Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Graphically Speaking: Simon and Kirby's Sandman Hardcover

Words: Christopher Irving

The usual anatomy of a nice grade reprint book is a hardcover spine with glossy paper skin and slick computer-colored pigment.

The Sandman by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby reprint volume flies in the face of the standard Archive format, transcending the standard over-produced reprint volume to the realm of a fun reading experience, but in a quick and dirty way.

Sure, I’m breaching the hyperbolic stratosphere by already singing the praises of the DC volume, but it’s all deserved. The paper stock on The Sandman feels like old-school newsprint, while the four-color coloring from the original comics is intact, with the stories most likely scanned from editions of the original comics themselves, complete with printing flaws.

But, best of all, it smells like a book should.

In the downside department, the art direction for the cover and endnote pages follows the Chip Kidd school of thought where panel details are blown way the hell up. It’s a device that’s become so overused in Hip Comic Book Design 101 that it just feels tired. A more proper cover with a Sandman logo, as opposed to a blow-up of a Simon and Kirby-drawn Sandman face would be a proper nod to the classiness of the interiors.

Another quibble is with the size of the book: Golden Age comic books were printed in a larger size and wider dimension than contemporary comics. This hardcover is the size of a modern comic book hardcover, reproducing the pages a smidge smaller than original publication, sometimes jumbling the detailed artwork together.

As for the content, Sandman was a second-tier character that legendary comics team Joe Simon and Jack Kirby tackled when they came to DC Comics in 1941, fresh off of producing Captain America for Timely Comics. When Sandman first appeared in 1939, it was as a trench-coated and gas-masked Green Hornet knock-off drawn by both Bert Christman and then the excellent Creig Flessel. Artist Paul Norris, creator of Aquaman, had just given Sandman a Robin-like kid sidekick named Sandy, and put the hero in form-fitting superhero togs and cape by the time Simon and Kirby came on. The duo took him from a sudden Batman knock-off, and made him more like an urban Captain America.

Sandman lives in Gotham City in one of the earlier stories, then York City (a fictional city which, interestingly enough, the Blue Beetle [also briefly touched on by S & K] once laid claim to), and finally settles on New York. Simon and Kirby’s New York fused the atmosphere of a Warner Brothers movie set with the grime of the real deal.

The most impressionable facets of the pre-War Sandman presented here are in the pulp ‘realism’, with the hero’s wirepoon gun heavily detailed: a gun with a wire and a bullet-like point, whenever Sandman and Sandy use theirs, the mechanics are described within the captions. The characters that the duo face up against are straight out of the short stories of Damon Runyon, all talking in his trademark gangster dialect; it’s not surprising, as Joe Simon counts Runyon as one of his influences.

Simon and Kirby’s trademark action, exploding on the pages with violent and frenetic energy, is in full force in Sandman. Reading the strip lets us reap the benefits of their prior year honing their craft on Captain America. Whether Sandman and Sandy are fighting the crazy plantman The Nightshade, a midget gangster, or hoods dressed like zoo animals, S & K’s blend of humanity, humor, and atmosphere permeate every page.

The punctuation at the end comes in the form of 1974’s Sandman #1, a reimagining by the team – and the last project they ever worked on together. It’s interesting seeing Kirby’s surreal later style back-to-back with his earlier, more classic look. The leap in tone is enormous, as we go from the urban crimefighter to an otherworldly superhero who saves people from their worst nightmares. Complete with a villain with a clockwork brain (General Electric, a kamikaze pilot who mostly made it out alive), two living nightmare creatures, and—get this—Nazi henchmen, this short-lived Sandman is a bizarre and exciting end to the joint career of this legendary team.

Sandman is book ended by an introduction from publisher John Morrow, and an afterword by historian Mark Evanier. Both men are experts in Jack Kirby: Morrow is publisher of the fan magazine The Jack Kirby Collector, while Evanier was Kirby’s assistant and friend. However, Morrow’s informative introduction suffers from being too fannish and lacking a distinctive voice (C'mon, do we really need to know what Morrow's favorite Sandman cover is?), while Evanier’s afterword offers his usual clever insight to the working of Simon and Kirby, cleverly closing with an anecdote involving the preceding Sandman artist, Paul Norris.

Overall, The Sandman by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby is an enormous improvement over the old computer-recolored Archive standard, and represents the Golden Age material in a manner that smacks of reading an actual old comic. While it lacks the clarity in line of the Best of Simon and Kirby by Titan Books, its strength lies in the fun factor of feeling the paper rub between your thumb and forefinger and witnessing the imperfect printing of the 1940s.