If Joe Simon had only created Captain America back in 1940, he would still be a comic book legend. However, Simon’s career lasted for decades and encompassed the creation of dozens of memorable characters and thousands of pages of stories and art. Simon, both with and without his partner, Jack Kirby, was an innovative writer, editor and artist, responsible for some of the most influential characters and trends in comic book history. He was nothing if not versatile. Indeed, it’s impossible to consider Joe Simon’s career without looking at the entire history of the comics business, since he was there almost from the industry’s inception.
Among the many classic characters Simon either created or co-created were Captain America, the Red Skull, the Blue Bolt, the Fiery Mask, the Young Allies, the Newsboy Legion, the original Manhunter, the revamped Sandman of the '40s, Stuntman, the Boy Explorers, Boys’ Ranch, the Fighting American, the updated '50s Shield, the Fly, B-Man, the Outsiders, Shieldmaster, Captain 3-D (cashing in on the '50s craze for 3-D comics and films), the western hero Bullseye and camp classics like Brother Power the Geek, and Prez, the Teenage President, and the Green Team: Boy Millionaires. Simon and Kirby also created the romance comics genre, as well as writing, editing and drawing the excellent horror title Black Magic title for Prize Comics, which was later revived for a 7-issue run for DC when Simon was resumed new work for DC in the '70s. Simon also enjoyed a long run as the creator/writer/editor/artist for Sick magazine, one of the most long-lived of all the Mad magazine imitations that sprang up in the wake of that humor title’s extraordinary success in the 1950s and '60s.
The Joe Simon/Jack Kirby team lasted from 1939 until 1956, and was one of the most successful creative pairings in the comics business, with Simon handling the business end of the partnership, coming up with the characters, doing the editing and some of the writing, while also providing distinctive inking for Kirby’s strong pencils. In addition to his other talents, he was one of Kirby’s best inkers, and their work together is instantly recognizable. Simon and Kirby reunited in 1958 for two issues of The Double Life of Private Strong for Archie Comics/MLJ, while their swan song as a creative team came with the first issue of DC’s revived Sandman title, which Simon wrote and Kirby illustrated. While Simon achieved notable success and a long career as a solo creator, it’s generally acknowledged that he did his best work in collaboration with Kirby. Describing their earliest meeting in The Comic Book Makers, his autobiographical history of the comics, Simon wrote, “Kurtzberg (Kirby) complained of an addition to Danish pastries, the results of which tended to emphasize the fact that he stood no taller than five and a half feet…Without throwing much of a shadow, I towered over him, a gangling six-foot-three-inches weighing in at a skinny 150 pounds after a full meal. We were the most unheroic looking odd couple—one that was to bring to life, between comic book covers, countless symbols of muscularity, daring and utter perfection in the American male.” Simon’s description of their working relationship in the late '30s encapsulated pretty much the whole of their long, prolific collaboration, “Jacob (Jack) had a great flair for comics. He could take an ordinary script and make it come alive with his dramatic interpretation. I would write the script on the boards as we went along, sketch in rough layouts and notations, and Jacob would follow up by doing more exact penciling…I did the inking with a brush to make it go faster.”
Born in Rochester, New York, Simon was brought up in the family of a poor Jewish tailor, but realized early on that he was not destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. As he noted in The Comic Book Makers: “As long as I can remember, drawing was my passion.” Simon attended Benjamin Franklin High School, where he began dabbling in the art world by acting as the art director for his high school newspaper and year book. He sold his first professional art while still in high school, they were yearbook section “splash pages” executed in gray tempera paint that were re-used by two different universities’ yearbooks, for which he was paid the then-respectable sum of $20. Simon graduated high school in 1932 and was soon hired by the Rochester Journal American as the assistant art director. In addition to his production tasks, Simon also occasionally contributed sports and editorial cartoons to the paper. Two years later, Simon moved on to the art department of the Syracuse Herald in Syracuse, New York, where he also created sports and editorial cartoons. He was soon hired as the art director for the Syracuse Journal and the Syracuse Sunday American for a whopping $60 a week, an excellent salary at the time. Unfortunately, both papers soon went out of business, and Simon, then 23, migrated to New York City in search of work.
One of his first jobs in New York was working for Paramount Studios as a photo retoucher in their New York City offices, a job the talented Simon found personally unfulfilling, and he quickly left for a short stint doing spot illustrations for McFadden Publications. Simon abandoned that to pursue what he hoped were greener pastures in the then-emerging comic book business. Simon got his first work in comics from Lloyd Jacquet’s Funnies Incorporated, an early packager who supplied complete comic strips to publishers who didn’t want to invest in assembling their own staff, but were still hoping to cash in on the new medium. Simon began working for Funnies Inc. From there, Simon was off and running in what was to be one of the longest and most storied careers in the comics business, including working as the first editor for Fox Comics, creating the Blue Bolt for Fox Comics, then after the first issue, teaming up with Kirby for less than a dozen issues on the title before leaving to create Captain America. Four days after going to work for Funnies, Inc., Simon was called in to meet with Martin Goodman, publisher of Timely (later Marvel) Comics, and given an assignment to create a fiery new superhero to imitate Timely’s own Human Torch.
Of the genesis of his most famous creation, Simon wrote:
In Europe, the Nazis were marching. Hitler and his Stormtroopers splashed across the headlines daily. News dispatches of the persecutions, the concentration camps, the incredibly cruel Gestapo tactics seemed to Americans an ocean away more like a grade “B” movie than reality.
Then the idea struck home: here was the arch villain of all time. Adolph Hitler and his Gestapo bully boys were real. There never had been a truly believable villain in comics. But Adolph was live, hated by more than half of the world. What a natural foil he was, with his comical mustache, the ridiculous cowlick, his swaggering, goose-stepping minions eager to jump out of a plane if their mad little leader ordered it. (After a stiff-armed Heil Hitler salute, of course.) I could smell a winner. All that was left was to devise a long underwear character to stand up to him.
Our government’s propaganda was preparing us for the day when the U.S. would enter the war. It was a time of intense patriotism. Children played soldiers, shooting war toys at imaginary Hitlers. Wouldn’t they love to see him lambasted in a comic book. By a soldier. A meek, bumbling private with muscles of steel and a colorful, star spangled costume under his khaki army uniform. Wouldn’t we all!...
I stayed up all night sketching the usual athletic figure: mailed armor jersey, bulging arm and chest muscles, skin-hugging tights, gloves, and boots flapping and folded beneath the knee. I drew a star on his chest, stripes from the belt to a line below the star, and colored the costume red, white and blue. I added a shield…The design seemed to work; the muscles of the torso rippled gallantly under the red and white stripes…
I wrote the name “Super American” at the bottom of the page. No, it didn’t work. There were too many “Supers” around. “Captain America” had a good sound to it. There weren’t a lot of captains in comics. It was as easy as that.
The first issue of Captain America (cover-dated March 1941) hit the newsstands in December of 1940, almost a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the U.S. into World War II on the side of the Allies. What was astonishing about this cover was that it depicted Captain America, socking Adolph Hitler (a sitting head of state) on the jaw a year before the U.S. declared hostilities with Nazi Germany. This was a gutsy and controversial move on the part of Timely publisher Martin Goodman. It paid off in terms of sales: The first issue sold almost a million copies, an amazing feat for a brand-new character. But it also aroused the wrath of Nazi sympathizers and Bundists in the U.S., and the Timely offices were flooded with hate mail, obscene, threatening phone calls, and the appearance of groups of menacing men in the neighborhood around the Timely offices. Many of the Timely staff were in fear of their lives, but then-mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, supported what Simon and Kirby were doing and made sure that there was a constant police presence to safeguard Timely’s offices and staff.
Among Simon’s greatest later accomplishments was the publication of The Comic Book Makers, co-written with his son, Jim. It remains one of the liveliest, most insightful, best-written accounts of the early days of the comics, containing stories, anecdotes, and profiles of many of the major personalities in the creation of the comics business, including DC Comics’ publisher Jack Donenfeld, Timely (later Marvel) Comics publisher Martin Goodman, and his nephew, Stan Lee, who would go on to become a legendary writer/editor for Marvel in the '60s and '70s, Fox Comics’ Victor “I’m the King of the Comics” Fox, Alfred Harvey of Harvey Comics, Charles Biro, creator of the fabulously successful Crime Does Not Pay, the original Daredevil and Boy Comics, his colleague, the doomed and tormented Bob Wood, and reprint king Israel “What do I need with copyrights?” Waldman, and many other fascinating characters. Originally published in 1990, the book sold well enough to go through several different printings, eventually being reprinted in a new edition by Vanguard Productions in 2007. In addition to its historical value, The Comic Book Makers is also very entertaining and frequently very funny, a testament to Joe Simon’s skill as a writer.
In later years, Simon waged a legal war with Marvel Comics to regain ownership of the copyright to Captain America and achieved some success. In 2002, as Michael Dean reported in The Comics Journal #249 (December 2002), "The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an agreement between Joe Simon and Marvel Comics did not preclude him from filing to reclaim copyrights as Captain America's creator." This judgment opened the way for Simon to take further legal against Marvel. The following year Marvel announced that it had agreed on a settlement with Simon, the terms of which remain confidential.
A true professional, Simon was busy right to the very end of his life, working with Titan books to publish multiple volumes of The Simon and Kirby Library, including: Simon and Kirby Superheroes; The Complete Fighting American; The Best of Simon and Kirby, Crime, a collection of their crime comics from the 1950s; and an upcoming collection of romance comics (a genre the Simon and Kirby team originated). Simon also found time to write an autobiography entitled: Joe Simon, A Life in Comics (2011), which was essentially a reworking of some of the material found in The Comic Book Makers, with the focus firmly on Simon and Jack Kirby, and less emphasis on the other bizarre and colorful characters Simon encountered during his long career in the comics business.
For more on Joe Simon: Gary Groth's 1990 interview; Michael Dean's report on the 2002 judgment (PDF only).