Joe Simon and Jack Kirby: Secret origins of classic tandem

Feb. 24, 2012 | 1:00 p.m.
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Joe Simon and Jack Kirby gave second-rate crime fighter Sandman a first-rate life when they took him over, with their first work in Adventure Comics #74 in May 1942. (DC Entertainment)

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As superheroes were dwindling in sales, the romance comic (and its female readers) helped keep the comic industry afloat. This cover is from Young Love #1, Feb.-March 1949. ( Joe Simon and Jack Kirby Estate)

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Note the diagonal left-to-right flow of this early Captain America Comics splash, starting with Cap at bat, and ending with the yellow-weighted villainous pitcher. This image is from Captain America #7, Oct. 1941. (Marvel Entertainment)

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The debut issue of "Captain America Comics," March 1941. If Superman and Batman are icons of the Great Depression, Captain America is the icon of World War II. (Marvel Entertainment)

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Simon and Kirby introduced the "kid gang," a genre that continued throughout the '50s. This cover is from Boy Commandos #3, released in the summer of 1943. (DC Entertainment)

simonkirby Joe Simon and Jack Kirby: Secret origins of classic tandem

Jack Kirby, left, and Joe Simon, are shown in this undated publicity photo originally released by Titan Books. (Titan Books / Associated Press)

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"Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics" book cover. The book, out in May, includes photographs by Seth Kushner and text by Christopher Irving. (powerHouse Books)

Joe Simon, a titan in comics, died in December at 98, just months after his most famous character, Captain America, was leaping to the silver screen. Together with artist Jack Kirby, Simon made the star-spangled superhero one of the most iconic characters in comics. A new book, “Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics,” by writer Christopher Irving and photographer Seth Kushner, explores the life and career of Simon, Kirby and more than 50 other comics creators. “Leaping Tall Buildings” arrives in May, but in the meantime, Hero Complex readers can enjoy a sneak peek with this excerpt:

“I was the sacrificial lamb,” Joe Simon says of his first job, at fly-by-night publisher Fox Comics in 1940. “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 for other companies. After a short while, he brought in a partner in Jacob Kurtzberg, who was pushing a pencil as one of Fox’s staff. After a bevy of other pseudonyms, Kurtzberg settled on a new moniker—Jack Kirby—and the Simon and Kirby team was officially born.

simonkirby Joe Simon and Jack Kirby: Secret origins of classic tandem

Jack Kirby, left, and Joe Simon. (Titan Books / Associated Press)

They were an unlikely pair: Joe was tall and lanky, while Jack was short and barrelchested; Joe a talker, while Jack was quiet. Where Joe was raised in Rochester, Jack grew up in the tough streets of the Lower East Side (as illustrated by Jack in his 1983 autobio comic: Street Code). Their personalities complimented one another, a balancing act of Simon’s business savvy with Kirby’s intensity.

The Simon and Kirby style developed into their trademark melee of action on the 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.

Despite who did what, the duo worked together in a seamless and synergistic manner, to the point where it’s often tough to pick apart who contributed what. The build-up of their moonlighting work burst out in a red, white, and blue explosion on the cover of Timely Comics’ Captain America Comics #1, dated March, 1941 but out the December before. Slugging Hitler, the flag-emblazoned 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 openly battle the Nazis in comics.

“We’d have the main character be second banana to the villain, and that’s how Captain America came out,” Joe reflected. “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.

“Jack brought everything to life, and I thought he was fantastic.”

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The debut issue of "Captain America Comics," March 1941. (Marvel Entertainment)

Simon and Kirby’s royalty on Captain America Comics was 15% for Simon and 10% for Kirby. An accountant at Timely, Morris Coyne, revealed the truth about the actual royalties to Joe:

“Morris told me that I was really getting the royal treatment on the royalties, and that [Goodman] was putting the expenses of the whole office on Captain America,” Simon states. “It really burned me up.

“Everybody wanted us in the business, so I made a deal with Jack Liebowitz at National Comics. We had a contract with them, while we were working on [Captain America] #10. We decided to stay and finish that issue. They found out about the new deal, and the brothers surrounded us while we were working on Captain #10, and they fired us. They said, ‘You better finish this issue!’” Joe laughs.

Simon and Kirby’s jumping ship to National yielded some of their best work for a major company: Boy Commandos, the revamped Sandman, and Newsboy Legion all feature a Runyonesque and more literary quality that the strictly two-fisted Captain America didn’t have room for.

“We were really scoring gigs at the time, in 1942,” Joe says. “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.

“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.”

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Young Love #1 ( Joe Simon and Jack Kirby Estate)

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. When they jumped onto the horror bandwagon with Black Magic and The Strange World of Your Dreams, they weren’t knockoffs of EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt—but more cerebral and suspense-filled, dealing in implied horror just as much as sheer.

They even had their own company for a brief time around 1954, Mainline, and published their Western superhero Bullseye. When the industry ultimately went bellyup shortly after, Simon and Kirby parted ways, briefly reuniting in 1959 to develop superheroes for Archie Comics. Simon went on to edit parody magazine (and MAD competitor) Sick and continue to pop in and out of comics. Joe Simon passed away on December 14, 2011. At age 98, he’d just finished his memoir and was still knee-deep in comics.

Kirby found himself knocking on the door of the former Timely Comics, now run by a clarinet-playing office boy from his Captain America days—Stan Lee—and another iconic comics team would be born.

– Christopher Irving

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