Joe Simon: My Life in Comics (Titan Books)

Captain America’s co-creator reminsces about helping birth comics’ Golden Age.

256 pgs. B&W and full color; $24.95
(W: Joe Simon)
When Joe Simon opens his memoir with an old man in a Civil War-era uniform visiting Simon’s elementary school classroom, singing the patriotic “Boys The Old Flag Never Touched The Ground,” and insisting each student shake the hand “that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln,” it’s a little quirky, a little funny, and—considering what the possibly senile old man inspired—a little wonderful.  
In Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, artist and writer Joe Simon—best known perhaps for sharing co-creator credits for Captain America with Jack Kirby—shares precisely what his title promises. We follow him from his childhood in Rochester right up to the present day. Though he may be best known for his comic book work, Simon had led a rich life filled with interesting experiences. We follow him as he begins his career fine-tuning photos for local newspapers, through his brief stint teaching college (even though he didn’t hold a degree himself), his service in the coast guard, and much later when he worked for the MADclone, Sick
Of course the meat-and-potatoes of the book is his time helping to make the Golden Age golden. Though often associated with Captain America and perhaps mostly with the iconic picture that graces the cover of My Life in Comics – the star-spangled Cap knocking out Hitler – his comic career stretched well beyond the funnybook gold rush of World War II. Simon wrote and drew just about every kind of comic there was, often with his legendary partner, Jack Kirby.
The simple, matter-of-fact way that Simon tells his story put me off at first, but eventually proved appealing. Simon is not a bad writer by any means, but he chooses simple, non-poetic language (This happened and then this happened, etc.). There’s no ranting or tangential wanderings to be found in My Life in Comics. Simon offers his life as he remembers it with little seasoning. I thought this would eventually bore me, but instead it made the facts themselves that much more interesting. Simon’s no-nonsense cadence pushes the story along particularly if, like me, stories of the comic book industry’s heyday fascinate you.
Simon comes off as a fairly laidback, humble guy. He doesn’t puff up his chest about his accomplishments, but he doesn’t hide them either. For Marvel kids like me, there are wonderful anecdotes about what inspired Simon’s more popular creations, like who Cap’s repetitively-doomed sidekick Bucky was named after and how the idea for the Red Skull came from an ice cream sundae. I think I was most surprised by Simon’s ‘60s and ‘70s work. I had no idea that Prez, the story of a teenaged hippy elected president, was a comic Simon co-created. I’d assumed Neil Gaiman created the character just for that story in Sandman. And even if I never manage to get my hands on a copy (and I certainly hope I do), the comic Brother Power: The Geek deserves some kind of grand award for having, if nothing else, possibly the best title of a comic, ever.
As anyone at all familiar with the history of comic book publishing knows, that history is filled with publishers rear-ending creators and Simon doesn’t shy away from those stories. One of Simon’s few blatant literary devices is to occasionally drop out of the timeline to show us bits and pieces of the legal battles between him and Marvel. Simon dealt with as many snakes in the comics business as anyone, or so it seems, but while the guy knew his rights and how to fight for them, you don’t get a single whiff of anger from him. For example, in one of the earliest and most dramatic betrayals Simon chronicles in the book, Simon and Kirby are abruptly fired from Timely Comics when the owners learn the pair was negotiating with DC. According to Simon, Kirby always blamed the young Stan Lee for spilling the beans and hated him for it until the day he died. But while Simon doesn’t deny Lee might be the culprit, he also points out that it may have been a bad idea for him and Kirby to walk in and out of DC’s offices a whole bunch of times and think it would stay a secret. Sure, it could have been “Stan the Man,” but he wasn’t the only branch on the grapevine.
This is another place where Simon’s calm, minimal writing style serves him well. Simon doesn’t seem like he holds a single grudge, though he certainly has reason to. His sane, level look at the betrayals he suffered is not only refreshing, but you end up trusting him precisely because he’s so short on anger. Even in the few instances where his impressions of certain contemporaries like Bob Kane are less than flattering, he mentions his low opinion only in passing.
I might add I find Simon’s approach to the obstacles in his path inspiring. The guy had plenty of reasons to wallow and be angry. In spite of betrayal and projects that failed for myriads of reasons, he just dusted himself off and went on to the next thing. He carried no baggage.
In fact, one of the first things you learn about Simon in the book is that the only reason he lived to give us Captain America, Prez, and Brother Power is because he had a sneaky Uncle Izzy. Uncle Izzy was a pharmacist and when Simon’s pregnant mother went to Izzy for a way to get rid of the pregnancy, Izzy gave her a pill he assured her would do the trick. It was aspirin.
Hell, who wouldn’t be in for a lifetime of therapy if they found out that was their origin story? Simon tells it as if it was nothing more than a funny thing he heard on the way to work.
My only problem with My Life in Comics is a minor one, and in fact it speaks to the wealth of information Simon provides. So many figures of comicdom’s past show up that it’s a little tough to keep them straight, particularly the ones who are not as widely known as Simon, Kirby, Lee, Ditko, etc. You often don’t yet have a clear picture in your head of a particular figure and by the next time Simon brings him up, and does so in a way assuming the reader will remember him, it’s tough to not be confused. People more familiar with the comic industry’s history might not find it the same, however, and I choose to chalk it up to my own ignorance.
Joe Simon: My Life in Comics is an understated chronicle of an exceptional life. It’s an essential to lovers of comics and their history. | Mick Martin

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