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Simon & Kirby: A Final Elegy – Boy Commandos #1

December 27, 2011

Sometimes people are called upon to eulogize the dear departed without ever having met the deceased, to say a few kind sentences over the grave though they knew the lost by deeds alone. No one is calling on me to say word one about Joe Simon, and with good reason. A dopey blog written by someone who had no exposure to Simon’s output growing up, a person who only stumbled onto it later in life, is hardly the forum or the person to provide fulfilling perspective on a life and a legacy. At least with Gene Colan, another great who left us this year, I had the pleasure of enjoying some of the art from the tail end of his career. Simon was well — WELL — before my time.

Yet, to not bang out a few words before the end of the year wouldn’t be right. It would leave some karmic gap, and I do have a thing or two to say about the man. It’s been close to two weeks since Mr. Simon’s passing, and those with greater knowledge have tossed out their tributes and obituaries. Time to leave my solitary flower amongst the bouquets and wreaths.

It’s not only Joe Simon that passed on December 14th. That day also marked the terminus of Simon & Kirby, one of the most revered bylines in the history of comics. Jolly Jack long ago left us, but his varied and lengthy career went on to greater personal renown after he left that ampersanded duo. I always think “Silver Age” when I see or hear Kirby’s name. Simon’s Golden Age material was where his mark was made, and he’s long carried the fire from those foundational decades. He was an embodiment.

Simon & Kirby. Just typing it makes your fingers happy.

It’s perhaps fitting to look back at one small slice of that great tandem. Let’s go back to their greatest World War II creation. No, Silly Rabbit, not Captain America. THE BOY COMMANDOS, BABY. And I write that without a scintilla of irony.

In what must have been acute fantasy fulfillment for every child of the 1940s with a shiny dime pressed between their grubby little fingers, the Boy Commandos, kids just like those urchins in floppy hats, TOOK IT RIGHT TO THE GODDAMN AXIS. Rip Carter and his smart-aleck orphans were like the Dirty Dozen mixed with a Boy Scout troop, earning badges not from making fire by rubbing twigs together but by grenading filthy Nazis straight to hell.

It was far-fetched. It was ludicrous. And Simon, with his dialogue and pacing, invested it with tremendous energy. He made it work. He made it fun.

This 1970s book reprints two classic Boy Commandos stories, with a recolored cover from the original Boy Commandos #1. The first entry (from Detective Comics #66) is told in flashback, as a mummy in the far future recounts his encounter with the Commandos. Yes, you read that correctly:

How can you not love this?

Lest we forget Kirby… There’s a simple compositional beauty to his depiction of Nazi-occupied North Africa:

In the high point of this tale’s hijinks, the Commandos stage an elaborate trap for their Nazi pursuers, and it reads like some riotous fusion of Our Gang with The Three Stooges and a dash of Keystone Kops thrown in for good measure:

This. Is so. Good. And this is coming from someone who’s normally bored to death by Golden Age storytelling.

The second tale (from the aforementioned BC #1) is beyond preposterous, asking us to believe that Rip and the Boy Commandos are reincarnated every 40 years or so to battle evil. In China. The mummy is starting to seem tame and banal.

A product of its time, this story has no qualms about depicting an elderly Chinese man as a desiccated, shrivelled, jaundiced monkey:

Remember that old Chris Rock SNL skit, The Dark Side with Nat X? There was a line in there that said Nat was a man “so black, he’s blue.” This guy is so yellow he’s orange. AND HE’S ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS.

Still, the story roars along and Kirby’s art shines. Take this battle scene, as a prior iteration of the Commandos storms Chinese fortifications at Yen-Tse:

You can smell the gunpowder.

There’s a delightful naiveté in these stories, a childish sense that nothing is impossible, even beyond the idea that kids who should be chucking newspapers at doors are fierce (and effective) warriors. The sky’s the limit. A green mummy granting an interview in the future and the Boy Commandos returning in cycles like Halley’s Comet to cleanse the Earth of evil-doers one wise-crack at a time — IT IS IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO SMILE AT THESE CONCEITS. And that all falls to Simon. Taking nothing away from Kirby’s nascent mastery, one has to give a wheelbarrow of credit to the ink-ribbon stained wretch. These stories aren’t just entertaining to look at. They’re entertaining reads. Even today.

I was in the midst of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay when news of Simon’s death hit the web. That literate take on the birth of the American superhero, borrowing heavily as it does from the Simon/Kirby experience, makes one appreciate the toils and travails of Golden Age scripters and artists all the more. I’m not saying that Simon died at just the right time for me (THANK GOD HE DID SO I COULD MORE FULLY APPRECIATE MY STUPID BOOK — that’s not what I’m getting at) . I’m simply pointing out a sad context. The timing made me think and reflect a little more than I might have otherwise.

Anyway, I thank him — sincerely and profusely — for his contributions. He will be missed, and he will be remembered. No doubt about that.

The Boy Commandos comics have been reprinted in some nice volumes. Maybe they’d make a nice purchase if some of that Christmas money is burning a hole in your pocket. Just a thought.

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