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A Return to the Classics

Editor Steve Saffel has been working in the industry for decades, working behind the scenes for both Marvel and DC. His work has helped him make several important connections, and those connections were integral to his epic new release, The Best of Simon and Kirby. This career-spanning tome reprints some of the defining comics the legendary team produced more than half a century ago, comprising an astounding range of work for a multitude of publishers. Collecting them all in one volume—and giving them the lush, gorgeous colors and paper quality they deserve—was no easy task. Here, Saffel explains how the project came together.

What’s your first memory of the work of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby?
I didn’t know it at the time, but the origin of Captain America in Tales of Suspense #63 was based directly on the story by Joe and Jack. Then Marvel began to reprint Golden Age stories, and once again I didn’t realize it was Simon and Kirby. It wasn’t until The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer and the ’70s DC reprints of Manhunter, Sandman, Newsboy Legion, and Boy Commandos that I discovered how utterly wonderful the Simon and Kirby storytelling could be. That was the beginning of a life-long addiction.
 
Do you remember the effect it had on you?
I suspect it was the effect Joe and Jack had on everyone—a pure thrill ride. Joe and Jack’s stories were so explosive, so powerful that the action came bursting out of the panels. Captain America had always been a favorite, from the first moment I encountered him (in Tales of Suspense #59), but quickly I discovered that they had a whole universe of characters who were similarly wonderful. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that they elicited that response in everything they did.
 
How would you describe their legacy to someone who isn’t familiar with comics? Can it be overstated?
At every point, Joe and Jack raised the bar. The comics medium had been created, but it hadn’t seen anything like them—and hasn’t since. They took the action and made it burst forth, took basic characters and made them more compelling. They showed what the artwork could do, experimenting with layout and design, creating the idea of the full-page panel or double page spread. Whether superheroes, military adventure, horror, science fiction, or detective stories, they showed how it could be done better. And when the industry was struggling to find the next great thing, they led the way.

I’m convinced that they had a huge influence on other media, too. There are stories in Black Magic—like the beautiful woman in a world of freaks, or the thing outside of the airplane—that make me think someone was reading Simon and Kirby before The Twilight Zone was created. And we know Lenny Bruce was reading Joe Simon’s SICK magazine, where writer Dee Caruso went on to write for Bill Cosby, Jerry Lewis, and Robin Williams.
 
How did you come to be involved with The Best of Simon and Kirby?
I’ve known Joe for years, and a few years ago we talked about approaching various publishers with a couple of different concepts for book publishing. At that point, I was simply acting as a friend with experience within the industry, having worked at both Marvel and Random House. We sent out some proposals and talked with a number of different houses, and it was Titan Books that reacted the most enthusiastically—owners Nick Landau and Vivian Cheung immediately set up meetings with Joe, and over time an agreement was drafted. Since I’ve got some skills on the editing side, I just naturally slipped into that role—all the while having the extraordinary pleasure and wonderful learning experience of working with Joe, the best editor the business has ever seen.
 
What’s your favorite story in this collection?
I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s possible to have one. Because Joe and Jack did so many different kinds of stories, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. What’s more, we didn’t include one of my favorite S&K series—the Newsboy Legion—because we wanted to give the readers the Sandman story that featured Jack’s first version of Thor. Having said all of that, I really love the seminal work they did on Blue Bolt, and I adore the swashbuckling adventure of Stuntman. I’m also particularly partial to the detective stories, because they prove that you don’t need a costumed character to have fist-to-the-jaw action.
 
What went into acquiring the various rights and licenses for this book? How monumental a task was it to get all the things you managed to put inside?
Because Joe was such an excellent businessman, he holds the rights to a tremendous amount of the material you’ve seen, having renewed the copyrights for a lot of key books at pivotal moments in time. The Marvel and DC stories were the main question, and when Paul Levitz at DC and David Bogart at Marvel heard about the nature of the project, they didn’t hesitate for a moment to support Joe in this project. It was absolutely astonishing, and it was all because it was Joe Simon and the actual Kirby estate.
 
Were there stories you wanted to include here but couldn’t?
Definitely. The problem with a “best of” book for Simon and Kirby is that it could be its own 10-book set, they did so much incredible stuff. And with the nature of the economy today, we had to be conscious of creating a book the audience could afford to buy—at $39.95, this is an incredible bargain compared to other books of this sort. So we had to establish a workable page count, and craft a top-notch collection within the parameters. We had a Private Strong adventure set aside, for example, and now we’ll need to wait until the superheroes book to see that one. I would have liked to run one of the longer Boys’ Ranch stories, but had to make sure we had room for Bulls-Eye.
 
How was it working with Mark Evanier on the introductory essays for each section?
There’s not much to tell, because Mark did such a brilliant job, and so effortlessly. We talked about the goal of the introductions, the amount of space we would have, and some key points we would want to touch upon. He wrote the pieces, sent them in, and they were ready to go. He knows this stuff like the back of his hand, and conveys it perfectly. As Joe was reviewing the essays before we approved him, the comment he made the most often was, “This is great writing!”
 
When was the first time you met Joe Simon and Jack Kirby?
I first met Jack at a San Diego Comic-Con, a bunch of years back, and the most I could do was simply thank him for being such a wonderful artist, and for adding to my love of comics so much. Sadly, I didn’t get to know him well—only in passing.

I met Joe about the time he brought Boys’ Ranch and Fighting American to Marvel for hardcover collections. Back when I was editing Marvel’s behind-the-scenes magazines, I commissioned him to ink a John Byrne cover for the Captain America Collectors’ Preview and hired writer Gary Guzzo and photographer Chris Ebel to do a feature on Joe for the magazine. After that, Joe and I just kept in touch, on and off, and over the years we’ve just enjoyed working together. It’s a friendship I could never have imagined, and treasure tremendously.
 
Was it difficult to get Joe to write the introduction to this book?
Not at all. We talked through exactly what we wanted to express, and Joe already had a piece he had written that took the reader intimately into the nature of the Simon and Kirby creative process. He’s currently working on his definitive autobiography, and having heard so much of what’s going to go into that book, I had some ideas for things that might enhance the Stuntman essay, so that it would become even more meaningful to the new reader. Joe agreed, we pulled it together, and it worked perfectly. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to work with Jack Kirby, this is the place to go.
 
What was the restoration process like on this book? Getting these stories back to vivid color and nice publishing quality must have been a big project. How did it go?
Well, first of all, Harry Mendryk is a wizard. He’s been restoring Simon and Kirby stories for years as a personal quest, and that was one of the things that told us we could do this book as brilliantly as it turned out. He’s developed an intuitive way of restoring the stories so that the reader’s experience is the same as it would have been when you picked up a copy of Stuntman #1 or Black Magic #2, right off the newsstand.

From the start, there were pivotal concerns: Would the paper support the amount of ink on the page? Would we be able to avoid having the colors washing out? Would the printer be able to sustain the quality consistently throughout the book?

Because Harry has fixed so many of the original printing flaws, and the Titan team chose the perfect paper and best printer, the experience is even better than it would have been back in 1940, 1950, or 1960. By enlarging the pages, we were able to spotlight the sheer brilliance of the stories in a way that never before would have been possible. The designer, Martin Stiff, was brilliant, and whenever a question would come up about the layout, Joe would just say, “He knows what he’s doing—just let him do his job.” Even Bob Kelly, the head of production at Titan, was working with us up to the very last minute to enhance certain images and make the reading experience more vivid. It was a labor of love all the way down the line.
 

-- John Hogan