By Gregg Sanderson
Not many people are lucky enough to be around for their 98th birthday. Fewer still can say they've had the cultural impact of co-creating Captain America, the four-color symbol of liberty and the best that Americanism represents. Luckily for us all, Joe Simon can claim both!
Just a few days after Joe was blessed enough to have his 98-candle birthday cake, comic book fans were treated to his appearance at New York Comic Con. The purpose of the panel was to hear Joe reminisce about his career, on the heels of his well-received autobiography released earlier this year, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics: The Illustrated Autobiography of Joe Simon.
Living Legend Joe Simon greets his fans at New York Comic Con
After joking that he'd call his next book “350 Things I Forgot to Put in My Last Autobiography,” the string of stories came our way. The roots of Joe's work with Jack Kirby in creating Captain America stretch way back, to when he was 8 years old. His class had a special guest that day, an ex-soldier... from the Civil War. Let that sink in a moment. The class of mostly tailors' kids listened to the ex-Union soldier in his old, threadbare uniform, talk about the war, the flag and sing songs. He put out his hand to each student and said “Shake the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln!” Joe was star-struck, and as he recalls it, began his search for the “Great American Hero.” It's clear to see the impact that search had on Joe's career, from Cap, to the Fighting American, and even the Boy Commandos.
Of course, Joe's career spanned much, much more than just superhero comics for Marvel/Timely. Simon and Kirby combined on over 1000 pages of romance comics, and Joe worked with Kurtzman, Feldstein, and co. on EC Comics' crime comics.
Joe joked about young Stan Lee's hard work in Timely's editorial offices, where Joe and Jack created Captain America: “It was like child abuse, I made him what he is today.” After that zinger drew applause, Joe followed up with “I see he has a lot of friends here.” In creating Captain America, Simon noted how different he was from the other offerings on the comic book rack: “Comics in those days came out of a mold. DC Comics were made like a cake from a recipe, formulaic. We came out with something different.”
Maybe the most interesting historical comics nugget regarded the creative origin of the Red Skull. “They told me I needed a villain,” Joe recalled. “I had a villain – Hitler!” Undaunted, Joe went to work... on an ice cream sundae. “I'm sitting there and thinking of what kind of a villain could I have who's worse than Hitler? Having a sundae, looking at the red cherry on top, leaking hot fudge.” Taking the red cherry off the top of the sundae, with the fudge on the bottom, like human limbs, gave him the visual inspiration for creating the Red Skull, thus revealing that Cap's most bitter enemy came from the sweetest of beginnings!