Understanding Kirby #1 - Young Romance #13 "Sailor's Girl"

For Jack Kirby's Centennial year, I will be taking a dive into his comics and trying to figure out what a Jack Kirby comic really is.  We'll start this monthly series with a look at a Joe Simon & Jack Kirby romance comic.  "Sailor's Girl" can be found in Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics from Fantagraphics.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s “Sailor’s Girl” (Young Romance #13, 1949) shows the development of Kirby’s art that would in over 10 years later become the foundation of superhero comics but this is well before that. Having moved on from the success of creating Captain America and a few other ultimately less-successful superheroes, Simon and Kirby turned their attention to the newly developing romance comic genre. Among the gooey eyes and puppy-dog innocent expressions of these romance comics, “Sailor’s Girl” features gods and storms and gives a hint at the Kirby to come. The story explores a quaint idea of the push and pull of love and danger of two young lovers trying to deny who one of them is in the name of romance

In this story, a young woman falls in love with a fishing boat sailor and tries to convince him to give up a life at sea to be with her. Simon and Kirby’s 1950ish concept of love and romance is incredibly old-fashioned by today’s standards. Most of the Young Romance stories revolve around a young, lovestruck woman who needs to be “saved” by a stoic and strong man. It’s kind of amazing to think of how many variations on this theme that they could come up with. “Sailor’s Girl” Sari is the lovestruck woman here, falling for the rugged Red, a man whose heart belongs on the rough waters as much as, if not more than, it does to her.

It’s interesting to look at Kirby’s artwork here and compare it to his contemporaries, particularly the EC crew. Kirby doesn’t have the draftsmanship of a Wally Wood or Al Williamson or the sly characteristics of Al Feldstein or a Graham Engels. But what Kirby shows in his Young Romance work is the drama of every panel and every action. Red and Sari’s story really amounts to can they be happy even as Sari is trying to fundamentally change who Red is. She takes this rough-and-tumble sailor and turns him into a suit-wearing executive. She recasts him in her image a successful man and he goes along with it because he loves her. Simon and Kirby’s stories here aren’t particularly deep or nuanced.

The way that Sari clings to Red will be the way that a decade later Sue Storm will cling to Reed Richards in issues of Fantastic Four. Simon and Kirby create this dynamic between the characters that as they share panels, there’s an energy between the characters filled with the love and care or even the anger that they feel. As you think about how Marvel’s superheroes would develop in the 1960s differently than what came before them, it’s all about relationships of the characters and the tension between them. Kirby here already displays that ability to create that emotional connection between the characters.

And then even without the superheroes that would define his career, “Sailor’s Girl” shows Kirby’s ability to make every moment this big, dramatic beat in his stories. Whether it’s Sari’s professing her love to Red or her father (Red’s boss) getting the call that one of his ships is in danger because of a huge storm, Kirby shows that in 1949 he was already able to construct panels and pages that wring the drama out of the moment. And that’s what he would bring to his later work. This isn’t the story of heroes or gods but to Simon and Kirby, the stakes of safety and romance are just as important to their storytelling.

Kirby even uses proto-Kirby crackle here to show the power of the sea. Made up of swirling, black waves, the storm and the sea is a display of power in a romance comic. A lot of Simon and Kirby’s romance comics are about the women learning “lessons” due to the stoic nature of their men but there’s not a lot of physical danger in these stories. “Sailor’s Girl” combines emotional stakes and physical danger to create a story that hints at the language of comics that Kirby will develop in the 1960s.

Maybe it’s weird to read an old romance comic and try to relate it to superhero comics but that actually feels like a good spot to start in trying to figure out Kirby because it does take the costumes and the fantasy out of it. And among a lot of the romance comics, “Sailor’s Girl” feels like pure Kirby because it features all of the drama and adventure of his later work in a more realistic, if not more melodramatic, setting.

Next month I'll be looking at Jack Kirby's Marvel monster comics.