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My Kirby Favourite:

The Girl Who Tempted Me!

February 6th, 2008, marked the 14th anniversary of Jack Kirby’s death and on April 15, I’ll be hosting a special Comica event at the ICA in London, Live From Kirby Plaza…, which celebrates Kirby’s life and career. I’ll be joined by TV and radio presenter and collector Paul Gambaccini; Kim Newman, writer, broadcaster, journalist and critic specialising in horror and fantasy; Chrissie Harper, editor of Jack Kirby Quarterly. Official Kirby biographer Mark Evanier and John Morrow from Jack Kirby Collector join us via a live internet link-up, with Kirby himself (who died in 1994) appearing virtually via sound extracts from a 1993 interview.

With Valentine’s Day coming up this week, I thought I’d share with you my favourite Jack Kirby comic… The Girl Who Tempted Me! by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, which originally appeared in Young Romance #17 (Vol 3 No. 5, January 1950) and which has been reprinted in Real Love edited by Richard Howell (published by Eclipse Comics, 1988) and in The Complete Jack Kirby Volume 5 edited by Greg Theakston (published by Pure Imagination).

The Girl Who Tempted Me!

I was a Sixties Essex boy, who discovered the wonders of Kirby stuffed into the wire spinner racks in my local newsagents, noting them in my diaries. ‘Rectifying’ any folds or dents to make them ‘mint’ and archiving them in Woolworth’s sandwich bags. The crackling science fiction and bristling personality clashes of the Fantastic Four and the armoured warriors and mythic grandeur of Thor were what first bedazzled me about Kirby, leading me to the unharnessed energy of ideas throughout his Fourth World tetraology. Since then, though I still enjoy these classics that I bought fresh off the stands, I’ve grown to admire some less familiar aspects of his output every bit as much. Hence my choice of this 1950 romance comic.

Now emotional subtlety and steamy sexuality are not qualities commonly associated with the King but they permeate many of his romance comics produced in partnership with Joe Simon. For the record, romance comics did exist before Simon and Kirby - in Italy and even earlier in Mexico, for example - but S&K were the pioneers of the genre in American comic books with Young Romance in 1947. I’m disappointed that out of the 82 issues of Young Romance, 46 of Young Love and 18 of Young Brides to which Kirby contributed comic pages, only the key first issue of Young Romance and the nine stories compiled in 1988 in Real Love have so far been reprinted. True, some of these stories may be less than stellar, especially once the Comics Code Authority neutered comic books from early 1955, but it is a scandal that over one thousand pages of Simon and Kirby story and art from before the Code remain unseen and unappreciated after fifty or more years.

In The Girl Who Tempted Me! Kirby with Simon subverts several prejudices many modern comics readers have about the romance genre. Roy Lichtenstein is a lot to blame for this disdain, I think. His paintings of jilted women gushing waterfalls of tears supports the cliché that all love comics were formulaic tear-jerkers, where weak women pined for boyfriends and marriage and showed no hint of real passion. Having read a few more pre-Code romance comics thanks to my friend Ian Rakoff, I’ve found that the best can be as raw and vital as the best crime or horror comics of the early Fifties. A good many EC shockers, notably drawn by Jack Kamen and Wally Wood, were to all intents and purposes romances, albeit very dark, violent and tragic ones. There is a similarly intense, almost animal passion coursing through The Girl Who Tempted Me!, a fight against the temptations of the flesh and a battle between two jealous brothers, between the evils of the big city and the dour restrictions of the country . It’s also significant that this tale is narrated in the usual first-person confessional style of the genre, but unusually from a repressed male character’s point of view. Written and drawn by two thirty-something married men, perhaps this gives it an added authenticity.

For an artist and writer associated with action and spectacle, Kirby might not seem to be a natural when it comes to quieter affairs of the heart and mundane everyday settings. The romance genre is all about feelings. It tended to be quite wordy both in dialogue and especially in the voiceover captions, and low-key, even static in its imagery. What this 15-page melodrama proves is Kirby’s mastery of gesture, body language, facial expression and other telling details, and his skills at compelling dialogue and internal monologue. His artwork is on top form here too, striking compositions and luscious brushwork (apparently a rare example of Kirby inking himself according to Will Morgan in The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide).

Ethan is our atypical confessor here, a big, burly farmer standing tall and rigid in his boots, braces and jeans in the opening splash page, as the ex-carnival worker and sultry beauty Lola (the perfect name, from The Kinks to Barry Manilow’s showgirl) in her Britney Spears tied blouse, dips her toe into the water’s edge, like a siren luring sailors to their doom. After this, the rest of the story is told in standard six-panel pages with Ethan’s commentary in the captions. His zealous Christian work ethic and puritan denial of pleasure come across succinctly in the first scene, which establishes the tensions that country boy Ethan and his unsmiling mother feel about meeting young Amos on his return from the big city. From feeding the pigs, Ethan comes in to wash, revealing his muscular physique and hairy chest. Telltale signs ground us in their austere lifestyle - the old-fashioned water taps, lamps and horse-n-buggy. Momma and Momma’s boy confirm each other’s faith and solidarity. Ethan states "I’m strong and I’m righteous", as he grips the fur lapels of his coat around him like armour.

The electricity between Ethan and Lola is there right from the start when they meet at the station. Lola teases him in her first words, calling him "Paul Bunyan" and soon after "Iron Man" (long before the Marvel hero!). Ethan can’t seem to help himself, clamming shut, but his thoughts seethe in the narration as he describes the "dark wisdom of sin shining brazenly in her eyes". He then carries her heavy trunk on his broad shoulders, an act of strength designed to impress, only to hurl it into the back of the wagon, out of contempt for her, but perhaps as much for his own feelings of desire for her. Amos recognises this and declares his intent to win her.

It is over the dinner table, where to their horror Lola starts "eating before Ma could say grace", that Kirby circles in closer to their faces, capturing the hostile glances that accompany Ethan’s sarcastic remarks. The next morning, Lola joins Ethan as he’s milking a cow and hovers closer still around him, her perfume wafting on the breeze - "It’s supposed to bring out the brute in men". Granite-faced, Ethan seems to grit his teeth to show no emotion, his language riddled with Biblical phrases about "heathenish purpose". But from his monologue we know he is weakening, "beaten by the frailties which made me human". The powerful charge of this story comes as much from the words as the pictures, as Ethan dramatises his resistance to Lola’s charms into a struggle for his soul, one that from an early stage he doubts if he can win.

After tensions flare between the brothers over this "shameless jezebel", Ma packs Ethan off to to court "a fine girl" his mother suggests he take as his wife. He never makes it. Instead, as Ethan rides off on horseback, all his latent desires for Lola flare up, mirrored in the rising wind, rain and thunderstorm. "The brute" is unleashed here, as he spurs his steed at full gallop. "I felt my feet dig deeper into the powerful flanks…fiercely urging more speed from the great body". "The horse had become a physical extension of my demon-drive brain! I was all animal now."

These four pages mark the electrifying turnaround, the pivotal change, as Ethan rides back and confronts his feelings for Lola. As lightning strikes and his colossal rage builds, the captions of his feverish thoughts abruptly all but vanish over the next 14 panels. They stop because we are there, in the moment with him. There are no more inner thoughts, only the immediacy of actions and passions. They argue, they fight and finally Ethan kisses her as the storm reaches an orgasmic crescendo. Now we are back in Ethan’s head as he exclaims, "I felt the storm smash its way into the room and fling me into its raging epicenter!" But after he succumbs, he hurls her to the floor and curses her. Lola taunts him, "I’m life and I’m joy, Ethan - I’m yours." Lost for an answer, Ethan strides out of the room, leaving Lola laughing at him, but with tears too as she collapses to the floor. This is Young Lust, not Young Romance, this is comics as pure, over-the-top opera, as riveting as Hollywood noir, truly adult emotions laid bare on the page.

There is no going back after this. We know that Ethan’s denial and distraction by working harder than ever at his chores, his refusal of all invitations to get closer again to Lola, will not save him. His unrequited desires for her well up stronger than ever when he realises she is wooing Amos to marry her, so she can taunt and tempt Ethan all the more by staying on the farm. Another confrontation between the two lovers is inevitable. It starts when Ethan sprawls on the couch listening to the sounds in the house - Lola’s singing in the room above him, her moving about stirring his imagination. Again he bursts in and confronts her and finally faced with the prospect of her marrying Amos, Ethan acts and grabs her - "Because you’re my woman and no other man can have you". This time, instead of flinging her aside, he holds her limp in his strong arms, proclaims his love and Lola returns hers.

But our typical ‘boy gets girl’ happy ending gets derailed by the arrival of younger brother Amos, furious because he knows he has lost Lola. He pulls Ethan off her and lashes out at him. Over the next three panels Kirby shows Ethan taking a savage beating, the first a fist-in-the-face close-up, and offering no resistance, almost letting himself be killed, before ending it with one knockout blow. The closing shot shows a battered Ethan murmuring "Amos—Amos—". Allowing a pause for these feelings about the horrific aftereffects of violence between brothers to be expressed shows maturity in Kirby’s storytelling craft.

After such impassioned melodrama, the final page delays answering the ‘will they, won’t they?’ question a little longer on the morning after, to show Ma realising her errors in sowing conflict between them all and Ethan deciding to leave home. But while he waits alone for the city train at the station, Lola joins him. Kirby perfectly draws a subtle smile and loving gaze on his face as he asks, "Blast you, woman! Will I ever be free of you?" Looking up at him eye-to-eye, Lola says what they both know - "We just belong to each other". She’s coming with him and they stand arm in arm as the train roars in. "The future was upon us." A somewhat rushed finale perhaps, but it doesn’t mar this exceptional love story, which moves me every time I read it.

Posted: February 10, 2008

The original version of this article appeared in the last official issue of Jack Kirby Quarterly published by Christine Harper in a limited edition.

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