By any way you look at it, Joe Simon is one of the living legends of the comics industry. As one half of “Simon-Kirby,” one of the great partnerships in comics with his friend and colleague the late Jack Kirby, Simon co-created one character after another and revamped existing properties for publishers. Jumping from one genre to another, the team was always looking for a new challenge and outlet for their considerable talents. In addition to “Captain America,” “The Shield,” “The Fly” and “Fighting American,” they created titles such as “Boys’ Ranch,” “The Newsboy Legion” and “Boy Commandos” while launching anthology titles including “Young Romance,” “Black Magic” and “Justice Traps the Guilty.”
On his own, Mr. Simon did a lot of commercial and advertising work, started the humor magazine “Sick,” authored the book “The Comic Book Makers,” and developed and packaged books for many comic publishers. He also created two books for DC, “Brother Power The Geek” and “Prez,” which became cult favorites and which resurfaced in the nineties at DC’s Vertigo imprint.
Mr. Simon has also been a champion of creators rights and ownership, possessing the copyrights of much of his work. Mr. Simon sued Marvel over the rights to the character Captain America years ago, and as part of their agreement, the comics published today carry the credit “created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.”
Mr. Simon’s memoir “My Life in Comics” has just been released by Titan Books, the publisher behind the Eisner-nominated Simon and Kirby Library, which has just released a paperback volume collecting “Fighting American.” CBR News spoke with the nonagenarian creator over email.
CBR News: Mr. Simon, what made you decide to write a memoir and why was now a good time for it?
Joe Simon: About 20 years ago, I did a book of stories from my career called “The Comic Book Makers,” which I worked on with my son Jim. But I had never done a true autobiography that covered my entire life — at least up to now. And I still had a lot of stories I had never told, such as my first encounter with a true patriot and the secret origin of the Red Skull. Since “The Comic Book Makers,” a lot had transpired, including my most recent court adventures with Marvel. So as I approached my 100th birthday, this seemed like the perfect timing.
In the book you mentioned Damon Runyon, who you met when you were a young man while you were both covering the boxer Max Baer. Was Runyon an influence on your comics work? “The Newsboy Legion,” for example, feels very Runyon-esque.
Absolutely! He influenced me tremendously and had done so even before I met him. “The Newsboy Legion” was a direct reflection of my own experiences as a newsboy, combined with the wonderful stories Runyon had written. Later features, such as “The Vagabond Prince” and “Kid Adonis,” were even more an homage to Runyon.
Another Runyon-esque project you did, which few people probably know of, was “The Duke of Broadway.” Could you talk a little about what this project was and where the idea for it came from?
I always loved New York and Broadway was the best of it. I remember the lights and the characters you would see there every night in Times Square, and the late trips we describe in the book, going as a group to the pool parlors and bowling alleys. So when I was working for Harvey, developing new strips like “Stuntman” and “Boy Explorers,” “The Duke of Broadway” let me pay genuine tribute to my favorite author. It was great fun.
“Boys’ Ranch,” a series which lasted only a few issues, has become one of the most acclaimed and beloved books that you and Jack Kirby did together. Could you tell us about how you worked on the book and the approach of using a lot of double page spreads?
That was one of our favorite features — for both Jack and me. We got to develop terrific characters and really cut loose on the art. Mort Meskin joined us on the series and turned out some spectacular stories of his own. The double-page spreads were something we had begun all the way back in “Captain America” and perfected with “Stuntman.” Because of my newspaper training, I realized that where there was a staple, that center spread didn’t need to have gutters in the middle of the artwork. I don’t think anyone had tried it before then, and it gave us tremendous creative freedom. Later, with “The Fly,” I dubbed them “The Wide-Angle Scream.”
Will we be seeing a collection of “Boys’ Ranch” and your other Western stories soon?
We’ll see. I’d certainly love to do that. But first, we need to finish “The Simon and Kirby Crime!” which comes out this Fall, and a collection of our stories from “Black Magic,” both from Titan. Plus, we may have a surprise to announce soon. We’ve got plenty on our plate!
I did want to ask about “Stuntman,” which I had never heard of until reading the recent Titan collection “The Simon & Kirby Superheroes.” It was a revelation, because while it’s been largely forgotten, I think it stands as one of the best works you ever did. For people who haven’t read it, could you talk a little about what it was and what you were doing differently in this project?
That was our first superhero after the war and it was when Al Harvey convinced Jack and me to develop features for him. I don’t know if Jack and I ever worked more closely on a series, sitting in the studio until late at night, making sure it was all perfect. The idea was a movie stuntman who puts on a costume and defeats wrongdoers. It was such a natural concept that I was surprised no one had ever done it before. But “Stuntman” was defeated by the glut of comics that came after World War II, and the only time it’s ever been collected in its entirety was in “The Simon & Kirby Superheroes.”
The next book coming out from Titan this Fall is, as you mentioned, a collection of your crime stories. Do you have any favorite stories from the book?
I loved the ones about the real-life criminals like Al Capone and Ma Barker. Bugsy Siegel was a classic! I think Ma Barker was one of Kirby’s favorites, too, since he used her again at DC in the ’70s. By basing the stories on real-life events, we had the concept already developed and could concentrate on making sure all of the action made it onto the page.
In the late sixties and early seventies, you did some very interesting books at DC. “Prez” and “Brother Power The Geek,” which have both become cult favorites. I know it’s been a while, but could you talk a little about the origin of both and what you wanted to do with them before they were canceled?
Many times over the years I’ve included current events in the stories, like World War II for “Captain America,” post-war America in “Stuntman” and the Cold War in “Fighting American.” By the time I was doing “Brother Power,” the ’60s were in full swing and I wanted to try something new. Plus, I was running the gauntlet as the father of teenage kids and saw the whole youth movement through their eyes, as well. So that was great material for a new series.
“Prez” was the result of a similar mindset and was influenced by the movie “Wild in the Streets.” I think both series were largely misunderstood, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve had inquiries about turning “Prez” into a movie of its own. Maybe now that DC is more closely tied to Warner Bros., something like that will happen.
The Titan book reprints of the work that you and Jack Kirby created together is really amazing, especially the colors, which are striking. Is this how you wanted it to look when you originally worked on the pages?
Definitely. When my editor brought me the first copy of “The Best of Simon and Kirby,” the first thing out of my mouth was, “Oh, look at the color!” It’s the sort of thing we would have loved to have seen in the original comic books, had the printing been better. Harry Mendryk has done a wonderful job with the restorations, and I know the production staff at Titan has worked hard to support everything he’s done.
What was your working relationship with Jack Kirby like and how did it vary depending on the project?
Jack was one-of-a-kind — I knew that even before Al Harvey introduced us. As soon as we started working together, he and I were determined that when we worked together on a story, you wouldn’t be able to see where one of us left off and the other started. We worked so closely together that, after the war, we moved into the same town on Long Island. That way, all we had to do was cross the street to get to the other’s studio. It wasn’t until the late 1950s, after Mainline, that we started working on separate projects, but even then, we collaborated on features like “The Fly” and “Private Strong.” When Jack moved to California, we talked a lot on the phone. First, I would talk business with Roz, then she would hand me over to Jack so we could reminisce. We were friends until he passed away, and I still miss him.
Have you had a chance to see the “Captain America” movie yet?
I’ve just seen what everyone else has seen. One of the producers, Stephen Broussard, has been keeping me in the loop and I really appreciate everything he’s done. I’m very happy with what’s been shown so far — this time, they may have got it right.
Finally, I know that you’re a longtime cigar aficionado. Do you still smoke?
I still smoke at least two cigars a day — they help me relax, especially at night. I have friends who also love cigars, and when we get on the phone, that’s what we talk about. My favorites are Excalibur by Hoyo de Monterrey, from Honduras.