Friday, March 14, 2014

Mayor La Guardia Rescues Captain America from American Nazis!

Mayor La Guardia narrating comics on the radio during a 1945 newspaper deliveryman strike. Photo from my collection.

Captain America in 1941

Shortly after the introduction of the Captain America comic book in 1941, creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and their coworkers were disturbed by telephoned death threats and physical intimidation by American Nazi groups. Mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia came to their rescue.

In the spring of 1941 the United States had not yet joined the war raging in Asia and Europe. While the British implored the US government for help, much of the American public expressed a strong feeling that they should remain neutral. Captain America number one was released in March of that year, roughly 8 months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The villain of that first comic was none other than Adolf Hitler himself. The cover shows Cap slugging the F├╝hrer, while the story inside warned of Nazi spies working at sabotage within America.

Cover of Captain America #1
“Beware, Nazi spies! Beware, fifth columnists! Beware, all the enemies of the U.S.A.! Beware the wrath of Uncle Sam's greatest secret agent—the mythical Captain America.” —from the short story, Captain America and the Soldiers’ Soup 

In his 2003 book The Comic Book Creators, Joe Simon explained, “the opponents of the war were all quite organized. We wanted to have our say too.” Members of the German American Bund didn't like what he was saying. This pro-Nazi group had formed on US soil in the 1930s with direction from Germany. The group was especially strong in New York. It was common to see Nazi flags hanging in windows of Yorkville homes and businesses (in the Upper East Side). In 1934 a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden attracted twenty thousand people. In their eyes, the anti-Nazi message of Captain America—a comic written and illustrated by Jewish Americans—posed a real threat to the young German government.

The political opinions of a kids’ comic book might seem inconsequential, but Captain America had substantial influence. Comics reached a large audience, and they were eagerly read by teenaged boys who were close to reaching military age. As the US increased military production, the unemployment of The Great Depression dissipated. Families had more disposable income, which meant kids could buy comics. By early 1942 both Publishers Weekly and Business Week estimated that 15 million comic books were sold in the US each month. At the end of 1943 that number expanded to 25 million per month.

Coincidentally, the US government’s Lend-Lease act was signed into law in the same month as the publication of the first issue of Captain America. This program leased American military equipment to the allies fighting Germany. Worried at the US government’s involvement in the war, it seems the New York Nazis decided to harass Simon and Kirby. Joe Simon remembered: “We were inundated with a torrent of raging hate mail and viscous, obscene phone calls. The theme was ‘death to the Jews.’ At first we were inclined to laugh off their threats, but then, people in the office reported seeing menacing-looking groups of strange men in front of the building on 42nd Street and some of the employees were fearful of leaving the office for lunch.”

Eventually someone at the comics studio called the police for help. You might think that the police wouldn't be able to do much, but Simon and Kirby had a fan in City Hall. Police officers were assigned to make regular patrols of the office and hallways. As the police protection began Joe Simon was surprised with a telephone call from the mayor of New York. Fiorello La Guardia told Simon, “You boys over there are doing a good job. The City of New York will see that no harm comes to you.” Protecting Joe Simon’s studio fits in perfectly with the mayor’s reputation of personal involvement with his city.


Mayor La Guardia Rescues Comics!

Like Captain America, La Guardia hated bullies and took pride in fighting for the little guy. As a congressman in the 1920s he had pushed to end restrictions on Jewish immigration to the US. During his 1933 mayoral campaign and throughout his terms in office he strongly denounced the antisemitism of Hitler and the Nazis. In the planning for the 1939 New York World's Fair he insisted Germany was excluded from participating, and he even proposed that the fair include an exhibition on the horrors of “that brown-shirted fanatic who is now menacing the peace of the world.”

About two years prior to Joe Simon’s call for help, the German consulate in New York contacted the police with a similar but contrasting situation. A dignitary from Hitler's government was visiting, and they demanded a police guard to protect him from New York City Jews. La Guardia got involved in this situation as well. He told the police commissioner to send guards, but to make sure the officers were only the biggest and toughest Jews on the force.

After Japan’s December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the US, pro-German opinion in America disappeared. The Captain America comic went on to sell close to a million copies each month during the war. The New York Times reported that comic books made up a third of all magazines shipped to GIs overseas. In 1945 Mayor La Guardia would defend comics once again. In late June and July there was a newspaper deliveryman strike. The mayor went on the radio each day to read the funny pages to the kids so they wouldn't miss the story.

Mayor La Guardia autographing the illustration of a cartoon idea he submitted at an exhibition of cartoons concerning lost hours in war production, sponsored by the Office of War Information, June 1943.

In January 1942, Mayor La Guardia joined Hollywood stars at The New York Public Library in a ceremony to promote the Victory Book Campaign.

Further Reading:

Jeffers, Paul. The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Wiley, 2002.

Simon, Joe and Jim. The Comic Book Makers. Vanguard Productions, 2003.

Wright, Bradford. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

The excellent The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon includes a fictionalized re-telling of this real-life comics history.