Saturday, May 30, 2009

"If you're lucky": Joe Simon on Life and Comic Books

Joe Simon couldn’t hear me my first time meeting him. He was walking around the kitchen of his small one-bedroom apartment in the Upper West Side of New York, wearing a paint-covered white smock, politely nodded and said hello, then put his hearing aid in place. Simon calls his home his “habitat;” the walls of the living room are covered in framed pieces of artwork, from classic to acrylic paintings (including a recreation of The Last Supper, but with Simon and Kirby comics characters). His old recliner is set up against his drawing board, which faces out to a large television (before the interview starts, we talk a bit about the plummeting stocks and how Citibank shares can be bought for a mere buck). Looking through his living room window, you can make out the McGraw-Hill Building, where Timely Comics was housed when Simon and Kirby were editor and art director there in the early ‘40s.

Just five years shy of hitting the century mark, Simon’s wit and sharpness is well intact as he’s gearing up for The Best of Simon and Kirby, a slick hardcover reprinting a sampling of stories he and collaborator Jack Kirby cranked out in their collaboration that started in the schlockiest of schlock publishers in 1939, and continued until the comics medium was a burst balloon in the mid-1950s. span class="fullpost">Their first boss was the notorious Victor Fox, the epitome of the fly-by-night breed of nascent comic book publishers.

“He was a clown,” Joe recalled, leaning down on his drawing board. “He was about 5’2”, rather portly, and he was an accountant from Britain. He was an accountant and, what I know of him…The only things I know about Victor Fox were talked around and whispered around as rumors. Victor Fox wouldn’t talk to me: he had a guy named Bob Farrel, who was a lawyer and his second in command.

“When Victor Fox did talk to me, it was total nonsense. We had one book, as an example, that had a very good sale. He called me in and says ‘Oh, what is it about this book that sells? There has to be something about it,’ so he starts going through the book. He says (and I’m not sure of these numbers) ‘The third panel of page three we have a big explosion takes up half the page.’ He says ‘I tell you what, do that in every book.’ The guy had fifteen titles. ‘Do that in every book.’

“I say ‘You serious?’

“He said ‘Absolutely, everything has a cause,’” Joe laughs, heartily. “We did it and nothing happened. He’d walk around like a little Napoleon and say ‘I’m the King of the Comics. We’re not playing games here with chalk on a blackboard, because I’m the King of the Comics.’

“I was the sacrificial lamb there. I came in, and we had no staff and I had to do all the covers. I didn’t have a letterer, I didn’t have a writer, I didn’t have an artist. I knew nothing about comics. Hardly anybody did those days, anyhow, except the guys that came out of newspapers or feature syndicates.”

It didn’t take long for the enterprising Joe to start moonlighting comics for other companies; after a short while, he brought in a partner in Jacob Kurtzberg, a kid from the rough Lower East Side who was drawing Fox’s Blue Beetle comic strip and signing it Charles Nicholas. After a bevy of other pseudonyms, Kurtzberg settled on his new moniker – Jack Kirby.

They were an unlikely pair: Joe the savvy businessman, tall and lanky, while Jack was short and barrel-chested, and apparently not much of a talker. Where Joe was raised in Rochester, Jack had grown up in the tough streets of the Lower East Side. But something about these contrasting sons of tailors balanced them out, and they were the perfect team.

Joe Simon soon found himself thriving in what was then considered an illegitimate business – a far cry from his start as a newspaperman.

Joe Simon was born in Rochester, New York in 1913. In 1932, landed a job at the Rochester Journal-American, a Hearst paper. The young Simon started by retouching photos, learning at the foot of an alleged fifth columnist German editor, Adolph, who reputedly also spent time at nudist camps.

“Hearst was with the actresses in California, and not paying attention to newspapers that much,” Simon says. “When he pulled the Rochester paper, I went to the Syracuse Herald, and Newhouse bought that one. The newspaper business was like the [television] networks of today being threatened by the Internet; at that time, radio was coming in and getting all of the advertising dollars since it was cheaper and something new. The whole infrastructure of media was in flux at the time and you didn’t know where the hell you were. I did freelance work in New York. This was in 1938 and the comic book business was just getting started.”

The comic book medium took off like a shot from a starting pistol with the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1. The first superhero, Superman not only generated sales in the thousands for his publisher Detective Comics (later known as National Comics, and currently DC), but also launched a bevy of imitators within countless other comics publishers. Comic books were disposable and subversive low brow literature, 64 pages of badly thrown together and haphazardly drawn stories.

But all that really interested Simon at the time was sports illustration, and rubbing elbows with boxers and celebrities in the Big Apple, including a legendary boxer and the writer responsible for the musical Guys and Dolls.

“I was a big fan of Broadway and Damon Runyon was my hero,” Simon notes, pointing out the famed sports and short story writer. “I knew Damon Runyon and had done some work with him. They were sports stories and also photography. They had cameras there at the paper and I would take the cameras up to spectacular New York. Max Baer was training there. I covered boxing, and Damon Runyon used to come up there and asked to take pictures and I was a teenager and loved it. All the Hearst men would hang out and talk professional talk, and I was just a teenage kid.

“It was a land of privileges, working on the papers. I was invited to all of the local golf clubs, and I worked in the stands at Syracuse. I’d have front-page illustrations and bylines. For a kid, it was wonderful.”

The Damon Runyon influence screams out from "Duke of Broadway", a back-up feature from Simon and Kirby’s ill-fated foray doing comics for Harvey Comics in the comic book industry’s post-World War II slump. Unlike most Simon and Kirby productions, this one was almost all Simon, from writing to art. Runyon’s stories followed the character Broadway, who roamed New York City streets at night, bumping into other colorful characters, all speaking in distinctive vernacular.

As the Duke of Broadway stands amidst the ruins of a New York City leveled by an Atomic Bomb, he asks “Am I responsible for this terrible disaster – or are we all responsible?”

The story, “My City is No More,” isn’t just a preventative tale about the onslaught of the Atomic threat, where Duke and company try to stop a Nazi war criminal from blowing up the city, but also a commentary on the nuclear age, and the fears of the Cold War that other countries would gain the A-Bomb. Even their action stories were laced with human interest and, every once in a while, social commentary.

“Not all of these guys knew how to do comics,” Joe says of the Golden Age. “Bill Eisner was twenty years old. Jack Kirby was 23. At least I had had some years on three different newspapers, and I knew that if you put a pencil down, I knew how it would reproduce. These guys didn’t know.”

Before Simon became the comics visionary of the late ‘40s, and before he went to Fox to meet a young Jack Kirby, he was churning out his first stories for Lloyd Jacquet, who ran comics packaging shop Funnies, Inc.

“My first work was for Funnies, Inc. with Lloyd Jacquet for $5 a page.

“If you’re lucky,” Joe added.

“I told you that story about asking ‘When do we get paid?’ They said ‘A day after publication.’ I said ‘Okay, great’ and did a fifteen-page Western. We never discussed it, and he placed it right away. There weren’t many people in comics that knew the business. If you were a publisher, you were lucky if you could find somebody who could put words and pictures together. “

Jacquet was paying artists to put words and pictures together for pulp magazine-turned-comic book publisher Timely Comics. Owned by publisher Martin Goodman, Timely’s star heroes were the Funnies, Inc.-produced android The Human Torch (with the striking ability to turn to complete flame) and the pointy-eared angry young man, Namor the Sub-Mariner. Simon contributed The Fiery Mask, a man in yellow clothes with a domino mask that mysteriously blazed fire of its own.

After Funnies, Inc, Simon went to Fox, met Kirby, and moonlighted on comics like sci-fi hero (and Simon creation) Blue Bolt for Funnies, Inc. and an issue of Captain Marvel Adventures for Fawcett Comics. The Simon and Kirby style developed into their trademark melee of action per page: punches were thrown with arms wide and feet four feet apart, characters broke the dimensional wall of panel borders with a leg or an arm breaching into another panel, and panels weren’t relegated to mere boxes, but sometimes circles and odd shapes of the artists’ own invention. The heroes were always stoic and handsome, the women beautiful in a sturdy way (Kirby liked his women Zuftig), and the villains always intense and frightening.

They worked in whatever fashion the story called for: sometimes Joe would write and do roughs, and then Jack would finish them, or Jack might plot a story out and Joe would come in and ink and letter it. Soon, they even had a staff of artists to “skim off the bottom” and help meet the deadlines and produce content (all in the Simon and Kirby style, of course). Despite who did what, the duo worked together in a seamless and synergestic manner, to the point where it’s often tough to pick apart who contributed what to a story.

Pretty soon, Timely Comics came back into Joe’s life.

“What I’m adding to this is just stuff that comes to my mind now, as we’re talking,” Joe says, leaning down on his drawing table again, causing it to tilt, with the contents sliding down, threatening to fall off the edge.

“Eventually, to boil it all down, Martin decided that though Funnies, Inc. was doing a great job and coming up with great characters – The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, and quite a few others – the percentage of issues that made it after the first issue and mortality was very great. Martin Goodman realizes he’s been lucky with Lloyd Jacquet and Funnies, Inc. and that someone at another company would look at the books and see what was going on. It wouldn’t take much for him to figure out that Funnies, Inc. was Timely Comics. I’m just guessing at what’s going on here.

“So, Martin wanted to insure his company by starting his own business. He had a few offices there with accountants…He was big on accountants…and bookkeepers and so forth. But nobody could put words together. He did have an old editor there named Levy, but didn’t have any art directors there. That’s when my experience on newspapers came together, because I used to know how to layout and do type, I knew writing, and printing. The comic books were letterpress [then]. Today, almost everything is offset.”

After a meeting with Goodman, Simon was hired as the editor of Timely, with Jack taking a position as art director. Not together as a team for even a year, Simon created what became Timely’s star character – Captain America – with Jack’s strong pencils helping to develop the Super Soldier.

“Wherever we went, we’d go ‘Hey, that’d make a great character, a great villain, maybe we could do it,’” Joe reflected. “We’d have the main character be second banana to the villain, and that’s how Captain America came out. I picked Adolph Hitler as the ideal villain. He had everything that Americans hated, and he was a clown with the funny moustache, yet guys were ready to jump out of planes for him. He was the first choice, and his antagonist would have to be our hero, and we’d put a flag on the guy and have Captain America.”

Captain America premiered in Captain America Comics #1, dated March, 1941. Slugging Hitler out on the cover, the flag-dressed super patriot was the first superhero to premiere in his own title (as opposed to in the pages of an anthology), and the first to acknowledge the Nazis and World War II in comics. Captain America was a hit, and Simon and Kirby were working staff jobs with a royalty agreement on Captain America.

“Martin Goodman at Timely had nobody there,” Simon recalls the office. “He had a bookkeeper, and that was his brother, and he had a couple guys hanging around that were also his brothers. He brought in Stan Lee, who I think his mother was a cousin of Martin Goodman. Then there was Uncle Robbie who brought in Stan Lee…They were all nice people, except that nobody liked their Uncle Robbie.”

Joe Simon laughs at his own bluntness over Uncle Robbie.

While at Timely, Simon and Kirby also created The Vision, an ethereal crimefighter from another dimension who eerily transports himself from smoke. A gangster’s cigar, the smoke from a hearth – nothing was cut off from the green-skinned and somber Vision. It was one of Simon and Kirby’s more atmospheric strips, and perhaps their most underrated from their stint at Timely.

At one point while at Timely, New York City’s feisty mayor Fiorello LaGuardia campaigned to keep decency on the newsstands, not afraid of targeting comic book publishers.

“I remember once, when I was at Timely, Goodman got a call from Mayor LaGuardia, little Fiorello LaGuardia, and he said ‘I want every publisher in this city over in my office at three o’clock tomorrow.’ And he says ‘I’m going to shut down this porn industry if I have to close down everyone,’ and the publishers were scared to death of him. They went over to meet with him and, after that, from what he told them, you couldn’t put the word ‘Sex’ on the front of a magazine. It was a different time.”

After Joe and Jack learned that Timely wasn’t doing their part in paying the royalties (apparently charging office expenses off of the profits from Captain America Comics), Joe went to chat with competitor DC/National Comics. In 1942, after ten issues of Captain America Comics, Simon and Kirby jumped ship to National Comics, owned by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz.

“We were really scoring gigs at the time, in 1942,” Joe says. “Boy Commandos, Sandman, Manhunter, Newsboy Legion. We were the phenomenon of the comic book business: they asked to put our bylines on the covers. It was the first time it was ever done in comics.”

Firmly rooted at DC/National, Simon and Kirby revamped a couple of established characters like the Sandman and Manhunter, and also contributed a couple of “kid gangs”: The Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos. The kid gangs always featured an adult mentor, and always a scrapper from a tough neighborhood who just happened to look like Kirby and talk with a New York accent like his.

Working at DC was a far cry from Timely, particularly due to the radical differences between Martin Goodman and DC’s Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz.

“Harry Donenfeld was a hard Scotch drinker,” Joe remembers his old boss. “He was fighting with his brother for control of the company, and Jack Liebowitz was his accountant for the company. [Jack] was very nice. So, Jack Liebowitz took over the company.”

“There wasn’t much happening in Harry Donenfeld’s head,” Joe adds with a laugh.

“Every time we’d come up to the office, he’d have a big jar of Scotch on a swivel. We’d have to be introduced to him. We were bringing in the most sales of his business, and he still couldn’t remember us. It was on a wooden swivel-stick, and he’d just tip it over into a glass. We’d have to drink from that thing every time we came into the office. Every time we went in, Liebowitz would have to introduce us. [Donenfeld] didn’t know what he was putting out and didn’t know what we were doing. He was the strangest guy, and always had a bodyguard with him. The bodyguard was his chauffeur, and he was up real tight close with Judge Goldstein. The Judge took care of all his problems; Donenfeld was a very wealthy man. The chauffeur was always around him, and they were all very nice and very subservient to all of us. One of the nicest offices in the suite there was a guy named Siegel, who didn’t have any function, but the story was that he had served time on a sex charge for Donenfeld’s other magazines. They had pulps and sex rags; they were innocent things for now, but at that time they had stringent controls.”

World War II encroached into the comics industry, as artists and writers found themselves drafted and packing their bags to fight the Axis powers. Kirby, determined to fight, went Army, while Joe went to the Coast Guard.

“The busiest time was before we were drafted. I actually joined: I didn’t want to push my luck,” Simon laughs.

Donenfeld had a true seller with Simon and Kirby, and the duo and their studio worked double-time to create an inventory of stories to run while they were away. When they came back in 1945, Jack had recovered from a bad bout of frostbite gained while stringing barbed wire, and Joe had packaged comics for the Coast Guard’s “Combat Art Corps” in Washington, D.C..

“After the War, Jack got out earlier than I did, and went back and finished up some work at DC Comics,” Joe says of his old partner. “I was a friend of Al Harvey and had made a deal with Al, all under discussion with Jack Kirby. It’s not that I would go out and sell him down the river. We had a great deal with Harvey where we would become actual partners in profits, but Jack had to wait until I finished out my tour at Washington, D.C. at headquarters.

“What happened is that it depended on the times. There were a lot of times when artists were unemployed in this business, and we had to make our own jobs by creating something off the beaten track, a new type of hero or something entirely different like Young Romance. We were the guys that were up to the task. We were good friends and we enjoyed working together. Jack was married about two years before he got out, and I had just gotten married after I had got out, so we decided we’d make it easy on commuting so we bought houses across the street from one another.”

Jack and Joe moved to Long Island and worked out of their homes. It still wasn’t fashionable to be a comic book artist, so Joe circulated the rumor that he was a bookie.

“If you were a married homeowner, you’d be making $20 to $30 a week and living a good life,” Joe explains. “We were getting $5 a page and all we had to do was invent the character, write the script, letter it, erase it, and wait ninety days for $45. There were surprises, and everybody was taken advantage of. But, hey, we were working, making $75 a week, $85, 90.

“The only problem was, all the guys I knew (including myself and especially Jack Kirby) wanted to be steadily employed. I guess we were a product of our times and the whole Depression.”

Because they produced entire comics together, the two friends did all of their work out of Long Island, not needing the long trips into the city.

“In our case, we created our own [stories] and didn’t have to wait for a script. We created our own, and had our own letterer. Simon and Kirby had no relationship with the rest of the field. We didn’t have to travel. Jack couldn’t drive,” Simon laughs again.

“[Jack’s wife] Roz once told me ‘If he ever leaves me, I’ll have to drive him.’”

Then Joe breaks into another story, about his old friend and creative partner:

“He was insane,” Joe jokes about Kirby. “He had constant fit of road rage. He says ‘If that woman gets in my way, I’m gonna drive right through her.’ He actually spoke like that. There’s forty years they wouldn’t let him drive a car. I remember the first car he bought was a Studebaker that looked like an airplane. He was a big family man: Roz’s family and his family were all very close.

“I remember once he had decided that he was going to buy a car on his own and he didn’t want any advice. On Queens Boulevard there. It was a used car lot. Arthur Weiss was his insurance salesman, and we all hung out together. We were all about the same age. Arthur Goodman was Martin’s younger brother and so the three of us were like buddies. [Jack] went with Roz to this used car lot, and the salesman there was Morris Weiss who was Arthur Weiss’s brother. If you dropped a nickel it was gone in twenty seconds.

“Kirby bought a Lincoln, big like a Presidential Lincoln. He drove it home and it never worked after that. I had to get mad at Morris Weiss and Arthur Weiss, and I had to stick up for Kirby. The Kirbys didn’t think I was involved with that. They never drove the car. They had to dump it. Beautiful car.”

Simon and Kirby continued to do comics for about another ten years, creating new genres during the turmoil of the post-war comic book industry. They introduced romance comics with Young Romance #1, following up with Western Romance and Young Love; the stories focusing on the complex human emotions that entangle themselves in romance, featuring a sophistication that took more thought than superhero comics. When they jumped onto the horror bandwagon with Black Magic and The Strange World of Your Dreams, they weren’t knock-offs of EC Comics Tales from the Crypt – they were more cerebral and suspense-filled, dealing in implied horror just as much as sheer horror.

They even had their own company for a brief time, Mainline, around 1954 and published their Western superhero Bullseye. When the industry (including Mainline’s distributor) went belly-up shortly after, Simon and Kirby parted ways, briefly reuniting in 1959 to develop superheroes for Archie Comics. Simon would go on to edit parody magazine (and Mad competitor) Sick, while Kirby eventually landed back at Timely…which had become Marvel Comics by the 1960s, where Jack co-created a bevy of superheroes like Thor and The Fantastic Four with writer/editor Stan Lee.

Simon came in and out of comics through the ‘70s, even reuniting with Jack for a new Sandman comic for DC, while also working in and out of advertising.

Jack Kirby passed away in 1994, and several of his contemporaries followed soon after.

But Joe Simon is still going strong, with plans for a series of seven Best of Simon and Kirby hardcovers to follow the one issued by Titan Books earlier this year, each one focusing on a different genre from the duo’s career.

Joe says his life now is “very boring,” then goes into all the plans for the future books.

“When I say I’m bored,” he quips. “It’s tired, actually.”

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