I will hold up my hand and admit it: up until now, the only Joe Simon and Jack Kirby collaboration that I’d ever read was their work on “Captain America.” With Titan Books’ “The Best of Simon and Kirby” now out, though, I’m just starting to learn how much more the two of them worked on together. “The Best of Simon and Kirby” is a beautiful oversized hardcover that acts as a huge showcase of their works, and in a great number of genres.
The characters that today’s readers will be the most familiar with are the obvious: Captain America, Fighting American, Sandman. In some ways, though, those stories are the most surprising in this title. The appearance of the Red Skull with Captain America, for instance, is a very different Red Skull than modern readers might be used to. Sandman goes up against Norse gods, but not in the way that you’d expect. With one exception, all of these superhero stories are grounded in reality, with strange beings and appearances coming down to a combination of masks and trickery. Some of the other superhero stories here are characters that are a bit more forgotten with the ages; with a circus aerialist becoming known as Stuntman, for instance, it’s a strange combination of cheesy and amusing, but also hard to see just how it could continue to keep a reader’s interest.
The science-fiction stories reproduced here were actually my favorites in the entire book. There’s a story about a hero named Blue Bolt that reminded me in terms of style of the old Flash Gordon stories, and in the best possible way. It’s got crazy science, alien armies, and even romance all packed into just ten pages. I found myself really wanting to read more Blue Bolt, and this was when I started really getting into this compilation. The science-fiction stories aren’t afraid to slightly mix genres either; a story titled “The Thing on Sputnik 4” owes as much to horror conventions as science-fiction, and would have been just at home in a title like “House of Mystery.”
The only section that really didn’t work for me was, sadly, the war and adventure stories. The majority of the selections here seemed to break away too much from the style I was expecting, often breaking the fourth wall and going for strange gags. And honestly, if I never read a Boy Commandos story again, it will be too soon; I’ve never been terribly fond of the Newsboy Legion, and having them go to war was just too painful to even try and explain other than saying that I can see why once the war was over, sales quickly declined with those stories.
Fortunately, there’s still a lot of other genres represented here. The two romance stories here are old fashioned yet entrancing, and how can you not resist a romance story titled, “The Savage in Me,” anyway? The horror and western stories are good too, and the oversized format (plus art restoration) makes these pages look absolutely gorgeous. Both Kirby and Simon have a larger than life, bold look to their art in these pages, and the images fairly pop off the pages.
Best of all, though? Each section of the book is introduced with an essay by Mark Evanier, who talks about the stories in historical context and how they were produced. I found myself a little more forgiving of the war and adventure stories, for instance, when I discovered that they’d stockpiled comics by rushing them through the system for when the comics creators would end up being drafted into World War II. It’s these sort of little facts that make the stories more interesting from a comics history perspective, and that’s exactly the sort of way a book like this should operate.
I feel a little bad that I’ve been so unfamiliar with just how many different titles Simon and Kirby collaborated on, but I’ve seen the error of my ways. With high production values and great interiors, this is a book for any serious lover of comics to have proudly placed on their bookshelf.