Captain America is one of the true icons of comicbooks and one of the most immediately recognizable characters of all time. As a symbol of Marvel Comics, he is barely behind Spider-Man and Wolverine and is at least up there with Iron Man and Thor in that Holy Avengers Triumverate, but Cap is made moreso by the fact that his existence actually predates Marvel Comics itself by twenty full years. Yes, Steve Rogers debuted in 1941 way back when “Marvel” was known as “Timely”.
You know the story. Scrawny soldier undergoes supersoldier serum to become the sentinel of lieberty alongside his youthful sidekick James “Bucky” Barnes before their plane goes down in icy waters and Bucky is killed and Captain America frozen and preserved in a big honkin’ block of ice until his thaw-out to just in time to join the Avengers.
But that’s Steve Rogers, right? What about all those other Captain Americas (or “Captains America” as the case may be)? Yeah, folks, there have been others to wear the star-spangled underwear, and I don’t just mean similar patriotic characters. No less than a lucky 13 canonical characters have strapped on the chainmail flag and hoisted the vibranium shield in the name of Freedom. Some of these guys were full on government sanctioned replacements for the big guy… while others were one-off costumed Captain Wannabes (or never-weres).
Why so many? Well, the aforementioned thaw-out took place in The Avengers #4 where writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby (who actually co-created the character with Joe Simon back in 1941) explained that flag-boy had been frozen after an aircraft accident way back in 1945 and returned in 1964 for the first time as a man out of his own time. The only problem was that in the comics, this never did happen. Cap “disappeared” because his sales (and those of most of his fellow superheroes) and dropped considerably and his titles were canceled. But Timely’s pre-Marvel successor, Atlas Comics, tried to resurrect the frozen hero eleven years before his Avengers return.
The 1953 revival of Captain America and Bucky (and their secret identities of Steve Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes) as “Commie Smashers” was clearly set in the 1950s, but proved to be short lived. You can forgive Stan Lee for skipping over this little tidbit of info when he defrosted the Captain. I mean he can’t be expected to have read just EVERY SINGLE COMICBOOK to have had Captain America in it, right? Yeah, except for the fact that the writer of the 1953 reintroduction to Captain America was also… Stan Lee.
Thus three men were retroactively revealed to have taken up the mantle and shield, William Nasland, Jeffrey Mace and a third guy with a much longer career.
This third one is still remembered as “The Captain America of the 1950s” and was created by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema to explain the discrepancy of how Cap and Bucky could have been kicking ass in the 1950s if they were either dead or frozen at the time. This Cap was introduced in 1972 (five years before Nasland and Mace retroactively debuted).
Of course this Captain America didn’t always go by that name. In his secret identity, he went by the name “Steve Rogers”. How is that possible? A ridiculous coincidence? A parallel universe? Nope… an unhealthy obsession. A man later revealed to be named William Burnside idolized Captain America and obtained his PhD with a dissertation on the hero and actually went so far as to, gulp, get plastic surgery to look more like Steve Rogers. He then legally changed his name to “Steve Rogers” and took on a sidekick named Jack Monroe after obtaining the evil Nazi version of the Supersoldier serum.
This new (erstwhile) FBI-backed (and clearly mentally disturbed) Captain America was assumed by everyone (including the writer) to be the original and fought the communist successor to the Red Skull amongst other baddies the world over. There was just one problem with this star-spangled celebration. That Supersoldier Serum the new Cap and Bucky took was faulty and incomplete and left them paranoid, jingoistic and, shockingly, racist to the point of attacking minorities for (baseless) communist ties. The dynastic duo were captured by the government, placed in suspended animation and forgotten about.
Well, forgotten about until a weird and tragic story got even more weird and more tragic. As if these clowns weren’t having a craptastic sleepover in the first place, “Steve Rogers II” is re-revived and brainwashed into becoming… a Neo-Nazi White Supremacist group leader known as “The Grand Director”. Yes, folks, “The Captain America of the 1950s” is also Grand Director of National Force, a bunch of really lousy skinheads (none of whom are any fun at parties, let me tell you). Burnside was, in fact, such a jackass by this time that he whipped out a gun and shot his Bucky (Jack Monroe) dead as a doornail before surrendering to his own defeat at the hands of the REAL Captain America and blowing himself up.
Of course no one in the Marvel Universe is ever truly dead except the original Bucky, thus Monroe was later revealed to have survived (he was only MOSTLY dead) and was given Steve Rogers’ alternate costumed identity of Nomad to become (at last) the sidekick of the original Captain America. Much later the Grand Director was revealed to also be in (wait for it, wait for it) suspended animation while his burns healed.
By this time, of course, the REAL Steve Rogers was dead (well… mostly) and he had been replaced by the one character who had always been forever dead… until Marvel changed their minds. Yep. Bucky was back and parading around in a certain Red White and Blue pair of pajamas while the Grand Director was running around trying to murder him, often while teamed up with a new and naughty terrorist group (which is a step up from a white supremacist group, I concede).
Eventually things calmed down for the Wannabe Cap. After all, he never REALLY wanted to be a Neo-Nazi or a terrorist, but a symbol for America… and that’s what he became again… hanging around other heroes in his old duds and calling himself “The Captain America of the 1950s”... even after 2010.
That sounds like a bit of a let down, to me, when the whole thing is said out loud. It’s kind of like a classic rock band taking the stage and screaming “How about we play you a song… “ while the audience yells “Yay!” and the band continues “... from our new album?” while the crowd gives a disaffected groan.
“You are now under the protection of THE… Captain America…”
“... of the 1950s!”
NEXT WEEK “To Be Continued…” is back with the new Malbec-infused hero, Captain Argentina. I’m kidding, but seriously, try some Mendoza wines, man. “To Be Continued…,” All Things Comics, only at PopMatters.com, next week!