When Titan Books offered to send me Joe Simon: My Life In Comics, I jumped at the chance for a copy. I’m an avid comic book reader, but my great and secret (well, until now) shame is that I’m not as familiar with its history as it should be. I know all the names of the greats. I’m familiar with the ongoing battles for rights, particularly since they’ve become big news in the last year or so. I know the history of the big characters. But the little guys who created them? Not so much.
The title is an apt one. This is Simon’s life in comics, so there’s not a lot of context or introspection. (Simon does let a few zings loose — his jokes about “comics have always been dying!” certainly puts all the current lamenting into perspective.) It bounces around, and stops for the occasional quirky observation or strange anecdote. There’s not a lot of examination of the industry or the characters Simon created. I suspect this is inevitable — when you’re in the middle of a zeitgeist like that, how do you ever properly analyze it? It was just a job. No one could have predicted what these characters would become. Those are perspectives that only an outsider can give, I think, not the guy who was always onto something else so he could pay his bills and put food on the table.
So, if you’re looking for a really intense discussion about the creation of Captain America, it won’t be in this book. Cap, shockingly, only warrants a few pages. (But in those few pages is the dorkiest, goofiest origin of Red Skull which may shatter your perception of the villain entirely. Combine it with Hugo Weaving’s Werner Herzog voice, and the world may collapse in on itself.) It’s a testament to Simon’s career that this icon was just a speck in a long, exhausting, and illustrious career of drawing, writing, and publishing. They just drew him one day. He was popular. End of story…until, of course, the litigation, which comes up quite often, always without a trace of bitterness. Simon just shrugs it off, and is clearly happier to have helped other writers and artists than recoup money for himself.
After reading a few of Titan’s autobiographies, it’s clear they don’t employ a ghost writer, but instead just have the subject record or write his or her thoughts, and print them nearly as is. This probably maddens a lot of readers, but on a subject like comic books or movie stunts, I really enjoy it. Reading this is like having Simon as one’s grandpa, and he’s just spinning stories about his crazy days in comic book publishing. It can be a bit frustrating, as it feels like there’s fascinating stories or context just lurking between the lines of Simon’s tales. You want to just tell him to stop, stop right here, tell me more about this whole Stan Lee thing …! But it never does. Simon dashes onward to a new comic publisher, a new story, and a new set of characters on and off the comic page. It’s breathless, but it’s enjoyable and optimistic, and it makes for a really addictive and fast read.
I suspect there’s more of the “important” details in The Comic Book Makers, Simon’s original (and seminal!) tell-all about the industry. Simon even name-drops it at the end of the book, as if to say “The really juicy stuff is in there!” (Actually, that‘s exactly what he says.) But I enjoyed this as a primer of comic history, and of Simon’s incredible and ongoing career. For a newbie, it’s a good who’s who and who did what, and definitely encourages more reading on the subject. Even if you know everything there is to know about Simon and Kirby, there’s probably something in here that’s new to you.
As more and more focus is put on comic books thanks to the ongoing movies, I imagine we’ll see even more studies, autobiographies, and biographies pour out. It’s a subject worth studying. I’m glad publishers like Titan have gotten Simon’s story down on paper, even if it feels thin at times, because we’ve already lost a lot of stories like his. For preservation purposes alone, it’s worth a read.