The Simon & Kirby Library: Crime
Review by KC Carlson
“As long as the crime comic books industry exists in its present forms, there are no secure homes.”
— Senate testimony by Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent (back cover pull-quote)
Published in a deluxe hardcover, beautiful and substantial enough to give Dr. Wertham nightmares, Simon & Kirby: Crime collects over 300 newly restored pages of stories and covers from comics’ most brutal genre — possibly proving crime does pay! The beneficiary is the reader, who doesn’t go to jail, but obtains over 30 classic crime stories from those lawless comic book years of 1947-1955.
Collecting work by comics’ greatest collaborators — Joe Simon and Jack Kirby — at their prime, the book reprints stories from the classic crime comics Clue Comics/Real Clue Crime Stories, Headline Comics, Justice Traps the Guilty, and Police Trap, along with the covers that S&K provided for those comics. The book takes your breath away the second you open it to the frontispiece close-up of the amazing action shot of a neighborhood cop taking down a gun-wielding wise guy with just a powerful Kirby forearm. The original is from the cover of Headline Comics #34, but this monotone isolation of the action overpowers even the actual — incredible — cover.
Inside, an introduction by crime novelist and comics writer Max Allan Collins sets the stage effectively with both history and insight. Then you get to the good stuff! Crime was one of the few comic genres that Simon & Kirby didn’t invent, but they were definitely trendsetters and innovators. Their work wasn’t stupidly brutal and lurid like much of the genre, focusing more on drama, power, and irony — but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t the occasional panel that both chills and makes you look away.
It’s not just mobsters, dames, and weasels, either. S&K were clever enough to make many of these stories cross-genre yarns. There are a couple of creepy western tales, a couple of bizarre crime/romance genre-benders, and a couple of tales set in Europe in eras past, including the life (and death) of Guy Fawkes — ultimately the inspiration for V for Vendetta.
The bulk of the stories are — as in the style of both era and genre — “True Life” tales of actual criminals and outlaws, with many of the names changed to protect the innocent (as well as many of the facts changed to make the stories more exciting). Still, with appearances by Babyface Nelson, John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis (with an unbilled appearance by J. Edgar Hoover), Eddie Green, and somewhat lesser lights like H. H. Holmes, Charles Birger and the Shelton Brothers mobs, Stella Mae Dickson (the 16-year old “Bobby Sox Bandit”), as well as the oft-told tales of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Vernon Miller’s involvement in the Kansas City Massacre, the book is quite the little four-color primer on Depression-era public enemies.
And there’s more than just bad guys — the gals are also well represented here, either as unwitting dupes, gun molls, or unsuspecting women left behind as their men are ruthlessly gunned down in stories with great titles like “Queen of the Speed-Ball Mob”, “I Worked For the Fence!”, or (my favorite) “I Was a Come-On Girl for Broken Bones, Inc.” Get out your hankies!
I must rave about the production work and presentation. All of the stories were meticulously restored and recolored by Harry Mendryk, who’s been specializing on the Simon and Kirby stuff for a while now. This is his best-looking work yet. I can’t exactly explain why, but this volume looks less muddy than previous volumes (which are also great — I’m talking degrees here), and I’m a big fan of seeing the restored (and crystal clear) grain to the colors — both simulating and improving on the dot screen reproduction of the original comics, without all the staining and bleed-through. The book is printed on a heavy and slightly off-white paper stock, prefect for comics of this vintage. (I hate seeing old comics on glossy stock.) And the design work is quite nice as well.
Simon & Kirby: Crime is part of the Simon & Kirby Library, published by Titan Books and dedicated to collecting and reprinting all of the non-DC and Marvel work by the duo. They’ve previously published a Best Of volume, a Superhero volume, and a complete softcover collection of all the Fighting American stories, as well as the excellent Joe Simon biography, My Life in Comics. It’s one of the very best archival comics lines out there today, and if you haven’t already, please check out their other volumes. You won’t be disappointed.
By the way, this isn’t all of the S&K crime comic stories. I understand that there’s enough for a second volume if there is a demand for it. And while you’re at it, please check out DC Comics’ upcoming Spirit World hardcover, reprinting the hard-to-find first issue and material from the never-published second issue, all by Jack Kirby. Similarly, if Spirit World does well, DC may publish In the Days of the Mob — a similar “lost” Kirby project featuring more crime-oriented stories (and also with an unpublished second issue).
Update: This post at the Kirby Museum site lists other reviews of the book, several of which include a sample story (including “Queen of the Speed-Ball Mob”), if you’d like to see examples of the book’s content. (The publisher provided a review copy.)