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Posted at 02:10 PM ET, 12/15/2011

JOE SIMON, RIP: Remembering the legendary ‘Captain America’ co-creator, who has died at 98


“Joe Simon: My Life in Comics” (Joseph H. Simon - Titan Books)

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JOE SIMON, NEARING THE CENTURY MARK, still sounded like a man energized by the passions of his boyhood.

Simon, that son of upstate New York who grew up inspired by “Krazy Kat” and “Prince Valiant” and “The Gumps,” waxed thoughtful this past summer of a career that spanned superheroes and romance comics, satirical humor and sports cartoons.

Looking back at a legendary career highlighted in part by his co-creation of Captain America exactly 70 years ago this year, what was Mr. Simon most amazed at when considering his breadth of creative output?

“What astonishes me is that I’m still here to look back!” Simon told Comic Riffs with characteristic wit. “But yes, I’m amazed and grateful for all of the things I had the opportunity to try, and am still getting to do.”

There wasn’t much that Simon had left undone professionally as word spread Thursday that he had died in New York after a brief illness. He was 98.

Marvel Comics confirmed his death to Comic Riffs.

Simon was one of the revered figures in comics — the writer-artist who could do it all, and had done it all. From horror comics to ad­ven­ture comics, he brought craft and care and intelligence to his work.

Virtuoso though he was, his most iconic image from 80 years in the industry will remain the introduction of Captain America socking Hitler in the jaw in 1941 — the dawn of a brilliant teaming of Simon and fellow great Jack Kirby.

“Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America was the first comic I read that made me feel like I was watching an exciting action movie,” Stan Lee has told Comic Riffs. “To me, the way Simon and Kirby wrote and drew Captain America gave me the same thrill as watching Errol Flynn playing Robin Hood on the big screen.

“There was a sense of power and drama and excitement in Joe and Jack’s work that made it totally unique and always enjoyable.”

It was Simon who, as editor of Marvel’s predecessor — Timely Comics — would hire a 16-year-old Stanley “Stan Lee” Lieber, giving the future legend his break into the business.

Of Simon and Kirby’s work, comics superstar Neil Gaiman has told Comic Riffs: “I think the thing for me about them was that they were an astonishing duo together. Simon and Kirby together have cast huge shadows on the world of comics.”

Adds Gaiman: “Some of the most memorable stories I’ve done were influenced hugely by Joe.”

And another legend, Jerry Robinson, co-creator of the Joker, for a time had a drawing board next to Simon and Kirby. He told Comic Riffs in August: “Jack and Joe were innovators in their storytelling. And we all influenced each other.”

Robinson, of course, died last week at age 89. It’s been a mournful month for Golden Age greats. And the proximity of Joe’s and Jerry’s death heightens the sense of history lost and legacies left behind.

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Joe Simon, co-creator of "Captain America," and "Batman" artist Jerry Robinson at New York Comic-Con 2010. They both died in December 2011. (courtesy of Titan Books) (Used by permission - © 2011 DANA HAYWARD)
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When Comic Riffs interviewed Mr. Simon this past summer, he was proud of the new Captain America “First Avenger” film, which topped the domestic box office its opening weekend. They got it right, he told us.

Also this summer, Simon released his winning autobiography, “Joe Simon: My Life in Comics,” which Comic Riffs highly recommends to any true student of the field. The man was a walking through-line traversing much of the history of American comic art.

Joe Simon — who broke into cartooning and journalism by drawing such prizefighters as Max Baer — seemed fated to be remembered for his jaw-socking comics. He even shared with us that he created a “secret,” never-seen remaking of the first Captain America cover — but with Cap KO’ing not Hitler, but rather Osama bin Laden.

But of course, Simon did so much more — he was proud of his romance comics, and his satire. So in memory of the man, here is our interview with Joe Simon that first ran in October, in advance of his 98th birthday:

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MICHAEL CAVNA: I must confess: As a former newspaper sports cartoonist — an art whose true heyday was so many decades earlier — I relish your stories about working for newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American. What do you think made that era of newspapering especially great for cartoonists -- and do you think that’s a time that newspapers can ever recover for comic artists?

JOE SIMON: That was a time before photography had completely taken over the newspapers, so there was still a huge demand for illustrators. And newspapers like the Rochester Evening Journal and the Sunday American were still willing to give kids like me a chance to show what we could do. I got to take the camera out, sit in the front row at the great boxing matches, and write feature stories that appeared on the front page.

For the most part those times have passed. While there were still great cartoonists like Bill Gallo, who just passed away, they’re going to be few and far between.

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CAVNA: I’m always struck by the sheer variety of your career — from newspaper illustration to romance to crime to superheros and satire, etc., etc. Are you ever amazed, looking back, at the breadth and output of your career?

SIMON: What astonishes me is that I’m still here to look back! But yes, I’m amazed and grateful for all of the things I had the opportunity to try, and am still getting to do.

My parents always tried new things — from tailoring to singing to writing romance stories — and from the start, I took a shot at writing, illustrating and photography for the newspapers. So I suppose it was only natural for me to continue in that vein once I got into comics.

Of course, back then, Lloyd Jacquet required you to do it all when you turned in a comic book story at Funnies Incorporated. It’s not as if we had a choice! I just happened to be suited to it.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA in THE NEW “AVENGERS” TRAILER:

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Celebrity caricatures — including Bing Crosby — from “Joe Simon: My Life in Comics.” (Joseph H. Simon - Titan Books)
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CAVNA: Can you please speak to how you found inspiration in creating Captain America as a direct response to Hitler? And why do you think Cap still resonates so strongly today with readers and viewers?

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SIMON: Captain America has always been one of my favorites, but Jack and I were turning out character after character, always hoping one would be a hit with the audience. You had to keep working at it all the time, just to earn a living. That was the immediate goal: earning a living.

Back the, the world was a dangerous place, because of the things that were happening in Europe and Asia. So the audience was hungry for heroes. Today, the world is even more dangerous, with the things that are going on in the Middle East and other places. So there’s even more need for a hero who shows the way. That’s why Captain America [reached] the top of the box office.

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CAVNA: Why do you think we, the public, have a seemingly eternal and unquenchable thirst for great superheroes? What does it sate...fulfill...satisfy? When I asked Stan Lee this recently, by the way, he shaded his answer toward wish fulfillment.

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SIMON: Stan Lee, bless him, was right in that we’d all like to be that hero, punching out Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden. I did an updated version of the famous comic book cover, this time featuring bin Laden, and one day we may make it public.

It’s no accident that the first superhero boom came when we were facing the Great Depression and a world war. Superheroes represent the best in all of us — in that sense, they are us. So it’s natural that we look to them for our entertainment, whether it’s on the pages of the comic books or up on the big screen.

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CAVNA: As you look back on your long career, what accomplishments give you the most pride or joy?

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SIMON: Right now Captain America has to be one of my proudest accomplishments. It’s such a thrill seeing him in the theater, finally being done as well as he should have been all along.

Beyond that, I think I take the most pride from the deals I cut for things like the romance comics, Sick magazine, and some of my other creations. They proved that we didn’t have to give up all of our rights just to earn a living. Writers and artists are more in control today, and that’s the way it should be.

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Mr. Simon is survived by two sons, three daughters and eight grandchildren.


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The Fighting American (Joe Simon & Jack Kirby - courtesy of Titan Books)

By  |  02:10 PM ET, 12/15/2011

Tags:  joe simon, jack kirby, neil gaiman, stan lee, jerry robinson

 
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