The Simon & Kirby Superheroes (Titan Books)

This follow-up to The Best of Simon & Kirby collects the famed Captain America creators’ non-Marvel/DC superhero work from the 1940s and 50s, including such classics as The Fly, Captain 3-D, and The Fighting American.

480 pgs., color; $49.95
(W: Joe Simon; A: Jack Kirby)
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby should need no introduction to anyone remotely interested in comics: they not only established many conventions of the superhero comic (with Captain America being their best-known creation) but also created the first romance comic, were pioneers in the horror genre, and worked prolifically in various other genres including crime, westerns and humor. Now Titan Books is publishing a multi-volume authorized edition of their work: volume 1, The Best of Simon and Kirby (nominated for an Eisner and two Harvey awards), covered their Marvel and DC creations while volume 2, The Simon & Kirby Superheroes, features their superhero comics created for other publishers.
There’s no Captain America in The Simon & Kirby Superheroes but there’s plenty of other crusaders, caped and otherwise: The Black Owl (3 stories), Stuntman (10 stories, 1 of which was previously unpublished), The Vagabond Prince (3 stories, 1 of which was previously unpublished), Captain 3-D (3 stories), The Fighting American (26 stories, 1 of which was previously unpublished), Private Strong (8 stories) and The Fly (7 stories). The quality of the reproductions is great (art restoration and new colors by Harry Mendryk) and the large format (11.1 by 7.9 inches) presents the comics in their original size, so this collection is the next best thing to having the actual comics in hand.
Reading these stories is a little like traveling backwards in a time machine: they have a certain innocence that contrasts with the intellectualized and ironic tendencies which characterize much popular culture today. It’s as if Simon and Kirby were utterly lacking in self-consciousness and were not afraid to present stories in which good, in the guise of clean-cut American values, always triumphed. Of course there’s also a lot of unfortunate gender and ethnic stereotyping and no one would want to live in such a simplistic world anyway, but you have to keep in mind the period in which these comics were created (1940-1959) and discount their flaws accordingly.
Working for smaller publishers allowed Simon and Kirby more freedom to try different ideas, and if none of the superheroes in this collection caught on in a big way, the comics are still a lot of fun to read. There’s something charming about the way big ideas and historical references are unabashedly packaged for popular consumption in these pages. Could anyone begin a comic today as Simon does the first issues of The Vagabond Prince: “Like the living things they are cities spread and grow…and the original settlement becomes the city slum…” or make the recovery of Excalibur the focus of an irony-free story? Or build a series around an idea as endearingly loopy as Captain 3-D (who is released from the page when you look at him with 3-D glasses)? Or center an episode around a washed-up vaudevillian taking revenge on the world, as does Marco the Hypnotist in an episode of The Fly?
Kirby’s art is as action-packed in these pages as in his better-known work: the characters seem to burst out of the frames, and all his heroes seem to be ready to enter a bodybuilding contest (we even see the Fighting American training with weights in one episode and advising a skinny young mugging victim to do likewise). The women are equally bursting out of their sweaters, which probably did not hurt sales among young men past the “girls have cooties” stage of life. Kirby’s art shows that he has a sense of humor as well: how else can we take creations such as “Doubleheader” (one guy with two heads—seriously!) or the roly-poly villain “Round Robin”?
The only unfortunate thing about this collection is the price tag ($49.95), although that works out to less than a dollar a story and you get two essays by Jim Simon, an introduction by Neil Gaiman and some bonus cover art in the bargain. You can see some previews from The Simon & Kirby Superheroes at | Sarah Boslaugh

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