Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

Simon & Kirby's Kids Go To War!

An Overview of the Simon & Kirby Kid Gangs
written by & © R. J. Vitone

From Jack Kirby Collector #7

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 world:

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 Rips words:

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 for awhile.

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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