had more authority. He interviewed artists and looked over material and decided if it was acceptable or not.

Timely’s top three

Joe’s timing was perfect; Funnies Inc. was expanding and needed more material. The Colonel explained to Joe how the art studio worked. Bill Everett explained in an interview. “In those days, a new artist would approach us with an idea and a story. If we liked the character and story, we’d buy it. The story would generally be accepted “as is” with very little editing and little change. If a publisher liked it and thought it had a chance of a good sale, then we would continue it for several months until the first sales reports came in—generally about three or four months.” As a former newspaperman, Joe was used to seeing his published work the next day, so he was a little put off when it was explained that there was a 3-4 month gap between the creative aspect and the actual publication. But Joe figured to give it a go, and the Colonel asked for a seven page western. Joe returned 4 days later with his first sequential strip, and it was accepted as is. His next assignment was more daunting. Joe was asked to come up with a new super hero, a lead feature to appear in a new title at Timely. Joe fretted over the assignment and pushed and prodded Jacquet for details. With some exasperation, Jacquet finally responded; “That’s potatoes; just give us the red meat. We don’t have much time.” Joe returned a few days later; the art was crude, the story implausible, the dialogue was laughable, and the lettering, amateurish to be kind–and yet, the Fiery Mask was accepted as presented. Joe learned an important lesson; the owners had no idea, nor cared whether the product was good or bad, they only cared about getting it out on time. It debuted in Daring Mystery Comics #1 (Jan. 1940) as the cover feature, an honor for an anthology strip.

Joe Simon worked directly under the Colonel, and Joe continued to draw stories for Funnies Inc. which would appear in titles for several publishers, such as Solar Patrol for Lev Gleason, and T-Men for Target Comics, from Novelty. But the solitary hours at a drawing board weren’t his chosen ambition. His true interests lay more in the management area of comic production. His newspaper art director background was perfect training for the role of editor for a publishing house since his knowledge encompassed not just the art, but the production side of publishing. Joe knew how to get product out.

Quietly hoping to expand the industry audience beyond the (“twelve year old cretins from Kansas) November of 1938 found Will Eisner meeting up with Henry Martin and Everett Arnold (the owner of Quality Comics)) They had an idea of formatting a weekly comic and inserting it into newspapers. With Will’s rep for producing top-notch material they thought he was the ideal man to produce them. Will agreed, and after a quick separation from Sam Iger he took his pens, brushes and part of the art squad and headed to a new studio in the swank Tudor City complex. From there they would produce the Spirit magazine plus some other features in Arnold’s army of books. Unfortunately this left Fox with some holes to be filled.

In Dec. 1939, Victor Fox placed an ad in the papers looking for artists to replace the ones leaving with Eisner. Simon answered the ad, and met with Victor Fox and Robert Farrell. Joe entered the interview process as a novice comic book artist with a dozen or so stories under his belt, and exited as an editor. First job; George Tuska had left E&I and his two strips needed to be ghosted.

Say hi to Joe Simon –  Will Eisner had better ideas

As much as Jack Kirby was impressed by the persona of the new editor, Joe was equally impressed by the talent and speed of the staff artist. Jack was immediately given the task to plug up those couple holes. For the May 1940 issue of Mystery Men Comics, Jack did Wing Turner, a modern day aviation strip. Jack loved airplanes, some of his childhood idols were the barnstormers, and aerial hot shots. One of his fondest memories was when a BBR buddy; Morris Cohen took Jack on a plane ride. Kirby recalls; “We flew upside down over New York City. He scared the hell out of me, but that’s how I got the idea of drawing city scenes from a bird’s eye view.”

Cover for BB#3 Alex Raymond swipe – Simon does Lou Fine beautifully

Jack put a lot of care into this story. The planes are authentic, and the flying scenes are wonderfully staged. Though only three pages, it is also of interest that we are introduced to Prince Otembi, an African Pygmy shown as an intellectual and flying equal to the white American hero, something rarely seen in comics of this period.

Hi-contrast, clean lines – Wing Turner: nice planes and a pygmy

For Science Comics #4 (May 1940), Jack drew “Cosmic” Carson. This had Jack once again doing space opera, and this is really superior work. The futuristic city is straight out of Metropolis, and the weapons are detailed and finely rendered. Kirby’s figures and musculature borrows heavily from Alex Raymond. The one glaring weakness is Jack’s attempt at a femme fatale. The female figure in a form-fitting costume seemed to give Jack fits; he never managed to get the proper mix of sexiness and grace needed to pull this off. I think he needed a real life model. It would come soon enough.

Joe Simon set out to fill in the Fox staff; he would hire Al Harvey for production work, and artists such as Chuck Cuidera, and Al’s Avison and Gabrielle. He would bring in writers Ed Herron and Martin Burstein. Joe took it upon himself to produce all the covers for the Fox books, and using Lou Fine’s style as a template he produced some amazingly detailed and energetic covers. Despite signing many of them, his covers have often been mistaken for Lou Fine. Joe had a knack for mimicry. The bullpen was small but energetic. Chuck Cuidera remembers Jack as the little animated artist who never stopped. He was always grunting and talking and moving while he drew, like a ball of energy trying to explode. Later on Joe would hire Howard Ferguson as letterer. His lettering is found on most strips done in-house at Fox. Joe says he met Ferguson while working over at Timely’s pulp division, but evidence shows he was working for Joe at Fox before he joined Joe at Timely.


Simon’s Blue Bolt, bad lettering, bad formatting, ugly woman, illogical but ok comics

Jack continued on Blue Beetle. Unlike comic books which had a 3-4 month lag, newspaper strips customarily worked on a six week production schedule. The strip began publication on Jan. 8, 1940, and Kirby’s installments ran for 2 months. After the first storyline wrapped up, Louis Cazenueve took over the art chores. One can speculate as to why Kirby was pulled from BB, but what is certain is that Joe Simon had bigger plans for Jack, and Jack was eager to follow. Though Joe was editing for Fox, he continued to freelance with other companies. Joe asked Kirby to assist on his freelance projects, and Jack was pleased to do so. For Worth Publishing, Joe provided 3 covers for Champion Comics #s 8-10. The first was penciled by Joe, but #9 and 10 were penciled by Jack, marking his first original cover art. Joe says that the three covers came about in exchange for the publisher letting Simon and Kirby work there on other features.

Over at Funnies Inc. Novelty Press had contracted for some comics to add to their magazine line. Novelty was the comic book imprint of Curtis Publishing Company, publisher of The Saturday Evening Post. Although published in Philadelphia, Novelty Press’s editorial offices were in New York City. Art was supplied by Funnies Inc. Target Comics was the first title, and this had featured several strips by Joe. For their second title they chose to name it after the featured character. The first issue of Blue Bolt Comics was dated June 1940. It featured the origin of Blue Bolt, drawn, inked and lettered by Joe Simon. The strip highlighted Joe’s strengths and weaknesses. The concept was a blending of Fox’s Dynamo, and Sorceress of Zoom strips with The Phantom Empire, a Gene Autry western/sci-fi movie serial from 1935.

Kirby’s firsts all action skeletal bodies

An interesting advertising blurb appeared in Prize Comics #6. Prize was published by Crestwood a small independent. The cover of Champion Comics #10 was one of Kirby’s first covers. It was drawn for Worth Publishing. I have no evidence of any connection between the two companies except that Simon and Kirby began working for Prize the next issue of Prize Comics. Perhaps it was this early art that sold Prize on S&K. It’s notable to see that Champion Comics #10 was cover dated August but actually hit the stands on June 28. One other oddity is that Prize Comics #6 was dated August, and it wasn’t until December that issue #7 arrived. I don’t know why the four month hiatus, but the content was completely reworked with new characters and updated characters, led by Kirby’s version of Black Owl.

Oh sad eyes don’t worry Blue Bolt to the rescue – Gene goes sci-fi

In Joe’s story, Fred Parrish, a Harvard sports star is mysteriously struck by lightning, and hurled into the underground world of Deltos. Dr Bertoff, a scientist who resides in the underground cavern world revives him with massive doses of radium. The radium had side-effects giving Fred the ability to fly and to harness the power of lightning. Deltos is ablaze in a power struggle against the wizardry and technical superiority of the Green Sorceress, and her Voltor minions. The armies fight, ala Flash Gordon, with an odd mixture of medieval weapons and ray guns, and the Sorceress keeps an eye on the battles via her “televisor.” As drawn the Green Sorceress is a match for the exotically dressed metal bra and diaphanous bloomers of Queen Tika of Murania. (from Phantom Empire) The story unfolds serial style similar to the Gene Autry movie serial.

The concept was acceptable as comic book tripe, but the plot was holier than a hobo’s socks. Joe was good with concepts, but his plotting and pacing skills were weak, likewise he was great with the single photo style page, such as a cover, but very weak in the small sequential panels that make the story flow with a logical continuity. Joe’s background was as a presentation artist, not as a storyteller. To make up for these weaknesses, he relied very heavily on swipes. Many of the panels are direct swipes from Hal Foster or Alex Raymond. All comic artists swiped, but rarely so obviously. Joe realized his weaknesses, and upon arriving at Fox, recognized someone whose strengths were a perfect complement to his weaknesses. Jack’s last three years were spent mastering just those storytelling skills, the pacing and small scenes that kept the story flowing clearly. Plus Jack had developed an art style full of energy and drama, and perhaps most importantly, Jack was fast! Kirby quickly agreed to Joe’s offer to assist on Blue Bolt. In Joe Simon, Kirby saw someone who was at equal ease dealing with management, and art staff. Not since Will Eisner had Jack met someone as comfortable and confident with all sides of production.

Kirby cover-first on Blue Bolt – Joe learns to do better, copy Lou Fine

For Blue Bolt #2, Joe rented a hotel room and after hours at Fox, he and Jack began a collaboration that would become legendary. For this initial effort, they struggled to find a complimentary division of labor. Pages and panels were doled out willy-nilly with both men doing individual pencils and inks. What they got was a schizophrenic jumble where styles competed with each other. The Kirby panels were detailed, dramatic and bold; Joe’s were sketchy and sparse, with little variety in the posing. Very quickly they perfected a system that made the best use of both men’s talents. By issue #4, they would lay out the pages together, and then Jack would pencil, followed by Joe doing the inking. Jack was also helping with the plots, and the stories became stronger with a better handling of the sci-fi aspects.

Separate from Joe Simon, Jack had picked up another freelance job. Famous Funnies had run through the existing inventory of Lightnin’ and the Lone Rider. Robert Farrell approached Jack and asked him to produce new pages of the title. Starting with Famous Funnies #72, (July 1940) and running through most issues to #80, Jack provided 2 pages of art per issue. The art and story is all Kirby. Kirby was solidly in his sci-fi mode, and this once colorless western became a mixture of western lore and futuristic mysticism. The new antagonist was a 50,000 year old man, the last of his race named Chuda, the deathless one! He was a short guy with a huge head- a visual that Kirby would use many times. He could read thoughts, mentally control and incapacitate an enemy, and aurally teleport through walls. The Lone Rider had his hands full. A similar character would appear in Blue Bolt #6 (Nov. 1940), with his big head and mental prowess due to mutation from a blast of cosmic radiation- another theme to be repeated later in Jack’s career.

Jack’s sci-fi western – Eisner’s masterpiece

At Fox, Victor was experimenting with a new format; a small four page insert magazine that could be added to Sunday newspapers. The insert would include comics featuring Fox’s stable of characters. The enterprise was short-lived, but the samples show that existing comic book art was reformatted to the different size, and new narrative was added to fill in the story gaps. Jack was assigned to cut and paste up the new pages and write in the new blurbs. His added lettering really stands out on the pages. A month or so later, Will Eisner would have a more successful effort with this format. His new character, the Spirit would become one of the great comic creations of all time. Jack would opine that The Spirit was the best comic creation to come out of the Forties.

Sometime in March, Joe Simon received a call from Martin Goodman, the owner of Timely Comics. Joe had been supplying him strips through Funnies Inc. for months. Martin Goodman was relatively young, but very worldly having traveled extensively as a young man. He took a job as a salesman for Paul Sampliner’s Independent News alongside Louis Silberkleit, and Maurice Coyne. Goodman, Silberkleit, and Maurice Coyne formed Columbia Publications, one of the earliest publishers of pulp magazines. Goodman left in 1932 and (with borrowed money) found his own company Western Fiction Publishing. His venture into the pulp world was hit and miss. He had no real bombshell, but he did produce a lot of ok sellers. He learned the trick of flooding markets. Goodman had gotten into comics following the Superman gold rush. He quickly hit a rich vein with the release of Funnies Inc. produced Marvel Comics #1, and expanded rapidly. He reached the point where he was confident in the comic business, and decided to begin weaning himself from an art studio. He needed an editor to take over the day to day operations and form an in-house bullpen, and he offered more money than Fox. Joe didn’t hesitate.

Martin Goodman

Red Raven cover swiped from Hal Foster

Joe says that he asked Kirby to join him over at Timely, but Jack balked. The fear of another dead end overwhelmed him. Joe promised him all the work he could want, but Jack needed the security offered by Fox, and was not ready to totally freelance. Jack enjoyed the freelancing but it was very important that Fox not know he was moonlighting, he was afraid that if Victor found out, he would be fired, and nothing worried Jack more than losing his steady salary. Jack would get physically upset when the phone rang for fear it was Victor Fox tracking him down.

Practically a gift! Until you tried to assemble it – valuable collectible today no ads on box

Victor Fox and Bob Farrell had other better ideas. They created an item called the Comicscope, which projected pictures from comic books onto a larger screen. The process was tacky and underwhelming, cheap and flimsy; but they advertised the heck out of them. Besides their own books at Fox, they also advertised in Timely’s (using Captain America) and in Speed Comics (prior to Harvey taking it over) and others. They show up on e-bay occasionally, but the package was so cheap they are often in pieces. Interestingly, the ad featuring Captain America was the earliest use of Cap in advertising. Noted toy and music producer Remington-Morse produced the item. S&K received nothing.

Unexplainably, Victor Fox also created Kooba Cola, a new drinking sensation. Despite the heavy advertising for several years, no actual Cola was ever produced. Urban legend says that Fox simply created the name and concept. He was trying to build demand through his books and then sell a manufacturer the name to cover the created demand. Unfortunately the demand never arose and there were no takers for the name.

Send in them bottle caps—if you can find them

Joe’s first task at Timely was to put together a new title. Joe raided the strips and art staff at Fox. Louis Cazenueve was picked to do the art chores on the title character, a swipe of Fox’s Bird-Man strip named, Red Raven. Dick Briefer came up with a new character named the Human Top, and Kirby was tabbed to do two new strips. Mercury in the 20th Century was written by Martin Burstein, and drawn by Jack. Thematically and graphically swiped from the Fox title Thor, this was the first time Kirby would work the theme of mythological gods coming to Earth to save mankind from evil. As in the Thor strip, this god flew around in his underwear also.


God in his underwear

Mercury was the mythical speed god, sent to Earth to help defend it from Pluto, the Prince of Darkness. Pluto had taken the guise of Rudolph Hendler, the evil dictator of Prussland. This thinly veiled caricature of Adolf Hitler was the first time that Jack Kirby would make Hitler the villain, but it wouldn’t be the last. An excellent introductory tale, the strip showed promise. Jack’s figural work continued to improve, especially his female figures, they were becoming softer and rounder. Both Minerva and Diana are shown as strong yet feminine. Jupiter, as depicted by Jack has long flowing white hair and beard. This template followed Jack forever and appeared whenever he was drawing wise venerable older godly characters.

Simon, or Kirby drew the gorgeous cover to Red Raven #1, with the swooping Red Raven storming the parapet of a castle attempting to save a maiden from villains wearing medieval armor and brandishing swords. It has nothing to do with the interior Red Raven strip which was a modern day story featuring thugs with guns, but curiously understandable in that it was swiped from a Prince Valiant panel. Jack had nothing to do with the Red Raven story and Joe Simon claims that he was laying out the covers, so it may have been Joe who swiped the Prince Valiant panel, and layed it out for Jack to finish

Comet Pierce was another space strip in the Cosmic Carson vein. Beautifully drawn, Jack continued to impress with his machinery and alien vistas. The strip ends with the rakish adventurer joining up with the rebel Queen, promising to help her fight and regain her country’s freedom. This strip was written and drawn by Jack, and more importantly, for the first time, boldly signed on the splash page Jack Kirby!

Two filler strips in Red Raven note signature on second strip Martin Burstein on first was a writer

Joe and Jack were busy working on another character; Marvel Boy was another variation of the gods coming to Earth in times of need theme. Once again it is the specter of Adolf Hitler proclaiming “First Britain, then France and ultimately complete domination of the world is our aim!” This time, instead of the actual god, it is the essence of Hercules that is sent to inhabit the body of a young boy. In a fascinating bit of coincidence, the writer, probably Martin Bursten, makes the same error regarding Valhalla as the home of the gods that the writers of Fox’s Thor strip made. Asgard was the home, Valhalla was heaven. The young boy grows, and on his fourteenth birthday he is visited by an eerie shadow informing him it is time for him to become the “marvel” of his age. With the addition of a colorful suit, the boy begins his personal war against the fifth columnists of Fuehrer Hiller.

This feature appeared in Daring Mystery Comics #6 (Sep. 1940) sporting another wonderful Kirby cover. The premise closely aped the origin of Captain Marvel, a new character from Fawcett, another new comic publisher. Yet it never seemed to raise an eyebrow, of course Fawcett had its own plagiarizing problems, and may have been too preoccupied to notice. It is an interesting use of a black person as a thug on the cover.

First super-patriot? Atmospheric backgrounds in Fiery Mask

It is always useful when looking at these early Timely efforts to look at the lettering. As a rule, if the job is lettered by Jack Kirby, then the story was produced solely by Jack with Simon strictly as the editor. If the lettering is by another, then it is collaboration, with Simon and Kirby working together. On strips like Blue Bolt, the lettering was always done by Joe until Howard Ferguson came along and took over. Once discovered by Joe, Howard would be the primary letterer for S&K until he died. Howard was considered by many to be the best letterer ever. Mercury and Comet Pierce were lettered by Kirby, and show no Simon assistance. Marvel Boy is interesting because we see Joe’s lettering, but on the prelude where the gods discuss Hercules going to earth, we see Ferguson’s distinctive lettering, leading one to assume that the prelude was actually added last.

Simon and Kirby also produced another strip for Daring Mystery Comics #6. The Fiery Mask, Joe Simon’s first costumed hero was brought back. In what looks like a very rushed job, the boys reverted back to the methodology from their first collaboration on Blue Bolt; each doing individual pages and then shuffling them together. The result is another schizoid package with the two styles fighting for dominance. What makes it worse is that in the rush, Joe simply swipes Alex Raymond en masse. Even the smallest, least consequential panels are swiped. The cleanup is also poor as lines that should have been erased remain visible. In all fairness, this may be the least professional effort to come from Simon and Kirby, it may also have been an earlier drawn strip and not used till later.

Unfortunately for Jack, Red Raven Comics and Daring Mystery Comics was another promising start turned dead end. Though Jack had already drawn second installments of Mercury, and Comet Pierce, Red Raven was cancelled after only the one issue, and Daring Mystery Comics was put on hiatus. Jack’s wariness about leaving Fox must have looked prescient, or maybe Jack may not have even noticed, his pace never lessened, he continued his work on Blue Bolt and Lightnin’, and his production work at Fox. He picked up a rushed inking job over Fletcher Hanks at Fox. Blue Bolt #5 would feature the debut of a new credit line. Proudly displayed on the splash page for all to see was “by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby”.

1940 was not yet half over and Jack had never been busier. Joe had kept his promise to give Jack all the work he could want. Goodman needed an art director for his pulp line, and Joe fit the bill. For the next year, Joe and Jack would provide some inspired spot illustrations for the lurid sci-fi, detective and sports magazines. For the pulp illustrations, Jack used a conte crayon. It gave a further depth and range of value to the b&w drawing.

Some of Joe’s table of contents seems ripped right out of Macfadden’s true confessional magazines. More importantly, Joe had procured from Martin Goodman the okay to hire Jack as a salaried full time employee. Joe had assured Martin Goodman that it was an investment well made. Bye-bye to the crazy little man claiming to be the “King of comics” and with the security of Jack’s increased salary the Kurtzberg’s moved to a two story railroad duplex in Brooklyn. Jack would always joke that he had heard a tree grew in Brooklyn—a sly reference to the popular 1943 novel by Betty Smith about an immigrant family coming of age in Brooklyn during the first two decades of the 20th century. Elia Kazan directed the movie version in 1945. Thanks to Joe, Jack had finally gotten out of the Lower East Side, and found his tree.

Jacob Riis once again on the resiliency and tendencies of the Jewish ghetto dwellers;

“ As to the poverty, they brought us boundless energy and industry to overcome it. Their slums are offensive, but unlike those of other less energetic races, they are not hopeless unless walled in and made so on the old world plan. They do not rot in their slum, but rising pull it up after them. Nothing stagnates where the Jews are. The Charity Organization people in London said to me two years ago, “The Jews have fairly renovated Whitechapel.” They did not refer to the model buildings of the Rothschilds and fellow philanthropists. They meant the resistless energy of the people, which will not rest content in poverty. It is so in New York. Their slums on the East Side are dark mainly because of the constant influx of a new population ever beginning the old struggle over. The second generation is the last found in those tenements, if indeed it is not already on its way uptown to the Avenue.”

Perhaps not uptown Manhattan, but this second generation Jewish family had gotten out of the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn had trees.

With the cancellation of Red Raven and Daring Mystery, Martin Goodman had contracted his line of titles, focusing on his core characters, but it was still his goal to break away from Jacquet’s studio. Marvel Mystery Comics had always been the exclusive bailiwick of Funnies Inc. but on issue #12, Joe Simon provided a Kirby cover featuring the Angel. In MMC #13, he inserted a new strip from in house–Jack Kirby’s Vision.

Inspired in part from Fox’s character the Flame, the Vision could travel between dimensions via smoke. A hole had been blasted between dimensions by Prof. Enoch Mason’s dimension smasher. When mobsters tried to shut it down, Aarkus Destroyer of Evil emerges from the smoke portal and with a touch exacts a swift and deadly justice on the goons. While the story was short on logic and characterization, Jack makes up for it by offering wall to wall action.


Spider-Man eyes

MMC #12 cover only – then in #13 – signed pulp art

Jack had fun with the Vision, it was a chance to kick loose, and his art and action scenes showed it. It was atmospheric with dark clouds of billowing smoke everywhere, and cluttered with bodies flying at all angles. As Kirby had matured, his action scenes had stretched and expanded until, borrowing another bit from Lou Fine, the characters could no longer be confined within the panel borders.

Artist Gil Kane talks about Jack’s growth and work ethic on the Vision in an interview with Gary Groth. “Jack told me he used to write, pencil, and ink practically a whole Vision story in one day when he was at Marvel…Six to eight pages. It was unbelievable. It probably took him about two days, but it was a miracle because every job was brilliant. Even if it was casual, it was brilliant. When I take a look at Louie Fine’s stuff now, it just doesn’t compare to what Jack showed continuously, a real level of excellence.”

Jack could never remember many details about the Vision, but he did make one interesting observation.. “The Vision was an occult hero I borrowed his pupiless eyes for Spider-Man”, perhaps the earliest mention of any connection between Jack and the wallcrawler. True or not, he did have pupiless, dark rimmed eyes.

June 1940 came in hot and sticky. Hyman and Lena moved into the apartment upstairs from the Kurtzberg’s with their family. Like the Kurtzberg’s below, they were immigrants from East Europe, specifically Russia. The Goldstein father struggled resulting in constant moves from apt. to apt. While unloading belongings, 17 year old Rosalind Goldstein noticed a stocky, shirtless young man playing stickball in the street, and debated with her cousin over who would get him first. When Jack saw the dark haired beauty with the flashing eyes and beguiling smile there would be no contest. Rosalind, born Sept. 25, 1922, had been sickly as a child, suffering from the effects of asthma. The family often feared for her life as she wheezed and gasped for air. It had only been the recent widespread development of inhaled adrenaline (epinephrine) to treat asthma that doctors had been able to control the symptoms. With better health, she had begun to bloom into womanhood, the very definition of houris. Attention from boys was something new for her. They talked for a while and Jack asked Roz–as she was called–if she wanted to see his artwork. Roz thought it was a smooth line, but with both sets of parents nearby, she saw no harm in pursuing it. Jack impressed her with the pages of art he was working on. In fact, Jack impressed her whole family. Like most Depression families, a man with a full time job was to be admired, and one who was helping support his family was to be treasured. Jack says it was love at first site, Roz wasn’t so sure. Jack loved to tell stories about chasing rival suitors away from Roz, even threatening to break the fingers of a piano playing rival. Jack’s protectionism also extended to Roz’s sister Anita, he would chase away her many suitors. Roz says all the neighborhood girls were after Jack.

Sinatra at the Paramount – cheap dates

Time and money were tight, but Jack and Roz managed to squeeze in dates; like going to the New York World’s Fair; perhaps to see the first polarized, Technicolor, stop-motion animated 3D movie, directed by John Norling. The film was called “In Tune with Tomorrow” and it was a centerpiece of the Chrysler Pavilion. They also liked going to the movies, or simply taking walks.

Chrysler in 3D

One of their favorite sites was the Paramount Theater to dance to Frank Sinatra or one of the big bands. They would talk till three in the morning in the Kirby’s parlor room until Mr. Goldstein would happen by emptying garbage or some other ruse. On Sept. 25th, 1940, Roz’s 18th birthday, Jack proposed, she accepted.

just before the wedding – The center of the 1939 Universe

Life continued on as usual, Joe and Jack continued their back breaking pace. The pattern was pretty much set. Joe would edit, and co-write the stories, Jack would be the primary penciller while Joe, and others would do the inking. Charles Nicholas would be the main inker. Jack or Joe would occasionally beef up the inks to maintain consistency. Joe claims that one day he walked in as Kirby was erasing some lines. Horrified, Joe told Kirby never to erase- any corrections could be made during the inking phase, and Jack’s time as penciller was too valuable. Jack had come to grips with the idea of being just one part of an assembly line production crew. It would be the rare job where Kirby would both pencil and ink, and even rarer when he would letter.

Joe never rested; despite the increased load at Timely, he continued to look for freelance work. Every week would bring a new request from some publisher for a new character or a quick fill-in issue. Crestwood Publications was looking to revamp their main title. The first six issues of Prize Comics had cover featured an uninspiring character named Power Nelson. The series lacked any strong focus. Prize Comics #7, sported one of Kirby’s best covers to date, it featured an update of the character Black Owl, changing him from a suave tuxedoed detective into a form fitting long underwear masked vigilante. Dick Briefer would introduce his most famous strip Frankenstein, and The Green Lama by Mac Raboy would also debut. Prize Comics now had a focus. Black Owl would continue for a lengthy run. Jack’s tenure would last only 3 issues. In issues #8-9, in addition to the Black Owl, Kirby would also pencil Ted O’Neil – an aviation strip about an American pilot in the Royal Air Force and his sidekick. With Britain in a declared war against Germany, Jack finally got a chance to smack down the Nazis by name. In a scene reminiscent of Jacob Kurtzberg’s childhood hunchback friend, as a good luck token, Ted O’Neil has to kick Hinky, the stocky little Cockney sidekick in the seat of his pants before each flight. The character lasted many an issue.

France “Ed” Herron, a writer hired by Joe Simon while at Fox, had moved on. He became an editor over at Fawcett Publications. Fawcett was an old line publisher who started with a bawdy joke magazine Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang in 1919. Other racy magazines like Ballyhoo, and Smokehouse followed. Later, they expanded into pulps, but Mechanix Illustrated would become the flagship title. In 1939, the company diversified and established a comics line. Roscoe Fawcett, son of the owner, following the new trend, told his editor to give him a Superman, only make his alter ego a boy. Writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck put their heads together and came up with Captain Marvel -The mightiest Boy Scout to ever grace a four color magazine! With the publication of Whiz Comics #2, (Feb. 1940) Captain Marvel was an immediate hit. Owner Wilford Hamilton Fawcett died in Feb 1940, but his sons would continue and build on the line.

Fawcett kept expanding, and for a new title, Ed Herron possibly contacted his old friends from Fox for help, it’s also possible that Herron took this scripted artwork with him as part of his resume. It’s by Jack Kirby and centers on a masked vigilante and takes place in a mythical Gotham City. It is possible that it was culled from some pages left over from Blue Beetle, or still, another concept from his unsold portfolio. As published, Mr. Scarlet is a combination of new art and reformatted strips. The header, added later, is the only panel that Jack Kirby spelled out Mister Scarlet. In the story panels the original name of the character has been erased and Mr. Scarlet written in by a different hand. There are several narrative boxes pasted over with lettering by Joe Simon. It would be interesting to know what the original name was. A lackluster effort, Mister Scarlet was the cover feature for WOW Comics #1. It was on the streets Dec. 13th, 1940. The character would continue for years drawn by many other artists. This was the first comic use of Gotham City. Later it was stolen by Batman writer Bill Fingers as a literary code for Manhattan so as not to let Batman be stuck in one real city. It is interesting that Gotham City became a nickname for New York City as a means of loathing and lampooning by noted author Washington Irving. It originally meant “home of the goats” and was meant as a place of morons and imbeciles.

Martin Goodman’s story as to how Captain America came to be is that he wanted a “patriotic” hero to stand up to Hitler. His titles had been bashing the Nazi’s since early 1940, and it was time to personify it. He shopped the idea around and Joe Simon’s interpretation was accepted.

Joe Simon says that he had been fooling around with the idea for a while, coming at it from the opposite tack. Joe was thinking of a good villain. “Then the idea struck home: here was the arch villain of all time. Adolf Hitler and his Gestapo bully boys were real. There had never been a truly believable villain in comics. But Adolf was live, hated by more than half the world. What a natural foil he was, with his comical mustache, the ridiculous cowlick, his swaggering, goose stepping minions eager to jump out of a plane if their mad little leader ordered it. I could smell a winner. All that was left to do was to devise a long underwear hero to stand up to him.”

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The idea of a patriotic hero was not revolutionary by this time, and neither was Hitler as a villain. Archie Comics had produced a patriotic hero months earlier. The Shield was a red, white and blue garbed government agent who started hunting down saboteurs and spies (and the occasional mad scientist and mobster) in the pages of Pep Comics #1( Jan 1940). Even Simon and Kirby’s Marvel Boy could be considered a patriotic hero as his reason for being was to fight the minions of the Fuehrer and sported a nifty red, white and blue costume. Many companies had been using fictionalized versions of Hitler in their books for months.

Jack’s memory is simpler. “Goodman wanted a new super-hero and we gave him one. Joe had an apartment on Riverside Drive, and we worked on him one night. It was a time when we knew we were all going to be drafted.” As a side note, the conscription bill, after a short period of debate, passed Congress on September 16, 1940.

After looking at Joe’s presentation sketch, Goodman gleefully gave the go ahead, going so far as to have Cap introduced in his own title. Joe had a feeling this could be big, so he asked for a percentage. After some haggling, Goodman offered 25% of the profit, split between Joe and the artists. Joe agreed and Martin had one last request, and that was to rush this to print. “The bastard is live and in the center of an explosive situation”. Martin continued, “He could get killed.” Joe agreed.

Rabbi Simcha Weinsein in his book Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish culture and values helped shape the comic book superhero

“Kirby and his partner, Joe Simon, worked at Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics, where the mostly Jewish staff openly despised Hitler. When Goodman saw the preliminary sketches for Captain America, he immediately gave Kirby and Simon their own comic book. The character was an instant hit, selling almost one million copies an issue. “The U.S. hadn’t yet entered the war when Jack and I did Captain America, so maybe he was our way of lashing out at the Nazi menace. Evidently, Captain America symbolized the American people’s sentiments.” Simon later commented.

Joe decided that the quickest way to get this done was to get a team working on it. He had met Al Avison and Al Gabriele and knew their talents blended well and matched up with Kirby’s style. Jack would have none of this and told Joe that he would make deadline. Joe acceded to his wishes and Kirby got to work. Joe and Jack worked out the script and pacing right on the drawing boards and Jack provided the pencils. The inks were handed off to several artists, among them Al Liederman, a newspaper cartoonist from Joe’s past. Jack punched up some of the inks to maintain quality and uniformity. The cover left no doubt as to what this new book was about; Captain America braving a hail of bullets to deliver a haymaker on Der Fuehrer’s weak chin. America strikes back! No dilly dallying, Hitler and Nazis by name!

Captain America was Steve Rogers, a 98lb. weakling rejected by the draft board. He is recruited by a Government agency to take part in a scientific experiment, one that if successful would create a race of super-soldiers to fight Hitler. After being injected with a secret chemical extract, his body builds to super human muscularity and his mind and reflexes have increased to “an amazing degree”. (It is interesting to note that it was while Joe Simon was editor at Fox that the Blue Beetle also became a super hero by way of a chemical serum) In true comic book tradition, there is a Nazi saboteur hidden in the lab who kills the Professor and the formula is lost to the ages. Rogers swoops in and with a single blow sends the spy flying into some electrical equipment, exacting a deadly vengeance. Donning a red, white and blue costume with a star on his chest, little wings on his temples, and brandishing an invulnerable shield, he is sent off to search and destroy the enemies of the free world. Along the way, he picks up a pint sized sidekick named Bucky. Quickly bypassing Private, Sergeant, Corporal or Lieutenant, he is promoted to a Captain, thus is born America’s greatest hero.

Captain America #1 had two back up strips by Jack Kirby. The first was called Hurricane. It is the Mercury story originally scheduled for Red Raven #2. When that title was cancelled, the story was set aside. Why the character was renamed is unknown, though Centaur Publications had introduced Mercury the speed God as part of an ongoing comic title a couple months earlier. With some retooling, Mercury- son of Jupiter became Hurricane-son of Thor, god of thunder, and the last descendent of the ancient Greek immortals. The fact that Thor was a Norse God rather than a Greek one is a minor quibble. They forgot to change the human name used by the hero, Mike Curry (Mercury) until issue #2 when it became Michael Gray. Jack would also provide the Hurricane story in issue #2.

Hurricane son of somebody – Tuk hairless boy

The second strip was Tuk, Caveboy, an adventure strip set in a prehistoric era when cavemen fought for supremacy over the wild animals. This was beautifully penciled, lettered and inked by Kirby. At this period, as a rule, Jack did not have time to do his own inking and Ferguson was doing all the lettering, which may be a sign that this also was an earlier story taken from inventory- perhaps meant for Red Raven #2, or Daring Mystery Comics. Though cover dated March 1941, Captain America #1 was on the stands Dec. 20th 1940, just in time for the Christmas dimes.

Soon after Simon and Kirby begat Captain America, Ed Herron called on them again. It seems that Fawcett’s Captain Marvel had gone ballistic; the sales demanded that he get his own title. A one-shot titled Special Edition had been rushed out and sold well. Bill Finger and C.C. Beck didn’t have time to do another title, so Ed Herron was tasked with assembling the new book. On Ed’s recommendation, Al Allard, Fawcett’s art director met with Joe and Jack and asked if they could do the artwork. This was an impossible job, consisting of 62 pages of art on a character they weren’t familiar with, in a cartoony style that was opposite their norm, and a two week deadline. Not wanting to embarrass their friend Ed, and after the promise of a bonus, they agreed–just another day in the park.

With Simon and Kirby’s new contracts at Timely, it was important to keep this job hidden, Joe once again rented a hotel room, and after the long hours at Timely’s studio, a small group would gather and work all night producing the stories. Ed Herron would work out the stories with Jack and Joe as they laid them out directly on the boards, and then Jack would pencil the pages, and pass them off to Dick Briefer, among others, to ink. The lettering was done by an unknown hand, perhaps a Fawcett regular. Jack almost got caught drawing a Captain Marvel page while supposedly working on a Captain America page at the Timely office.

The demand was incredible. When asked about this time frame, Jack’s first response was always the same, “The pressure was tremendous. I was penciling at a breakneck speed, as many as nine pages a day. I guess that was the reason my figure work began to take on a distorted look; my instincts told me that a figure had to be extreme to have power.” Jack was seeing Captains in his nightmares, when he had time to get a few hours of sleep. The stress was beginning to take its toll. The daytime hours at Timely, and the all-nighters working on Captain Marvel, were agonizing. They were eating on the run and if possible, catching a few hours sleep on a littered bed in the smoky, seedy hotel. After little more than a week of unending toil, the boys finished. The job was rushed, and the finished sheen wasn’t up to their usual standards, but it was certainly an acceptable aping of Beck’s disarmingly simple style. Given the choice between signing the work or not, they demurred. The first issue of Captain Marvel’s Adventures hit the stands on Jan. 16, 1941. The series would soon rival Superman as the top selling comic character. As an aside; DC Comics would sue Fawcett Publications over copyright infringement in 1941. When Simon and Kirby started working for DC, they were questioned by famed attorney Louis Nizer about their role in the early creation of Captain Marvel. There wasn’t much they could say since they hadn’t been involved with the creation of the character, but none the less, Joe Simon was called as a witness when the case finally went to trial in 1948.

After the production of Captain Marvel, all freelancing would cease. The Blue Bolt serial storyline was quickly wrapped up in issue #10, with the Green Goddess meeting up with the surface people. Kirby’s Lightnin’ and the Lone Rider ended mid story with another artist finishing the tale. Coincidently, a small movie studio Producers Releasing Corp. released the first of 17 movies starring George Huston as the Lone Rider in early 1941. This Lone Rider and his horse Lightning appeared for three years on the big screen.

There was another job produced for Timely in 1940 and was seen in the newly reinstated Daring Mystery Comics #7 (Apr.1941). Captain Daring in the Underground Empire sounds like a Blue Bolt spin-off, but in reality it was the reworked second installment from Comet Pierce, last seen in Red Raven #1 That lone story had ended with the hero promising the beautiful Queen to help her regain her throne, and free her people. This story was that fight for freedom, but for Daring Mystery it was changed to a perplexing tale of futuristic marines fighting a Nazi-inspired army. Comet Pierce and the Queen were now Captain Daring and Secret Service Agent Susan Parker. In the final panel, after the victory Captain Daring addresses the crowd, and embracing Susan says, “I love your Queen.” Oops! It was a literary mess, but the art was wonderful.

The Timely bullpen was growing with the addition of Syd Shores, and Al’s Avison and Gabriele. Syd recalled, “Jack Kirby influenced my sense of dramatics. Jack Kirby influences everybody in comics, though: Before I got really started in the field it was Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, they were my gods back then, but Kirby was the most immediate influence. My comic book career started as an inker to Jack Kirby’s pencils. I think working with Jack influenced my work more than anyone else.”

In late 1940, Joe was asked to find the nephew of Martin Goodman’s wife a job. Starting as gofer, office boy, and all round pest, the 17-year-old Stanley Lieber would soon be put to work writing the 2-page text stories that had to appear in periodicals. In Captain America #3, the comic writing career of Stan Lee officially began. For Jack’s part, the young boy was a pain. Joe told an audience that “he’d sit there while Jack was working, while we were all working. He’d sit in the corner with a flute, and he’d play the flute. Jack and the guys would throw things at him. Finally, to give him something to do, we told him he could …every comic book had to have a page of text to get second class mailing privileges, which are not that important today. But it would take three issues for a publication to be credited with the mailing privilege; then the publisher would get money back from the Post Office. So it was very important to get that mailing privilege- and to qualify you had to have a page of text. So we gave Stan some of the text to do. Nobody wanted to do that stuff because nobody read it-and so Stan did it, and he treated it like it was the great American novel.”

Stan’s memory is a little hazy, but he says Timely at the time was a lot of fun. His role tended towards the mundane- -he says he was the gofer. “In those days they dipped the pen in ink, I had to make sure the inkwells were filled,” said Lee. “I went down and got them their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them. Whatever had to be done. I remember Jack would always be sitting at a table puffing on his cigar, kind of talking to himself as he was doing those pages.”

The long scrambling was over, Jack had found his team. It was a year that had started with little prospect of Jack being called up, and ended with Kirby not only in the majors, but at the top of the rookie class. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had become the hot battery tandem, each feeding off the others drive, talent and intensity. A year that began with Jack alone fighting his personal demons in a small cubicle, ended with Jack and his beloved Roz planning a future together. They worked like mad people to reach this peak, and they were determined to stay on top.

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Looking For The Awesome – 3. Escape To New York

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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


Half a world away a low, mean rumble was forming, it came in the roar of fires, the flash of long knives, and the click-clacking of hobnailed boots. The Old Country was once again threatening to intrude on the lives of those who had escaped. In Germany, an expatriated Austrian was raising the specter of Jewish oppression in order to gain political power. Almost immediately upon assuming the Chancellorship of Germany, Hitler began pushing legal actions against Germany’s Jews. In 1933, he proclaimed a one-day boycott against Jewish shops, a law was passed against kosher butchering and Jewish children began experiencing restrictions in public schools. By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of German citizenship. By 1936, Jews were prohibited from participation in parliamentary elections and signs reading “Jews Not Welcome” appeared in many German cities. (Incidentally, these signs were taken down in the late summer in preparation for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin). These actions did not go unnoticed.

1933 was a momentous year. It started early when Adolf Hitler became a coalition chancellor of a bitterly divided Germany. FDR was inaugurated as the 32nd president and instituted what became known as the New Deal. Prohibition was appealed. The Dust Bowl swirled. Urban legend says an unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Max Gaines was cleaning out the attic at his mother’s house. To kill some time, he began reading some Sunday funnies from a collection his father had saved. Suddenly the idea hit him: if he enjoyed reading old comic strips like “Joe Palooka,” and “Mutt and Jeff,” maybe the rest of America would, too!

The truth is somewhat drier and mundane. In 1929, a pulp publisher Dell Publications attempted a weekly tabloid style publication in full color featuring new stories. The cover was soft and pulpy. This was a very early attempt at a newspaper type insert yet sold at newsstands, and died after only 13 issues. Created by George Delacourt in 1921, Dell Publication majored in pulps, but experimented greatly with different formats and themes. These color inserts; remembered only by the company that printed them; Eastern Color Printing Company of Westbury Connecticut were the first market available comic pamphlet ever published. Eastern continued printing odd tabloid, newspaper comic inserts, and broadsized advertizing publications when an employee—probably Harry Wildenberg and or M.C. Gaines–suggested that folding the tabloid size sheets in quarters would economically make for a small book sized pamphlet. The problem of sequencing the individual pages printed 4 at a time on newspaper sized sheets into an orderly stack was solved by Morris Margolis of the competing Charlton Company, who had been hired to do the binding. Charlton was a nearby firm in Derby Connecticut that had started out as a cereal box printing company that also published multiple style publications such as racing forms and music lyric mags.

Eastern was a printer, they had no experience as a publisher, so they approached Dell-the earlier comic publisher to front the new project. A 50/50 split was worked out for Dell to publish.

Source material was worked out through the reprint of syndicate suppliers for 10 dollars a page and customers were found through regular advertisers of Eastern like Milk-O-Malt, Kinney Shoes, P&G and Wheateena. They produced the first modern sized comic.

Their first book was Funnies On Parade (1934) a Procter and Gamble giveaway. The initial run was 10,000 issues which disappeared quickly as kids redeemed the coupons in record time. Gaines quickly worked on other companies to join in. His next was A Carnival Of Comics, marketed as a department store premium. This book had an amazing 100,000 printing of which Gaines saved a few dozen for his own. Gaines hit on the idea of pasting a ten cent price on leftovers of A Carnival of Comics, and as an experiment dropped the remaindered copies at several different newsstands. The test case was a greater success than he had expected; within the weekend they had all sold out. Comic books were on their way as a new force of generating income for publishers. With the success of A Carnival of Comics, Max Gaines followed through with another comic-book title, a one-hundred page comic book called Century of Comics. Between 100,000 and 250,000 copies of both Century of Comics and A Carnival of Comics would be given away as a premium that year of comics’ infancy.

Dell did some research and the results weren’t especially favorable; with complaints about the quality and worries about the attraction of reprints soon fizzling out. Dell to their sad regret backed out of the deal. Eastern decided to self-publish and found a backer when supply leader American News became the newsstand distributor.

Eastern followed in May with Famous Funnies #1, Series 2, the first monthly comic book to be sold on newsstands. The first issue relied upon material borrowed from the earlier books, but by the second issue, they began buying new material at 5 dollars a page. A new dynamic had entered the industry.

After small start-up losses, issue #8 turned a profit (earning $2,664.25), and an industry was born. Like Johnny Appleseed, Gaines took his idea to other pulp, and magazine publishers and new comics sprung up over night. In 1935, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson-as officious as his name- began printing all-new material and named his book New Fun. By 1941 thirty comic-book publishers were producing 150 different titles monthly, with combined sales of 15 million copies and a youth readership of 60 million, making the emerging comic-book industry one of the few commercial bright spots of the Great Depression.

1934 brought the first big change to the Lower East Side. Franklin Roosevelt had released government funding for individuals who wanted to rebuild the cities. The first money went to a river edge section of the Lower East Side sarcastically called “Lung Block” owned by flamboyant developer Frederick French; also the builder of Tudor City. This area had been given that tag due to it having the highest percentage of tuberculosis sufferers in the U.S. This was the worst of the worst, a section so bad that the neighbors shunned it. Its mix of seafaring transients, lowlifes, disease, prostitution and beer joints set it apart from the residential neighborhoods on all sides.

Isaac N. Phelps-Stokes, the noted reformer wrote;

“The Lung Block, as I named it then, was far down on the East Side near the river. In early years, when that quarter was a center of fashion in our town, many of the buildings had been great handsome private homes, but long ago they had been turned into grimy rookeries, the spacious rooms divided into little cell-like chambers, many only stifling closets with no outer light or air. I can still smell the odors there. In what had been large yards behind, cheap rear tenements had been built, leaving between front and rear buildings only deep dank filthy courts. Nearly four thousand people lived on the block and, in rooms, halls, on stairways, in courts and out on fire escapes, were scattered some four hundred babies. Homes and people, good and bad, had only thin partitions between them. A thousand families struggled on, while many sank and polluted the others. The Lung Block had eight thriving barrooms and five houses of ill fame. And with drunkenness, foul air, darkness and filth to feed upon, the living germs of the Great White Plague [tuberculosis], coughed up and spat on floors and walls, had done a thriving business for years.”


Lillian D. Wald recalls a visit to Lung Block that catalyzed her desire to remain and help this part of the city;

“From the schoolroom where I had been giving a lesson in bed-making, a little girl led me one drizzling March morning. She had told me of her sick mother, and gathering from her incoherent account that a child had been born, I caught up the paraphernalia of the bed-making lesson and carried it with me.

The child led me over broken roadways, — there was no asphalt, although its use was well established in other parts of the city — over dirty mattresses and heaps of refuse — it was before Colonel Waring had shown the possibility of clean streets even in that quarter — between tall, reeking houses whose laden fire- escapes, useless for their appointed purpose, bulged with household goods of every description. The rain added to the dismal appearance of the streets and to the discomfort of the crowds which thronged them, intensifying the odors which assailed me from every side. Through Hester and Division streets we went to the end of Ludlow; past odorous fish-stands, for the streets were a market-place, unregulated, unsupervised, unclean; past evil smelling, uncovered garbage cans; and — perhaps worst of all, where so many little children played — past the trucks brought down from more fastidious quarters and stalled on these already overcrowded streets, lending themselves inevitably to many forms of indecency.

The child led me on through a tenement hallway, across a court where open and un- screened closets were promiscuously used by men and women, up into a rear tenement, by slimy steps whose accumulated dirt was augmented that day by the mud of the streets, and finally into the sickroom.

All the maladjustments of our social and economic relations seemed epitomized in this brief journey and what was found at the end of it. The family to which the child led me was neither criminal nor vicious. Although the husband was a cripple, although the family of seven shared their two rooms with boarders, — who were literally boarders, since a piece of timber was placed over the floor for them to sleep on, — and although the sick woman lay on a wretched, unclean bed, soiled with a hemorrhage two days old, they were not degraded human beings, judged by any measure of moral values.

In fact, it was very plain that they were sensitive to their condition, and when, at the end of my ministrations, they kissed my hands (those who have undergone similar experiences will, 1 am sure, understand), it would have been some solace if by any conviction of the moral unworthiness of the family I could have defended myself as a part of a society which permitted such conditions to exist. Indeed, my subsequent acquaintance with them revealed the fact that, miserable as their state was, they were not without ideals for the family life, and for society, of which they were so unloved and unlovely a part.”

That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire. Deserted were the laboratory and the academic work of the college. I never returned to them. On my way from the sick- room to my comfortable student quarters my mind was intent on my own responsibility. To my inexperience it seemed certain that conditions such as these were allowed because people did not know, and for me there was a challenge to know and to tell. When early morning found me still awake, my naive con- viction remained that, if people knew things, — and “things” meant everything implied in the condition of this family — such horrors would cease to exist, and I rejoiced that I had had a training in the care of the sick that in itself would give me an organic relationship to the neighborhood in which this awakening had come.”


Lung Block section was to be torn down and rebuilt as a 4 block higher quality low income housing development; replacing the older tenements. The new development was to be called Knickerbocker Village. The out with the old, in with the new atmosphere wasn’t universally loved. Long time residents knew that thousands of existing homes would be torn down to make way for newer homes, without any promise for the displaced being returned. Some were even nostalgic for the old times, romantically remembering the closeness, and uniqueness of the neighborhood—much like old soldiers telling happy stories of their exploits while conveniently leaving out the dead who never returned.

Knickerbocker Village

The red bare brick 12 story buildings loomed over the 5-7 story tenements

Jimmy Durante, the entertainer, who grew up in the Lung Block ward, reminisced to Joseph Mitchell about a time “‘when the East Side amounted to something’….Sitting there in the dark theater, nursing his hangover, the big-nosed comedian began to talk about his childhood, the days when he used to run wild on Catherine Street, raising hell with the other kids, the days when he liked to go barefooted and they had to run him down and catch him every winter to put shoes on him…” Like most children who were reared in slums, he had a slightly different perspective than the housing reformers. “‘We kids used to have a good time,’ he said. ‘They tore down where my home was and where my pop had his [barber] shop. They tore it down to put up this high-class tenement house, this Knickerbocker Village. Most of the old-timers moved out long ago.” One has only to read the memoirs of Abraham Cahan’s novel, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) or Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), both writers from the Lower East Side, to sense their mixed pride in the ghetto they were so desperate to escape. The emotional glue that bound the tenement-dwellers to the Old Country dissolved when the rickety buildings were demolished and replaced by anonymous, modern high-rises. Writer Alfred Kazin wrote; “I miss her old, sly and withered face. I miss all those ratty little wooden tenements, born with the smell of damp in which there grew up so many school teachers, city accountants, rabbis, cancer specialists, functionaries of the revolution, and strong-arm men for Murder, Inc.”

Some of the nostalgia of Durante and others for slum-bred ambitions seems in retrospect a disguised ethnic boasting. A personal feeling of “It was OK for me, and the other Jewish stars that made it from the old neighborhood; the rose colored glasses of the successful. When the great city builder Robert Moses met some local complainers he laughed and scoffed. “the slum is still the chief cause of urban disease and decay,” he contending that its “irredeemable rookeries had to be eradicated.” He did not buy the theory that a few dozen success stories made up for the thousands who suffered disease, lived in poverty and died of malnutrition due to unsanitary conditions. To Moses, the shanties and flop houses needed to be attacked with a meat axe, not a scalpel.

It would be just a matter of time when the majority of the old tenements would give way to the newer gov’t. assisted housing. In some ways better- with their well lighted rooms, and push button elevators- but also lacking in the atmosphere, and emotional bonding found in the ghetto houses. The new residents seemed so hit and miss: more temporary Waspy Wall Street workers, than committed ethnic family people. It has been said that only 2 pre-existing Lung Block families were rented new places in Knickerbocker Village- the rest migrant singles from upper Manhattan looking for cheap rents while they struggled in their bottom rung jobs. By then, many of the young generation also figured out ways to escape the shackles of the Lower East Side. The change would be slow, but the old tenements would soon be giving way to a new style tenement. The old Jewish residents gave way to a new mix of Black, Spanish and Caribbean peoples. The Jews began a new migration- to the suburbs. For the first time, starting in the early 1940’s, the population of the Lower East Side began to subside. People were moving out more rapidly then moving in. After World War II, increasing prosperity and tolerance, along with government housing benefits to returning war veterans, like Jack Kirby, allowed increasing numbers of Jews to fulfill their desire for single-family houses. Upwardly mobile Jews started moving out of their old communities into higher-status suburban areas.

Interestingly, by the mid-forties, the Knickerbocker Village would get its own reputation. It would be considered the Commie Commune. It was the meeting place for The American Labor Party, and other leftist groups. It was a known location to find friendly leftists and agitators. Among the lower-middle-class radicals attracted to Knickerbocker Village were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who moved into a three-room apartment in the spring of 1942. They paid $45.75 a month for their river-view, eleventh-floor accommodations, and made use of the project’s nursery school and playground after they had children, and it was there, the bulk of evidence now suggests, that Julius conspired with Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, to spy for the Soviet Union, but we’ve jumped too far ahead.

In late 1934, the Kurtzberg family was doing poorly; perhaps their worst ever. Work in the clothing factories was sporadic. Jacob was 17 and starting his senior year of high school. The family decided that it was necessary for him to quit school, and help earn a real salary. Jack resisted, but eventually gave in. He tried various jobs, such as sign painting and push cart vending with his Dad, but his dream was always to make his artistry pay off. His artwork for the BBR, now being signed “Jack” Kurtzberg, had improved and his confidence was such that he started submitting gag strips to magazines. Jack dreamed of going out to Hollywood, but Mama Rose swore that there were “naked women” out there just waiting to drag young Jacob down with them. The idea probably held some allure to Jake, but a mother’s word was law. Besides as Jack once mentioned “naked women never seemed drawn to him.” Summer of 1935 would find Jack answering a want ad for the Fleischer Animation Studio. They were looking for animation artists. So with his meager portfolio in tow, and most likely a glowing letter of recommendation from Harry Slonaker, Jack headed up town to 1600 Broadway. His dream of getting out of the ghetto was taking its first tentative steps.


One has to start somewhere!

From the slums of the Bowery to the heart of Times Square and the entertainment district; things were looking up! The Fleischer Animation Studios was created in 1921, when Max and Dave Fleischer broke away from the Bray Cartoon Studios. Max was a technical wizard; he had created the rotoscope, a device that allowed cartoons to be easily transformed from live action films. He also made a staging system, the Three-Dimensional Setback, or Stereoptical Process, which allowed layers of painted transparencies to be manipulated and filmed, creating the illusion of movement and depth. The Fleischer Studios had pioneered sound cartoons several years before The Jazz Singer would revolutionize the industry, and they streamlined the animation process by creating the role of in-betweener so that their main animator, Dick Heumer could produce more work. The studios’ most famous characters were Betty Boop, and Popeye. They were second to only Disney in popularity and quality of cartoons. In 1935, Fleischer suffered a short, but devastating walkout by most of their labor force. Perhaps this was the impetus for the help wanted ad. Lucky for Jacob being Jewish wouldn’t matter to the Fleischers, their family was also from the Galicia sector of Austria, notably Krakow, and their father was a tailor. Jake was awfully young for such a position, but perhaps the Fleischer s looked at Jake and recognized one of their own.

“At one long table there was six or seven people. At the lead table the guy would draw three drawings, and then pass it down to the next person who would add in three more drawings, then he would pass it down to the next person who maybe added in checkers on the suit, and then he would pass it down to me and I would have to put the spats on or maybe the cuffs. This would go on all day and by the end of the day the character took a step—it was animation. It was a method of turning out animated movies, and it looked great at the movies, but to me I was working at a factory, just like my dad, who worked at a clothing factory. After a short period, I just walked out and quit. I didn’t say nothin’ I just quit.”

Work as a trainee in an animation studio was hardly the stuff of dreams. Doing such uncreative jobs as clean-up, and opaquing cells, Jack constantly tried to move up the artistic corporate ladder. Within a couple of months, he tested for and was promoted to in-betweener. This consisted of filling in the frames between major action poses with incremental variations to give the impression of movement. While it did involve drawing, he was still just a cog in an assembly line. Jack remembers, “I worked along a row of tables about 200-300 yards long. It was like a factory. I began to see the studio as a garment factory. I associated the garment factory with my father and I didn’t want to work like my father. I love being an individual.” Though Jack toiled in anonymity, he wanted more.

The Fleischer family pre-Popeye

On the plus side, Jack had a steady salary. He was helping put food on the family table. He could brag to his friends that he was a working artist, and point to the fact that he was partly responsible for the Popeye cartoons they were watching on screen. The other boys, seeing Jake as a success story, would press Jacob to put in a good word for them and help them get work. Concurrently, Jack continued his work for the BBR newspaper. Jack didn’t like the work but he had nothing but love and respect for the Fleischers. “The executives were fine people. Their animation speaks for itself, but it wasn’t my kind of thing.”

While the job of in-betweening may not have been glamorous, it provided Jack a unique perspective of human dynamics, and the art of movement. It taught him how the body flowed from graceful subtlety to sudden exaggerated force. Popeye’s extreme fighting perspectives and jarring explosive power gave him a solid foundation of forced perspective, and action-reaction dynamics from which he would later revolutionize the comic page. The layered depths of animated backgrounds gave Jack a hands-on knowledge of how to attain a three- dimensional effect on a two-dimensional medium. More than anything, it would be these added aspects that would separate his art from the flat illustrative art of most comic strip artists. It was this melding of illustrative art techniques learned from the masters such as Raymond, and Foster, and animation techniques learned from Fleischer that would propel Jack Kirby into the top tier of comic book artists.

In 1936, Harry A Chesler formed the first comic packaging house that hired writers and artist to produce comic material that could be sold as-is to the new books. The Chesler Co soon picked up new accounts such as MLJ and Comics Magazine Company. Within a year, Chesler became his own customer when he published his own series with Star Comics and Star Rangers. His studio features such artists as Will Eisner, George Tuska and Bill Everett. After a year he took his profits and sold his two books to Ultem and later a different book, Feature Funnies to Quality Comics Group. He returned to comic publishing in 1941 in a big way.

For a year, rumors came down that due to the continuing labor problems; Fleischer was considering a move to Florida. Mama Rose made it very clear that Jack would not be accompanying them. Jack put up little fight. So Jack began looking for a new job. With a now more impressive resume, Jack approached the newspaper strip syndicates. In the summer of ‘36, Jack Kurtzberg would go from a job where nobody knew his name, to one where he had more names than you could shake a #5 Windsor Newton at.


Jack showing his class warfare side even the dog has its nose upturned

In the 1930’s, America was awash with newspapers. There were literally thousands of different local papers. A city like New York had over 50 different “rags”; there were dailies, weeklies, Sundays, there were trade papers, school papers, financial papers, ethnic papers, sports papers, foreign language, and political tracts. Even social groups like the BBR had a newspaper. They all sought to carve themselves a market, some within a small niche, and some by major market blanketing. Nothing was more important to reader loyalty and identification than the funny pages. Dr. George Gallup’s first research study, released in 1930, analyzed the preferences of newspaper readers in Des Moines, Iowa. His report produced two startling conclusions concerning the Sunday comics: The least popular comic strip was better read than the main news story, and adults as well as children were avid readers of the Sunday comics section, refuting the assumption that the Sunday comics section was largely the purview of young people. Circulation could rise or fall by thousands of readers with the addition, or loss of a particular comic strip. The creators of the more popular comic strips were better known and more respected than the beat writers, sports columnists and muckrakers– and better paid! Bud Fisher, creator of the popular strip Mutt and Jeff became a millionaire after a nasty copyright fight between competing syndicates. The court awarded him the rights to the cartoon strip plus the profits from the licensed use of his characters. An early example of what would become common; court fights over the copyrights and licensed use of cartoon characters, with a rare win for the actual creator.

Elmo’s only known picture (from passport) Bud Fisher jokes at his prosperity

For every large metropolitan newspaper such as the New York Herald, or San Francisco Chronicle which could afford the cream of the comic strip crop from the major syndicates, there were dozens of small local papers trying to compete any way they could. One answer was to buy knock-off comic features from the many minor league syndicates that had sprung up. Just like the baseball minor leagues, these syndicates attracted has-beens, never will-bes, and the occasional rookie diamond in the rough.

Lincoln Features Syndicate was just such a farm league operation. Run by Horace T. Elmo, it specialized in low grade clones of many of the more popular comic features. Not much is known about H.T. Elmo’s start, born in 1903 and cartooning by 1930 on unknown strips, but by 1935, his syndicate began producing numerous features for smaller market papers.

When Jack started working at Lincoln in late summer of 1936, Elmo’s firm was a thriving, though mediocre concern. They were producing more than a few ongoing strips for a wide range of small papers located all across the country. Elmo himself was a competent cartoonist working on strips such as The Goofus Family and Facts You Never Knew. Other artists were supplying a wide variety of strips such as Little Buddy and Sally Snickers. Perhaps the best of the bunch was a strip credited to Elmo, but drawn by Larry Antonette. Dash Dixon was a Flash Gordon takeoff that ran for several years. Though not as imaginative, or as illustrative as Raymond’s masterpiece, it did have energy and substance. Detective Riley was also a long running strip usually copying Harold Gould’s Dick Tracy, drawn early on by Elmo himself.


Drawn by Elmo-once thought to be early Kirby (probable lettering)

Elmo liked Jack, and was impressed by the variety of styles Jack showed in his portfolio, but Lincoln couldn’t match his salary at Fleischer unless Kirby could produce twice as many features as the other staff artist. Jack assured him he could and jumped at the opportunity. The appearance of a large stable of artists was important to the small syndicates, so the use of multiple names, and styles became common. If one artist’s work could be foisted off as that of several people, than more the better. Thus we would see the work of Jack Kurtzberg credited to Lawrence, Bob Dart, Brady, and Barton and of course, H.T. Elmo. But the name he would use most often, on several different strips was Jack Curtiss. It seemed Jack like short punchy names. Jack would explain. “I wanted to be an all-American. Much to the chagrin of his parents, most of his nom-de-plumes would be short punchy Anglo-styled names.

Jack immediately took over several series such as Facts You Never Knew, Curiosities And Oddities and Laughs From The Days News! These were all gag a day, Ripley’s Believe it or Not style strips that presented trivia or curiosities in a humorous, cartoony vein. On Your Health Comes First Jack used a more realistic style and a ton of research to promote physical well being. He rounded out his work supplying puzzles and riddles for the kids in Our Puzzle Corner using a sometimes goofy big-foot approach.

This variety of styles and mix of genres was just what Jack needed. The discipline learned at BBR, paid off as he applied himself like never before. His learning curve was quick and the improvement was immediately noticeable. Most noticeable was his inking, his line became more varied in width and fluidity, and he became more competent with shading and the spotting of blacks–a necessary skill to give the drawing depth and form.


Early strip note uneven and varied fonts on strip

His lettering, a real weakness early on soon became consistent, controlled, and precise. In fact, his lettering style became so unique that it is one of the easiest aspects to use when trying to trace early unaccredited art to Jack. His placement of dialogue balloons and narrative text became better integrated into the cartoon panels.


Samples of Kirby’s letters assembled by Harry Mendryk—note U, R, !, ? easy give-aways

One of the benefits of working for Lincoln was that Jake was able to draw his strips at home. Gone was the monotonous row upon row assembly line set-up at Fleischer. Jake worked at the kitchen table, around meals and other family gatherings, always under the watchful eyes of a proud Mother. Though it was noisy due to all the traffic, at least Jack had someone to bring him soup and rub his aching shoulders. It is due to Rose, and her personal scrapbook of Jack’s early strips that historians have been able to document so much of Jack’s early work. Jack’s memory for details of his time with Lincoln was sketchy, but he remembered that it was happy time–he was a working artist doing what he loved. The pay wasn’t great, but it was as far from factory work as he could get.

For months, Jack worked on these stand alone cartoon strips, learning and growing. Finally Elmo decided to increase Jack’s workload. Whether it was due to Jack’s pushing to do serial type adventure strips like his idols, Raymond and Foster, is unknown. Perhaps a demand from some of the newspapers for more action strips in addition to the gag a day features, either way, Jack was asked to produce three new action strips with continuing characters and storylines.

On April 8, 1937 Lincoln premiered The Black Buccaneer by Jack Curtiss, “Cyclone” Burke by Bob Brown, and Socko the Seadog signed Teddy, but all drawn by Jack. Continuing Elmo’s method of operation, none of the three strips were innovative. Black Buccaneer was a Captain Blood knock-off. There had been an earlier Black Buccaneer in a juvenile series but there seems to be no connection as a source between the two. “Cyclone” was a two-bit Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon carbon copy, and Socko was offered as a low rent Popeye.


Black Buccaneer lovely wench!


Cyclone Burke nice cinematic vista

Cyclone and Black Buccaneer did not last two full months, but not due to Jack’s art. His art on these two strips was top flight. The period costumes of Buccaneer were spot on, in a Hollywood kind of way. The female lead, Faith Robbins was a not so subtle homage to Olivia de Havilland; the female star of the Captain Blood film from just a year earlier. His backgrounds were exciting and detailed, and his characters were individual and recognizable. The line work was bold in an etched style reminiscent of Will Eisner. Cyclone’s aerial scenes are interesting with varied angles and acrobatics straight out of Wings. His sci-fi machinery, buildings and robot look right out of Metropolis or Shape of Things to Come. Given the chance, Kirby’s many hours in front of a movie screen began to pay off.

Socko the Seadog, on the other hand would continue for several years. There are several hundred samples found in Momma’s stash. Of the three strips, one could make an argument that Socko was initially Jack’s weakest work. The art was flat, with simple or no backgrounds, and little shading. The plots, such as they were, were simple slapstick gags, usually having Socko in a Popeyesque smack-down with another swabbie. It is not surprising that some of the panels were direct swipes of Segar’s squinty eyed sailor. Yet that child-like simplicity might have been its initial strength.


Socko no backgrounds, just action


swipe from Popeye becomes Socko

There was also an oddity that emanated from the Elmo studio. In 1937, there was a small pamphlet put out by banks as a premium. The Romance of Money was a collection of 23 Kirby drawn pages showing the virtues of saving money. It offered a history of money with short vignettes showing how money evolved, and how banking and finance work.

Though released in 1937, the art, format and lettering match up more closely to Jack’s work in his earliest 1936 Lincoln strips. It suggests that this might have been a set of samples for a proposed newspaper feature. When that didn’t work out, Elmo later packaged it and sold it to banks to be used as an advertising premium, not unlike other new-sized comic books. It was reprinted at least once in the 1940’s. However it came about, crude as it was, it is recognized as Kirby’s first published cartoon work in book form.

The artwork is nice but the lettering was terrible, crooked, multi-sized and uneven, barely 24 pages


Kirby letters for sure the rest is unknown probably Kirby from Mama’s stash

There is another oddity. H T Elmo had a long lasting strip called Detective Riley. For the couple years it ran it featured different pencilers—Elmo himself for a while. There is a short period with an unknown penciler, yet this same short period does feature Kirby’s lettering. It’s possible that Kirby also penciled but no evidence. The little mouse tail line for the balloon, the bubble balloon, the double exclamation points and the rounded “U” are just some of the match-ups. The artwork is too generic to tell for sure. Some have said that the ¾ male pose was a Kirby trait. There were examples of Riley in Mama Kirby’s stash book. Kirby certainly could have been aping Elmo’s preceding strips.

The work at Lincoln was steady, but low paying. Promised bonuses never appeared. Jack still had time on his hands, and time meant money. It wasn’t unusual for artists to share new job possibilities. Chesler was just the first. New comic art studios were popping up needing budding artist who would work for cheap.

day gags

A new syndicate was looking for artists. This small outfit had recently contracted with an overseas company to provide strips for a weekly British magazine. From small acorns, big oaks burst forth, or in this case, a whole forest!

Will Eisner had gotten into comic strip work in early 1936 when his friend and fellow Dewitt Clinton High alum, Bob Kane had told him about a new comic book publisher looking for art. The owner was John Henle, who ran a clothing factory, but wanted to expand into publishing. His one and only title was called WOW! What a Magazine. Samuel “Jerry” Iger, a comic veteran dating all the way back to 1934, when he supplied strips to the seminal comic book Famous Funnies, was brought in to edit this book. Iger bought several strips from Will Eisner. Unfortunately this new title and publisher closed down after the fourth issue. Will was desperate. He filled in some by working for Harry A Chesler.

Will in 1941

So in late 1936, with little freelance prospects at hand, this unlikely duo, the 19-year old prodigy, and the veteran, threw caution to the wind. Realizing the need for original material to fill the funny pages, they formed a comic art syndicate titled Universal Phoenix Features. Taking a small office on Madison Ave. and 40th Street, Eisner and Iger hired two sales reps and they hit the streets. Universal Phoenix would most commonly be referred to as Eisner and Iger Studios, or shortened to just E&I. E&I started slowly, supplying some local papers with strips, but soon got a contract with Editor’s Press to produce artwork for their overseas magazines. Its main title was WAGS, a weekly tabloid printed in the U.S. but distributed in the UK, and Australia. Editor’s Press had recently loss some British strips and needed some new features to replace them. E&I’s first strips appeared in WAGS #17, dated April 23, 1937.

Much of the earliest artwork was supplied by Eisner and Iger themselves, some from revamped strips first seen in Famous Funnies and WOW! What a Magazine, and some new. As they expanded, other artists were added such as Eisner’s school friend Bob Kane plus Dick Briefer, and Mort Meskin. Will had a routine of placing want ads in the local papers for artists and interviewing them on Monday mornings. Jack Kurtzberg, answering a newspaper ad, joined in early 1938 and was immediately assigned three strips; quite an accomplishment for an unproven artist.

Start of something big – Hawk of the Seas

Will Eisner was different than Jack’s other bosses. Unlike the older Fleischer’s and H. T. Elmo, Will was a peer, only six months Jack’s senior. Will’s parents were also recent immigrants from Austria. Born in the Williamsburg neighborhood across the city from Jack’s Lower East Side, his family would settle in the Bronx. Will’s father was a painter; he worked at times as a church muralist, and a scenery painter for Yiddish Theater productions. Work was spotty, and after an injury he opened a fur-cutting factory. It didn’t hurt that Eisner was also Jewish. Will Eisner explains, “this business was brand new. It was the bottom of the social ladder, and it was wide open to anybody. Consequently, the Jewish boys who were trying to get into the field of illustration found it very easy to come aboard.” For talented Jewish kids who had no gift for athletics (like, say, heavyweight boxer Max Baer), music (like Benny Goodman), or acting (like John Garfield and the Marx Brothers), creating comic books appeared to be a way out of poverty and into a legitimate, hopefully lucrative, artistic career. For the same reason, the field was also wide open for Jewish comics publishers.”

Will Eisner recalls:

“Jews couldn’t go to college except in rare instances, and they had to have money to do so,” as Eisner explained. “I didn’t come from that kind of background, so I ended up going into comics instead. I was like a lot of Jewish kids in the business. We had greater ambitions. As a result, we ended up expressing them in our work–and expanding the limits of the genre in the process.”

Will’s interest in art began early and like Jack, his artwork covered tablets, floors and sidewalks. When his father’s business failed during the Depression, young Will had to help out with the family finances and like other kids hit the streets selling newspapers, meanwhile grabbing free art lessons from WPA funded programs. He attended Dewitt Clinton High School, a prestigious school known for its art curriculum. Encouraged by his father, Will took some classes at the Art Students League of New York, studying under George Bridgeman and Robert Brachman. While in school, Will worked part time at the New York Journal American doing odd illustrations, and as art editor for a small magazine named Eve.

After graduating, Will found work in the advertising dept. at Hearst’s New York American and at a print shop. Hoping to expand with freelance work, it was providence that Will ran into his old high school chum.

Will possessed a confidence and talent far beyond his years. Though young, the confident 6’2” Eisner was an impressive figure. Jack always marveled at Eisner and Iger’s professionalism and business acumen. More than any other mentor, Will freely shared art techniques and storytelling techniques. The studio mates shared experiences and knowledge. The Eisner/Iger studio was the closest Kirby would ever come to professional training. In a 1982 interview called Shop Talk in Will’s Spirit Magazine between the two masters, Jack confided to Will; “I knew my knowledge was limited. I felt I could increase whatever dimension I was reaching for through men like you and Jerry, because you knew the discipline, you knew your job, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to know my job.” For his part, Will recognized greatness and considered Jack as a “top gun” from the start. Will often humorously remembered Jack Kirby; “He was a quiet young man, short, smart fellow. He always resembled John Garfield and he acted like him, but he was a very hardworking person. I enjoyed having him work for me. He was a good man.” Kirby, like Garfield could not hide his gruff, brooding working man nature.

Shop Talk

The two men talking and drawing

Working for E&I was different than Lincoln. Instead of an artist working alone and being responsible for the complete work, the art was produced piecemeal in a studio where the artists worked assembly line style. Will explained to Canadian artist Marilyn Mercer. “I would write and design the characters, somebody else would pencil them, somebody else would do the backgrounds, somebody else would ink, and somebody else would letter. Will usually wrote the first few chapters of a new character’s story, before turning it over to other writers. “We made $1.50 a page net profit.” Will was seated at a drawing board at one end, and the others in a row of desks along the walls around the perimeter of the large room. At other times, the artist might do the full job, but always under Will’s watchful gaze. While this produced a homogenized finished product with a professional sheen, it sometimes lacked the personality and spontaneity of a singular artistic vision.

Eisner was unique in another way, as the artists improved, Will would give them more latitude to create and write their own features. The artists were the principle storytellers and they were allowed to take the scripts and rework and mould them to fit their particular style. This was unheard of at most other studios where the artists were expected to follow the scripts faithfully. This is an early precursor to the method Jack would use when he had control of his own stories.

Count of Monte Cristo was a faithful adaptation of the Dumas novel of political intrigue and revenge set in post-Napoleonic France. Jack worked in close tandem with Will Eisner on this title as detail and atmosphere were most important. Jack signed this under his adopted nom de plume Jack Curtiss. After 8 episodes, this strip was turned over to new-comer Lou Fine.

The Diary of Dr. Hayward credited to Curt Davis, was a science fiction title dealing with an evil disfigured doctor in a muddied plot involving body transference, and guest starring Death himself. This features some of Kirby’s best work; atmospheric and claustrophobic, the moody art outshone the muddy plot- a classic case of style over substance. The sci-fi milieu spotlights Kirby’s fondness for cinematic effects. Jack used a wide range of inking techniques to evoke texture, mood and depth.

His third strip; Wilton of the West (also called Wilton of West Point) was a routine rough and tumble western, full of gunfights, bushwhacking and dastardly villains. This was signed Fred Sande, and originally drawn in a loose open style, with minimal backgrounds and little detail. Jack quickly tightened up the art and experimented with shading and inking techniques. He even broke away from the rigid grid layout and varied the panel sizes. The early story is typical western lore. The time frame seems to be late 1800s, and the hero, Wiley Wilton, appears to be a generic cowboy caught in a range war. But in episode #8, Jack made a sudden stylistic change. The setting is suddenly modern times, and the ranch is visited by outsiders in a bright shiny 1940 vintage car.

Metromount Productions wants to rent Wilton’s ranch to make a western movie. Wilton, in his best stoic Gary Cooper imitation, regretfully informs them that it can’t be done–it would interfere with the round-up. After a promise that filming would be wrapped before the round-up, and some prodding by the ranch hands, who have been promised jobs as extras, Wilton relents and the production is on.

We are next introduced to the cast of the movie, with several characters of interest. Sheldon Shwartz is the producer in what may be one of the very few times Jack went out of his way to make a character Jewish. Geoffrey Parker is the male lead and, in what would become a Kirby trademark, is portrayed as a conceited, effete snob. And in the romantic lead, we have the beautiful Marcia Merrill, every bit as snobbish, arrogant, and ditsy as her male counterpart.

Unfortunately, Jack’s part in the story ends before the story concludes, but we do get a glimpse of several themes that would play out time and again in Kirby’s storytelling. First, Hollywood sets are places of intrigue and danger. Second, male movie stars are invariably obnoxious, effete blowhards who must be brought down a peg or two by the laconic hero. And third, the female leads are star-struck vixens needing to be saved by a real man, as in Jack’s slow-talking, hard-hitting men of action. This may seem a fairly negative view of Hollywood, and it’s surprising from someone who once dreamt of going there. Perhaps this was Jack’s way of convincing himself he was better off not to have pursued that particular dream. Jack did 12 pages each on both of these strips.

One bit of Kirby iconography first shows up in both Dr Hayward, and Wilton. In both strips there is a scene where the female lead is shown sitting at a dressing table looking in a mirror while fixing her hair. In the mirror’s reflection we see someone entering the room behind her. Most likely swiped from some long lost movie, it became a Kirby staple, used in every comic genre.

Mirror, mirror, who’s in the mirror?

Later in 1937, Editor’s Press published a sister magazine to WAGS. Okay Comics had a similar format, but it also had several long running strips, such as Wash Tubbs, and Tailspin Tommy, so little new material was needed. Will and Jerry provided a few strips, but no art from Jack Kirby has been found.

Spring of 1938 would find Jack Kurtzberg busy with 2 steady accounts, responsible for 4 ongoing strips and many gag features. He was working in a field he loved, and a major contributor to the family’s finances. Life must have looked bright. In April, a new comic magazine premiered; its cover portrayed a stiffly drawn figure clothed in a gaudy circuslike caped costume, singlehandedly lifting a sketchily drawn car and smashing it on some rocks. Its bold title aside, the garish primary coloring, and primitive rendering did little to portend the revolution it would soon ignite. Action Comics #1 was the fuse, and Superman was the spark! Jack would claim that the first appearance of Superman was when he knew that comic books had truly arrived.

Jack’s time at E&I would be short, perhaps no more than three-four months and only producing 32 full pages of art, but the influence was deep and long lived. Why he left so soon has never been explained. While there seems to have been no rancor, there may be some clues in Jack’s recollections. Jack expanded; “Eisner and Iger were energetic, efficient and they weren’t out to be friendly; they were out to produce. Eventually, we all became personal friends. It was a time for thorough professionals.”

When Jack reminisced about Eisner/Iger he never described working there as a “fun” time. It was just a job. Jack said; “I remember all the guys. Although we all liked each other and we’d trade stories and things, we never horsed around. We always felt that we had to do a job.” Will himself realized there was a wall between him and the artists. “There was something of a social life within the studio setting; he reminisced in an interview for the Comics Journal. “But one of the problems I had was that I was about the same age as these guys; and it was a little difficult for me to be part of their social activity. When they’d go out and have a beer at the end of the day, they never invited me along; I learned to keep in my place so to speak.”

Will asked Jack in an interview; “Were you ever close, back then, to Lou Fine?” To which Kirby answered, “No, I don’t feel that I was ever close to anybody.” Lou Fine was perhaps the first superstar draughtsman to come to comic books. Born in 1914 and raised in the Brooklyn area of NY. Hobbled by polio at a young age, the boy turned to art. He attended the prestigious Pratt Institute. He turned up at the Eisner and Iger studios just after Jack Kirby, and immediately impressed with his clean illustrative style reminiscent of J.C. Lyendecker infused with Alex Raymond’s flexibility. His feel for anatomy and dynamics was unparalleled. When Jack left E&I, it was Lou Fine who took over the strips. For the next few years Lou Fine would become the yardstick with which every comic artist was to be measured. His work on Fox’s Flame, and Fiction House’s Red Bee are artistic marvels to behold.

Lou Fine’s elegance and energy

Jack preferred solitude by nature, and while he could admire Eisner’s professionalism, and talent, in his heart he must have rebelled against the assembly line nature of the E&I studio. He liked his fellow artists, but his creativity preferred the quiet of his kitchen table. Perhaps the rows of interchangeable artists working on an assembly line reminded Jack too much of his time at Fleischer, and the gnawing fear of ending up like his father doing piecework in a factory.

There might also have been a financial consideration. The weekly checks from E&I were meager. The long hours spent traveling to, and working at the studio forced Jack to do his Lincoln strips later at night and on weekends. Artist George Tuska talks about the situation at the studio and how the demand became overwhelming. “The artists load continued to grow, requiring them to take work home with them.” At five dollars a page, Tuska recalls that it just wasn’t enough. One day, he went to lunch with some of the other artists when he stood up and told them he had to “meet someone”. He never returned. He ended up over at the Chesler Studio, where he was soon joined by Charlie Sultan, who had left for the same reason.

Summer of 1938 would find Lincoln once again Jack’s sole account. Incredibly, soon after Jack left, Eisner and Iger hit paydirt. The pulp magazine publishers were in a funk. Sales were dropping, and they were looking for a new direction. Comic books offered them just such an avenue. From its halting creation in 1933 as an advertising premium for manufacturers, comic books had grown exponentially. At first reprinting the better known comic strips from the newspapers it quickly reached a point where original material was needed. Who better to look to then those minor league syndicates that already had cheap source material and cheap artists ready and waiting? Cheap being the operative word!

From All In Color For A Dime, (Ace Books 1970) by Ted White;

The early comic book originals were, for the most part, awful. They set out to imitate the reprints and often a six-page story would have a running head on each page in imitation of the Sunday reprints, each page of which required a running head originally. But surely the artists and writers who produced the new material were far more poorly paid—even if they received the same amount which the creators of reprints were paid. The reprints were earning their big money from newspaper syndication; the new material made what little it did solely from comic book publication. Standards quickly fell, and I think it is significant that even now they have not been entirely regained. Today, in most cases, the comic book is no more than a training ground for newspaper-strip artists.

It must also be said that comic book publishers were, all in all, thieving, grasping lot. Not to dwell too long upon the point, they were crooks. In many instances, they were men with a good deal of money, recently earned during Prohibition, who were seeking legitimate businesses into which they might safely move. Comics—and pulp magazines—seemed like a good bet. These men had learned their so-called business ethics in a rough school. They applied them across the board in their new businesses.

The first rule was, Do it cheap. Find cheap labor, pay cheap prices. Low overhead. The results were predictable—in a few short years the bad drove out the good.

Put in simple terms, most of the work being done for comic books by 1940 was being done by teenage boys, some still in high school, some dropouts. Many were enormously talented, but most came from lower-class backgrounds, were willing to work cheap (the Depression was still being felt) and were easily exploitable.”

Lou Fine was one who left the comic business early to work for advertisers.


Jack continued the gag-a-day strips – the last panel looks like a comicscope

Fiction House was just such a pulp publisher, founded by Thurston T. Scott in the early 1920’s. The titles such as Action Stories, Fight Stories and Planet Stories were trite but they filled certain niches. The Great Depression had slowly eroded its sales base, and by the late ‘30’s Scott realized he had to diversify. Whether Scott approached Eisner and Iger, or one of E&I’s salesmen approached Fiction House is unknown, but in the summer of ’38, Scott decided to publish a comic book called Jumbo Comics with Eisner/Iger providing the artwork. The first issue contained reprinted strips from WAGS Magazine. Headlined by Mort Meskin’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and Will Eisner’s Hawks of the Seas, it also marked the first published comic work by Jack Kirby when it reprinted 4 pages each of Wilton of the West, Count of Monte Cristo and Diary of Dr. Hayward. Issue number two would feature Jack’s first artwork on a comic book cover, when a panel from Wilton of the West was featured. It is doubtful that Jack was even aware of this. When the WAGS inventory ran out, the Eisner and Iger studio would soon be producing original art for Jumbo Comics, and the careers of many comic book legends would blossom. Lou Fine, Mort Meskin, Dick Briefer, Bob Powell, George Tuska, Reed Crandall, and Nick Cardy are just a few who would erupt from this farm system and go on to dominate their chosen profession. For better or worse, Jack Kirby had left a couple months too soon to be a part of it.

At Lincoln, Kirby continued applying the techniques that he had learned from Eisner. Socko, which began as a simple gag a day Popeye riff, would evolve into a comedic adventure strip with storyline continuity, and recurring characters. The tales became funny little travelogues that would take Socko to all points of the earth. The art became suffused with energy, detail and finesse not found in his previous work. His inking took on subtlety and atmosphere as he experimented with shadows, silhouettes and textures.

In late 1938 Kirby worked on another strip, a cute slapstick adventure strip titled Abdul Jones. Signed Ted Grey, it featured tales of a teenaged wanderer and his bespectacled mule. During their travels, they meet such wacky luminaries as the twelve foot bandit Katchaz Katchkhan, Josef Welchmore the Bagdad bookie, and Myrtle, the toast of a Sultan’s harem. It’s not known if it was ever published, but the existing samples show Jack was developing a facility with broad humor and caricature.

The tenure at Eisner/Iger may not have worked out, but it certainly didn’t turn Jack off to the idea of freelancing. November 1938 would find him moonlighting for another small firm. Associated Features Syndicate was run by a gentleman named Robert Farrell. One of those men that while never a major player would circulate throughout the comic industry for many years. Farrell was an acquaintance of Jerry Iger’s, possibly a writer at E&I, and it may have been via this relationship that he hooked up with Jack Kurtzberg or simply a coincidence when Jack answered an ad. Either way, one must assume that Jack’s work on Wilton of the West impressed Farrell enough to offer a new western strip to him.


Jack’s first Bigfoot strip

Lightnin’ and the Lone Rider was an obvious Lone Ranger replica. This version of the masked vigilante was set in the mythical town of Three Forks, Texas. In place of a trusty Indian partner, we get a trusty, if somewhat befuddled Mexican partner, Diego. Jack signed this as Lance Kirby, his first use of Kirby.

The strip’s most redeeming feature was Kirby’s continually improving art. For the first time, he was working on a daily strip rather than a weekly, and the rhythm seemed to keep the artwork fresh and consistent. His panel constructions were far superior to his earlier work and the variations of angles and perspectives made this a more enjoyable read. His figures were set in a wider variety of poses and depths. Jack was expanding on the cinematic techniques he had learned from Will Eisner. This would also mark the first time that Kirby would work with Craftint Duotone paper, a specially treated paper that when specific chemicals were applied produced fine lines at varying angles. When reproduced it gave the illusion of shading gradations. This added depth gave a more illustrative finish with a more nuanced range of shading.


City boy likes horses!

Work on Lightnin’ was to be short lived. The strip, premiering on Jan. 3, 1939 would feature Kirby art thru the first story arc into mid February. It was customary for comic strip stories to be broken into a six-week format. Jack had started a second story line wherein the time frame mystically changes ala Wilton of the West from late 1880’s to modern day. These never saw print, but thanks to Momma Kurtzberg’s hoarding, these lost strips have been recovered.

Jack was back with Lincoln his sole account. Among his other assignments he supplied some papers with editorial cartoons. In 1937, Kirby had begun doing some of the art chores, usually signing them Davis or Jack Curtiss. These mostly concerned local politics, or social reform and Elmo kept a close eye on the content, yet at least once Kirby was called out for doing some editorializing on his own.

Jack loved his politics and current events

That low rumble back in Europe had erupted into a full scale roar. In early 1938, Germany had annexed Austria, Kirby’s ancestral homeland. By late ’38, Hitler’s might was pointed at Czechoslovakia. The world took notice of this new threat. On Sept. 30, 1938 with the signing of the Munich Dictate, Hitler had wrested control of the Sudetenland territories of Czechoslovakia, and effectively the whole of the Czech state. In an act that would live in infamy, Great Britain’s Neville Chamberlain proclaimed that with the signing of the agreement, they had secured “peace in our time.” Less than a month later, German troops entered Czechoslovakia, and on March 16, 1939 Hitler completed his conquest. An outraged Jack drew and published an editorial cartoon portraying Adolf Hitler as a grinning snake, with his belly full of the swallowed meal of Czechoslovakia. Patting his head in acquiescence was the dapper Neville Chamberlain. Despite the displeasure from Elmo- probably more due to protocol, than to the views expressed- Kirby had become, at least in spirit, the peer of one of his idols, editorial cartoonist Rollin Kirby. “I got bawled out for that. My boss said “You’re only 19 years old. You don’t know enough about politics and those things.” And I said, “That’s true, but I know a lot about gangsters. “ To Kirby, Hitler was just another gangster.

Early 1939 and Robert Farrell had bigger fish to fry, Just as Kirby left to return to Lincoln, Associated closed down; but not before Farrell managed to sell the reprint rights of Lightnin’ to Famous Funnies. In issue #61, cover dated Aug. 1939 there appeared a full page ad telling the readers in big bold letters that Lightnin’ and the Lone Rider was coming in next month’s issue. For the next four issues Jack’s strips appeared, making it the second time that his reprint art was available in the newsstand funny books.

There would be other opportunities—from fly by night outfits hoping to strike it rich. Most promised payment when they sold the product, but few ever made it that far, and Jack had a portfolio of unsold ideas waiting to be used.


Kirby’s Socko improved with age getting shadows, details and backgrounds

For most of 1939, Jack soldiered on at Lincoln; meanwhile the comic book industry was ablaze. The fuse that was lit with Superman in Action Comics #1 finally reached the powder keg. Revolutions don’t begin with great thoughts, or bold actions, they grow from need, organically, slowly, mostly by accident, and usually by the last people expected. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster weren’t revolutionaries; they were small, shy, geeky sons of Jewish immigrants struggling to make a mark in their world. Both born in 1914, they became friends when the 10 year old, Canadian born Shuster moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Both introverted, they shared a love of the sci-fi pulps and while working on the Glenville High School newspaper, they began creating their own characters and stories.

Early S&S plus inspirations

In 1933 Jerry came up with the idea for Superman, based on themes drawn from the pulp character Doc Savage, and some from novelist Philip Wylie’s Gladiator. The idea of a crime fighting avenger was deeply ingrained in young Siegel, ever since his father had been senselessly murdered in 1930. Joe’s art was crude, in a Roy Crane style, but it served the subject matter, and simple tales. Jerry and Joe also created a portfolio of other strip ideas.

The boys sent their strip proposals to many of the publishers, and syndicates; and all of them rejected it. For a while, Jerry thought of replacing Joe as artist. There was a short period where Superman might have been published by a small time publisher, but the company went out of business first. He was pitched unsuccessfully as a newspaper strip for the McClure Syndicate. Jerry and Joe did eventually get work for Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s nascent publishing company, National Allied Publications. In mid 1935, their Doctor Occult and Henri Duval strips would appear in New Fun #6. As Wheeler-Nicholson added titles, the wonder boys kept cranking out new strips; Federal Men for New Comics and Spy and Slam Bradley for Detective Comics. Superman was shunted aside.

Major Nicholson’s concerns floundered and by late 1937 he was forced out. The business ended up in the hands of its printer, Harry Donenfeld and his chief accountant, Jack Liebowitz, who renamed the company Detective Comics Inc.

They decided to expand and add a fourth title. Before leaving, Nicholson had been doodling around with a new title idea, Action Comics. They needed new material, and the editors were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Editor Vin Sullivan talked to his friend M. C. Gaines who remembered the rejected strip that was sitting around gathering dust. With little expectation, Siegel and Shuster were asked to take their rejected Superman strip, cut it up and format it to the size necessary for a comic book. They were paid $130 for the property. They have been portrayed as just teen aged naifs slickered by the big corporation, but in reality, they were both 23 years old and veterans of working three years for this very same corporation. A panel was taken and adapted for the cover. Harry Donenfeld looked at the cover and became chagrined, no one would accept this circus costumed alien. It was too ridiculous, too crazy!

Action Comics #1 sold surprisingly well, not great but better than expected. The next 3 issues would have covers featuring other strips, and the sales continued to spiral up yet no one had a clue as to why. DC published a survey in Action Comics #4 asking what the favorite features were. Issue #4 skyrocketed in sales, quickly reaching the half-million mark. Out of the over 500 replies, over 80% listed Superman. Superman would again be cover featured on Action Comics #7, and the comic’s sales continued to grow. Word from the rack jobbers got back to the editors; the kids were demanding the comic with Superman in it. By issue #9, the cover featured a blurb; “In this issue, another thrilling adventure of Superman”. He got his own book a year later. Comic books had a phenomenon; a character and a genre to call its own. Comics had a recognized creative super team.

Getting one’s own – It’s not Rembrandt, hell, it’s not Foster but it worked.

In an article in Liberty magazine, a writer reflects on Jerry Siegel in words that could just as easily been about Jack Kirby. “Jerry, being undersized and undernourished found himself considerably pushed around by the neighborhood toughs. As he absorbed black eyes and beatings, Siegel lived in a dream world of muscle men, lapping up the deeds of Hercules, Samson, Tarzan, Doug Fairbanks, and sundry dime-novel superheroes, dreaming of a day when he could hang one on the eye of a tormentor himself.” So his response was to create a Man of Steel who, according to Siegel, would “smack down the bullies of the world.” Jerry and Joe became symbols of the little guy fighting back. This would be followed with articles in Saturday Evening Post, and Look magazine. The Cleveland wonder boys were a smash.

Now costumed crime fighters weren’t new, The Shadow, and Black Bat had been favorites in the pulps, the Phantom, a hero in the pulp tradition, first appeared in 1936, in newspaper strips, as did the Clock, in Funny Pages, but a costumed alien who bounced bullets off his chest, and could knock down airplanes, yes this was new, and it was a phenomenon. As with all phenomena, imitations were soon to follow. Publishers are nothing if not mimics, if something sells, duplicate it.


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.

“The superhero has his origins in the folk hero. He represents an attempt to deal with forces that are considered otherwise undefeatable, and that ties in somehow with the n’shama (soul) of the Jewish people. Although we may have thought we were creating Aryan characters, with non-Jewish names like Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and my own Denny Colt, I think we were responding to an inner n’shama that responds to forces around us — just like the story of the golem in Jewish lore.”

“If you think about it,” Eisner continues, “all of Jewish cultural history has been based around Jewish cultural fighters, like Samson and David. Now, in the 40s, we were facing the Nazis, an apparently unstoppable force. And what better ways to deal with an anti-Jewish supervillain like Hitler than with a superhero?”

“I first met (former partner) Joe Simon just as Superman came out,” Kirby recalls. “It was an instant hit. Publishers suddenly came out of nowhere, all wanting someone to create another Superman.

Legend has it that Victor Fox was at various times a dandy, an ex-ballroom dancer, a shipping magnate, a stock broker and an accountant at Detective Comics Inc, (he wasn’t) who, upon seeing the success of Superman dropped his pencil and immediately started his own publishing house. True or not what is known is that Victor Fox had a shady background. Indicted in 1920 for shipping fraud, he was indicted again for a fraudulent stock scheme when the Stock Market fell in 1929, he had gotten into publishing as early as Dec.1936, His offices were in the same building as DC Comics; his on the seventh floor, DC’s on the ninth. There was even a project where DC’s President Donenfeld partnered up with Victor Fox, though the specifics are unknown. The only publication Fox had in early 1939 was an astrology guidebook, published by Bruns Publications and it was distributed by Independent News Company, the distributing arm of DC comics. In testimony from Jack Liebowitz, he and Victor Fox would meet almost daily in the Independent News Postal room and go over the daily sales reports sent in from the sub-distributors. It was no surprise to Victor Fox that Superman’s sales figures were continually rising.


Intrigued by the success of Superman, Fox started his own comic company; Victor Fox, a British émigré, had no art or comic background, but he had a silent partner; Robert Farrell, Jack Kurtzberg’s old boss at Associated Features Syndicate. Farrell contacted his friend Jerry Iger and E&I was put to work creating new characters. It has been reported that Jerry Iger went over to DC and walked away with copies of their books—including Action Comics #1.

The first title was Wonder Comics #1( May 1939). The cover feature was a colorful character named Wonder Man, flying through the air, smashing an airplane. The character was remarkably similar to DC’s Superman; for a very good reason. According to Will Eisner, Victor Fox had been adamant that he wanted a duplicate of Superman. Not surprisingly, DC immediately got a cease and desist injunction and sued Victor Fox. This would be Wonder Man’s only appearance. Issue #2 would feature Zarko the Great, a Mandrake the Magician knock-off. Fox doubtlessly had no worry about the creators of Mandrake suing him, by then there were so many Mandrake copies that no one cared, and besides, Mandrake was a rip-off of a real practicing magician, Leon Mandrake.

The suit by DC may have put the kibosh on Wonder Man, but it didn’t slow down Victor’s demand for super heroes. Retitling Wonder Comics into Wonderworld Comics, issue #3 would introduce the Flame, a hero who could control fire. Elegantly drawn by Lou Fine, this character would last for years. Mystery Men Comics #1 August 1939 would debut three new characters, Green Mask, Blue Beetle, and Rex Dexter of Mars. By the Fall of 1939, Victor Fox was publishing four monthly titles, and Eisner/Iger was working overtime. Jack’s colleagues at E&I had hit the big time. In addition to their work for Fiction House, at Fox, Lou Fine was doing The Flame, Dick Briefer was drawing Rex Dexter, Bob Kane on Spark Stevens, Bob Powell delivered Dr. Fung and Will Eisner was doing more strips than humanly possible. Lou Fine became “the” cover artist at Fox Publishing.

The lawsuit over Wonder Man was heard on April 6, 1939, with Fox losing. He would appeal. Despite Eisner’s testimony backing Victor Fox’s claims the relationship between the two became strained; it slowly deteriorated. After Fox lost his appeal they finally parted in late 1939, with Fox owing Eisner/Iger a large amount of money. Perhaps not coincidently, Eisner and Iger broke up at the same time with Will going off on his own to produce The Spirit, taking half the staff with him. Iger’s half continued on. Victor Fox began hiring his own staff. Pros, such as Bert Whitman, a seasoned newspaper gag man would introduce new strips such as U. S. Navy Jones, and Dr. Mortal, and Don Rico produced Flick Falcon. Rank newcomers like Jim Mooney would bring forth The Moth, soon to be squashed by DC for being too Batman-like. Fox also began raiding E&I’s artists, with Pierce Rice, Dick Briefer and Louis and Arturo Cazeneuve joining ranks.

Fox Publications was slowly taking control of its own material, and had carved a nice market share for itself. Yet Victor Fox wasn’t satisfied; Superman had become a cottage industry! The strip continued in Action Comics, and expanded with its own eponymous title. Superman branched out with a syndicated newspaper strip, and a radio show. The combative Victor Fox would not be outdone. In late 1939, Fox’s most popular character, the Blue Beetle, was given its own title; next in line was a newspaper strip to be followed by a radio show.

It’s not known just when Jack Kurtzberg started at Fox; perhaps Robert Farrell had contacted him early on to help with in-house ads, and production clean-up, or maybe in Fall ’39 when it became obvious that Eisner/Iger would no longer be supplying artwork. What we do know is that by November, Jack was doing production work and ad copy. More important, he was tabbed to draw the new Blue Beetle newspaper strip.

The fabulous Fleischer Cartoons

There appears to have been some overlap with Lincoln, with Kirby drawn Facts You Never Knew, and Socko The Seadog strips dated well into Dec. 1939, but it seems clear that Lincoln closed shop by the end of ’39. Jack once stated that Elmo closed up to head to Canada to mine uranium. There are some samples of Lincoln strips, including Socko the Seadog in papers well into 1940 and ’41, but these appear to be earlier strips running later in new papers.

Working for Victor Fox was a major dose; he was eccentric, volatile, and incredibly full of himself. Will Eisner remembers Fox. “Fox was a very, very shifty, fast-footed business man who would create fictitious names because he was always afraid of being sued.” He sarcastically added; “I learned a lot about “business” from dealing with him.” Al Feldstein recalls; “Victor was short, round, bald and coarsely gruff, with horn-rimmed glasses and a permanent cigar clamped between his teeth. He was the personification of the typical exploiting comic book publisher of his day- grinding out shameless imitations of successful titles and trends, and treating his artists and editors like dirt.”

Jack Kirby recalled Fox slightly differently. “I didn’t respect Fox as a professional. I respected him just as a boss. I thought he was a great character…..He was Edward G. Robinson. I remember him walking back and forth watching the artists all the time like a hawk and just saying, “I’m the King of Comics”. And we would look back at him and actually he was a joy to us because he made working fun. He was a character in the full sense of being a character.” Kirby reiterated; “I couldn’t picture myself liking a guy like Fox, but I did. I genuinely liked Victor Fox.”

Doing the Blue Beetle strip was an important step for Jack; it was his first work in an urban milieu. He could finally draw from his personal experiences when drawing buildings, vehicles, furniture and clothing. The cityscapes and interior scenes became a major part of the series. The Blue Beetle was also Jack’s first attempt at a costumed hero. Created for the Eisner studio by 18 year old Charles Wojtkowski, under the pen name Charles Nicholas, the Beetle was a pulp style vigilante reminiscent of the Green Hornet. While possessing no super powers (yet) he was acrobatic and fearless. He also possessed some neat gadgets that would make for some exciting scenes.


Lots of action, and Alex Raymond swipes

His alter ego–a costumed hero requirement– was Dan Garrett, the ubiquitous Irish flat foot, who when the legal system failed, would don a blue chain mail union suit, a domino mask, and holster his gas gun to ferret out evildoers and beat a confession out of them. Surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with the authorities, and he was hunted as a danger to the good folks of York City

The storyline for this inaugural newspaper strip is disappointing. It offered no back-story, no origin, nothing to explain how and why the Blue Beetle came to be. Surprisingly, the Beetle is out of commission half way through. The main featured character shifts to Charley Storm, a newspaper reporter hot on the trail of the Blue Beetle, and the crooks who killed the D. A. While the Beetle is wounded and out of action, it is Charley who takes over, and tracks down the criminal mastermind. Plus, Charley gets the girl! One would think that an inaugural story would feature the Blue Beetle as the conquering hero. Ignore the plot, the attraction here was not the story, it was Kirby’s first shot at a costumed hero, the genre that would eventually propel him to greatness, and he does not disappoint. The art is energetic, fluid, bold and experimental. Jack’s use of silhouettes, high contrast shadows, close-ups, and large group shots, was miles ahead of his work from just a year earlier. The Blue Beetle never looked better!

While at Fox, Kirby continued to freelance. Bert Whitman, an itinerant cartoonist and one of Jack’s colleagues at Fox decided that he wanted to open his own art studio, ala E&I. He had contracted with Frank Temerson to provide the art for a new publishing venture. Temerson began his publishing career when he teamed up with a gent named Irving Ullman to buy the Comics Magazine Company; an early publisher of newspaper reprint strips style comic books. Frank Temerson, was a former city attorney for Birmingham, Alabama. He and Ullman were suspected Mob men who ran a number of businesses to launder the Mob’s money.


Nice figures, different views and deep perspective

They would often use phony addresses and switch their company’s names frequently to confuse the authorities. After a year, they sold their concerns to Centaur Publications. Jack offered up a sci-fi strip titled Solar Legion. It’s possible that Jack had been tinkering with the idea as a newspaper strip proposal, perhaps one of the earlier unsold ideas he had stashed. Some of the strips appear to be cut and repositioned to fit a comic size page, but as published, in Crash Comics #1, cover dated May 1940, it was Kirby’s first original concept to be featured in a comic book. Whitman would reach higher renown when he became the first person to gain the rights and draw the exploits of the Green Hornet. The art on Solar Legion features Jack’s boldest inking to date; lush and organic. Kirby seems to have come to terms with using a brush instead of a pen. The thickness of the lines and the natural free-hand flow makes a striking contrast to the finer pen delineation on Blue Beetle. The added darkness worked perfectly on the space opera milieu, giving the needed depth, solitude, and high contrast befitting the genre. Kirby’s strip would appear in the first three issues of Crash Comics, and then be continued under another hand. As seen on the original proofs, the work was signed as Jack Kirby, his first time with this pseudonym, unfortunately the signature was stripped out when published.

In December 1939, busily working away at his table, Jack looked up as Robert Farrell walked into the artist’s studio. Farrell was accompanied by a tall, lanky gentleman, in a nice suit who was introduced as the new editor. Jack didn’t know it, but his ticket to the big game had just been punched.

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Looking For The Awesome – 2. A World Divided

Previous1. Jack Kirby’s America | Contents | Next – 3. Escape To New York

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


When the Great War ended, the socio-political landscape had been turned on its head. And from the resulting chaos, the world split into two ever-conflicting political spheres, two ideological philosophies at odds with each other. Democracy vs. the isms; one side led by free people, and freely elected leaders, and democratic principles, the other by the philosophical dictators of Fascism, Communism, Nazism, and Militarism. The ensuing chaos would lead to financial meltdown.

The horror of the Wall St. Crash of Oct. 1929 had quickly filtered down to the bottom of the food chain. Jobs that were once rare and low paying became even rarer and lower paying. Quarters and fifty cent pieces used for pulps, and juvenile series books became scarce, the financial meltdown wiped out whole groups of children’s entertainment. The slick magazines vanished—too expensive. This soon became the age of the radio, a free source of hour upon hour of storytelling and escape. The Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, even strips like Superman soon expanded into the radio waves. Kids would lay endlessly next to the large wooden box listening to endless comedians, adventure stories and the latest jazz tunes.

So strong was the radio as a source that a Halloween scary tale put the nation on high alert. In 1938, Orson Wells presented the sci-fi play The War of the Worlds, based on an H. G. Wells book on a syndicated radio program. Set up in a realistic news-flash manner, people began to believe the play as reality and began flooding the police and military about this strange attack by an alien force. The outrage and impact lasted for days until the other media quieted the mobs down.

Interestingly, a new format magazine moved in to fill the void. A small sized amalgam of newspaper comic strip and text story. Published by Whitman Publications and called Big Little Books, these strange pocket-sized books presented popular newspaper funnies like Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon, as well as radio characters like the Lone Ranger, and Disney characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse in long form, hard covered stand alone stories. Although there were numerous variations in outside dimensions and in number of pages, most were 3 5/8″ x 4 1/2″ x 1 1/2″ in size and 432 pages in length. For the most part, the writer and illustrator were anonymous worker drones. The outstanding feature of the books was the captioned picture opposite each page of text. The books originally sold for a dime (later 15¢).

Typical spot illustration (from Tailspin Tommy) They weren’t above T&A

The Big Little Book® was created in 1932 when Sam Lowe conceived of a special book that would be bulky but small so that it could be easily handled and read by a young consumer. He made up three samples using cover and paper stock that would be used in the printing. He had the Art Department do black and white drawings and insert keyline text so that the dummy samples could serve as prototypes. Taking the prototypes to New York, he presented them as a ten-cent retail item, packed one dozen per title in a shipping carton. Retail buyers were intrigued with the concept and were particularly impressed with the titles. Lowe returned to Racine with more than 25,000 books pre-ordered.

Many children learned to read and have an appreciation for illustrated books because of their experiences with BLBs. The poor printing, cheap paper, and small size allowed for the cheapest priced reading material directly for children. In many instances, these small books were the first time these characters were directed to the specific children’s market in a retail format. It didn’t go unnoticed.


New York retail display room Imagine this much room for a .10 cent item

In mid-1938, Whitman changed its logo from Big Little Book® to Better Little Book®, marking the start of the Second Age (mid-1938-1950) in which the books slowly faded away due to economic and societal changes and the stiff competition from comic books. Not surprisingly, the 1938 date matches up with the appearance of Superman and the super-hero phenomenon; one format giving way to the new.

Still in the grasp of the Great Depression, it gave rise to a wealth of fresh Americana based upon inexpensive forms of entertainment. Ten-cent motion pictures, cheap reading materials like BLB’s and comics, and free-radio programs came from a few of the industries that prospered during the decade, and their influence was felt deeply and is remembered warmly by millions of people. It was truly a Golden Age for films, radio programs, and inexpensive reading materials.


Colorful, small and lots of drawings

Jake’s life was also caught in great schisms; old country vs. new, tall vs. short, Haves vs. have-nots, schmoes vs. swells, Jews vs. Gentiles, gangsters and straights. Nothing scarred the youngster’s psyche so much as watching his father struggle to keep the family sheltered and clothed, or watching his mother losing her spark of joy, growing old before her time. The thrill of becoming a Bar Mitzvah would give way to a stark realization that his childhood had come to an end. The stickball games after school, and the long summers soaring over the rooftops, exploring the streets and playing cops and robbers till dark, were over. Jake was no longer a child, the innocent idylls of youth, once taken for granted, gave way to a new truth; he had to take his place as a source of family income.

But being poor wasn’t a death sentence—it could also be an inspiration. Jimmy Cagney put it this way: “Though we were poor, we didn’t know we were poor. We realized we didn’t get three squares on the table every day, and there was no such thing as a good second suit, but we had no objective knowledge that we were poor. We just went from day to day doing the best we could, hoping to get through the really rough periods with a minimum of hunger and want. We simply didn’t have time to realize we were poor, although we did realize the desperation of life around us.” Sometimes life is too immediate to step back and see just how bad it was.

During the height of the Depression, family survival was tantamount and any added income was an important plus. Jake’s time spent drawing and reading was time not spent helping out with the family budget. Jake had no interest in being a tailor, so joining his dad at work, or moonlighting after hours was out of the question. After school, and on the weekends, he managed odd jobs, such as being a gofer for the reporters at the Daily News, drawing bags for shopkeepers and sign-making, but most often he hawked newspapers. Kirby recalls, perhaps apocryphally, “I enrolled at Pratt Institute. When I arrived home after the first day of classes, I discovered my father had lost his job. I was out of Pratt and selling newspapers the next day.” Due to his small stature, when Jacob found honest work to make a few pennies, he ran face first into urban Darwinism. Kirby recounts; “When I’d go to pick up the papers off the truck at the building, I’d be the little kid that got trampled.” Newsboys had a distinct pecking order, with the larger, stronger boys commanding the choicest locations, and largest bundles. Any intrusions into these prime locations were met with immediate and painful consequences. Being a “newsie” was also a gateway to petty crime as the boys would often add pick pocketing and other methods to up their daily take, and then lose it to craps, pitching pennies, or other small ante gambling games. Every newsie spoke of William Lipshitz in revered tones. The newsie turned hitman was just one of the many gangsters that the young hoods idolized. Jews had the same dreams we had. John Garfield would half-joke “If I hadn’t become an actor, I might have become Public Enemy Number One.” Jewish-American organized crime arose among slum kids who in pre-puberty stole from pushcarts, who as adolescents extorted money from store owners,– until as adults they joined well organized gangs, led by luminaries such as Moe Annenberg or Meyer Lansky, and became involved in a wide variety of criminal enterprises boosted by prohibition. The lure of quick money, power and the romance of the criminal lifestyle was as attractive to the second-generation Jewish immigrants as it was to the Irish and the Italians. It didn’t hurt that Meyer Lansky, the big cheese was only a little over 5 ft. tall. Something a short person could dream of– a democratic pursuit.

Newsies at work and play

The soul-robbing endless cycle of poverty, juvenile delinquency, and crime hung over Jake’s Lower East Side like a mourning shroud. The Jewish enclave was tight and offered a sanctuary of commonality for the older family members steeped in the Old World folklore and traditions, but to the children of the urban street who went to public schools with Irish, Italians, Poles, and Blacks, these old country ways offered no guidance.

Kirby told historian Greg Theakston; “I couldn’t accept the poverty. I couldn’t accept my parents in such poor circumstances either. I was a Depression child, and I couldn’t accept the things that were going on around me.” Yet despair is a curious thing, it can break the will, or it can forge a determination that can rise above it. Kirby recalls that life in the ghetto, “gave me a fierce drive to get out of it. It made me so fearful of it, that in an immature way, I fantasized a dream world more realistic than the reality around me.” Jack lived in the Lower East Side, there was no guarantee that he would ever get out; many didn’t. They say a man is the culmination of the choices he makes. The Lower East Side offered many choices for the young man, some good, but an awful lot bad; the easy lure of the con man, the romanticism of the gangster, the easy life of the gambler looked pretty nice compared to the menial factory job, or the drudgery of the assembly line. But Rose and Ben had raised Jacob right, he knew right from wrong and to avoid the detours found in the ghetto. The problem was how to see the straight and narrow with all the roadblocks the slums put in one’s path. Jack understood the realities such as Yedda Goldstein lying face down on a concrete surface rather than burn in her work building, or Louis Cohen- shot down like a rabid animal for crossing the wrong person, or Julius Rosenberg writhing in the electric chair for making just such wrong choices. Jack also knew of Lillian Wald, or Mickey Marcus, Bernard Baruch or Jimmy Cagney and knew there was a path out that didn’t include lying, violence, or scamming. He needed a map.

By 1932, Jacob had to make a decision. He was 15 edging on 16, and the scrapping was taking a nasty turn towards real consequences. Broken bones, incarceration, even death was now a constant companion. A close friend was shot in the neck, while another friend’s Mom jumped to her death from a building top. The rats were not just those hated, furry little rodents, now they were the strong arm bullies taking hard earned movie money, the enemy gangs, the petty hoods, the slum lords and dishonest cops intruding on Jacobs’ turf, and he was helpless to do anything about it. Jake’s parents were good people, but in this new world, they were as lost as Jacob. How could they show him a path out of the ghetto, which they couldn’t find? His father was now 45, and already an old man. The ten to twelve hour shifts, often six days a week, hunched over a sewing machine, in a dimly lit, smoke filled, windowless factory, had left Ben physically and spiritually bent and broken. He had little energy or quality time to give Jake the help and guidance the child needed. In the absence of an adult role model, peer pressure becomes the guiding factor, and the macho posing necessary to survive on the streets can deprive the child of the skills, and desire needed to succeed in the outside world. Education became a waste of time, time better spent in shooting craps, petty crime, or fighting. Reading or drawing? That’s sissy stuff; no real man would be caught dead wasting his time with that. Honest work? It’s a scam, guaranteed to break your spirit and your back. Hustling was quicker, cleaner, and you wore better clothes, if you could get away with it. Jacob had choices; most of them were not very good.

Jakie saw through the petty gangsters. “They weren’t the heroes. The gangsters were just guys who wanted the $400 suits, and they wanted it now. I didn’t care what I wore. They were guys who wanted money fast, and they paid for it.” Gangster Mickey Cohen a local strongarm/bodyguard described the feeling; “I started rooting – you know, sticking up joints – with some older guys. By now I had gotten a taste of what the racket world really was – the glamour, the way they dressed, the way they always had a pocketful of money.” “I got a kick out of having a big bankroll in my pocket. Even if I only made a couple hundred dollars, I’d always keep it in fives and tens so it’d look big.” Jack was lucky, others, such as the well known Louis Cohen were not so lucky. Louis was born Louis Kerzner near Jack’s Suffolk St home. Running the streets pick pocketing and other petty crimes led the youth to meeting up with Jacob “Augie” Orgen a bigger time Jewish mobster, known for his anti-union activities. Louis walked the streets like a god; a role model for all the street hustlers and newsies to admire and emulate. Louis Cohen was a dreamer — he wanted to be a gangster and win respect from the people, and wear those $400 suits. The Little Augie gangsters played on his ambition until he did the dirty work they were loath to tackle. Eager to please, the young hood was hired by Louis Buchalter and Legs Diamond to kill noted rival Nathan Kaplan- another anti-unionist. A gang war between the rival factions broke out resulting in a particularly violent fight on Essex St –in which several innocents were shot. Cohen shot Kaplan in front of the Essex County Court House, and was immediately arrested—he was not a particularly bright young man. Orgen became sole operator of the labor busting rackets. After exiting prison Cohen agreed to finger Buchalter. Along with buddy Isadore Friedman he had made an arrangement with feisty prosecutor Thomas Dewey. Buchalter found out through informants within the states attorney’s office and shot and killed both Cohen and Friedman like dogs on the street; their bodies for all to see as an object lesson in the Lower East Side. Louis Cohen never fulfilled his dream. Such was the education of Jacob Kurtzberg. Historian Michael Sugarman observes with wry humor; “You have to look at the irony of the situation. The immigrants wanted their children to lead a successful, law-abiding life, and live the “American Dream”. Now the irony was, in the time of the Depression and Prohibition, when organized crime flourished, you couldn’t be both successful and law abiding, in most cases. The only real successful people were the gangsters. The law-abiding ones were dirt poor. This is said mostly in jest; truth be told there were many positive influences o the young boy. They were just outnumbered by the relentless presence of the mobster class.

To be fair, the area had its heroes. Lillian D. Wald was born of a German Jewish family in Cincinnati, Ohio. She graduated from the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses and then took courses at the Woman’s Medical College.  Spurred on by a close friend, she adopted the Lower East Side and decided the area needed nursing care. Wald’s work, along with her partner Mary Brewster, in the area prompted her to move there to be a visiting nurse and help aid the families who were living in horrible conditions.  After gaining a sponsor, Wald’s practice grew as did her staff, which by 1913 had grown to 92 people She worked in the area for forty years.  Her practice became the Henry Street Settlement and then turned into the Visiting Nurse Service of New York City.  The Settlement expanded its range of services to meet the needs of the local community. This included nursing, the establishment of clubs, a savings bank, a library and vocational training for young people. By 1903 Wald was organizing 18 district nursing service centers that overall treated 4,500 patients in New York. Wald early resolved that the Henry Street nurses would be nonsectarian and would charge fees only to those who could pay. There would be no religious or racial discrimination for their services.

Over the next few years Wald promoted the idea of building public playgrounds and cultural institutions in working class areas. In 1915, Wald founded the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand St. to serve as a cultural center and later an acting school.  After the war, she expanded into many social concerns. She helped her friend Margaret Sanger, she marched for the right to vote, and she led the fight against the horrible child labor conditions. She fought for medical staff inside the educational buildings. She helped start the NAACP. Her work for civil rights stands as a landmark of tolerance. A confirmed trade Unionist and pacifist. The Henry St. Settlement has become a treasured landmark in the Lower East Side. To this day it continues the fight against disease, poverty, and oppression. The Boys Brotherhood Republic was swallowed up by the Henry Settlement Complex and they share spaces at 888 East 6th Street, It remains one of the cultural centers of the LES. Her work was the perfect compliment to Harry Slonaker and the BBR.

Mickey Marcus was born on Hester St, not far from Jake’s block. Being athletic and bright he earned his way in to West Point. After graduation he returned to New York became a lawyer and won appointments to several prestigious jobs with the D.A. Most importantly, he led the prosecution of Lucky Luciano. He was speculated to become the first Jewish Mayor of New York. But first came World War 2. Mickey reenlisted and was made part of Eisenhower’s brain trust. Marcus helped draw up the surrender terms for Italy and Germany and became part of the occupation government in Berlin after 1945. During that time, Marcus was placed in charge of planning how to sustain the starving millions in areas liberated by the Allies, and clearing out the Nazi concentration camps. After the war he returned to New York where he was approached by the new Israeli Defense Dept and asked to set up a new army; first to win separation from Great Britain and then to keep it from the Arab countries. It was during these early years in Israel that Marcus was killed by friendly fire while touring an encampment. He was returned to New York and buried with honors from two countries. There were heroes, just not as glamorous as the lowlifes.

Running the streets with Morris Cohen or Georgie Comet, Chubby Clee, and the Klinghoffer boys—Albie and Leon, was exciting and energetic, but going nowhere. It all just seemed like dead ends. Some became gangsters, some street hoods and some youths took their anger and frustrations to the streets, joining the anarchists like the Young Communist League who marched and pushed for worker’s rights and social reform. It’s been said that upwards of 12,000 kids were active members of the Commie Bunds in New York by 1939—ever watching the progress being made by the new government in Mother Russia. One such bomb thrower was a neighbor of Jacob Kurtzberg named Julius Rosenberg.

In March, 1931, 9 black youths were arrested after a gang type melee in Scottsboro, Alabama.; some younger than Jacob. 2 white women falsely accused them of raping them. White hysteria erupts and the demand is made to lynch them. The local sheriff puts a stop to the mob, but promised a swift trial. Two weeks later, after a kangaroo court –where their appointed lawyer refused to put up a defense, they were sentenced to die. The prosecuting attorney makes it plain. “Guilty or not, let’s kill these niggers.” The legal arm of the Communist party, the ILD, (perhaps for its own reasons) takes up their case and whips up support from up north. The world soon takes notice. On June 27th upwards of 5000 people both black and white march in protest in Harlem, New York. Among those fellow Communists marching was a first time protester, Julius Rosenberg. After many later trials, several of the boys are freed, and the others faced reduced sentences.


The only paper to come to their aid

His passion for the radical has been ignited. The intertwining of socialism and civil rights was an important ingredient in the rise of both. The black population had no better ally than the equally downtrodden Jewish people. The freedom riders—those northern youths sent south to help blacks vote were a combination of idealistic blacks and Jewish kids– and their fates were often the same.

The Daily Worker had grown into a passable newspaper after some early problems. Though usually a fixture of Soviet propaganda it did find a place in America among the class conscious workers. Dick Briefer-of Frankenstein Comics fame had a regular strip called Pinky Rankin for several years. Surprisingly their baseball coverage was among the best around. It was from this perch that the demand for mixed ball emerged. It is doubtful that baseball would become integrated without the constant haranguing of the Daily Worker.

On Sunday, August 16, 1936, under the headline, “Fans Ask  End of Jim Crow Baseball,” the Sunday Worker pronounced “Jim Crow baseball must end.” Thus began the Communist Party newspaper’s campaign to end discrimination in the national  pastime. The story, written by sports editor Lester Rodney, questioned the fairness of segregated baseball. Rodney believed that black ballplayers from the Negro Leagues would improve the quality of play in the major leagues. He appealed to readers to demand that the national pastime — particularly team owners, or “magnates” as the  newspaper called them — admit black ballplayers. “Fans, it’s up to you! Tell the big league magnates that you’re sick of the poor pitching in the American League.” “Big league ball is on the downgrade, “Rodney declared, “You pay the high prices. Demand better ball. Demand Americanism in baseball, equal opportunities for Negro and white stars.”

It’s an interesting mix, politics, sports, and civil rights.

Ida M Van Etten wrote of the American/Russian Jewish dilemma, their allegiance both to America and their hold from Mother Russia, and the fear of established political parties.

“ Politically, the Jews possess many characteristics of the best citizens. Their respect and desire for education make them most unlikely to follow an ignorant demagogue, while for a still deeper and more radical reason they make an enlightened selfishness their standard of all political worth. The centuries during which every conscious and unconscious tendency of the governments under which they lived has been to make their individual and race advancement their single object, have developed traits of character most unfavorable to that blind partisanship which is requisite for the successful carrying out of the objects of political organizations like Tammany Hall. The education given by the modern labor movement has, in a great degree, transformed their race-feeling into a class-feeling, and they now look with zeal to the advancement of the working people, in whole elevation they recognize that their hope for the future lies. The one or two Jewish political demagogues who strive to create a following on the East Side have met with doubtful success. In fact, there does not exist a more unpromising field in New York for the political trickster than the Jewish quarter of the city. Their cold, critical analysis of political nostrums is most disheartening to the district-leaders of Tammany Hall. Unlike most native or Irish voters, they are proof against the blandishments of the campaign orator and the fascinations of the torchlight procession and brass band. The great mass of Russian Jews are not yet naturalized, but of those who are, the vast majority voted last year with the Socialist Labor party. “

By the early 1900’s several socialist representatives won their seats for the Lower East Side. Jack looked with amazement on the local Tammany Hall pols shoving money at the great unwashed for votes; looked like a job for a young man on the move. “The average politician was crooked. That was my ambition, to be a crooked politician” Jack laughed.

Such was the quandary Jacob found himself; ill-equipped to make it in the outside world, yet too small, too smart, and too sensitive to want to join the world of gangsters, petty crime, or the anarchists. Jake needed a mentor, someone who could help him bridge the gulf that divided his squalid world of limited hope, from a universe of endless possibilities. A positive role model who was every bit the equal to the constant negative reinforcement shoved down a young boys’ throat.


Hard times and gangsters wearing nice suits

How Harry Slonaker, and the Boys Brotherhood Republic happened to be in New York’s Lower East Side at this time, has become the stuff of folklore. Comedian Jerry Stiller, an early member told BusinessWeek magazine in an interview from the Dec. 12, 2003 issue, “The BBR started when some kids in the neighborhood were caught playing dice on the street and were arrested. They were going to be shipped off to reform school when a social worker from Chicago named Harry Slonaker, who had seen what happened, pleaded with the judge. “Give them to me,” he said.”

Harry Slonaker remembered it differently; one day, while walking around the tough neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side, Harry happened on a group of kids shooting craps in an alleyway. He approached the kids, with an offer, “I’ll fade you”. The wary kids, suspecting a copper, grabbed their meager cash and the bones and started to run from this man in an overcoat. “Naw, don’t beat it!” Harry pleaded. “Come on, let’s shoot some dice, I’ll fade you”, he pleaded. The boys reluctantly returned, and as the game progressed, he offered forth an idea. “What do you say we form a club?” Despite numerous objections from the boys, that “clubs are sissy stuff”, Harry finally won some of the kids over, and they formed the BBR.

Harry’s reminiscence is accurate, just not complete, for Harry wasn’t just happening by the Lower East Side; he was actually on a mission. Harry Edward Slonaker was not a native New Yorker; he was born on Nov.17th, 1903, in Hammond, Indiana, the only child of James and Bernice Slonaker. Hammond is a small town in the upper Northwest quadrant of the state, just across the border from Illinois. At some period, during his childhood, Harry’s family crossed that border and settled in Chicago. This was the Chicago of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, bloody race riots, drive by shootings, and Al Capone.

In 1914, a Chicago salesman named Jack Robbins ventured into a Chicago courthouse where 7 boys were being sentenced for petty larceny. Robbins spoke up on behalf of the boys, and the court sentenced them to probation under his control. (Interesting how this legend jumps from founder to founder) After talking with the boys, all ex-members of various organized boy’s clubs, Robbins came to the conclusion that they had failed because the clubs had been organized and run totally by grown-ups, and the kids rebelled due to lack of any real responsibility and say. His solution became the Boys Brotherhood Republic.

“Where Boy’s Rule” was not just the club’s motto, it was its raison d’être. The BBR functioned like a self-contained political entity. The boys, from 14 to 18 would elect their own Mayor, and City Council, and other departments. The boys paid taxes and were required to put in time in their chosen committees. There was also training and tutoring in sports, art, and vocational areas. On one wall hung a plaque bearing the words “We are digging a well, where other boys may drink”; a constant reminder that what was learned and lived at BBR must continue to the next generation. The success was astounding, boys petitioned to join by the dozens.


On front of home building

Jack Robbins was thinking about expanding his philosophy to New York City. On Feb. 23, 1931, in the Lower East Side, he held a public meeting attended by over a hundred kids, and several local dignitaries to gauge local support for the club. When asked how soon the kids would like to have a BBR, the answer was a resounding “TOMORROW!”

With this affirmative call to action, Jack Robbins explained his plan to the boys. “It is important that the supervisor of the New York Boys Brotherhood Republic should be an adult who is either a former BBR citizen from Chicago, or who has received substantial training in Chicago.” “This man is to be in sympathy with self-governing ideas, and is to have an understanding of the desires of the elements of the boys to be under his supervision.”

In early Jan, 1932, Harry Slonaker, the former mayor of the NW Chicago BBR set up shop, and hit the NY streets looking for recruits. He started with a small group of kids rolling dice, and by the end of January, a core group was formed and the first meeting of the Boys Brotherhood Republic in NYC was held.


Harry Slonaker by Alfred Eisenstatz

Jacob Kurtzberg joined a couple months later, probably at the urging of Georgie Comet or Chubby Clee, who were among the first to join the group. In fact, Chubby was the first elected Mayor of the Group. The next several years, the BBR would offer him an alternative to the gangs, the rats, and the hopelessness that shrouded his future. At the BBR, he found like-minded friends also looking to improve their lives. The BBR was an island of tranquility amidst the chaos and tumult of his Lower East Side existence. The BBR art club gave him a place where his artistic skills were appreciated, rather than the subject of cruel taunting, and his talents were put to productive use.

“The boys publish and mimeograph a weekly newspaper which sells for one cent. Harry Slonaker never sees it until after it is printed. There is a camera club and art club, which likewise run themselves. If a boy is interested in drawing he joins the club and the other boys take a hand and teach them what they have learned. The professional appearance of their posters speak well for their ability”

Off the Straight and Narrow
Caroline Bayard Colgate 1937

Perhaps even more important, the BBR instilled in him the discipline and work ethic that hopelessness robbed of so many. Jacob didn’t need Harry Slonaker to know right from wrong, his parents had taught him that, but he needed a mentor like Harry Slonaker to show how he could overcome the negative shackles of a street education that taught that doing the right thing was a fool’s game. Jack Kirby recalls; “It was a country that kids ran, this organization that Harry started. He thought that if he gave kids responsibility it would give them hope, and there was so little hope then.”. “We learned responsibility. For the first time it was in our own hands, and we learned how to deal with it.”

Jerry Stiller recalls; “BBR really helped you find something within yourself. It was a place where we found a connection with each other. We were children of immigrants: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, black, and Hispanic. There was no ethnic divide. It was so beautifully connected. There was no prejudice or bigotry.”

Sol Kassen remembers the early days;

“We were so anxious, sometimes we arrived early and would have to wait outside the doors until Harry Slonaker opened up. He would sit upstairs by the window until 4 p.m. sharp, when he’d let in these boys — who now say they otherwise might have stolen, vandalized or cheated for a good time had it not been for the club. It was just so cold that day. Kasson couldn’t wait. “Aw c’mon, Harry, why don’t you let us go in a little earlier? “ To get some attention Kasson picked up a rock and threw it at a window. He didn’t mean to, but he shattered the glass. Out came Slonaker. ”

“Before they started this club we used to steal and get into all kinds of trouble,” said Sol Gelber, the kids of the east side were very poor. We didn`t have anything and we couldn`t feel any hope. The club really changed our lives. It`s like our motto, `when there are boys in trouble we too are in trouble.”

”I think that club was more than fun. It gave a sense of what is good and right,” Hank Walzer, said. “We never lost touch. We went to one another’s bar mitzvahs and weddings. It was like one big family.”

“It was a great time for me,” Jack would claim. “I made lots of friends.” Ralph Hittman, who would go on to lead the BBR recalls Jacob as “a quiet guy.” “Played ball like everyone else, but was usually drawing comic strips.” Hittman recalls an activity called Fighting for Fun where Jake was boxing another boy name Milt Cherry, and Jake lost. “Jake looked pugnacious but he really wasn’t.” Not surprisingly, Jack would tell of a boxing match where one of the boys taunted him, really going after Kirby’s short stature. Jack’s temper reached a boil and as the bell sounded, he threw himself across the ring and the fight was quickly ended with a one punch knockout by the small battler.

Jacob became an integral part of the BBR’s self-published newspaper, providing editorial comment, and original art that accompanied the issues. His K’s Konceptions,–small gag comments– cranked out from a crude mimeograph, were the first published artwork of his now legendary career.

The citizens of the BBR took their responsibilities seriously; the in-house court was a busy place. Missed meetings, returning books late, and major offenses like fighting or gambling would get a member brought before the court. In 1935 they even held an impeachment trial for one of the Judges. George Comet, one of Jake’s closest friends, was the prosecuting attorney, and Jake was the court reporter and court artist. The highlight of the account in the BBR Reporter was Jake’s spot illustrations, and his terse little remarks on the witnesses. Former BBR Judge Morris Kosatzky’s attempt to foist himself off as an authority on BBR laws became “a much disputed fact by both attornies.” “Hercules” Hershberg, who sat in a “spread eagle position”, while answering questions was “the funniest witness ever to occupy a chair.” In response to one question he declared; “Awright so I’ll answer yes or no. Who wants to beat around the bush?” Councilman Spinner “wore a sinister smirk” while Councilman Rosen was taking copious notes because “he couldn’t weigh the evidence in his cranium,” but mostly, he and everyone “were very attentive and devouring every piece of evidence.”

Jake could wax serious too. In a BBR Reporter article he compares the early Reporter with the new version. “Today, The Reporter is one of the greatest BBR institutions. The press room is a scene of buzzing activity. The camera staff is always at work, and experimenting on some new process of turning out pictures for the newspaper. The editor can always be noticed bawling out the art staff plus firing a reporter here and there. The mimeograph squad; with sleeves rolled up and reeking with sweat, turn out page after page. At important events, the BBR Reporter is always represented in the ever present Press Box. Like the BBR itself, the BBR Reporter has risen from a thing of insignificance, to a thing filled with activity, and pulsating with life.”

The English isn’t perfect, the syntax slightly shattered, but Jack’s unique facility with the written word was evident early. Among his friends on the BBR staff was Albie Klinghoffer, who doubled as the BBR Reporter’s Business manager, and cameraman. His brother Leon would become infamous when in 1985 he was murdered on the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists. Supposedly the wheelchair bound Klinghoffer spat in the face of one of the terrorists. Consequently, he was shot and dumped overboard.

Nothing was more important or more time-consuming for Harry Slonaker then his relentless push to help his kids find gainful employment. The members would plaster walls and bridges with posters and placards seeking work. They would send personal letters to business owners pleading for summer job applicants. Many of the BBR youths left to take jobs with President Roosevelt’s new CCC program.

Kirby credits the time spent at the BBR, for giving him the means to escape the slums. “I drew caricatures of other club members, made jokes about the things they did. The others loved it. I drew other things like titles, and other cartoons. I even wrote a couple articles. It was a good experience for me. It’s what finally got me out of the neighborhood and into a real job.” Kirby explained. “Harry Slonaker, who I felt was like my own father, was responsible for making me a decent human being. We came out responsible adults.”


Learn more from their book

Harry Slonaker and the BBR allowed Jacob Kurtzberg to find his dignity and self-worth, and just like the club newspaper, Jacob had “risen from a thing of insignificance, to a thing filled with activity, and pulsating with life.” The boy became a man. This dreamer wouldn’t end up a corpse on the street.

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Looking For The Awesome – 1. Jack Kirby’s America

PreviousPreface | Contents | Next – 2. A World Divided

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


“Winters got real severe and a lot of people passed away. I remember having a lot of sweaters on me. I can tell you. Our idea of preventing disease was to wear four or five sweaters and everything else you could put on.” So what did people depend on? “God. My mother held much faith in God and on folklore. She was also a great storyteller. I got that talent from her and by listening to her every night. The best stories are the ones that can touch you; anytime anyone tells you a good story and it is in person they have a smell, a sound, and they breathe. That is the essence of good storytelling, when it can reach out and touch you. My mother learned storytelling from her mother. Like her mother and her mother’s mother, my mother told me tales about people, God and the land they lived on. That’s the kind of home I grew up in.” Jack swallowed hard after talking about his mother. To his mother, he was always Jacov.

It is not a coincidence that Shalom Aleichem the great Hebrew story writer; called by some the Jewish Mark Twain – though Twain would always claim that he was the American Shalom Aleichem – spent the last years of his illustrious life living and dying in poverty among the Jewish cast-offs in the Lower East Side. After escaping Czarist Russia due to a pogrom, he wearily made his way to New York. He died fitfully spitting out his life among the thousands of Tuberculosis victims suffering there. These people lived Shalom’s stories, they were Shalom’s stories, and they loved their lost homelands. Shalom Aleichem died just as Jacob came into the world. One generation always gave way to the next. Perhaps it was Shalom’s talents that found a new vessel in Jacob’s hands.

They were the stories of a people, a people displaced by nature, and resettled in hell. But they survived, and they passed on their collective knowledge, and their stories never end, they just keep adding new chapters.

Mulberry St. Lower East Side 1920

August 28, 1917, for 4 years Europe had been engulfed in a horrific war—“the War to end all wars”. The United States had joined the bloody conflict four months earlier, and by June, the first Yanks landed in Europe, making this truly a World War. Thousands of miles away, in a stifling cold water flat located in the bowels of New York City, Benjamin and Rose Kurtzberg delivered their first child. Ben had recently emigrated from Austria, where the stench of persecution, war and poverty had been a constant. By the conclusion of this unparalleled cataclysm, an ancient era had passed. Gone were the Czars, Archdukes, and Kaisers, left powerless were Kings and Emperors, whose legacy of absolute authority had stretched for centuries. The age of the feudal lieges, lording over personal fiefdoms had ended. Jacob Kurtzberg, was truly born from the death throes of these Old Gods. Europe’s era had ended.

Ben and Rose were part of the massive Jewish tide that overwhelmed the United States at the turn of the Century. Jack’s romanticized story was that his father escaped Austria in 1907 in order to avoid a duel-of-honor with a German aristocrat. Yeah well, Jack told stories. Landing at Ellis Island, Ben found refuge in America’s Calcutta, New York’s Lower East Side. Ben’s family was from a section of Austria-Hungary known as Galicia. Beginning in the 1880s, a mass emigration of the Galician populace occurred. Caused by an horrible economic condition, and a growing Jewish animosity. Rural poverty was widespread; the emigration began in the western, Polish populated part of Galicia and quickly shifted east to the Ukrainian inhabited Eastern parts. Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans all participated in this mass movement of countryfolk and villagers. Poles migrated principally to New England and the midwestern states of the United States. Jews mostly emigrated directly to New York and Chicago. A total of several hundred thousand people were involved in this Great Economic Emigration which grew steadily more intense until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.


Immigrants in cattle pens at Ellis Island

Rose’s family had come to America from Russia a few years earlier, possibly to escape the great Kishinev pogroms of 1903-5. Czarist Russia was becoming more and more inhospitable to the Jewish population, even those residing inside the Pale of Settlement.

The New York Times reported: 4.28.1903

“The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep; The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.”

Louis B. Marshal, in his 1904 essay on the 250th Anniversary of Jews in the U.S. wrote;

“In 1880 the number of Jews in the city of New York did not exceed 100,000. Since then, owing to the unspeakable horrors of Russian and Romanian oppression, and of the dire poverty in Galicia and the tide of Jewish immigration has increased in volume year after year, until to-day the Jewish population of New York city amounts to well nigh 750,000, and numbers are constantly increasing.

Many of these new arrivals have not as yet attained the highest standard of citizenship, are still struggling with poverty and misery, are yet unacquainted with our vernacular, and have brought with them unfamiliar customs, strange tongues, and ideas which are the product of centuries of unexampled persecution.

But what of that! They have come to this country with the pious purpose of making it their home; of identifying themselves and their children with its future; of worshipping under its protection, according to their consciences; of becoming its citizens; of loving it; of giving to it their energies, their intelligence, their persistent industry.

The Pilgrim Fathers did no more than this. The progenitors of the leading families of this country were not otherwise; The lineage of the Russian Jew runs back much further than theirs. He is the descendent of men who were renowned for learning and for intellectual achievements when from the St. Lawrence to the Rio Grande, from Sandy Hook to the Golden Gate, this was a howling wilderness.


dead children from a pogrom

The Russian Jew is rapidly becoming the American Jew, and we shall live to see the time when the present dwellers in the tenements will, through their thrift and innate moral powers, hitherto repressed and benumbed, step into the very forefront of the great army of American citizenship.”

Between 1900 and 1924, another 1.75 million Jews would immigrate to America’s shores, the bulk from Eastern Europe. Before 1900, American Jews amounted to less than 1 percent of America’s total population, by 1930 Jews formed about 3½ percent. There were more Jews in America by then than there were Episcopalians or Presbyterians.

When they landed at Ellis Island, they were met by the Jewish Aid Society. Landsmanshaften were small groups of individuals; often broken up by their areas of origin. They would help the newcomers make the transition as immigrant as harmless as possible. They would arrange living quarters, help with employment, offer entertainment, education and social interaction between the new arrivals and others of like backgrounds. They provided places of worship, financial assistance, even medical and burial aid when needed. They stressed the need for assimilation as quickly as possible.

Both families had settled in a small but tight knit Austrian-Hungarian Jewish enclave in the Lower East Side. They met while working at a textile mill, and after the appropriate arrangements were made, they eventually married.

The currents of time and events don’t flow smoothly. Society and culture grow in fits and starts. There are eras when tsunamis of influences and change collide and release huge amounts of energy and inspiration. The early 1900’s were just such an epoch. It started slow but by the late teens the wave crashed with such force to wipe everything before it away. Politics, art, music, and cultural changes crashed and fed off each other’s energies. And no where was this more obvious than in New York. This was becoming America’s century, and New York was the loci. New York had become the financial, artistic, fashion, entertainment and communications hub of the world. It was a great world spinning and creating its own gravitational force that drew in every diverse element and influence from the rest of the world. And people by the millions, the lowly immigrant and the high and mighty. And once those elements entered into New York’s fiery cauldron, they were melded and transformed into a new form that became the face of America. New technologies in steel-forging and elevator construction led the way for a new profile for New York; one that stretched hundreds of feet higher than ever seen before. Uptown, The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building cracked the sky. Art Nouveau’s frilliness gave way to Art Deco and Modernism’s angles and geometrics. But this was not Jacob/Jacov’s New York!

Hearst, Pulitzer and Ochs competed for the hearts and minds of New York’s citizenry as their newspapers became the symbols for all that was good and bad in society, and gave rise to a new phrase–yellow journalism. Newspaper comic strips by the likes of Winsor McKay and George Herriman captured the hearts of everyone. Muckrakers like Jacob Riis, and Lilian Wald fought the system to bring equality to the masses. Socialism and Progressive Politics railed against the monolithic power of the Corporate Giants born from the Industrial and technical growth of the late 1800’s, and with it came the call for revolution, civil rights and workers rights.

Women rebelled from the tight structured Victorian fashions and wore looser more casual clothing ala the Gibson girls or even worse, male fashions. The Suffragette Movement grew from a new restless female population forced to work in the factories and raise families torn asunder during the Great War, and with it came a demand for power–political, cultural, and even sexual– never thought possible; culminating in the passing of the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. And it was in New York that the great garment industry would grow–from supplying clothes for slaves, to providing clothing for the masses. And those masses of employees fed into the great demand for workers rights and led the way in Unionism and worker dignity. But this was not Rose’s New York.

The art world had been Eurocentric for several generations, but in the early 1900’s a new generation of American artists and architects and writers arose bringing a new perspective, born of European influences but adapted to America’s baser sensitivities.

Broadway, once the center of European Operettas, and Vaudevillian and Parisian revues gave way to a new amalgam forged by Jewish and Irish immigrants drawing inspiration from roots music and the new idiom of jazz blown in fresh from the South. Victor Herbert gave way to Cohan, Berlin and Gershwin. In 1927, true American Musical Theater was born when two sons of European heritage, Jerome Kerns and Oscar Hammerstein II combined and created a new genre with the creation of Showboat–a musical play as compared to a musical revue, and the first truly integrated show.

European Jews weren’t the only ones fleeing prejudice and ending in New York. For a short period after the Civil War there was a period of increased education and employment of blacks. This led to a growing middle-class population and with it, expectations of a better life. In 1896 this period of enlightenment was crushed with the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling; returning parts of the South to a separate society, and minimizing the rights that had popped up post war. Along with a plague of boll weevils that decimated the Southern agrarian economy the labor market disappeared for the black population.

Blacks headed North to a supposed better life, racism was still a problem, but was more hidden and less brutal than in the South. The Northern states allowed blacks to vote, and education was available, and jobs-especially labor jobs- were much more prevalent in the heavy industrial shops. This migration brought upwards of 7 million blacks to the northern states.

Author Richard Wright (Native Son) wrote of the black immigrant in words that can be seen universally.

“I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown . . . I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom”

The black folks who fled Jim Crow in record numbers, into New York and parts North, after the Civil War had brought their own influences from Africa and the Caribbean Isles.

In the early 1900’s these sons of slaves had reached a point where they demanded recognition for these influences, and in New York a new movement took root. The Harlem Renaissance burst forth with a fury and energy that shook all cultural endeavors. Writers like Hughes, Thurston and Harrison, artists like Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, and Romare Bearden brought their roots and colorful energy and made it American, but mostly it was in the music.

Nowhere was the black influence more apparent than the explosion of jazz upon the canvas of America’s musical life. Birthed in New Orleans, Memphis, and other southern towns, jazz matured when it reached the streets of New York and blended with elegant European Waltzes, Yiddish schmaltz, and the folk music of the immigrant workers. Nowhere was this more prominent than in New York’s nightlife where Cab, Duke and Fats Waller ruled with a strong left hand and a swinging groove. Broadway became captivated with Porgy and Bess.

Even sports seemed to bow to New York as Babe Ruth, the ill-bred son of a Baltimore bar owner, and Lou Gehrig, the gentle son of German immigrants held court in all-white Yankee Stadium, and won adulation and the hearts of children everywhere. No blacks need apply. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what all the people share is that they were the second generation of people thrown into the horror and poverty of New York City. Immigrant or slave made no difference. There is recognition that the second generation always shows the cream rising to the top. The first generation suffered so the second could achieve and overcome. But this was not Ben’s’ New York.

Ben was a first generation immigrant, thrown into the pit of the monster, where a previous generation of Jews from Western Europe looked down on and mistreated the brothers from Eastern Europe. It was a common occurrence that the new immigrants would get the harshest treatment from their own that came earlier. It was the first Irish that beat down and abused the new Irish immigrants who poured off the ships. And it was the earliest Italians who mistreated and impoverished the later Italian immigrants. And it was the first Jews who had opened up the garment shops and manufacturing plants that kept the new Polish/Russian Jews in such poverty. It was an old story freshly told to the new Jews. American Capitalism required fresh blood forced to work for the lowest salary to keep the costs of manufacturing down and increase the competitive edge of North American trade. William Cutting in the movie The Gangs of New York put it most succinctly while observing poor, starving Irish immigrants coming off a ship. “I don’t see Americans; I see trespassers, Irish harps. Do a job for a nickel what a nigger does for a dime and a white man used to get a quarter for.” All while the immoral politician rubs his hand thanking god for new cheap stock for the grist, and unquestioning votes. It was the same moral force that allowed slavery in the South and sweat labor in the North. Slave labor, whether Irish, Italian, black, or Jewish was the energy source that made the factories run. Even after Unionism started to bring higher wages and safer workplaces, Management simply created a new shadow work force. Using a new second level of manager, the owners created what have become known as sweat shops. Independents with a few sewing machines and presses would set up shops in private homes away from the Government regulations and union scale jobs. This second level was known as “sweaters” thus we got sweat shops. This unregulated force paid lower wages, had no time limits, and hired underage workers that made the clothes for a few pennies less that allowed the sweaters to sell their wares to the manufacturers who kept their profit margins and had no overhead—legal or monetary to speak of. They preyed upon the poorest, to whom any work was a blessing, and who had no power; legal, economic or moral to help them out. Workers who had already put in a 12 hour shift came home and worked another couple hours in the comfort of their slum dwellings for even lower wages just to make a few extra pennies to cover expenses. 10, 12, and thirteen year olds worked alongside their parents learning the skills of the seamstress. Roz Goldstein talks of the times she would sit next to her mother learning the art of hand-stitching fine lace, out of need, not curiosity.


The Sweaters of Jewtown copyright Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis talks of this abomination in his book, How The Other Half Lives;

“Many harsh things have been said of the “sweater,” that really apply to the system in which he is a necessary, logical link. It can at least be said of him that he is no worse than the conditions that created him. The sweater is simply the middleman, the sub-contractor, a workman like his fellows, perhaps with the single distinction from the rest that he knows a little English; perhaps not even that, but with the accidental possession of two or three sewing-machines, or of credit enough to hire them, as his capital, who drums up work among the clothing-houses. Of workmen he can always get enough. Every ship-load from German ports brings them to his door in droves, clamoring for work. The sun sets upon the day of the arrival of many a Polish Jew, finding him at work in an East Side tenement, treading the machine and “learning the trade.” Often there are two, sometimes three, sets of sweaters on one job. They work with the rest when they are not drumming up trade, driving their “hands” as they drive their machine, for all they are worth, and making a profit on their work, of course, though in most cases not nearly as extravagant a percentage, probably, as is often supposed. If it resolves itself into a margin of five or six cents, or even less, on a dozen pairs of boys’ trousers, for instance, it is nevertheless enough to make the contractor with his thrifty instincts independent. The workman growls, not at the hard labor or poor pay, but over the pennies another is coining out of his sweat, and on the first opportunity turns sweater himself, and takes his revenge by driving an even closer bargain than his rival tyrant, thus reducing his profits.”

The sweater knows well that the isolation of the workman in his helpless ignorance is his sure foundation, and he has done what he could—with merciless severity where he could—to smother every symptom of awakening intelligence in his slaves. In this effort to perpetuate his despotism he has had the effectual assistance of his own system and the sharp competition that keep the men on starvation wages; of their constitutional greed, that will not permit the sacrifice of temporary advantage, however slight, for permanent good, and above all, of the hungry hordes of immigrants to whom no argument appeals save the cry for bread. Within very recent times he has, however, been forced to partial surrender by the organization of the men to a considerable extent into trades unions, and by experiments in co-operation, under intelligent leadership, that presage the sweater’s doom. But as long as the ignorant crowds continue to come and to herd in these tenements, his grip can never be shaken off. And the supply across the seas is apparently inexhaustible. Every fresh persecution of the Russian or Polish Jew on his native soil starts greater hordes hitherward to confound economical problems, and recruit the sweater’s phalanx. The curse of bigotry and ignorance reaches halfway across the world, to sow its bitter seed in fertile soil in the East Side tenements. If the Jew himself was to blame for the resentment he aroused over there, he is amply punished. He gathers the first-fruits of the harvest here.

It was a simple and logical outreach that led to the creation of freelancing among the artisans and creative work force; a way for the manufacturers to skirt federal regulations. Allowing publishers to have product while keeping the workers as low as possible—and avoiding all the benefits of hiring them as professionals. Turning the laws of Capitalism on its head; more specialized talents should command a higher price. A small need fed by a larger workforce; people with highly specialized talents selling their souls for a mere pittance of its worth, simply because of competition- and hunger. The owners easily pitted one against the other until the lowest possible price, and least bothersome worker was chosen. These artists would gladly sacrifice their law given rights and privileges for the promise of a few pennies to buy food. There was no “work for hire” scheme to be found in the Copyright laws of 1909. It evolved there as a reaction by the owners demanding the copyrights from impoverished artist without the legal or economic power to demand other. With each success by the workers, the owners found new and devious ways to get around it-often using brute force against helpless workers to win their way. It was not for wanting that comic artist never expected to keep their copyrights, or receive reprint benefits, or residuals when their creation was made into toys or advertising faces. It was simple naked power by wealthier owners that told a weaker work force to shut up and be happy with the crumbs thrown their way—or be replaced by even weaker workers. It was this uneven bargaining power that forced Congress to finally improve the Copyright laws in 1976.


“The Enemies of the Working Girl” women and children work late at night while the “working women” – the factory workers fought for better conditions

Yes, America was the new beast, and New York’s uptown was its beating heart. America was now the center of the universe, and Manhattan the blazing sun. But this was not the immigrant’s New York. The Kurtzberg’s New York was the noisy rotting corpse at the center of the hurricane that blew all around; the belching, stinking, fetid energy source that fed the great engine of New York. The Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the century was a crowded, squalid ghetto, teeming with those huddled masses yearning to be free; the lowlies–the hunger dogs– whose blood, sweat, hopes, broken bones, and corpses lubricated the roaring dynamo. The cheap labor source needed to make Capitalism run. This was the Kurtzbergs’ New York.

Jacob Riis, from his seminal book, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

“The tenements grow taller, and the gaps in their ranks close up rapidly as we cross the Bowery and, leaving Chinatown and the Italians behind, invade the Hebrew quarter. Baxter Street, with its interminable rows of old clothes shops and its brigades of pullers-in. Bayard Street, with its synagogues and its crowds, gave us a foretaste of it. No need of asking here where we are, the jargon of the street, the signs of the sidewalk, the manner and dress of the people, their unmistakable physiognomy betray their race at every step. Men with queer skull-caps, venerable beard, and the outlandish long-skirted kaftan of the Russian Jew, elbow the ugliest and the handsomest women in the land. The contrast is startling; the old women are hags, the young, houris. Wives and mothers at sixteen, at thirty they are old. So thoroughly has the chosen people crowded out the Gentiles in the Tenth Ward that, when the great Jewish holidays come around every year, the public schools in the district have practically to close up. Of their thousands of pupils, scarcely a handful comes to school. Nor is there any suspicion that the rest are playing hooky. They stay honestly home to celebrate. There is no mistaking it: we are in Jewtown.



“Here is one seven stories high. The sanitary policeman whose beat this is will tell you that it contains thirty-six families, but the term has a widely different meaning here and on the avenues. In this house, where a case of small-pox was reported, there were fifty-eight babies and thirty-eight children that were over five years of age. In Essex Street two small rooms in a six-story tenement were made to hold a “family” of father and mother, twelve children and six boarders.“

Benjamin was 20 years old when he landed in New York. Like many of the Jewish immigrants, Benjamin found work among the garment workers and cigar wrappers. He struggled in the garment district sweat shops for long hours and small wages–when there was work. The garment district of New York was a horrific place to work. It was unsanitary, crowded, low paying and dangerous. Four years after Ben started working there, the worst US workplace accident ever occurred when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire.


New words needed to describe the horror

An eyewitness account by William G. Shepherd

I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.

Thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead. Sixty-two thud—deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.

The first ten thud—deads shocked me. I looked up—saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down and something within me—something that I didn’t know was there—steeled me.

What made this so horrible was that it was preventable. Supposedly, due to a recent spate of corporate thefts, the management had ordered the main exit door locked and bolted from the outside, and the starting point of the fire forced most of the seamstresses towards that locked exit. Their bodies were found piled one on the other as they clawed their way towards the door. Next, the one emergency fire escape landing collapsed and fell from the mass of humanity trying to make their way out. The owners and management, working on the tenth floor escaped via a private exit to the roof from which they were rescued.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was not unique, the same work place environment of oil lamps, over crowding, smoking, fine cloth clippings, lack of ventilation and blacked out windows were the norm for all garment factories. Add to this fatigue from twelve hour work days and no sanitation and you have the perfect recipe for tragedy. Fires were a constant, and the lack of any regulation or real workplace safety guidelines made for a constant pall of fear hanging over the workers.

Joe Simon’s memory is even more blazed into his psyche. His father was also a tailor, fresh off the boat in 1905, and looking for work in Rochester’s garment district. “There was always a lot of conflict between the factories and the laborers, who were openly recruited to join unions such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the United Garment Workers. As soon as my father arrived, he got himself into trouble as a union organizer and a “socialist”—“You take care of me, and I’ll take care of you.” The manufactures didn’t like it, and I think my father lost some jobs because of it. So he went into business for himself and worked out of his own house.” The Simon’s moved constantly as his father’s economic state drifted uncertainly. New York, Chicago, Detroit and other stops in between until they returned to Rochester. Despite the setbacks, Joe’s father always maintained the immigrants’ optimism and swore that this country’s pavements were paved with gold. But the factory wars continued.

For those that did strike, they faced brutal retaliation; either by being fired, harassed, shadow laborers, or even brutally beaten by hired thugs. Called Slammers—they were gangster strong arm men paid to soften up the opposition. The Unions did what anyone might have done—they hired other strong arm men from rival gangs to beat back the slammers. A horrible gang war erupted that lasted almost 30 years. History shows that the mobs used this practice as a way of infiltrating and finally controlling the unions and their large retirement funds.

A stern, but fiercely proud matron, Rose would help out with the occasional seamstress job, or shift at a bakery. They had settled on the afore-mentioned Essex St, and it was in their packing-box tenement apartment that Jacob was born. The family expanded a few years later with the birth of David, a rather large bundle of joy–the newspaper listed him at 16 lbs. By then they had moved two streets over to a slightly larger, but still dreadful apartment on Suffolk St.

The apartment was a typical tenement flat. Jack recalled: “We had a metal barrel right in the middle of the room that was our stove and that had a chimney pipe that went up into the ceiling. And we had a kneading table right behind the stove and the washtub where we took baths and washed our clothes. There wasn’t a bathroom; we took turns taking baths in the same room where we prepared our food and the toilet was down the hall; the whole floor used the same toilet. We had one little room with a dining room, if you want to call it that, but it was a little room with two windows and all the women would look out those windows and talk to each other from one floor above. But my mother did what she could and she kept the place very clean. She kept it as clean as a whistle.”

Such was the life and surroundings Jacob grew up in. The Lower East Side was a hellhole, possibly the most crowded patch of humanity on Earth, certainly not a fit place to raise a family, but it was not without its unique allure–especially for the children. Kids were resourceful, the stoops, fire escapes, and alleyways transformed into exotic locales for grand adventures. The street became Yankee Stadium, stickball games featuring kids with dreams of the Bambino swinging for the fences; roof tops gave air to dreams of Captain Eddie and “Lucky” Lindy, while Tom Mix chased Black Bart up and down the latticework of fire escapes and landings. The city was a breeding ground of disease, crime and talent—if you could survive.

Jacob Riis describes the neighborhood peaceful assembly at the end of a long day:

“Evening has worn into night as we take up our homeward journey through the streets, now no longer silent. The thousands of lighted windows in the tenements glow like dull red eyes in a huge stone wall. From every door multitudes of tired men and women pour forth for a half-hour’s rest in the open air before sleep closes the eyes weary with incessant working. Crowds of half-naked children tumble in the street and on the sidewalk, or doze fretfully on the stone steps. As we stop in front of a tenement to watch one of these groups, a dirty baby in a single brief garment—yet a sweet, human little baby despite its dirt and tatters—tumbles off the lowest step, rolls over once, clutches my leg with unconscious grip, and goes to sleep on the flagstones, its curly head pillowed on my boot.”

Children of the ghetto did not curl up and die from the fetid stale air of summer, or the agonizing, biting cold of winter. Instead, through innocence, and imagination, they staked out a world of wonder to call their own. In the summer, when PS #20 was closed, the small two room apartment, with the one bed shared by four, expanded when the steel fire escape became a bedroom for the two boys.

tenement layout

Typical tenement layout—close

Jack would recall that the times spent on the fire escape; dreaming under the starry skies was the nearest he would come to a summer vacation. Many an hour was spent up on the roof—just reading a book, or doodling away in a pad of paper. The fire escape was great for looking out at the world and imagining a life outside his immediate surroundings- maybe over the bridge he could see in the distance or the other side of the docks to the East, or maybe past the Allen Street El. It was so easy to daydream when the vantage point is above everything, and the world looks so small. “My mother once wanted me to have a vacation, so she sent me out on the fire escape for two weeks. And I was out on the open air for two weeks, I had a grand time, I assure you!”

It was a short walk down Delancey Street to the East River where the young mothers would go in the early morning nursing their babies along the cool bank watching the early morning trade. This was the only time of comfort and quiet peacefulness as the sun rose over Long Island and their minds drifted away from their stuffy, over-heated little rooms. Too soon they must rise and return to their kitchens and prepare the breakfast for their husbands and children as a new day starts again.

Pretty soon, that same river became the cherished goal of the kids, born in the swelter of the city yearning for a cooler place to escape. Taking their lives in their hands—whether naked, or with a small ragged bathing suit and adventuresome spirit—they sought the docks. It was a risky business, for the tides ran fast in the river and policeman caused no end of trouble. There was always a smaller boy sentinel–usually Jacob- whose “Cheese it, Cops!” fetches brown, slippery little bodies out of the water in quick time to escape the policeman, dressing while running at full speed was an accomplishment; to stay out of the water longer than the policeman remains in the immediate vicinity, unheard of. Drowning occurred of course, but every gang of boys numbered a life-saver. This recreation provided Jack with one useful thing; Greg Theakston explained; a swimming style where he would lead with his hands pointed out in front of his face, shoving trash and debris out of his way while he swam. This style lasted his whole life—even in his later personal swimming pool free of that same trash.

On hot days among the debris, the boys discarded all clothes and waded in among the trash, the fishmongers and bums


Norman Rockwell recalls

After the war, with the growth of anti-Semitism at home and abroad as well as the economic and social challenges posed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, times became harder. Anti-Semitism peaked in America in the interwar years, and was practiced in different ways by even highly respected individuals and institutions. Private schools, camps, colleges, resorts, and places of employment all imposed restrictions and quotas against Jews, often quite blatantly. Signs saying “No Jews, or Dogs Allowed” were common. Leading Americans, including Henry Ford and the widely listened-to radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, engaged in public attacks upon Jews, impugning their character, designs and patriotism.

“The International Jewish plan to move their money market to the United States was what the American people did not want. We have the warning of history as to what this means. It has meant in turn that Spain, Venice, Germany or Great Britain received the blame or suspicion of the world for what the Jewish financiers have done. It is a most important consideration that most of the national animosities that exist today arose out of resentment against what Jewish money power did under the camouflage of national names.”

The International Jew 1920 Henry Ford


Egged on by Father Charles Coughlin, whose national radio broadcasts and newspaper Social Justice regularly blamed “Jewish bankers and merchants” for the world’s economic woes, groups like the Christian Front and the Christian Mobilizers terrorized Jews. These mostly Irish thugs roamed Jewish neighborhoods like the South Bronx, smashing storefront windows and vandalizing synagogues and cemeteries. On December 18, 1938 two thousand of Coughlin’s followers marched in New York chanting, “Send Jews back where they came from in leaky boats!” and “Wait until Hitler comes over here!” The protests continued for several months. In an ironic twist New York State Judge Nathan Perlman personally contacted mob boss Meyer Lansky to ask him to disrupt the Bund rallies, with the proviso that Lansky’s henchmen stop short of killing any Bundists. Enthusiastic for the assignment, if disappointed by the restraints, Lansky accepted all of Perlman’s terms except one: he would take no money for the work.

Nazi Bund rally in 1939 at Madison Sq. Garden

Lansky later observed, “I was a Jew and felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering. They were my brothers.” For months, Lansky’s workmen effectively broke up one Nazi rally after another. Meyer notes, “Nazi arms, legs and ribs were broken and skulls were cracked, but no one died.” A tale is told of one such event, Lansky recalled breaking up a Brown Shirt rally in the Yorkville section of Manhattan: “The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action. We … threw some of them out the windows. . . . Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up. . . .  We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”

Jack vividly recalls that even as late as 1940, the Bunds would hold rallies in Madison Square Garden. As well as hold summer camps in Long Island.

Ironically, with the rise of the Jewish Mafia, a newer, more independent, wealthier, and politically active Jewish presence grew in prominence as Jews took up roles in politics, finance, construction, social engineering, as well as entertainment. This mix of ambition and power forged a strong alliance. The Jewish Mafia rose and grew in power in direct proportion to its grooming political and judicial power.

The good Dr. Suess speaks out after Coughlin swipes from Goebbels

The good Dr. Suess speaks out after Coughlin swipes from Goebbels

In several major cities, Jews also faced physical danger; attacks on young Jews were commonplace. In 1915, a young Jew named Leo Frank was lynched by a mob of southern whites after his conviction for murder was commuted by the Gov. of Georgia. Frank had been wrongly convicted of killing a young white girl who worked in the pencil factory that Frank ran. The anti-semitism that this stirred was such that Atlanta’s Jewish community formed the Jewish Anti- Defamation League and paid for his legal representation. Though there was no physical evidence against him, the all white, all-Christian jury only took 4 hours to convict him, all the time the public audience screamed “Hang the Jew!”

The case went to the Supreme Court and the decision was upheld, finally the Governor bowing to new evidence and the pleas from many, including the original court Judge commuted his death sentence. A few nights later a mob went to the prison and grabbed Leo Frank, then drove him over a hundred miles to the little girls’ neighborhood and hanged him from a tree. The townsfolk happily posed for pictures beneath the hanging body. A bit of irony as this case is also responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and a new wave of crimes against blacks and Jews. The mere mention of Leo Frank’s name was enough to invoke fear and terror in the minds of little Jewish children. The Jewish population galvanized itself to fight off such tyranny.

Joe Simon recalls; “The Jewish population of Rochester had strong ties to the tailoring business for many years. The owners of the companies were German Jews, and most of the factory workers were Jewish. As far as anti-semitism, we all learned to live with it the way other minorities have learned to live with their problems, even today. Early on I understood what integration and segregation meant, because it was understood that we wouldn’t move into this section, we wouldn’t move into that house, and so on. But rather than overt anti-semitism, it was in a relatively hidden form. Maybe you didn’t see it, but you knew what was going on. You’d go to a real estate agent and he’d say, “you won’t be happy”, that type of thing.”

Leo Frank swings as the crowd mugs for the camera

It was a rough time, with serious consequences; Jack talked of one day at Hebrew school. “Until the day I die I’ll never forget the wonderful table we used to sit at. One day an airplane flies over head and I get up to watch it. I slide over to the window and everyone was pushing and shoving each other, and some guy really shoved me out of the way—I knocked him clean out.” Even in the halls of religion, the law of the jungle prevailed. Close quarter recreation, that’s how Jack remembered it; everyone on top of each other. “You played handball and by accident somebody would hit the ball and knock a guy’s hat off somewhere and the next thing you know you are running the block while this guy is chasing you, yelling.”

“The block,”–that’s what you called your immediate neighborhood—that was your turf, your sanctuary . The result of a land carved up into small squares by wide avenues and concrete roadways, iron train tracks, and cobblestone streets. “It was a very lively place, but it was a mess.” “The neighbors were wonderful people, and they were fair people. They were the kind of people who spoke their minds, and despite the fact that they might have an argument with you one day; they would protect you the next. Why? Because you were their neighbor and you lived on that block and you lived in that building and you were part of them. That’s the way it was.” The block was an artificial boundary, to those inside; it could be inviting as a lazy rolling river or as harsh as barb wire to an outsider.

Jack hated the block, and the one next to it, and the one next to that. He began to walk, he expanded his world and went uptown, he saw the huge buildings, and the men in all their finery. He saw the champ, Jack Dempsey and had a marvelous conversation, and he met the middle weight champ Mickey Walker, and they sat and showed each other their artwork. He soon realized the world was much larger than his little block.


The Block by Romare Bearden squares and divisions

According to Jack, his father was also a scrappy person; not averse to mixing it up when pushed to his limit. But to Jack, his father was a gentle, kind soul, who doted on him. His heart was still back in his homeland, and he spent many a quiet time dreaming of his life back in Austria.

Mama Rose was more in the here and now, she was only five when she came to the U.S. and this country was what she knew—except for the legends and folk tales handed down by her mother. She spoke English very well. Mama Rose tried to calm down the young lad and bring some refinement to him. Once she purchased a violin for Jacob to learn and enjoy. But the street tough would have none of that and he promptly threw the violin out the window. No sissy stuff for him. Yet, Jacob was also a charmer; another skill a small guy needed on the streets. With an eager smile, on a square full face, full head of thick curly hair, dark flashing eyes, and a ready story, Jake would often talk himself out of a scrap.

As a young street rat he thrilled to the chase over the fences, across the rooftops, and down the alleyways. He loved the toreador-like avoidance of ice wagons and Arab lorries, hopping monuments, dodging missiles and the rush of adrenaline facing down toughs from the next block over. But it wasn’t all fun. “I saw a gang of guys coming up the street, and I was afraid. And so I ducked into this phone booth see? And these guys all started kicking the phone booth to scare the hell out of me, and I was scared out of my wits.” Jack told an interviewer. Street gangs meant an identity, you belonged to something bigger than yourself, and it offered security and status. The need to be accepted as a peer was strong. Jack would tell of a neighbor boy born a hunchback, who wanted so badly to belong to the gang. Since he couldn’t run, maneuver and brawl like the others, the young boy demanded that the members rub his hump for luck before entering a scuffle–it was his badge of honor. “I would start a fight if I thought there was a problem. I would be scrappy on that account. You wanted to show a guy you are just as big as he is, otherwise, they would take you out, and I don’t mean on a date.” But I didn’t like to fight. But I could. I did it very well.”

But being 5’4” small meant you were going to lose sometimes. “I got into one gang fight in the street and I was knocked out; flat unconscious. My guys walked me up five flights of wooden steps and left me at the door of our apartment. They made sure that I looked as good as possible lying there the next morning so the sight wouldn’t shock my mother when she opened the door. “all that for my mother. A mother was sacred.” “I made a mistake.” Jack told a reporter. “What was that?” he asked. “I was born short.” On the East Side that was a mistake because, well, the big guys beat up on the little guys. But I made up for it as much as I could, in meanness.” Jack laughed. “I would wait behind a brick wall for three guys to pass and I’d beat the crap out of them and run like hell.” I refined the meanness to help my own ego.”

Actor Jimmy Cagney, a Lower East Side alumnus, talks about the gang warfare in his biography. “About all this street fighting, it’s important to remember that we conformed to the well-established neighborhood pattern…We weren’t anything more than normal kids reacting to our environment–an environment in which street fighting was an acceptable way of life…We had what I suppose could be called colorful young lives.”

Actor John Garfield, was born Julius Garfinkle just a few blocks north on Rivington St. to Russian immigrants. His life was as bad as Jacob’s. He joined the local gang and reached a position of prominence. He says he that he learned “all the meanness, all the toughness it’s possible for kids to acquire.” “Every street had its own gang. That’s the way it was in poor sections… the old safety in numbers.”

Though his brother David was 5 years younger, he was very large and much heavier. His mother often dressed him sort of femininely. This attracted many of the gang members and local toughs to pick on him. Though David could usually handle himself, often the odds hit 3 or 4 to one. After school, it was oftimes that Jack would happen upon his brother in a pile of bodies. Jack would throw down his books, jump in the pile and whale away at the boys. The boys were tight. But being small wasn’t always a bad thing; it meant that often when Jack and David would go to the movies that Jack got in for the children’s fare. This left a penny or two for snacks. Brother Dave remembers it slightly different. He said it was Jack at the bottom of the pile and it was Dave’s bulk pulling him out of the fracas.

Joe Simon tells of the sibling relationship with his sister Beatrice. “Sure my sister and I would fight a lot, but that was normal. I took a lot of crap for her and got into a couple fights protecting her from neighborhood bullies. That’s what brothers do.” Yes, that is what brothers did. Families were important.

Local legends

Yet deep down Jacob was hurting; it was just so much useless macho posing and false bravado. Jake grew to hate the scurrying around like a rat, fighting over turf that didn’t really belong to him, trying to simply fit in. He had another side, a sensitive nature that preferred reading, telling stories, and most of all, drawing. Jake would listen spellbound to the Old World legends lovingly told by his mother. He thrilled to the tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Tom Sawyer that he borrowed from the library. His favorite memories are sitting on the fire escape landing on a quiet cool afternoon reading a new book. He really loved the funny pages, spending many an hour absorbed in the riotous adventures of Krazy Kat, Jiggs and Maggie, and Barney Google. It was a short step to his first doodling. Yet his life on the streets required that mask of machismo, and reading and drawing did not fit into that culture. Kirby recalls, “In my neighborhood, book lovers were considered sissies. So I did my best to hide any book I was reading.” This internal conflict between his hard edged exterior, and sensitive nature would tear at him for many years.

In August, 1923 a gangland feud erupted between rival union-busters called the Little Augies, and the Rough Riders. During a massive shoot-out on Essex St, two innocent bystanders were shot and killed. The fighting seemed to end in late August when local gang hero Louis Cohen killed Nat Kaplan- the leader of the Rough Riders. The death of the innocents led to a huge out-pouring of police resolve. The threat to the people led to a harsher legal system and the rise of Thomas Dewey the renowned anti-racketeer. Actions have consequences.

Jack loved books, and the early 1920’s were a Golden Age for children’s literature. But to understand the market you must realize that books for children arose in the mid-1800’s when the steam Rotary web-fed letterpress allowed printers to make large quantity runs in a newspaper format. This led to mass market magazines that could be sold cheaply due to the mass quantities. Very quickly titles aimed at children arose. There were 2 tracks of magazines, the first was a digest sized pamphlet printed on cheap paper and sold for a nickel or dime and aimed at lower class outlets. These were called dime novels, or in England, the penny dreadful, based on their often bloody, vicious and lascivious nature of the books. In the U.S. western stories soon became the major theme, with horrid stories of Jesse James, or Buffalo Bill. They soon were seen as the home of guttersnipes and brigands. These were amazingly successful yet the complaints against them quickly expanded as they were perceived as negative influences. Kids continued reading them, sneaking them unknown into their houses, hiding them under beds, reading them under the covers. Soon zealots arose demanding them banned due to their salacious nature.

The other source was called slick magazines because of the higher quality slick paper. These could cost fifty cents or even higher-shutting out the lower classes. Yet the featured grand adventures by H. G. Wells, or Jules Verne, classics by Cooper, or Longfellow, or Stevenson, all lavishly illustrated by the best of the day; N.C. Wyeth, Mead Schaeffer, Herbert Morton Stoops, Hannes Bok or Frank Godwin sparking the imaginations of children everywhere. Magazines like Blue Book, St Nicholas, Youth Companion or American Boy dazzled children with their mixture of adventure and art. These were considered fine and upstanding examples for the child’s literary consumption.

Once the great depression hit, these mags became cost prohibitive and the two tracks blended into two new forms. The more expensive were printed as hard covered books, but they used the cheap paper that allowed the costs to remain low.

Some publishers took a different tack and produced a better printed book, with a middle range paper, and better binding to look like a quality book, yet the creative process used the cheaper writers and child oriented scripts common to the dime novels. In 1899, the son of a German immigrant wrote a novel; The Rover Boys at School. Edward Stratemeyer was a part time writer supplying short stories to dime novels and boy’s magazines. With the publishing of the Rover Boys novel Stratemeyer created a new genre of storytelling. In the next decade, dozens of Rover Boy novels were published as well as numerous other continuing characters –mostly children –in what became known as the juvenile series. Characters like Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys became hugely popular. The theme was always the same, a group of unsupervised kids having great and wonderful adventures, sans parents. In 1905, under his newly formed Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate, he enlisted the assistance of other authors, mostly journalists, to flesh out a number of serial proposals he had started. They were paid a flat rate per book and he retained all copyright. The writers were to remain anonymous under their pen names, which caused much controversy and confusion in later years in discerning who was behind most of the works. Considered “work for hire” the writers would receive none of the benefits given to artists by the Copyright laws. This assembly-line separation of labor would become a template for much unaccredited fiction work. The juvenile series would come to dominate children’s fiction for the next 30 years.

The other great source of juvenile literature was known as the pulps. The name pulp comes from the cheap pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. By using the cheaper material, during their first decades, pulps were most often priced at ten cents per magazine, while competing slicks were 25 cents apiece. Pulps were the successor to the penny dreadful, or dime novels, and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are best remembered for their lurid and exploitative nature and sensational garish cover and inside art. These were considered the lowest form of literary accomplishment, often considered little more than pornography. The best of the pulps was a magazine named Adventure. During its prime period, the magazine was edited by Arthur Sullivan Hoffman. Drawing some of the best new writers, such as H. Rider Haggard, Raphael Sabatini, and Damon Runyon, the stories were a cut above the rest. The covers were from the best of illustrators, and they shied away from the almost pornographic depiction of women on their covers. Adventure was their calling, not torture, and sexual depravity. By the thirties a new group of writers emerged including one who will be mentioned later- Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. The magazine was so successful that they started a letters page, and an in-house group that got together and formed clubs. Adventure‘s letters page, The Camp-Fire featured Hoffman’s editorials, background of the authors to their stories and discussions by the readers. At Hoffman’s suggestion, a number of Camp-Fire Stations – locations where other readers of Adventure could meet up – were established. Robert Kenneth Jones notes that Adventure readers “often wrote in to report on meeting new friends through these stations.”

By 1924, there were Camp-Fire Stations established across the US and in several other countries, including Britain, Australia, Egypt and Cuba. Adventure also offered Camp-Fire buttons which readers wore. No other book was so interactive with its readers.

Though most were of the cheap, lurid, sensationalistic nature, there was no shortage of reading material to stoke little boys’ imaginations. Interactive publishing became acceptable. Juvenile series like Poppy Ott and others added in their own letter pages and reader comments sections.

There was public outcry over the lurid prose, and misogynistic nature of the pulps. Writer Robert Brown wrote;

“Are Pulp Magazines worth reading? Do they cause brain burn? The answer is a simple yes to both questions. Let’s face it fans of the pulp, they are trash. Sorry, I don’t care what half-baked intellectual rebuttal you have to present, the truth about these magazines is that they were put out for the lowest I.Q. in the reading market and they show it.”

Other historians see it differently; Edmund Pearson sees the rancor as a result of competitor in-fighting;

“It is perpetually useful for each generation to see how much unnecessary anguish has been suffered in the past over things which were really harmless . . . They were never immoral; on the contrary, they reeked of morality. . . Indeed, there is reason to believe that many of the superstitious beliefs about the harmfulness of the dime novel were eagerly fostered and circulated by agents of the “respectable” publishing houses, to whom any books which sold for ten cents was grossly immoral, for that very reason.”

In response to these attacks, Street and Smith- a large publisher responded;

“They [other periodicals and story papers of the day] will discover, when it is too late,  perhaps, that the people of the United States will not sustain papers whose editors gather up all the filth from the gutters and dens of infamy to make their columns “spicy.” A paper, to obtain a permanent circulation, must inculcate good morals and pay some regard to decency.

Either way, the kids loved them.


Top writers and the focus on adventure, not heaving breasts

On his way home from school one rainy afternoon, Jacob looked down and in the gutter was a discarded copy of a gaudy science fiction pulp magazine. “Something on the cover I had never seen before—the cover was amazing! One of Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories; space ships and futuristic cities. At that moment, something galvanized in my brain.” Kirby reminisced. “I think it was my first collision with a question. Gee, why couldn’t there be things like that?” A lifelong fascination with science fiction had been ignited.

Garish, colorful and always protruding bosoms

George Comet, a close friend told Greg Theakston: “Jakie and I went to parochial school together when we were about eight years old. He was always telling stories and drawing pictures. One day he did a caricature of one of the Rabbis. Unfortunately, the Rabbi didn’t see the humor and Jake got the strap. He always had a good story to tell. Once in a while the Rabbi would arrive for the day’s lesson in the midst of one; the rabbi would smile and allow him to finish.”

School was a mixed bag for Jacob. The macho posing and fighting was still a constant. “Sometimes we would call the teachers names. Yes, to their faces! They would chase us through the halls. Some guys would do worse. I am not talking about gentlemen. These were rough kids. We would fight in the gym, in the classrooms, in the hall—anywhere we had room enough to swing our fists. We would be out in the yard and some guy would pick a fight with another guy. The next thing you know you would have the whole yard fighting.”

“We had fine teachers. And so, despite the fact that we’d be running loose, just doing what we liked like any other kids—playing stickball or baseball or boxing somewhere—we had a fine schooling. I had Shakespeare in the eighth grade. I had a really good history course.” P.S. 20 (the old school on 45 Rivington St.) had other allures, such as a first rate library, just stocked full of adventure tales, and mythology and any type of book to get a young heart racing. Jack spent many hours searching through the inventory and reading his fill. The school also had a good drama curriculum. Its most famous alumni were Edgar G. Robinson, Paul Muni and the Gershwin Bros. Jack liked the idea of acting, and though he would laugh later and say that his acting consisted of the scenery falling on him, he must have shown some promise. He was given a prized part in the R.C. Sheriff play Journey’s End when the school put on a production. Ironically the role of Raleigh is that of a young naïve but eager soldier who loses the use of his legs during a battle. Hollywood must have looked a bit closer to the budding Cagney.

In Jake’s world there were well-understood social barriers. Fences, both physical and mental, meant to keep the lower classes separated from the swells. There was one great equalizer. The silver screen: nothing inspired the Depression era kids like the thrall of the movies. The local movie houses even let in Jewish kids. As Kirby related to an interviewer; “Movies were my refuge. It (the ghetto) wasn’t a pleasant place to live in, crowded, no place to play ball.” It was this fantasy siren song that called the young Jacob Kurtzberg. Every Jewish kid knew that Jews ran Hollywood. He dreamt of breaking free from his tenement prison and heading to Hollywood to make movies, as had his idols — and fellow East Siders — James Cagney, Jimmy Durante, and Edward G. Robinson. The Little Rascals left an indelible mark. The Marx Bros. and John Garfield made him laugh and cry. “I think I was brought up by Harry Warner. Whatever movie I was watching I would see it about seven times and my mother would have to come and get me out of the theater. I believe the naturalism and the drama that was inherent in the pictures left an impression on me that I wanted to duplicate.” The kid gangs, and the noirish German. expressionist movement really caught his eye. The shadows, the tension the movement of the camera all forged a place in his psyche. The lure of Hollywood, and moviemaking would inspire Jacob all his days. “Our generation was a movie generation. I saw myself as a camera.”


Oh those movies Jack loved them all

Inspired by his mother’s folktales, adventure stories, the comic strips, movies, and now, the garish art of the pulp magazines, the neighborhood became his canvas His artwork filled tablet after tablet, adorned school assignments, even covered the tenement walls and floors. His scribbled images would sometimes get him into trouble, but his easy charm and affable nature often got him off the hook. Jack tells of a meeting between Harold Hinson, the apartment building superintendent and his mother. “After quickly caring for a simmering pot, Rose followed Harold to a landing and looked in amazement at what her little Jakie had done. There it was, black chalk on white painted wood, a diorama from the great imaginings of a child.”

“As she examined the work in earnest, Rose could not resist a breathy “Oh my!” For such a young boy, Jakie’s imagination was on fire. Oddly shaped flying craft soared overhead as strange creatures swarmed over bizarre landscapes and structures. It was a war of creatures and machines, a conflagration of cosmic proportions. Young Jakie had managed to cover more than twenty feet of whitewashed wallboard, from the staircase landing to the water closet door, with extraterrestrial mayhem.”

Jacob’s parents would impress upon the boy the need to learn a trade, they wanted him to put his art behind him and think of his future. They would take his pulp magazines away from him. But Jacob could not stop drawing; it was taking over his life, it was what he knew he had to do to get off of the streets.

Jack’s art schooling was never formal, more an osmosis from the many inspirations found in his reading. Jacob’s teachers were Chester Gould, Hal Foster, Fred Paul, and Milton Caniff, the acknowledged superstars of the funny page adventure strips, alongside book illustrators like N. C. Wyeth, and Howard Pyle. Yet when pressed, it was always Alex Raymond, of Flash Gordon fame, that he would point to as his most significant inspiration. “He was a wonderful illustrator. His bodies had flexibility and he had a beautiful line to his drawing. I guess I wasn‘t the only admirer of Raymond, and I’m proud to say I copied him unmercifully. Well, I didn’t want to take his style exactly, but I took what I liked in his work.” Carl Barks considered Raymond the embodiment of all things good in cartoon art.

Alex Raymond- beautiful figures, fine lines and scary monsters

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Looking For The Awesome – Preface

PreviousTitle, Dedications, and  Notes | Contents | Next1. Jack Kirby’s America

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

Not just another day

What I remember most about the drive to Thousand Oaks was the weather change. Coming from Palm Springs where the air was warm and dry, perhaps warmer than expected in November. Since I had lived in the Los Angeles area before, I had always wondered at just how much and how quickly the weather changes when one goes through one of the mountain ranges. Going East from the ocean cities into the San Fernando Valley, one is always struck by the ten-fifteen degree jump in temperature, and another ten degree jump heading toward the desert locales. But I was on a vacation, five years since my last visit to the City of Angels, and passing from Palm Springs, over the mountain through Banning and Beaumont I was once again amazed at how suddenly the air changed to a nice comfortable coolness. It was still early as we had a four hour trip head of us.

Greg Theakston's first volume

Greg Theakston’s first volume

My wife and I were taking our first vacation back to California in five years. The first priority was visiting friends long forgotten, and taking in all the money grabbing tourist sites. But we also decided to spoil ourselves a little and indulge our hobbies. This meant stopping at every out of the way antique store looking for little tchotchkes, and doodads that caught her eye, while I had mapped out every comic shop in the county. The reason for our spending two days in Palm Springs was for my pleasure. I had seen an ad in either CBG, or the Overstreet book for an art dealer named Tom Horvitz, who always advertised that he had Kirby art available, so we had left Long Beach and traveled to the desert to track Mr. Horvitz down. It wasn’t hard to find Tom, and he invited us over to his apartment to view what he had. Imagine my amazement at seeing a whole batch of Kirby art from a splash page from Vagabond Prince to multiple pages of Thor, the FF, and later Kirby works. I even got the chance to look at a copy of the small digest sized b&w comic of Boy Explorers #2. But what most caught my eye wasn’t even by Jack Kirby; on one of the walls of Tom’s apartment was the original cover art to Hit Comics #5, featuring the Red Bee fighting a huge swordfish under the sea. It was perhaps Lou Fine’s greatest cover–so energetic and fluid–the line work was so delicate but strong at the same time. It was no wonder that Kirby had mentioned him so often as an inspiration.

Lou Fine's incredible Red Bee cover is better in black & white

Lou Fine’s incredible Red Bee cover is better in black & white

While looking through the stack to make a purchase, Tom and I discussed Kirby and what he meant to the industry. This was 1989, and comics were doing ok, the direct market system seemed to be doing just fine, and a lot of new publishers were flooding the market with new and different product. We both agreed that the absence of new Kirby was a minus. I carefully picked out a Thor page that had caught my eye: it wasn’t a great action page with Thor fighting Ulik or Mangog, but one of those gentler more humanistic pages of Thor intermingling with humans- a guy on a motorcycle reacting in disbelief and scorn at a God in his presence. So Thor picks up the cycle and rider and takes him on a real trip, leaving the rider in complete disarray. It was a fun page gently inked by one of my favorite inkers, Vince Colletta in his scratchy, textured manner. After reaching a mutually satisfactory price, I called my ever patient wife and said we were done and we could go shopping. But before I left, almost as a parting nugget, Tom asked if I would like to meet Jack Kirby. Call me a doctor, my heart has left the building! “Of course!” I answered. I knew Jack lived in California, but never expected to possibly meet him. Tom grabbed his wallet and turned to a little note pad and scribbled down a number. “Call him up; he is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. I stammered, “Just call him and invite myself up?” “Yeah, Tom replied, “he does it all the time”

That evening, after some shopping on the Miracle Mile, and eating at a California Pizza restaurant we went back to our hotel room. I was in constant agony debating over whether to actually call Jack and invite myself over or not wanting to disturb the man. My wife was in heaven; calling me a wuss and teasing me about acting like a school boy asking the hot girl in class out on a date. Finally, my wife says to give her the slip of paper and she will call. I ask her what she will say, and she says that she will tell Jack that her idiot husband is in town for his birthday and Tom Horvitz gave him the number and told me to call you up for a birthday present. It wasn’t true since my birthday is in August, but damn she made it sound convincing, so I said for her to go for it. She picked up the paper and dialed the number and the first thing I heard is her saying “Hello Mr. Kirby?” I was apoplectic! After a few minutes of small talk I saw her write down an address and directions and thank him for his time.

She turned to me and said, “Here you go wussburger, he says to come by on Monday around noon, I didn’t even have to use the bullshit birthday story, it was like he was used to people calling and inviting themselves over, sounds like a real nice person.”

Two days later, we loaded up our rental car with some food and the art page I had bought and headed out going west. The time in Palm Springs was great; warm and sunny, we spent a lot of time by the pool. Our internal clocks were haywire; we stayed up till almost three in the morning because people were still partying at the pool. We got hungry around one-thirty and were told that the grocery store a few blocks down was a 24 hour affair and we could get something there. We went into the store and found it half full. We were amazed that anyone was out shopping at this time, but a friendly man told us that it’s uncomfortable to shop during the day when the temperature nears a hundred, so many people wait until early morning to do their weekly food shopping. Apparently there was no dress code either. People were milling about in shorts and tees, bathrobes, even skimpy bikinis with no one the worse for wear. My wife loved the idea. We hated leaving the desert. What we didn’t bring was sweaters.

The trip through the Los Angeles basin was kind of boring, Los Angeles is not a very scenic vista, mostly small town after small town, and then a big town, but one without a very exciting skyline, at least from the freeway. What is noticeable is the constant growth of traffic as one nears Los Angeles, the ever restricting lines of traffic that winds its way around and through the city. Oh how I hated driving in LA when we lived there. Eventually in the distance you see a new horizon line, one that seems to rise and snake until you realize it is the San Fernando Mts, and you are heading into the Valley. The landscape changes from the browns and grays of the city to greens and orange from grass and red tiled Spanish roofed villas. The air was getting warmer and we neared midday. The valley went by quickly as we neared another mountain range. We climbed for a while and it leveled off, but it never got flat again, it became like a sea of swells up and over rise after rise. The view became gorgeous. But the air had gotten cool again, sweater cool, and we weren’t prepared. Finally we saw the exit sign, and took the small streets that led to a road that seemed to head straight up. So up and up we went until we reached the crest, and before us was the house number we were given. We parked in front, slowly got out, working the kinks out and restoring the blood flow to our legs. The house was well appointed but not ostentatious- there was no sign that royalty lived there. We knocked on the door, and in the background we heard a dog barking, not a vicious bark, more a welcoming bark letting his master know that there was someone at the door.

Hard to imagine the view in Southern California

Hard to imagine the view in Southern California

Quickly the door opened and greeting us was a small grey haired man and his lovely wife, holding out their hands to embrace us. We said our hellos and I was struck that his handshake was not strong; in fact it was kind of weak. He must have noticed because he said the he probably wasn’t what I expected. I laughed nervously and said no, but I was expecting someone bulkier and stronger. That’s when he laughed and told me that drawing comics didn’t take or build many muscles, mostly it expanded his seat. I laughed and patted my own big ass. We all laughed. I didn’t know that at the time he was in poor health.

Upon entering you noticed that the walls were full of art, but not cluttered, it was obvious that the pieces were chosen based on personal memories, not career highlights. There was no Fantastic Four or even Fourth World pages noticeable. The most eye-catching was a huge collage made of cars of all sorts, race cars, motorcycles, dragsters, sportscars all arranged willy nilly, but the more you stared the more of a pattern emerged. This was not slapdash; this was well thought out, everything in its rightful place. Across from the collage in a place of honor was the double splash pages of the bar fight from Boy’s Ranch #3.


Jack noticed how quickly I made my way over to it. The original art is breathtaking, so alive and vibrant with those quirky Kirby Kolors. Every square inch was full of action and fun. I think more than any iconic Kirby aspect, the one that most amazed me was his ability to fill up every bit of space with action, yet never make it cluttered and chaotic. If you stare long enough the flow of action is always understandable. “Just a little something Joe and I came up with” Jack said. Now I knew that I was getting the canned spiel. I had read other recollections of people to the Kirby manor and I remember someone else getting the exact same quote. But it was reassuring, almost a realization that he had accepted me into his confidence. He ushered me over to a long hallway, but before we got there I stopped and looked at a small drawing on a side wall. It was the Thing, dressed up in yarmulke, and prayer shawl, holding the Talmud. I was in shock. “Jack, is this a personal drawing or something meant for a comic?” He laughed and said it was something done for a holiday card. I asked him why he never mentioned Ben Grimm being Jewish in the comics. He said that it pretty much a standard of the industry that religion was never mentioned except in the vaguest terms. The editors were always worried about not offending any segment of the buying public, and any mention of one religion might turn off another segment. Jack agreed, “Religion is so personal that unless there was an overriding need to highlight one, than it was best left unmentioned.” He said that only at Christmastime was a story allowed to have a religious overtone, and even then it had to be multicultural; more Santa than Jesus. And yet when we finally reached the hallway, there were four very large pencil and inked drawings of man and God in contention. These four drawings would be offered by Dark Horse as a limited portfolio titled Interpretations of God in 1995. They were mighty, bold, and awesome to behold; just a glimpse of a side of the man never revealed in the funny pages. I stood there for a long time trying to take them all in. The images were of Jewish origin but through a sci-fi prism of unknown bent. But to Kirby, one wore his religion in his heart, not on a sleeve.


Jack asked me if I wanted something to drink and he led me to the kitchen. I didn’t realize it but my wife had not followed me around the rooms, she and Roz had been sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee and talking about their shared Jewish heritage and telling stories of the old country. I could envision my wife and her Grandmother sitting around the table after seder. My wife was raised partly by her grandmother and I often saw the same reassuring peacefulness that I saw in the Kirby kitchen, when we visited her Nanny.

The kitchen was not large but two drawings dominated the room. One was a beautiful splash page of American Eagle, by John Severin; perhaps the only comic art in the house not done by Jack. The colors were amazingly bright. Jack said that it was a page that he asked John for because he loved it so much. I could understand why.

The other drawing simply stopped one in their tracks; I had never seen anything like it before. It was the double splash page from what became known as Street Code, a biographical story of Kirby’s early days.

Hint of why Jack wanted a Severin page

Hint of why Jack wanted a Severin page

The page is like a Rorschach test, images moving from front to back as other images come to the fore. Every inch offered new detail and movement. I asked why there were no open spaces, and Jack looked surprised. “That’s how it was in my neighborhood”, “there were no open spaces, just people everywhere, see? “The parks and trees were uptown.”

After a little coffee break, we went back out to the living area and sat down on the sofa, so I could question Kirby. First though I saw his drawing table, and asked if I could sit at it. Jack laughed and said sure. Looking at it from the uncomfortable chair I began to laugh. Jack asked what was so funny and I picked up the few implements at the table and held them aloft. In my hands were a collection of crayons. I asked if he was experimenting with a new media. He laughed and said his granddaughter Tracy had been up over the weekend, and she always draws on the table; inspiration through osmosis.

Close re-creation

Close re-creation

I excused myself for a minute and went outside to get the art page I had just bought for Jack to look at. Jack took the page, looked it over and began nodding. “It’s all there” he said. I didn’t quite know what he meant but he continued. “It’s all there, all the elements that the story needed” And he was right, the story was told with the art, no words were really needed. Later I would wonder if maybe he was talking about Colletta’s penchant for erasing, but at this time I had no idea there was a debate over Colletta. Jack said that he was sorry but he couldn’t sign the page. I said that was ok, I didn’t need him to, but why? He mentioned the fight for his artwork, which I knew about, and his principle not to sign pages that were never returned to him. We talked about the art battle, and about how dealers got these pages, but I could see it bothered him. It always struck me funny at his hatred of the non-returned pages, yet he was friendly with many art dealers who sold this same un-returned art.

We talked about my childhood and why I read comic books, and what made Jack’s stories so much better. I explained that his art resonated on so many levels, and that his stories seemed truer is many ways, even though they were so fantastic. They ignited my imagination and made me think. I told him that in my small group of comic fans, his style was the one we always copied. It was more dynamic than anyone else’s. He told me that he always copied Alex Raymond. I mentioned that he was this generations Raymond and the FF was our Flash Gordon. He laughed a small laugh; he seemed to not be thrilled with the comparison. He talked about his time in animation, which I really wasn’t aware of. And we talked and laughed about Destroyer Duck. I really loved the irony and spoofing of the industry.

I asked Jack about Stan Lee but it quickly became clear that Stan was not a fit subject for mixed company. Funny though it was Roz who was the most dismissive of Stan, not Jack, and it also became clear that it was Roz who took the lead whenever there was a contentious subject brought up. “I’ll tell you about Stan Lee, if you ever meet him, don’t bend over; if you do he’ll stamp your butt with his name. “He’ll take credit for anything.” Roz spat out. Roz was the spark plug of the couple.

It never changed.

It never changed.

I asked Jack if he was going to write a biography. He said he had thought about it, but there were other books that told his story, and he got up, walked into another room and brought me out a small book titled The Jack Kirby Treasury Vol 1 by Greg Theakston. “He’s a close friend and he tells my early history in this book. You should try to get a copy.” I looked the book over carefully and stared at the art on the cover. Jack said the art was from Simon and Kirby stationary and featured all the great characters that he and Joe created. I looked and quietly named all the characters until I came upon one I didn’t recognize. “Who’s the green woman in the middle?” I asked. Jack looked and I could see his mind searching for an answer, but it wouldn’t come. “I don’t remember her name but she was a very early character, maybe even the first villain we drew.” He asked Roz, but she was of no help. “Hold on” I’ll find out.” He bent over and picked up the phone and punched a number. “Mike, Mike, hey it’s Kirby, How are you? I’m fine, but I have a question. I have a fan over and I showed him Greg’s book. Do you remember who the green woman on the cover was?” About a minute later Jack replied, “Oh yeah, now I remember, thanks. Mike Thibodeaux says she’s the Green Sorceress from Blue Bolt, the first thing Joe and I worked on.” That made sense since I had never seen any Blue Bolt stories before. I asked Jack, what was this penchant for starting every character name with a color? Blue Bolt, Blue Beetle, Green Sorceress? I asked. ‘I think that was to make sure the colorists knew what color to make the hero.” He replied. “Y’know we always called the Hulk the green behemoth, or green colossus so that the colorist would remember he was green and not gray.” I just nodded uncertainly, not sure if he was pulling my leg. “Mike wants’ to know if you have a copy of From Here to Insanity #12?” I assured him I didn’t but said to say hello to him. Jack talked another minute on the phone and then hung up. “He’s been trying to find a copy because he thinks there some S&K work in it. I don’t know for sure.”

We talked for another hour on the sofa, about every stupid fan question one could think of-except who’s stronger Thing or Hulk? Jack loved the questions about his early years, and occasionally threw in a war story, but Roz always stopped him short when he started. “Jackson, he doesn’t want to hear that!” Roz snapped, not realizing I was eating it all up. Once, when I had asked a rather obnoxious question, my wife reached over and slapped me on the head. WHAP!!! Roz and Jack looked at her in mock horror, but she explained that it was an agreed upon signal to alert me if I was getting a little too near to geek territory. I don’t even remember what the question was. Jack said don’t worry; he’s heard all the questions. Finally I asked him. What was the most important influence in your storytelling? What makes your art you? Jack replied. “I needed to make sales.” Now I knew I was getting the boiler plate.

Never at a loss for art this is from the heart no comics

Never at a loss for art this is from the heart no comics

I tried again. “I know that feeding your family was most important, but what separated you from all the others?” Roz joined in, “he wants to know what drove you from your soul?” I thought, “Damn, her question was better than mine, “Oh, you mean what drove me as a person; two things, my childhood in the Lower East Side, and the war. Jack stood up and walked over to a bookshelf full of books, a thunderbolt award, a three dimensional representation of a comic cover, and other artifacts of a life well lived. He grabbed a book, opened it up and showed me a picture I recognized as the planet Apokolips, from the New Gods series. “That’s where I grew up. No one lives in that horror and doesn’t get changed by it. That’s why so many entertainers came out of my neighborhood, because the only way to get out was by making others notice you and making them laugh, see?” And the war, I wasn’t there long, but it didn’t take long to realize what we can do to each other. It never leaves you.” You know what, make that three things, the other is meeting Roz, she is what got me out of the ghetto, and kept me alive in Europe.” I looked at Roz, and saw a softening smile and a quiet nod Jack’s way.

Jack asked if we brought a camera, and I replied yes. He said let’s go outside and take a few shots. I only took two, one with Jack, myself, and my wife, and one with Jack, Roz and me. I also made sure we got one with that old yeller dog. This dog loved Jack, wherever Jack went, this dog was nearby. Jack pretended that the dog was a nuisance, but we caught him a couple times reach down and pet him without even realizing it. You can’t fool a dog.

We finally made our good byes and were shocked at Roz’s soft hug and warm personal wishes to my wife. I thanked them for their time and trouble and told them that were even better in person than I had read about. I literally flew back to the hotel. It would be many years before I decided to actually write a bio of Kirby, but the one thing guiding my every word was to let the reader know that nothing was more important to making Kirby what he was than his childhood in the Lower East Side, and his time at war, plus the woman always at his side. The warmth of those two would be felt for a long time, as we headed to the car, I didn’t even care that we had forgotten to bring a sweater.


The one that started it all


The Man and His Pencil


PreviousTitle, Dedications, and  Notes | top | Next1. Jack Kirby’s America


Looking For The Awesome – Title, Dedications, and Notes

PreviousForeword | Contents | Next – Preface

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

Looking For The Awesome

Jack Kirby: A Life Among The Gods

Stan Lee Shuts Up

Stan Lee Shuts Up


For Jack and Roz
and all the Joes, Stans, Dicks, Wills, Mikes, and Marks etc.
who populated his life and work.


Pieces of pleasantry and mirth have a strange power in them to allay the heats and tumults of our spirits
— Ben Franklin

I realized that people make cartoons for a living. It had never dawned on me that you could do this as a career.
— John Lasseter

I was doing political cartoons and getting angry to the point where I felt I was going to have to start making and throwing bombs. I thought I was probably a better cartoonist than a bomb maker.
— Terry Gilliam

All parts of this book are freely available to be excerpted by anyone. Data must be free to all. I own no data and share what I have learned with all. Crediting me does not strengthen any point of debate or argument.


Hooverville in Central Park – surrounded by dreams 1931

All illustrations in this book are copyrighted by their respective copyright holders (according to the original copyright or publication date as printed) and used per the “fair use” doctrine and are published for historical purposes only. Any omission or incorrect information should be transmitted to the author or publisher so it can be rectified in any future edition of this manuscript.

The views and opinions expressed in this book are solely those of the author and do not reflect anyone else’s.

Copyright 2009 – Stan Taylor

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Looking For The Awesome – Foreword

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As I mentioned when I learned of his passing, the late Stan Taylor and I tried to work out a way for his book, “Looking For The Awesome – Jack Kirby: A Life Among Gods”, to be presented on the Kirby Museum website a few years ago. At the time we weren’t successful, but thanks to his widow Annabelle, I’m now going to serialize it here on the Kirby Effect. It would have been Stan’s 64th birthday today, so I’m pleased to get ball rolling by posting the foreword he wrote at the beginning of 2012 (which I have edited) to get things started. – Rand Hoppe

Happy New Year, y’all!

Thanks to the Kirby Museum for offering me this access. And thanks to you for taking the time to read it.

Jack Kirby was a magician. Not a prestidigitator using sleight of hand or smoke and mirrors; a real magician, a conjurer who produced something of value from nothing. He took blank pieces of paper and created worlds beyond belief; stories of wonder, and pathos, and crime and justice, and humanity.

He didn’t have a wand, a la Harry Potter, he had a simpler more powerful tool; a # 2 graphite pencil, perhaps the most powerful tool ever created. In the hand of a wizard, pencils have righted wrongs, brought down evil, entertained the masses, showed horror and joy and opened doors of the imagination.

People ask me why Jack Kirby? What separated him from every other comic book artist? It’s a hard question. Nothing Kirby did was out of the realm of normal. He didn’t draw anything that any other artist couldn’t reproduce. In fact, I might argue that there were better artists, such as Kubert, Wood, or Frazetta. But they don’t match Kirby. Some claim Kirby was a genius- possessed of some inherent gift that gave him a supra ability that fashioned and guided his work thru the different eras; a sort of X-Men among artists. But in my research, I have found nothing in this man out of the ordinary; truth be told to meet this small man, one was left dumbfounded by just how ordinary he was. When I first met him, in the fall of 1989, I chuckled at just how small and weak his hand was when I shook his hand. I laughed and told him that after 50 years of drawing, I expected his right arm to look like Popeye’s. Kirby laughed and said that “a #2 pencil doesn’t weigh that much.”

But one factor that every Kirby researcher learns is that Kirby did have one super power; the ability to put his seat in a chair and work for 8-10 hours at a stretch, 365 days a year. So why Kirby?, Because no comic artist explored the unknowable and asked those hard questions as much as Kirby. No one exploded the mind and sense of wonder that Kirby’s graphics did. Kirby once described his life as “looking for the awesome” and no one came closer to finding it.

If Thomas Edison was correct-and I think he was- that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, than yes, Jack Kirby was a genius. No one outworked him, whether he was deep into a project that touched his heart or just batting out one of a thousand stories needed to fill some space in a comic book. There were times when Jack Kirby was mad as a hornet at a particular comic company, yet not once did he cut back on production or quality. Other artists would marvel at Kirby’s work ethic. Not one ever said that Kirby had some inherited gene or physical edge, just that he could outwork anyone. It’s hard to know where Kirby got his grit, but it showed up early. A youth spent in the hardscrabble inner city New York ghetto was bound to forge determination and drive. Grow or die; the law of the jungle and the act of evolution. Kirby used his fears and grew from them.

My own fascination with Kirby began in the late 1950’s. I was that grubby little kid collecting empty pop bottles to get the .02 deposit to buy comics; mostly DC’s like Jimmy Olsen, Batman, and Flash. One day I saw a killer comic cover; a huge blue robot fighting a group of humans, and a girl in its hand trying to calm it down. The background was a futuristic cityscape with big black shadows curling thru it. One of the humans was shouting “Ultivac is loose!!” The comic was Showcase #7, the second appearance of the Challengers of the Unknown, and it looked and read like no other comic I had ever seen. It was one lonely story. The action was so gorgeously outrageous, and the robot so terrifying, plus, one of the heroes actually got shot and almost died. The villain was an ex-Nazi- a time still fresh in the human psyche. If pressed, I had probably read a Kirby comic earlier, I have some memory of some comics like Black Magic, or Alarming Tales, but nothing that struck like a thunderclap as the Challs did. I soon found more stories by this artist- fantasy stories in the DC anthology titles. the Fly and the Shield at Archie. More monsters, aliens, and disasters ripped right from my beloved horror movies. The provenance of artist was undeniable. I think the first time I placed a name with the artwork was when I bought an Atlas fantasy comic, but I certainly couldn’t put a name to which one. All I knew was that this artist’s stories were so superior to anyone else. His characters leapt out at the reader, and the special effects were a quantum leap from the usual comic artist. His monsters were menacing and lovable at the same time. His heroes were stalwart and steady. And the stories made sense- not great logic or scientific plausibility, but a sort of cause and effect that Batman and Superman rarely did. I noticed that I was reading Kirby’s stories repeatedly, and rarely ever looking at the Bob Brown, or Gil Kane or Don Heck and Paul Reinman anthology tales sharing the pages.

As a kid, I couldn’t explain just why Kirby’s work appealed to me; in fact, I probably still can’t put it into meaningful and understandable passages what Kirby’s appeal is. It’s not quantifiable, or logical, it is a palpable feeling, purely emotional. It’s magic!

Jump a generation, and I got my first computer. One of the first things I googled (or yahoood) was Jack Kirby. And much to my surprise, there were endless sites spotlighting Jack Kirby. I wasn’t alone as a child in my feelings for Kirby, his appeal I found was world wide.

What I couldn’t find was a satisfactory biography. Everything out there was full of clear misstatements and untruths, false anecdotes and tall tales. I guess it was easier to repeat the same mistakes than to do some actual research and tell the truth. Recently a couple of better bios were published, first Tales to Astonish by Ronin Ro, and then Mark Evanier’s Kirby-King of Comics, I found both to be well done, but ultimately unsatisfactory. Ro’s tome simply repeats the earlier anecdotes of Jack’s life, often repeating word for word mistaken bits from earlier bios. Evanier’s book is great for Jack’s life after 1970 or so, but the early years suffer from a lack of real scholarship. This is understandable since Mark was a part of Kirby’s life from 1970 on.

Another problem is that both books lacked context. Jack Kirby was a man of his time, his actions were often based on or responding to events in the real world, and his career was directed by events in the comic industry not of his making, but unavoidable all the same.

So I was prodded by others tired of my taking shots at the printed bios and decided to write my own tale of Kirby. By nature I am a researcher, I take nothing at face value and dig until I have found what I think is the truth, or at least the kernel of truth. Quotes are of limited use to me as I find them vague, self-serving and often factually incorrect. But in telling Kirby’s story it is impossible not to rely on quotes from his family, friends, and colleagues- simply because Jack was not all that forthcoming and reliable as to his past. He was hardwired for looking forward, not backward. Jack was a storyteller, not a historian. He embellished his tales to the point of their being nothing but a core factual event existing in a cocoon of wonder and bedazzlement. Unweaving a cocoon takes patience, diligence, and often luck. My extensive use of quotes is more to offer a setting, or a proper background; to strike the right mood and set an atmosphere to round out the cold hard facts that I am presenting. Jack had a silly, absent minded quality that is very hard to show except thru excerpts, and anecdotal evidence. It was a most human quality and important to see if you want the real Jack Kirby. So please don’t take my presented quotes as fact, just as part of the veneer of a life.

Another problem with a bio on Kirby is that for the most part, Kirby did not lead an exciting adventurous life. He sat in a chair for 15 hours a day. There is actually very little drama and crisis to draw the reader in. Jack’s life was a simple story of someone working hard and following the rules. Yet there are events that tore at Kirby’s soul and I try not to downplay or overstate them. It’s hard to tell a “warts and all” bio when there are very few warts to be found, but where they were I hopefully looked at them fair and balanced. There are surprisingly few villains in this piece; certainly Stan Lee takes his fair share of hits, but not in a personal way, more as the human face of an industry that never treated its artists in a humane fashion. Stan Lee is not an ogre; Kirby saved that kind of vitriol for just one person- Adolph Hitler. As I said, Kirby was a man of his time. In today’s parlance, Kirby was not a h8ter.


Stan Taylor

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