THE HISTORY OF CAPTAIN AMERICA
Although created in 1940, he remains as ‘Timely’ as ever. (Because then Marvel was Timely Publications, see? SEE?)
THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE IS A 1990 STORY IN WHICH CAPTAIN AMERICA TEAMS
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).