With Captain America: The First Avenger out on July 22, here’s a look at how the hero – and his arch-nemesis – came about. Hint: it involves ice cream…
As comic book origin stories go, Captain America’s is up there with the greatest. No, not the weedy Steve Rogers, pure of heart but puny of body, volunteering himself for the Super Solider Serum: we’re talking about his real-world creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, dreaming up a hero just to punch Hitler in the face. The following excerpt from Joe Simon’s awesome autobiography, My Life In Comics, talks about the birth of the star-spangled avenger, as well as why über-villain, The Red Skull, almost looked like a sundae…
“The comics that were doing really well at the time were ones with clever villains in them, so I started by looking around for the perfect villain. I tossed out a lot of ideas, but then I realized that we had the perfect guy right in front of us. I thought to myself, Let’s get a real live villain. Adolf Hitler would be the perfect foil for our next new character, what with his hair and that stupid-looking moustache and his goose-stepping. He was like a cartoon anyway.
“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 clamoured 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.”