The Evolution of Cap's Shield

By | Thursday, April 18, 2024 Leave a Comment
[Author's Note: The following was originally published in The Jack Kirby Collector #59.]

While Captain America was not the first patriotic superhero, he quickly became the most popular. The cover of Captain America Comics #1 expressed a widely held, but largely unspoken, sentiment in the U.S. at the time -- recall that the issue debuted months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the country’s formal entry into World War II. But while the original design for Captain America was by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby became more associated with the character and returned to detailing his exploits several times throughout his career. Jack remained remarkably (for him) consistent in how he drew Cap, but he did make several design changes to the iconic shield, most of which have gone unnoticed.

The original shield design, by Simon, was largely triangular in shape, with a scalloped top. It featured three stars and seven red, white and blue stripes. The splash page of that first issue sports what is basically just a somewhat tighter version of Simon’s original sketch. Though the number of stripes varies a bit throughout the first issue, Jack generally kept things consistent.

The first issue of Captain America Comics was wildly popular and garnered a lot of attention. Including from John Goldwater, the dominant partner in MLJ Publications (now known as Archie Comics) whose own patriotic hero, The Shield, had debuted a year earlier. Simon notes in his autobiography that Goldwater was “admittedly upset that Captain America had far surpassed his hero” and he objected to the shape of Cap’s shield because he felt it was too similar to The Shield’s chest insignia. Martin Goodman, who published Captain America Comics, was leary of legal action. Simon quotes him as saying, “... lawsuits are expensive and we’d better go over there to talk to him.” To avoid a lawsuit, they agreed to change the shield to a circular design.

(Interestingly, they found themselves in Goldwater’s offices again the following year when he threatened file suit over a villain in Captain America Comics #6 called The Hangman, feeling it infringed on the MLJ character of the same name. That Goodman backed down a second time and promised to never use the character again speaks volumes to the relationship between the two publishers.)

What seems to go unnoticed by many fans, however, is that the convex circular shield that debuted in Captain America Comics #2 is not the same design they’re familiar with. Throughout Jack’s work on the stories in the 1940s, he drew Cap’s shield with two red bands and two white bands. All of the shield artwork after the company became formally known as Marvel in the 1960s displays two red bands and only a single white band. A minor distinction, perhaps, but it does have an impact on the overall visual.

The round shield became more of an offensive weapon as well. Cap does backhand one crook with the triangular shield in his first issue, but the shield was largely incidental in that fight; Cap’s fist would have been there if the shield wasn’t. With the round shield, he begins to use it as a battering ram and large, blunt object eventually throwing it for the first time in Captain America Comics #4. It’s thrown a second time in #6, and becomes something of a regular tactic beginning in #8.

Jack came back to Captain America in the 1960s in the pages of Strange Tales. In issue 114, a villain called The Acrobat poses as Cap using a three color band shield. As noted at the end of the story, it was a test to see if fans wanted a return of the original character, who later made his famous return in Avengers #4. In both Strange Tales and Avengers, while readers see a three color band shield for the first time, it’s still not what they’re likely most familiar with. Unlike the four color band shield from the 1940s, in the early 1960s Jack largely drew Cap’s shield as completely flat, not convex.

This seemed to change in Avengers #7. Although there are few instances of a convex shield in #6, it seems to increasingly become the norm beginning in following issue. Chic Stone inked both stories, so this doesn’t seem to be an instance in Jack making alterations to his drawings based on what the inker was doing as was the case with Joe Sinnott inking the Thing over in Fantastic Four. I suspect that Jack had simply drawn the convex shield almost accidentally and editor-slash-defacto-art-director Stan Lee liked it, asking Jack to draw the shield in that manner more regularly. That would explain why it switches from flat to convex and back to flat again throughout the next several of Captain America’s appearances, as Jack may have needed repeated reminders. He took a short break from the character in late 1965, his last Cap story appearing in Tales of Suspense #68 with more than a couple flat-looking shields.

When Jack returned to full pencilling duties in Tales of Suspense #78, the convex shield had become the norm and it only appears flat from a few odd angles. It should be noted, too, that the convex shield became Jack’s default ultimately. Certainly when he returned to Marvel and Captain America in the 1970s, his pencils clearly show he was regularly drawing a convex shield instead of a flat one, and even his sketches for fans from that period and later show that Jack embraced the idea of a convex shield.

Despite seeming like the single, most iconic element of Captain America’s character since his second appearance, his shield actually spent roughly a quarter of a century undergoing modifications and adjustments by Jack himself. Not sweeping changes, but noticeable ones that enhanced the very image of the shield. Jack’s final design on this has remain in place for decades since, even when the shield is passed from one character to another. And it’s worth noting, too, that even Hollywood hasn’t sought to tamper with the iconography that Jack came up with here. It might be a fairly simple design, but that it hasn’t changed since Jack touched it last says how powerful those nuances were.
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