Lee & Kirby & Simon: Captain America Before and After 1

As the Marvel line began to grow in the 1960s, editor Stan Lee decided that he had a problem. He based this supposition on some of the fan mail that he’d been receiving no doubt–mail that would ask questions about how a given Marvel character could be in the midst of life-or-death jeopardy in one title while still able to have an adventure with other super-stars in another title. This cross-continuity was becoming more important to the marketing of the firm–and even if it was just to keep things more simple for himself and everybody, Lee began making moves to avoid featuring the same hero in multiple series as much as possible. For the newly-launched Captain America series in TALES OF SUSPENSE, this took the form of shifting the focus back to the era of Cap’s origin, during World War II. This also made for a good shortcut for both Lee and his collaborator Jack Kirby, as Kirby had drawn and co-originated the earliest stories of the star-spangled hero two decades earlier. By design, it seems, Kirby was instructed to retell the original Origin of Captain America in his next SUSPENSE story, and then to follow it up with other stories adapted from the first issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1 in 1941. If nothing else, this gives us an opportunity to look at just how Kirby grew as an artist over those two decades, as well as what, if anything, Lee was adding to the process during the scripting stage. On top of that, a few years later, in preparation for Cap getting his own title, Kirby once again set out to showcase the origin of the hero. But this time, he deviated more widely from that original 1941 tale. So it’s interesting to compare all three versions to see what is the same, what is different, and what works best.

On the original stories, Kirby was working hand-in-hand with his then-partner Joe Simon. Both men were accomplished cartoonists who often split duties on the pages they worked on. My sense of things is that Kirby was the real workhorse of the team, but it’s impossible to say for certain who might have contributed what to each page in terms of layout, preliminary penciling, tighter penciling and inking. That all said, the initial 1941 splash page is built around a drawing that Simon had did of the hero first, a costume design image intended to help him sell the idea to publisher Martin Goodman. By contrast, the later Kirby solo splash pages have a lot more dynamism to them, for all that they’re every bit as much beauty shots of the character. Also, in 1941 a full page splash was not typical, and so Simon & Kirby begin their story immediately on this first page–whereas on both of the later treatments, Kirby has more pages to play with, and can get into matters in a bit more leisurely fashion.

The TALES OF SUSPENSE story is a close retelling of the original origin, and it’s pretty clear that Kirby is referring to the earlier story as he produces this one. He mirrors certain panels and moments such as President Roosevelt speaking with his military leaders in almost the same fashion, while still adjusting for his own better command of anatomy, page design and storytelling. On the CAPTAIN AMERICA job, Kirby frames the flashback entirely differently, coming at it from teh point of view of would-be Army recruit Steve Rogers. The original story mentions off-handedly that Rogers had tried to enlist, but it’s not until the later Kirby story that we actually see this process dramatized. Additionally, by the time of both later stories, Kirby has dispensed with the swoopy, swirly, puzzle-piece style layouts that became a hallmark of the Simon & Kirby style. By the 1960s, he was operating typically within a strong formal grid structure–six panels to a page most often in the earlier piece and four panels to a page often on the later take. By that time the size of teh original art boards had been reduced, and this had an impact on Kirby’s style. Suddenly, he was looking at the entire page as a single unit, and composing his images for maximum effectiveness not just within tiers or sequences, but on a page-by-page basis.

It’s interesting to see the differences in pacing that the three stories use–though it sometimes makes it difficult to line up equivalent pages across the three stories. In the TALES OF SUSPENSE version, Kirby compacts time more densely, moving ahead of the pace of the original origin so that he can have enough pages left over at the end of the retelling to give Captain America and Bucky an action sequence, one of the necessary elements of a Marvel comic in 1965. On teh later CAP issue, Kirby has more pages to work with in general, and so there he slows events down in order to provide larger visuals. He’s also changing the story a bit more, giving a background to the spy who sneaks into the super-soldier test meeting and who will kill Professor Erskine/Professor Reinstein, thus making Captain America a unique specimen. I must imagine that Jack would have been bored transcribing the same images a third time.

Certain moments, however, recur throughout the three stories. In each case, Kirby dramatizes the reveal that the old woman who greets the visitors to the rundown curio store is actually wearing a rubberized mask to make herself appear older. But in the latest story, her reveal is almost done as an afterthought, a necessary bit of business that Kirby needs to get out of the way before proceeding into the stuff that he’s most interested in showcasing in this new retelling, Looking back to 1941, while everything works all right, the panel to panel storytelling is a little bit rough, and you get unlikely panel shapes like the one in Panel 4 here, whose narrative caption intrudes so far up into the tier above it that the eye may be momentarily confused as to the reading order of the sequence. By working within the hard structure of a grid, the later Kirby would prevent such confusion from ever happening. He was also far less apt to have elements of the images breaking out of the boundaries of the panels. Again, this was a trademark of the Simon & Kirby partnership–they would feature action so explosive that it couldn’t be contained by the panels themselves. By the 1960s, though, Kirby was adept at depicting such action powerfully while still maintaining the integrity of the grid.

The biggest change Kirby makes from the earliest story to the last one is the method by which Steve Rogers is transformed into Captain America. The first story has him injected with a miracle drug. The 1965 retelling changes this to a serum that is ingested, presumably to avoid Comics Code concerns about depicting needle injections. But by the late 1960s, Kirby finds this implausible, and so while Lee adds in a line about Steve Rogers having taken the formula before this point, Kirby has the character bombarded with transformative radiation–“vita-rays”–to effect the transformation.

As we begin to get down to the nitty-gritty of the origin sequence with the murder of Professor Eskine/Reinstein, the contrast between early-later-latest Kirby is pronounced. The 1941 version has a lot of visceral impact to it, but narratively it’s very simple. By 1965, the Comics Code might have objected to the panel showcasing the terror of the spy as Captain America comes at him as being too gruesome for young audiences, so Kirby is forced to show restraint in that aspect. Joe Simon often claimed that CAPTAIN AMERICA was as much a horror strip as a super hero one, but that’s an aspect that wouldn’t survive into a post-Code era, not without concessions.

In the 1941 story, this page has perhaps the worst arrangement of panels in the piece. While it looks relatively straightforward, the need to go from Panel 4 back across to the left to a Panel 5 that is situated higher up is counter to the natural manner in which Western audiences read–left to right, top to bottom. It’s a bad choice, but seemingly necessary so that Kirby can include a large and powerful shot of the new hero on this page. There’s an additional weird divot in the first panel that doesn’t really serve any purpose–both it and Panel 3 would read better if that border was straight across without that strange shape.

I haven’t spoken much about Stan Lee’s involvement in the latter two stories as opposed to the original. And in part, that’s because there isn’t all that much to tell yet. Lee keeps to the substance of the original while embellishing the language, making it a bit more florid and polished and bombastic. He and Kirby are also a bit more concerned about characterization by the later stories–rather than it just being enough that Cap and Bucky are heroes, Kirby takes up additional space in both of the later retellings to establish Cap’s alter ego as a foul-up soldier–even incorporating a bit of physical comedy in the SUSPENSE version before moving on to Bucky’s introduction. And in particular the first panel of Captain America and Bucky racing into action shows a marked development between 1941 and 1965–the latter is far more dynamic and accomplished, the original seems like the pair is out jogging. In the final retelling, Kirby runs out of space before he can even get Bucky into costume–fortunately, he showed the kid off in the opening pages of the story already, so readers will understand who he is.

There were two more TALES OF SUSPENSE Captain America stories that were adapted directly from adventures originally published in CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1, and they’re both worth looking at and studying more closely. Which is something that I’ll endeavor to do in the weeks to come.

6 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby & Simon: Captain America Before and After 1

  1. Tom, I really love this kind of deconstruction and analysis. My own understanding of what makes comic storytelling successful or unsuccessful is hit and miss — I just know when I subjectively like something.

    Posts like these really help me understand the craft of comics. Thanks for doing these!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom:

    I’ve been enjoying your weekend posts. (I’m a touch more cyber-doofus-y than it takes to respond in the Leave Comments section, though.) I was a little disappointed that you didn’t use my coloring on the reprint of Cap’s origin (which—as I recall—you oversaw).

    As I tend to say: Keep up the good work…even if it’s only to keep yourself amused.

    Richard Howell


    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really love the strong inking of Frank Giacioa in the 1965 version which I’ve read tons of times as it was reprinted in the Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty trade in the late 70s.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a kid in the 1960s, I was glad to find the origin of Cap and Bucky reprinted just before the origin of the Red Skull. I had TOS #66 for years and thought it was great. But somewhere (possibly in Fantasy Masterpieces, I had read of the origin of Cap or saw it in a flashback in Avengers #4 or somewhere, so I wasn’t really upset by the changes. I just enjoyed the action. I didn’t feel the series needed another origin retelling in #110, but when it happened AGAIN in #112, I knew something was wrong. Anyway, Kirby was off from Captain America, and he’d never return, despite introducing the Swine, and MadBomb, etc, it just wasn’t him. And my beloved Captain America series was never the same.


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