THE YEAR WAS 1941. Great Britain and its allied forces had been at war with the Axis powers for more than a year. And although the United States wouldn’t enter the war until December, that didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of Americans itching to punch Hitler in the face.
So imagine their reaction when they saw the cover of the very first issue of Captain America. Almost a year before the rest of the heroes would be drafted into service, readers saw a red-white-and-blue avenger giving Adolf a “blow for democracy” he wouldn’t soon forget.
Of course, this book would become a big seller, and Timely publisher Martin Goodman knew it. When he saw Joe Simon’s sketches for a new hero, he was so confident in his sales potential that he launched Captain America as the hero of his own title. Remember, this was a time in which no new hero was given his own book — even Superman began as just one strip in Action Comics before graduating to his own book. So just by giving the untested Captain America his own book, his creators were making history.
But they didn’t stop there. Captain America’s popularity spawned a legion of imitators, all of them sporting red, white, and blue costumes and fighting for the American Way in one form of another. Almost none of them survived the end of the war, in part because patriotic heroes are hard to develop — when a character is so closely identified with a country or a cause, it’s hard to make them seem fresh and exciting year after year.
But Captain America has done just survive. He’s changed a lot since the early days, but then, so has the country he fights for. Just as the United States has grappled with such issues as racism, poverty, and corruption, the Captain has dealt with his own personal issues, as well. One of his more famous modern storylines involved the “super-soldier” serum that made him the hero that he was. While trying to stop a shipment of drugs from poisoning kids, Cap was brought face-to-face with the fact that his entire career was built on a drug. It was a powerful story and one that shows just how much the Captain personifies his country — conflicted, but essentially trying to do the right thing.
Heroes come and go, and patriotism falls in and out of favor. A character like Captain America is always in danger of becoming a propaganda machine, urging Americans to put American values first and attack anyone who thinks differently. Lucky for us, that didn’t happen to the Captain, and he remained a symbol of freedom and fairness for the rest of the century.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
The first patriotic superhero to use the American flag as a costume was MLJ’s Shield. The shape of Captain America’s original shield was changed to its current round shape after the first issue because the Shield’s publishers complained about the similarity between the two heroes’ shields.
About a decade after creating Captain America, Simon and Kirby set out to duplicate their success with the Fighting American, a costumed patriot who fought Communists instead of Nazis. A vastly inferior creation, he didn’t long outlast the Communist witch-hunts of the early ’50s.
Future Marvel Comics writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee broke into the comics business with a two-page text story in Captain America #3. In those days, all comics had to carry a minimum amount of text pages in order to qualify for special postage rates reserved for magazines.