"The Simon & Kirby Library: Science Fiction" by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon

There is nothing like finding a new comic that grabs your attention.  Especially if it's an old comic and you don't have to wait a month for the next issue.

"The Simon & Kirby Library: Science Fiction" is one of those comics. It showcases some of their best "unknown" science fiction stories by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby from the 1940's to the early 60's.  The stories include the first 10 issues of the superhero Blue Bolt, a variety of short monster and rocket stories from Alarming Tales and Black Cat Mystic, and then their all-too-short run of Race for the Moon, inspired by the Cold War space race.

The past couple of years there have been a lot new nice reprint editions of golden age comics, all of them vying for your comic dollars.  For example, I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! about Fletcher Hanks, Spacehawk by Basil Wolverton, and Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives (the creator of Namor, the Sub-mariner) all caught my eye (and my wallet!).

The first reprint that I saw like this was Supermen!: The First Wave Of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941which was sort of disappointing since it failed to include any extras to set the context for the stories.  Although it had a nice foreward by Jonathan Lethem, the stories themselves felt as if they existed in a vacuum.

The omission of context is even more disappointing given that many of these books are available as public domain scans.
Downloading public domain comics has some advantages
  • Free -- always a good price
  • Portable. You can read your Golden Age comics on an iPad or other tablet device without worrying about wear and tear
  • The works are easily accessible
Public domain sites are supported by collectors who have scanned their copies and uploaded them for sharing.  The sites are supported by donations or advertising.  Perhaps the best thing about the public domain sites is that they allow access to material that was previously limited only to a few collectors. For example, earlier this year I found Kirby in Alarming Tales #1 on a public domain site.

But there are still problems with the public domain scans
  • The quality is not the same as a professionally printed book
  • Sometimes scans are not complete, or may be unreliable
  • Presentation is limited by the electronic device
  • Not all people who are interested in older comics will have the tech savvy to find these sites
Which brings me back to appreciating professionally edited editions of reprints
  • There's usually an interesting introduction by a comics pro who was influenced by these early comics
  • Often an essay sets the context for the artist, and the era
  • Publishers opt for large-size format with high-quality printing and coloring that shows the comic as it might have appeared (in the best of cases) on the rack in the drugstore

The reprint of "Hole in the Wall" by Simon & Kirby compared with
the same story downloaded from a public domain site and read on an iPad. 
It wasn't until I started reading "The Simon & Kirby Library: Science Fiction" that I realized Kirby had art in the first six issues of Alarming Tales, as well as in Black Cat and Race for the Moon.  Since the editors had compiled the stories across a slice of comics, they exposed the lesser-known works, providing a new insight into the works of both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Still, the book left me wanting. The foreward by Dave Gibbons is inspiring, but it arrives from a fan's point of view.  I'd like something more... a timeline or an behind-the-scenes an interview? Bits of this are included in the book: an unpublished two-page spread from a 1940's Captain America story is presented beside a re-worked version that appeared in "Win a Prize" comics. There's also a description of a couple pet projects that Joe Simon shopped around in the 60's, 80's, and later coupled with sketches by Kirby.

But I have to compare these reprints to a DVD boxed set with extras!  Most Criterion editions of movies have at least one audio commentary, along with trailers, interviews, biographies and documentaries.  I'd like to see the editors stretch to include these with the reprints.  For example, a time line showing how Kirby was concurrently drawing Young Romance, Black Cat and Quick Trigger Western would be very interesting. It would remind you that Joe Simon, the creator of Blue Bolt, Captain America, The Boy Commandos, and the Fighting American, didn't get much money from his creations, but still had a wealth of creativity.

A different "Thing". From Race For The Moon #2.
In the meantime, I'll appreciate this volume of Kirby & Simon stories and art. The editors have done a good job of collecting the important stories and presenting them together to show the breadth of imagination this team was capable of.  I hope that a portion of the money from these books goes to the estates or family of Simon & Kirby.  I'm looking forward to more Kirby & Simon reprint collections.


"Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre" by Darwyn Cooke

I was late to the Watchmen party. I first learned about Alan Moore's Watchmen after the series had been compiled into a graphic novel, and just after the guy ahead of me in line had purchased the last copy at Future Dreams comics and books.  I asked the clerk if they had any used copies, and a punk with a mullet and a belly T-shirt said he'd sell me his old copy.

"Only, it's at my house. I only live a couple blocks away."

Maybe it was a testament to how excited I was about Dave Gibbons art and Alan Moore's cracked-mirror version of the comics world I had grown up with, but I told him I'd buy his copy.  He hopped on a midget BMX one-speed and took off for his apartment. I started walking in the general direction, and about ten minutes later he zoomed up with the book under his arm. As a marginal comics snob, I hesitated when I saw the dog-eared copy rubbing covers with his pits, but I bought it anyway (half price!).  Since then, I've bought all the original single issues, but I still go to the dog-eared copy when I want to read the Watchmen.

For me, the Watchmen is such a pivotal work, I avoided sullying the memory with any sequels, prequels or movies.  But, I've been enjoying Darwyn Cooke's adaptations of Richard Stark's "Parker" novels, so when I saw he had a prequel to Watchmen, I was hesitant.  In the "Parker" books he captures a "Mad Men" feel of graphics from the early '60s with such elan. To me, it's reminiscent of the cover art from Dave Brubeck's jazz album "Time Out."  The look and feel is so perfect. So, despite misgivings, I hoped that Cooke would deliver a good showing on the Watchmen backstory.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre compiles two mini-series inspired by The Watchmen. Minutemen gives Cooke a chance to visit both the 40's and the 60's. The story bounces between the origin of the original super-hero group founded in the 40's and the tell-all publication of Hollis (Nite Owl) Mason's book "Under the Hood."

I doubted that any prequel could add to Alan Moore's Watchmen story in a way that was relevant, but Cooke does an excellent job pulling the threads from Moore's graphic novel, and tying them together in the past. It starts with the origin of the group as we meet the Nite Owl, The Silhouette, Silk Spectre, The Comedian, Hooded Justice, Dollar Bill, Captain Metropolis, and Mothman. There's the obligatory try-outs scene, the first mission (a fiasco and a scandal), and Cooke explores some inter-group sexual conflicts and attractions. Altogether, the story is much more violent and graphic than stories from the 40's or 60's, and explores explicitly sexual undertones mentioned in the Watchmen, but the tone fits the universe created by Moore.

The story fits together, within itself, and with the Watchmen. The back story for the Comedian at first feels a bit shaky, but ends with horrific events from WWII and ultimately makes us question the motivation for any super heroes.

So, does it deliver? Yes, on finishing my first read of  Minutemen I wanted to re-read it immediately. It was just as engaging and twisted as the original.  

Unfortunately, Silk Spectre is less faithful to the comics of the 60's, and even seems to condemn the spirit of the 60's. The art, by Amanda Conner, is wonderfully detailed,  but that underscores even more that it's not abiding the style of the era.

Laurie Jupiter, daughter of Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre, runs away from home to San Francisco.
She begins to realize how big the world is, when suddenly kids start having bad drug trips. Laurie dons the Silk Spectre costume, updating the high-heels to some kick-ass leather boots, and takes on the mysterious Chairman of the organization pushing the drugs.

It's a coming of age story with sex, violence, drugs and superheroes. While it was fun, the story didn't dovetail nearly as well the Minutemen story with the Watchmen universe.  The story felt like it had been borrowed from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1969.

Bottom line: worth reading, especially if you were as excited as I was the first time you read Watchmen.  Cooke and Conner bring the characters to life with their art and stories, and do justice to the Watchmen universe.
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"Prophet" by Brandon Graham

Set in the far-distant future, throughout the universe, "Prophet " tells the story of a plan to re-ignite the dying human race.  A series of sleeper clones, all named John Prophet, awake from their slumber to find themselves on planets and space stations knowing only intuitively their ultimate missions.  This first book, "Remission," collects chapters 1 - 6 of the rousing of four of those Prophets.

It's hard to write a review of a book that's really only the opening chapters of a sci-fi epic.  I really liked Brandon Graham's "King City," with its laconic pace, visual puns and cyberpunkish setting, and when I met him at Stumptown Comics fest I asked him what I should read next. I don't remember which book he suggested, but "Prophet" was his second choice. It is less Cyberpunk, leaning more toward technical sci-fi in the style of Iain Banks.

Farel Dalrymple's excellent style reminds me of Moebius
It's clear that Graham is a fan of Moebius (Jean Giraud), and the way "Prophet" uses multiple artists makes me reminisce for "Heavy Metal" magazine.  All of the artists draw a good story while still being creative with the layout, but I preferred chapter 5, the only one drawn by Graham. The other artists, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonogiannis also all seem drawn to the style of Mobius (pun intended).
As mentioned, Graham tells a story at a casual pace, so while there is a lot of action, the plot points are few and far between, but I wouldn't expect otherwise during the exposition.  For this volume it is enough to explore and learn of the character(s) of John Prophet.  All the Prophets are clones of the original, but there is an interesting surprise near the end of chapter six -- enough to make me want to read the next volume.


Kirby's Precursor to the Fourth World Saga

Most people who read comics know that in 1970 Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC and started an amazing explosion of creativity with his Fourth World saga.  This introduced an avalanche of characters including the New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People and the villain Darkseid.  He also expanded his footprint in the DC world by creating the post-apocalyptic Kamandi and the bizarre world of Omac.

As a young reader in the 70's, I saw these worlds as new creations, bursting into life through Kirby's left parietal lobe and his skilled hands. But I recently ran across a copy of "Alarming Worlds #1" from 1957 that made me realize Kirby had been working and re-working the ideas found in the Fourth World for quite a while. Evidently he was just waiting for the best time to bring them to the foreground, and this shift to DC provided just the chance.

For example, in "Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen" #133 Kirby introduced the Project, designed to create superhumans from clones for the benefit of mankind.  This was later called Project Cadmus.  In "Alarming Tales" there's a story called "The Cadmus Seed."
Superman explains The Project to his pal Jimmy Olsen
Professor Horace Googer grows humans from seeds in the project he calls "the Dragon Seeds of Cadmus."

In another story called "The Fourth Dimension is a Many Splattered Thing!" a man tries to apprehend a mysterious thief by traveling to the fourth dimension through an early version of a Boom Tube.
Clark Kent returns home in Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen via a Boom Tube

In a little bit more of a stretch, a janitor discovers a wacky version of Metron's chair in the story "Donnegan's Daffy Chair".

The New God Metron has a space-time chair

A janitor has an extra-terrestrial experience in "Donnegan's Daffy Chair"


"The Last Enemy" is a short story of a time traveler from our present who finds the distant future populated by intelligent animals is the best example of Kirby reusing and reworking his ideas.
The dogs run Canada in Kamandi #28
"The Last Enemy" in Alarming Tales, 1957

Considering the impact and amount of creativity that Kirby gave to the DC universe, it's surprising to realize he only spent about five years at DC. Yet, the heroes and villains that he created continue to play major roles in the publisher's comics.  Darkseid, for example, played a pivotal role two of DC's recent comic events, Final Crisis and The New 52.

On the other hand, after DC Kirby would continue to re-work his earlier ideas, but with considerably less success. He seems to focus on gods and massive events, omitting the small human-scale stories that made his work from the 50's and 60's endearing (yes, even his monster stories were endearing).

In the end, it's interesting to see how an artist can take the germ of an idea and play with it, evolving the story. Which is perhaps what I like to see about many of the recreations of the golden age heroes from Marvel and DC that were reinvented in the 60's and 70's.  In some cases, such as with Captain America, the original artist (Kirby!) got the chance to evolve the hero in a second generation.  I'm just thankful to find a copy of Alarming Tales so I can see the originals.

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Separated at Birth? #1

I was reading the Art Spiegelman chapter of Arie Kaplan's "Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!" In it he mentioned Spiegelman's "Ace Hole Midget Detective."  Of course this reminded me of Hanna-Barbera's Saturday morning cartoon "Inch High Private Eye."  I wondered which came first?

Kaplan cites 1974 as the year Spiegelman published Ace Hole, while Inch High ran on NBC starting in September, 1973.  Pretty close. Maybe something was in the water.  Or, maybe this was a prior term. This site says that "One Inch High Private Eye" is slang for a "short person usually found in the work place who is enjoys snitching on fellow colleagues to the big boss."  Or, maybe the phrase is some derogatory slang for the male member?

Art Spiegelman's "Ace Hole Midget Detective"

Hanna-Barbera's "Inch High Private Eye"


2013 Stumptown Nominees for Best Webcomic

The 2013 Stumptown Comics Awards are open for voting.  There are five nominees for "Best Webcomic."  Voting is open to everyone, although you have to submit your email address so you don't abuse the voting process.  Here's a brief description of the nominees:

Upgrade Soul by  Ezra Clayton Daniels is self-described as an immersive science fiction graphic novel written and illustrated by Ezra Claytan Daniels.  "It's the story of an elderly couple who become the guinea pigs of a visionary procedure that aims to revivify them by filtering toxins from their bodies on a molecular level. When the procedure experiences a fatal complication, the couple is faced with severely deformed, though intellectually superior duplicates of themselves. Soon, it becomes clear that only one version of each individual can survive, and the psychological battle for dominance begins."

Brief Histories of Everyday Objects by Andy Warner is a charming set of cartoons that provide exactly what they say they do, in an entertaining way. The history of kitty litter, for example. They describe their philosophy: "While we aren’t implying that it’s time to pull away from the classics, we do believe that there is a more entertaining way of consuming content: Visual Stories. That’s what Tapastic is built around and that’s what we are excited to share with all of you!"

Modest Medusa by Jake Richmond is an adventure story about a man who finds an infant Medusa has invaded his house. She comes from another land through a mystical portal that's in his storage closet.

Vattu by Evan Dahm.  Vattu is an adventure story set in 855 in a strange world. It begins when a girl name Vattu is born to a tribe of nomads. The action is low-key, but concise, and the story is told with as few words as possible. Simple, like the lives of the nomads on the grassy plain.

The Secret Knots by Juan Santapau.  Santapau describes his work as "comics about things we do without knowing why."   He has been at it for a while, since the archive reaches back to 2006.   Most of the short stories seem to be self-contained in a single web page, although there are hints that the characters live in a shared world.

Check 'em out, then go ahead and vote.

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"Same Difference" by Derek Kirk Kim

Derek Kirk Kim's graphic novel "Same Difference" involves two parallel stories of college friends, Simon and Nancy. The book is essentially a short story, taking place over only a couple of days.

They start out in a cluttered but comfortable pho restaurant, and it ends in the wide open spaces of the beach and the night sky. From the restaurant, Simon sees Irene Cook, a friend of his from high school who once asked him to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance, but he lied to get out of it because she is blind.  Meanwhile, it's revealed that Nancy has been toying with the emotions of a guy named Ben Leland, who is infatuated with the woman who used to live in Nancy's apartment.

In the course of the story, both Simon and Nancy are offered easy chances at redemption, but they stumble along the way, afraid to do the right thing because it will expose their lies.

The dialog is chatty, but like Kim's other works, the characters were interesting enough that I was compelled to keep reading.  Also, there's always at least one or two dialogue-free panels per page, leaving space for reaction and reflection.

I loved the introduction by Gene Yang  ("American Born Chinese") as well as the afterword by Kim himself. Kim explains some of his process in writing, and what "Same Difference" meant to him:
No matter what I do in the future, "Same Difference will always be my most significant work. Not the most complex or proficient, and hopefully not the best, but the most significant...Same Difference gave me my own voice. For the first time, the creative process became an honest, organic channeling of myself.

Although the artwork is uneven at times, and as Kim mentions in the afterword, he even had to redraw Simon's nose on nearly every page, the resulting work truly is an honest and engaging story.
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"Philip K. Dick's Electric Ant" by David Mack and Pascal Alixe

I've been re-reading all of Philip K. Dick's novels, so as a pause I decided to get the comic book adaptation of "Electric Ant." Based on the 1969 short story published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Garson Poole is the owner of Tri-Plan Electronics, a company that develops hi-tech weapons systems. After a car accident the doctors tell him he's an electric ant, an organic robot, "a precursor to the more modern replicant."

Naturally, this is disturbing news and Garson not only has trouble breaking it to his girlfriend, but it also makes him doubt his purpose as "owner" of the company, and his very existence. Prying open a seam in his chest he discovers a spaghetti of components, including a spool of punched tape which seems to control his senses, or possibly even his reality. He begins to tinker with the tape, covering over some holes, adding new ones, and that's when reality begins to break down.  The ending, like "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," is ambiguous, but slightly hopeful. We are left with the impression that Garson Poole has transcended this reality.

With flying cars and a light touch of Film Noir retro, David Mack does a good job of incorporating the modern interpretation of PKD into the story.  I liked the TV blurb "...this segment of the Palmer Eldritch Empathy Hour brought to you by Perky Pats."  I have not read the short story (it's on my list of "to do"s), but I gather from summaries that it has a slightly different ending than the comic.

Pascal Alixe's art, at first, was disturbing to me. The blocky human figures with heavy dark lines felt rough, more like a WPA mural from the '30s.  But the style grew on me, and it felt appropriate to the theme. As Poole explores his body, and the dissolving reality around him some forms become more organic, and Alixe even throws in some Dali-like melting objects.

Published in 2010 by Marvel Comics, the book includes the covers by Paul Pope, and a sketchbook at the end, but no other commentary on the work. They credit Brian Michael Bendis as a consulting editor.  They also give thanks to the Dick estate, and refer to Electric Shepherd Productions .
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Cheverny Chateau: The inspiration for Marlinspike

A couple years ago I took a trip to France and visited Chateau Cheverny, Hergé's inspiration for Marlinspike. Located in the Loire valley, the Chateau is a minor one, along the string of other castles, including the very impressive Chateau Chambord. Also, the interior is nothing like Marlinspike, being much more cozy. Still, it was fun to visit "Captain Haddock's Castle" and walk around the grounds. There is a zoo directly across from the Castle, and, of course, a gift shop with lots of Tintin-themed knick-knacks.

A comic shop in Poitiers display an impressive array of comic-related figurines, including Tintin and Haddock in the middle
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