May we all live the sort of productive and active life that Joe Simon has. At 98, after having spent his life in newspapers and comics, he’s still writing and publishing his own line of comics at Simon Comics, through which he is releasing compilations of his work with Jack Kirby, and has recently released his autobiography Joe Simon: My Life in Comics. Written in a conversational and matter-of-fact style, I often felt like he could have been sitting across the table. He discusses not only comics and the comic industry, but also recounts his experiences as a reporter, his stint in the Coast Guard during WWII, and boxing.
He got his start in the newspaper business as a cartoonist based on his natural talent and sketches he’d done in high school. It’s an intriguing look at what it was like to work for Hearst newspapers during the late ’30s. While reporting on and meeting boxers, including Jack Dempsey and Max Baer, he sketches athletes for the newspapers. He learns how to touch-up celebrity photos with an airbrush and draw the female form. He develops the discipline to meet rigorous deadlines. He even crosses paths with Mickey Spillane. In 1939, while in his mid-20s, Simon interviews with a newspaper publisher who advises him, after looking at his portfolio, “There’s a new business that’s starting to use a lot of artists,” and referred him to Lloyd Jacquet; it was his start in comics when comics were just getting started. To put it in perspective, Joe Simon was drawing comics while Stan Lee was a child hanging out in his office.
Simon’s career is launched, and a wealth of comic books and characters follow, including the Blue Bolt, Boy Commandos and Captain America, among others. World War II and Hitler played a significant role in the creation of the Sentinel of Liberty. That doesn’t come as a surprise, though the inspiration for the Red Skull does – his origin is rooted in an ice cream dessert (read the book to find out which one). The ’90s copyright suit between Marvel and Simon is not the first to involve the good Captain. In fact, an early suit is behind the change from a more traditional shield to the now-iconic circular design. The release of his autobiography, timed to coincide with the release of the film Captain America:The First Avenger, further underscores and asserts his ownership and copyright. The character was just one of many inked by the Simon and Kirby team in the Golden Age, when the potential and longevity of comics could not have been predicted. Having recently emerged from the Great Depression, and having seen the rise and fall of the Hearst empire, writers and artists were hungry for any work they could get. Indeed, they often didn’t consider the work-for-hire agreements that granted ownership to the publisher rather than the creator. Simon was one of the rare individuals who read that fine print.
Simon encounters a host of employers, artists, and writers in the course of his career. At times, it feels like a Russian novel. The sheer number of people mentioned can make the story hard to follow. Three people stand out and thread their way through his life. His love for his wife, Harriet, is evident and she is dearly missed. He’s has a lifelong relationship with Alfred Harvey. Despite misgivings from Harriet, his friendship with Harvey is mutually beneficial. At times Harvey works for him, at other times the relationship is reversed. Such is the comic book industry. His collaboration and friendship with Jack Kirby weaves its way throughout this autobiography, from his initial meeting at Fox Comics to their co-creation of Captain America and their eventual copyright dispute with Marvel. Today, Simon is working with Titan publishing to release a seven-volume set of their collaborative work, starting with The Best of Simon and Kirby. The next release, The Simon and Kirby Library: Crime, is due for release this October.
My Life in Comics is not a history, and it’s not just about comics. It’s the journey of a comic legend from newspapers to the Golden Age and through the present day. He takes us through the Great Depression, World War II, McCarthyism and the 60s, and their impact on the comic book industry. Even if you’re not a comic book collector, Simon’s autobiography is worth a read. It’s a fascinating look back at the life and continuing career of a living legend.