Sunday, June 18, 2017
Calling All Newsboys!
Reading Simon and Kirby's Newsboy Legion stories from the pages of 1942's Star Spangled Comics is a refreshing break from the more modern comics reading. No cosmic spectacle, no flourishes of the ultra rich as they use their leisure time to battle crime, but merely low octane fables from the grimy streets of Suicide Slum. Will Eisner gets proper credit and praise for the noir atmosphere of Central City which was filled with denizens of many kinds, but I want to give a shout out here to Simon and Kirby as they give us a rich tapestry of street level life lived by some of the poorest. Kids who dispense justice on the edge of their bony knuckles and adults who seem to be either mired in or overlooking the poverty which defines the territory of these adventures.
The Newsboy Legion seems clearly inspired by the Dead End Kids from many many movies from the 30's and 40's and beyond. The four Newsboys are Gabby - the short dark haired youngster who has a stunning similarity to Richard Nixon, the good looking Tommy - who is sometimes referred to as the leader of the team though I don't seem to get that sense in any of the stories, Big Words - the tallest and oldest member who to my eye is probably at least in part based on Joe Simon himself, and Scrapper - who seems clearly to a combative version of the diminutive Jack Kirby. I got the sense that Big Words and Scrapper were who the Simon and Kirby team were and perhaps the handsome Tommy is what they ideally aspired to be in this imperfect wprld we live in. The four orphans of Suicide Slum get into legal trouble and need the help of beat cop Jim Harper to become their guardian, though his responsibility to the boys seems a little meager on a day to day basis. It's in his secret role as "The Guardian" a rockem' sockem' mystery man who ignites the boy's imaginations as they seem convinced Harper is the hero but aren't ever able to prove it.
The Newsboys have a pretty good reputation in the streets of Suicide Slum and often stand up for the adults who suffer there, distant from the politicians and swells who sometimes rumble down those same streets. Most of the time there are small time gangsters (straight out of the world of Damon Runyon) who sweep up the boys in some scheme and it's up to the Guardian to help them out. The Newsboys are brave and loyal and it's this final trait which helps explain the popularity of the series I think. The gang is true blue to one another and their absolute devotion to one another (sometimes strained by circumstances) seems always to win out. It's a comaraderie that most if not all the boys who read the series would have loved to have been part of.
Joe Simon says in the introduction to the first volume of the Newsboy Legion stories that they grew from an abundance of Boy Commandos material. In anticipation of the duo joining the war effort there was a push to create stories in advance and according to Simon, so much material that it was determined that it was prudent to create another gang of boys for some of it, and so was born the Newsboy Legion. Obviously there was a formula for these kid gang comics, one which Simon and Kirby first implemented with Young Allies at Timely before they contracted with DC. Later they'd apply the formula to Boys' Ranch and Boy Explorers and even aspects of it seep into later individual works like Challengers of the Unknown, Fantastic Four, as well as later material such as The Dingbats and The Green Team.
It's worth noting that the last few issues in this volume feature art by Gil Kane and not Kirby, though Kane is attempting to evoke the free wheeling style the strip has begun with. Likewise as the series continued the artist Arturo Cazeneuve takes the helm with assists on cover art by Fred Ray, Curt Swan, and others. There is a second volume of these stories coming out later this summer and I do plan to get hold of it to check out what becomes of the original Newsboys, despite the tiny amount of Simon and Kirby content.