Joe Simon is one of the genuine legends of comic art. He was the first editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics where he gave Stan Lee his start in the business. He was Jack Kirby’s longtime creative partner and together they created Captain America.
Joe’s showmanship hasn’t failed him because, just in time for this summer’s Captain America movie, he’s published a new autobiography called My Life in Comics. In this exclusive excerpt, Simon talks about his and Kirby’s return from World War II and sets the stage for their eventual exit from DC Comics and the rise of Marvel. Plus bonus romance stuff because all the girls love a man in uniform.
excerpt from Joe Simon - My Life in Comics,
© 2011 Joseph H. Simon
Jack Kirby had started his Army service in the motor pool which, given the way Jack drove, might not have been the best idea. Jack had a problem with road rage. When we were living out on Long Island, if he was driving and a little old lady cut in front of him, he’d get so angry that he’d want to ram her car from behind. He used to get into one accident after another, and finally Roz took his car away from him.
“If he ever decides to leave me,” she said, “I’ll have to drive him there.”
That was a relief for all of us.
After the motor pool, the Army transferred Kirby to the Infantry. He was with a group that landed at Normandy following D-Day. By winter 1944 he was at the Siege of Bastogne, a part of the Battle of the Bulge where the German Army surrounded the Allied forces and demanded their surrender. It was a last-ditch attempt by Hitler to hold onto France. When the Nazis demanded that the Allies surrender, American General McAuliffe sent them back a one-word reply.
I’ve always loved that. Jack must have been part of Patton’s Army, which arrived in time to break up the German offensive. He told us the weather was almost as bad as the Nazis, with deep snow and freezing cold. He ended up with terrible frostbite in his feet, and was sent back Stateside.
While he was in an Army hospital, the doctors learned that he was an artist. They asked him to illustrate the foot injuries the other soldiers had suffered, so he did these paintings that had amazing full-color, gory detail. He was told that he shouldn’t ad-lib or distort the drawings in any way, or try to make them more dramatic—not that they needed it. That “foot art” served as a useful tool for the army doctors at a time when color photography wasn’t available or effective in a battlefield setting. Shortly after we were reunited in New York, both of our families went to dinner. Over our meal Jack described what had happened, going into gruesome specifics. He brought some of those illustrations with him to dinner that night. They were both beautiful and disgusting to look at, with the red-blistered, blue-veined, raw and festering feet. After a while we told him to put them away. They weren’t the kind of thing you wanted to look at over food.
Alfred Harvey came back to New York before I did, and occasionally I would go up to meet with him. He and I began talking over a new proposition. He wanted Simon and Kirby to come to work for Harvey Comics after the war. Jack and I would develop new properties for him, and Harvey would split the profits with us right down the middle, 50–50. Our contracts with DC would have run out during the war, so we would be free to go back to freelancing.
As exciting an opportunity as this was, however, this wasn’t the most important thing that happened to me at the time. Something far more unexpected occurred as a result of our negotiations.
I was in New York for one of my meetings with Alfred, and was waiting outside of his office. I had on my uniform—the one Milton Gross hated so much, with the tight white pants that would cause women to pat you on the butt as they walked past. Even my boney butt. It was a fun time.
There was a secretary there who was the bookkeeper, as well. Her name was Harriet Feldman, and she was sorting mail or something. As I sat there, waiting for Al to be available, she looked over at me.
“Would you lift your pants leg up?” she said.
“What?” I responded, wondering if she meant me.
“Lift up your pants,” she said.
So I lifted my pants leg.
“Go up to the knee,” she instructed.
So I did. Those pants had wide legs, so it wasn’t difficult.
“That’s good,” she said.
I put the pants leg back down, and she went back to work.
Alfred came out of his office, and gestured to me. We had our meeting, then I headed toward the door. As I did I turned to Harriet.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go out with a guy who had white pasty legs,” she explained.
She went back to what she was doing, and I left. As I did, I thought to myself, Did I ask her out?
Of course I hadn’t. But later I did, achieving the desired result.
She was a beautiful girl. I would see her in New York, and she would visit me in Washington. She lived with her parents, Jacob and Dinah Feldman, in Flatbush, a section of Brooklyn that included the legendary Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. (The Dodgers lost the World Series to the New York Yankees three times in the 1940s. That wasn’t something you talked about in the Feldman household.) It was a very working-class neighborhood with lots of Irish, Italians, and Jews. At her parents’ place she slept on the couch. Her brother was in the Army, in Germany, and while there he married a German girl. Later he divorced her and married another German girl who looked like her twin. My daughter Melissa has a theory that he liked the first wife’s body, but wanted to shop for another personality.
The Feldmans came from Russia, where they lost quite a few family members during the war.
Harriet had a lot of guys after her. One time I went to pick her up for a date. Arthur Weiss was with me, and somebody else whose name I can’t recall. We went in, sat down, and talked with the family, then left for our date. A couple of days later she and I were talking.
“What did your father think of us?” I asked. That sort of thing was very important back then.
“I asked him who he liked,” she replied. “He said, ‘I liked the long, skinny one.’”
Luckily, that was me.
Because Kirby got out of the service before me, he went right back to working for DC comics. Artists like Arturo Cazeneuve and Curt Swan had been filling in for us on our titles. Arturo and his brother, Luis, had come from Argentina, and had been in the business since the 1930s, at one point working for Eisner and Iger. They had also done some work for Fox, and for Al Harvey in the beginning. Arturo and Luis weren’t bad, but they weren’t Simon and Kirby.
Jack drew a handful of Newsboy Legion stories late in 1945, and some Boy Commandos adventures in 1945–46. I had done a few things for DC while I was in Washington. Once I was back in New York, I joined him on the Boy Commandos stories.
With the war at an end, however, DC had been forced to find ways to continue what had been two of their most popular features. The Newsboy Legion wasn’t really a problem, since those stories hadn’t depended on the Nazis or the Japanese. But the Boy Commandos were another kettle of fish. Rip Carter, the commando, had become an agent of an “international police force,” and he brought the kids along for the ride. (There still didn’t seem to be a problem with endangering the lives of minors.) They fought crooks, space invaders, foreign dictators, giant insects, and escaped Nazi war criminals. We even wrote in celebrities like Roy Rogers’ wife Dale Evans and Bob Feller, the famous Cleveland Indians pitcher with a fastball they called “the Heater from Van Meter,” referring to his home town in Iowa.
Surprisingly enough, we were able to capture some of the energy and fun of the World War II stories. Nevertheless, Boy Commandos had been a wartime book, and without that element, their days were numbered.
Meanwhile, I had other things to concern me—like finding a place to live. My parents were back north, now in Syracuse, having moved there when I went into the service. But there was a serious housing shortage when all of the veterans returned, at least in New York. In Manhattan, they established a limit of one week for staying in a hotel. It wasn’t official, but most hotels adopted it.
Going from place to place in search of a room, I found my way to the Great Northern Hotel at 118 West 57th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It was a beautiful place, just two blocks south of Central Park and a short distance from Radio City Music Hall. The place advertized “large airy rooms with private baths from $3.00” and had a slogan, “Meet the Celebrities.” So it was worth a try.
I went up to the desk and asked the clerk about a room. There was one available.
“Could I live here by the week?” I asked, pretty sure of what he was going to say.
And I was right.
“I’m afraid not,” he replied. “We’re only allowed to rent rooms for a week at a time. No more.”
It wasn’t great, but I needed someplace to say, so I took it. I engaged the room for the night.
At that point a guy edged up to the counter, and I knew him immediately. It was Jack Dempsey, and he had recognized me.
“Hello, Joe,” he said. We shook hands, and he turned to speak quietly to the desk clerk. “He can stay here as long as he wants.”
I was overwhelmed. Jack Dempsey was a great guy. He was very good to me.
Several other members of the Combat Art Corps had come to New York, too. There was a guy named Baumgartner, a newspaperman from Seattle who had roomed with me for a while in Washington. John Henry was with us, and so was Lieutenant Spencer—they were both writers. They used to come over to the hotel, which had a very nice bar off the lobby. I would take them there.
“Do you mind if I use your bar tab?” one of them said. “You know, and pay you later.”
The others followed suit. “We’re gonna pay you back, Joe,” they all said. “We promise!”
“Sure,” I said, because I trusted those guys. So they would sign the tab, and it would be added onto my hotel bill at the end of the week. They would do this even if I wasn’t there to give them permission, which could have been a miscalculation on my part. I don’t think Ken Riley would join us, because he wasn’t much of a drinker. We’d be smoking, too, and I had these very nice cigars I would share with them.
“How much do these cigars cost?” one of them asked. I think it was Baumgartner. And I told him.
“Wow,” he said. “That’s more than my liquor bill.” Given the amount my friends could drink, that was saying something.
Years later, after I was married and living out on Long Island, I would get letters in the mail. They would come every so often, and my wife Harriet would open them. There would be checks inside.
“What is this?” she asked the first time it happened. “What’s this money for?”
“That’s the guys who used to visit me at the Great Northern,” I explained. “They’re repaying their bar tab.”
She couldn’t believe that those guys were doing it. I didn’t even know how much they owed me—but I’m confident they repaid every cent. They were all so honest with me.
Milton Gross returned to New York, as well, and to the New York Post. He was a big– shot there. Milton would take me to all of the sporting events at places like Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were his beat. One of his favorite restaurants was Toots Shor’s, which he called “a celebrity haven.” Soon after we got back he wrote a book called Yankee Doodles, with terrific art in it by Dinty Dugan. Later he and the two-time world heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson collaborated on Patterson’s autobiography, Victory Over Myself.
If you saw the HBO movie 61*, directed by Billy Crystal, then you saw an actor named Richard Masur playing Milton, although they called him “Milton Kahn.”
Milton Gross had a couple of kids—a son named Michael and a daughter named Jane. Both of them went into journalism, following in their father’s footsteps.
Harriet and I eloped. I didn’t have to convince her, though. She was ready.
We went to someplace called Elkton, Maryland, 53 miles northeast of Baltimore. Veterans were lining up there to get married. There were also all of these ministers or justices of the peace ready to do the deed. I remember I was scared as hell. We were driving down the street and a guy from a minister’s office jumped onto our running board, to try to bring us to his minister. It was like a factory, the same way Las Vegas is these days.
So we went to one of the ministers. He had his wife playing a clarinet, and he had his witness standing by with flowers for us. It was all set up in his living room, and it took maybe a half-hour. When it was over I pulled out my wallet.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“Whatever your bride is worth to you,” he said.
I skipped that one, knowing when it was a good idea to keep my mouth shut. I paid him whatever he asked, something like $10 for the whole thing. Thus, on June 3, 1946, Harriet Feldman became Mrs. Joseph Simon.
Her parents were thrilled. After all, they liked the long, skinny one.