The names Joe Simon and Jack Kirby are widely regarded as legendary in the context of comic book history. Either in collaboration or independently, these men were responsible for creating some of the best-known superheroes. Starting in the earliest days of comics, they also wrote and illustrated a multitude of titles that covered every major comic book genre.
In acknowledgment of the achievements of Simon and Kirby, Titan Books is preparing a series of retrospectives that will chart their history and celebrate their work. These books will form The Official Simon and Kirby Library, the first volume of which, The Best of Simon and Kirby, is now available.
Joseph Simon and Jack Kirby (whose real name was Jacob Kurtzberg) were born in New York in 1913 and 1917, respectively. The early years of their work coincided with the so-called Golden Age of Comics and their contribution to that period and beyond was enormous. Some of their earliest collaborations came at Marvel Comics’ predecessor Timely Comics, where they created Captain America (first published in 1941). Later they would contribute â€“ individually or as a team â€“ to the creation of other publications and characters, including the magazine Sick and the iconic superheros The Hulk, The Fantastic Four and X-Men. They would also work for Marvel’s chief rival, DC Comics, producing various titles that included the popular Boy Commandos.
The seemingly boundless energy and creativity of Simon and Kirby ensured that they were also responsible for producing many characters that are less well-known today. Those creations are nonetheless charming footnotes in the annals of comic book history. They include Stuntman (below), Fighting American, The Fly and the supernatural superhero The Vision. Some of these had more verve than substance, but they were essential to the development of superheros in general and reflect an age more interested in adventure than angst. Simon and Kirby didn’t restrict themselves to heroes, either. They effectively invented the romance comic book and contributed, with varying commercial success, to the science fiction, horror, war, western and humor genres.
The Best of Simon and Kirby is a large format, 240-page hardback book that provides a snapshot of the titular pair’s work in all of the major genres to which they contributed. It is lavishly illustrated with reproductions of titles from the 1940s to the 1960s. The pages from those comics have been restored by Simon and Kirby historian Harry Mendryk and compiled by Simon’s friend Steve Saffel. All of the books to come in The Official Simon and Kirby Library have been authorized by Joe Simon and the estate of Jack Kirby, who sadly died in 1994.
Simon himself provides the Introduction to The Best of Simon and Kirby. In it he recounts personal anecdotes of his early meetings with Kirby and their subsequent collaboration. His comments show clear affection for his former partner. Of a young Kirby he says, “[he] was twenty-two years old, short and handsome, a slave to the Chinese danish.” He says that when he first saw Kirby’s art he felt that he would be proud to add his name to it. He also describes how Kirby was put to work during World War Two “painting clinical watercolors of patients’ frostbitten feet.” How glamorous is the life of an artist? The Introduction also includes some of the fabulous artwork that Simon and Kirby produced. This includes fabulous double-page spreads from Stuntman and The Kid Cowboys of Boys’ Ranch.
Titan has done an excellent job of encasing this work in a cover that does justice to the material inside. The dust cover features a montage of Simon and Kirby characters, with Fighting American comin’ at ya in dramatic fashion on the front.Â On the inside flaps of the dustcover are brief biographies of Simon and Kirby, while the back cover features quotes by a variety of well known science fiction and comic book writers, including Stan Lee, Will Eisner and Harlan Ellison.Â On the hardback cover of the book itself is the aforementioned double-page spread from Stuntmen. It’s an action-packed image that wraps around the entire cover and is all the more exciting in its enlarged form.
The superhero characters, as represented in The Best of Simon and Kirby, are not as sophisticated as those in many of today’s graphic novels. Moreover, the Western tales reflect an age when historical accuracy was of less concern than entertainment value, the romance and horror stories are tame and the pre-spaceflight sci-fi is imaginatively absurd. It is charming material, nonetheless, and no less enjoyable for being dated. Indeed, the characteristics that would be considered weaknesses today mark these works as of historical significance. They are indicative of the age in which the stories were written and of the market they were written for. These comics were intended as uplifting escapism, particularly during World War Two and the Cold War. In those days they served to keep up spirits and promote patriotism. Captain America and Fighting American were particularly potent symbols when their fists were flying at Nazi and Soviet agents.
Because early comic book stories had to be short, the writers sometimes had to resort to incredible leaps of happenstance in order to get the heroes where they needed to be. They were similar, therefore, to the B-grade movies that were popular in the years that the stories in The Best of Simon and Kirby were published. This approach ensured, however, that the tales in this book were dynamic and exciting . Those qualities were enhanced by the dramatic illustrations and striking colors that grace their pages. They look like today’s high-definition animated features without the high definition.
This review and the book it covers can only hint at how prolific Simon and Kirby’s output was. The Best of Simon and Kirby is a must for anyone interested in comic book history who doesn’t have this material already and wants an introduction to that output.Â With their simple thrills, vibrant colors and dynamic energy, the stories are also sure to excite young readers. This title is therefore highly recommended.