Lee & Kirby & Simon: Captain America Before and After 3

And so we come to the third and final story that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby adapted in the 1960s from one that Kirby with his then-partner Joe Simon had first produced for the inaugural issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS in late 1940. It should probably be stated right up front that according to the folks who were there, Ed Herron wrote the original story and came up with the idea for the Red Skull, though it’s likely that Simon and Kirby made adjustments to his story as they illustrated it. This was something of a weird story for Lee and Kirby to adapt, however, as in the original, the Red Skull is not only unmasked but also killed. As they moved into all-new stories in the following issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE, they immediately declared that the Red Skull featured in this story was not the true Red Skull at all, but rather an impostor.

The most immediate difference between the original tale and the later remake is that the 1965 version is actually shorter in this case than the original. So Kirby needed to compact some of the events and actions from the original, rather than having the option to expand on what he had done previously as in the other entries in this series. But that didn’t stop him from dispensing with the opening two inset panels from the original, putting the 1965 tale even further behind the original. For whatever reason–possibly because of the simplicity of the plot this time out, or some lingering guilt that an earlier story is being pillaged here, Lee makes a point of calling out the fact that this installment is being plotted in the style of a story from the 1940s. The previous two CAP stories had been as well, but this one somehow merits being spotlighted in this manner.

As we move into the story proper, once again the Kirby of the 1960s sticks rigidly to a regimented grid format for his page layouts, where his 15 year younger self chooses to break format with curved panels and the like routinely. Young Kirby also packs in 8 pages to this page rather than 1965’s Kirby’s six. So the original story sequence is a hair more cinematic, whereas the later retelling is a bit more storybook in its narrative approach. Lee employs a lot more narration and dialogue than in the original story as well, and it’s a shade more complex in its content as well.

Another difference between the era that these two stories were produced in was the advent of the Comics Code Authority. Working under its auspices, the 1965 story needs to downplay the horrific elements of the original. So the Skull doesn’t kill the General (though Kirby stages most of the action as though he had) but rather exposes him to a gas that will take away his memory of the secret Allied project he was working on. It’s a pretty weak substitution, to be honest, and in a few years, the Red Skull would be able to casually murder as he liked without running afoul of the Code. But not in 1965. Even the Skull’s appearance had to be toned down, so his visage in the 1965 take more typically makes his mask look like something akin to a meatball rather than a gruesome skull. There are a few covers from this period where Kirby’s version of the Skull’s head was redrawn after the Code complained that it was too scary for young readers.

On the next page, Lee and Kirby adjust a plot point from the original story. In that version, for no really good reason, after imploring him to change into his fighting costume, Captain America abruptly decides to leave Bucky behind, and the stymied lad seeks out the Red Skull on his own. The later story adjusts this to be a deliberate strategy on Cap’s part, having them both separate so that they can cover a wider area faster in search of their foe. It’s a bit cleaner, and the story winds up in the same place–with Bucky getting grabbed by some of the Red Skull’s men. It also doesn’t take any agency away from Bucky, as the original version does–you kind of have to wonder why Cap keeps the kid around if he’s going to be looking to sideline him.

At this point, the Kirby of 1965 compresses the action to buy himself back a page of space–all without the later story seeming jammed up or less energetic. The 1940 version displays a lot of action across two pages as Bucky first fights and is captured and then Captain America bursts in to continue the battle. It also winds up using what we in the business refer to as the “Arrow of Shame” to help guide readers from panel to panel as the page layout and storytelling is shaky in the 1940 page.

For all that Lee’s 1965 dialogue is a bit more sophisticated and urbane than that used in the original, nothing he comes up with here is half as good as “It’s me, you sap!” as Cap’s entrance line. The Kirby of 1965 loses some ground here, drawing up current with the events of the original story in giving much of the action in this sequence to Cap rather than Bucky. He also gives a rationale for Cap and Bucky not pursuing their retreating adversary.

The next page of the 1965 tale is a close approximation of the same scene from 1940, though Kirby does it all in fewer panels in the later take. Lee tries to add a bit more life and engagement to this sequence as well, a bit more personality. The original is relatively dry and basic in this respect.

At this point, Kirby is running out of space in his 1965 telling, and he can’t have the Red Skull actually murdering anybody anyway, so he eliminates an entire sequence here where the Skull targets yet another victim–preferring to keep the focus on Cap himself and Bucky.

Again here, Kirby is forced by his space limitations to distill the essence of three pages down into one–an abrupt enough defeat for the Red Skull that Lee is motivated to add an exclamation from Bucky about just how little stamina the villain seems to have in a straight up fight. The last panel in the TALES OF SUSPENSE story here has an odd inking error in it. If you look closely, that’s intended to be Cap’s profile at the left of the frame–you can make out his ear, cheekbone and eye. But the line of his forehead and skull must have been light, as inker Chic Stone misses it, interpreting this mass as the cloth of the Red Skull’s just-removed mask. Oops.

Because the 1965 Red Skull isn’t a killer, Kirby dispenses with the end sequence explaining his stare of death as a ruse, one backed up by a lethal injection from a hypodermic needle. And because he and Lee know they’re going to want to use the Red Skull again (though as mentioned earlier, they’re going to disavow this incarnation of the Skull almost immediately in the next tale) Kirby contrives to allow him to make his escape in the end, rather than being killed as in the original. There are some other poor choices of layout and composition on Page 13 of the original story, starting with the Cap figure in Panel 2 extending out of the frame, whereas Bucky, who is positioned closer to the camera than Cap, is cut off at the border. This also means that Cap’s legs are intruding into Panel 5 unnecessarily, and the entire arrangement makes the reader go to Panel 3 against the natural reading flow of a page. Kirby’s command of page land panel layouts had grown much more assured since these early days.

2 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby & Simon: Captain America Before and After 3

  1. Funny how the baloon (“Maxon! It´s Maxon, the aircraft tycoon!”) still comes from the place where Kirby pencilled Cap´s head

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    1. If I recall correctly, in the Marvel Method, the panels were lettered before they were inked, so Stan gave Cap a line of dialogue based on Jack’s pencils. It’s a bit surprising that Chic Stone didn’t recognize this when he inked the panel.

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