Captain America has been thrilling comics fans for 75 years. But was the idea for the character planted by a trade union firebrand from Yorkshire? David Barnett finds out
Captain America is the star-spangled superhero known the world over thanks to his decades appearing in comics — he’s 75 years old this year — and his starring role in the Marvel movies.
But although the shield-slinging hero who once socked Adolf Hitler a good one to the jaw on the cover of a wartime comic is as American as apple pie, there’s an argument to be made for Captain America having his roots in the textile mills of Yorkshire.
Captain America debuted in his own comic title in 1941, the creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Simon, a native of New York, came up with the idea for a hero whose costume was based on the US flag and initially dubbed him “Super American”. Simon wrote the adventures and Kirby — who went on to co-create the Fantastic Four and X-Men — drew them, with the comics published by Timely, a forerunner of Marvel Comics.
It’s likely that Harry passed on to his son his own strong principles of social justice
Both Simon and Kirby grew up in Jewish communities in New York City, with Simon born in 1913 in Rochester, a textiles district, to tailor Harry Simon and his wife Rose. Harry had arrived in New York with the equivalent of five dollars in his pocket in 1905, having given up working in the mills in Leeds to seek out a new life in America.
Had he not, then it’s fair to say that Joe, and Captain America, would never have existed. But more than simply fathering the creator of this famous superhero, it’s likely that Harry passed on to his son his own strong principles of social justice that sparked the idea for a super-powered champion of the oppressed.
For Harry was a union firebrand. Almost as soon as he’d landed his first job he was getting in trouble with the bosses for standing up for himself and his fellow workers — just like Captain America would have done.
In his autobiography My Life In Comics, Joe, who died in 2011, wrote: “There was always a lot of contact between the factories and the labourers, who were openly recruited to join unions such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the United Garment Workers. As soon as my father arrived he got himself into trouble as a union organiser and a socialist.”
Joe’s son Jim, a comics creator in his own right, tells Big Issue North: “Harry followed his brother, Isaac – Izzy as he was called. Izzy was the first Simon to make the move to the States. Izzy ended up in Rochester, NY, a small city in western New York State not far from Canada. Rochester had a developing range of industries at the time when my father arrived, including clothing manufacturing. Due to the highly skilled labour force in Rochester, the city became a significant industrial contributor to the World War II effort and attracted a diverse ethnic population, mainly Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews, who came to Rochester for work.”
Harry was already highly politicised when he arrived in New York. Jim says: “With all the factories, industry, and mix of people in the Rochester area, perhaps it was a place for ethno-cultural politics. Harry was a big reader of newspapers and I believe he embraced many of the concepts of the then labour movement.”
But his desire to fight for justice often had a detrimental effect on his own family. “Harry was so passionate about social justice he was willing to lose employment and put his family in tough economic conditions,” says Jim. “And I suppose my father picked up on it. My father as a young man was very close to his father. I know in discussions with my father, he deeply admired his father but at the same time he resented how difficult it was to keep a roof over the family’s head. And Harry’s intent to care about conditions that affected others most likely had an influence on my father’s creation of Captain America, a character with a moral code.”
Captain America was one of the most popular comic characters of the wartime period, and his adventures continued until 1950, when publication of his title stopped. But he was given a new lease of life in the 1960s when the newly minted Marvel company, which aimed to make comics cooler and more youth-focused than its rival DC (publisher of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman), brought him back as part of its new Avengers series, written by a young Stan Lee.
He’s never been out of print since, and the unstoppable march of the Marvel movies in recent years has put Captain America in the limelight like never before. One of the last things that Joe did before his death at the age of 98 was to watch, with his family, a preview of Captain America: The First Avenger, starring Chris Evans as the character he created back in 1941.
Jim says: “My father was very impressed by Chris Evans. At the end of the movie, my father was tired but thrilled no end by seeing his creation come to life, finally, on the big screen. It was impressive for him. I just wish my father had lived long enough to see the other big Hollywood movies of Captain America.”
Although Joe’s mother feared her son’s ambition to work in comics was a waste of time and wanted him to pursue a more practical career, Harry encouraged him with his drawing and storytelling. Harry himself was a natural storyteller, says Jim. “He loved to tell stories and was very entertaining. He loved to talk – he would talk about anything.”
And Harry was bursting with pride over his son’s creation Captain America. Jim says: “My father told me that he used to send his father issues of Captain America and Harry would show them around all his friends.”
Back in what’s now termed the golden age of comics, many of those who created characters we know and love didn’t get great financial deals from the publishers. Joe and Kirby were among them.
Jim says: “My father and Jack were young back then. They didn’t know how really to protect themselves legally and they got taken advantage of. For 70 or more years my father didn’t see money from his creation and, just as insulting, others were given credit as Cap’s creator.
“In 1990 or thereabouts I heard about a new copyright law and we got a law firm to help get back the copyright.”
Marvel made a confidential out-of-court settlement in 2003, but Jim says: “My father was in his nineties. He had a stroke from the legal pressures, and in my opinion he deserved a better outcome.”
The better news is that a 13ft bronze statue of Captain America has been made to commemorate the 75th anniversary of his creation, which was unveiled at the San Diego Comic-Con this year. Jim adds: “Marvel told me about it after it was made, and was kind enough to get a plaque added stating that Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. My father would have been so proud.”
As would Harry, the union firebrand from Leeds without whom there would be no Captain America.
Unfrozen in time
Captain America debuted in Captain America comics in 1941, and in his secret identity was frail Steve Rogers, a Brooklyn kid who couldn’t join the army to fight for the US in the Second World War because of his health.
He was instead recruited to test out a super soldier serum, which granted him superhuman strength. In a patriotic outfit – and his near unbreakable shield – he was despatched to fight the Axis powers along with his sidekick Bucky Barnes.
Captain America fought enemies including the Nazi Red Skull, Baron Zemo and Batroc the Leaper. In the fourth issue of The Avengers in 1964 Captain America was revealed to have been frozen in an iceberg since the end of the war, and was defrosted to continue his crime-fighting adventures.
Jim Simon says: “I spent a lot of time in my father’s studios and I did a nice amount of work on comics with him, but it was more as a son helping out his dad.
“I wrote and did production work on his comics. Outside the studio, I had a few books published – non-fiction and fiction – and had a number of essays on comic history published by major publishers, as well as a book I published on pulp artists who also worked in comics.
“I created my own comics, one which was published successfully in Europe by a French publisher, and I started a comic series, ShieldMaster: The Phoenix Project, that’s available from Amazon and major worldwide wholesalers. I hope your readers pick it up!”
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