Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Jack Kirby's "Davy Crockett" newspaper strips

My previous post about Artie Simek ended with a look at some "Davy Crockett" pages drawn by Jack Kirby that had been scanned from a copy of Marvelman #231. These pages didn't seem to have been previously published in an American comic-book, so I speculated that they could have been either done for the U.K. market (after the Atlas implosion), or that they could have been inventory stories left from the "Davy Crockett" series that Kirby did for Harvey's Western Tales between 1955 and 1956.

The answer is: none of the above.

Allow me to digress a little. During the mid-1950's everybody was doing "Davy Crockett" comics. There was the aforementioned Kirby series over at Western Tales; Charlton had its own Davy Crockett comic between 1955 and 1957 and also featured the character in a series named Wild Frontier; Avon released a Fighting Davy Crockett one-shot in 1955; the character appeared in DC's Frontier Fighters comic; and Dell published several Davy Crockett comics based on Disney's TV version.

On June 20, 1955, writer France "Ed" Herron and artist Jim McArdle began a new "Davy Crockett" newspaper strip (the ad at left and the first strip below are reproduced from the Spokane Daily Chronicle, courtesy of Google's newspaper archives). Herron had worked on and off with Kirby since the early 1940's, and is credited with co-creating the Red Skull, among other characters.

The first Davy Crockett daily strip, from June 20, 1955.

Back to the Kirby-drawn "Davy Crockett" pages from Marvelman #231. Dave Gibbons posted a comment on this blog noting that the pages looked like re-formatted newspaper strips. All the pages posted by Matt Gore have a white space at the top left corner every three panels, which is where the title of the strip would have appeared in a newspaper. So there was an extra clue.

Then, in a discussion over at the Grand Comics Database's mailing list about the provenance of these Kirby pages, someone pointed out an article from early this year which contained the solution to the mystery. On March 2012, Jean Depelley wrote an article at that explained where these Kirby pages came from.

It turns out these Kirby pages were also published in France (a decade after their U.K. appearance) in Zoom #15 (October 1968).

From Zoom #15. Check for more scans from this story.

From Marvelman #231. Note what a difference Artie Simek's lettering makes compared to the French version.

In his article, Jean Depelley describes the discovery of this story by French fans, their failed attempts to trace it to an American comic-book publication (they also considered the stories in Western Tales as a possibility) and their arrival to a conclusion: that these are newspaper strips Jack Kirby ghosted for Ed Herron's Davy Crockett strip during a transitional period in early 1957 (which would apparently date them before the Atlas Implosion).

The evidence is in the article: the "Columbia Features Syndicate" copyright notice, the "Herron/McArdle" signature in a later strip, and the fact that the continuity of the Kirby strips flows naturally from previous episodes drawn by another artist (showing that Kirby's pages weren't a stand-alone work, he was following somebody else's story). So that's a minor mystery solved. There are probably other fans who were aware of the fact that Kirby ghosted these "Davy Crockett" strips (it's unlikely that nobody else has noticed this fact in the 55 years since the strips' original appearance), but Depelley's article is the only place I've seen this documented.

One final digression: I remembered Depelley's name from his appearances in the Jack Kirby Collector, usually in the letter columns but also as an occasional article writer. And as revealed by Tom Scioli in his Angouleme diary early this year, Depelley is also working on a Jack Kirby biography focusing on his war years. As Scioli describes it: "He’s put together a timeline of when and where Kirby was during the war, based on Jean’s interviews with the children of the soldiers Jack was stationed with. He’s visited the sites of various battles that Kirby had been involved in."

Sounds like this could be a really good book. Depelley has written a series of "Adventures of Private Kirby" posts over at which show some of his research. I haven't read them all yet, but look forward to doing so soon.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Artie Simek's post-Implosion work

One side-effect of reading comics for a long time is learning to recognize the distinctive styles of the people who created them. Some people are good at identifying artists and inkers, others (such as Martin O'Hearn) have learned to identify the specific tics and phrases of certain writers' dialogue, and there are those who can accurately determine who lettered a specific comics story.

Thanks to the efforts over the past decades of fans, historians, critics, and indexers it is now possible to google with a fair degree of accuracy the creative teams for a large part of the old comics one happens to find either as back issues, digital scans, or in reprint books. The enjoyment of reading a comic can be heightened by knowing more about who created it, at what stage during his/her career it was created, at what time period, for which publisher/shop/packager, etc. A run of the mill romance comic is more interesting if it's drawn by Alex Toth, we may be willing to read a funny animal story more closely when we know it was probably written by John Stanley, there may be hidden depths to that trashy-looking 1950's Charlton horror comic once we find out it was written by Superman's creator, Jerry Siegel, and so on.

Coming across these familiar styles and voices is pleasurable, and this can even extend to recognizing and enjoying the good, clear lettering practiced by craftsmen such as Ben Oda or Howard Ferguson. What was just a random comic story becomes part of a larger continuum of work, a glimpse into part of the history of a craftsman or artist who probably worked anonymously for most of his or her career. (One problem with this type of reasoning however, is that this can give you lots of excuses for not trimming your collection and throwing old comics away -- everything is potentially significant -- but that's material for another post.)

I became aware of the early (post-Fantastic FourMarvel superhero comics thanks to the 1970's Pocket Books editions along with reprint comics such as Marvel Tales. Most of the stories in these comics were lettered by Artie Simek and Sam Rosen, and it was easy to notice and learn these names since Stan Lee made a point of crediting them and at the same time making jokes at their expense in the credits (something that as a young reader I found amusing).

Artie Simek

Sam Rosen also worked for publishers such as Quality and Harvey, but practically all of Simek's career seems to have taken place at Timely/Atlas/Marvel Comics. Jerry Bails's Who's Who, for example, has him working from 1946 until his death in 1975 at Marvel, with no credits at other companies. (Simek's daughter Jean, also a comic-book letterer, passed away early this year.)

However, a few years ago I'd noticed that Simek's work had appeared in other comics. I first saw this in the Jack Kirby-drawn Challengers of the Unknown stories from Showcase #12 (cover dated February-March 1958, which means that the book appeared in late 1957).

"Challengers of the Unknown" splash from Showcase #12
The lettering in the above page is indisputably Simek's work, noticeable from the story's title's lettering to small details such as the highlighted first letters of the captions of the second and third panels.

Another Simek-lettered page from Showcase #12

When I shared this a few years ago over at the Grand Comics Database mailing list, fellow fan Marc Miyake pointed out that he'd also found Simek's work in a non-Marvel comic, this time in a story from Race for the Moon #2, from 1958.

Artie Simek lettering in another Jack Kirby story, "The Face on Mars"

Is the time period in these examples (late 1957 to 1958) significant? Most definitely. What is known as the "Atlas Implosion" took place in 1957, an event in which publisher Martin Goodman had to cancel several titles, fire staffers, and use inventory stories for a while (instead of assigning new work to freelancers). Many Atlas/Marvel freelancers and staffers had to find work elsewhere, and from what can be seen above, Artie Simek wasn't an exception.

Having found the above examples, it wasn't difficult to find other DC works by Simek from that period. Some examples are documented at the Grand Comics Database, others have been found thanks to the abundance of comics scans on the web.

Probably the earliest example (mentioned in Simek's Wikipedia entry) is the story "Batman's Roman Holiday" from Batman #112, cover dated December 1957.

Artie Simek lettering in Batman #112

House of Secrets #8, cover dated January-February 1958 has several stories lettered by Simek as well.

Art by Bill Ely, lettering by Artie Simek.

Art by Jack Kirby, lettering by Artie Simek.

Art by George Papp, lettering by Artie Simek.

And the story "The Truth about Love" from Heart Throbs #52 (cover dated February-March 1958) seems to also have been lettered by Simek.

From Heart Throbs #52

Simek would eventually return to Marvel, and would become one of their main letterers during their 1960's expansion.

The effects of the Atlas Implosion were apparently felt across shores. Several years ago, Matt Gore pointed out the existence of little-known work done by Jack Kirby for the British market: a series of "Davy Crockett" stories that appeared as backups in Marvelman magazine. Matt has uploaded some samples from Marvelman #231, originally published in 1958. As far as can be told, the handful of stories Kirby did for Marvelman were never published in the United States.

Jack Kirby art from Marvelman #231

I'd seen these pages back when Matt Gore originally shared them, but seeing them again today made me notice for the first time that they were also lettered by Artie Simek.

I don't know much about the origin of these stories or how they ended up appearing in a British publication. Richard Bensam pointed out to me via Twitter that Kirby had drawn stories featuring Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie between 1955 and 1956, in issues 31 to 33 of Harvey's Western Tales. Are these stories from Marvelman part of the same series? Or could these be unused Atlas inventory stories (which would explain the Simek lettering)? I wrote at the beginning of this post about how easy it is these days to google information about old comics and their creators, but there's clearly still much more to be learned about them, even about the work of well-known figures like Jack Kirby.