‘The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror!’ exhumes the roots of graphic storytelling

(Titan Books)

Two key things I tell my students when reading literature is to consider the source and to think about context.

When it comes to reading a treasury collection like Simon & Kirby’s run on Horror! featuring stories from Black Magic and The Strange World of Your Dreams from 1950 to 1954, you have to remember that there were several things happening in American culture. First of all, the market was already flourishing from as early as the 1940’s with horror and monster comics, led by titles like Tales from the Crypt by EC Comics and others dominated by Atlas Comics. Secondly, Americans were in the grip of Cold War paranoia which forced them to examine their own culture very carefully and define exactly what American ideals were. Unfortunately, comics fell under that scrutiny.

It would be hard for a modern kid in the 21st century to read these stories with the same amount of expectations that they would have in reading a modern comic. First of all there are historical references that they simply wouldn`t get, unless they were interested in doing any ancillary research into things like classical references to Sir Walter Scott the story “Birth after Death” or classical Egyptology references in “Alive After Five Thousand Years!”. Secondly, these stories are so dated that the endings are predictable and hackneyed by modern readers’ standards.

But to a modern kid, I’d say that is the whole point.

Most of comic stories that we read got their inspiration and sense of structure from the work of the great Joe Simon and dozens of modern Comic masters all swear by Jack Kirby’s art stylings. Simon and Kirby’s work in Black Magic and The Strange World of Your Dreams revolutionized the Horror comics market by presenting new and innovative source material through reader invitations to suggest story ideas or pushing the envelope in creepy subject matter. To see how they did it, in an uptight and repressive cultural environment is a lesson for the modern readers of today.

(Titan Books)

What’s great about this collection from Titan Books is the range of ideas that Simon and Kirby were able to cover. Some stories included tales of ghostly prospectors on the American Frontier, to haunted Scottish castles to future societies where looking normal was considered the greatest ugliness. It is a true eclectic collection of diverse imaginings that allows one edition to speak volumes about the talent of these two men.

Unfortunately, these two comics fell prey to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that ruled that comics like Black Magic and The Strange World of Your Dreams represented too much of a threat to the young minds of America. In 1954, Black Magic #29 was held up by the Subcommittee director who highlighted a part of the story in which the main character “fires bullet after bullet into the girl’s misshapen body”. A truly horrific part of a story – yes, but part of a horror story, which contextually, is appropriate. Still, the response was to assemble the Comic Code Authority, which was formed by certain publishers to create a standard that all comics had to adhere. This forced many of the great stories by these men to lose their lustre. Black Magic was cancelled in 1954 before the Comics Code Authority took effect, and was re-launched afterwards, but the comic was never able to reclaim that same cutting edge and sense of bravado it originally possessed.

It’s a true slice of comic history, not only from a reader’s perspective, but from a creators’ one as well. When Simon and Kirby hired the writers and artists who worked on these books with them, they not only paid for their expenses up front but also allowed them a share of the profits from the sold comics, instead of the usual flat fee that creators were customarily paid at the time. It was a truly remarkable method by two remarkable men.

This is a thoroughly entertaining and informative collection. Titan Books has done it again. Not only do we get a firm grasp of the style of the entertainment of the day, but we also learn a little about how it was done. We see the evolution of comics from these early and masterful works of art and how they relate to the modern works of today. So, to my students, I could easily use this as an example of Source and Context all rolled into one.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.