Interview: Karl Kesel On The 1940s Captain America Newspaper Strip

Travel back in time to the early 1940s, right before America entered World War II. It was a time of great peril for the world, but also a Golden Age for the comics form, not only in the monthly comic books as we know them today, but also in your daily newspaper, an essential part of every household with a reach that dwarfed the periodicals of today. In this spirit, writer/artist Karl Kesel takes Marvel's greatest hero of the 1940s, Captain America, and imagines; what if Cap's reach moved beyond comic books, and joined the pantheon of classic newspaper adventure strips? That's just what Karl has created, but with a twist; rather than on ink-stained pages, the Captain America 1940s Newspaper Strip has debuted on Marvel's Digital Comics Unlimited. I spoke with Karl to learn the genesis of the idea, what it's like working in this format, and what these stories will reveal to us about the Sentinel of Liberty.


Matt Adler: How did you come up with the idea to do a 1940s Captain America newspaper strip?

Karl Kesel: Well, considering my two biggest influences in comics are Jack Kirby— co-creator of Cap— and Milton Caniff— creator of Terry and the Pirates, the greatest adventure comic strip of all time— it was almost inevitable. I believe the idea gelled while I was writing Captain America: Patriot. The fit was so perfect, I had to wonder why it hadn’t been thought of before. Cap’s military backdrop is ideal for a war-time strip, and considering Superman, Batman and even Wonder Woman had their own strips, why hadn’t Cap?

MA: Were you a big fan of the Golden Age Cap stories?

KK: Let’s say I’m a big fan of their energy and inventiveness. There’s a wonderful “anything goes” feel to them, especially the Simon/Kirby stuff, but much of the other stuff is, shall we say, best taken in small doses.

MA: How is the Steve Rogers of the 1940s different from the Steve Rogers of today?

KK: Well, the strip is actually set just before the US enters WWII— part of my assumption in putting the strip together was that IF there had been one, they would have launched it ASAP after the phenomenal debut of Cap, which means it would have probably come out in the late summer/early fall of 41. So THIS Steve Rogers hasn’t experienced the front lines the same way today’s Steve has. Certainly he’s fighting the good fight, and even took it right to Hitler himself (as shown in Golden Age Cap #2), but at this point Pearl Harbor hasn’t happened, so his main concern is stopping “The European War” and preventing it from spilling over into America. All of which means that while he has all the tools and skill today’s Steve has, this Steve hasn’t been battle-hardened in the same way. He’s a little more idealistic, a little less jaded. Of course, he still hates Hitler, the Nazis and Fascism. That’s why he was created in the first place, after all.

MA: Are there things you can do here that you wouldn't be able to do with the regular Cap comic?

KK: The very nature of a comic-strip gives it a very different tone than you’d find in most comic-books. The fact that every few panels I have to come up with a hook to get the reader to come back the next day creates a sense of heightened suspense and melodrama that would seem forced and artificial in a comic-book, but is quite natural for a comic-strip. I’d also say that I allow myself certain liberties or indulgences that I wouldn’t in a modern comic-book, simply because they’re the sort of things done all the time in strips from the 40s. For instance, Bucky’s exclamations always have to do with food, like “Sweet smothered onions!” I can get away with that in a storyline with feet firmly planted in 1941, but not in modern day.

MA: Are these stories meant to fit into existing continuity?

KK: I leave that to Comic Book Scholars to figure out. I’d like to think they are in-continuity— I make direct reference to a handful of early Golden Age Cap stories– but wiser men than me may say otherwise.

MA: Are you doing any research for the details of the historical era the stories take place in?

KK: The story itself is fairly self-contained from the real-world of the day. That being said, I have tried to make sure things like rifles, flashlights, transportation, etc. are historically accurate. Thank you, internet gods!

MA: How different is it doing a daily strip than a 22 page comic? Is it a challenge to control the pacing?

KK: The way it works out, oddly enough, is that each Daily is equal to 2/3 of a comic page, and each Sunday is equal to 2 comic pages. That means one week of the strip is equal to 6 comic-book pages, and 4 weeks equals 24 pages. So one month of the strip is almost the exact same amount of story as a monthly comic! (This is based on the size of the strips of the 1940s; today’s strips are considerably smaller.) As for the pacing— I seem to have a crazy affinity for the pacing of a classic adventure strip! I love that every 4 panels (Monday through Saturday) I have to come up with some sort of mini-cliffhanger to entice the reader back the next day! And I try very hard to make each strip self-contained, with enough information so that readers will at least know the basics of who the characters are and what their situation is, so that (just like a newspaper strip) new readers really could jump on at any point without being totally lost. It’s actually fairly easy to do without being redundant and boring.

MA: How much time does it take to create one of these strips?

KK: Far too long! I have no idea how Caniff did this on a daily basis for 50 years! The best I can do is draw a weeks worth of strips in about 10 days— and those are 10 GOOD days! But then, I’ve known for a long time that I’m not the fastest cartoonist in the west. Or east. Or anywhere.

MA: Is it very different is to be writing and drawing this yourself rather than working with someone else?

KK: I love collaborating with other cartoonists, but there’s a deep satisfaction on producing something yourself. That said, I’m far from alone on this project! I’ve worked with some of the best editors in the business— Tom Brevoort, Lauren Sankovitch, William Rosemann and Rachel Pinnelas— not to mention Ben Dimagmaliw— a colorist really in an extraordinary league of his own— and Jared Fletcher, ace letterer. All of these people have caught snafus and inconsistencies and made the project much, much better because of their involvement. And, in all honesty, I would be lucky to finish ANY of the art without the help of Rich Ellis, who has lent a hand either translating my chicken-scratch thumbnails into workable layouts, or drawing in backgrounds, or both— and doing both with amazing skill and professionalism.

MA: Have you been pleased with how they've turned out online?

KK: Truth is, I’ve only seen the first Sunday— the origin— online! I’ve been told I can get a free subscription, but I’ve just been too busy/lazy to get around to it! What I have seen, however, I was very pleased with.

MA: What are the plans for collecting this?

KK: A 3-issue mini with Very Cool Covers by the uber-talented Butch Guice! I’m hoping there will be a trade paperback, too, but maybe 3 issues isn’t quite enough for that. I don’t know. I know I have a lot of cool extras I could throw in! Now, if there’s a second-storyline sequel to the strip, THAT would be a nice amount for a TPB!

MA: Tell us about some of your favorite newspaper adventure serials.

KK: Caniff’s Terry And The Pirates, first and foremost. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the first time I read a collection of this strip, it changed my life. It was the first time I realized comics did NOT need costumes and super-powers to be interesting! Anyone who hasn’t read this strip is really missing something. As luck would have it, there’s a 6-volume series collecting Caniff’s entire run on the strip that’s available— most likely at a comic store near you. Go buy it NOW!

Following closely on that would be Caniff’s creator-owned strip Steve Canyon, which has some of his most complex and interesting characters: Cheetah, Miss Mizzou, Dogie Hogan, Princess Snowflower, etc.

Third on the list: E.C. Segar’s Popeye. Yes, it’s a funny strip— one of the LOL funniest ever— but it’s also a great, rollicking anything-goes adventure.

I’m also a huge fan of Roy Crane’s work— Captain Easy, Wash Tubbs, and Buz Sawyer. The art’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous (especially once he gets into duo-tone work) and the storylines are always engaging and entertaining.

Frank Robbins' Johnny Hazard is a real gem, too. A little more over-the-top than Caniff’s work— in content and style— and one that really deserves a hardcover collection. (You listening, Dean Mullaney?)

Another forgotten jewel: Frank Godwin’s Connie. Beautifully drawn, starring a woman protagonist. She started as a reporter, but I’d really like to see some of the strips from the end of the run, where I hear (but have never seen) that she went into outer space!

I could go on and on…

MA: If you had been around back in the newspaper strip heyday, what sort of strip do you think you would be working on?

KK: I’ve often wished I had been born 50 years earlier so I COULD have worked on an adventure strip during their heyday! And if I had been… well, I think I could’ve done a pretty good job on a Captain America strip!

MA: Is there any irony or meta-commentary intended in launching this "lost newspaper strip" in the digital medium, at a time when more and more newspapers are looking towards moving from print to the online world?

KK: As much as I love monthly comic-books, I personally feel comics’ future is on-line. Once again, we could be producing work that goes directing into the homes of MILLIONS of people every day— just like when print newspapers were king! So, yes, I certainly see the Cap comic-strip as a step forward in that direction, while at the same time giving a wink back at where it all began— and where we might end up again!

MA: Has there been any thought about whether newspapers might be interested in picking up this strip, given the rising popularity of Cap in comics, and the forthcoming movie?

KK: No one’s talked to me about it. I would guess it’s very unlikely. I’m extremely proud of the strip, but a big part of the reason it works is because it has the space it NEEDS to work! As I mentioned earlier, today’s strips are so much smaller, there’s no way you could produce a work anywhere near as involving and compelling. It might seem like such a small thing, but there is a HUGE difference between three panels a day (today’s strips) and four panels a day (adventure strips Back in The Day), and the amount and kind of story you can tell in that space. But, see, ONLINE you don’t have that same kind of space restriction…

MA: Are you kicking around any ideas for more strips, either for Cap or something else?

KK: I’d LOVE to keep doing this sort of thing, be it more Cap or some other online-first comic-strip. Believe me, this is a dream job for me, and I am all in favor of it not ending! I have some ideas for other characters and approaches Marvel might like to try, but haven’t had the time to really talk with them about it yet. But I do already have a Cap comic-strip sequel in mind— and it’d guest-star the Sub-Mariner! It’s up to Marvel if that happens or not…



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  1. I was psyched until I saw "digital comic."  I skipped the whole review after that.  Pass.

  2. Interesting. I saw these available for preorder at DCBS, but I assumed they were just reprints of old material. I may check them out.

  3. a bit of a bait and switch with the name.  You think you’re getting lost Golden Age stuff, and then you get this super contemporary art. 

    I think it can be done. The Spiderman strip in Comic Shop News has a nice classic feel to it. 

  4. @GrandTurk: Kesel mentions in the interview that this is being collected in print.

  5. "How did you come up with the idea to do a 1940s Captain America newspaper strip?"

    A: Wednesday Comics

    ….Sorry had to put that out there.

  6. As Karl notes, comics in newspaper strip form date back to the first half of the last century (not to mention predating the comic book form itself). Wednesday Comics is a bit more recent than that, and DC made no secret of the fact that they too were inspired by the adventure strips of years past.

  7. @Matt: Let me rephrase that last comment.

    I’m sure Kesel was inspired by the classic newspaper strips. I’m just saying that Wednesday Comics just happened last year, and this just seems really similar to that. Maybe it’s too strong for me to outright say he’s just copying a DC idea; it’s just a shame this came out so close from something similar that came out.

  8. I don’t know that it’s that close. This is daily digital strip; that was a weekly on tabloid-size newsprint. This is a single strip initiated by a single creator; that was a huge project organized by an editor bringing in dozens of different creators. The only real similarity is the strip form, and given that all comics originated in that form, it’s not that much of a coincidence. Also, Karl has mentioned elsewhere that he first kicked around this idea with an Indiana Jones series he did for Dark Horse, so this is obviously a long-standing desire of his.

  9. gonna have to agree with MattAdler

    Coimc strips are everywhere…webcomics, magazines, bazooka joe.  If you want to talk strictly superheroes They’ve been running a spiderman strip since the 70s. DC had The World’s greatest superheroes from 1978-1985 (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash etc) and before the 70s there was a ton of stuff. They still run syndicated comic strips in the Sunday Newspaper. The influences are endless.

    Wednesday comics was the first time a lot of younger readers have seen comic characters and superheroes printed on newsprint broadsheets but its not in any way a new thing.