Loyal to the Dream: the History of Captain America

Captain America entered American consciousness with one explosive, enduring image: a red-white-and-blue superman socking Hitler in the face. Too frail to join the army, Steve Rogers volunteered for Project Rebirth, an experiment “to become one of America’s saviors.” He transforms into Hitler’s ideal human, his very existence a blow to the Führer: a blond-haired blue-eyed Übermensch named Captain America, engineered to pulverize Nazis.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby debuted their superhero on December 20, 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor and the onset of American involvement in World War II, a time when Hitler even drew support from some Americans, like the Nazi organization the German American Bund. But Kirby and Simon were Jewish, and through Captain America they took on Hitler themselves.

Jack Kirby & Joe Simon circa 1950

The arrival of Captain America brought hate mail and “menacing-looking groups of strange men” outside their Timely Comics’ building, eventually requiring police protection. Simon’s and Kirby’s Cap comics reflected their fear that Nazis were in the U.S., and Cap became “the nation’s #1 Spy Buster.” In the beginning, Captain America fought literal Nazis; eventually, the Red Skull and most Cap villains would come to embody insidious, hateful evil, an evil often corrupting the system rather than an external threat. Kirby and Simon rallied their young readers — “the Sentinels of Liberty” — to look for enemies among us.

The Nazis were described as mosquitos, but Captain America was a tornado. When they created superhero Captain 3-D, their first 3D comic, Kirby said, “Joe and I can make a hero leap right off the page without those silly [3D] glasses.” Cap burst out of the panels that confined him, threatening to punch his way off the page, more dynamic than the superhero comics that preceded him. Kirby explained how his childhood love for movies influenced his art: “A balcony was my university,” and Cap comics were as cinematic as they were action-packed. Kirby’s youth informed Cap’s creation and development in many ways — every street in Kirby’s Lower East Side neighborhood had its own kid gang, and his gang and all the others were constantly fighting. Kirby learned to survive by standing up to bullies, an ability he shared with his superhero. Cap did not carry a weapon, but a protective shield, inspired by trashcan lids Joe Simon used to protect himself as a child during snowball fights. And, as Simon once noted, kids were already play-fighting Hitler in the streets, it made sense to put it in a comic book.

And so there was logic to the creation of Cap’s kid sidekick James “Bucky” Barnes, though some may have worried about child endangerment. Bucky was the mascot of Steve’s regiment who teamed up with Cap when he discovered Steve’s spangled secret identity. Bucky conveyed to the Sentinels of Liberty that they too could stand up to Nazis. Bucky was the virtuous American counterpart to Hitler Youth, who were like the Boy Scouts’ evil twin, adopting many Boy Scout activities for malevolent ends since the real Scouts had been banned in Germany.

After the war ended, Captain America lost his purpose and his popularity. Horror comics replaced superheroes, and the late 1940s found Cap attempting to adapt with Captain America’s Weird Tales. One issue involved Red Skull dragging Captain America to hell; in another, Captain America didn’t appear at all. In the early 1950s, Captain America became the Commie Smasher, but the Cold War was no place for the man of action, and he disappeared for a decade.

Cap’s resurrection came not long after Kennedy’s assassination in March 1964 after having been frozen in the North Atlantic for twenty years. The Avengers find him “just when the world has need of such a man… just like fate planned it this way,” and Cap soon becomes their leader. The modern world confounds Cap, and Bucky’s death in the explosion that Cap survived haunts him. Stan Lee jettisons the Commie Smasher, revealing that Captain America groupie William Burnside replaced the real Cap after he discovered the super-soldier serum. Without Vita-Rays to stabilize the serum, Burnside and his Bucky doppelgänger Jack Monroe went insane, seeing Commies everywhere.

Stan Lee presents a clearer picture of who Cap isn’t — a hyper-masculine jingoist bigot, and who he is — America’s conscience. In the 1960s, Cap’s foes are more formidable than ever, and Red Skull and the Nazis are still a threat, determined to establish a Fourth Reich. Cap stays out of Vietnam unless rescuing an American soldier or two, mostly staying home to fight foes like Batroc, MODOK, Hydra, and A.I.M.

Steve Englehart’s and Sal Buscema’s Secret Empire storyline of the 1970s is pivotal for Captain America. The political turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s reveal that Cap may be a soldier, but he’s no government lackey — Englehart said of his Watergate-inspired run that he “wrote a legitimately patriotic Captain America and introduced a conscientious objector. They co-existed just fine.”

The Secret Empire plot begins with the Committee to Regain America’s Principles (C.R.A.P.) running a smear campaign against Captain America, while Steve Rogers is a beat cop dealing with department corruption. Behind the smear campaign and police corruption lie the Secret Empire, a Hydra splinter group with President Nixon as its leader. Cap witnesses the President’s suicide in the White House, and a traumatized Steve ditches his costume and title to become Nomad, the man without a country. Steve’s self-examination goes deep, and he wonders whether he has the right to destroy a symbol. Is he a legend or just a man? Is the status quo worth defending? And most importantly — after Vietnam and Watergate, did America deserve a hero?

Of course, Cap snaps back and confronts the National Force, a KKK-style neo-Nazi group masterminded by Doctor Faustus and old Cap impostor William Burnside. In the 1980s, Cap considers running for President, but realizes that he stands for the American people, not the government, and explains, “I represent the American dream, the freedom to strive to become all that you dream of being.” The 1990s gave us a supernaturally ripped Captain America and the degradation of the super-soldier serum.

The Patriot Act, the War on Terror, and 9/11 transform Captain America’s world. In Mark Millar’s and Steve McNiven’s Civil War, Cap rebels against the Superhuman Registration Act, which forces superheroes to register as “human weapons of mass destruction” and disclose their secret identities. Steve eventually turns himself in to the authorities, but he’s assassinated by Red Skull henchman Crossbones and brainwashed S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter on the courthouse steps on his way to trial.

Steve Rogers: American hero

Vietnam and the corruption exposed by Watergate unmoored Captain America, and modern-day fear of drones, civil liberties issues, and the NSA only heightened this paranoia. Captain America: The Winter Soldier perfectly reflects that uncertainty in its homage to ‘70s conspiracy thrillers, particularly Three Days of the Condor. The threat comes from within, and the protagonist of those thrillers, Robert Redford, is now the villain. After the moral clarity of WWII, Cap finds himself in a world of gray where his antagonists’ warped vision for America involves sacrificing freedom for security.

Pre-serum Steve Rogers jumping on a dummy grenade he believed to be live in Captain America: The First Avenger is as definitive of the superhero as Captain America punching Hitler. When scrawny Steve Rogers became the super soldier known as Captain America, he fulfilled the American dream and vowed to protect it, not as a militant nationalist but an inclusive idealist with the moral code of a boy scout. He stands up to bullies and strives against tyranny, bigotry, and hatred wherever he finds it, especially within his country. As Captain America once declared himself: “I’m loyal to nothing… except the dream.”