Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The 80th Anniversary of Captain America

Most of Marvel Comics' well known characters, such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and so on, only date to the Sixties. This is not the case with Captain America, who goes all the way back to the Golden Age of Comic Books.  Captain America Comics no. 1 hit newsstands on  December 20 1940, so that Captain America is now 80 years old. Aside from Wonder Woman, he may well be the most famous patriotically themed superhero of all time.

Here it must be kept in mind that Captain America was not the first patriotically themed character. That honour would go to The Shield, first published by MLJ Comics (now Archie Comics) in Pep Comics no. 22 (January 1940). The Shield was chemistry student Joe Higgins, whose superpowers derived from a formula that gave  people super-strength for the United States military. He followed by the largely forgotten character Captain Freedom in Speed Comics no. 13 (May 1941), published by what would become Harvey Comics. A third patriotic superhero was Uncle Sam himself. Uncle Sam first appeared in National Comics no. 1 (July 1940), published by Quality Comics, several months ahead of Captain America. While at least three patriotically themed superheroes preceded Captain America, he would be the one that would have the most impact.

What separated Captain America from the patriotic superheroes before and after him was that he was an openly politically character as originally conceived. The Thirties marked the rise of Nazi Germany. It was on September 1 1939 that Nazi Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II. In the United States in the Thirties, groups like the German American Bund encouraged a sympathetic view of Nazi Germany and were openly anti-Semitic.  None of this was lost on Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both sons of Jewish immigrants. It was then that Joe Simon conceived a character he initially called, "Super-American." He decided against the name, as "There were too many 'supers' around," and decided to call the character Captain America. He also provided Captain America with a youthful sidekick he called "Bucky," after a friend on his high school basketball team.  Captain America was then created as a blatantly anti-fascist superhero.

To a small degree the origin of Captain America resembles that of MLJ Comics' The Shield. Captain America was Steve Rogers, a tall, frail, young man born to a poor family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Disturbed by the rise of Nazi Germany, he tried to enlist in the United States Army but was rejected as being too thin. Steve then volunteered as a test subject for a top secret project that would transform him into a super-soldier. Injected with a special serum, Steve Rogers found he had super-strength and enhanced reflexes. He then became Captain America, fighting the Axis powers in a red, white, and blue costume. He was equipped with a bullet-proof shield. Helping him in his fight against fascism was his sidekick Bucky Barnes, the mascot of Camp Lehigh in Virginia.

Martin Goodman, publisher of the companies that would become Marvel Comics, not only approved of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's new character, but directed that he should make his debut in his own magazine. This was historic, as Captain America would be the first superhero to debut in his own title. Captain America Comics no. 1 proved to be a success when it hit newsstands. In fact, it sold nearly one million copies. That having been said, it was not popular with everyone. The cover of the first issue featured Captain America punching Adolf Hitler. Those sympathetic to Nazi Germany were  angry about this new, openly anti-fascist superhero. The offices of Martin Goodman's comic book company were inundated with angry letters and hateful phone calls. Eventually suspicious, threatening-looking men were seen outside their offices, to the point that employees were afraid to go out for lunch. The threats were reported to the NYPD and soon the offices of Martin Goodman's publishing company were being patrolled by New York City cops. It was not long after the police guard had arrived that they received a call from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia himself. He spoke on the phone to Joe Simon, telling him, "You boys over there are doing a good job. The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you."

Captain America Comics no. 1 would present Martin Goodman, Joe Simon, and Jack Kirby with one other problem beyond threats from the Radical Right. As mentioned earlier, to a small degree Captain America's origin resembled that of MLJ's earlier, patriotic themed superhero The Shield. Indeed, Captain America's kite-shaped shield resembled the breastplate on The Shield's costume. John Goldwater, co-founder, co-owner, and editor of MLJ Comics, then called Martin Goodman, Joe Simon, and Jack Kirby to his offices to threaten a lawsuit, believing Captain America infringed on The Shield. It was Joe Simon who suggested that they could change the shape of Captain America's shield. That seemed to satisfy John Goldwater.

Captain America continued to be a popular character for much of the Golden Age, appearing in such titles as All Select Comics, Al Winners Comics, Marvel Mystery Comics, and U.S.A. Comics, in addition to his own title. He appeared in the 1944 movie serial Captain America, making him the first Marvel character to appear in a theatrical release (more on that later). He was one of the members of the All-Winners Squad, Marvel Comics' first superhero team. The team consisted of Captain America and Bucky, the Human Torch and his sidekick Toro, The Sub-Mariner, The Whizzer, and Miss America. It would only appear twice in the Golden Age, first in All Winners Comics no. 19 (fall 1946) and then in All Winners Comics no. 21 (winter 1946).

With the end of world War II Captain America no longer faced off against Nazis, except his archenemy, The Red Skull. It was with Captain America Comics no. 66 (April 1948) that Bucky was shot and wounded, and Steve Rogers's love interest Betty Ross took over as his new sidekick Golden Girl. Following World War II, superheroes gradually declined in popularity. Captain America proved to be no exception. With issue no. 74 (October 1949) Captain America Comics became Captain America's Weird Tales. Captain America was still the lead feature, but the rest of the magazine was filled out by horror stories. With the final issue, no. 75 (February 1950), Captain America did not appear at all. It consisted entirely of horror stories.

Captain America would be absent from newsstands until 1953 when the character was re-introduced in Young Men no. 24 (December 1953). The same issue saw the revival of two other Golden Age Marvel superheroes, The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner. Captain America appeared in Young Men no. 25 (February 1954), Young Men no. 26 (March 1954), Young Men no. 27 (April 1954), and Young Men no. 28  (May 1954).  He also appeared in Men's Adventures  no. 27 (May 1954) and no. 28 (July 1954). Captain America Comics was revived under the shortened title Captain America with issue no. 76 (May 1954). As it turned out, Marvel's revival of Captain America, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner was short-lived. Captain America ended its run with no. 78 (September 1954). Captain America's opponents during this brief revival differed from what he fought during the Golden Age. With the Second Red Scare underway, in the Fifties Captain America fought Commies. Even The Red Skull was portrayed as a Communist during the brief revival.

Captain America was gone, but hardly for good. National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics) sparked the Silver Age with a new version of their character The Flash in Showcase no. 4 (October 1956). While National Periodical Publications would introduce new versions of other Golden Age characters in the coming years, it would take awhile before Marvel would get back into the superhero business. They finally did with Fantastic Four no. 1 (November 1961), which featured a new version of their Golden Age character The Human Torch. The Sub-Mariner was revived in Fantastic Four no. 4 (May 1962), but rather than reviving Golden Age characters, Marvel instead introduced such new characters as The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, and Daredevil. It was in Strange Tales no. 114 (November 1963) that Johnny Storm, the Silver Age Human Torch, faced an impostor Captain America who had been described as a 1940s and 1950s hero who had come out of retirement. A caption in the last panel of the story stated that it was a test to see if readers would be interested in the return of Captain America. As it turned out, response was enthusiastic. The stage was set for the return of the real Captain America.

It was in Marvel's The Avengers no. 4 (March 1964) that Captain America returned after an absence of nearly ten years. In the issue Captain America was found in suspended animation, having been frozen in a block of ice in the North Atlantic in the last days of World War II during 1945. His sidekick Bucky was killed. Of course, this contradicted the publication history of Captain America, who had been continuously published from 1941 to 1949 and then revived briefly in the mid-Fifties. Over the years the appearance of Captain America in the late Forties and then again in the Fifties would be explained by Marvel Comics. In What If... vol. 1 no. 4 (August 1977) it was explained that in 1945 William Naslund, formerly the superhero called The Spirit of '76, was appointed by President Truman to succeed Steve Rogers as Captain America. William Naslund was killed in action in 1946, whereupon Jeffrey Mace, formerly the superhero called The Patriot, took over the mantle of Captain America. He retired in 1949.

It had been earlier, in Captain America no. 153 (September 1972) that an explanation was provided for the Captain America of the Fifties. William Burnside took over the identity of Captain America, with the teenager Fred Davis taking over the identity of Bucky, in the Fifties. They did this as part of a government program to combat the "Red Menace." The two were treated with a version of the super soldier formula that had given Steve Rogers his powers. Unfortunately, their treatment left out the necessary Vita-Ray portion of the treatment. As a result the two became increasingly psychotic. Placed in suspended animation, they were later revived and fought Steve Rogers and his partner The Falcon.

Following his revival in Marvel's The Avengers no. 4, Captain America became a mainstay of that team for much of The Avengers' history. Captain America made a guest appearance in an Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense no. 58 (Oct. 1964), after which Tales of Suspense would feature an Iron Man story and a Captain America story. With issue no. 100 (April 1968), Tales of Suspense was retitled Captain America.

Captain America no. 117 (September 1969) introduced the character of The Falcon. The Falcon was Sam Wilson, who after an encounter with The Red Skull was encouraged by Steve Rogers to become a superhero. Captain America and The Falcon formed a partnership that lasted until Captain America no. 222 (June 1978). The Falcon was historic as the first African American superhero in mainstream comic books. He would also become a popular character on his own.

It was with Captain America vol 5 no. 1 (November 2005) that it was revealed that Captain America's sidekick from World War II, Bucky Barnes, had not died. Instead his frozen body had been discovered by a Russian submarine. He was revived and brainwashed by the Soviets to become the Winter Soldier, a trained assassin. After a confrontation with Captain America, Bucky regained his memories.

Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, would be killed off as part of the aftermath of the crossover event "Civil War." His death took place in Captain America vol. 5 no. 25 (April 2007). Bucky Barnes then took over as the new Captain America. Steve Rogers would be revived in Captain America: Reborn no. 1 (August 2009). Following Bucky's death in Fear Itself no. 3 (August 2011), Steve Rogers once more resumed the identity of Captain America.

After the super soldier serum in his body was neutralized in Captain America vol. 7 no. 22 (September 2014), Steve Rogers handed the mantle of Captain America over to Sam Wilson, the former Falcon. Steve Rogers returned as Captain America in Marvel's The Avengers vol. 8 no. 1 (July 2018).

As arguably the most popular Marvel character of the Golden Age and one of the most popular characters ever since, Captain America has appeared in other media. As mentioned earlier, he was the first Marvel character to appear in a theatrical release. That having been said, Captain America (1944) departed a good deal from the comic book. In the movie Captain America is district attorney Grant Gardner, who uses a gun rather than his iconic shield. The publisher of Captain America was not particularly happy with the ways Republic Pictures departed from the comic book and let the studio know. In response Republic claimed the samples that they had provided did not show that Captain America was serviceman Steve Rogers or that he did not use a gun. At this point shooting on the serial was well underway so that Republic could not go back and change the serial so that it was more loyal to the comic book without costly retakes.

The reasons for the changes to Captain America in the serial are unknown, but it is widely believed that the script had originally been meant for a different character from Captain America. Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, authors of The Great Movie Serials, theorized that the script could have originally been written as a sequel to Mysterious Doctor Satan, which featured a hero called The Copperhead. Of course, Mysterious Doctor Satan itself originated as a reworking of a serial meant to star Superman after they failed to get the rights to the character. Eric Stedman, the silent film and serial film preservationist, thinks it is more likely the script was meant for the Fawcett Comics character Mr. Scarlet, whose secret identity was district attorney Brian Butler. Republic had earlier released serials based on Fawcett characters Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher. Unlike Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher, Mr. Scarlet did not prove particularly popular, so that if Republic could have aborted a planned serial about him and then simply reused the script.

Captain America next appeared in the syndicated animated television cartoon The Marvel Super Heroes in 1966. Each episode of The Marvel Super Heroes featured animated segments devoted to Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and The Sub-Mariner. While The Marvel Super Heroes adapted stories directly from the comic books, its animation was extremely limited.  For that reason it would be rarely seen since the sixties. Here it should be noted that in the 1969 movie Easy Rider, the nickname of Wyatt (Peter Fonda), who had an American flag on the back of his leather jacket, was "Captain America."

Captain America made his first live-action appearance in 35 years when he appeared in the CBS television movie Captain America. It was followed the same year by Captain America II: Death Too Soon. Both television movies departed a good deal from Captain America as portrayed in the comic books. Both also received mixed reviews.

It was in 1980 that Captain America appeared in an animated PSA for energy conservation for the United States Department of Energy. The following year, 1981, he guest starred on two animated series featuring Spider-Man, the syndicated Spider-Man and the NBC Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

Nineteen  ninety two saw the release of the first feature film based on Captain America, Captain America (1990). The rights having originally been bought in 1984 by the Cannon Group founders Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the film would spend a good deal of time in development. In 1989 Menahem Golan left the Cannon Group and took Captain America with him. The film was eventually produced by Mr. Golan's company, 21st Century Film Corporation. Captain America was originally intended for theatrical release in August 1990 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Captain America. Its theatrical release was then moved to fall 1990 and winter 1991. Ultimately it would not be theatrically released, but was instead released direct to video in 1992. Captain America (1990) was faithful to the character insofar as it portrayed Captain America as gaining his powers from the super soldier serum in World War II and later  being frozen in suspended animation, in other ways it departed from the comic books. For instance, The Red Skull is not a Nazi, but instead an Italian Fascist. Captain America (1990) received overwhelmingly negative reviews.

In the Nineties Captain America would make guest appearances on the animated TV series X-Men (in the episode "Old Soldiers" in 1997), Spider-Man (in the 1997 episode "The Cat," the four episode story arc "Six Forgotten Warriors" in 1997, and the 3 episode story arc "Secret Wars"), Iron Man (in the 1995 episode "Distant Boundaries"), and The Avengers: United They Stand (in the 1999 episode "Command Decision").

Captain America continued to appear in Marvel animated projects in the Naughts. He appeared in the 2002 X-Men: Evolution episode "Operation Rebirth." He also appeared in the Marvel comedy series The Super Hero Squad Show. He appeared as the lead character in the direct to video features Ultimate Avengers and Ultimate Avengers 2.

Of course, Captain America's biggest impact in film and television would be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) portrayed Captain America's origin and his being frozen in suspended animation. It was followed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). As one of Marvel's Avengers, he appeared in The Avengers (2012),  Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015),  Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019). It was at the end of Endgame that he handed the mantle of Captain America to The Falcon, Sam Wilson. He also had a cameo in Ant-Man (2015) and appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). There have been references to Captain America in other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and TV series.

During the Teens, Captain America was one of the main character in the animated TV series The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and the streaming animated film Iron Man and Captain America: Heroes United. Through the years he has appeared in other projects too numerous to mention.

If Captain America has been more successful than other patriotic characters, it is perhaps because he had some depth to him as opposed to some other patriotic characters of the time. He wasn't simply a superhero wrapped in the flag. Much of the appeal behind Captain America may have been that he started out as an underdog. In his origin story, "Meet Captain America" from Captain America Comics no. 1, we learn that Steve Rogers is a frail young man who was rejected for military service because he was not physically fit enough. While it was never expressed directly, from street scenes in early issues of Captain America Comics that Steve Rogers's roots were in the lower East Side of Manhattan, something that would be made official in later years. The lower East Side was home to Captain America's creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and was known for its Jewish and Irish population. At the time that Steve Rogers was growing up in the 1920s, it was a working class neighbourhood. Captain America then began as a frail youth raised in poverty. Before he became Captain America, he was very much an underdog, something that is made clear in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger. Captain America then appeals to anyone who has always wanted to make something more of themselves, to anyone who has sought to overcome adversity.

Of course, much of the appeal of Captain America is also because he was very much a product of his time. When compared to other Golden Age characters, Captain America was an openly political character. As mentioned earlier, he was blatantly anti-fascist. What is more, while  at no point in Captain America Comics did he offer political commentary, the stories featured in its pages are steeped in New Deal idealism. In other words, even though it was never expressed outright, it seems likely that Steve Rogers is a FDR Democrat.  After all, on the cover of Captain America Comics no. 1, he can be seen punching Hitler, this at a time when many opposed the U.S. entering World War II.  In Captain America Comics no. 2 he fought two corrupt bankers who had been evading Federal taxes.  In Captain America Comics no. 5, Captain America fought the German-American Bund. During World War II Captain America was very much tied to anti-fascism and the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Captain America brought his New Idealism with him  when he was was revived in 1964. The Captain America of the Silver Age, Bronze Age, and beyond still believes in equal opportunity for all, still opposes racism, and still believes all American should be able to speak freely, worship as they please, free from want, and free from fear (the Four Freedoms FDR outlined in his 1941 State of the Union address). As strange as it might sound, Captain America's New Deal idealism translated quite well to the Sixties and beyond. This is perhaps because many of Franklin D. Roosevelt's policies were based in ideas that remain timeless. Indeed, Captain America is still an anti-fascist. As a product of his time and yet one who is timeless, Captain America is set  apart from other patriotic characters of the era in which he originated. Ultimately, Captain America was not only timely in 1941. He is still timely now.

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