Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy 74th birthday Captain America!

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Captain America is one of the first political comics ever created. Captain America Comics #1 (cover dated March 1941) pissed off a lot of people by having Cap punch out Hitler. The pro Nazi American's (yes, we did have them before the war) were incensed and even sent Timely Comics death threats.

Captain America has always been a special character ever since his first appearance in Captain America #1, March, 1941. 74 years ago. He speaks to the American spirit in all of us. He stands for the freedom and equality of all people no matter the race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Whenever someone is trying to oppress another, he will be there to defend their rights to freedom.

Cap was created at the just the right time when our nation needed him most. There were patriotic superheroes before Cap like MLJ's the Shield but few patriotic heroes stood for and upheld the American Ideals as well as Cap.

The Shield of Pep Comics #1, Jan 1940 is considered the first patriotic hero coming out a full year before Captain America #1.
In the 40's, the superhero was hot but the competition was very stiff because the market was flooded with every kind of superhero imaginable. Simon says in his book, the Comic Book Makers, "The long underwear is where the money was. Batman was enjoying strong sales and publishers were trying to analyze it. While Superman was indestructible and tried to police the world, Batman was mortal. He had to struggle to rely on his wits in order to survive. During a fight he traded puns instead of gasping for air. Bob Kane and Bill Finger were coming up with colorful villains, constructing plots around such weird arch fiends as the Joker and the Penguin. These villains had character and intelligence. It was an interesting format which most of the competition hadn't milked successfully, but they kept trying."

Joe Simon came up with the concept of Cap in reaction to Hitler's aggression in Europe. Joe says, "In Europe, the Nazis were marching. Hitler and his storm troopers splashed across the headlines daily. News dispatches of the persecutions, the concentration camps, the incredibly cruel Gestapo tactics, seemed to Americans as ocean away more like a grade "B" movie than reality. 
Then the idea struck home: here was the arch villain of all time. Adolf Hitler and his Gestapo bully boys were real. There never had been a truly believable villain in comics. But Adolf was live, hated by more than half of the world. What a natural foil he was, with his comical mustache, the ridiculous cowlick, his swaggering, goose stepping minions eager to jump out of a plane if their mad little leader ordered it. (After a stiff armed 'Heil Hitler' salute, of coarse). I could smell a winner. All that was left to do was to devise a long underwear hero to stand up to him.
Simon and Kirby had fun with Hitler in Captain America #2, April 1941.
"Our government's propaganda was preparing us for the day when the U.S. would enter the war. It was a time of intense patriotism. Children played soldiers, shooting war toys at imaginary soldiers. Wouldn't they love to see him lambasted in a comic book? By a soldier? A meek, humbling private with muscles of steel and a colorful, star-spangled costume under his khaki army uniform? Wouldn't we all?!"
Joe Simon's first drawing of Captain America that he presented to Timely publisher Martin Goodman. Simon writes at the bottom, "I think he should have a kid buddy or he'll be talking to himself all the time".
Simon came up with Captain America, a young patriotic boy who wanted to do his part for the war effort, though life hadn't been kind enough to grace him with a strong body. Through the miracle of science they could turn ordinary boys into super men in the peek of human condition. though he had no real superpowers, he was the pinnacle of human condition in every way, from strength to speed to endurance. The ideal super soldier.

Steve Rogers becomes a super soldier in Captain America #1, March 1941.

The art for Captain America #1 was done by a very young Jack Kirby. Simon says, "The two Al's (Al Avison and Al Gabriel) were eager to join in on the new Captain America book, but Jack Kirby was visibly upset. "You're still number one, Jack." I assured him. "It's just a matter of quick deadlines for the first issue."
"We'll make the deadline." Jack promised. "I'll pencil it myself and make the deadline."
I hadn't expected this kind of reaction, and I wondered if it had been insensitive of me to suggest the new guys, but I acceded to Kirby's wishes and, as it turned out, was lucky that I did. There might have been two Al's but there was only one Jack Kirby."

Joe Simon stands over Jack Kirby at his drawing board.
I wrote the first issue of Captain America Comics with penciled lettering right on the drawing boards, with very rough sketches for figures and background. Kirby did his thing, building the muscular anatomy, adding ideas and pepping up the action as only he could. Then he tightened up the penciled drawings, adding detailed backgrounds, faces and figures."

It was unusual at that time for an unknown hero to immediately get his own book but Simon and his publisher, Martin Goodman believed that it would be a hit. Because of this Simon went a step further than most comic creators and asked for part of the profits. They did a split where Simon got 25% of the profits, 15% for him and 10% for the artist. And they were right about it as the first issue sold nearly a million copies.

Cap puts Hitler in his proper place in Captain America #2, April 1941.
Simon said, "Hitler was a marvelous foil; a ranting maniac. It was difficult to place him in the standard story line of the cunning, reasoning villains who invariably outfoxed the heroes throughout the entire story before being ultimately defeated at the very end. No matter how hard we tried to make him a threatening force, Adolph invariably wound up as a buffoon – a clown. Evidently, this infuriated a lot of Nazi sympathizers.
buffoonish Hitler and Himmler get their clocks cleaned by Bucky in Captain America #2, April 1941.
Simon noted, "When the first issue came out we got a lot of ... threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for." The threats, which included menacing groups of people loitering out on the street outside of the offices, proved so serious that police protection was posted with New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally contacting Simon and Kirby to give his support."

Cap burst Hitler's bubble in Captain America #2, April 1941.
"There was a substantial population of anti-war activists in the country. “American Firsters” and other non-interventionist groups were well-organized. Then there was the German American Bund. They were all over the place, heavily financed and effective in spewing their propaganda of hate; a fifth column of Americans following the Third Reich party line. They organized pseudo-military training camps such as ‘Camp Siegried’ in Yaphank, Long Island and held huge rallies in such places as Madison Square Garden in New York. Our irreverent treatment of their Feuhrer infuriated them."
The Red Skull attempts to overthrow the American government in Captain America #1.
"We were inundated with a torrent of raging hate mail and vicious, obscene telephone calls. The theme was “death to the Jews.” At first we were inclined to laugh off their threats, but then, people in the office reported seeing menacing-looking groups of strange men in front of the building on Forty Second Street and some of the employees were fearful of leaving the office for lunch. Finally, we reported the threats to the police department. The result was a police guard on regular shifts patrolling the halls and office. No sooner than the men in blue arrived than the woman at the telephone switchboard signaled me excitedly. ‘There’s a man on the phone says he’s Mayor LaGuardia,’ she stammered, ‘He wants to speak to the editor of Captain America Comics.’ I was incredulous as I picked up the phone, but there was no mistaking the shrill voice. ‘You boys over there are doing a good job, ‘ the voice squeaked, ‘The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you.’ I thanked him. Fiorello LaGuardia, ‘The Little Flower,’ was known as an avid reader of comics who dramatized the comic strips on radio during the newspaper strikes so that the kids could keep up-to-date on their favorite characters. 

Cap is seen here from issue #1 with his wedge shaped shield which, by issue #2, he had to turn in for a round one because of the threat of law suit from the Shield publisher, MLJ, who said that it was too close to look like the Shield's costume. 

Captain America is one of those timeless characters that only gets more poignant with time. And yet as interesting as Cap is, the story behind him is even more fascinating.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby: Secret origins of classic tandem

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