Ghosts of Comics’ Past: March in Comics History – Captain America Born and Killed, Diana Guilty

By | March 4th, 2019
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Comics have been around for a long time and there is no shortage of fascinating stories in the history of the medium. This column looks back at select events that occurred during the calendar month from years long gone. Here are a few from Marches past.

March 1941 (Cover date)
In the early 1940s, superheros were the most popular genre in comics and publishers couldn’t make up new ones fast enough to satisfy readers. The experienced team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby saw the news of the day and decided to create a new hero who could take on the world’s greatest villain, Adolf Hitler. Simon would later say that he began developing the idea on his own before bringing in Kirby, but Kirby believed himself to be involved from the beginning. Their new character’s look was heavily influenced by MLJ’s patriotic character The Shield, even borrowing The Shield’s costume design for an actual shield. Simon’s first sketches included the name “Super American”, but it was soon changed to “Captain America”.

Simon felt confident about this new concept and offered it to Timely publisher Martin Goodman. Goodman was interested, but Simon knew other publishers such as Fawcett and National would be as well and used that leverage to secure a sweet deal for himself and Kirby. Not only would Captain America debut in a self-titled comic book instead of an anthology (an industry first), but Simon and Kirby would split a 25% royalty on profits from Captain America (15% for Simon, 10% for Kirby) and they received salaried staff positions at Timely. Although they didn’t retain copyright, which would have been unheard of at the time, this deal instantly made them the talk of the industry.

Because the subject matter was directly related to current events, Goodman wanted the comics released quickly – he was afraid Hitler would be dead before the issue hit stands. Simon wanted to give the story to a team of artists, but Kirby stepped up and penciled the first issue before the deadline. Captain America #1 began appearing across the country on December 20, 1940 with a March 1941 cover date. It sold out in days, largely due to Kirby’s dynamic artwork. The second issue had a print run of over one million.

Despite the high sales, Goodman said the book wasn’t bringing in much money and the royalty checks sent to Simon and Kirby were on the small side. In a conversation with Timely’s accountant, Morris Coyne, Simon learned that Goodman was using financial tricks to tally the whole company’s expenses with Captain America‘s gross, resulting in a much smaller net on which to base royalties. Bitter, Simon and Kirby began moonlighting at National for supplemental income. Goodman found out and fired the team while they were working on issue ten.

Aside from other obvious milestones marked by the debut of Captain America, its popularity marked a turning point for the young comic industry. Prior to 1941, comic artists had been studying and mimicking the styles of artists who had become famous in comic strips. Kirby had drawn other comics before, but this was the first time he had shown readers what he was really capable of. His action scenes and extreme anatomy was eye-catching and led to him being the first comic book artist whose style was copied by other artists.

March 27, 1994
In 1991, a policeman in California found a copy of Michael Diana’s self-published Boiled Angel comic, an anthology which featured some extreme violence and sexual content. One particular scene reminded him of an unsolved murder case from Gainesville, Florida, so he forwarded the comic to Florida state officials. Diana submitted to a blood test to show he wasn’t the killer, and when the results showed he was innocent, the information was passed to the Panellas County Sheriff’s office, who had jurisdiction over Diana. In 1992, an agent of the sheriff called Diana posing as a fan and ordered a copy of Boiled Angel #7 through the mail. This (and later issue 8 to the same agent) was Diana’s only local sale. Two years later, Diana received a summons to appear in court on charges of publishing, distributing, and advertising obscene material.

Continued below

The trial started in March 1994, and during the four days of testimony two experts said the comic had no literary merit. Diana was defended by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, but was found guilty of three misdemeanors on March 26, 1994 after the six jurors deliberated for two hours or less. Diana was the first American cartoonist to be found guilty of obscenity. Diana’s loss was partly put at the feet of Mitchell Berger, a board member of the CBLDF who was later accused of negligence in this and other cases. Berger denied the claims when he resigned from the board later that summer citing a desire to commit more time to other organizations he belonged to.

Judge Walter Fullerton was spectacularly harsh on Diana, ordering him to be held in maximum security without bail while awaiting sentencing, a level normally reserved for drug kingpins and serial killers. Prosecutor Stuart Braggish asked for two years of incarceration, but Fullerton only handed down three years of probation. Terms included normal fare like fines and community service, but also required a psychiatric evaluation, an ethics class, and no contact with minors. Most shocking, though, was that for three years Diana was subject to warrantless searches to look for and at anything he may have written or drawn. His probation was stayed three months later while his appeal was heard.

In December 1994, Diana was hosted for a special exhibit at the Goat Gallery in Chicago to raise awareness of his case, which did not receive wide attention. The gallery owner received some anonymous threats prior to opening, but the show was well attended and uneventful.

In June 1996, Diana moved to New York and mostly lost his appeal – the conviction on advertisement was overturned because it was based on a blurb to buy issue 8 before it was created. His new home state refused to administer his probation, so he reported to an officer in Florida by phone once a month. A final attempt to have it overturned was denied by the Supreme Court on June 27, 1997.

March 7, 2007 (Release date)
After 18 months of planning, Ed Brubaker and Marvel killed Captain America in Captain America vol 3 #25 on March 7, 2007. The event was rather unexpected and the news was picked up by media outlets across the country. Crowds hurried into comic shops across the country to secure a copy and some had to institute one-per-customer limits. Prices on eBay spiked, jumping from $15 a copy on release day to $40 the day after. Demand led to a rushed second printing that was released only three weeks later, March 28, 2007.

Among those selling copies for exorbitant prices was Wizard, the long-running magazine known for hyping comics as commodities. When retailers nationwide had sold out, Wizard still had plenty in stock. Not only that, they had an exclusive variant cover available for sale at Wizard World Los Angeles on March 22. Some retailers complained about this publicly, leading Wizard to clarify that their writing staff had been informed of the death well in advance, and that their company operated as one unit – that is, the ordering department had detailed knowledge of comics before release. Of course, that only amplified the complaints. Accusations of “insider trading,” unfair playing fields, and a lack of ethics ensued.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that Marvel did its best to alert retailers to the potential demand without spoiling the story. That’s evident in the sales numbers: Captain America #25 was the top selling comic of March 2007 even if the second printing is excluded. In fact, if the second printing is viewed as its own entity, it was the 10th best selling comic for the month. Combined, the two editions were also the best selling comic of the year. Wizard may have ordered higher than most, but retailers weren’t entirely left out in the cold for this one.

//TAGS | Ghosts of Comics' Past

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include annotations for "MIND MGMT", the Small Press Spotlight, Lettering Week, and Variant Coverage. He currently writes about the history of comic comic industry. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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