At 97, Joe Simon has witnessed a lot of history—some of it of his own making. The artist, writer, and editor became a vital part of the nascent comic-book industry in the ’30s and ’40s, during which time he co-created his best-known character, the red-white-and-blue superhero Captain America. His creative partner at the time, the late Jack Kirby, stuck with him for decades, weathering comics trends such as romance, war, crime, and horror—that is, when they weren’t helping forge those trends in the first place. In the process, Simon and Kirby innovated wildly and made some of the greatest comics ever to grace the page. But they also suffered the plight of many of their peers: the lack of control over and payment for the continued use of their characters, which led to a protracted creators’-rights battle, from which Simon has never backed down.
In 1990, he and his son Jim Simon wrote The Comic Book Makers, an anecdotal account of the industry’s infancy that Michael Chabon cited as a source for his novel The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay. (Chabon also borrowed many elements of Simon’s career for his fictionalized version of comic books’ early days—most notably Simon and Kirby’s iconic, pre-Pearl Harbor image of Captain America punching out Hitler.) Simon’s new autobiography, Joe Simon: My Life In Comics, parallels The Comic Book Makers in some ways, but Simon uses it to tell a warm, witty, deeper story that uses the whole of the 20th century as his backdrop. With the film Captain America: The First Avenger opening July 22—not to mention the recent publication of Fighting American, a collection of Simon and Kirby’s Captain America-like comic from the ’50s—Simon exchanged emails with The A.V. Club about his long life and indelible legacy.
The A.V. Club: The Comic Book Makers covers some of the same ground as My Life In Comics. What did you leave unsaid in the first book that you needed to flesh out?
Joe Simon: This is a completely different book, and it’s a lot more personal. Most of the stories in My Life In Comics are entirely new or told from a new perspective, and there’s a lot more about the people, including my family and the writers and artists I worked with over the last 80 years. This is a lot more than a history of the comics—I designed it to take readers back to experience first-hand the things that shaped my life and the world of comic books.
AVC: Some of the most poignant parts of My Life In Comics don’t deal with comics at all—for instance, your recollections of growing up, race relations, and everyday life during the Depression and World War II. But you don’t linger on the negatives. Were any of those things difficult to revisit?
JS: As I said in the book, for the most part, people were nice when I was growing up. And I loved America so much—to me, this was the greatest country ever. So when someone didn’t like me because of my background, I didn’t let it get to me.
AVC: A lot has happened to Captain America since 1990, including his widely publicized death in 2007. You don’t dwell on that topic in My Life In Comics, though. Why is that?
JS: Most of that has been talked to death, and recently, too. There’s not a whole lot I can add that hasn’t already been said. It really didn’t have any impact on me, other than to get me interviewed on television and in the newspapers. I’m a lot more interested in looking forward now, with the Captain America movie and all the other projects I have in the works.
AVC: What have you been working on?
JS: We have another book in the Simon & Kirby Library coming out this fall. It’s Crime, and it collects all the great crime comics Jack and I did in the 1940s and 1950s, with great characters like Ma Barker, Al Capone, and Pretty Boy Floyd. We’re still figuring out what comes next, but we’ll definitely be doing a book of our 1950s horror stories from Black Magic.
AVC: There’s also the new Captain America movie, which you don’t mention much in the book. You do say, though, that you’ve “been in touch with the producers.” Besides basing the film on your characters and origin story, did they solicit any input from you?
JS: The people out in Hollywood know what they’re doing, and what they got from me and Jack is the most important part—the origin story and the comic books we produced. Marvel sent a crew to interview me, and I’m sure everyone will see that before long, but otherwise, I’m happy to let them do their thing. The producers are being very good to my family, too, inviting them to the première. I’ll have a bunch of grandchildren in the crowd when the movie opens.
AVC: These new movies are far from the first time Captain America has been filmed; besides false starts like the poorly received 1990 movie, the character’s onscreen history goes all the way back to the Republic serials in the ’40s. Neither of those is mentioned in My Life In Comics. Were they important to you at all?
JS: I had absolutely nothing to do with those, and I think the less that’s said about them, the better. They weren’t good, and they certainly weren’t important to me. By the time they came along, I had much better things to do.
AVC: Captain America has appeared in just about every medium imaginable, from cartoons to novels to videogames to song. Has the character’s durability and adaptability ever surprised you?
JS: Every time we moved on, we focused on what we were going to do next. That’s why we were able to leave Captain American and do Boy Commandos, or come back from the war and do Young Romance. Since we were always looking forward, it was amazing to look back and see all of the places Captain America ended up. But we always knew we had a great character there, so I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
AVC: Your battles to retain various rights to Captain America have been epic. Do you feel you’ve finally been vindicated?
JS: I’ve been happy with the results of our various legal entanglements, and my relationship with Marvel is very good these days. So I suppose it was worth all of the effort. Like I said in the book, though, if you want to waste a tremendous amount of money and five years of your life, depositions are the perfect way to do it!
AVC: My Life In Comics contains many memorable anecdotes about lawsuits and hearings, from plagiarism cases all the way up to the legendary Senate obscenity probes of the ’50s. What makes the comics industry so particularly litigious?
JS: Any time there’s a chance for someone to make money, there will be someone who will file a lawsuit or send a cease-and-desist order. Lawyers love that sort of thing. So I don’t know if comic books are any more litigious, but we’ve had our share of courtroom dramas.
AVC: Brother Power The Geek and Prez mark a unique chapter of your career in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time, you were also focused on Sick, your take on Mad. As a Republican and the co-creator of Captain America, were you ever uneasy with that kind of counterculture irreverence?
JS: The culture of the ’60s and ’70s was terrific, with all sorts of imagination and fodder for stories that were exciting and fun. Since I had teenage sons and daughters, I got to experience a lot of that time through their eyes, as they were growing up. That made it even more enjoyable, although as any parent will tell you, there were times when it wasn’t exactly easy.
AVC: Your satire always seemed even-handed and equal-opportunity. Did you strive for that?
JS: We’d do anything that made a good story or a good gag. So in that sense, yes, we were even-handed. Anybody and everybody could be a target.
AVC: Some of the major plot points of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay—particularly the iconic Hitler-getting-punched image you used to introduce the world to Captain America—are drawn directly from your life and work. Chabon cites The Comic Book Makers as a reference, but did he ever approach you directly, before or after the book was published?
JS: I didn’t have anything do to with The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay. That was a novel, and what we have now is the real thing. I think readers will find it every bit as exciting. More so, because these are real people.
AVC: Did you find it flattering at all?
JS: To tell the truth, I didn’t really pay that much attention to it. It seemed to me that it was a little bit Simon and Kirby, a little bit [Will] Eisner and [Jerry] Iger, and a little bit [Superman creators] Siegel and Shuster.
AVC: In addition to your autobiography, your latest collection of Golden Age comics, Fighting American, was just published. You and Jack Kirby created Fighting American as a reaction to the brief resurrection of Captain America by different creators in the ’50s. How did it feel to compete against your own brainchild?
JS: Jack and I both loved Fighting American, and I think it stacks up to everything we did on Captain America. Rather than do a straight costumed superhero, we tried something completely different. It turned into a unique series with its own bizarre sense of humor and energy. That’s why it’s lasted all these years, and it’s getting such great reviews for this latest collection.
AVC: As you point out in My Life In Comics, even your original Captain America stories are far less serious and heavily patriotic than the character might seem to call for. Was it important to strike that balance?
JS: Here again, whatever we did, we did with the goal of telling good stories. While he had patriotic roots, Captain American was designed to be more than a guy wearing the flag. So we had him fighting mobsters and monsters—whatever made a good, action-packed adventure.
AVC: Speaking of resurrections, you and Kirby were the first to overhaul Sandman, which kicked off a series of revamps that eventually led to Neil Gaiman’s reinvention of the character. In light of your legal difficulties with Captain America, do you feel that comic-book characters—and comic books in general—benefit from constant revamping?
JS: If somebody does a good job at it, then it was worth doing. Our Sandman was completely different from Creig Flessel’s character, and the version Jack and I did in the 1970s, which inspired Neil Gaiman in his work, was completely different from the Simon and Kirby Sandman of the 1940s. Each time, we did our best, and I think we succeeded. If someone else can do the same, the way Gaiman did with his version, then it’s definitely worth doing.
AVC: Have you ever felt conflicted in this sense? Captain America is your baby, but you’ve had to let him be handled by many creators over the decades.
JS: Not really. It happens. And some of these guys really loved the character, like [longtime Captain America writer and editor] Mark Gruenwald, who loved comics so much that when he died, he had his ashes put into a graphic novel. How can you complain about someone who cares that much about your character?
AVC: America is a far different place now than it was when Captain America was created. If you were a young artist today, would you have created him differently?
JS: I don’t know if we would have done Captain America differently, but the world is certainly different today. Despite the dealings we had with the Nazis and the Bund, back in the 1940s, I think we live in a much more dangerous world today. That’s why I think Captain America is more important than ever as an iconic hero everybody can count on.
AVC: In the comics, Captain America has criticized his country, or even disobeyed his government. Do you think that’s a deviation from his character, or a fundamental part of it?
JS: If it’s part of a good story, then I suppose it’s okay. But to me, Captain America is one of us, and he is all of us. So at the end of the day, he needs to represent the love of his country and the attempt to do what’s right.