See why Captain America is still endearing after all these years.
Captain America might have one of the greatest origin stories in the history of comic books.
When I say this, I’m not talking about the man behind the mask in Captain America lore. Though the story of how Steve Rogers was injected with superhuman strength and intelligence to become Captain America is a cornerstone of comic book history, there’s so much more to this character that elevates him to sheer brilliance. Yes, I’m talking about the story of the creation of Captain America. At a glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking Captain America to be a dated piece of 1940s propaganda. Yet the truth is, Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had a lot they wanted to say about the United States. It might not have been what the United States wanted to hear at the time, but… well, let’s say history has generally been kind to Simon and Kirby in this respect.
This may seem like a lot to unpack, but it only takes a single look at The Captains’s debut comic to see what message Simon and Kirby wanted to send. Though Comic Book fans may have heard the story a thousand times by now, Captain America‘s origin shows how patriotism can be a bit more nuanced than we give it credit for.
There’s not much to explain about the cover art of Captain America #1. The action shot of our titular hero punching out Hitler says pretty much everything you need to know about our hero and his values. Again, at a glance, it’d be easy to mistake a comic book like this as just another piece of U.S. propaganda sold to the masses. After all, this was released on March 1st, 1941, right in the thick of World War II. However, it’s the context that makes this comic so revolutionary. See, it would be 9 months until the U.S. would enter the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Not only did much of the nation not want to go to war when Captain America #1 was released, but there was even a growing number of Nazi sympathizers who sent Simon and Kirby death threats following the comic’s publication. Considering both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby hailed from Jewish backgrounds, its easy to see just how unsettling these times were.
It’s this exact feeling of unrest that drives the story of Captain America #1. As the stage is set for the comic’s plot, it’s revealed that the foreign attack poised to destroy America is the “invasion from within.” Spies have infiltrated the U.S. to the point that one character would “hesitate to give a confidential report to even [his] most trusted aide.” Though the comic depicts these spies carrying out explicit acts of violence, the message here is made clear. This is, as the comic calls it, “the hand of democracy’s enemy.” What’s at stake here isn’t just American lives, but the very nation’s identity. It’s for this reason that protagonist Steve Rogers is injected with the serum that turns him into a superhero. And he is given the title of Captain America because “like you, America shall gain the strength and the will to safeguard our shores.”
Captain America #1 is an explicitly political piece of work. Yet at the same time, Captain America himself is as much a symbol as he is a hero. Sometimes a patriot has to fight the enemy from within as well as the enemy outside our borders. People from either end of the political spectrum could draw parallels between Captain America‘s story and the state of modern politics, but if anything, this just shows how timeless Captain America‘s themes really are. Though the times have changed a lot throughout the years, many of our problems and our fears stay the same regardless. And judging by how well superhero movies have done over the past decade, we certainly still desire heroic stories of remarkable people to inspire the hope for a better tomorrow in all of us.
So who is Captain America? Some might say he’s an Avenger, others might say he’s “the symbol of freedom and liberty.” But make no mistake, Captain America was not born to be a blind defender of the red white and blue. In the face of adversity, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby channeled their feelings into a character who stands tall as one of the most prominent superheroes ever created. Captain America‘s creators wanted to safeguard our shores and our identity just as much as their hero did, and history has vindicated them just as much as Captain America’s success has. It goes to show that anyone can be a patriot, even if we find ourselves lacking in superpowers.