Joe Simon: My Life in Comics review
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The creator of a 'hero for all generations' spans generations himself ...
There are still those out there that would dismiss the world of comic books as nothing but kid stuff, lightweight pulp stories to entertain the lesser educated. But behind those works of art and literature lays a cut throat corporate world where few make it, and those that do make it are always expendable. To really make your mark in that world you have to have more than talent; you also need connections, drive, and more than a little luck. The birth of the modern comic book is brought to life in Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, the autobiography of one of the legends of the comic industry. It chronicles his life from his birth in Rochester, New York on October 11, 1913 and his growing up in poor Jewish neighborhoods, through to today. And for 97 years, he has remained working in the field he loves.
The book is fascinating obviously for comic book lovers, but also for any history buff, as it gives the modern reader a vivid image of Depression-era New York City, as well as providing us with glimpses into America heading into World War II, and on into the Cold War era. And unlike many autobiographies, Simon doesn’t grandstand or make outrageous claims. You get the impression he’s just a regular guy who happened to make a living doing something he loved to do and was able to continue through his long life. The book is also a quick read, because all of the chapters are broken up into smaller anecdotal segments, varying from a few paragraphs to a few pages. It’s the sort of experience you would get having a sit down chat with your grandfather about his life. He also has a great sense of humor, which really comes through in the writing. There are great stories throughout, and Simon isn’t afraid to namedrop. However, when he does mention other famous folks, he doesn’t do it to say "Hey, I knew so-and-so", he mentions most of them because he worked with them, and he tells you what contributions they made on the burgeoning world of comic books. The book tells of his long friendship and collaborations with Jack Kirby – and of course of their most famous creation, Captain America – and of other comic pioneers like Joe Shuster (the nicer of the two creators of Superman), Jerry Siegel (who Simon and Kirby didn’t care for at all), Timely Comics’ (later Marvel Comics) owner Martin Goodman (who made Simon their first editor), Goodman’s cousin-in-law Stanley Lieber, who would be hired by Simon and take the pen name Stan Lee, Al Harvey (Harvey Comics – Richie Rich, Hot Stuff, Casper), and too many others to name here.
The reader gets an impression of what it was like to live during the Depression, as Simon talks about always looking for work, even when you had steady employment. He relates how he and Kirby were always looking for anything that would keep the family going, which lead the two men to move from publisher to publisher, wherever the money was. He also talks about the constant threats from other publishers for copying existing characters (whether it was intentional or not, which in many cases, was), the legal struggles by himself and other artists who were looking for royalties and credit for characters they had created, and the always colorful people that he came in contact with on a day-to-day basis.
Simon talks about the day he met his wife, serving in the Coast Guard during World War II – where he met fellow servicemen Sid Caesar and Caesar Romero – and getting together with fellow artists and writers and their families. These giants of the comic industry were more than just co-workers, they were family. He leaves you with the impression that there was a real love between many of them, and what seems interesting is that he never gets overly critical of those he disliked, outside of his brief comments about Siegel, and some less-than favorable mentions of a couple of others, like Bob Kane. Even with all of the legal problems with Marvel and alleged backstabbing, he even seems to like and respect Stan Lee.
Along with superheroes, Simon talks about the many other genre comics he was involved in, like horror, romance, crime, western, and science fiction. As trends changed, so did the focus of publishers. He also goes into some detail about the attack on the comic industry by the Kefauver Commission, and the impact of Dr. Frederic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, which unfairly blamed comic books for the rise in juvenile delinquency. He tells of how EC Comics essentially was put out of business, and how many of the titles he was working on were dropped without any input from him as publishers were willing to bend to the will of the government. Here he talks about the demands put on them because of the new Comic’s Code, and how they forced artists to edit content, no matter how much it hurt the art or story.
As well as there being a wonderful story being told, the pages are littered with artwork from his entire career, from covers to panels to sketches, and photos of him, family, mentors, co-workers, and there’s even a full color section with pictures and covers from his many titles.
The last few chapters deal with Simon dealing with the death of his wife Harriet, his collaboration with his son Jim, working on comics through the seventies and eighties, and the death of his dear friend Jack Kirby. He even talks about his last effort in 1999 to finally get the rights to Captain America, and how in the settlement, he ended up getting payment to the Kirby estate for his children.
Joe Simon has been an icon in comic books from the beginning, and at 97 years of age, he’s still going strong. His story is gripping from the first page, detailing a real American story of a kid with nothing making something of himself. It’s honestly the sort of story that you have to read to believe, and one that I would be hard pressed not to recommend. If you love comic books, history, or just love a story of a real self-made man, you must read this book.
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