Review: If you love Captain America, discover The Best of Simon and Kirby

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

It's a spectacularly inexact comparison, but Joe Simon and Jack Kirby could be described as the Lennon and McCartney of the Golden Age of comic books. Best known today for their superhero work, which they excelled at and which helped to define that genre, they were in truth far more versatile than that, working in just about every storytelling convention from horror to western, and in fact helping to establish one, the romance comic, that is now barely mentioned in connection with their names.

The Best of Simon and Kirby (Titan Books, $39.95) is hardly that, since a compendium that seeks to showcase all the many fields in which they toiled can only feature a few samples in each genre and cannot devote more time to the places where they were consistently excellent. And there are a couple of pieces here, included for their historical importance, that are at best campy pleasures today, among them a pair of the superhero pieces: Captain America's first battle with the Red Skull, and another involving a character known as Stuntman (which features one character introducing himself with the line "I'm Don Daring the movie star and amateur detective!").

Others, which often work quite well on their own level, are now risible for other reasons, notably one crime story where a thug goes crazy from marijuana withdrawal, and a hard-bitten Korean War tale about the soldiers who fall to ruin after they encounter a buxom young lady who turns out to be bait for a, I'm not kidding, "Booby Trap."

But the overall impression given is that of incredible versatility, ranging from the expected science fiction stories to the steamy romancer, "The Savage in Me," the tale of a sexually repressed missionary's daughter who grows hotter and more passionate the more irritated she gets at the local rogue she can't stand. One of the crime pieces, "Mother of Crime," purports to be the true tale of Ma Barker, alleged by some to have been the leader of the criminal gang made up of her sons; it actually has little in common with the real facts of the case, but it has a pulp energy that carries the reader along from the very first panel.

Another of the superhero pieces, this one involving the Simon and Kirby version of the vintage character known as the Sandman, pits that stalwart against a villain disguised as the Norse thunder God, Thor; which is chiefly notable because Kirby would be closely associated with another, and more lasting, version of Thor a couple of decades later.

Simon himself, who is (bless him!) still alive and producing, provides the introduction, an intimate portrait of his working relationship with Kirby. Longtime Kirby associate Mark Evanier pens historical essays for each section. Not all of it is great, but none of it is dull.