Simon and Kirby Library - Crime! book review
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Get your goons out - it's time for crime - pulp style!
Listen up, palookas! I got a tale of tough men who lived by the gun, and weren’t afraid to use them, and of the fast dames who loved those law-breaking goons. There’s coppers and G-Men, always on the trails of those ne’er-do-wells. We have bank robberies, jewel heists, crooked fight promoters, gambling, and lots of shootouts. These are the real-life stories that were written and drawn for the entertainment of comic book readers years ago by two of the highest regarded pioneers in the field, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. While they are best known for their work in superhero titles, they put pen to paper on a number of different genres, including the crime comics.
While Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney were portraying gangsters and crime fighting detectives on the big screen, Simon and Kirby were revolutionizing comics with stories based on true crime stories from the files of the police, the FBI, and newspaper headlines, most with the names having been changed for legal purposes. There are even a couple of stories from before the turn of the Century, going back to the Old West and one story chronicling America’s first serial killer! And in every story, we’re reminded that Crime Doesn’t Pay! Titan Books brings to you Simon and Kirby Library – Crime!
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were no strangers to the rough and tumble streets and the thugs that roamed them, both having been born and raised in New York during the early part of the Twentieth Century. They saw first hand how lives were affected by criminals, and they saw the rise of gangsters and organized crime. It’s no wonder, then, that these two would go back to those stories for inspiration for comic titles such as Real Clue Crime, Headline Comics, and Justice Traps the Guilty..
The stories here are all based on true accounts, and some very famous criminals make appearances: John Dillinger, Al Capone, the Ma Barker Gang, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and even H.H. Holmes, who is credited with being the first serial killer to work in America. Some of the criminals along the way are lesser known, but only because they never got the sensational headlines that others got, and so they are largely forgotten today. The collection here also acts almost like a view to the past, with the slang of the times used so heavily. It’s sort of like watching those old movies, because you’re drawn into the stories, especially through the artwork. Simon and Kirby were innovators at drawing scenes as though they were a movie scene, and the detail is amazing. The stories themselves are almost always narrated by someone involved in the case, or at times by Headline Comics’ special correspondent “Red-Hot Blaze”, a fictional investigative journalist.
Some stories revolve around former criminals who have seen the error of their ways, and try to convince others to change the paths they are on. Many deal with the consequences faced by those who continue on down that path, a road that ends either in jail time or execution. The book ends with a story entitled “The Debt”, where a police officer offers future assistance to a man who has just saved his son’s life. It’s not until later that the officer realizes the man in question was wanted for murder. That night, the man comes into the officer’s house, demanding payback, leaving the officer to struggle with his conscience: Does he report the man, or does he let him go and repay his debt? I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a terrific read.
Simon and Kirby had a unique view of comics, both having served in the military during World War II. They saw that many soldiers would pick up comic books due to the fact that they’re easy to carry with you and the stories were entertaining. The two decided that there was a market outside of kid’s books, and they set about writing books that both children and adults could enjoy. While the tales were more mature in nature, and at times pretty violent for the times, they always ended with the law-men getting their culprit, and boldly stating that crime didn’t pay, giving little morality tales for the kids that did read those books. These books remained popular until 1954, when Dr. Frederic Wertham wrote Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed comic books – particularly crime and horror titles – for destroying wholesome values and morals and leading children to a life of delinquency (apparently, he didn’t read the stories all that carefully, since they always ended with a strong moral ending). Alas, the crime comics came to an end, but thankfully, they survived and can be enjoyed again today.
There are only a few recurring characters throughout the collection. One is Dumas Poe, AKA Gunmaster, a crack shot who works for a secret society known only as The Council of Elders, who wear hooded robes and seem to use Gunmaster to fight crime. There is Packy Smith, a young man who seems to be destined to die by the time he’s thirty, and lives a fast life before he dies. However, Packy is key to a secret plot, and Gunmaster is sent to protect him. And there’s the femme fatale Velvet Silver, who Packy falls for in his second story, but the next time she turns up, Packy’s nowhere to be found. Whether he died between stories isn’t touched on, but a little mention might have been nice. It seems like Gunmaster might have had the makings of a great ongoing title, but apparently he only made it in a handful of stories (Joe Simon, if you’re reading, bring this character back somehow).
This book is a real treat to read, and the artwork is top notch. This creative pairing influenced so many artists that came later, because their style has been imitated and copied so many times. And yet, it still feels fresh, even after 60-plus years. It is 306 pages of non-stop action, with a collection of covers of the three titles represented here at the end of the book. The artwork has been restored, so that the colors are brilliant. There is also a foreword by Max Allan Collins, writer of the graphic novel Road to Perdition (basis for the Tom Hanks motion picture). If you’re a comic collector, just interested in the history of the medium, or if you like those old gangsters vs. coppers movies, you will love this book. It should have a space reserved on any collector’s bookshelf.
The Simon and Kirby Library: Crime is available here
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