In the first part of this essay, I briefly sketched the construction of American memories of World War II that began slightly before the war and continue into the 21st century. In many ways the war has become a defining part of American identity, and the dominant, triumphal memory narrative we have created about it serves to elevate American participation in the war almost to the level of the sacred, and certainly to the realm of the simple black and white, good v. evil duality that is much more comforting than any messy and contradictory reality might be. The character of Steve Rogers/Captain America is one of the more perfect cultural artifacts to illustrate this process of memory construction, and the ways in which counter-memories, which challenge the dominant narrative, inevitably influence the national mythology.
The Captain America of the present day – whether in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or the comic book Marvel Universe (MU) – is a multi-creator, multi-generational collaboration that has evolved over the past seventy-five years. Each successive creative team, no matter how short lived, has picked up certain narrative strands from their predecessors, and left others of their own devising for those who follow. Inevitably, each brought perspectives, attitudes, and viewpoints that were contemporary to the time. Through this process, the differing American memory narratives of World War II have been brought to the character along with the changing attitudes of a nation experiencing rapid and nearly constant social and cultural change. Today’s Cap, whether he’s Steve Rogers in the MCU or Sam Wilson in the MU, is an amalgam of everything that has come before in the character’s history, with the elements which speak to modern audiences retained while those which seem dated or irrelevant are ignored or glossed over.
Throughout this collaborative process, however, World War II has remained as the foundational element Captain America. Indeed, the war gave birth to the character, albeit over a year before the United States became a direct combatant. According to co-creator Joe Simon, Cap was actually inspired by Adolf Hitler:
“[Jack Kirby and I] both read the newspapers. We knew what was going on over in Europe. World events gave us the perfect comic-book villain, Adolf Hitler, with his ranting, goose-stepping, and ridiculous moustache. So we decided to create the perfect hero who would be his foil. I did that first sketch of Captain America, and Jack and I did the entire first issue before showing it to Martin Goodman at Timely Comics.”
Goodman liked what they had done and Captain America Comics #1 hit newsstands in December 1940 (although its cover date was March 1941), almost exactly a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The now iconic cover by Jack Kirby featured Cap leaping through a hail of bullets fired by German soldiers to deliver a hard right hook to Adolf Hitler’s jaw. Thus Captain America is firmly linked to the fight against Nazism before the reader even opens the first comic to feature the character.
The Golden Age of Comics (~ 1938 – 1950) gave Cap the basic liniments of his character: a weakling transformed by American super-science into a hero capable of fighting and defeating totalitarianism in any form, and a symbolic representation of wartime patriotism – the Sentinel of Liberty. The character’s patriotism was firmly grounded in the two main, wartime narratives about America’s involvement in the war: President Franklin Roosevelt’s humanitarian internationalism, exemplified by the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear), and Life Magazine publisher Henry Luce’s idea of the “American Century” in which the United States assumed it’s inevitable position as a world leader and champion of capitalism and democracy. Beyond this brand of American exceptionalism and a steady stream of propaganda and encouragement for scrap drives and the purchase of war bonds, there really wasn’t much there, so it becomes easier to understand how a character so rooted in the conflict could lose the interest of readers in the post-war era. By 1949, Cap didn’t even appear in Captain America Comics anymore.
Like some other wartime superheroes, there was an attempt to revive Captain America in the early 1950s. In 1953 – 54 Atlas Comics (née Timely) brought both Cap and Bucky back, under the new moniker “Captain America… Commie Smasher!” The character (written by Stan Lee and penciled by John Romita) and plots were interchangeable for those published during the war, although instead of “Japanazis” the enemy were communist fifth columnists and saboteurs, and Cap and Bucky took on a wincingly McCarthyite fervor as they hunted down and exposed Soviet agents. Even the Red Skull had moved from far right fascism to far left Stalinism and returned to bedevil the world. While providing a fascinating look into the pervasiveness of the Red Scare in American popular culture of the time, Captain America… Commie Smasher, ultimately just a rehashing of the same formula against a different enemy, failed to garner any increase in readership, and quickly, mercifully, faded away again.
Stan Lee would not return to the character for a decade, and when he did, comics – and the United States – had undergone profound changes. By 1964, Lee and Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby had simultaneously revolutionized the superhero genre and the comic book industry. Indeed, it is impossible to understate the importance of their work in the early and mid-1960s. Their formula was simple: humanize the heroes. Give them real-world problems that superpowers generally couldn’t solve, like relationships, rent, bigotry, jobs, etc. Then set their adventures in the real world (i.e., New York City instead of Metropolis). Generally speaking, make their powers the unintended consequences of modern science. They tried it in 1962 with The Fantastic Four, found they’d struck a best-selling nerve, and proceeded to kick their formula in high gear, churning out new titles and new heroes in what was the most fertile creative period in American Comics history since the late 1930s. What Lee and Kirby had also done was tap into a new uncertainty in American society. The post-war boom and certainties were beginning to falter, and a new generation of Americans was beginning to challenge long-held ideas about the status quo. The Korean War had been a bloody stalemate that most of the country had neither wanted nor understood, and had punctured the secure complacency about American military pre-eminence, while McCarthyism had revealed an ugly side of the culture that seemed all too ready to devour its own children. The post-war Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and national broadcast television had shown the country the real face of Jim Crow and American racism in burning busses, beaten and bloody teenagers, attack dogs, and elite military units called in just so young black people could go to school. The old sureties were rapidly being disintegrated while social, cultural, and political change were accelerating, and showed no signs of stopping.
So Lee and Kirby brought back Captain America. It was a brilliant move. Cap symbolized a time that seemed more certain and uncomplicated, when Americans of all stripes were united as never before, and determined to achieve great things while their foes were easily identified, inarguably evil, and could be decisively dealt with via a combination of force and American goodness. Again, this is not history, but a memory of an imaginary 1940s heavily tinted with nostalgia. With the failure of the Cap and Bucky revival in the 1950s, Lee and Kirby decided to move as far away as possible from the wartime formula, and to add a full measure of their own. Bucky was dead, tragically killed in the same incident that caused Cap to be plunged into suspended animation at the end of the war. Steve Rogers himself became a man out of time, basically having gone to sleep in 1944 only to wake up twenty years later in a much different world. Gone was the always confident superhero, replaced by a man who had simply missed the last two decades of history, and found himself a stranger in a strange land. Cap is wracked with guilt, and uncertainty, and his heroism often lies in his determination to rebuild his life in this new world as much as it does in the super soldier serum.
Yet despite the massive revision of the character, Cap’s birth and service during World War II actually became an even more important part of his makeup. After his revival in Avengers #4 (1964), Cap became a regular monthly feature in Tales of Suspense, sharing the book with another Lee/Kirby creation, Iron Man. Six issues into that run, Cap’s wartime service received its own retcon, as issues 63 – 71 featured Cap in a series of period pieces set during the war in which he increasingly fought German soldiers directly and on occupied European soil. Indeed Steve Rogers’s wartime service also got a reboot in which Cap’s traditionally hapless alter ego is revealed to have been a US Army Ranger who fought in the front lines in France. Lee and Kirby also retold the characters origin, fleshing out Steve Rogers as young man determined to serve his country despite the physiological conditions that make him unfit for military service, thus more firmly grounding Cap’s patriotism and determination in the person of Steve Rogers, with or without the super-soldier formula. Additionally, for the first time, they told the origin of Cap’s nemesis, the Red Skull, inextricably linking the villain directly to both Hitler and Nazism. By Tales of Suspense 77, Cap is making military strategy and serving as an integral part of the American advance through Nazi France, including playing an essential part in sealing of the Falaise Pocket in 1944. From this point on, Captain America’s combat service will become increasingly direct, and more and more he will be shown actually leading American GIs into combat.
This retconning process helped to further imbue Captain America with the glow of a generation which was already becoming mythologized in 1960s American culture. Cap became a super GI, a good and virtuous man who fought a terrible enemy in a just war for all of the right reasons. A Brooklynite, he also represented a neighborhood that in the 1930s and 1940s was the quintessential melting pot of American society, a polyglot place of immigrants from around the world that symbolized the American ideals of pluralism and equality – at least in memory. Free of the taint of Korea, the Cold War, and McCarthyism, Lee and Kirby positioned Steve Rogers/Captain America as untainted by recent failings, a man able to see past the socio-cultural noise to the enduring ideal of the American Dream, a concept that was to prove both malleable and enduring. The moral authority possessed by such a figure was considerable, and the good man from the “good war” could become a powerful vehicle for addressing contemporary issues. Thus Cap became an important cultural touchstone, and his existing humanitarian and FDR-style progressive narrative about World War II was translated into an ongoing left-of center cultural message. It is no accident that the first African American superhero, Sam Wilson/The Falcon originated in the pages of Captain America, or that he was befriended and trained by Captain America himself. Captain America’s partnership with The Falcon, and Steve Rogers’ unhesitatingly close friendship with Sam Wilson was a powerful (if sometimes poorly executed) statement about Civil Rights in America. As was the new title of Cap’s book, Captain America and The Falcon, which it kept from 1971 – 1978.
Cap’s role as the voice of the American Dream became more pronounced during the 1970s. Steve Englehart underlined the character’s stance on Civil Rights at the beginning of his run by having Cap and the Falcon face off against the racist, paranoid Captain America and Bucky of the 1950s, and went on to further develop Cap’s particular patriotism when Steve Rogers walked away from the role of Captain America upon discovering corruption at the highest levels of government (Captain America and The Falcon #176). Roger’s choice, his disillusionment with modern American politics, is incredibly powerful, because of the moral authority he wields as a member of the “Greatest Generation.” The embodiment of American moral rectitude was disgusted with his country, the same country for which he had risked everything, and lost so much. That Captain America could become disillusioned with the state of the nation was almost unthinkable, and yet perfectly in line with the budding emphasis on Cap’s loyalty to the Dream rather than to any institution.
Again and again, creative teams called upon Cap’s wartime experiences and contemporary American memories of World War II to underline the propriety, the moral virtues inherent in fighting for what you believe in, standing up to wrong whenever and wherever it appears, and the hoary, but stirring ideals (always underlined as ultimately American) of liberty, equality, justice, and fairness for everyone. Hence Roger Stern and John Byrne had Cap turn down the presidential nomination (Captain America #250) because he could better serve the country and the people where he was, and Mark Gruenwald had Steve Rogers put down the shield once again when the US government demanded that he submit to their authority (Captain America #332). These are highlights, to be sure, and other attempts to have Cap show readers the right path (such as Gruenwald’s own “Streets of Poison” arc where Cap learns to “just say no” to drugs, including the super soldier serum) fell flat. The character’s loyalty to the American Dream, to a vision of what the nation could and should be rather than to any particular and transient office holder or authority, was ultimately stated directly by Frank Miller in Daredevil #233, just before Cap breaks into top secret Pentagon spaces to learn the truth about the military’s disastrous attempts to recreate the super-soldier formula. At each and every turn, it is Cap’s legacy as the legendary hero of World War II and thereby a paragon of virtue, and an incontestable patriot, that allowed him to challenge cultural norms, and support social change – at least to a point. After all, he’s Captain America, not Captain United Nations.
Arguably one of the greatest shakeups for the character occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9 September 2001. Two very different interpretations of Captain America hit the stands in 2002, the first in John Ney Reiber and John Cassaday’s Captain America (vol. 4) and the second in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates (vol. 1). Reiber and Cassaday’s Cap was a direct continuation of the traditional Captain America, and they did an truly outstanding, incredibly moving job in showing how Cap reacted to the attacks and the newly declared global war on terror. In this volume, particularly in the first 12 issues, Cap deals with both the bigotry of a fearful America, and truly horrific acts of terrorism, once again becoming an exemplar of how to stand against both in a complicated world. In fact, Reiber and Cassaday’s Captain America is the character at his very best as our better self. If you haven’t read this run, you should – today. Unfortunately, Reiber and Cassaday’s work is overshadowed by the spectacular success of Millar and Hitch’s The Ultimates, and a very different Captain America. Written by Millar as an embodiment of American militarism and neo-conservatism, Cap is violent, overbearing, and dismissive of others, up to and including America’s World War II allies. Millar set out to deconstruct the Avengers, and his Ultimates does just that, and it is largely the Ultimates that have translated to the big screen in the MCU. Millar & Hitch put Cap in the forefront of World War II combat like never before, and brought the brutality and violence of that war home to the character. The Ultimate Captain America isn’t a gentle, reasonable, man – he’s a combat soldier who likes what he does, and firmly believes in the chain of command. As in the MCU, the Ultimates begin as a government funded, counter-super threat team assembled and working under the command of an African-American Nick Fury and a heavily militarized S.H.I.E.L.D. None of them are particularly nice people, and all of them are deadly. Yet even Millar cannot quite get away from the righteousness inherent in Cap’s character. It is the rare reader who doesn’t have fond memories of Ultimate Cap beating the crap out of giant-sized Hank Pym after Pym put his wife Janet in the hospital. Patriarchal and predictably violent? Yes. Satisfying? Yaaassss!
It is hard to overestimate the influence The Ultimates has on the MCU. The director’s commentary for Marvel’s The Avengers features Joss Whedon realizing that the reason he loves particular shots are because they are composed like Bryan Hitch’s artwork. As the script doctor for Captain America: The First Avenger (2012), Whedon’s influence on the MCU’s Captain America is profound, with actor Chris Evans noting that he generally defers to Whedon’s interpretation of the character. The harder-edged cap is definitely present in the MCU, and Whedon has repeatedly underlined the characters transition from the horrors of World War II to 2012 as something far more profound than mere culture shock. Yet Whedon also called upon more traditional memories of both World War II and the character of Captain America:
“The idea of someone who had been in World War II, had seen people laying down their lives in the worst kinds of circumstances in a world where the idea of community and the idea of a man being a part of something, as opposed to being isolated from or bigger than the whole, is a very different concept of manhood. The idea of the soldier, a person who is willing to lay down his life, is very different than the idea of the superhero.”
Whedon thus softened Millar’s more belligerent Cap by calling on popular memories of World War II and the (American) men who fought in it as noble warriors in a just cause, again using that mythology to imbue the character with a tremendous moral weight. Indeed, the MCU’s Captain America is arguably the best character interpretation yet seen in film, due in large part to the anchoring of the character in World War II.. In the MCU, The Ultimates counter-memories of the war and those who fought in it as brutal, deadly, and violent (a narrative often far closer to the truth than that of the ‘good war’) are successfully integrated with the traditional, progressive narratives of the character of Captain America. The horror and the blood are there, but excused by virtue of absolute necessity, and for being used to defeat forces determined to murder or enslave hundreds of millions of people. As Cap himself says in Captain America: The Winter Soldier: “Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so that people could be free.” Motivations matter and the MCU Cap’s ultimately come down to “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from,” thereby recognizing the brutality of the war, but lifting Steve Rogers and his generation above it as good men who did what they had to do, but never lost their souls to violence.
As the third Captain America film, Captain America: Civil War opens to great anticipation this summer, the MCU is again calling upon 75 years of character development that depends ultimately on memories of World War II. At least loosely based on the Marvel Comics’ 2006 – 2007 Civil War crossover event, which saw Cap faced off against Tony Stark/Iron Man, the film has much to live up to. Occurring during Ed Brubaker’s already legendary run on the comic, the conflict underlined Steve Rogers/Captain America’s fundamental divergence from much of contemporary patriotism. Stark and his fellows progressed from government registration of heroes to the rendition of those who refused to comply to the ultimate black site: a prison in the Negative Zone. No trials, no lawyers, just Gitmo in actual limbo. This was not only against everything Cap believed in, against the Dream, but also came up against a libertarian core inherent in the character. In American memory, the Nazis and Imperial Japanese marched in lockstep, suppressing individuality in favor of absolute service to the state, the Fuhrer, the Emperor. The American GIs, the dogfaces, were an entirely different breed of men. They were the products of a melting pot of races, cultures, and creeds. They were argumentative and fiercely individualistic, very difficult to unite in a common cause, but incredibly powerful and capable when they were. Above all, not given to unquestioning obedience and servitude – that was how the enemy became the enemy.
For Cap, the Dream extended to everyone, and gave everyone the right to make their own choices, so long as they were willing to accept the consequences that came with those choices. This was the core of the dream, and the ultimate meaning of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Take away that right, begin to assume that people lacked the ability to choose the right, and instead must be made to do so, or else – well, that was, literally, un-American. Even if, as J. Michael Straczynski pointed out, that was what everyone else thought was right.
At the end of the MU’s Civil War, Captain America died for the Dream, and – for a time – his absence demanded a sustained meditation of what that Dream really means, most especially on the part of Bucky Barnes, who took up his mentor’s mantle and shield, but also for Tony Stark, who’s best intentions had made him the enemy. Whether or not the MCU can bring such power to the screen remains to be seen, but despite others who wear the uniform from time to time, Captain America will always be Steve Rogers, the skinny kid who hated bullies, and whose unwavering sense of right and the ideals of the American Dream not only saw him through the greatest conflict in human history, but became a fixed star to navigate by for generations of heroes, and of readers. Cap represents the best of us, and while the World War II America he represents is perhaps not what we were, it remains what we could be, and that is why the character endures.