Joe Simon is a comic book legend. Writer, artist, editor and innovator, Simon left his mark on virtually every decade of comics history. At this past weekend’s New York Comic Con, friends, fans and family gathered to celebrate Simon’s life and legacy. Collaborators Steve Saffel, Angelo Torres and Paul Levitz, fan Dave Gibbons, son Jim and granddaughter Emily all shared stories of the ways in which Joe Simon touched their lives.
Saffel began the discussion, noting that Simon’s last convention appearance was exactly a year ago at last year’s NYCC. “[Joe] made that appearance by dint of iron will. I feel like he’s here now.” He then asked each panelist to describe how they met Joe.
Torres described working on The Fly with Joe for Archie Comics. He considered it a great honor to be tapped for the assignment. Later, he assisted Joe and Archie Goodwin in creating “Sick,” a humor magazine capitalizing on the popularity of “Mad.”
Levitz got to know Simon as a reader through “Brother Power the Geek,” calling the offbeat character “the strangest-looking thing DC had ever done.” Later, Levitz was just beginning to freelance for DC, writing a series of text pieces called Behind the Scenes. Joe Orlando wanted Levitz to feature a new book that would change the industry: “Prez.” “I was 16 and thought this is kinda strange stuff!” he remembered. He had his doubts about the book, but figured these guys were his father’s age and knew what they were doing. While it certainly was a very experimental piece of work, it didn’t change the business. It was, however, indicative of Simon’s courage. He always wanted to do a new thing, and do it his way. Levitz found Joe Simon to be “unfailingly, a true gentleman with an optimistic view of the world.”
Dave Gibbons described getting comics in England as a child through black and white reprints, jumbled together without regard to publisher or continuity. It was only later that he realized that a lot of the work he really admired came from Simon. The standout was the “Race to the Moon” series Simon did for Harvey Comics. The concepts and images of that series stayed with him and continue to influence his work to this day. Gibbons went on to note that he never met Simon in person, but did get to speak with him on the phone once, and Captain America had one of the best superhero costumes ever created.
Simon started as a photo retoucher, said Saffel, cleaning up news photos with a pen and brush. He became a writer, artist and reporter. During the Depression, there was a constant scramble for work. Papers were folding and news people did what they could to pay the rent and put food on the table. When Simon got a lead on a new industry that was doing well, he looked into it. The comic book field was wide open. There was no template; he had to figure it out for himself.
Simon himself took up the narrative in a series of short interview clips shared with the audience. He was told. “Come up with a character, come up with a story.” No other instructions. He wrote, drew, inked and lettered a ten-page Western, and it sold immediately. He was told ,”Do more.”
Simon’s son Jim said, “He loved to see people try to express talent. He wasn’t the greatest teacher, because he had very high expectations.” In fact, Simon advised his son to become an accountant, explaining, “accountants know where the publishers hide the money.”
Simon’s grandaughter Emily described how the creator hit the bestseller list at age 97 with a Simon and Kirby reprint volume. She got the email from Saffel with the news and printed it out for Joe. He was napping when she went to tell him, but she knew it was important enough to disturb him. “I’ve never seen an old person sit up that fast in my life, but he was so proud.” Afterward, he would call people on the phone and say, “This is ‘New York Times’ bestselling author Joe Simon.” “People ask me what it was like to have him as a grandfather, but honestly, he was just my grandfather. I didn’t think of him that way.”
His father was a very up to the minute person, noted Jim Simon. He looked at what the kids were doing and turned that into stories. Emily noted that Joe was always creating characters. He got a cold, shortly before he died, and referred to it as “the sniffles.” He laughed. “Sniffles, that sounds like it could be a comic book character!” He was creating up to the end.
Torres told a story that has entered folklore, though he doesn’t even remember if it’s true. However, it’s been told so often that it feels true. Al Williamson, who Simon admired enormously, turned in some pencils Simon didn’t like, so he gave the assignment to Torres. Torres gave it back to Al, who penciled it again. Torres turned it in to Simon, who loved it.
From the early days of his career, Simon had a “different” opinion of the publishers, said Saffel. That’s why he got a royalty for Captain America and why he demanded a 50% profit share from Crestwood for the romance comics he did with Jack Kirby. He had the business figured out.
Levitz noted that it’s very rare for a person to be talented both as a creative person and a businessman. In the Golden Age, these guys had no education in business. Only two turned out to be solid, forward-thinking businessmen: Joe Simon and Will Eisner. Jack Kirby was extraordinarily talented and hard-working, but was never a businessman. Simon was out there doing that, marketing the team as a brand name. They were the first to have their names featured on covers as a selling point.
Years after their collaboration ended, Simon continued to look out for Kirby, most recently fighting to get Kirby co-creator credit on Marvel’s Captain America movie. The Kirby family is still getting money because of Simon’s efforts.
Mark Waid arrived toward the end of the panel, apologizing for getting the time wrong. He described a visit with Simon, where he expected “a fairly dry recitation of comics history.” Instead, Simon, full of energy and enthusiasm, wanted to talk about his new ideas. He always looked forward, never back. “In every decade,” said Waid, “[Joe] was able to contribute something meaningful to the medium.”
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