RIP Joe Simon (1913-2011)

Joe Simon in 2009 (from Graphic NYC)

Joe Simon—cartoonist, writer, editor, art director, publisher, one of the last surviving greats of the comic book’s formative era, and the writer of two memoirs that recall that era with astounding clarity—has died, as reported by The Beat, Comic Book Resources, CBS, and others. Simon, of course, was the longtime creative and business partner of Jack Kirby.

The public response to Mr. Simon’s death is only beginning. I myself hardly know how to respond to the news—but the first, best thing to do is extend my condolences to his family and friends on their loss.

The second is simply to acknowledge that, though I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Simon, his work and his career story have meant the world to me as a fan, historian, and critic. Especially a fan—for most of my life I’ve known his name, and known something about his work. I can scarcely remember a time when that wasn’t true. In particular, Simon’s partnership with Kirby, one of the most fertile team-ups in comic book history, has cast a spell over me since boyhood. Vividly I remember hiking through the woods on a family camping trip, imagining that I was in the “Magic Forest” as described in a 1942 Sandman story by Simon & Kirby, which had then recently been reprinted (1973). Vividly I remember the other reprints of early S&K that appeared in the early seventies, as well as Jules Feiffer’s reprinting of the first Captain America story in The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965) and Jim Steranko’s rhapsodic descriptions of early S&K in the first volume of his History of Comics (1970).

To me, Simon & Kirby were, and are, magic words.

A hardy 98 years old at his passing, Simon had been busy in recent years, writing and promoting his new memoir, My Life in Comics, working with editor Steve Saffel and art restorer (and S&K historian extraordinaire) Harry Mendryk on the official Simon & Kirby Library for Titan Books, appearing at conventions, and talking with journalists. His unflagging energy and extraordinarily vivid memory served as reminders of what a living treasure he was.

Joe Simon, My Life in Comics (2011)

Simon was Comic Book History in person: he lived it the first time round, and returned to it in his memoirs with gusto, gifting his sharp, unpretentious, colorful recollections to a new generation. He was (to borrow a name from elsewhere in comics history) a veritable human dynamo.

I regret that I never got in touch with Simon. While working on Hand of Fire, I came to realize that there are several books’ worth of scholarship to be written about Simon and Kirby alone. I had only begun to essay this period and the comics it produced; I had only devoted a few pages to S&K, their influence, and their legacy. That wasn’t enough. As I finished my book, the prospect of delving deeper into S&K, doing historiographical work on their partnership and studio, began to loom in my mind: delightful yet intimidating. I thought about contacting Simon, just because. And I watched, amazed, as The Simon & Kirby Library and other recent reprints filled in gaps in the record, making widely available again comics stories that had been known only to a minority of dedicated collectors. I saw the evidences of history springing up green again, and could only marvel at that great gift. All that time, of course, I knew that Simon was very elderly, and that the gift of his energy and memory would be finite—because that’s what life is, even for the dynamos among us.

Today regret looms like a raincloud over my head. That’s the way it is.

Young Joe @ the drawing board, courtesy of The Comic Book Makers (2003)

Simon (b. 1913) had the damnedest career in cartooning. More than most comic book artists, he crossed boundaries and explored new territory, particularly during the first twenty-odd years of his career, which were dotted with firsts. The arc of that career is just about as hard to describe as Kirby’s—something I worked hard at in my book. Simon, after all, led a storied life, a busy, complicated, twisting and turning career. The three things that fans are most likely to remember about him—that he dreamed up Captain America, served as the first editor at what later became Marvel Comics, and collaborated with Kirby for so many years—are just part of the picture.

Born and bred in Rochester, New York, Simon began working for local newspapers—the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald, and Syracuse Journal American—straight out of high school, learning his trade as an art editor, production artist, and cartoonist. The papers got bought out and shuttered, so Simon took the plunge and moved to New York City, where he picked up work freelancing for Paramount Pictures, doctoring PR photos, then scrounged illustration jobs from Macfadden Publications. He landed his first comic book work at the Funnies, Inc. shop under editor Lloyd Jacquet (probably in late 1939). His first comic book jobs, as far as I can tell, appeared on the cusp of 1940 in Timely’s Daring Mystery Comics and Lev Gleason’s Silver Streak Comics, both packaged by Funnies, Inc. He also did work for Novelty Press/Curtis.

Simon and Kirby, date unknown, courtesy of The Comic Book Makers (2003)

In 1940 Simon became editor-in-chief for Victor Fox’s notorious Fox Publications, and there he met staffer Jacob Kurtzberg—Kirby! They collaborated on Blue Bolt for Novelty while still on staff for Fox. That didn’t last long: Simon knew when to move. From Fox, he leapt into freelancing, then became line editor at Timely’s (Martin Goodman’s) fledgling line of comics. After a brief hesitation, Kirby joined him, becoming, in essence, the art director at Timely. There they launched Captain America Comics in early 1941, knocking the industry and nascent superhero genre on their ears. All the while, they were learning, pushing, doing things with the comic book page (and the stylized human figure!) that hadn’t been done before.

Captain America Comics 2 (April 1942)

Cap was a huge hit, and S&K had a strong, immediate influence on the design, pacing, tone, and atmosphere of costumed hero comics. Yet dissatisfaction with Goodman, who reportedly reneged on a promise of profit-sharing, led Simon and Kirby to moonlighting, which led to their firing. From there they worked for DC, conjuring The Newsboy Legion, The Boy Commandos, Manhunter, and a revamped version of the Sandman. Simon & Kirby had become a brand to reckon with.

Joe & Harriet Simon

During the War, while Kirby went into the Army infantry, Simon worked for the Combat Art Corps’s Coast Guard Public Information Division, for whom he did PR and recruitment comics. After the war, Simon and his new bride Harriet (née Feldman) joined up with Kirby and his wife Rosalind (Roz) to buy neighboring houses in a Long Island suburb. Simon & Kirby cast around for work, including publishers DC, Hillman, and Harvey (Al Harvey was a friend, and Harriet had been his secretary).

Young Romance 7 (September-October 1948)

With Crestwood, they hit paydirt, introducing the romance genre to comic books via Young Romance and Young Love. Romance was their workhorse genre for the next several years, indeed for the better part of a decade: the S&K studio did more comics in that genre than any other, in the process working with notable artists like Mort Meskin and Bruno Premiani. These were the glory years for S&K as a shop, during which romance and crime comics (Justice Traps the Guilty) underwrote everything else. S&K developed a trademark look, an atmospheric yet brusquely rendered style that served romance and dread, tension and explosion, equally well.

Justice Traps the Guilty 1 (October-November 1947)

Black Magic Vol. 2, No. 2 (December 1951-January 1952)

Ambition (and perhaps discontent with Crestwood) then led Simon and Kirby to launch their own comics publishing line, called Mainline. Unfortunately, this came at exactly the wrong time, that of the anti-comic book crisis in the early fifties. Mainline went belly up not long after launching (its remainders were sold to Charlton), and Simon and Kirby were backed into a corner, business-wise. This would turn out to be one of the great, influential disasters in the history of comic book publishing, for the death of Mainline, and the generally terrible condition of the comic book business at that time, post-1954, eroded Simon and Kirby’s partnership. Though the two men would continue to work together sporadically in the years to come, no longer would they jointly maintain a shop. Kirby went on digging for freelance work, both comic books and strips, a road that eventually, rather unpredictably, led him to the former Timely/Atlas, which he helped transform into Marvel Comics (that’s a huge story in itself, of course, one that my book takes up).

Sick 3, c. 1960 (cover artist unknown)

Simon concentrated on advertising, working for years in the firm Burstein and Newman (co-owner Martin Burstein having been a friend and roommate of Simon’s years before, and the writer of some scripts for S&K at Timely). Reportedly, Simon served as art director of the firm from 1964 to 1967. He also worked sporadically at comic books, masterminding new projects for Archie and Harvey that turned out to be pretty minor (Kirby returned to help with some of these). His biggest commercial success after the late fifties was Sick, a satire magazine cribbed from the Mad formula, which he launched in 1960 and edited for at least eight years, first for Crestwood, then, apparently, for Pyramid Books (the chronology is a bit hard to follow, and in this case the GCD doesn’t help much).

In the late sixties to early seventies, Simon did a last stint of comic book work for DC, reportedly serving as an editor for a time (c. 1973-74) at the behest of publisher Carmine Infantino. His creations during this period are memorably eccentric, including Brother Power, the Geek (1968), a final collaboration with Kirby on The Sandman #1 (1974), and several collaborations with veteran artist Jerry Grandenetti, including Prez (1973-74) and “The Green Team” and “The Outsiders” (1975-76).

Prez 1(August-September 1973), cover by Jerry Grandenetti

Suffice to say that Simon’s long story is too long for me to capture here—too long and too rich. Simon’s memoirs give much richer versions, lovingly detailed, crystal-clear, and surprising: see The Comic Book Makers, co-written with his son Jim Simon (1990, rev. ed. 2003), and of course My Life in Comics (2011). These are essential reading for students of the early comic books: salty and observant books that together make up a tasty and revealing life-and-times. I’d bet a healthy sum that Simon left still more valuable stuff unwritten and unrevealed—things which, sadly, we may never know.

Joe Simon & Jerry Robinson at NYCC 2010 (goodbye, gents)

For all that we do have—the comics, the cartooning, and the memories—heartfelt thanks, Joe. RIP.


Notes: If you’d like further online reading about Joe Simon, there’s a nice article by Michael Cavna at The Washington Post on the occasion of Joe’s 98th birthday, just about two months ago. I took the photo of Jerry Robinson and Joe from that. Also, Jason Heller has an interview with Joe from this past summer at The A.V. Club. The Graphic NYC blog (Christopher Irving or Seth Kushner) has an excellent profile of Joe from 2009, from which I lifted the recent photo of Joe at the drawing board. The Wikipedia entry on Joe is fairly extensive and well sourced. Finally, and unexpectedly, Under the Radar (the entertainment-themed blog from Military.com) has a nicely illustrated excerpt from My Life in Comics, focusing on the war years. I got the picture of Joe and his wife Harriet from that. Oh, and I should add that I scanned the photos of young Joe and of Simon & Kirby from The Comic Book Makers (2003 ed.). The comic book covers were taken, as has so often been the case, from the GCD.

For the record, a slightly different version of this eulogy can be found at another blog I maintain, See Hatfield.

Comment or Question? Post here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: