Joe Simon needed copy and he needed it fast!
The Timely Comics editorial director and his coworker and friend Jack Kirby were hard at work on the hit they had recently launched – the red, white, and blue hero Captain America. Readers loved the character and Simon and Kirby scrambled to meet the demand.
The Captain America duo brought in some freelancers to keep up. Then they threw some odd copy-filler stories to their young apprentice/office boy Stanley Lieber as a kind of test run to see if the kid had any talent. He had been asking to write and the short story would be his on-the-job audition.
The throwaway story that Simon and Kirby had the teenager write for Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941) was titled: “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” The story also launched Lieber’s new identity as “Stan Lee,” the pseudonym he adopted in hopes of saving his real name for the future novel he might write.
Given the publication schedule, the latest the teen could have written the story is around February 1941, but he probably wrote it earlier. The date is important, because it speaks to Lieber’s career development. If he joined the company in late 1939, just after Kirby and Simon and when they were hard at work in developing Captain America, then there probably wasn’t much writing for him to do. However, if the more likely time frame of late 1940 is accepted, then Lieber was put to work as a writer fairly quickly, probably because of the chaos Simon and Kirby faced in prepping issues of Captain America and their other early creations, as well as editing and overseeing the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner efforts.
Lee later acknowledged in his autobiography that the two-page story was just a fill-in so that the comic book could “qualify for the post office’s cheap magazine rate.” He also admitted, “Nobody ever took the time to read them, but I didn’t care. I had become a published author. I was a pro!” Simon appreciated the teen’s enthusiasm and his diligence in attacking the assignment.
An action shot of Captain America knocking a man silly accompanied Lieber’s first publication for Simon and Kirby. The story – essentially two pages of solid text – arrived sandwiched between a Captain America tale about a demonic killer on the loose in Hollywood and another featuring a giant Nazi strongman and another murderer who kills people when dressed up in a butterfly costume. “It gave me a feeling of grandeur,” Lee recalled at the 1975 San Diego Comic-Con.
While many readers may have overlooked the text at the time, its cadence and style is a rough version of the mix of bravado, high-spirited language, and witty wordplay that marked the young man’s writing later in his career.
Lou Haines, the story’s villain, is sufficiently evil, although we never do find out what he did to earn the “traitor” moniker. In typical Lee fashion, the villain snarls at Colonel Stevens, the base commander: “But let me warn you now, you ain’t seen the last of me! I’ll get even somehow. Mark my words, you’ll pay for this!”
In hand-to-hand combat with the evildoer, Captain America lands a crippling blow, just as the reader thinks the hero may be doomed. “No human being could have stood that blow,” the teen wrote. “Haines instantly relaxed his grip and sank to the floor – unconscious!” (Captain America Comics #3, p. 37) The next day when the colonel asked Steve Rogers if he heard anything the night before, Rogers claims that he slept through the hullabaloo. Stevens, Rogers, and sidekick Bucky shared in a hearty laugh.
The “Traitor” story certainly doesn’t exude Lee’s later confidence and knowing wink at the reader, but it clearly demonstrates his blossoming understanding of audience, style, and pace.
Both “Stan Lee” and a career were launched!