It's difficult to imagine what the comics field would be like if there had never been a Jack Kirby. Aptly dubbed "The King" by Stan Lee, Kirby was a major innovative influence in the industry from his earliest day to his retirement, decades later. For many comics professionals, as Mark Schultz (Xenozoic Tales) once said, Kitby was "the ultimate power on the printed page."
After the war (and after recovering from a case of trench foot picked up from sleeping in the snow nightly for six months) the artist returned from military service in Europe to New York and comics. Teaming up once more with Joe Simon (Captain America, Newsboy Legion, Boy Commandos), the two turned to Harvey Publications, a company formed in 1941 by Alfred Harvey. This sparked some resentment at National Comics (the precursor of DC), which was still publishing Jack and Joe's Boy Commandos. After Simon and Kirby signed up with the newer company additional freelancing at National dried up, leading to the cancellation of Boy Commandos in 1949.
Unhappily, the decision to sign on with Harvey in 1946 proved a bad one. Due to a downturn in that company's fortunes, the two strips the team created, Stuntman and Boy Explorers, never saw action on the stands. Simon and Kirby moved on in 1947, this time to Hillman Publications, where they produced funny animal, crime, and action features, as well as a teen title, My Date, which would later lead to bigger and better things in the future.
A more successful move was to Crestwood Publishing. Simon and Kirby took over as editors and revamped an existing crime title, Headline Comics, so effectively that other publishers told their artists to ape the S&K "house style." The well-selling title, which featured stories about real criminals like "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Ma Barker, was soon to be overshadowed by another Simon and Kirby creation -- an entirely new genre in comics.
During the war Simon had noticed that fellow G.I.s read comics, even funny animal comics aimed at children. Realizing that there was a market for young adults, and encouraged by the sales of the Hillman My Date title, the team launched Young Romance#1 (Summer 1947). With Young Romance a new trend in comics was launched. Sales on the new title (the first issue a collector's item valued over $300.) totaled 92% of a print run of 500,000 copies. That print run was doubled by the third issue, with similar phenomenal sales results. As usual, other publishers weren't slow to jump on the copycat bandwagon and soon romance comics flooded the market.
Under Simon and Kirby the Crestwood line, now Prize Comics, expanded with new titles (Young Love, Western Love, Real West Romances) and a new influx of talent. Kirby was one of the fastest artists in the field but with the larger workload had to spend more time on production and supervision. Over the course of eight years Prize employed many notable names in the field --Carmine Infantino, Leonard Starr, Bob Powell, and two future Spider-Man artists, Steve Ditko and Ross Andru.
With the dawn of the 1950s, the comics field next turned to the genre that would almost destroy it: horror comics.
William Gaines' E.C. Comics was the first to launch the gore-revolution in April 1950 with Crypt of Terror #17 and Vault of Horror #12. Crestwood quickly followed with Simon and Kirby's Black Magic #1 (October 1950). Unlike E.C.'s tales of werewolves and vampires (and unlike unsavory trash from other companies), Black Magic specialized in stories more oriented towards the supernatural and unexplained, as well as the occasional science fiction story. The accent was on mood not rotting corpses ("It was too close to reality for me," Kirby commented, "I'd just gotten back from the war.").
Another Simon and Kirby title shared Black Magic's debut that October, this one published by Harvey; Boys' Ranch, the last (and many think the finest) "kid gang" title the two would produce. Although filled with the kind of action only Kirby could handle (including a great double-paged barroom brawl), the title had disappointing sales and lasted only last six issues. (Eight years later the western genre would really take off, but evidently in 1950 there were no takers.)
The brief 3-D comics mania, kicked off in 1952 by the film B'wana Devil, proved to be a disappointment that burned up profits at quite a few publishing houses, including Harvey's. Simon and Kirby had attempted a return to super heroes with their Captain 3-D, but although three issue were produced, only the first issue (inked by Steve Ditko) ever saw print before public enthusiasm for the novelty evaporated.
In 1953 Joe and Jack had another try with a super hero, Fighting American, another Crestman/Prize comic and the first super hero satire series. "Joe and I didn't want to produce the same type of strip that we had done before, and we were looking for a new aspect of the long-underwear hero," Kirby said. "I love good humor, and Fighting American was a good-natured satire of Captain America." While spoofing the Star-Spangled Avenger, Simon and Kirby also took aim at the Red Menace with a strange menagerie of Cold War villains; Poison Ivan, Rhode Island Red, Sawdoff, Yuscha Liffso Long, and the world's first communist super hero, Super Khakalovitch.
By the fall of 1953 Jack and Joe felt ready for a new venture and, while still turning out work for other companies, began four new titles, In Love (romance), Bullseye (western), Police Trap (crime), and Foxhole (combat), under their own imprint, Mainline Comics. The timing was unfortunate, but then few were aware of the coming backlash against the horror genre, a waiting explosion that would bring the entire comics field to its knees.
Next: The Lean Years.