Comic book writer and artist Joe Simon passed away Wednesday after a more-than-respectable 98 years on earth. His death comes only a week after the passing of 89-year-old Jerry Robinson, creator of the Joker and artist on many foundational Batman tales. Like most media industries, the comic book is a 20th century phenomenon, and scholars of the past few decades have counted themselves lucky to interact with many of the founders of the medium, an accessibility modern scholars in other humanities fields would envy. With the passing of Simon and Robinson, however, precious few influential players from the Golden Age of American comic books remain, and scholars and journalists will soon become the sole caretakers of the medium’s history.
Joe Simon may not have the name recognition of his collaborator of more than a decade, Jack Kirby, or his protégée, Stan Lee, but his impact on the comic book medium was profound. His best-known creation, Captain America, came about in late 1940, when he and Kirby published the first story about the star-spangled hero, his fist iconically smashing into the face of Adolf Hitler on the cover. Simon in interviews was always unapologetic about the comic’s political content. As quoted in Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation, Simon explained that “The opponents of the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.” He “felt very good about making a political statement…and taking a stand.” But a year before Pearl Harbor, with isolationists and Nazi sympathizers still very present among the American populace, not everyone was prepared for such an in-your-face anti-Nazi statement from two Jewish-American creators. Noted Simon, “When the first issue came out we got a lot of… threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for.” (1)
Though Simon and Kirby left Captain America after only ten issues, their work together would continue to have an impact. While Simon served as the first editor of Timely Comics, the company that later became Marvel, he and Kirby also did work for competitor National Comics (later DC), creating characters such as the Sandman and the Newsboy Legion. After serving in World War II, Simon and Kirby would move on to other comic book genres, including horror comics, western comics, and romance comics, a genre they essentially invented with the publication of Young Romance in 1947. Their partnership came to a close in 1955, as the comic book industry began to crumble in the face of slumping sales and the moral panic about the effect of comics on juvenile delinquency incited by Fredric Wertham and his Seduction of the Innocent. Kirby stayed in comics, going on to collaborate famously with writer Stan Lee and create most of the early Marvel Comics heroes, while Simon moved on to commercial art, returning to the medium only periodically.
Yet Simon’s legacy in the comic book industry still resonates. He was one of the first people in the industry to fight for the rights of creators to own their work, at a time when the late Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave up the rights to Superman for a paltry sum while its corporate owners made millions. It’s a battle that still rages on today, as comic book writers and artists on superhero projects continue to labor, un-unionized, under work-for-hire agreements that give the companies total control of any new characters they might dream up. Simon was also the one to give the first comic book writing opportunities to Stan Lee, by far the most recognizable face of the American comic book industry and one of the few surviving Golden Age greats. Joe Simon’s two biographies, The Comic Makers and the more recent Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, provide fascinating glimpses into the history of the industry and fantastic resources for scholars. He continued to participate in the comic book world well into his twilight years, attending conventions and granting interviews to scholars and journalists (particularly around the “Death of Captain America” storyline of 2007). He even lived to see last summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie set in the early 1940s of his own youth and modeled on his and Kirby’s original first issue, make millions at the box office.
In the spring of 2008, I attended the New York Comic-Con, still riding high from the completion of my 100-page undergrad senior thesis on “The Cultural Work of Captain America.” Wandering Artists Alley, where creators sit behind tables to chat with fans, sell their work, and sign comics, I spotted Joe Simon sitting quietly, his table somehow lacking a line of fans despite his stature in the industry. I remember shaking with nerves as I approached his table, holding out a recent Captain America comic for him to sign (his own work, sadly, being far too rare and expensive for me to own). As he wrote his name in big, blocky letters on my book, I thanked him for his contributions, and explained the work I’d done on my senior thesis. His handler had to repeat my words at a louder volume to compensate for the elderly man’s poor hearing, but Simon grinned broadly and shook my hand, thanking me for taking the time to analyze his work in that way. As a comic book fan and a budding comic book scholar, that moment remains seared in my memory, the high point of my fandom and my scholarship so far. I am immensely thankful that I had the opportunity to thank the person who inspired my academic work with his texts, and I regret that the next generation of comic book scholars will be deprived of that chance.
(1) Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. p. 36.