On Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America (1941)

1-2-3-4! Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s “The Case of the Hollow Men” is punk super-heroics. Exuberant, gleeful, transgressive, rough-edged, snag-toothed, life-affirming, street, political, violent, fun. To read it again is to wonder what the super-hero book’s been doing for most of the past 70 years. It’s the motherlode and the ur-text, the Sun Sessions and The Stooges of the costumed crimefighter book. What’s more, it may just be the most vital, the most galvinisingly raw super-hero story that’s ever been published, and it’s almost certainly one of the most exhilarating. In a rational world, no-one would be allowed within spitting distance of a job as a creator or editor of a super-book without being able to draw and letter all thirteen pages of it from memory. Every jagged-edged frame, every disdainful caricature of Hitler, every eviscerated zombie, every Hedy Lemarr reference. You get to know how to bellow your way backwards as well as forwards through “The Case of the Hollow Men,” the rule should go, and only then do you earn the right to audition for the gig.

Even presented in the company of several other explicitly anti-Fascist strips in the spring 1941 anthology All-Winners Comics #1, “The Case of the Hollow Men” was way ahead of its fellows in the loathing and contempt it presented for the Axis. Yes, Carl Burgos’s Human Torch tale pitted the flaming super-hero against the Japanese secret spy-master Matsu, while also presenting a laudably positive portrayal of Chinese Americans. And an untitled Sub-Mariner story by Bill Everett saw fiendish Nazi naval infiltrators ambushing British convoys from the cover of innocent American boathouses. But Simon and Kirby exceeded their colleagues in their zeal as well as their ever-developing mastery of the new form. It’s not just that they portrayed, with all the excess of absurdity and disdain which they could muster, the Fuhrer himself personally commissioning an American mad scientist to convert down-and-outs from what would one day be called the underclass into zombies. It’s not even that the tale closed with Bucky delivering a trans-Atlantic Bronx cheer to a humiliated Herr Schickgruber. It’s that all that hatred was loaded into a tale concerned in part to emphasise how incredibly important Roosevelt’s Land-Lease policy was.

In doing so, Simon and Kirby were moving past daring and yet general statements of wholehearted support for the anti-Nazi cause. Now matching their mockery of Hitler and his “vermin” with approval for specific interventionist policies adopted by the Roosevelt administration, the two creators were making their voices heard in a time during which the America First movement could still fill Madison Square Gardens with those fiercely opposed to any involvement in foreign conflicts. These were not, as they can sometimes seem in hindsight, days in which criticism of the Axis brought with it universal agreement and approval. Yet in April’s Captain America Comics #2, Cap and Bucky had been presented lauding speakers drumming up support for Britain in a packed-to-the-rafters auditorium as “real” Americans, while the following issue found the two super-patriots defending a movie mogul’s “anti-Nazi picture” from fascist sabotage. “The Case Of The Hollow Men” went further, with Simon and Kirby having Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes risk life and extra KP duty in order to save American munitions earmarked for the British war effort. This wasn’t just about spoofing Hitler or promoting America’s duty to resist the threat to the Republic’s sovereignty anymore, although that was, in itself, a daring enough stance. It wasn’t even about individual Americans reaching into their pockets to send financial assistance, humanitarian or otherwise, to the beleaguered British Isles. Captain America was now commenting upon the specifics of American foreign policy, and doing so with all the glorious lack of subtlety and directness of purpose that the super-hero strip enabled.

But punk’s more than tub-thumping, sneering, and belly laughs. Content’s one thing, but the form itself needs to be a call to arms. Simon and Kirby’s page designs remain, even today, both brutally focused and startlingly innovative. Their work is incredibly ingenious, and yet all their energies are constantly directed towards charging up the comic book equivalent of a mosh pit. It’s that mixture of an entirely unpretentious purpose fused with a desire never to bore the book’s intended young audience which would mean that Simon and Kirby’s punkishness would soon evolve into ever more complex and controlled forms. But their Captain America stories from 1941 capture the creators at a moment at which they were mastering the fundamentals of their craft at the same moment as they were relentlessly experimenting with it too. Naive and sophisticated, radical and yet not too intimidatingly out-there, their achievements were designed to never allow the reader to look away from the page.

The jagged panels laid out as if the side were as much compelling mosaic as comic book. The pages divided up into four rows, with each half of a side being typically used to describe a single incident. The crowding of individual panels with frame-breaking figures forever being dynamically propelled in the direction of something that promises to be yet more interesting. Even the relative crudeness of Simon and Kirby’s style, and their use of techniques soon abandoned for not being compelling enough, lend the work an impressive kineticism, as if the very idea of the modern-era super-hero comic is being invented exactly as we watch. So spontaneous do these pages seem to be that it’s as if the story is being breathlessly narrated by someone who’s only just experienced its events, and who can only stay just long enough to get the broad sense of it all sketched out. The excitement, the uncertainty, the sense of one fantastic thing crashing into view after another remains unmatched. There’s certainly nothing in 2012 that can match “The Case of the Hollow Men” for invention, incident, energy and momentum.

For a sub-genre that began with Superman’s concern for the common man and woman, the super-hero soon drifted in the direction of the world-view of the middle and upper classes. Super-heroes quickly established themselves as professionals and bourgeois pseudo-dilettantes dealing with lone madmen and threatening crowds of almost entirely plebeian thugs. Even in the context of 1941, “The Case of the Hollow Men” was a distinctly proletarian comic book. There wasn’t the slightest evidence that Captain America and Bucky were anything other than working class here, familiar with and comfortable in one of the most deprived of New York’s neighbourhoods. As such, the tale radiates a sincere concern for the plight of those right at the bottom of the social scale. Steve Rogers is shown happily handing over money to a begging homeless man who’s then even given a winningly humorous closing line to the scene. Similarly, Captain America and Bucky’s outrage and fury that the Bowery Bums from the “graveyard” of the Big Apple are the prey of the Lord Of Death is convincingly sincere. In 2012, it’s a shock to notice suddenly that the super-hero book once so passionately and purposefully took the side of those at the very bottom of the class system.

But then, Simon and Kirby’s work in this period was always grounded in recognisable representations of everyday urban life. “The Case of the Hollow Men” uses the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Harbour, train stations and bare-walled army camps as the backdrops for its punch-ups, while presenting typical commuters, private soldiers, and the woefully destitute as the victims of its zombie attacks. It’s entirely unconcerned with even the view of the Republic as usually seen from the comfort of a middle-ranking manager’s office. Though what we’re presented with is barely sketched out in anything but the briefest detail, there’s the constant sense that what we’re looking at is nothing other than life as lived by the folks who really don’t have that much at all in their back pockets.

It’s not just that Simon and Kirby’s sympathies are clearly on the side of society’s less affluent citizens. There’s also a wholehearted commitment to the least refined and most despised aspects of popular culture. The Lord of Death’s zombie troops are enthusiastically rendered as fearsomely threatening beasts. Far from the shambling, silent monsters that they’re traditionally portrayed as, these zuvembie’s are swift moving, purposeful, and given to constantly shouting “Kill!” and “Destroy!” There’s a fascination with terror here that anticipates, and perhaps even helped to inspire, the soon-to-arrive crime and horror titles that brought the industry into such conflict with the puritanical and their self-proclaimed representatives later in the decade. Even now, the page that shows nothing but dead passengers spilling out of a tipped-over and smoke-billowing train in addition to a women being gruesomely strangled retains something of its power to shock.

And in the later sequence set in a zombie-making factory, there’s a wonderful grisly and claustrophobic sequence featuring an assembly line of blood-drained victims being hoisted into the air, heads floating in glass containers and dead men being stabbed through to prove their imperviousness to pain. It’s impossible to believe that Simon and Kirby weren’t laughing at the audacity of their work here. When a story opens with a terrified policeman being throttled by a walking corpse, the reader knows that appealing to the nation’s more reactionary-minded librarians and parent’s associations was very much not on the agenda. Instead, “The Case of the Hollow Men” is joyously daring and vulgar, and that’s much of why it’s still thoroughly worth our attention some seventy plus years later.

There are so many memorably macabre moments in the tale’s 13 pages that it’s hard not to wish that there was a record of how “The Case of the Hollow Men” was received by both the young readers of the day and the sweatshops of creators who found themselves in competition with Simon and Kirby’s market-dominating creativity. How did other writers and artists respond, for example, to the scene in which a horde of zombies are dumped into the ocean by Cap and Bucky, leaving finally just a single ashen face protruding from the waves while shouting “Kill! Destroy! Burn!” prior to sinking forever? Did the era’s mass audience of boys shiver when the story’s two costumed protagonists recognised that the monster was “the same panhandler (we) gave a dime to this afternoon – - a harmless bum – - tonight, a murdering zombie?”; thrilling as they did at the thought of the beating that was going to be handed out in return for that poor tramp’s fate?

It’s hard to think otherwise, for this is such richly imagined and gleefully unrestrained stuff. Even now, it carries the air of a revolutionary moment bursting into life far away from the attention of elite tastemakers, and of a brief period in time when something invigoratingly new was being forged out of clearly recognisable and yet brilliantly re-imagined components.

Punk comics, then.


“The Case of the Hollow Men” has been reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Golden Age All-Winners Volume 1.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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