Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Who Created Captain America?

We've all seen the movie and seen the on-screen credit: Captain America Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.  But was it?  It wasn’t just Stan Lee and Martin Goodman who cut Kirby’s name and efforts out of the creative process.  For decades now Joe Simon has been insisting that he, alone, created Captain America without any involvement from anyone else, including Jack Kirby.  He’s claimed that he created the character on spec – despite the fact that Martin Goodman commissioned it.  And, more importantly, he’s created that he created Captain America as a totally original concept, despite the fact that Captain America, in his original guise, owed more than just a passing glance to The Shield.

Joe Simon has brought suit against Marvel for the rights to Captain America several times, the first being in 1966, after Marvel had brought the character back to life and were in the process of popularising it, partially due to the efforts of Jack Kirby.  That case petered out and in 1967 Simon tried again, this time stating that that he, “…as the author of the Works, had the sole and exclusive right to the renewal term of the copyright in the Works.”  The ‘Works’ being both Captain America and the first ten issues of the original Timely series.  In both cases Marvel argued against Simon’s claim that he was the sole author of the Works and the character and that the books were created under the ‘work for hire’ banner (the same as Marvel successfully recently argued against the Kirby children).  By 1969 a settlement was reached, and Simon signed a document assigning, “…any and all right, title and interest he may have or control or which he has had or controlled in [the Works] (without warranty that he has had or controlled any such right, title or interest)" to the Goodmans and their affiliates.” 

In his most recent autobiography, My Life In Comics, Joe Simon states that he created the character, the costume (complete with shield), the visuals, and the back-story and even suggested the teenage sidekick over a weekend and brought it into Marvel.  Upon acceptance of the concept, he then worked with Kirby to complete the first ten issues of the book, with Kirby acting as the penciler.  In late 1999 Simon, in another of his suits against Marvel, he again argued that he, “…independently created the Captain America character and authored the first issue in the Captain America comic book series, and that he was neither an ‘employee for hire nor a creator of a work for hire’.”   Just for the record, here’s Joe’s account, from his 2010 autobiography, with the revelation that the Red Skull could have easily been named the Hot Fudge.  Now that’d have made for a memorable villain, but, hell, we also had Paste Pot Pete and Tappin’ Tommy at one stage -.names designed to strike fear into the hearts of all.  Be warned, this one is a bit long winded; “Now we needed a hero who would go up against Hitler. Even though the United States wasn't in the war, we read the newspapers. We knew what was happening in Europe, and we were outraged by the Nazis—totally outraged. We thought it was a good time for a patriotic hero. I did a sketch of him with a chain mail tunic, and wings on the side of his mask like Mercury, the god from Roman mythology. I gave him a shield, like the ones the knights had carried, (My love of King Arthur paid off!) He got his powers from a shot, and in that way it was a lot like Blue Bolt. (One of my writers once said to me, "If you've got a good idea you should use it at least four times.")

“And that's how Captain America was created.

“Now we needed a villain for inside the comic, too. One day I was in Times Square at Childs Restaurant. It was a nice place to eat and to get away by myself for a while. I would go there for my lunch and desserts, and on this day I ordered a hot fudge sundae. Unlike Kirby, I could have eaten as many of those as I wanted. I was a pretty skinny guy-153 pounds and six-feet-three—and I kept that weight pretty constant until I went into the service. Even sitting at lunch, I was always thinking about heroes and villains, with all sorts of ideas swimming around in my head. Next thing I know, I had a hot fudge sundae sitting in front of me, with the vanilla ice cream, and the hot fudge is running down the side. It was intriguing.

“The hot fudge looked like limbs—legs, feet, and hands—and I'm thinking to myself.
Gee, this'd make an interesting villain, I mused. We'll call him Hot Fudge…just put a face on him, and have him ooze all over the place.  You have to be stupid to be in this business. Nevertheless, I did some sketches, right then and there. And I looked at them.

“Nah, I thought. Who would believe anything like that?

“But I looked again at the sundae, and I saw the big cherry on top. The cherry looked like a skull.  "Wow," I said to myself, "Red Skull... that sounds good." And it made a lot more sense.

“The Red Skull was only supposed to appear once. We killed him off in the very first story, and I never thought anybody would remember him. But they did—they clamored for us to bring him back. And he's still around. Now he's going to be in a blockbuster movie.

“With Captain America we were confident that we had a hit on our hands.  So confident that we wrote and drew the entire first issue and put that on the shelf. I turned Kirby loose on the artwork, and if you look at the first issues they were something different. The layout was different; the whole format was different from anything that was being published. After Captain America, the whole business was copying the flexibility and the power of a Kirby drawing.”

And before anyone says poor memory, here are Joe’s words from his 1988 autobiography titled Comic Book Makers, where he again recounts the creation of Captain America; “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!

“Working on Blue Bolt," travelling on the subways and the top deck of the Fifth Avenue bus, my mind burned with the idea. This was an opportunity for big money if I could make the right deal, not to mention the chance to make a mockery of the Nazis and their mad leader.

“I stayed up all night sketching the usual athletic figure: mailed armor jersey, bulging arm and chest muscles, skin-hugging tights, gloves, and boots flapping and folded beneath the knee. I drew a star on his chest, stripes from the belt to a line below the star, and colored the costume red, white and blue. I added a shield. (As a child, I had been hung up on shields, barrel staves that were good defensive weapons against stones in a tough neighborhood.)

“The design seemed to work; the muscles of the torso rippled gallantly under the red and white stripes.

“There was one thing bothering me though: he had to have a companion. A comic book hero without a henchman would be talking to himself throughout much of the action. He would be forced to describe his thoughts through a device known as "thought balloons" — a series of bubbles containing the speech lettering coming out of his mouth. (This device could slow down the story if overused.) I sketched a boy with matching colors and a simpler costume. Too many stars and stripes were sure to confuse the colorist.

“I wrote the name "Super American" at the bottom of the page. No, it didn't work. There were too many "Supers" around. "Captain America" had a good sound to it. There weren't a lot of captains in comics. It was as easy as that. The boy companion was simply named Bucky, after my friend Bucky Pierson, a star on our high school basketball team.”

Notice not a mention of Jack Kirby.  Also not a mention of the fact that Martin Goodman originally commissioned the character from Simon and Kirby as he wanted to cash in on the financial success of Superman - new books and new characters, especially patriotic characters meant more money.  According to Greg Theakston’s brilliant Kirby biography, Jack Magic (Vol I), “M.L.J. Publishing was having some success with their star-spangled hero THE SHIELD, and the trio took their cue from the character. Simon once remarked, “We were aware of him, but we thought we could...”  Greg later asked Kirby about his involvement with Captain America and received this answer, “CAP’N AMERICA was created by Joe and myself.”  Kirby elaborated on this, again to Theakston, “Goodman wanted a new super-hero and we gave him one. Joe had an apartment on Riverside Drive, and we worked on him one night. It was a time when we knew we were all going to be drafted.  Married, or drafted. 

“CAP’N AMERICA is an all-around regular guy except that his reflexes are great.  The trick was to make a ballet out of it where he can fight ten guys at a time.  The odds have to be against CAP’N AMERICA. I think its part of our American character that we always fight against odds and win. That’s the formula for CAP’N AMERICA. If he fights one guy, the guy will have super powers. CAP’N AMERICA will be the underdog. I think Americans will do well anywhere, the fact is that they are CAP’N AMERICAs and you can’t whip an American.”

Much like Joe Simon, and his account, Kirby never deviated from his version of events.  Kirby was asked for an affidavit when Simon sued Marvel in 1966 for the rights to the character.  Here’s what he said, at a time when his memory would have been very fresh, less than thirty years after the event; “I met Joe Simon at a place called Victor Fox just before I came here. He was here as a production man before I came here. We were artists for Fox and he might have been doing some production work too. I was hired by Joe Simon to come to work as an artist for Marvel, which was then called Timely, shortly before World War II began, probably in late 1939 or early 1940.

“I believe Joe Simon was an editor at the time in charge of production of the comic magazines. I was hired as an artist to work full time on a regular salary to help create comic magazines and characters. The offices at that time were is the McGraw Hill Building. There were no set comic characters as such at Timely at the time I was hired. They were created by us to produce the comic magazines. Many of the characters were not in existence at the time and bad to be produced from the top of our heads. The characters that were becoming the strongest were the superman-type characters. These were the strongest selling types as the country was beginning to be in a patriotic stir; military names such as Major..., Captain..., etc. were saleable.

“Discussions took place in the old McGraw Hill offices practically every day on the basis creation of characters and the framework in which to present them: what type of villain would they need to face the personalities involved and the typo of gadget to be used. The characters began to evolve from those discussions; there were sketches made of the characters and their costumes, and these were changed and modified until they assumed what we considered the correct appearance of the product we sought. We used Hitler and the Nazis as perfect villains. There was also the matter of remoulding a character. We first drew the Captain America shield, for example, as a tricornered shield, and there was a discussion as to whether it should be circular. There were scales to be put in the upper about part of the figure; it wee a popular form for the decoration of a super-hero. The discussions were primarily between Joe Simon and myself in the Timely office. This was the beginning of our partnership because we worked so well together. There was an exchange of ideas until we had a finished product that we believed would gain reader interest.

“In the course of the discussions we first evolved a main character and then began to build around him. I suggested the use of a side-kink whom we named Bucky.  Joe designed the type of lettering to be used on the Captain, America cover; it was the only thing I couldn't do. All my work for Timely was basically super-hero oriented.

“The general outlines for Captain America we worked out together. There were times when I would come up with a theme that we both thought would make a good story, and I worked it out in its entirety. Joe was more preoccupied with other things as production editor, but sometimes he would suggest a story which I would work out. Joe was very busy and didn't have time to do any himself.”

What Kirby might not have known is that the threat of legal action from John Goldwater and MJL provided the catalyst for the design change of Captain America’s shield.  Goldwater filed suit against Goodman and pointed out the similarities between The Shield and Captain America: The Shield’s costume consisted of red leggings, high at the hips, a blue stripe on his chest with three white stars, and red and white stripes running vertically from chest to groin, which was eerily similar to Captain America.  Both characters had triangular shields that they used, both as a defensive and an offensive weapon.  Greg Theakston recalled, in Jack Magic, that, “Goodman’s lawyer Jerry Perles remembered, “Martin came out with CAPTAIN AMERICA. An action was started and Martin asked me to defend him. The court indicated very clearly that it didn’t see their point at all. That anybody is entitled to a shield as long as it didn’t look like his shield.” Kindly, Perles offered to change the shield. Jack Kirby remembered, “I was relieved. I hadn’t liked the triangular shield, and thought a round shield would be more effective. It was a much better design.”

Joe Simon often wondered why Kirby sided with Marvel in 1966 and later.  At the time Kirby was working for Marvel and earning a decent living, Simon was freelancing and not offering Kirby any work.  Simon later stated that Goodman had approached Kirby and told him that he, Simon, was claiming Captain America as his own, which, in effect he was indeed doing.  Simon later said that nobody told Kirby that, as the co-author of the first books, Kirby would be entitled to half of the copyright and profits.  Tellingly Simon never explains if he attempted to contact Kirby directly to inform him of this fact or was relying on either Marvel or a third party to get the news over.  Marvel wasn’t about to hand Captain America over to anyone, let alone Joe Simon, so they wouldn’t be too keen to tell Kirby that it would benefit him if Simon won.  It’s hard to understand why Simon would make such a statement and be puzzling over it decades later.  A good guess would be that Goodman approached Kirby and showed him the court statements in which Joe Simon was claiming that he alone created Captain America.  From there it’d have not been that much trouble to ask Kirby to file his affidavit as to his involvement in the creation of the character.  It also helps explain why Kirby was reluctant to work with Simon when the pair were both at DC in the early 1970s, refusing to work with him after the one Sandman issue.  The Jack Kirby that Joe Simon knew in the 1940s and 1950s wasn’t the same Jack Kirby in the 1970s.  Still, now that Martin Goodman and Jack Kirby are gone, Joe Simon’s account of the creation of Captain America goes relatively unchallenged.

Jack Kirby, undated note detailing his role in creating Captain America
After everything was said and done it comes as no great surprise that Kirby was angry as he was towards the end.  Stan Lee, Martin Goodman, Joe Simon…they all took credit for his work.  Still, one character that Stan never took credit for, although the Marvel propaganda machine would try and attribute it to him, more than once (to the frustration and anger of Kirby) was Captain America.  In his 2010 deposition, as part of the Marvel vs Kirby court case Stan was asked about Captain America.  His response; “Captain America, for God's sake. He (Jack Kirby) and Joe Simon had created Captain America.”  Say what you want about Stan Lee, but Captain America was one character he was more than happy to state, for the official record, that Jack Kirby co-created and that he, Stan Lee, had no involvement with.


Rodrigo Baeza said...

Interesting to see Simon claim credit for the Red Skull as well, when other accounts state that Ed Herron created the character.

Mikeyboy said...

These was a general all around understanding at that time that all the characters they came up with were the intellectual property of the parent company and the individual recognition of whose creation was who's was Nil.
So of course Stan having been editor and chief at the time and head writer and editor for most of the early books is going to claim in some way he's responsible.
He's a company man. He has his name all over the comics and the industry. Nothing more than a figurehead.
I don't agree with this concesus at all and creative recognition should be paid to those who are due. But in the case of CAP....that was Joe and Jacks baby long before Stan became a Masthead. So he could not in good conscience try to put his name on it. Kudo's Stan...Kudo's.

Anonymous said...

Simon's comments about the fudge sundae sound similar to Lee's "I saw a spider crawling up a the wall."
Kirby's account sounds a lot more business like.