"The Comics Book Makers" claims (in small print at the bottom of its cover) to tell "The Untold Origin of Spider-Man". That alone is sufficient to justify a review here at SpiderFan. But even putting such Spidey-related elements aside, this is one of a small number of books which shed true light on what it might really have been like to work in the Comic Industry of the 30s, 40s, 50s and early 60s.
This is Joe Simon's book, and Joe is one of the major names of the golden age of comics. His decades-long partnership with fellow comics heavyweight Jack Kirby is legendary, and is no less great despite Marvel's attempts to drive a wedge between the two while battling over the rights to their joint creation Captain America.
Basics first. This book is 8.5" x 10.75" in size. Glossy cardboard cover, with 192 high-quality clean white paper pages. Most of the many illustrations are black and white, but with 16 color-printed pages at the center.
As for the content, well, that's a little less straightforward to ascertain. In fact, the first few chapters do their best to completely confuse the reader as to the subject of the book. The opening five pages are written by Joe Simon's son, Jim Simon. This "introduction" is clumsily written in the third person, offering a poorly-assembled series of anecdotes and impressions of Jim recalling his childhood memories of his father. Neither Jim nor Joe are mentioned by name, leaving me confused and far from impressed.
Chapter One doesn't really improve matters significantly. Entitled "In The Beginning" it gives a potted history of Siegel & Shuster's creation of Superman, and their subsequent bitter struggles to gain a fair recognition. Sure it's an important story in the history of comics, but really it has little or nothing to do with Joe Simon. Perhaps this telling contain a few elements not told before. But after all is said and done, it's not Joe's story - so I'm left wondering why it forms the opening chapter of Joe's book.
To be blunt, by this stage I was fifteen pages into the book and kind of scratching my head to figure out what this book actually was trying to achieve. I had assumed that I was going to be reading a year-by-year time-line of Joe's long and distinguished career. So far, I had seen nothing of the sort. The introduction was a total write-off - and based on the opening chapter it now seemed that Joe was going to say nothing about himself, but merely provide yet another quasi-academic treatise on "The Middle Years of American Comics".
Fortunately, Chapter Two came to the rescue. Joe begins to speak (tentatively at first) with his own voice, and uses his childhood recollections as the jumping-off point for an outline of popular entertainment in the U.S. of the 1920's and early 30's. Crystal radio, moving pictures, and then talking pictures. Pulp fiction, popular sports, and of course... newspaper funnies. Joe Simon was inspired to become an artist, and an entertainer. Finally, we're on our way.
For the next hundred and something pages, we follow Joe Simon as he relates the highlights of his checkered career through a dozen employers and business ventures. Some end in success, some in near-ruin, but the one thing that they nearly all share in common is the creation of comic book characters. These days, Captain America is probably the highlight, but to ignore the rest of Joe's gallery of heroes and rogues is to do the man (and his long-time partner-in-creation Jack Kirby) a great injustice. It soon becomes pretty clear to any serious student of the Golden Age of Comics, Joe Simon's hand was everywhere.
I'm not going to even attempt to summarize Joe's history here. If you want that, then you should buy the book and read it for yourself. In fact, if you only have one Golden Age of Comics biography on your bookshelf, then this is probably the one to grab. Joe was everywhere, he saw damn near everything, and when he finally hits his stride, he writes about it very well. He has much to be thankful for, and just as much to be bitter about - but he even when describing injustices done against him, a sense of fairness generally prevails.
Joe also has a great memory. Where Stan Lee is famous for forgetting details, and Ditko refuses to even speak, Joe Simon can and does speak freely of the men, the comics, the politics and the finances of those distant years. He talks of Marvel, of DC, EC, Harvey Comics, and many other publishers who are nothing but memories and reprinted illustrations. Most of what is described is the comics creators and their interactions - what deals were made, and broken. Who hired who, and who worked for who late at night without it being common knowledge. Oh, and yeah... who killed who in a New York hotel room. It was that kind of era.
The chronology is generally sequential, but years and dates are less important here than the stories that are being told. In final analysis, the book is not purely a "biography", since Joe talks as much (if not more) about others than himself. But it's not really a "history" either, since it doesn't aim to be complete or thorough in any sense. "The Comics Book Makers" is simply one man's well-compiled memoirs... a valuable and well-written view from the inside of this fascinating era in comic history. As it turns out, that is more than sufficient.
After a shaky start, "The Comics Book Makers" finds its feet and delivers what it promises. Joe Simon tells it as he saw it, and we're all privileged to be along for the ride. As for "The Untold Origin of Spider-Man"... no, it's not Joe Simon's take on Spider-Man: Chapter One. It's the (relatively well known now, thanks to being told in this book) story of "The Silver Spider", a super-hero created by Joe & Jack in 1953.
Again, to retell the story here would be futile (if done badly) or plagiarism (if done well). But in a nutshell, Joe relates how "The Silver Spider" went through several transformations at the hands of Stan Lee, Martin Goodman, Jack Kirby and of course Steve Ditko to finally become Peter Parker. Joe isn't trying to claim any of the limelight. He fully acknowledges that while Stan & Steve (with a little help from Jack Kirby) may have started with the Silver Spider, what we know as "Spider-Man" today is far removed from the Silver Spider.
Still, the path from Silver Spider to Spider-Man is another strand in the intricate web of Spider-Man creation. If you are a true red-n-blue, dyed-in-the-spandex Spider-Fan, then you should read this book. Rest assured, you'll be both enlightened and entertained.
Five webs. A classic that every comic book fan should own, no excuses allowed.
I can't even bring myself to subtract half a web for the confusing and lackluster way the book begins. In fact, I took a pair of scissors and cut the introduction pages out of my book, and stick-taped them at the back instead. I recommend you do the same. Unless you borrow it from a library, in which case simply start reading on page 16.