Simon & Kirby's Kids Go To War!
An Overview of the Simon & Kirby Kid Gangs
Kirby Collector #7
written by & © R. J. Vitone
One of the trademarks of Simon and Kirby was a seemingly endless volume
of sheer inventiveness. During the early 1940s, the team re-shaped
tired (for even then) cliches and made them look fresh. Finding inspiration
in old dime novels, radio dramas, feature films, and news reports of
the day, they created entire new fields of comic book genres that exist
even now. One of the most enduring and best remembered was the kid
gang motif, and nobody did it better.
The Sentinels Of Liberty - Comics First Kid Gang
During the early success of Captain America Comics at Timely, a hugely
popular promotion was run featuring the Sentinels of Liberty badge.
Just about every Timely title ran colorful ads for the kit. By sending
in a dime, hero-worshipping readers could possess not only the bronze
shield with Caps likeness on it, but would also become full-fledged
members of the nationwide Sentinels of Liberty club. The gimmick was
simple and brilliant. Since most of Caps readers were young boys, and
since the title was a runaway hit, why not offer those readers the
chance to contribute directly to that success? The response was terrific.
The badge went back to press at least three times before war-time metal
restrictions forced cancellation of the promotion. But the groundwork
was laid. Bucky became de facto head of hundreds of thousands of Sentinels,
usually speaking to them right from special bulletin pages in the comics.
Simon and Kirby followed the logical progression of the situation.
It was clearly time to create a new feature using kids as central characters.
And so Young Allies #1 was born.
The Young Allies - Sidekicks Go Solo
Kid sidekicks were hardly a new idea. The Shield at MLJ had one. So
did The Human Torch. Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Robin for Batman
at DC because, Batman didn't have anyone to talk to, and it got a little
tiresome always having him thinking. Simon and Kirby had introduced
Bucky in the very first Cap story, but the basic idea of the Young
Allies strip was very different. Here was a cross-section of American
kids caught up in fantastic situations fighting frightening villains,
all against a background of the World War and almost no adults around
to spoil the fun! That first issue introduced all of what would be
standard in the field for years to come a small group of pals, inner
rivalries, playful (often deadly) antics, and terrific adventures.
The Young Allies were led by Bucky (even though Toro argued that point),
and included some soon-to-be familiar stereotypes: Percival Aloysius
Knuckles O'Toole, the Brooklyn Dead-End Kid; Jefferson Worthington
Sandervilt, rich boy inventor; Henry Tubby Tinkle, the fat kid; and
Whitewash Jones, the Harlem black kid with a harmonica. Where their
parents were or how this group could ever strike terror into an enemy's
heart never concerned S&K. The team did some minor work on the first
issues (cover and splash for each chapter of number one, plus issue
twos cover), and then suddenly left Timely. Ironically, one of the
reasons they left was the success of the Sentinels of Liberty club.
Joe Simon said years later that of all the dimes that rolled in for
those membership kits, Jack and Joe never got even one of them.
So it was over to DC Comics, then king-of-the-hill in the comics field,
and time to re-invent the kid gang.
Enter The Newsboy Legion & The Guardian!
When Simon and Kirby switched over to DC, they hit the ground at full
gallop. The Newsboy Legion was the third strip they introduced, and
the first featuring characters wholly created by the team for their
new publisher. (The revamped Sandman and Sandy came first, then the
re-designed Manhunter. Both strips ran in Adventure Comics.) Dated
April 1942, Star Spangled # 7 cover-featured S&K's latest effort. That
the gang elbowed the incumbent star of the comic (Star Spangled Kid)
to back-up status showed just how highly the powers-that-be at DC thought
of their new artist/writer team.
Expanding on the concepts introduced in Young Allies, the first Newsboy
Legion tale spun fresh twists into a formula epic: Jim Harper, resolute,
square-jawed rookie policeman, assumes the persona of The Guardian.
His quest: Stamp out crime in Suicide Slum... and have a helluva good
time doing it!
Speed was the key. Jack Kirby produced a staggering amount of high-quality
pages during this period. The accelerated output showed through in
the pace of the stories. The intro of Jim Harper and his origin as
The Guardian takes up only two pages! Kirby's art flowed with that
pace. Pages became pushed-together vignettes as scenes collided at
break-neck speed. Dynamic figures stretch with exaggerated power, and
when The Guardian throws a punch, hoods fly out of the panel gutters,
breaking more than just the Laws of Physics! And just when you think
this will turn out to be just another super-hero story, along come
four ragged street corner newspaper sellers: Tommy, leader of the gang;
Gabby, the rambunctious talker; Big Words, the professor; and Scrapper,
the Flatbush slum kid with an impossible accent. (Maybe he was related
to the soon-to-come Brooklyn of the Boy Commandos?) Arrested for petty
crimes, the boys are about to be tossed in jail until their twenty-first
birthdays. Jim Harper saves the day, taking responsibility for the
orphans for a trial period. Needless to say, it became a long period.
The basic strength of the Simon and Kirby Newsboy Legion run lay in
one simple area: storytelling. Each issue of Star Spangled wove a new
tale around some facet of life in Suicide Slum. In fact, Kirby knew
those streets well. In his early twenties by the time he moved over
to DC, Jack had grown up in that area of New York known as Hells Kitchen.
When he transferred the images of his youth to the pages of the Newsboy
Legion, he drew on those childhood memories, mixed them with a touch
of Hollywood romanticism, and produced a striking backdrop for each
new story. From the kids who played in the streets to the cops who
chased them, right on through the immigrant shopkeepers and gossiping
housewives, they all sprang from Kirby's own unique vision. Except
for a stray Nazi agent who wandered into the area, almost every threat
came from home-grown thugs. A Kirby stock company of hoods became interchangeable
plot devices, and the simple honesty of the gang sometimes was all
it took to help them see the light and go straight. Will Eisner occasionally
used the same formula, but usually it came across with a touch of tongue-in-cheek.
The gentle humor that shines out of the Newsboy Legion run was another
trademark of S&K. Corny? Maybe. But very well-done corn.
From that first story in April 42, Kirby drew the covers and a thirteen-page
story for almost every issue of Star Spangled until number 30. Long
after the team had left the strip, the title sported covers with the
distinctive S&K signatures.
Where did they go? Off to war, that's where!
Not literally. Not yet. That reality was just ahead. But another chapter
in comics history came first.
Boy Commandos - Kids Go To War!
The United States entered World War II in December 1941. Any casual
student of comics history knows that many super-heroes had been fighting
fascism long before that date. Superman routinely tossed foreign despots
around, Blackhawk blitzed the Axis in Quality's Military Comics, and
the Sub-Mariner sank many a Nazi U-boat long before Pearl Harbor. Simon
and Kirby's Captain America was a direct response to the Jap-a-Nazi
threat, and the Red Skull remains perhaps the most notorious war-time
villain of all. Hitler himself often crossed the lines of disbelief
to guest-star in many a comic-book story. As exciting as the Newsboy
Legion was, their battlefield was restricted mainly to Suicide Slum...
but what if they had guns...?
Detective Comics # 64 (June 42) introduced The Boy Commandos starring
Rip Carter. Once again, the now-familiar basics were there. A multi-national
gang of kids function as mascots and operatives for a British-based
elite commando force led by U.S. Army Captain Rip Carter. By design
or not, each symbolizes a nation involved in the war: Andre Chavard,
hoping to free France; Alfy Twidgett, jovial English subject; Jan Haasen,
blond Holland refugee; and (of course) Brooklyn, street-wise wise-guy
who actually carried a tommygun in his trusty violin case. The group
was led (or refereed) by Captain Carter, who struck a solid, very determined
image but had a heart of gold under it all. As is often the case in
a series like this, once you got past the fact that kids would be allowed
to participate in out-and-out war-time adventures, the rest of the
ride would be fun and what fun!
Boy Commandos remains one of the most enduring creations of the Simon
and Kirby team. The strip was so well received by the readers that
it quickly moved from back-up status (in Detective) to all-star feature
(in Worlds Finest) to its own full-blown title (Boy Commandos #l, Winter
1942). This at a time when early war-time paper restrictions had forced
DC and other publishers to cut back many of their old-line titles to
bi-monthly or even quarterly frequency. Not only was this another twist
on the kid gang theme, this was new. For the first time, a team of
S&K kids would range the world, fighting real battles against well-armed
enemies! There were no restrictions: One story would have the boys
in France looking for a Nazi agent; the next would have them bound
for Russia aboard cargo ships in enemy waters; then the next would
put them in the lost valley of Shangri-La. As global in scope as the
war really was, so too was the Boy Commandos strip. What interest it
must have caused! These were kids after all, fighting real villains!
And if there were no restrictions in the storylines, there were certainly
none in the art either.
Kirby opened up his pages as never before. With so much scope and
ordinance to cram into each story, he had to. Right from the first
story, the speed and solid narrative sense of the S&K early years shone
through, but there were some new innovations. By 1942, quite a bit
of film-influenced layout and design had begun to show up on the pages
of the teams stories. New ways to compress time and enhance action
were being experimented with. Round panels to isolate dramatic focal
points were used more and more. Close-ups of characters faces and eyes
(a Kirby trademark) began to appear and panel designs took on some
jarring new angles. Some panels with no dialogue appeared frequently,
emphasizing the stealthy movements of the gang in deadly situations.
Many stories were told in newsreel-type documentary fashion, while
others were laid out in flashback, told to the reader by a participant.
The kids were the stars of the series, but the stories often revolved
around them, and were not just concerned with their actions. That Kirby
kept any sense of continuity in the strip is amazing, since the locales
and supporting characters changed according to the demands of the script.
(But that continuity is another truly amazing facet of Jacks career.
Years after leaving Boy Commandos behind, he was called on to pencil
the cover for Sgt. Fury #15, showing the Howlers helping a kid in Holland.
That kid bears a strong resemblance to Jan. Apparently Jacks pencil
had a long memory.)
Out-and-out war-time propaganda was a major part of the series. All
of the fascists were vicious stereotypes. Italians were portrayed as
fat, dumb, hopeless soldiers. Japanese were always buck-toothed, with
thick round glasses, no honor, and horrible accents. (This strip was
a hot-bed of accents!) The Germans fared best, as their regular soldiers
were stout and stupid, while their officers were rat-faced, devious
murderers. Kirby's covers and splash pages for Boy Commandos stand
out today as prime examples of war-time symbolism. Every aspect of
war appears on those covers, from battlefield attacks to parachuting
into enemy areas. Explosions, gun-fire, hand-to-hand combat and other
mayhem filled every story, and bodies flew everywhere. Even if war
wasn't pretty, Kirby's vision of it had an awesome quality of grandeur
punching out of the pages.
One story stands out in the war-time run:
ISS VE NOT DER SUPERMEN? appeared in Worlds Finest #15 (Winter 1943).
The plot is simple. Hitler's henchmen dream up a contest to appease
their angry fuehrer. The German people need a dose of positive propaganda,
so why not give them an ideal? A contest to crown the perfect Aryan
Superman! Entries are drawn from all walks of life, civilians and the
military (Congratulations Cpl. Lowtz! You vill make a fit representitive
for our brave wehrmacht, says the Nazi officer. Ya mein Cheneral! Did
I not shoot forty Russian vimmin at vun time in a church? replies the
applicant!). Oh... and the underground imports Rip Carter to enter
as Eric Carter. The boys come along as his trainers. Infighting and
treachery reduces the contestants to just Rip and the Gestapo's man.
Since a fair fight is out of the question, the gang has to save Rip
from a kidnapping. They arrive at the packed Berlin Sportspalist just
in time for the battle. (Hitler arrives fashionably late, wearing his
new Zoot uniform. Adolph! Bleeze! Tell me your tailors name! drools
an excited Goering.) The 10-page build-up stops short as Rip plows
through the Nazi in seconds, tossing the beaten thug right in Hitler's
lap. All hell breaks loose as the Boy Commandos and the underground
seize the podium and take control of the radio communications center.
Bullets fly in all directions as Rip Carter calls out to the shocked
listeners. In a ringing speech he lays the truth out for a war-weary
Listen humanity! Do you hear those guns? Its the thunder of free
men, pouring their defiance and hatred into the lying teeth of Hitler
and his Nazi beasts!
Smoke fills a blood-red sky as Rip continues:
Yes, beasts! Only beasts would massacre the helpless, starve the
conquered and torture the captured! The Nazis are not super-men but
super-beasts! Beasts with minds to conquer and weapons to kill!
The final panel shows soldiers of the allied armies revolving around
The real supermen are fighting in China and the Pacific, exterminating
the Nazis in Russia, smashing at them from England and striking them
down in conquered territories! They are fighting for an ideal far
above beasts... and Nazis!
And this comic-book story ends right there.
By the time that story saw print, Jack Kirby had been drafted and
sent off for basic training. Joe Simon served as well. They had prepared
by producing an amazing volume of extra covers and layouts for all
of their DC strips. Even while S&K served their country, their creations
continued to do so at home.
The Boy Commandos remained popular, even after the war that sparked
the strips creation ended. When the Simon and Kirby team re-formed
after their discharges, it seemed obvious they would pick up the strip
where they left off. That wasn't the case. According to Greg Theakston
and other historians, DC had continued to pay the team royalties on
that backlog material throughout the war. Apparently the DC editors
figured S&K would settle back in on an exclusive basis. But Joe Simon
had cut a deal with Harvey Publications for a few new series, and DC
cut Kirby back to just sporadic duties over the remaining life of the
Boy Commandos title. There was a post-war comics boom. Times were changing,
tastes were different, and there were exciting new worlds for Simon
and Kirby to explore. It wasn't in Simon and Kirby's nature to go along
with trends - it was their style to make styles. A new wave of inventiveness
lay ahead for the team, so the kid gang concept had to be left behind
The kid gang remains an important part of comics pages even today.
Jack Kirby's art continued to grow and to modify with the times, but
the originality and power always remained. His art is the art of impassioned
frenzy, fighting through to a satisfying end. The resultant images
burn forever into the imagination, and the reader is left with a sense
of a narrative progression, not just a story. Who knows? Without the
Sentinels of Liberty promotion, would the kid gang ever have been invented?
Probably. And you can bet that Kirby would have included a kid from
Brooklyn in the first story as well!
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