Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Although cre­ated in 1940, he re­mains as ‘Timely’ as ever. (Be­cause then Marvel was Timely Pub­li­ca­tions, see? SEE?)


up with Dare­devil to pro­tect a small­town in­ven­tor from the FBI and govern­ment goons. Voic­ing the opin­ions of Dare­devil’s un­apolo­get­i­cally lib­eral writer Ann No­centi, he opened his heart to the Man With­out Fear about the sins of Rea­gan and Bush’s America and fret­ted, “How can they ex­pect me to con­tinue to wear the flag of a coun­try that does such things?” Even Dare­devil was taken aback. One reader was so un­happy with this bleed­ing-heart Cap that he sent a curt let­ter to the edi­tor: “Get the com­mie off the book.”

Peo­ple take Cap­tain America very se­ri­ously. In 2007, writer Ed Brubaker said, “What I found is that all the re­ally hard­core left-wing fans want Cap to be giv­ing speeches on the street cor­ner against the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, and all the re­ally right-wing fans want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punch­ing out Sad­dam Hus­sein.” This di­vide wasn’t new. The 75-year his­tory of the char­ac­ter is an ar­gu­ment about America it­self. Over the years, Cap­tain America has been a clean-cut war hero, a Red-basher, a bit­terly dis­il­lu­sioned lib­eral, a jin­go­is­tic thug and a dis­si­dent free­dom fighter, and he still hasn’t been nailed down. Like the coun­try he rep­re­sents, he con­tains mul­ti­tudes.

By rights, a square-jawed all-amer­i­can who was cre­ated in De­cem­ber 1940 to bat­tle the Nazis should by now be hope­lessly square. He’s not anx­ious about girls and money like Spi­der-man, tor­tured by grief and guilt like Dare­devil, hounded like the X-men or lonely like the Hulk. He’s a good guy, and good guys nor­mally write white. But the writ­ers who have kept him alive in comic books and, re­cently, on screen show that it’s not easy to be good when you rep­re­sent a coun­try that fre­quently isn’t. His faith in America, and there­fore his own iden­tity, is con­stantly be­ing knocked down and re­built. It was all much sim­pler in the be­gin­ning, when the USA was the hero of the free world, the en­emy was ob­vi­ous and Cap was a fan­tasy of un­der­dog em­pow­er­ment cooked up by two Jewish New York­ers.

In 1940, Martin Goodman was the am­bi­tious boss of Timely Pub­li­ca­tions, the pre­cur­sor to Marvel Comics. His big­gest char­ac­ters, the Hu­man Torch and the Sub-mariner, were li­censed from another com­pany and he wanted one of his own. So he asked free­lance writer Joe Si­mon, who asked a tal­ented young artist from the Lower East Side slums named Ja­cob Kurtzberg, bet­ter known as Jack Kirby. Si­mon and Kirby struck out a few times be­fore cre­at­ing a su­per-pa­triot heav­ily in­flu­enced by MLJ Comics’ stars­pan­gled hero The Shield. He was Steve Rogers, an or­phaned, work­ing-class, Irish-amer­i­can art stu­dent from Kirby’s neigh­bour­hood who was too sickly to en­list in the mil­i­tary and so vol­un­teered to re­ceive an ex­per­i­men­tal “su­per-soldier” serum that en­abled him to fight for the Amer­i­can way. Si­mon toyed with

the name Su­per Amer­i­can be­fore set­tling on Cap­tain America. “There were too many ‘Su­pers’ around,” Si­mon re­mem­bered. “There weren’t a lot of cap­tains in comics.”

Si­mon, Kirby and Goodman were all sons of im­mi­grants; they didn’t take America for granted. What’s more, Si­mon and Kirby were gen­uinely dis­gusted by Hitler and made their hero an ide­al­is­tic, so­cially con­scious pa­triot who went to war to pro­tect the weak. As Mark D. White puts it in The Virtues Of Cap­tain America: Mod­ern-day Lessons On Char­ac­ter From A World War II Su­per­hero, he be­lieves “Amer­i­can ideals ap­ply to ev­ery­one — not just all Amer­i­cans, but all peo­ple around the world”.

The US wouldn’t en­ter the war un­til Pearl Har­bour in De­cem­ber 1941, but Timely’s he­roes were al­ready do­ing their bit. The cover of Cap­tain America #1, which hit the news­stands shortly be­fore Christ­mas 1940 (although sport­ing a cover date of March 1941), de­picted Cap whomp­ing Hitler him­self while Nazi bul­lets pinged off his shield. The scenes in Cap­tain America: The First Avenger in which he’s forced to be a pro­pa­ganda pin-up echo the in­spi­ra­tional im­pact of the comic book. Each is­sue sold around one mil­lion copies, out­per­form­ing even Time mag­a­zine, fans called them­selves the Sen­tinels Of Lib­erty, and Cap con­tin­ued to plague the Nazis and Ja­panese right up to VJ Day. “The vil­lain came first,” Si­mon said. “Hitler was the per­fect bad guy — bet­ter than any we could have in­vented. Cap­tain America was cre­ated to be his ul­ti­mate foil.”

Goodman was not quite so ide­al­is­tic when he re­vived the char­ac­ter as a Cold War­rior in 1953, at the height of the Red Scare, billing him as “Cap­tain America, Com­mie Smasher!” When Stan Lee, the former Timely of­fice boy who be­came the cre­ative dy­namo be­hind Marvel, brought Cap back in 1964, he ig­nored those sto­ries, ex­plain­ing that Rogers had been frozen in North At­lantic ice since 1945 and de­frosted in a new era. When Howard The Duck cre­ator Steve Ger­ber at­tended a pitch meet­ing with TV pro­ducer Fred Sil­ver­man in 1980, he waxed lyrical about Cap­tain America, call­ing him “a man out of time”. An un­im­pressed Sil­ver­man replied, “You know, we ain’t do­ing Ib­sen here.” But this out-of-time qual­ity is what makes Rogers so in­ter­est­ing in the Avengers movies, his old-fash­ioned no­bil­ity con­trast­ing with Iron Man’s glib cyn­i­cism and Black Widow’s flinty re­al­ism. He doesn’t quite fit in.

Af­ter a strong start, the re­born Cap­tain America be­came un­fash­ion­able as the ’60s wore on. What did good ol’ Steve Rogers have to say to the gen­er­a­tion of Wood­stock and My Lai, in­creas­ingly con­vinced that the big­gest threat to Amer­i­can ideals was the coun­try’s own govern­ment? “It was tak­ing place dur­ing the Viet­nam War, and here was this guy wear­ing a flag on his chest, and ev­ery­body was em­bar­rassed,” said writer Steve En­gle­hart, who took over the book in 1972.

One of En­gle­hart’s sto­ry­lines was an ob­vi­ous anal­ogy for Water­gate, with Cap the vic­tim of a smear cam­paign or­ches­trated by Num­ber One, the leader of ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion the Se­cret Em­pire. It ends with Num­ber One un­masked as a top govern­ment of­fi­cial and com­mit­ting sui­cide in the White House. En­gle­hart as­sured Marvel that Num­ber One, whose face was never seen, wasn’t meant to be Richard Nixon, but of course he was. Why else would he boast, “High po­lit­i­cal of­fice didn't sat­isfy me! My power was still too con­strained by le­gal­i­ties!”? And who would feel more be­trayed by a crooked com­man­der-in­chief than the war hero who wore the flag on his chest?

Rogers was so dis­il­lu­sioned that he re­nounced Cap­tain

America and fought crime as No­mad be­fore pick­ing up the shield again, de­cid­ing that de­fend­ing his coun­try didn’t mean obey­ing his govern­ment. En­gle­hart’s work later in­flu­enced Cap­tain America: The Win­ter Soldier, the Russo broth­ers’ homage to the trust-no­body para­noid thrillers of the 1970s.

Dur­ing the Rea­gan­ite ’80s, Cap was a wary pa­triot, con­scious of America’s flaws as well as it strengths, sus­pi­cious of power, bat­tling shady gen­er­als and rene­gade CIA agents. Writer Mark Gru­en­wald had Rogers tem­po­rar­ily re­sign again af­ter he was or­dered to work di­rectly for the govern­ment, which re­placed him with the more pli­able Su­per-pa­triot. “I can­not rep­re­sent the Amer­i­can govern­ment; the Pres­i­dent does that,” Rogers loftily pro­claimed. “I must rep­re­sent the Amer­i­can peo­ple. I rep­re­sent the Amer­i­can Dream…” In a deleted scene from Avengers As­sem­ble, Joss Whe­don ref­er­enced this scep­ti­cal in­car­na­tion of Cap­tain America (his favourite Avenger), hav­ing him talk to old flame Peggy Carter about “loss of the idea of com­mu­nity, loss of health care and wel­fare and all sorts of things.”

There were lim­its, though. In 1984 left-lean­ing writer J. M. Demat­teis had an au­da­cious plan for the 300th is­sue: Cap­tain America would throw away his shield and re­nounce vi­o­lence for good af­ter the death of his Nazi neme­sis the Red Skull. In Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Un­told Story, Demat­teis re­veals that he in­tended to turn Cap into a global peace ac­tivist, ag­gra­vat­ing both his own govern­ment and fel­low su­per­heroes, be­fore be­ing as­sas­si­nated by his wartime side­kick Bucky. The man­tle of Cap­tain America would pass to Black Crow, a Na­tive Amer­i­can su­per­hero, thus mak­ing the role rep­re­sent the America that pre­dated the pil­grim set­tlers. A paci­fist Rogers was too much for Marvel edi­tor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who freaked out and rewrote the is­sue, caus­ing Demat­teis to quit in dis­gust. Get the com­mie off the book.

Cap­tain America con­tin­ued to evolve, in some­times un­savoury di­rec­tions. In 2003, writer Mark Mil­lar turned Cap into a bel­liger­ent post-9/11 hard man who beat a foe to a bloody pulp while hol­ler­ing, “You think this let­ter on my head stands for France?” But just three years later, in the Civil War sto­ry­line that in­spired the new Cap­tain America movie, Mil­lar back­tracked and made him an in­stinc­tive rebel, lead­ing a group of guer­rilla Avengers against the estab­lish­ment yes-men headed by Iron Man. To Cap­tain America, the au­thor­i­tar­ian Su­per­hero Reg­is­tra­tion Act was sim­ply un-amer­i­can. Civil War ended with Cap shot to death (or, this be­ing one of Marvel’s most cher­ished char­ac­ters, “death”) on the steps of a court­house.

Even if the movie adap­ta­tion fol­lows suit, mark­ing the end of Chris Evans’ ten­ure, and per­haps of Steve Rogers, that doesn’t mean there will be no more Cap­tain America movies. Across the decades, more than a dozen dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters have taken the job of Cap­tain America when Rogers re­signed, died or was oth­er­wise in­dis­posed. In the comic books the cur­rent shield-holder is Sam Wil­son, for­merly known as The Fal­con.

As for cre­ator Joe Si­mon, he lived long enough to see Cap­tain America “killed” in Civil War. “It’s a hell of a time for him to go,” he told the New York Daily News. “We re­ally need him now.” He died in 2011, aged 98, shortly af­ter the re­lease of Cap­tain America: The First Avenger, know­ing his creation was in safe hands. He might not be the stuff of Ib­sen, but the “man out of time” never grows old.

Clock­wise from top: Hitler on the cover of Cap­tain America #1 (cover date: March 1941); Is­sue 109, Jan­uary 1969, in which Cap re­veals how he came to be; The in­ven­tor of the Su­per-soldier Serum with his charge; A flash­back to Cap dur­ing World War II in The Ul­ti­mates #1 (March 2002) — note Bucky, bot­tom right; Cap creators Jack Kirby and Joe Si­mon. Right: Cap and side­kick Rick Jones (dur­ing a brief stint as Bucky) at­tack Hy­dra in is­sue #113, May 1969.

Top left: Steve Rogers’ first ap­pear­ance as No­mad in Cap­tain America #180 (De­cem­ber 1974). Left: Mark Gru­en­wald’s re­tired Rogers re­turns as ‘The Cap­tain’ in #337 (Jan­uary 1988). Above and right: The death of Cap­tain America, as de­picted in Mark Mil­lar’s Civil War (2007).

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