I realize the 98-year-old comic book writer hadn’t been active for years, but his death marks another loss in the history of comics. Whatever the medium has become, however garish the event series is and whatever ties DC and Marvel have with Hollywood, at one point it was all just about sequential art. The medium was new, the ideas rampant and Joe Simon was at forefront of all of that. If not for his masterminding of plot and dialog, comics would have never moved from a basement art form to the billion dollar industry it is today.
Let the historians ramble about the facts and details of Joe Simon’s life, I want to talk about the man’s gifts. Who he was and how his contributions will forever stain the walls of comic book history. Simon’s first character showed his initiative and ability to take ideas to a new level. Asked by Marvel in the late thirties to replicate the Human Torch (the android, not Johnny Storm), Simon returned with the Fiery Mask, a character often labeled as the “Green Lantern” of Marvel comics. Instead of just some superhero or robot, Simon gave the hero a back-story. Renowned scientist Jack Castle, while attempting to help police capture The Zombie Master, falls victim to an accident resulting in superpowers. It was a little of the Joe Simon excellence in what could have been a throwaway character.
Joe Simon & longtime collaborator Jack Kirby
Following that would be Simon’s greatest work ever, collaborating with a then unknown artist named Jack Kirby. Starting with The Blue Bolt, the master wordsmith and the greatest comic book artist ever would bash through characters and situations that moved comics to the next level. Obviously we can’t talk about Simon without talking about Captain America. Before Pearl Harbor, before America even stepped into World War II, Simon understood that a hero was needed to stand up to the oppression of Hitler and the Nazis. This wasn’t to be another typical hero story, Captain America would be a metaphor for the weak overcoming the powerful. When skinny kid Steve Rogers is given the super serum, he becomes Captain America and takes on all those who would wreak havoc on the world.
Simon’s writing style is key to what makes Captain America the long lasting icon he is. Created by the military to be the first in a line of super soldiers, Steve Rogers ends up being the only one given the serum after Nazis kill its creator. Instead of being super gung ho America, the Captain fights for the cause of right. He knows what it’s like to be weak and uses that compassion to control his power. That’s the kind of depth that Simon was capable of in a time when comics were seen as kid’s stuff.
Though his most popular character was Captain America, Simon was responsible for a slew of comic book icons. He wrote the first full-length comic for Whiz Comics' Captain Marvel (Shazam), he created The Fighting America, revamped Sandman and created the Manhunter. Simon’s handiwork brought the Boy Commandos into being as well as the Newsboy Legion. Simon, like Will Eisner, wrote these characters with a real emotional core. He understood that the medium of comic books was as much about great storytelling as great art.
The era of Simon & Kirby that I loved best was the crime comics. Nobody unraveled these noir stories like Simon did. He had the same ability to craft a complex tale as Dashiell Hammett or Richard Stark. Simon also had an ear for dialog. He simply couldn’t write a bad line, especially in the world of crime comics. Did you know Simon and Kirby created the first ever romance comic line with Young Romance?
Now take all that Simon has done and apply it to modern comics. How much of the superhero world is focused on Captain America? Not just in The Avengers but within Marvel as a whole. The character is the heartbeat of the Marvel Universe even seventy plus years later. Ed Brubaker’s Criminal would never exist without the Simon & Kirby crime comics. All the sad, emotional indie comics can be traced back to the work done in Young Romance. It’s a simple statement of fact, without the incredible and prolific work of Joe Simon, modern comics would not exist.
What matters most about the passing of Joe Simon? First that a human being with remarkable talent has passed on and that makes the world a little darker. Secondly, is the legend, the iconic touchstone that has enabled comic books to exist today. Finally, and most importantly, is the work. There is so much out there that people are not familiar with when it comes to Joe Simon. Find these collected treasures, seek out everything the man has ever done and read it cover to cover. Don’t read this work in passing, really study why Joe Simon was one of the true greats in the industry. We miss you Joe, as fans, as comic lovers and as respecters of the medium.
We all miss you.