In more sad news for the comics world, the Associated Press is reporting the death of Joe Simon, one of the industry’s most acclaimed writers and the co-creator (with artist Jack Kirby) of Captain America, one of comicdom’s most stalwart superheroes. Simon died after suffering from a brief, undisclosed illness. He was 98.
Simon started out doing editorial cartoons and publicity work for Paramount Pictures before being hired by Funnies, Inc., the early comics packager that published the first issue of what would later become Marvel. In those early days, Simon created Golden Age characters like the Fiery Mask and Blue Bolt—one of the first comic books to be named after a single character, and his earliest collaboration with Kirby. After Simon became the first editor at Timely Comics, the imprint that would become Marvel in the 1960s, he and Kirby embarked on one of the most fruitful partnerships in the medium’s history, beginning with the creation of Captain America—a character born as a sketch by Simon, and intended as a conscious political statement on the inherent justice of the country’s participation in World War II. (Despite its intention as propaganda: it was still a very personal creation: Simon even named sidekick Bucky after his high school friend.)
The iconic superhero first spotted socking Adolf Hitler in the jaw was, obviously, hugely popular during the WWII era, embodying the rah-rah spirit of the nation in its tale of an ordinary, frail young patriot transformed into a Nazi-fighting machine with a little bit of guts and a whole lot of experimental serum. And while his readership dipped somewhat after there were no longer any Nazis to fight, Captain America was revived—both as a title and as a guy rescued from suspended animation—to take charge of superhero supergroup The Avengers, continuing to fight the good fight (give or take the occasional death and rebirth) well into the present day. The Captain also proved a huge success off the comics page, starring in the first Marvel Comics-based film adaptation in an eponymous 1944 serial, plus several TV series and movies since then, including this past summer’s hit Captain America: The First Avenger and next May’s likely blockbuster, The Avengers.
In a story that’s all too common from the Golden Age, Simon felt that he and Kirby were not earning a fair share of the profits at Timely, so they secretly sought freelance work over at National Comics—which would later become Marvel’s chief rival, DC Comics—while also working on developing Fawcett Comics characters such as Captain Marvel, whom they gave his first-ever solo comic book. At DC, the pair were responsible for refining heroes like the early, Wesley Dodds version of Sandman and Manhunter, as well as creating the popular “kid gang” titles Boy Commandos and Newsboy Legion.
Along with playing a huge part in the development of superhero comics, Simon was also a pioneer in the genres that would briefly replace them, working with Kirby on Western, crime, and military titles, creating the early horror comic Black Magic, and publishing the first-ever romance comic, Young Love, a book that would soon see scores of imitators. When hysterical censorship and flagging sales beset the comics industry in the 1950s, Simon finally left Kirby and struck out on his own, dabbling in advertising (including working for Nelson Rockefeller) while occasionally reuniting with his old partner to work on stories for Archie Comics, updating a version of Captain America progenitor The Shield, and creating the somewhat campy superhero the Fly.
In the 1960s, Simon moved to satirical humor, founding the Mad competitor Sick, which ran until 1980. Around this time he also created one of comics’ most bizarre characters, Brother Power The Geek, a mannequin reanimated by lightning that also gives him superpowers, and who then wanders amid the hippie subculture, protecting them from fascist war hawks and providing them with philosophical wisdom while also mounting a run for Congress. (The series was canceled after only two issues—with Brother Power being shot into space by Governor Ronald Reagan—though Brother has cameoed a few times since then in Vertigo titles like Swamp Thing and Constantine, and once even met up with Batman.)
Simon similarly explored ’60s subculture—and some weird, crazy shit—with the four-issue DC series Prez, in which a teenager is elected President, then forced to fight corrupt political bosses, legless vampires, right-wing militias led by distant relatives of George Washington, and evil chess players, all with the help of a young Native American who’s deeply connected to animals, and whom Prez appoints as director of the FBI. (Seriously.)
During the Silver Age, Simon also reteamed with Kirby on several Harvey Comics titles, creating characters like Fighting American, Captain 3-D, Jigsaw, Spyman, and Tiger Boy; they would work together one last time on a 1974 revival of the Sandman for D.C. In the ’70s, Simon also revisited his earlier love of “kid gang” titles with DC’s The Green Team, about a group of adventure-seeking rich kids, and also developed The Outsiders, about a team of humans with hideous deformities that grant them special powers (but just barely).
In more recent years, Simon guided his son Jim’s own burgeoning comic career, painted and sold reproductions of some his most iconic covers, and remained a wise, benevolent presence in the comics world, gamely turning up in interviews and at conventions, and famously speaking out against Marvel’s decision to kill (however briefly) his Captain America in 2007. He leaves behind one of the most enviable, influential legacies in the medium.
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