The Simon & Kirby Superheroes
Review by KC Carlson
It seems like there are a ton of big chunky comic book histories and anthologies out this season, but easily one of the most important is The Simon & Kirby Superheroes. Its nearly 500 pages barely contain what purports to be every superhero story (not published by Timely/Marvel or National/DC Comics) that the legendary creators produced. I’m not an S&K scholar, but I certainly trust editor Steve Saffel — who lives and breathes this stuff!
From the early Black Owl (from Prize Comics in 1940, their first year working together) to The Fly (one of the pantheon of Archie Comics superheroes from 1959), Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s stories define and refine the big-action superhero concept. And yet, these two are just the bookends in this fabulous collection, featuring some of the team’s finest and most celebrated work, including the complete Stuntman, The Vagabond Prince, Captain 3-D, Fighting American, and The Double Life of Private Strong.
The book is also packed with extras, including three complete, unpublished stories: A Stuntman tale (which may not be completely “complete” as the artwork seems to be lacking any solid black areas, although it’s fascinating to study), a Vagabond Prince story, and a Fighting American story originally scheduled to be in the unpublished Harvey Fighting American #2 (which I’m pretty sure wasn’t drawn by Kirby). There are also scattered unpublished covers and splash pages throughout the book. Fascinatingly, the Captain 3-D material, originally printed in 3-D, has been restored to its original line art, published in color for the first time.
Fighting American was my first look at vintage Simon & Kirby work, although I didn’t know it at the time. I purchased the Harvey Comics-produced Fighting American #1 (mostly) reprint compilation off the newsstands in 1966, and while I recognized the homage to Captain America’s classic origin, the bizzaro villains (like the cover-featured Round Robin!) frankly blew my 10-year-old mind. I loved that comic (as well as the rest of the other strange Harvey heroes, some of them developed by Joe Simon). I’m happy to report that all of the various Fighting American material is collected in this volume (and it takes up about half of the book)!
“The Double Life of Private Strong” also holds lots of fascination for me, as I first learned about the character in one of Fred Hembeck’s now-classic Dateline @!!?# strips. I got an itty-bitty look at the real thing when it was once reprinted at microscopic size in an Archie digest. Later, it became infamous for being another in a long line of characters crushed by DC’s lawyers for being too close to Superman. (If anybody should have sued, it should have been the creators of Gomer Pyle.) Archie caved rather than go to court. In fact, Private Strong was actually a new version of MLJ’s Shield character, a patriotic hero predating Simon and Kirby’s Captain America by over a year before. Oh, what a tangled web early comics history is!
Speaking of tangled webs, in some accountings (and disputed in others), elements of Simon and Kirby’s The Fly may or may not have been considered in the early development stages of Spider-Man over at Marvel — the connecting factor being Kirby, who reportedly was involved in the early stages of Spidey development (and penciled the covers to Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1). All the S&K Fly stories are collected here so you can judge for yourself.
The introduction by Neil Gaiman shines a spotlight on Joe Simon and his strangely quirky point of view, specifically his odd characters for DC in the 60s and 70s, some produced with Kirby. Their offbeat Sandman was certainly a major influence on Gaiman’s most important comics work (the unique revival/reinvention of the character) as well as both Brother Power, The Geek and Prez, both of which were also later revived by Gaiman. Jim Simon also provides important historical background on the stories in this volume in an informative essay. (A relation? We don’t know.)
The book itself is a thing of beauty and style. Every page is clear and crisp, while at the same time feeling very authentic, thanks to art restoration and new coloring by Harry Mendryk, a huge Simon & Kirby fan. Here’s a great interview with Mendryk where he discusses his techniques for working on this project. and he also blogs extensively at The Jack Kirby Museum.
Some of this material has been reprinted elsewhere over the years, but The Simon & Kirby Superheroes is the only edition authorized by both Joe Simon and the estate of Jack Kirby, with materials gathered from the official Simon and Kirby archives. It’s also the best presentation and reproduction that this material has ever seen.
It should be noted that the book is presented in a special 11 3/4″ by 7 1/2” hardcover format so that the pages can be displayed at their original published size, which is significantly larger than current comic books. The book is also printed on high-quality, dense, matte paper, with absolutely no bleed-through. Not only will you see this book nominated for “best reprint project” at next year’s various comics achievement awards, you’ll also see it given the nod for “best presentation”.
Best thing of all about this book — it’s the first in a series of Simon & Kirby “genre” collections, following after Titan’s earlier Best of Simon & Kirby. Titan Books has already announced follow-ups for S&K romance, crime, and horror anthologies, as well as a new history/autobiography of Simon — Joe Simon: The Man Behind the Comics. (The publisher provided a review copy.)