In December, 1940, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby introduced readers to their most legendary creation, Steve Rogers, the American super-soldier better known as Captain America, a costumed super-hero and soldier who went to war with the Axis Powers a full year before the U.S. government entered World War II. Two years later Kirby himself would be fighting the Nazis as a scout for the U.S. Army. It’s impossible to deny: Captain America has strong roots in the U.S. Military.
This year, Marvel Comics’ Custom Solutions honored those roots by producing a special, free “Captain America: The First Avenger” comic distributed to members of the United States Armed Services. The book is available now at US Army and Air Force Exchange stores worldwide. CBR News spoke with writer William Harms and artist Shawn Martinbrough about the project.
CBR News: Guys, let’s start at beginning. I assume this project was brought to by your editor Bill Rosemann — how did it feel to be asked to create a comic specifically for American soldiers about Marvel Comics’ premier super-soldier?
William Harms: Yeah, Bill called me up and asked if I wanted to a write a Captain America story created by Marvel Custom Solutions that’d be distributed exclusively to our troops. I was really excited, not only because it’s Captain America, but also because I have a great deal of appreciation for what our troops are doing around the world. It’s really cool thinking that they’re reading our story.
Shawn Martinbrough: When Bill reached out and offered the project to me, it was pretty exciting and totally out of left field. Between having grown up reading the forty cent “Captain America” comics in the eighties, wrapping my head around a “legitimate” Cap feature film, “The First Avenger,” about to be released and that this comic would have a million copy print run and be exclusively produced for the US Army and Air Force Exchange Service, I was pretty blown away.
William, you got to pen a cameo appearance of Captain America and got to write people’s reactions to the character in your recent “Crossbones” one-shot, which Rosemann also edited. What was it like finally scripting a full-length Captain America story? What aspects of the character did you want to explore in it?
Harms: It was fun, both because I’ve always liked Captain America, but also because it worked different creative muscles than the Crossbones one-shot. In a lot of ways, Crossbones is the opposite of Captain America — Crossbones is vicious, selfish and racist, while Cap would give the shirt off his back if it helped someone. That was the part of Cap that I really wanted to explore, especially in the context of World War II.
Shawn, you’re mainly known for your gritty street level stories in books like “Detective Comics,” “Luke Cage: Noir” and “Bullseye: Perfect Game.” Have you ever drawn Captain America before? And was it a challenge to bring Cap to life or is Steve Rogers a character you’ve been dying to draw for some time?
Martinbrough: To be honest, I haven’t read a “Captain America” issue since the Ron Garney run (yes, that far back), so the comic version of the character wasn’t on my radar at all, although I have heard great things about Ed Brubaker’s run. I’ve been reading his “Daredevil: Lady Bullseye” trade to prep for an arc I’m doing on “Black Panther,” so I’m a new fan. I’m a bit old school in regard to Captain America, so my love of the character dates back to the Jack Kirby days. The books drawn by John Byrne and Mike Zeck were some of my favorites.
When I get offered to draw a character I’ve never drawn before, it’s a combination of a blast from the past and a fun artistic challenge. There’s a bold straightforwardness to Captain America that I tried to convey when drawing him. It’s as if, no matter what pose Cap is in, he’s always standing erect. No matter how much I draw Cap in shadow, he’s still bright.
This is a World War II story and it’s a little meta in that there’s a framing sequence, and then you take readers inside the pages of another comic?
Harms: Both the framing sequence and the “comic” are set during WWII. The framing sequence is set the day of Operation Market Garden, and a young soldier is freaking out since this is going to be his first combat jump. To calm him down, another soldier gives him a Captain America comic. The comic and the framing sequence are thematically linked by the idea of what it means to be a soldier and the lengths people will go to protect their country, innocents caught in the crossfire and the people that matter to them.
Martinbrough: When first figuring out the script, I considered drawing the interior story in a completely 1940’s-1950’s retro art style. I quickly jettisoned that approach because it didn’t make sense to not apply my noir style to about 19 pages of a 22 page story. Instead, I discussed with the colorist, Felix Serrano, about creating a different color approach for the bookend pages which showed WWII soldiers on their way to a drop zone over Europe and the interior comic book story featuring Captain America. I also tried to create a “Saving Private Ryan” type of esthetic for the bookend WWII scenes by using a grittier texture with the ink.
William, since this is a World War II tale, what is Cap like when your story begins? Is he the veteran hero he’ll become as the War progresses, or is he still a little green? And since we’re seeing him as the star of a WWII soldier’s comic, is he a little different from the Captain America that comic readers are used to?
Harms: Our story is set the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so we frame the adventure as an issue of the propaganda comic that the USO distributed to the troops during Cap’s money and morale-raising tour. Yes, we’re getting meta. Our Captain America is very similar to the super-soldier that everyone eventually saw in the movie: he’s been around for a while, so he’s pretty much got things figured out, knows how to use his shield, etc. He’s also got a bit of a chip of his shoulder because at this point he’s seen the dark underbelly of humanity, and he enjoys kicking its ass.
In terms of plot what is this issue about? It seems like you’re telling two different, but related tales: one starring the two soldiers reading the comic and one starring Captain America?
Harms: The framing sequence is about a young soldier reading the Cap comic and being inspired by it to find faith in himself and in the men he’s fighting with.
In the comic section of the story, Cap is sent to investigate the mysterious disappearances of entire villages in Eastern Europe. What he finds is a scientist who’s willing to go to any length to protect the people of his country. The story has a very clear villain, but it was important to me that we show his point-of-view and how the war raging around him would define and shape his worldview.
From the art we’ve seen, it seems like the Captain America tale has a very pulpy, techno horror vibe. What is it about Captain America that made you want to drop him into this kind of story?
Harms: I’m a big fan of pulp stories, and so is Bill, so when we first started discussing this story we automatically gravitated in that direction. If you look at the comic as if it was created in the ’40s, it fits with the types of stories Timely was producing back then. Those comics always had Cap fighting mad scientists, swamp hags and the like.
It also helps keep the story light and fun. There are dark elements to it, but a story with Cap fighting electric-powered supermen shouldn’t be dour.
Shawn, what’s it like illustrating story like this? In terms of emotion and atmosphere, is it similar to telling an action-packed noir story, or are you using different tools and techniques for each tale?
Martinbrough: I think the only difference between illustrating horror and noir action is what is being physically done by the characters in the story. I approach the storytelling in the same way. In most cases, I find you can create more of a visual effect with the reader by what you don’t draw instead of literally drawing what the action is. Power of suggestion is a very powerful tool.
It always surprises me, when I look at your work, that you haven’t colored it yourself, because it seems like it always has the perfect color palette for the story. When you’re working on a project, do you work very closely with the colorist? Or have you just been lucky to be paired with people who have a really good sense of how to color your work?
Martinbrough: I was fortunate to work with the very talented digital colorist Felix Serrano on “Punisher: Hot Rods of Death” and this Captain America project. Felix and I go back a ways and are both graduates of the School of Visual Arts in New York. Felix understands color theory and has a pretty extensive knowledge base when it comes to art history in general. This is very helpful when we discuss certain approaches to color effects, modeling, creating separation between forms, etc. Once we figure what would work best for my art style and the particular story, I leave him alone and Felix works his magic.
What was it like for the two of you to work together? What elements of each other’s work did you enjoy the most?
Harms: Shawn really nailed the pulp elements of the story, especially the climactic battle. I love his art.
Martinbrough: I really appreciate the efficiency in William’s script. His writing has a strong command of structure and pacing. He also has a great way of thoroughly describing the geography and establishing the mood of a scene without overwriting. This really allows the images to have room to “breathe.” As an artist, you can’t ask for anything more than that.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share about your story?
Harms: It really was a privilege to write this story, and I think it’s great that AAFES and Marvel create these comics.
Martinbrough: It’s really great to have a project that friends and family who are in the service can actually pick up when they shop on a military base or at an Exchange. For the troops actively serving, I just hope that they find it to be an entertaining Captain America story that gives them a bit of fun nostalgia.