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.

Continue reading

From Monsters to Superheroes

Fantastic Four #4

In 1962 when Fred Hembeck was nine years old he puzzled over the cover of Fantastic Four #4 (a Jack Kirby creation, shown  above). A superhero fan, Hembeck thought he knew the difference between good guys and bad guys: Olympian figures like Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash were on the side of justice while twisted freaks like Braniac, Lex Luther, and Gorilla Grod were the villains. (Batman was the odd man out: a law-and-order stalwart who looked like a shadowy thug). On the cover of the Fantastic Four comic book, it was hard to distinguish between the good guys and bad. Everyone looked gnarled and angry. Who was that orange rock-like figure: a monster or a hero? (It was in fact the Thing, a testy, avuncular, and self-pitying superhero).

Young Hembeck’s puzzlement was an early sign of the cultural shift that Marvel comics was starting to introduce. Moving beyond the Apollonian heroes of the 1930s and 1940s, the creative team of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko introduced an vast array of characters who were half-heroes and half-monsters: the Thing, the Hulk, Spider-man, Dr. Strange, the X-men, the Inhumans, and the Silver Surfer. Surely part of the appeal of these characters was that they didn’t look as squeaky clean as Superman or Wonder Woman; their warped and disturbing appearance hinted at the fact that they possessed a more complex moral nature that went beyond simple derring-do.

Continue reading