If conflict is the engine that drives a great story, then the life of a successful creative artist is a dicey subject for a memoir. A career spent in doing what one loves, and doing it well, will tend to lack a certain dramatic turmoil. That’s especially true in collaborative fields like film, which is why so many showbiz bios are full of passages that read like remarks at a testimonial dinner.
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Joe Simon has spent his career in the highly cooperative medium of comic books and seems to have made the rounds of all the major publishers without making any enemies. Or perhaps, at a hale 97 years old, he’s simply outlived them all, which is nearly the same thing. His new memoir, My Life in Comics, is packed with affectionate portraits of the artists, editors and executives he’s worked with during his 80 years in the business.
But My Life in Comics cannot be said to lack conflict. In 1941, Joe Simon—with Jack Kirby—co-created Captain America. And that, in a very real way, put him at the forefront of battle to save civilization.
When Captain America #1 hit newsstands, America was almost a year away from entering World War II. A majority of Americans favored staying out of the conflict; a not-inconsiderable minority were well-disposed toward Hitler. Yet that first issue, with its iconic cover image of the Star-Spangled Avenger punching der Fuehrer’s lights out, sold a million copies. Symbols are powerful things, and as the embodiment of righteous U.S. interventionism, Captain America was (and, with the upcoming movie out this week, continues to be) a potent emblem of the American ideal, at home and abroad—an emblem of decency, courage and fairness.
Circumstance thrust Simon and his creation onto the battlefield of history. But Simon’s second major conflict was of his own choosing—and though it played out on a far smaller scale than WWII, it too was concerned with fairness and decency. Simon was an early crusader for creator’s rights. In a comic book business characterized by handshake deals, work for hire and creative accounting, Simon determined early on to negotiate an ownership stake in the properties that he created or packaged. The latter half of his career is a litany of lawsuits and countersuits as he struggled not just for royalties, but for recognition.
That simple, quintessentially American notion—that creators, even in the slightly disreputable medium of comics, deserve to be celebrated and compensated for their work—may be Simon’s most important legacy. But in its focus on these legal wranglings, My Life in Comics is too much “inside baseball” for the casual fan. Chunks of the book are given over to courtroom transcripts and to descriptions of an endless succession of offices and business lunches, as if Simon were giving another of the many depositions that crop up in his narrative.
And My Life’s chronological structure means that much potentially fascinating material is treated superficially. We catch only glimpses of Simon’s partnership with the brilliant, mercurial Kirby; the dynamic of their decades-long relationship goes unexplored. Similarly, one longs for some perspective on the youth culture of the 1960s as it informed Simon’s late-period cult classics Brother Power the Geek and Prez. A thematic structure might have allowed for deeper, more nuanced reflection. And the lack of an index is disappointing, given the profusion of personalities and publishers mentioned in the text.
Still, Simon’s loosey-goosey, anecdotal style is ingratiating—he’s practically a one-man oral history of the comics medium, having been active since its infancy. Like his most famous creation, Joe Simon has earned the title of Living Legend.
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