Thursday, February 4, 2010

Chatting With Legends: Joe Simon

It goes without saying that one of the coolest parts of my six-year career in comic books has been the opportunity to speak with some really incredible creators, be it in brief exchanges or extensive conversations that have in some cases led to some great friendships. From stars of today like Brian Bendis and Geoff Johns, to my own childhood heroes like Jim Lee and Fabian Nicieza, to undisputed industry icons like Stan Lee and Jim Shooter, I’ve been incredibly fortunate with the laundry list of legends that reside in my rolodex.

But one of my very favorite interviews I’ve gotten to conduct since getting into this crazy business was the brief but memorable phone chat I got to have with Captain America co-creator and a bonafide pioneer of comics: Joe Simon.

Back in 2007 after Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, seemingly met his demise, we devoted the bulk of an issue of Wizard to the character, his creators and the future of the franchise. One feature my editor Brian Cunningham and I put together was a Wizard Retrospective on Captain America, our goal being to speak with every writer who had ever worked on the character and put together an oral history covering 66 years. We were fortunate in that we were able to speak with just about every man who had put pen to paper on Captain America for a significant period of time; for the most part I was responsible just for assembling and editing the work of my dedicated team of writers, but the one interview I did want to conduct myself was with the man who along with Jack Kirby dreamed up Steve Rogers in the first place.

My buddy Jim McCann over at Marvel was able to secure me Mr. Simon’s phone number and I cold called him one afternoon. Though he was 94 when I called him, Joe was quite eloquent from the moment he said hello and also not at all surprised to hear from me; I don’t think he fully knew what Wizard was, but his phone had been ringing quite a bit during the media frenzy surrounding the death of Captain America and interviews with the character’s living co-creator had become quite in demand.

I initially expected that Joe would be a bit taken aback that his signature creation had met his demise after over six decades even if I wasn’t the first reporter to call him up, but he could not have been more laid back. As he informed me, this was hardly the first time he’d received a call from the Marvel powers-that-be to let him know Cap was being offed; the time before, he had celebrated by doing a painting recreating Jesus’ last supper with Steve in the lead role and cheesburgers, fries and sodas replacing bread and wine.

Joe was gracious enough to share with me some great stories about working with Jack Kirby, the Golden Age of comics, and of course his experiences with Captain America. Two anecdotes in particular stand out in my mind, so I’d like to share those.

The first was in regards to the actual genesis of Captain America, and was the kind of story that both had me chuckling a bit and yet made perfect sense. Explaining how he came up with Steve Rogers, Mr. Simon explained that he didn’t exactly; he was actually on a bus travelling through New York City and attempting to come up with a new character he and Kirby could work on that would hopefully lead to some decent paychecks in those tough times. Rather than create with a hero, Joe instead decided he would come up with the best villain he could first and then let things develop from there. As World War II was in the forefront of everybody’s minds, Joe realized that there was one villain he knew would be universally loathed by anybody who saw him on the cover of a comic: Adolf Hitler.

So that famous cover of Captain America Comics #1 where Cap is decking Hitler? Joe Simon envisioned the Hitler portion of that visual equation with the guy doing the punching as a blank slate. He pitched this to Kirby and together they came up with history.

I just thought that being the origin behind one of the most iconic characters—comics or otherwise—ever was incredibly cool, and that Joe Simon recalled it that distinctly was even cooler.

The second thing I remember about that interview was my opportunity to carve a little niche in history in a way I certainly never expected.

In asking the questions I had prepared for Mr. Simon, I came across a few involving the then-Winter Soldier, at which point he asked for clarification, having no idea who that character was. I explained that it was Bucky—who he had also co-created—and he responded with a simple “Huh.” Assuming he was referring to Bucky being alive after all these years, I told him it had taken a lot of us by surprise, and he replied thusly:

“Bucky died?”

So though it didn’t make headlines, Ben Morse became the guy who informed Joe Simon that Bucky Barnes, a character he had co-created in 1941, had in fact been thought dead for the better part of 40 years. Mr. Simon had no idea and was even more taken aback that his old office assistant, Stan Lee, had been the guy who did the deed. As he put it: “Stan killed Bucky? Well good for him.”

I haven’t had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Simon since that one time, but he did give me his e-mail and we’ve corresponded a couple times, exchanging pleasantries on holidays and whatnot. When I left Wizard for Marvel, I sent a mass e-mail to everybody I’d made contact with over the years and got a nice note from Joe reading “Congratulations, Ben. I am happy for you.”

That meant the world to me, as did spending an afternoon on the phone with the guy who brought the world Captain America.


Anonymous said...

good article on joe simon. Your article from 2007 did not mention a Mr. Allen Bellman who did work on the original captain america comics, is alive (living in tamarac, florida) and has his own website -

Wonder if he will ever get credit for working with Captain America?

Ben Morse said...

Certainly there have been a lot of talented folks who worked on Captain America, particularly during his early years, but obviously it would have been impossible to cover every single one of them in a single article, so we stuck to the guys who really left an indelible mark.

In no way would I want to diminish the contributions of gentlemen like Mr. Bellman though and I'd love to chat with him about Cap (he also seems to have a very cool web site)!

Glad you liked the article. said...

It cannot succeed as a matter of fact, that's what I suppose.