Captain America Through the Decades

Jack Kirby's cover for Captain America #1

Over at the Globe and Mail last week I published an article about the evolution of Captain America. A few errors crept into the article, so I’ve tidied it up. The preferred version is below:

It was the punch that sold a million comics, the sock in the jaw that amazed newsstand readers in 1941 and still carries resonance to this day. Right on the cover of Captain America #1, the star-spangled superhero gives a knuckle-sandwich to none other than Adolf Hitler while a group of Nazi storm troopers stare on in amazement.

To understand why Captain America was an instant sensation when he was first created and remains enough of an iconic figure to headline a Hollywood summer blockbuster, it’s necessary to remember the historical circumstances that gave birth to him. Captain America was co-created by two young Jewish cartoonists, named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). As historian Gerard Jones argues in his 2004 book Men of Tomorrow, Mr. Simon and Mr. Kirby were the children of immigrant Jews and both strongly identified with American nationalism.

“What Simon and Kirby together brought to the superhero was the passion of the immigrant, of the Jew,” Jones noted. “Captain America brought … metaphors of masking to a new poignancy. Steve Rogers shuffles into a secret lab scrawny and slump shouldered, then is given an injection of a super-solider serum and is transformed into an Adonis. … The underfed ghetto kid transformed into a roof-rattling power by seizing American opportunities, the weary old-country survivor reborn as the new fighting Jew through the crucible of American freedom and violence. And through that immigrant passion Simon and Kirby captured an entire national awakening: America the provincial stirring itself to become a world power.”

The cover of Captain America #1 made a spectacular impression because it came out in March of 1941, 10 months before America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and entered the war. At the time, much of the country was still isolationist and many in the media were afraid of featuring Nazis as explicit villains for fear of offending those who wanted America to stay out of the war. While there had been patriotic superheroes before Captain America, notably an also-ran called The Shield, no previous character was so forthrightly advocating that America become a global dynamo.

“It was a provocation for intervention as well as an anti-Nazi commentary,” notes Matthew J. Costello, a professor of political science at Saint Xavier University and author of the book Secret Identity Crisis, in an e-mail interview. Since his birth as a Nazi-fighter, Captain America has remained the most topical of superheroes, with adventures that have reflected the vicissitudes of American foreign policy from the early Cold War to Vietnam to the current war on terror. Yet despite the changing political tenor of the times, Captain America has persisted as a symbol of American exceptionalism, the belief in America’s invincibility, its inherent goodness and its world-historical destiny.

As American as . . .

There is a strong link between the genre of the superhero and the idea of America as a necessary superpower. Other countries have tried to create their own patriotic superheroes – a litany of also-rans that range from Captain Canuck to Britain’s Jack Staff to Italy’s Capitan Italia or Israel’s Shaloman. None of these characters have achieved the iconic resonance of Captain America.

Arguably, the most successful Canadian foray into the superhero genre has been the Marvel comics team Alpha Flight, created in 1979 by cartoonist John Byrne and the stars of a long lasting title. Amanda Murphy, a graduate student at Carleton University interested in Canadian nationalist superheroes, argues that it is significant that Canada’s most popular heroes work as a team.

The partial success of Alpha Flight raises the possibility of whether other patriotic superheroes could emerge during a period when the United States seems to be entering relative decline. When Mr. Simon and Mr. Kirby created Captain America, the United States was about to enter its long reign as the most powerful nation on earth. But what happens when American power goes into the ditch?

Foreign policy analysts like Fareed Zakaria talk about a “post-American world.” Will such a world still need Captain America? And can other patriotic superheroes emerge from rising powers like Brazil, India and China? It is too early to tell, but one factor worth bearing in mind is that comic books are no longer the mass market powerhouse they were in the 1940s. If Captain Brazil or Captain China make a splash, it will be through video games and action-adventure movies.

The fog of war

While the war against Nazi Germany offered a measure of moral clarity, Captain America’s involvement in subsequent wars – Vietnam and Iraq – have been much more problematic.

In 1973, as the Vietnam war was winding down, the theologian Robert Jewett wrote a polemic against “the Captain America Syndrome,” the tendency to see the world in simplistic black-and-white terms, with the United States an embodiment of pure goodness and its enemies the incarnation of Satanic evil. While Jewett acknowledged that this worldview had roots in the Bible, he thought that the most prominent contemporary emblem of this type of thinking were heroes like Captain America.

As recent scholars have argued, Jewett was only partially right. Undeniably, the superhero has often been an avatar for an unthinking nationalism, particularly in 1950s stories featuring “Captain America, commie smasher.”

Yet many cartoonists have also used Captain America to offer a more nuanced view of national identity and the costs of war.

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon both fought in the Second World War. Mr. Kirby in particular saw intense fighting in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. In the 1960s, Mr. Kirby would team up with writer Stan Lee to revive Captain America but this iteration of the character was marked by severe survivor’s guilt over the death of his sidekick Bucky. Given Kirby’s background, it is hard not to see an autobiographical element in the tales of Captain America as a superhero suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 1972, writer Steve Engelhart took over writing Captain America and used the comic to directly address the political turmoil of the time. “I was writing a man [Captain America] who believed in America’s highest ideals at a time when America’s President was a crook,” Mr. Engelhart has noted on his personal website. “I could not ignore that.”

Realizing that his faith in the American government was misplaced, Steve Rogers renounced his identity as Captain America  in 1974 and became “Nomad, the man without a country.” As Mr. Engelhart’s Captain America explains, “There was a time, yes, when the country faced a clear aggressor, and her people stood united against it! But now, nothing’s that simple. Americans have many goals – some of them quite contrary to others!”

High treason

As Prof. Costello notes, Mr. Engelhart’s storyline has inspired more recent writers, who have used Captain America to exlore the contemporary dilemmas of American power. Writers and artists like Mark Waid, John Cassaday and Ed Brubaker have all used Captain America to make allegorical statements about contemporary politics. “Waid reiterated the Engelhart vision by having Cap stripped of his citizenship for defying government policies in pursuit of justice,” Prof. Costello notes. “Cassaday’s storyline [created in conjunction with writer John Ney Rieber]  emphasizes the need to avoid racial stereotyping in the wake of 9/11, as the Captain protects Arab-Americans from attacks, but also pushes for a sophisticated understanding of the sources of terrorism and anti-American sentiment by suggesting that terrorists might have some actual grievances against the U.S.” Mr. Brubaker authored a controversial storyline in which Captain America seemed to express incredulity at the Tea Party movement.

Writing in the conservative journal National Review Online in 2003, movie critic Michael Medved referred to the contemporary Captain America as “a traitor” who “seems disillusioned, embittered, and surprisingly sympathetic to terrorists.” But in many ways, the use of the character to intervene in political debates is in keeping with the spirit of the earliest stories, which were very controversial in isolationist America. As Joe Simon recalled, “when the first issue came out we got a lot of … threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for.”

11 thoughts on “Captain America Through the Decades

  1. “Arguably, the most successful Canadian foray into the superhero genre has been the Marvel comics team Alpha Flight, created in 1979 by cartoonist John Byrne and the stars of a long lasting title. Amanda Murphy, a graduate student at Carleton University interested in Canadian nationalist superheroes, argues that it is significant that Canada’s most popular heroes work as a team.

    I’m sorry, that last sentence was a bit of a howler. How is Alpha Flight significantly different in terms of team-work from the Justice League, X-men, Fantastic Four, The Avengers, etc? John Byrne’s account of the creation of Alpha Flight is worth reading – to hear him tell it, Alpha Flight was, in the end, a plot device, and not an expression of his latent Canadian nationalism, earlier fan sketches notwithstanding. Also significant, to my mind, is that the Byrne issues, at least as they’ve been described, didn’t have any team-work at all. Members of Alpha Flight would go on individual missions, and occasionally another team-mate would pitch in and lend a hand.

    Sorry for geeking out on you here. Really enjoyed the article. Grant Morrison has some interesting thoughts on Captain America in his new book, Supergods.

  2. Quite disappointed to see no mention of Jack Kirby’s “Mad Bomb” and “Bicentennial Battles” stories here. Those stories dealt with the important issues “of the day” but in mature way which recognized that the issues of the day were timeless issues, ones which are more important than ever, and Kirby’s treatment of them was suitably not tied to headlines, keeping his stories fresh rather than seeming dated, and bound to a specific era.
    The long view is one of the virtues of having been around the block a few times.

  3. @Mark. For reasons of space, I had to offer a truncated version of Amanda Murphy’s arguments. Here’s a bigger excerpt of what she wrote to me, as to why Canadian superheroes aren’t as popular as Captain America:

    Off the cuff, I would say that characters like Nelvana and other
    Canadian Golden Age characters specifically suffered from lower
    distribution figures than their American counterparts, and a black and
    white printing format that couldn’t stand up to the influx of American
    comic books after World War II. Like much of Canadian culture, the
    Golden Age of Canadian comic books was legislated into existence – in
    this case, by the 1940 War Exchange Conservation Act. (Forgive me if
    you already know this story!) When that Act was repealed, American
    comic books took over again – like most American popular culture and
    media exports do today (with exceptions like the Barenaked Ladies and
    Canada Council-funded artists).

    Likewise, Captain Canuck doesn’t enjoy the same widespread (or even
    continuous) distribution the characters like Wonder Woman and Superman
    do. Starting from an already small population (of comic book readers)
    and appealing to a small set within that (Canadian comic book readers)
    hurts your chances of gaining widespread popularity and, hence,
    precludes the attainment of iconic status. Although Nelvana and
    Captain Canuck aren’t as iconic as a character like Captain America,
    they were still deployed as symbols by Canada Post on a 1995 stamp
    series (Bart Beaty has written more on this phenomenon:
    Again, the Canadian state stepped in to help the comic book characters
    get a bit of press.

    On the other hand, long-running titles like the Canadian super-team
    Alpha Flight (now in its fourth volume) have enjoyed greater success
    both inside and outside of Canada. Canadians don’t need to feel bad
    that a group of individuals based out of the various regions of Canada
    (Sasquatch from BC, Snowbird from the North, Aurora and Northstar from
    Quebec, Guardian from Ottawa, and so forth) is arguably the most
    popular of the Canadian-themed superhero teams, while Captain Canuck
    doesn’t begin to rival Captain America in popularity. If anything,
    that speaks to the highly touted inclusiveness of Canadians,
    manifested in such precepts as the federal policy of multiculturalism
    and Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality.” The Alpha Flight team could
    be interpreted as a multicultural mosaic that works together (with
    quite a few hiccups, but those are all part of the drama and fun),
    while Captain American is emblematic of American individualism,
    perseverance, and work ethic. Captain America’s unflagging devotion to
    the US, and his flag costume, are bound to meet greater success in the
    US, whereas Captain Canuck could be seen as a Canadian version that
    just doesn’t fly (pun intended) with supposedly more inclusive

    That’s not to say that patriotism is fine for Americans and a failure
    in Canada. Quite the contrary, one could interpret Alpha Flight as
    representative of the Canadian nation in the same way that Captain
    America stands for the American nation. One could say that what makes
    the comic books distinct from each other reflects what makes the
    countries different.

    Granted, I am lacking a critical lens on the terms “patriotism” and
    “nationalism,” and individualism versus collective Peace, Order, and
    Good Government is a drastic oversimplification of social, political,
    and economic similarities and disparities between the US and Canada….

  4. @Patrick Ford. I had wanted to discuss Kirby’s 1970s Captain America work but none of the experts I asked had anything significant to say about it (and this is an article where I was reporting on what experts have written about Captain America, rather than offering my own view.

  5. @ Jeet

    It looks like I was a little unfair to Amanda. I’d be interested to hear your take on Captain America. I’ve always loved Americana, but for some reason, Captain America never really seemed…American…despite wrapping himself in a flag. If I had to pick the “all-American” superhero, it would have to be…Iron Man. Tony Stark is the bastard love-child of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Ayn Rand, and Steve Jobs, embodying an uneasy alliance between free-markets and big government. A close second would be Howard the Duck

  6. Hello, Mark and Jeet!

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I wanted to thank both of you for your comments. Glad to see the on-going dialogue around the symbolism of characters in comic books.



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