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Graphic Novel Friday: Discussing The Best of Simon and Kirby with Editor Stephen W. Saffel

Somehow it seems appropriate to go retro-classic on Memorial Day weekend--and what could be more retro-classic, and classy, than Titan Books' just-released The Best of Simon and Kirby, a treasury of some of the greatest Golden Age comics from Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jacky Kirby?

Not to mention, this book is flat-out beautiful, with a wrap-around reproduction of pages from "Stuntman: The Rescue of Robin Hood" printed on the boards, in addition to the Captain America dustjacket. The end papers feature a wonderful bar fight panorama, rendered in a blue just light enough to make the scene fade into a kind of chaotic pattern appropriate for its decorative purpose, but also just dark enough to be enjoyed in its details, too. I collect a variety of first- and limited-edition books, and it takes a lot for me to be impressed, but The Best of Simon and Kirby just has that special something in the execution that makes my brain tingle.

As for the content, an introduction by Simon is followed by eight sections: The Heroes, Way Out Science Fiction, War and Adventure, The Birth of Romance, Crime Drama, The Great Western, Oh! The Horror, and Sick Humor. The selections are generous, the reproductions in fully-restored, glorious color, each panel seeming to leap off the page. Each section is prefaced by a short intro, and a Simon and Kirby Checklist ends the book, providing readers with the details of all comics created by the two men during the years of their collaboration.

Clearly, Titan Books has made this project a labor of love and dedication--an instantly collectible book that any comics enthusiast should consider for his or her library. I would be very surprised (and disappointed) if it doesn't appear on award ballots.

It seemed appropriate, then, to interview the book's editor, Stephen W. Saffel, who played a significant role in the creation of The Best of Simon and Kirby. Saffel's passion for Simon and Kirby's work comes through in his thoughtful answers, which he sent to me recently via email.

 Bestofsimonkirby For those readers who may not know, what is your background in editing and comics?

Stephen W. Saffel: My first editorial gig was as a magazine editor for Marvel, and that's where I met Joe Simon, commissioning him to ink a John Byrne cover for the Captain America Collectors Preview and profiling him in that mag. After Marvel I moved on to Random House, where I was an editor at Del Rey Books, with a list that included original science fiction, fantasy, horror, and alternate history, and licensed fiction and nonfiction that included Star Wars, Halo, Spider-Man, and more. I'm an editor for Titan Books, working on fiction, nonfiction, and the Official Simon and Kirby Library, and on a freelance basis I work with authors including David Morrell, Greg Bear, and Robert Kiyosaki. What made Simon and Kirby's collaborations so unique or special from a creative standpoint?

Saffel: Because they both could work in any discipline--writing, penciling, inking, etc.--their efforts merged effortlessly, and often you can't tell which results are Joe and which are Jack. And when they did collaborate, it seemed almost telepathic--their ability to determine exactly what a story needed to be better than what they started out with.

They also had an astonishing grasp of what the audience wanted, and how to deliver in a way that set the standard. Their first hit was Captain America, and the breakthrough was understanding that the greatest villain of all was Hitler. Their second blockbuster wasn't a costumed here, but the Boy Commandos--a military feature, and the next time they had a million-seller, it was to create the romance comic book. No other team could have so brilliantly spanned the genres, at the same time setting the bar for everyone else. What kind of influence did they have on other creators?

Saffel: Their dynamic style had an immediate effect--the story is that while Archie's comic The Shield preceded Captain America, once Cap came out Goldwater demanded, "Why can't the Shield look like this?" And soon thereafter he offered to pay Simon and Kirby more than they were making at Timely, but to no avail.

On a different level, the Simon and Kirby romance comics resulted in an entire new genre for the comic book medium, and led to hundreds of imitators. However, none of them achieved the level of quality inherent to Simon and Kirby. Often the artists were uncomfortable with the material, and didn't turn in the best work. Mark Evanier reveals in the book that Kirby said it perfectly: "You shouldn't do a comic if you're not prepared to give it your all." What's the lasting legacy of the work featured in the book?

Saffel: The thing we hope for the most is to entertain the readers. There's an incredible wealth of explosive action, fantastic characters, record-breaking hits, and brilliant stories and artwork in The Best of Simon and Kirby. If the reader only buys this book, they will have stuff they can read again and again, and it will never grow old. Beyond that, this book is a reminder that Joe and Jack never rested on their laurels. They came out of the Depression Era, and actively participated in World War II. They needed to make a living, and they did so by producing brilliant work, and breaking through into new things every time the business called for it. How did you become involved in this project?

Saffel: As I mentioned, I've known Joe for years. As our friendship grew, he expressed the desire to get some new publishing in the works, and since I have a background in the industry, I reached out to a number of publishers. Ultimately it was Nick Landau of Titan Books who responded with the most enthusiasm--more enthusiasm than you can imagine--and a seven-book deal was crafted between Joe and Titan, with active participation by the Kirby Estate. What was the hardest part of putting the book together?

Saffel: Choosing the "best." Truth to tell, there could be a ten-book "Best of Simon and Kirby," and there would still be people who thought we'd missed something. But we had to come up with something that was going to send shivers down the spine of the reader, and we only had so many pages in which to do it. So under Joe's direction, and with massive input from Harry Mendryk and Nick Landau, we pulled together that we hope is a pivotal book. What was the most fun?

Saffel: All of it. Honestly. It's always fun working with Joe, who lives to work, and loves every minute of it. Harry is a wizard in restoring the artwork, and it's never been done better. And the entire Titan Books team--Katy Wild, David Barraclough, Jennifer Eiss, Jamie Boardman, Martin Stiff, Bob Kelly and the rest--were wonderful. They put so much blood, sweat, and tears into the book that when Joe got his first copy, he was leafing through, then he looked up. Pointing at the page, he said "there's real love in here." He was right, and that love of a wonderful book is what makes it all worthwhile. What do you hope readers take from the experience of reading the book?

Saffel: I hope it's as entertaining as we hoped it would be. Harry and I agree adamantly that we want the reader to know what it felt like to pick up a pristine copy of Blue Bolt back in 1940--or Black Magic in 1950, or Fighting American in 1954, or Race for the Moon in 1958--and read the stories for the first time, just as they appeared in the comics (though with better printing and paper). That's what I got from Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes, back when it could be published with the stories intact, and that's what I hope people get out of The Best of Simon and Kirby.


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Eeeek! My geek cred it shot. But I'm going to leave it as-is, with your corrective.

Hey, Jeff,
I'm fighting my comic-geek instincts here, but they won out.
If that image is the book jacket of which you speak, it's not Captain America. It's the Fighting American. The Fighting American was a later creation of Simon & Kirby and was a commie-smashing parody of the good Captain. The series didn't last long, as I remember.

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