A Look Back at the Simon and Kirby Studio: Q&A with Mark Evanier

S&K-coverWe’ve been enjoying Mark Evanier’s wonderful new book about the legendary Simon and Kirby studio, which is titled (appropriately enough) The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio. It’s filled with insights about those two titans of the Golden Age and lavish reproductions of original art produced by the studio, all of which is shot directly from the original art. (All of the pages accompanying this interview are taken from the book; click them to enlarge.) We spoke with Mark about the book and his research into that era:

Hogan’s Alley: So much of the early comics industry involved publisher taking advantage of creative talent, yet the Simon and Kirby studio operated as a very savvy organization and didn’t get hoodwinked by the suits. How did they navigate the shoals where others were not able to?

Mark Evanier: I think Joe and Jack would both have given you the same reason: Joe. Mr. Simon was a lot more savvy than your average comic book freelancer of the day. Some guys who could write or draw could do that and nothing else. Joe Simon had a couple of extra skill sets, including the ability to talk to publishers in their own language. In fact, it would appear that every single publisher who ever met Joe in those days wanted to hire him as an editor. He clearly knew the value of the Simon-Kirby output and was usually able to get better deals than anyone else.

HA: Simon and Kirby was one of many studios of the era that produced material for publishers. They employed a great deal of top-drawer artistic talent, a real who’s who of comics of the day. What factors made them able to attract the top tier of talent?

Mark Evanier

Mark Evanier

ME: Well, one thing was that Joe and Jack were guys who were respected as creators and who had a good reputation for fairness. Not every publisher was that honest and at many of them, your work was evaluated by someone whose only qualification for a supervisory position was that he was related to the guy who owned the company. There was a lot of nepotism in comics back then. So I think a lot of writers and artists liked working for other writers and artists. Joe and Jack were more simpatico.

HA: You knew Jack about as well as a non-family member could. Did he ever reminisce about his years in the Simon and Kirby studio? What were his reminiscences like?

ME: He loved those days. He loved the freedom to pretty much write and draw the things he wanted to write and draw and to not have to worry about all the stuff Joe handled. The way he described it, for most of their run, it was a largely creative environment and no one panicked a lot when, as occasionally happened, a book didn’t sell well. Also, being a Depression Era kid, Jack loved the fact that he and Jack were providing employment for a lot of guys. The way he talked about them, those felt like the best days of his life, at least in terms of work.

HA: The book makes clear that Joe Simon retained a great deal of original art from the Simon and Kirby days, whereas other creators were often not so foresighted. Is this further evidence of Joe’s savvy? Do you think he saw originals as having value past reproduction? I don’t want to read too much into it, but does his ownership of considerable original art suggest a vision that many of his peers lacked, or was it simply a packrat’s good fortune?

ME: Joe and I talked about this. He recognized that the pages would someday have a value on a then-coming original art market, as did Jack. But I think Joe’s primary motive in saving as much as he did was that he thought the work was excellent and would be worthy of reprinting in the future. He did reprint a lot of it and was often able to do so off the original art instead of third-generation stats which reduced the grandeur of the pages a bit.

HA: The range of genres the Simon and Kirby studio produced is remarkable—superheroes, supernatural, romance, kid gangs, Westerns…the list goes on. Do you think Jack or Joe had a genre preference, or were they agnostic, simply seeking to fill niches they saw as promising?

ME: Jack and Joe both had the remarkable ability to enjoy all genres and to rise to whatever challenges they presented. I know Jack was just as happy doing a western or a monster comic or a romance comic. I think he had a tiny preference for war comics because World War II had been such a big event in his life and he had a ton of great personal stories to tell, and he identified with some characters (like in the kid gangs) more than others. They did, of course, do what they thought would be commercial but whatever it was, they always found a way to care about the work. If you’d told Jack he had to draw stories about goldfish, he immediately thought, “Okay, what kind of story can I do about goldfish that I’d want to read?” And if he could do that, as he always could, the result was usually a comic others wanted to read, too.

HA: What would you say was Joe’s biggest lesson learned from Jack, and what did Jack learn from Joe?

ME: Hmmm…well, Joe wound up drawing a lot like Jack. There are stories in this book that at first glance, you’d think were Kirby, but no. They’re Joe Simon. So I guess he learned a lot from Jack about how to draw dynamic figures and stage scenes for dramatic effect. What did Jack learn from Joe? Well, there was a lot about how to manage a business but in a creative sense, I’d say the biggest thing he learned from Joe was design. Joe was great at designing “grabber” covers and laying out an exciting opening page. Jack always said Joe was a master of all phases of doing a comic. One of the things he respected most about Joe was how he could assemble a great cover with the figures and the lettering and all the elements in just the right places.

HA: Jack’s influence in the industry was inescapable. In later years at Marvel, artists were instructed to draw like Jack. Do you think Simon and Kirby had a similar “house style” per se, or were other creators simply pulled into Jack’s stylistic orbit through the sheer force of his storytelling?

ME: Well, I think if you’re hired by Simon and Kirby to draw for a Simon and Kirby comic, there’s a natural tendency to gravitate in their direction. But as you’ll see in the book, guys like Bill Draut and Mort Meskin didn’t imitate Jack and Joe. They may have felt they had to rise to that level of dramatic storytelling but in most cases, they were hired because they’d already mastered that level of dramatic storytelling.

HA: Jack, of course, went on to have phenomenal creative successes after the Simon and Kirby studio’s demise, and it’s apparent that he took some of the approaches acquired while working at the studio and applied them during the rest of his career. But if you had to look at the arc of his career, what common threads would you identify that were also present at the time of the Simon and Kirby studio?

ME: Well, I think Jack was always a guy who asked the question, “How can I take comics to the next level?” I’m not saying he always succeeded, though Gil Kane used to say that Jack was right more often than a human being had a right to be. But Jack was all about making sales and expanding comics so at any given point in that career arc, he always had twenty ideas for new books and new genres and new forms. He also had this inhuman work ethic. People used to always marvel at how fast he was…and he WAS fast. But I always remind them that his incredible lifetime output was not just a result of him being fast. It also had a lot to do with his willingness to sit at the drawing board 16-18 hours a day, seven days a week at times.

HA: Jack’s favorite project was probably always his next one, but do you know if he had particular favorites from the Simon and Kirby years (excluding Cap, of course)? I’ve suspected he would have loved for Fighting American to have taken off, but that’s just a hunch based on his deep affection for Captain America. Did Joe have a particular fondness for any particular work he and Jack created?

ME: Joe and Jack liked a lot of the same things. Joe had a special fondness for Stuntman and a strip that he, pretty much alone, whipped up as a backup feature called The Duke of Broadway. I regret we couldn’t locate the proper artwork to have some of that in this book but the first time I met Joe, he was very happy when I brought up The Duke of Broadway. He also loved Boys’ Ranch, as did Jack, and was very proud of them inaugurating the whole field of romance comics. But really, like Jack, he loved everything they did…with a few exceptions. Jack didn’t like a book they did called Win-A-Prize. Joe wasn’t fond of some of the later crime things they did.

HA: Your introduction to the book is a great insight into the industry in those years generally, and into the Simon and Kirby studio specifically. But were there any questions you had about those days that couldn’t be answered because Jack and Joe are no longer with us? If you could ask them a question today about their studio, what would it be?

ME: I’d want to know more about some of the more obscure artists who worked there. Joe had a real good memory for things like that and I regret I never got to throw more names at him to see what he recalled about some of these artists. I have an audio interview I did with Joe about the birth and quick death of Mainline, the company they started. It basically collapsed when their distributor did. After I interviewed Joe, my pal Bob Beerbohm came up with pretty solid evidence that their distributor was secretly owned by Harry Donenfeld, the guy behind DC Comics. I would have liked to tell Joe that and see what his reaction would have been. I’ll bet it would have answered some questions that were nagging him a long time. Both he and Jack suspected they’d been sabotaged by bigger comic publishers but I don’t think they imagined that their distributor was wholly owned by one.

HA: In the course of your research into the studio, was there anything you learned that came as a surprise or revelation, even with everything you already knew going into the project?

ME: Every time I write about Joe and/or Jack, I learn something but I’ll be darned if I can tell you what it was this time. I think I learned something, as readers of this book will, about their techniques. By printing from high-rez scans of the original art, we came up with a book that really lets you see how good they were in design and technique. You can see brush strokes and really get a sense of how those guys did what they did. I spent hours studying some of those pages and there’s so much there to be learned about dynamic posing and storytelling. I saw so much detail that I hadn’t noticed or appreciated in the printed comics. I guess I learned that Joe and Jack were even better than I thought they were!

Editor’s note: We suspect this book is on many comics fans’ holiday wish lists, so here’s a handy link to simplify your gift-giving (or to treat yourself—you’re worth it!).

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