“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”
- Albert Einstein
In the early and mid-1950s, comic book sales dropped more than 50 percent. Superheroes became passé, and under pressure from the U.S. government, comicbook publishers essentially abandoned violence and made their superheroes pacifists, all thanks to a German-American psychiatrist named Dr. Fredric Wertham. His now infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent, blamed the rise of juvenile delinquency in America on comic books, in part, because of the mentor/ward relationship between popular costumed heroes such as Batman and Robin, Captain America and Bucky, and Green Arrow and Speedy. His assertion was that these pairings were really homosexual in nature, as well as pedophiliac. Of course, there were other accusations but this was a big one in the superhero genre. He felt, and convinced millions of parents that, comicbooks were poisoning America’s children, almost single-handedly destroying the comic book industry.
By 1956 Superhero comics were on the rise once again, thanks, in part, to Showcase #4 from DC Comics, which reintroduced the Flash, a character popular in the 1940s. Significant changes were made to modernize the character, including his persona, his name, costume and origin. After The Flash’s success, DC began bringing back other members of the Golden Age, including Hawkman and the Green Lantern, making similar changes to compliment the optimism of the Atomic Age.
By the early 1960s, Atlas Comics (formerly Timely) had changed its name to Marvel, ushering in a whole new realm of superheroes with sci-fi related origins. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and The Hulk were all created at a time when nuclear energy and space travel were forcing Americans to think about the future. The looming Vietnam War, the fight over civil rights and the assassination of U.S. President Kennedy stirred emotions, leaving American citizens questioning their government and themselves. The role of the reluctant superhero, struggling with their new superhuman powers, became a popular theme in comic books. And nobody did it better than Marvel. It was a stark transition from the Golden Age of heroes who were often portrayed as two-dimensional and narrow-minded.
With its revival of superheroes, Marvel made the decision to bring back some of its once-popular World War II characters as well. Namor and the Human Torch were reinvented in the style of DC, same powers but different origin, while Captain America was approached in a much different way.
In The Avengers #4 (1964), Captain America is discovered by the Avengers – a superhero team made up of already popular Marvel heroes such as Iron Man, the Hulk, and Thor – frozen in a giant block of ice since 1945.
Stanley Lieber, who had changed his name to the more dashing Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby, who had come back to Marvel, decided to bring Cap back after the slew of success they were having with their other heroes. Instead of completely recreating the patriotic hero, they decided to build off of previous storyarcs (completely ignoring his brief 1950s resurrection in Atlas Comics), waking up from his twenty year cryogenic sleep to a completely different America.
Not only did poor Cap have to deal with adjusting to modern society but he was grieving over the apparent death of his sidekick Bucky, who, in a retroactive storyline, had gone missing along with the Captain himself. It added another dimension to the character, a depth of emotion that did not seem to be present in many superheroes before him.
The genius of Lee and Kirby is that they were able to take a character so entrenched in World War II idealism and place him in 1960s society, which was vastly different than the 1940s, and make him relevant again. Due partly to Lee’s more sophisticated plots and characterization, Marvel comicbooks began to appeal not only to children, but to college-age readers as well.
“We should declare war on North Vietnam. . . .We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas.”
- Ronald Reagan, 1965
In 1965, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson began sending troops to fight in the Vietnam War. Unlike World War II, America was not as united about entering the war as its citizens seemingly were back in the 1940s. The Axis Powers, driven by Hitler and the Nazi party, were the clear-cut enemies. In the Vietnam era, things were not so black and white. This was the challenge for Marvel: how should Captain America respond to the Vietnam War?
The company received letters from readers suggesting that they send Captain America to enter the war the same way he did during the Second World War. Still, other readers suggested that he stay out, that times were different. Marvel chose to have their patriotic hero stay out of the war. In fact, he said very little about it. Controversy around Captain America’s place in the world swelled even more.
According to Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation, “Stan Lee affirmed that the great majority of readers polled by Marvel wanted the hero to stay out of Vietnam. In 1971 he wrote that Captain America ‘simply doesn’t lend himself to the John Wayne-type character he once was’ and added that he could not ‘see any of our characters taking on a role of super- patriotism in the world as it is today.’” Instead of fighting the Viet-Cong, Cap would have to face off with an old enemy.
Lee and Kirby brought back The Red Skull in Tales of Suspense #79 in 1965. Apparently, during the fall of Berlin, The Red Skull survived a cave-in at Hitler’s bunker with the help of an experimental gas that put him in suspended animation. He was later awakened and resumed his war with Captain America with the help of the terrorist organization, HYDRA.
As if The Red Skull, HYDRA, the alien race known as The Skrulls, and becoming the leader of the The Avengers wasn’t enough on his plate, Cap also tackled domestic social problems such as racism, poverty and pollution. Help came in the form of a new sidekick. In 1969, Marvel’s first African-American superhero was created. Sam “Snap” Wilson encountered Captain America as a former community volunteer-turned-criminal. He soon became The Falcon and fought evil alongside his patriotic companion. In the early 1970s, Captain America and Falcon even took on the U.S. Government.
“Do you realize the responsibility I carry? I’m the only person standing between Richard Nixon and the White House.”
- John F. Kennedy
By 1974, America was well under way to removing its troops from Vietnam and President Nixon became the first U.S. President to resign to avoid impeachment due to the Watergate scandal. America was a land of disillusionment, plagued by scandal and defeat. In a storyarc emulating reality, Captain America discovers a conspiracy within the U.S. Government that is linked all of the way to the President, who, though his face is hidden in the shadows, looks eerily like Richard Nixon. The man in shadows is revealed to be the leader of the terrorist organization The Secret Empire. To Cap’s shock and horror, the man then commits suicide.
Like millions of Americans at the time, Steve Rogers is angered, saddened and disheartened. He begins to question his role as Captain America. What is he fighting for? Captain America was a symbol of American values– of truth and justice. Feeling the burden of displacement even more, Captain America no longer belonged to a government so easily corruptible. His faith broken, Rogers abandons his red, white and blue costume, taking on a new identity. Steve Rogers would now be known as Nomad, the Man without a Country. Captain America, the last true patriot, was no more.
“A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.”
- Richard M. Nixon