Joe Simon, a pioneer figure in American comic books who had a defining career moment in March 1941 when he gave the world a star-spangled superhero named Captain America, has died. He was 98.
Simon died Wednesday in New York City after a brief illness, according to a statement from his family, and his death adds a solemn final note to the 70th anniversary of his greatest creation, Captain America, who leaped across the big screen this summer with the Marvel Studios film “Captain America: The First Avenger.” That film grossed $368 million in worldwide box office and earned strong reviews despite the early skepticism about the 21st century prospects of a Roosevelt-era character who looks like a walking American flag.
Simon created Captain America with Jack Kirby, a titan figure in American comics, and the two would work together for various publishers over several decades. Their shared credit eventually took on an esteemed aura as the medium edged its way from disposable pulp confection to something more ambitious and a sort of monthly American mythology.
The American superhero concept began in 1938 with Superman, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and while Simon and Kirby followed their lead they also brought a different energy to the men-in-tights genre. Mark Evanier, author of 2008 Kirby biography “Kirby, King of Comics,” said the duo became a brand of more renown than the masked characters they put on the covers.
“Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were the first superstar creators of comics,” Evanier said Thursday. “Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were hailed because of Superman, but Simon and Kirby were hailed because of Simon and Kirby. They didn’t just have one or two great ideas. They were the go-to guys for the next thing in comics.”
The pair had notable creations such as the Newsboy Legion, the Fighting American, Blue Bolt, the Boy Commandos and the Challengers of the Unknown, but it was Captain America — a shield-carrying super-soldier created in a lab by American high-tech but defined by earnest patriotism and integrity — that would resonate most.
“I was 24 when I first started creating Captain America, ” Simon told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2005. “It’s been a guardian angel hanging over me my whole life. Everywhere I went — in the service or wherever — I wasn’t Joe Simon; I was Captain America. It was like a cloud hanging over me, but a good cloud. I loved it.”
He was born Hymie Simon in Rochester, N.Y., in October 1913, and as a youngster he was drawn to journalism. Instead he ended up in the scruffy, deadline-driven comic book business that scratched out a spot for itself in New York in the 1930s and ’40s. His first collaboration with Kirby came in 1940 with a hero called Blue Bolt but the pair struck gold the next year with Captain America — who was punching Adolf Hitler on newsstands months before Pearl Harbor and was a quick hit for Timely Comics, which would later become Marvel Comics.
Simon, who was both a writer and artist, came up with the concept of the red, white and blue character, but it was Kirby — by most appraisals the most important comics artist ever — who created the dynamic artwork in the early issues.
After the success of Captain America, Simon and Kirby followed opportunity over to DC Comics, the publisher of Superman and Batman, where they were working on titles such as Boy Commandos and Sandman. Both went into the military in 1943, and on their return ended up at Harvey Comics on titles including Boy Explorers and Stuntman. In 1954, the pair launched the creator-owned Fighting American, a clear conceptual descendant of their most noted character.
Kirby would move on in the 1960s and with Stan Lee he would find the next major partner in his career, creating the Fantastic Four, Thor, Hulk , the X-Men, Iron Man and others. Simon founded and edited Sick magazine, a publication that took the model of MAD magazine and ran from 1960-1980. He also packaged educational and political comics for various agencies, mostly in New York, and occasionally dipped back into the comics world, with oddball, informed-by-the-era efforts such as Brother Power, the Geek and Prez.
Those comics were commercial fizzles, but they were fascinating to readers such as Neil Gaiman, the Newbery Medal-winning author of “The Graveyard Book” and the writer behind the DC Comics epic “The Sandman.”
“What attracted me to Simon’s stories was how unlike anyone else’s they were, how full of life,” Gaiman wrote in a 2010 introduction to “The Simon & Kirby Superheroes” collection from Titan Books. “He created strange villains, part cartoon, part caricature, part embodiment of whatever he wished to talk about. While the trends in comics were toward realism in writing, Joe Simon marched in the other direction, creating his own reality … the oddness of Joe Simon’s work is where it gets its power.”
Earlier this year, Simon attended the premiere of the “Captain America” film and in the surge of press attention he spoke often about Kirby, who died in 1994. For a younger generation of creators — such as Ed Brubaker, who has been the award-winning writer for Captain America for the last seven years — Simon and Kirby are titan figures.
“Joe and Jack Kirby created Captain America at a time when the U.S. was not in World War II yet, and had to contend with pro-fascist Americans giving them death-threats,” Brubaker said Thursday. “I always think about that when I work on the book, the origins of both the character and the comic. Those were two brave guys creating what would be a classic character, who has definitely stood the test of time while other ‘flag-wearing’ heroes haven’t.”
Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, praised Simon as a dreamer whose work echoes through the years and beyond the pages of vintage comics.
“Today we are saddened by the loss of Joe Simon, a man whose iconic Captain America is still inspiring and entertaining audiences 70 years later,” Feige said in a statement. “It was an honor and a privilege getting to know Mr. Simon and his family during the production of ‘Captain America: The First Avenger.’ We have no doubt that Cap, and Joe’s legacy, will live on for many more decades and we are proud that he was able to be a part of last year’s [making of the] feature film and we were humbled by his enjoyment of the movie.”
The news of Simon’s death took on an extra layer of somberness because of the timing — the comic book industry and students of its four-color history were still dealing with the death last week of Jerry Robinson, who was a key figure in the early days of Batman comics and a key creative force in the introduction of seminal characters such as the Joker, Robin the Boy Wonder, Two-Face and Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred. Simon and Robinson both lived long enough to see their creations reach the silver screen with new levels of ambition in the 21st century, but both came up in a scrappy era with business arrangements that denied them the huge paydays that could come now for creators of a Hollywood brand.
Feige added: “Together Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created one of the most iconic superheroes in comic book history and losing Joe is definitely the end of an era.”
Simon is survived by two sons, three daughters and eight grandchildren.
— Geoff Boucher
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