Joe Simon: My Life in Comics
Review by KC Carlson
Normally, guys Joe Simon’s age should be retired. Kicking back. Taking life easy.
Here’s a couple of things you should know about Joe. He’s 97 years old. He and his long-time partner Jack Kirby created a lot of comic book characters — including Captain America. He was Timely Comics’ (now Marvel Comics) first editor. He trained Stan Lee. (Let that one sink in a little.) He and Kirby created the romance genre and were instrumental in developing the horror genre. And depending on how you define your terms, you could say that Joe was also instrumental in developing the American superhero comic book into what it is today.
As it turns out, he’s also an archivist and historian, although he’d probably balk at the terms. Currently, he’s up to his elbows in producing one of comics’ greatest archive projects. The Simon & Kirby Library is a multi-volume treasure trove of not only much of the team’s best work (pretty much everything the duo’s ever done — with the exception of their work for Marvel and DC, which is largely archived elsewhere), but the building blocks for comic book themselves.
Simon has also written an excellent biography — two, in fact. 21 years apart. The first, The Comic Book Makers, was written with his son Jim Simon in 1990 (and updated in 2003). It was mostly an overview of comics’ Golden Age, with spotlights on many of the era’s best creators, woven into highlights and anecdotes about Simon’s life and career. It was first written at a time when, sadly, Joe Simon wasn’t yet known to many outside the comic book field, so that book was specifically designed and targeted for the comic book fan.
Simon’s newest book, Joe Simon: My Life In Comics, is a more proper biography of his entire life in 250 pages, and heavily illustrated. It includes more details on his family background, as well as his equally fascinating life before comics, as a newspaper man — first selling them on NYC street corners — and eventually as an artist and engraver. And sports cartoonist, where he came in contact with or was inspired by such colorful figures as boxers Gene Tunny, Max Baer, and Max Schmelling and writers such as Jimmy Breslin and Damon Runyon — his idol, whom he eventually came to know. I was captivated to learn of his airbrushing and retouching skills, as much of this early work centered around preparing photographs for newspaper reproduction. And where he retouched the most famous bosoms in motion pictures, including Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Carole Lombard, among others. “Good bosom men were considered experts and got lots of work,” Simon dryly reports.
Simon, of course, is a natural storyteller, so his words provocatively convey the magic of the bygone era, especially as he relates many colorful anecdotes of his early attempts to gain employment in the comics after his newspaper career dried up. A longtime fan of newspaper comic strips, Simon was enticed by the new “comic books” that had been recently appearing and decided that he wanted in. He recounts tales of many of comics’ notorious “shops” (offices which “packaged” comics material for publishers), eventually landing a desk job at Timely Comics.
It was during this period we meet many of the more interesting denizens of comics including Lloyd Jacquet, Victor Fox (whom he describes as “a clown”), Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, and even a pre-fame Mickey Spillane, toiling away on comic book scripts — and the mysterious Mr. Taboret. There are also details about Simon’s interactions with the Harvey brothers, most notably Alfred — a friendship and connection that would last a lifetime.
A fair amount of talk concerns lawsuits within the comics industry — which should be no surprise, as Simon was involved in one of the biggest and potentially most important: Simon & Kirby’s claims for copyright for their creation of Captain America (which, in part, has given Simon some of his recent increased awareness in the bigger world outside of comic books). Simon talks in detail about what lead S&K to leave Captain America just 10 issues into their history-making run in the 1940s, as well as how they reacted when they discovered the character was being revived in the 1950s, and they weren’t approached about participating (AKA: the “real” origin of Fighting American). But Simon also talks at length about National Periodical’s (today DC Comics) various efforts to crush competitors they thought were infringing on Superman — whether they actually were or not.
One of the more fascinating sections of the book deals with S&K’s transition from Captain America at Timely to National, where the duo revitalized the Sandman character, as well as creating Manhunter, the Newsboy Legion, and Boy Commandos. That “kid-gang” series was a huge success, selling over a million copies per issue, making S&K among the highest-paid creators in comics during this era.
Simon talks extensively about his work with Kirby, but more importantly, their long friendship as well as their differing attitudes and working methods. He also mentions in passing that they may have actually first met while in the employ of the Fleischer Animation studio (home of Betty Boop, Popeye, and the animated Superman), but acknowledges that if it did happen, such a meeting was fleeting and now lost to time. There’s also much discussion about S&K’s mysterious connections to the origins of Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man (which, if you don’t know the story — also amazingly — involves Archie Comics and their superhero line).
Even more riveting (at least to me) was Simon’s post-Kirby work, especially details about his increasingly quirky, but fleeting, work for Harvey Comics (Spyman, Jigsaw, Pirana, Tiger Boy, Fruitman (in Bunny comics), and a short-lived revival of Fighting American) in the early 1960s. And then there’s Simon’s beloved, but bizarre, work for DC in the late 1960s-early 70s, including the living hippie mannequin Brother Power, The Geek (including why it was canceled so suddenly after just two issues); Prez, America’s first teenage president; the Green Team and Dingbats of Danger Street (throwbacks to the great S&K kid gangs and the last-ever Simon and Kirby collaboration); and Sandman — which would later partly inspire Neil Gaiman for his own Sandman series (perhaps you’ve heard of it?). Gaiman would revive some of Simon’s concepts (notably Brother Power, The Geek and Prez) as guests in Sandman.
Simon also created, edited, and produced material for the humor magazine Sick, one of the many competitors of Mad during its height of popularity. Simon’s run on Sick lasted over a decade, during which he also worked in advertising and commercial art. Later, he was one of the first artists to do commissioned paintings of many of his (and frequently Kirby’s) most famous comic book covers.
Which brings us back up to date, amid Simon’s ongoing efforts to ensure that the S&K legacy lives on for future generations of comics fans and historians. Titan Books’ Simon and Kirby Library is nothing short of amazing so far, with a massive collection of crime stories due later this year.
Joe Simon: My Life In Comics is an important adjunct to that series, as well as one of the best autobiographies in comics. I sometime struggle with Golden Age histories that get bogged down with endless facts and figures, often forgetting that there were actual people who created this history. Joe Simon’s bio is breezy and fun to read — I couldn’t put it down. It’s populated with both astonishing people and the incredible work that they produced. As I said earlier, Simon is a born storyteller, and this is one amazing story that he’s telling. (The publisher provided a review copy.)