This is getting morbid. No sooner did I write about Jerry Robinson’s passing as an “alarming trend of late”, did I learn about the passing of yet another great, Joe Simon (as well as Eduardo Baretto, with whose work I’m sadly unfamiliar. I hope to rectify that next year).
Just like Jerry, Joe had a very long life and career, full of major industry accomplishments which made him one of the giants upon whose shoulders everyone afterwards has stood. Unlike Jerry, however, I never saw Joe at any of the San Diego conventions I’ve attended in the last 15 years (I found out only recently he went to one in 1998 but was at the Diamond booth, and I must’ve been chained to mine at the time). So I have no personal notes to relate. Thankfully, this summer I purchased and read a nearly 30-year-old copy of Kitchen Sink’s excellent Will Eisner’s Spirit Magazine (#37) with a nice Joe Simon interview. (Will usually had a feature called “Shop Talk” where he chatted with one of his peers.) In it, they extensively discuss their Golden Age experiences, as well as (duh) talk shop, often with the kind of minutiae reserved for artists and obsessive fans. I wish I could reproduce all of it here, but time–and copyright law–permit only a reworked sampling.
I’m going to only focus on his early career and how he and Jack actually collaborated (which has been the subject of endless speculation by those who weren’t there). Kirby has acknowledged that Simon was “the business side” of the team, but Joe was creatively so much more, as you’ll see.
-Before comics, Joe wrote and/or drew several features for the Hearst newspapers in the mid 1930s.
–Simon first met Kirby while Jack was working for Victor Fox, making $15 per week pasting and touching up artwork. (“Kirby was a very good artist. I recognized that as soon as I saw him work. I think I was the first to really discover his talents because he was wasted at Fox.”)
–Fox was in a bind because Eisner & (Jerry) Iger’s shop had stopped working for him due to his sleazy business practices. Joe was hired as editor to basically “raid” the Eisner shop of talent. (Back then, shops of writers and artists like Einser’s and Harry A. Chesler’s did much of the creative work, packaging entire features for publishers. Only a few like DC, Fawcett and others had their own staff.)
–Fox had a slew of fictitious names in the magazines because he was afraid of being sued. One of the most common editorial names was “Mr. Roberts”, of which there were several, including Simon. In trying to raid Eisner’s shop, Fox advertised for artists by name, not realizing that many were actually pseudonyms of Will’s! (“…I was about 14 different people. [laughter]”)
–Of Fox, Joe said, “The man was insane, absolutely insane. He would go off on a speech like, ‘I’m the King of Comics and I’m not playing school here with chalk on the blackboard. I’ve got millions of dollars tied up in this business.’ You know, after awhile, Alfred Harvey [later of Harvey Comics] came in and started imitating him.”
–Simon freelanced while at Fox, doing such features as Blue Bolt (both alone and with Kirby) for Curtis Publishing, through Lloyd Jacquet’s syndicate, Funnies Inc. (publishers of some of the very first modern-format comics). Since Joe was used to being paid upon publication in newspapers, he wasn’t happy when Jacquet took up to six months to pay him. So he quit.
–After Fox, Joe went to Timely (later Marvel) to become Timely’s first editor for Martin Goodman. Goodman was married to Stan Lee’s aunt. Timely “was full of relatives”, including one “Uncle Robby” who brought a 17-year-old Stan in to meet Joe. Simon hired him as an errand boy and started him on writing for the company. As you know, Stan ended up doing pretty well with that gig!
–Funnies, Inc., paid about $5 to $7 per page for art. (Eisner’s shop paid around $7.) Joe was making $85 per week at Fox (extremely good money back then), but when he found he could get $15 per page from Goodman, Joe could do three or four pages per day and make even more.
–Joe and Jack formed a very unique partnership at Fox: “When we started we did the complete page from scratch. At that time we weren’t interested in art. We felt the comic business was the lowest rung on the ladder. We were interested in making money. Our only purpose was to get the stuff out as quickly as possible. Since they were my features, I would start the collaboration by writing the script.” However, they “didn’t have any paper”, so Joe would just lay out the copy right on the art board, and do rough layouts with it. “I’d letter the stuff and Jack would do the pencils. Then I would ink it. If we were in a jam, Jack would pitch in with his shading. Often I would pitch in with the pencilling, but the pure Simon & Kirby, the ones I like best, were done the way I first described.”
–Regarding technique: “I think actually I fell into Jack’s technique more than he fell into mine, although I looked at some of my early cartoon work–sports illustrations–and it did resemble Kirby’s work.”
–Regarding their collaboration: “It was a pastime of mine to sit around and come up with ideas. I’d constantly make up dummies–mockups of new comics. The romance books, Black Magic, many of the superheroes–were my ideas. However, I felt that Kirby added so much to them. You know, he would interpret the scripts so well that if somebody else had done them they might not have been successful.” Later he added, “No, I don’t know anybody that could have done the whole job the way Jack and I did. There were teams where one artist did inking and the other penciling [sic], but I can’t think of any that did the whole job, including scripts.”
–I’d always wondered who did what. Now I know. Kind of: “I’d really rough it out. I’d go into a lot more detail on the pencils, then put the script on the board. Kirby would continue. This was our established policy. He’d get into the pencils and then we’d give the stuff out to ink.” But Joe pointed out that they both did everything! If you really look at each man’s art, you can see a lot of similarity back then, even with the dynamic storytelling and figure work as well as the inking: “We could alternate at all stages. Sometimes we weren’t completely happy with everything we did, but we did our best. Everything was dictated by deadlines.”
–Immediately after Blue Bolt came Captain America, his most popular co-creation by far (though when Boy Commandos came out in the 40s, it soon outsold Cap). There was some of that “pure” S & K on that feature–“We did have some because we had to turn out an awful lot of work.” But by that time, they had a staff of freelancers helping out. Joe and Jack “would do the splash pages and then turn the pencils over to other inkers who outlined the pencils with ink. If there was time, Jack and I then laid in the shading.”
–They hired mostly freelancers. Joe said he didn’t like his lettering so he hired Howard Ferguson, whom Joe thought “was the best letterer in the history of comics.” Sometimes he’d follow Joe’s balloon placement and other times not. “He’d…dramatize the lettering at his discretion. It was just great! Howard Ferguson was the only man I have ever known–this was absolutely incredible–who would letter without pencilling rules!”
–Joe said he really enjoyed working with Jack. The two became very close, even at one point buying houses across the street from each other where they could exchange pages easily. Together they basically created the comics’ romance comic genre (with two huge titles, Young Love and Young Romance), the kid adventure team genre (with Boy Commandos and later Boy’s Ranch, the first of which, according to Joe, was number three in sales after Superman and Batman) and the mystical/horror genre (with Black Magic). They also created the original Sandman, Fighting American, Stuntman and more.
Simon’s career in the 1960s was also filled with innovations, some successful and some not, some critically praised and panned, but all fondly remembered. (A bizarre version of Captain Marvel, Sick magazine, Prez, Brother Power the Geek, and others. Those you can find out about in plenty of places on the Web. (A simple search will yield lots of interesting info. Artist Ty Templeton had a very fond remembrance of Prez on his blog.
For a plethora of powerful, fun, iconic, wacky, wild and dynamic images of Joe’s art and collaborations, check out this virtual display at the Kirby museum site.
I also recommend Joe’s two books, The Comic Book Makers and My Life In Comics. Thankfully, I managed to snag a copy of the first with a signed bookplate, as I never got a chance to meet Joe and get his autograph or a piece of his art. Now, of course, I have a perfect reason to read the book. So should you! Or at least one of his many comics.
I figure it’s the least we can do to honor a giant who helped shape our industry, our hobby and good portions of our childhood.
Thanks for everything, Joe. Cap was and is my favorite superhero of all time, and I’ll always think of you and Jack first when I see him. Rest in peace.
And please say Hi to Jack, Jerry and Eduardo for us, will you?
So what are your favorite memories, stories, or work from Joe’s long career? Please share them below. And have a happy holiday season!
P.S.: If you’d like to have your own art of Cap, the Boy Commandos, Sandman or any other character, I’m still available for a commission before the year ends. Just ask Craig here!