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Posted at 10:48 AM ET, 10/11/2011

JOE SIMON TURNS 98 TODAY: It’s been a very good year — and career — for the ‘Captain America’ co-creator


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

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It’s been a very good year for JOE SIMON.

In July, Captain America topped the domestic box office in Marvel’s “First Avenger” film — exactly 70 years after Simon co-created the Hitler-socking character with fellow great Jack Kirby.

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. Simon’s compelling career spans from Depression-era newspaper illustration to superhero comics to his romance books and satirical work — the man is a walking through-line traversing much of the history of American comic art.

And today, Joe Simon — the onetime kid who broke into cartooning and journalism by drawing such prizefighters as Max Baer — turns 98.

Which means it’s a good day to celebrate not only the man, but also his storied career.

There are very few living comics legends left among us whose careers stretch back to — or nearly to — the dawn of superhero books. Marvel mastermind Stan Lee (age 88) is one, and the great and versatile Jerry Robinson (age 89) is another.

But then you pause to recall: Not only did Joe Simon get into cartooning before both of them — Joe was the editor who hired Stanley “Stan Lee” Lieber at what would become Marvel, giving the teenaged office boy his first job in comics.

"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," 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."

And Jerry Robinson tells Comic Riffs: “What’s most special about Joe is that I think he’s the unsung hero of the Simon and Kirby team.”

Robinson, who got his start working in the Batman studio with creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, had a drawing board next to Simon and Kirby for some years.

“Jack and Joe were innovators in their storytelling,” Robinson tells us. ”And we all influenced each other.”

Another comics superstar — writer Neil Gaiman — also praises Jack and Joe as a dynamic duo.

"I think the thing for me about them was that they were an astonishing duo together," Gaiman has told Comic Riffs. "Simon and Kirby together have cast huge shadows on the world of comics."

Of Simon's influence, Gaiman has told us: "It was the very Joe Simon-ness that delighted me. And of realizing how many times in my career, I [was inspired by] that cool, weird, mad thing that Joe did. ... Some of the most memorable stories I've done were influenced hugely by Joe."

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Joe Simon, co-creator of "Captain America," and "Batman" artist Jerry Robinson at New York Comic-Con 2010. (courtesy of Titan Books) (Used by permission - © 2011 DANA HAYWARD)
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In advance of his 98th birthday, Comic Riffs recently caught up with Joe Simon to reflect on his remarkable career. Mr. Simon discusses everything from his ringside newspapering days to his “secret,” never-seen remaking of the first Captain America cover — but with Cap KO’ing not Hitler, but rather Osama bin Laden:

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

By  |  10:48 AM ET, 10/11/2011

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

 
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