We’ve talked extensively about Jack Kirby’s contributions to Marvel Comics, helping launch the company into the mainstream with his co-creation of many of their biggest stars, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, and Thor, among others. But this was all in the sixties, when comics were finally beginning to emerge from the caves they had been chased into by the four-colored witch hunts of the fifties. Brand new heroes were born and changed the landscape of superhero stories for all time. But there was one that had come long before this new crop of characters, one who had lead the charge at Marvel twenty years earlier but had since faded into obscurity. This hero made the world sit up and take notice, launching into the world with as much action and aplomb as Superman had in 1938.
This was Captain America.
In the forties, superheroes were taking off like wildfire. Every comics publisher in the game were trying as quickly as they could to develop characters to rival that of National Comic’s Superman. New heroes disappeared as fast as they were introduced, with few having the staying power that National’s preeminent do-gooder carried. But, in 1941, Jack Kirby was just beginning his long career in comics and was contacted by Joe Simon to help him craft a new character for Timely Comics that would finally give them an edge in the market. After sitting down and hashing out the details, Simon and Kirby approached their publishers and the first issue of Captain America Comics hit newsstands in March of 1941. And boy, what a hit it was.
Even if you weren’t looking for anything new on the stands at the time, the cover of Captain America Comics #1 made sure you would notice it, with a shocking image of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler across the jaw in a declaration that upset more than a few Americans. In 1941, America was trying its hardest to not get involved in the massive war raging overseas in Europe. They viewed the Nazis as simply a problem for someone else to deal with. But Simon and Kirby, both sons of Jewish immigrants, saw the evil of Hitler and his ideas and knew that America had to get involved if there was any hope of stopping him. They were going to speak out about it even if it was just on the cover of a comic book.
While the cover certainly had its detractors, that didn’t stop the first issue from selling like hotcakes. And, thanks to Simon and Kirby not simply riding on their cover alone, the comic actually had a solid story and character within its four-colored pages. Steve Rogers, a 98 lb weakling who couldn’t get drafted due to his frail nature, was approached by a scientist to partake in an experiment to create a super soldier for America. Quickly agreeing, Rogers was given the super soldier serum and became Captain America, stronger and faster than any soldier alive! He raced into battle with the American flag emblazoned on his uniform, a mighty shield (not a gun) at his side to protect whoever he could on the battlefield while stopping evil in its tracks.
Captain America was an instant hit and each issue reportedly sold a million copies every month, a staggering number considering today’s top sellers only peaking at around a hundred thousand copies. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the star-spangled hero who embodied the best qualities of America: compassion, bravery, and the intolerance of evil of any kind. Within these pages, we were introduced to not only Captain America, but his best friend Bucky Barnes (the future Winter Soldier) and their arch-rival, the Red Skull, all characters that are still having an impact on comics today. Unfortunately, Simon and Kirby’s time on the book only lasted ten issues before they both jumped ship and went to National Comics. Despite the Captain’s creators leaving, the book remained a top seller until its cancellation in the fifties. Timely would try unsuccessfully to bring the character back throughout the decade, but the Captain mostly lay dormant for nearly twenty years, the world moving on without him.
But his sleep wasn’t destined to last forever, as Kirby came back to Timely Comics in the late fifties. Now rebranded as Marvel Comics, Kirby helped to launch the company’s own line of superhero comics with the publication of the Fantastic Four. An instant hit, they soon spun off one of the more popular members of the team, the Human Torch, into his own title in their anthology series, Strange Tales. It was here that a spark of life returned to the sleeping Captain. In Strange Tales #114, the Human Torch fought against a Captain America robot, a way for Marvel to test the waters and see if the new audience they had garnered was interested in their older characters. They had, after all, brought back Namor, the Sub-Mariner from limbo in the pages of the Fantastic Four and he had been an instant sensation. They had even reimagined another Golden Age hero, the Human Torch, from an Allied Android into the young hot-head of Fantastic Four Fame. There was potential in this new world of the Marvel Age of Comics. Fan response was overwhelmingly positive, however, and, in the legendary Avengers #4 by Kirby and Stan Lee, the original Captain America returned.
The Avengers, Marvel’s superstar team of Thor, Giant-Man, the Wasp, and Iron Man, pulled a frozen Captain America from the depths of the ocean and the readers were finally told what had happened to the beloved soldier from World War II. After attempting to stop a bomb that was headed to America, Rogers was thrown into the ocean as the bomb exploded overhead and frozen in a state of suspended animation for almost twenty years. Now, having awakened in the sixties, Rogers realized that the entire world has changed around him. His best friend, Bucky, died in the explosion that catapulted Rogers into the future. The Allies had won the war, but Rogers didn’t recognize the world he had saved. He was a man out of time, with no friends, no family, and nothing to call his own. But he still had America.
Rogers would join the Avengers and continues to star in the book to this day. He eventually was giving a co-star feature in Marvel’s anthology title Tales of Suspense alongside Iron Man. Kirby followed his creation and, along with Lee, crafted new tales of the Star-Spangled Avenger in the modern day. Kirby was able to reintroduce the Red Skull, and create brand new villains and concepts such as the infamous Cosmic Cube. Kirby’s style exploded off of the page, and you could tell that he was at home creating new stories for an old friend. But, this too was not to last. After helping the Captain launch into his own magazine, Kirby remained on the book for another year before leaving Marvel all together to return to DC Comics. He stayed there well into the seventies, creating brand new bombastic hits before bad blood sent Kirby back over to Marvel.
When he returned, Kirby was given a lot of wiggle room to tell the kinds of stories he wanted, and created brand new characters that, sadly, never caught on in their time. But, he was given the keys, once again, to his old friend, Captain America. Taking over the book just in time for America’s bicentennial, Kirby singlehandedly sent Rogers and his new partner, the Falcon, on new and exciting exploits not just within our borders, but around the world as well. Here, they fought new villains like Arnim Zola and went up against such threats as the infamous Madbomb. Kirby continued to steer Cap’s book well past its 200th issue but, fate would once again tear Kirby away from one of his favorite creations. Kirby left Marvel again in the late seventies and he would never get a chance to work on Captain America again.
There is perhaps no single character outside of Ben Grimm, the Thing, that Kirby connected with as much as Steve Rogers. Here, in this young man from New York, was a simple American who only wanted to stand up for what was right, to defend not only his country, but the world, from bullies and villains who would threaten it and the people within. Kirby believed in the worth of one man, he believed that that man could change the world with the courage within him. And that belief shows in every single action-packed page of his time on Captain America.
If you’re interested in checking out Kirby’s Captain America run (and, come on, you really should be), you can check it out in a number of ways, including the Essential Captain America volumes 1-2, which collects the Cap stories from Tales of Suspense and the transition into the main Captain America book. While these collections are in black and white, they’re a nice, cheap way to read the classic material. If color is what you’re after, you can try the Marvel Masterworks Captain America volumes 1-3, but these have low print runs and are pretty difficult to find for cheap. If you’re wanting the complete Silver Age collection in color for cheap, I’d recommend the Captain America Omnibus volume 1, which collects Kirby’s entire Silver Age run with letters pages and other amazing goodies. If it’s Kirby’s Bronze Age return to the Captain you’re after, you can once again check out the Essential Captain America volumes 5-6, which collect the entirety of his return in black and white glory. Or, for you color fanatics, there’s the Captain America by Jack Kirby Omnibus, which collects in one massive tome his Bronze Age brilliance. Unfortunately, his Golden Age run has only been collected so far in the Marvel Masterworks Golden Age Captain America volumes 1-3, which, again, are hard to find for cheap. If you’re itching to read them, I’d recommend going digital, as they’re cheap, in color, and won’t take up any shelf space. So, go check out the world’s greatest patriotic hero by the man who knew him best.
It’s the best salute to the best in the biz.