Gagne Restores Simon & Kirby's "Young Romance"

Michel Gagne is perhaps best known to comic fans for his contributions to the "Flight" anthologies which were collected into "The Saga of Rex" and published by Image Comics in 2010. He has also published, through his own imprint, Gagne International Press, a number of books and comics including "ZED" -- the tenth and final issue of which comes out later this year -- and illustrated "Batman: Spore" in "Detective Comics."

Gagne is also a trained animator who has worked on films like "An American Tail," "The Land Before Time," "The Iron Giant," "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille." His most recent project is "Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet," a downloadable video game which has been nominated for a number of awards and was named by numerous critics and fans as one of the best games of 2011.

The artist/writer's latest print project is "Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics." The book, which is out now from Fantagraphics, offers a selection of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's work in the romance genre. Besides being a must-read for fans of both the genre and creators, the book also shows the growth of Kirby's skill as an artist and also demonstrate the changes that the implementation of the Comics Code Authority forced on those working in comics at the time.

Gagne spoke with CBR News about "Young Romance" and his own passion for the stories it contains, which led to him editing the book and restoring the comics for new and existing fans to enjoy.

CBR News: You wrote in the afterward to "Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics" about how you knew Simon and Kirby's careers and influence, but you were unfamiliar with their romance work until recent years. After reading some of these stories, what was it that captured your imagination so strongly that made you want to assemble a book?

Michel Gagne: I grew up reading Jack Kirby comics, so I've been a fan pretty much my whole life. Through the years, I've been hearing how he co-created the romance comics genre, with Joe Simon, back in the nineteen forties. The Simon and Kirby romance comics were always a mystery to me because I'd never read them, and I'd only seen a few covers. Once Greg Theakson started reprinting a few of the stories in his "Jack Kirby's Reader" collections, I realized how strong this material was. I applaud Theakson for helping to keep the Simon and Kirby legacy alive. I came in contact with the work of Simon and Kirby through his books.

As for the material itself, I love the fact that there is no action and that everything is in the acting and the staging. Kirby was a natural born visual storyteller, and his talent is certainly on display here. You could teach a class on comic book storytelling using the "Young Romance" stories as examples. I'm not a romance comic buff per se, but I have to admit, this stuff is not only captivating, it is definitely worth preserving.

You described restoring these comics as a "hobby" for many years, but what made you decide to take the next step and compile the restored comics into a book?

In 2002, after buying a book of reprint of old classic comics, from Chris Fama (a restoration artist who has done work for Marvel and "The Jack Kirby Collector"), I was inspired and got the bug to do my own restoration project. I wanted public domain material that had not been reprinted and that I consider of great importance to the field. After toying with a few ideas, the Simon and Kirby romance quickly became a no-brainer. The vast majority of these stories have never been reprinted and the original comics are all but gone.

So in 2003, I created a folder on my computer called "The Simon and Kirby Romance Project." Like a snowball, the project kept getting bigger and bigger. It was one of those things you have on the back burner for years and you constantly have to give it some attention. Finding the materiel was difficult and costly, the restoration process was long and tedious, but the book kept looking better all the time so I stayed motivated throughout. I wanted that book on my shelf!

What were the major challenges as far as the restoration process was concerned? What were you trying to achieve as far as the coloring and the design?

I get frustrated when I see restoration of old comics that are so digitally altered and modernized with garish colors, that they hardly have any connection left with the original material.

For my project, I wanted to keep the integrity of the source material. I made a huge effort to stay true to the look of the comics printed on newsprint while restoring the inks to their original vibrancy and repairing color misalignments. I wanted the pages to look like they were scanned from a mint, right-off-the-press comic. The process was done over several years in my spare time, mainly from 2003 to 2007.

The final book is an overview of their career, covering the comics Simon and Kirby did from 1947-1959. Why was it important for you that the book cover that entire period they worked on romance comics?

It is very interesting to follow the evolutionary style, both in terms of art and writing. Each year is represented in a way that it reveals something about the era. If you take the first and the last story in the book, you'll see a major shift in terms of art, subject matter and writing style. The book is very much a time capsule. Moreover, it is a wonderful showcase of Jack Kirby's constantly evolving artwork. This is some of my favorite Kirby art -- just gorgeous stuff.

How did you decide which stories to include in? Was it as simple as seeing what you could find and what was in the public domain?

After two years, I managed to gather 300 pages of material from comics obtained on eBay, the internet and trade shows. Eventually, I came to a point where I hit a wall. Some of this stuff is extremely rare. Thankfully, in 2005, my search led me to comics collector and friend Bud Plant, who graciously gave me a loan of his beautiful Simon and Kirby romance collection. I scanned a total of 600 pages of material before beginning the editing and restoration process.

I read through all of it, and then I progressively eliminated until I felt I had a representative evolution of their entire output in 200 pages. The final book ended up being 208 pages because of additional material like historical and restoration notes.

Do you have a favorite comic or a favorite period of Simon and Kirby's romance comics?

1949-51 was a high mark, no doubt, but I also enjoy the post code stories. It's all fascinating stuff as far as I'm concerned.

Did you have any difficulty in finding a publisher for the book?

In 2007, I completed the first version of the book and made 20 copies through Print on Demand under my Gagne International Press imprint. I gave these free of charge to friends and peers in the animation and comics industry. Terry Moore ("Strangers in Paradise"), to whom I gave a copy, has told me that it is one of the most cherished books in his collection. As far as I was concerned, the book was published then, albeit on a very small scale.

Before signing the contract with Fantagraphics, I probably made 40 POD copies of the book, with various covers and restoration levels. Each time I made new copies, I made improvements. That's how I kept pushing for better restoration. In that respect, the first POD printing looks quite primitive compared to the final book.

In summer of 2009, I was going down to the San Diego Comic-Con for a signing, so I brought a copy of the book with me to give to publisher Gary Groth. I didn't meet Gary at the con, but I left a book with one of his associate at the Fantagraphics booth.

A week later, I received an email from Gary telling me how much he loved the book and how interested he was in publishing it. He said I must have read his mind because he's always wanted to do a Simon and Kirby romance book. I drove down to the Fantagraphics office in Seattle to meet with him, and we really hit it off. We share very similar views on how to present reprints of old comics.

Teaming up with Fantagraphics has been great. These guys know their stuff and completely respected my vision of the book while adding new ideas like the beautiful cover design by Tony Ong.

Titan Books has been releasing Simon-Kirby books in recent years. Was there any communication between you and them as far as what you're doing here and what they're working on?

No, I haven't had any communication with Titan Books. I heard of the Titan reprint program after I completed the first POD edition of "Young Romance" and was happy to see that I wasn't the only one trying to preserve this work. I hope they are successful. I think Harry Mendryk is amazing at restoring the stuff. I also love Greg Theakson's books and was sad when his Simon and Kirby "Young Love" book was cancelled. There's so much Simon and Kirby stuff to be published. I read somewhere that Jack Kirby penciled around 1800 pages of romance stories!

Finally, Joe Simon died just a short time ago. I'm curious -- were you were able to have any interaction with him while working on "Young Romance" and what that experience was like?

In July 2007, a copy of the first POD printing of the book was sent to Mr. Simon. I was told that he liked it very much, but he never communicated his feelings to me personally. I wish he could have seen the final product. I feel confident he would have loved it. I know I do.

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