Book Review: Joe Simon: My Life in Comics

PrintE-mail Written by Gary Armstrong

While true household names in the comics industry are few and far between, Joe Simon stands among the greats. My Life in Comics is an autobiographical account of the life and times of Simon, most notably the co-creator of Captain America, and the first Editor-in-Chief of what would become Marvel Comics. A true legend of the business.

Born in 1913 and growing up in the midst of the great depression, Simon was not the shy, put-upon nerdish type many might expect. Tall, athletic, and something of a tearaway in his teenage years, Simon’s creative streak appeared to be forged by a desire for success rather than some pure artistic expression. Even during his school days Simon exhibited a surprising commercial mindset, selling sketches and even gaining small commissions. It might not sound as romantic as some creators stories, but the time in which Simon made his early strides in his career makes perfect sense. He was a true professional, with a real gift for identifying not just what was good, but what his audience wanted.

Often, My Life in Comics reads like a conversation with a grandparent, benefitting and suffering for it in almost equal measure. The nostalgic look at times gone by is a great framing device evoking some strong imagery, and the personal anecdotes that Simon draws upon are genuinely entertaining. On occasions however, these anecdotes - charming as they are - feel like an aside to what comic fans will really want to get in to, and can feel slightly detached and superfluous.

Of course, there are moments when these small episodes and moments make for insightful reading. The opening pages in which Simon recalls the visit of a war veteran to his school class details what would become an early key in to Simon’s most famous creation. Reading about his days as a newspaper illustrator is also an example of an important and formative moment, such as his work depicting the strong muscular boxers of the time, while capturing an air of individuality and personality in each portrait. There’s a strange otherworldliness to these tales that make them really fun to discover aside from their obvious importance to Simon’s later work in the comicbook business.

As the book progresses, and the comic industry that we all know and understand begins to take shape, the tale becomes much more relatable, detailing his interactions with the likes of Kirby and Lee, and also the ongoing legal issues he faced with regards to the ownership rights of his characters and work. Until this point, the world in which Simon presents makes for strange reading. The depression era is so commonly depicted in fictional works that it can be difficult to take in Simon’s recollections of his school days as actually being in the same world as our own, but it is fitting for a man, who's now in his nineties, was such an integral part of an industry that had yet to come in to its own. As the pages turn, we can see the perception of what a comicbook was growing and becoming more important to the societies that read them. At the centre of it all, was Joe Simon.

Reading the exploits of a man so strongly associated with icons that are still recognised to this day is something I can highly recommend to comic fans and historians. There are many retellings of meetings and relationships with lots of famous names, and feels far more genuine and good natured than many works that depict the industry. This is no in-depth deconstruction of the medium, but a great read that details the life of a hugely talented and influential creator on a quest to discover “the true American hero”, and a man who changed comics forever.

Joe Simon: My Life in Comics is available now from Titan Books.

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