Steve Saffel has a long resume as a writer, an editor and a marketing consultant including many years working at Marvel Comics. It was at Marvel that he first met Joe Simon, the legendary creator who with Jack Kirby was responsible for “Captain America,” “Boy’s Ranch” and many other titles.
Titan Books has just released “The Best of Simon and Kirby,” a gorgeous collection of remastered stories from the comics team that Saffel edited, with essays by Mark Evanier. This is the first of many volumes from Titan reprinting the complete library of work by the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Also editing Simon’s autobiography that’s scheduled for release next year, Steve Saffel took time out to talk to CBR News about “The Best of Simon and Kirby” and working with the 95-year-old Joe Simon.
CBR: How did you become involved in the Simon-Kirby Library?
STEVE SAFFEL: Joe and I had known each other for quite a few years. We met while I was at Marvel and we kept in touch on and off over the years. At one point Joe was saying that he really wanted to get a little more energy going with publishing his stuff and the stuff that he and Jack did. We got together and sent a number of proposals out to publishers. One of the publishers who expressed very strong interest was Titan Books and the owners of Titan, Nick Landau and Vivian Cheung, came to visit Joe and began working on details to allow the Titan Books imprint to publish the Simon and Kirby library.
One aspect people may be surprised by is that Joe Simon and Simon and Kirby own so much of the material they created, which correct if I’m wrong, was very unusual?
Joe had the sense to either register, retake or retain copyrights for many years. It was in many ways Joe’s business acumen that sent Simon and Kirby to the top at the very beginning. Joe was able to work with the publishers on deals that were perhaps a little bit better than what some other creators got at the time.
In addition to the work they own, there’s also a number of stories in this volume from Marvel and DC. Was it a challenge to obtain the rights?
It wasn’t because of their respect for Joe and Jack. Both Marvel and DC were very gracious and very supportive in putting together this book.
DC is also in the process of a multiyear project of reprinting their library of Jack Kirby’s work, including “The Demon,” ‘The Fourth World Saga” and other titles.
They’ve done quite a bit of Kirby over the years and it’ll be interesting to see how much of the Simon and Kirby they decide to publish as well.
And as far as Marvel, the original Captain America stories have been reprinted, but they’re not always easy to find.
Marvel has “Captain America by Simon and Kirby” out there. I actually debated a bit whether we should go for some of the more obscure materials or whether we should go for Captain America. The more we thought about it the more we realized that if we’re going to call it the “Best of Simon and Kirby” we really ought to show their first great hit, which was Cap, and it would be most exciting to the readers to see the first appearance of the Red Skull as well.
Why did you chose to include the story but not the now iconic cover of the first issue, which features Captain America punching Adolf Hitler?
Part of the reason is again that it is iconic and also very available in many, many places. We really went through certain select pieces by Marvel and DC but we didn’t really seek to put too much of that material in there because we wanted to show people the exciting stuff that they haven’t seen. A lot of people don’t realize the full scope of what Simon and Kirby were able to do.
Was it a challenge finding great stories that were representative of their work in each genre and also the breadth of their careers?
The challenge was limiting it to what we could publish in a single book. I think the greatest goal of the collection was the reader’s experience. What would the reader get out of reading this book? And part of that has got to be really enjoy the stories that are included. With Simon and Kirby, there was no problem finding stories, the trouble was choosing what stories to run. I don’t think it’s actually possible for anyone to ever agree on what is the best. We just wanted to give a sampling that we could be confident is among the best comic book material ever published.
They had their first million-seller with Captain America by putting Adolf Hitler on the cover and helping the world realize that he was the world’s best supervillain. Then they turned around and their next million-seller had no costumed characters whatsoever, Boy Commandos. Their next million-seller was the most unlikely thing you could have imaged from the people who created Captain America and Boy Commandos, Young Romance, which created an entire genre within the medium and sold millions and spawned hundreds of imitators.
Future volumes in the series will reprint specific genres, superheroes and romance and westerns. Will the material in the “Best Of” volume be reprinted in those collections?
Possibly. With the superheroes, almost certainly, because we’re going to print all their non-Marvel and non-DC superhero work. Whereas in Romance we counted it up recently and Joe and Jack themselves, just the two of them collaborating, did more than a thousand pages of romance stories.
One of the most interesting stories in the book, which also had a fascinating story behind it, was from “Stuntman.” Could you talk a little about that short-lived series?
That was from a very unusual time in the comic book medium. Comics were still selling reasonably well, but there was a glut. There was a huge challenge in just getting “Stuntman” to the newsstands. It was when Joe and Jack first came back from the war and was some of their best work. They really were doing absolutely brilliant work and it was neat being able to have Joe recount exactly how he and Jack would work together. Working with Joe was an astonishing experience. Sitting there working hand in hand with him on this book is something I could never in my life have imagined.
Tell us about working with Titan. Were they as passionate about “The Best of Simon and Kirby” as you are?
Absolutely. Titan is not a small publisher. The fact that they can pay so much attention to one project is really pretty amazing. Nick Landau, the owner of Titan, is working with us to say, “Was this the greatest stuff we could have in each genre? Was this best? What about this one?” All the way down the line. The designer and I are going back and forth constantly between here and London. The head of production at Titan put such an amazing effort into seeing through the reproduction. There’s an amount of artistry that went into this book that people would never realize was there and it wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t have a publishing house that cared so much about this book.
How involved was the process in terms of coloring and reproduction?
We determined what the experience needed to be, to take a reader back in time and make it feel as if they had just bought this comic book. Not only to reproduce the comic book as it was, to reproduce it as it should be. Removing all of the flaws in the printing and just doing everything you can to reproduce that comic book page exactly as it would have been; if every comic book that Simon and Kirby ever put out had been printed perfectly. Then to work with the design people and make sure that we come up with the right design for the entire book. Then to work with the production manager who’s choosing the paper, and who’s choosing the printer based on knowledge of what those people could do.
Lo and behold, when we walked into Joe’s apartment and handed him the first copy of the advance copies off the press he opened it up and immediately said, oh my god, the color. He loved it. I told the people at Titan, the only thing that they had to answer for was the fact that Joe said he was going to stay up all night reading the book. The next day he said, not only did I stay up all last night reading it, I’m going to do it again tonight.
The color is what people will notice, which I’m sure was a special challenge along with finding the right paper to absorb the ink and show it off.
They chose this paper for what it would do with the color. We had seen other books that had similar types of reproduction but had seen the color fade and we had elements that we didn’t want to see get washed out. At the same time, some of the Simon and Kirby stories had very, very dark coloring and those proved a challenge, working on individual figures to make sure that the detail would appear. After all, this is Simon and Kirby, you want to get all of the detail.
People are sure to be curious what it’s like working with Joe Simon. Was it intimidating?
It’s not really intimidating. Joe is a very strong personality and that’s what got him through all of the decades in publishing. He has strong feelings, strong ideas, strong commitments to what he thinks are the right things. He’s very sharp. He’s good with details that other people miss, myself included. Working with Joe keeps you on your game, but it’s also a great deal of fun. The thing is, work is such an important part of his life, it’s really terrific to be working with him and seeing him as sharp as ever.
Joe Simon isn’t as well known as Kirby because unlike Kirby, who was working in comics until the end of his life, much of Simon’s comics work is pre-1960. What else has Simon done in his career?
Joe did a lot of work in advertising. He did some fine art. He did a lot of things that a lot of other people in comics didn’t do at the time. And then he did some work at DC bringing back “Black Magic” and creating some new concepts. Not long after that he did some collections of material like “Boys Ranch” and the “Fighting American.” He worked with his son Jim on “The Comic Book Makers.” He’s been working a lot over all of those years. For a number of years, Joe did some wonderful recreations of Captain America, the Fly, Adventure Comics.
And he’s still drawing at 95?
I was up at his place when CNN came in to do a filmed piece on him about older persons who still work. He was doing a sketch for the camera and watching his hands and the steadiness with which he drew was just fabulous. There are a lot of people half his age who can’t do as well as he can.
The grammar of comics has changed over the years but the stories in the book don’t read like most work from the forties or the fifties. The work is very much ahead of its time.
What I think is interesting is you can see influences over the years that a lot of people don’t realize. I have wondered and I’d love to see if anyone could confirm this or not if people working on “The Twilight Zone” including Rod Serling were reading “Black Magic.” I saw two or three parallels and I wondered is there somebody out there who was reading this. You see a lot of that in the Simon and Kirby stuff. There was a lot in there that was very cutting edge and still is.
The “Captain America” cover with Hitler, a lot of people forget it was published the year before Pearl Harbor. It was and is a rousing patriotic image, but it was a bit more complicated than that, given Simon and Kirby’s Jewish backgrounds.
One of the reasons it worked was that the United States as a nation was beginning to realize how dangerous Hitler and the Nazis were. Joe has often said that he never looked at himself as being a Jewish comic book creator. He was simply a comic book guy and Jack was a comic book guy. They weren’t strongly Jewish. They were adventure storytellers. As a result it resonated with an entire nation that was coming to realize the nature of Adolf Hitler, and so it wasn’t the politics of a cultural group, it was the politics of an entire nation.
For everyone who reads “The Best of Simon & Kirby” and wants more, what’s the publishing schedule going to be? Is the plan to release the second volume next year?
We’ve been working on the best format and the best bang for the buck. We’re very conscious of, in this day and age, that the reader really is choosing carefully what they spend their money on. That’s why “The Best of Simon and Kirby” is such a huge and ambitious project for such an inexpensive price. We have a lot of people who are astonished that they can get such great material and spend so little money on it and we’re going to look to expand upon that and yet not repeat ourselves. So we’re going to have an announcement about the next book. It looks to be 2010.