Tag Archives: Howard

Simon and Kirby’s Black Owl

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby first began working as a team early in 1940 (on Blue Bolt #2 and Champion #9 both cover dated July 1940). In a few months they would form the core of Timely’s first comic art bullpen. There they worked on the first, and only, Red Raven Comic and created a backup story for Marvel Mystery Comics called the Vision. But their working relationship was forged not just in the Timely bullpen but in the jobs they did outside the company as well. Particularly important was the work they did on the Black Owl for Prize Comics.

Prize Comics #7
Prize Comics #7 (December 1940) “The Black Owl”, pencils by Jack Kirby

The Black Owl was not a Simon and Kirby creation but even at this early stage of their career they would put their distinct stamp on the hero. They did not make any changes to the costume although the Owl’s goggles would reappear years later in the unpublished Night Fighter and the published Fly. It is the story that most clearly shows the Simon and Kirby touch. There is no question they were not from someone else’s script but writing it themselves. With a female detective, an eccentric millionaire, a whistling hit man and King Arthur’s sword Excalibur it was an imaginative story to say the least. A final fight leads to a dramatic ending but the story ends with a caption that asks “Is the Whistler really dead”?

Prize Comics #8
Prize Comics #8 (January 1941) “The Black Owl” page 2, pencils by Jack Kirby

Well it appears the Whistler was not dead as he returns in the next Simon and Kirby story. Since that ended the last story with a hint about Whistler’s survival I presume that Simon and Kirby knew when they did Prize Comics #7 that they would also be doing the next issue as well. The story contains the same cast of characters plus some additional ones. Even more interestingly the plot takers place on the high seas. Once again there is a dramatic fight at the end only this time the closing caption offers no hint of the Whistler’s return.

Prize Comics #9
Prize Comics #9 (February 1941) “The Black Owl” page 3, pencils by Jack Kirby

A conniving reporter and a beautiful villainess, what more can you ask for? Nothing if the story is by Simon and Kirby! Another great effort for what is admittedly a pretty lame hero. Joe and Jack were using someone else’s creation so they cannot be blamed for the rather poor and unimaginative costume. But Simon and Kirby always made good stories even out of seemingly poor material. With the Black Owl Joe and Jack had not reached the creative pitch that would appear next month in Captain America #1 but they were not far from it. The Black Owl was a testing ground for Simon and Kirby on techniques like irregular shaped panels, circular panels and figures that extend beyond panel borders. These effects only make a sparing show in these issues of Prize Comics but they are there. The reader can see another example of unusual panel layouts in a page that I included in Chapter 9 of my serial post Early Jack Kirby.

Usually I choose the images to include in my posts that support the comments that I make. This is not the case for the image of page 3 shown above. It is here because of the final three panels. I find it rather surprising that the reporter would turn out the lights while attempting to capture the Black Owl. Why turn out the lights? The sequence is quite amusing, although not entirely for the reasons Simon and Kirby intended.

Prize Comics #7
Prize Comics #7 (December 1940) “The Black Owl” page 9 panels 1 and 2, art by Jack Kirby

Some have tried to say that the Black Owl stories are solo efforts by Jack Kirby; that is without any input from Joe Simon. For me the problem with such a statement is that Joe’s contribution is often difficult to discern. I believe I see Simon’s inking in some of the Black Owl stories but it is hard to be sure and harder yet to convince others. Fortunately there is another line of evidence and that is the lettering. I credit Howard Ferguson with the lettering for Prize Comics #7 but some changes were made. In the first panel of page 9 shown above the letters for “slowly he forces the Black” are larger than the rest of the caption and the lower edges of the paste up can still be detected. The ‘F’, ‘C’ and especially the ‘W’ are done differently than Ferguson and without doubt they were done by Joe Simon. In the second panel we find larger letters for the portion “figures plunges head”. The letters ‘F’, ‘G’ and ‘S’ are not Ferguson’s but they are done the way Simon does his lettering.

Prize Comics #9
Prize Comics #9 (February 1941) “The Black Owl” page 6 panel 6, pencils by Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby did the lettering for the Black Owl from Prize Comics #8 and so far I have not spotting any final changes (which is not the same thing as there were none). Ferguson was the letterer for Prize Comics #9 but I have spotted at least one alteration on page 6. Observe how the ‘ew’ in ‘newcomer’ is done with slightly thicker lines than the rest of the caption. The ‘E’ does not look like Ferguson’s but I cannot say for sure it was by Simon either. However the ‘W’ is distinctly Simon’s preferred form and so again I have little doubt that that he did the alteration. Now admittedly a few paste ups are not much but it does show Joe Simon’s involvement in Black Owl at some level. At this point in time Simon was the editor at Timely while Kirby was just an artist (although the most important artist in the bullpen). So I doubt that Simon involvement in Black Owl was limited to some final fix ups.

I do not think it is a coincidence that Prize Comics #9 (February 1941) would be Simon and Kirby’s last issue (at least for some years). Captain America #1 came out with a March cover data but I am sure Simon and Kirby knew that it would be a hit. Since they were promised royalties for Captain America, Joe and Jack probably felt that Cap warrant their best efforts and so they cut back on moonlighting. Unfortunately while Captain America was a hit but due to some accounting tricks the royalties was not what would have been expected.

Some Lettering by Howard Ferguson

I must admit that I have not done enough carefully studies of the lettering done on Simon and Kirby productions. I always realized the importance of the lettering, both aesthetically and historically, but there always seemed other investigations that attracted my attentions. I have decided that I will no longer postpone examining this subject. I am not going to make a serial post because my investigations will not be following the timeline. But I will group these posts under a Topic on the sidebar.

In this pursuit I like to assemble images of the letters from a single story. Of course there is always a certain amount of variation in the letters but I try to select somewhat typical examples. For these samples I only select letters from captions and balloons that are not bold or oversized.

Letters Prize Comics #7
Prize Comics #7 (December 1940) “The Black Owl”, letters by Howard Ferguson

Initially like many early artists both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby did their own lettering. When the duo was working in the Timely bullpen their work began to be lettered by Howard Ferguson. Joe is the first to admit that his own lettering was rather amateurish while he considers Howard was one of the best letters ever. I provide about some examples of his lettering from an early Black Owl story. Note the rather short vertical strokes at the bottoms of the letters ‘P’ and ‘R’. I have selected an ‘S’ that shows a lower ending that is shorter horizontally than the upper one. Actually this is a rather variable feature ranging all the way to an equal length for both the upper and lower arms. However the short lower arm for the ‘S’ can usually be easily found while the reversed almost never occurs. There are two rather distinctive letters. One of them is the ‘J’ with its rather long and flat hook. Unfortunately ‘J’ is not a common letter but when it is used it provides an easy means of spotting Ferguson’s work during this early period. A more common letter that is very useful for identifying Ferguson’s work is the ‘C’. Note the short vertical stroke that descends from the top arm of the ‘C’.

Letters Stuntman #1
Stuntman #1 (April 1946) “Killer in the Bigtop”, letters by Howard Ferguson

I am going to make a rather long time leap and provide some lettering from late in Ferguson’s career. Despite the years that separate the Black Owl story from this Stuntman work, the ‘C’ is still has that very distinctive short stroke. The ‘J’ is very much unchanged. Examples of ‘S’ with a shorter lower arm can still be found but they are not nearly as common as before. There have been some changes as for example in the ‘G’. The overall shape is the same with the horizontal stroke place rather high in the letter. But note how in the Prize #7 the horizontal line for the ‘G’ extends to the right from the lower arm while in Stuntman #1 it appears to be made from the same stroke and does not extend to the right. The ‘?’ has also been altered having a lower arm that hooks much more to the right giving the main body a look almost like a ‘2’.

Letters Green Hornet #39
Green Hornet #34, originally published as Stuntman #3 (October 1946) “Rest Camp for Criminals”, letters by Howard Ferguson

I would very much like to determine when Ferguson passed away and was no longer lettering for Simon and Kirby. Unfortunately his most distinctive earlier trait, the ‘C’ with a short vertical stroke, pretty much disappears. Occasionally a ‘C’ will have just a hint of this feature and I provide an example of one at the bottom of the samples. The ‘J’ is still distinctive but like I said it is not a common letter. The ‘P’ and ‘R’ still have short lover vertical strokes but not quite as extreme as in Prize #7. Oddly Howard has gone back to the earlier version of the ‘G’ with that small horizontal stroke to the right.

Letters Headline #24
Headline #24 (May 1947) “Trapping New England’s Chain Murderer”, letters by Howard Ferguson?

I am going to close with samples from a crime story from seven months later. There are a number of changes to be found. The ‘J’ is still distinctive but no longer has a horizontal stroke at the top. The ‘G’ reverts once again to the Stuntman form without the short horizontal stroke to the right. However the horizontal stroke no longer sits so high in the letter. The lower vertical strokes for ‘P’ and ‘R’ are not quite so short as before. The apostrophe now has a slant where previously it was always vertical. There are two big surprises. Previously the ‘M’ had been very consistent with a slant to the two outer arms and the inner junction reaching as low as the base for the two outer arms. Now the outer arms of ‘M’ are vertical and the inner junction does not always descend to the base of the letter. The other surprise is found in the letter ‘Y’. Again this letter had bee very consistent in all the earlier works having the lower portion formed by a continuation of the stroke for the right arm giving it a slant. In Headline #24 the lower portion of the ‘Y’ descends vertically.

In conclusion, while there was some variation in Ferguson’s lettering over the years for the most part it seems pretty consistent. That is except toward the end. Frankly I do not know what to make of the changes found in the lettering of “Trapping New England’s Chain Murderer”. Although I have not assembled letter examples, there are other late stories that exhibit variations. All of this work is typically credited to Ferguson but I have to say I have my doubts. However I require further studies of these works before I reject the Ferguson attributions altogether.