The Comic Book King, Part 3

The Lean Years

Sky Masters of the Space Force, pencils by Kirby, inks by Wood

As talented and versatile as Jack Kirby was in the 1950s, even "The King" couldn't stave off the coming crash in comics. Much has been written about that period, a witch hunt directed against horror comics, with a great deal of focus on E.C. (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear). But E.C.'s three horror titles only totaled out to 91 issues, less than Harvey Comics' Witches Tales, Chamber of Chills, and Tomb of Terror, and much less than the 399 issues of Atlas Comics' horror titles. Unlike the relatively mild stories of supernatural mystery in Simon and Kirby's Black Magic, there was a great deal of material that went far beyond the border of good taste, crossing that line into overt graphic sadism.

In 1954, despite the shrinking comics industry, Jack Kirby was in fine financial shape. Not only was he producing work for Crestwood (Black Magic, Fighting American), and Harvey (Boys' Ranch), but he and partner Joe Simon had established their own comic company, Mainline (Foxhole, In Love, Bullseye and Police Trap). And then the backlash began.

Although horror comics consisted of less than a sixth of the 500 comics titles out on newsstand racks, the coming repercussions of negative media attention would bring the comics industry down like a house of cards.

The opening attack would come from a Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist and author of the book Seduction of the Innocent. Over the course of his work with disturbed children Wertham made the startling discovery that many of them read comics -- and made a gigantic leapfrog over logic into the dubious conclusion that violent children were inspired by the violence in comics. His book (which also cast a suspicious eye at Batman and Robin's relationship) triggered a public outcry which finally resulted in a Senate hearing on the possible connection between juvenile delinquency and comics, convening for two days in April 1954.

Television was coming into its own in 1954, moving into over half of America's homes (and offering a great deal of competition to the comics market), and the Senate hearings were televised. I remember seeing the infamous severed-head Johnny Craig cover (Crime SuspenStories #22) being displayed on the family tv set and getting a stern warning from my parents to stay away from such vile junk. Shortly after that they also discovered my hidden collection of E.C.s and dumped them in the trash. The same scenario was happening all over the country as shocked parents took stern steps to protect their children from the menace of comic books.

Comics sales plummeted. Leader News, Simon and Kirby's distributor (and E.C.'s) went out of business, taking down Mainline Comics with their fall. In the space of months Kirby's free lance assignments dwindled, going from his usual twenty pages per week to as many pages in four months. With Mainline's demise Simon and Kirby had taken a serious financial beating and there were precious few publishing outlets to offer them any hope of a quick recovery.

Kirby made do by continuing his work on the title that had launched the love comic genre, Young Romance,as well as doing covers for Harvey's reprint books, Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and Joe Palooka. He also produced a number of stories based on the lives of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie for Harvey's Western Tales (formerly Witches Tales).

The Simon and Kirby team had left Timely Comics (now Marvel) in 1941 in a dispute over profits on Captain America. In 1956, however, they could no longer afford to be so choosy and returned to the Timely fold. Kirby, working for the very young Stan Lee, produced stories and art for war and science fiction titles, as well as the more out the ordinary series, Sax Rohmer's The Yellow Claw (some issues valued over $500 in today's market).

1956 was also the same year that the Kirby/Simon team parted, with Joe Simon leaving comics for a new fantasy field, advertising work. With the partnership dissolved, Kirby attempted to branch out into syndicated comic strips, turning out a large number of samples that included Starman Zero, Surf Hunter, and Kamandi of the Caves. The art was impressive (some samples were inked by Wally Wood and Bill Elder), but nothing clicked until 1957. In that year the Space Race was beginning to get underway and there was a growing public interest in the doings at Cape Canaveral.

Sky Masters of the Space Force, a strip devised by David and Richard Wood (no relation to Wallace), capitalized on that interest. The two brothers decided that Kirby would be ideal to draw the strip, which debuted in over three hundred papers. It was beautifully done, with stunningly detailed inks by Wally Wood, but evidently the public's interest in pioneering space exploration waned and the strip only lasted until January 1961.

After Yellow Claw canceled, Kirby continued freelancing in the comics field, working for National Comics' mystery titles. One Kirby story, in Tales of the Unexpected #16 (August 1957) featured an appearance of Thor, God of Thunder, a deity that Kirby would bring into prominence at Marvel in Journey into Mystery #83, August 1962.

In the late fifties Kirby managed to sell National on the idea of running a new action-adventure series, Challengers of the Unknown, which had first premiered as a back-up story in Showcase #6 (February 1957). Written and drawn by Kirby, many feel that the series was a forerunner of "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine," The Fantastic Four.

Next: The Marvel Explosion, or The House That Jack Built.

--Steve Stiles