An Avenger for All Seasons: Captain America, Identity, and the US Experience

The key to Captain America: The Winter Soldier success is clear. It captured and integrated into the Marvel cineverse Captain America’s dedication to the common man's ideas of America.

By some estimates as many as 210 million copies of Captain America comicbooks have been sold in over 75 counties. As the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier suggests, Captain America offer a unique means to understand the American worldview.

A Hero is Born

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America ,was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 in 1941. A Golden Age hero, Captain America is one of the oldest comic book superheroes. From that introduction, Captain America has been linked to national social, political and economic concerns. The image of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler established the character as a symbol of determination linked to World War II. Yet, this was not a propaganda image commissioned by the government. Instead, this first appearance can be seen as his creators’ response to Nazi Germany. As Simon explained, “Villains were the whole thing… and there was no better foil than Hitler. Who better to take him on than a super soldier draped in the American flag?” Written before US entry into World War II, issue #1 was available in March 1941. Indeed, while the general public was unwilling or unable to contemplate the idea of US engagement with a European war, the cover of Captain America #1 showed a Jewish American perspective.

This first appearance of Captain America highlights the first complex intersection around questions of identity and nationalism linked to the character. Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby or more accurately, Hymie Simon and Jacob Kurtzberg, were one of numerous examples of Jewish creators that worked in US comic industry. Yearning for acceptance, these second generation immigrants crafted tales with symbols of assimilation and aspiration. As Jack Kirby later explained, the “Anglo-Saxon” hero type reflected those traits he admired in US society and by extension the qualities central to the American experience. Simon and Kirby’s invention of Captain America foreshadowed American involvement in World War II, but the character’s popularity clearly exploded with the onset of fighting. When WWII ended, Captain America continued to appear in comics until 1949, ending his initial run with postwar superhero decline.

Cold War/ Warrior

In the 1950s, in the wake of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, Captain America reappeared under the Atlas Comics imprint as Captain America: Commie Smasher. Appearing first in Young Men action magazine, the revived Captain America adventures featured old villains, but quickly took up anti-communism theme. Moving into his own title, Captain America’s 1950s adventures continue for just three issues before Captain America: Commie Smasher disappeared from newsstands.

Captain America’s contemporary revival came in the pages of Strange Tales #114 in 1964, as a trial balloon to gauge fan interest. Revealed to be an impostor, the “real” Captain America official returned in Avenger #4 and Tales of Suspense # 58. Captain America and Iron Man each has separate stories in Tales of Suspense beginning in issue #59 and the book would continue to feature Captain America until issue #100 when it was re-titled Captain America. The ’60s-era Captain America faced new foes along side the Avengers, but was never free from his WWII legacy.

As Cold War dynamics shifted concerns Captain America’s WWII enemies served a dual purpose. The fascist ideology associated with Nazi Germany lived on in Marvel Comic in the form of organizations such as Advanced Idea Mechanic (A.I.M) and Hydra. These groups joined the Soviet Union, anarchists, and mercenaries who sought to undermine the United States and her allies. The interplay between WWII era evils and contemporary dangers would become a common theme in the pages of Captain America. Captain America’s WWII era inspired patriotism was the perfect vehicle to reassure Americans unnerved by Cold War tensions.

The split between Captain America’s solo adventures and the Avengers is worth noting. The theme of “man out of time” came through in both titles, but arguable was applied in radically different ways. In the pages of the Avengers, the WWII vet offered mentorship and guidance, his fighting spirit and idealism providing an example to his fellow heroes. No less the hero in his own title, Captain America patriotism and dedication were tested as the ’60s social and political landscape changed. Marvel Comics heroes reflected youth culture that questioned authority and promoted social liberalism. Character such as X-Men and Spider-Man challenged assumptions and asserted a distinct moral and material outlook that differed from adults.

A Better Captain / America

As the nature of social and political debates shifted, readers recognized that Captain America’s stance was a reflection of national thinking. As a symbol of American values Captain America had to take a stand. As the United States’ involvement with Vietnam increased, readers wrote to Marvel and suggested Captain America should go, while others suggested he stay out. For the most part, Captain America stayed home and said little about the war. One notable exception was issue #125. In this issue, Captain America journey to Vietnam to search for Dr. Robert Hoskin, a medical doctor helping the wounded on both sides of the Vietnam conflict. Fearing Hoskin’s disappearance will destabilize the situation, Captain America decides to find Hoskin before it’s too late. Once in the country, Cap avoids getting involved in conflicts and manages to stumble upon a plot by Mandarin to incite greater violence. Captain America manages to defeat the Mandarin and return Dr. Hoskin to his work, but he leaves Vietnam with a bleak outlook. While Vietnam vexed Captain America and his readers, other social issues were effectively acknowledged.

A Hero Is Born, Once More

As civil right activism reached mainstream consciousness, Captain America became a forum to recognize this new equality. The introduction of Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon, while not the first black superhero, nevertheless was significant. By linking The Falcon’s origin and career closely with Captain America, creators highlighted the racial accommodation associated with the era. Created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan in 1969, The Falcon made his debut in rescuing Captain America from attackers. Wilson’s origins in the Captain America issue #117 portrayed him as an upstanding resident of Harlem lured to an isolated island by a bogus job offer. Once there, he is forced to defend himself and the island natives from violence criminals called “The Exiles,” former confederates of the Red Skull. Captain America befriends Wilson, suggesting his heroic moniker after witnessing his talents with his pet falcon Redwing. Together, Captain American and Wilson free the island from villains. Captain America continues to train Wilson and he returns to Harlem and becomes a staunch ally to Captain America and defender of his community as both a costume adventurer and a social worker in his civilian guise.

A Captain / America Fractured

By the ’70s Captain America began reflecting the anxiety associated with the national consciousness disillusioned with the Cold War and struggling with a new fractured social landscape. In a story written by Steve Englehart running through Captain America issues issue #169 to 176, the most patriotic Marvel hero follows twisting conspiracy all the way to the White House. Printed in 1973 and 1974, the story entitled “Secret Empire” made clear reference to the Watergate scandal undermining the Nixon Administration (1969-1974). In the story, Captain America discovers that an organization called the Committee to Regain American Principle (CRAP), led by Quentin Harderman, is a front for the Secret Empire, a fascist organization attempting to take over the government. Captain America’s investigation leads to assassination and corruption linked to the White House. When he confronts the leader of the conspiracy in the Oval Office, he commits suicide. Although we never see his face, there is little doubt the Secret Empire’s leader is Richard Nixon.

Summing up the sentiment of the country, the caption reads, “This man trusted the country of his birth… Now… like millions of American, each in his own way, he has seen this trust mocked! And this man is Captain America!”

Captain America No More

Reflecting the disillusioned in the country, for the next several issues, Steve Rogers abandons the Captain America persona and adopts the moniker of Nomad, the Man Without a County. Acting as Nomad for a few short issues, Steve Rogers returns to the role of Captain America pledging to reclaims the ideas of America its leader have trampled upon. In making this crucial transition from nationalistic hero, to the people’s champion, creators establish a distinction that allowed Captain America to remain patriotic in the aftermath of ’70s-era political disillusionment. The Star Spangled Avenger can act as a measure of the political ideals of the era you are in. Captain America then provides context on the evolution of American idealism. Thus, since the ’70s writers have invariably use Captain America’s stance as commentary as a measure of popular satisfaction. Less an agent for the government and more a symbol for the people, Captain America supports American beliefs regardless of political machinations.

Beginning in the ’80s, Steve Rogers positions the Captain America mantle as a sacred trust and protects it against super villains and overreaching government bureaucrats. In a 1987 storyline written by Marc Gruewald, Rogers once again gives up being Captain America when a Commission appointed by the president of the United States tells him that they need him to resume working on government assignments. Captain America asks, “What happens if I don’t accept your terms? The head of the commission replies, “What do you mean? You don’t have a choice.” The response predictable is “Of course I do! This is a free country!” The head of the Commission explains the government owns the costume, shield, and name of Captain America and gives him 24 hours to consider his position.

Steve Rogers decides to give up being Captain America saying, “To serve the country your way I would have to give up my personal freedom…and place myself in a position where I might have to compromise my ideals to obey your order. I cannot represent the American Government; the President does that. I must represent the American people. I represent the American Dream, the freedom to strive to become all that you dream of being. Captain America has been my American Dream. To become what you want me to be, I would have to compromise that dream and abandon what I have come to stand for.”

In subsequent issues readers are introduced to John Walker, the new Captain America. Walker is disdainful of Steve Rogers’ brand of idealistic service. He is ultra patriotic and eager to work for the government. A deliberate counterpoint to Steve Rogers’ northern urban upbringing, Walker is southern, rural, and middle-class. Walker persona reflected Sunbelt politics that shifted conservative voices to southern states since the ’70s. Walker’s take on patriotism and his willingness to be aggressive in a manner that Rogers was not became crucial part of his storyline reflected contemporary political debates.

Serving as Captain America from issue #333 to #350, his tenure is controversial, but boosts sells. In one troubling episode he lashes out uncontrollably at The Watchdogs, a militia group that he encounters on his first mission and subsequently attack and kills his parents after his identity is revealed on television. At the same time, Steve Rogers adopts a new persona. Calling himself, “The Captain,” he continues to serve his (and America’s) heroic ideals. As The Captain he has a series of adventures that prompt confrontation with friends and foes alike. Ultimately, Walker proves himself unfit to be Captain America and Rogers resumes the role. The turn of event affirms Roger’s values and worldview, not the costume, crucial to Captain America. In doing so, writers are able to keep Captain America patriotic as his “man out of time” view offers a distinct historical memory anchoring his understanding of American actions and policies.

Captain and America: On Message

During the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs in the ’80s, Captain America storyline reflected this traditional value set. In many ways a continuation of anti-drug storylines begun in the ’70s, Captain America is faced with friends and colleagues affected by addiction. In a storyline called “Streets of Poison” Captain America is caught between the Red Skull and Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, as they battle to control “ice” a synthetic drug many times more addictive than cocaine. During the story, Captain America is exposed to the illicit drug himself and begins to act strangely. It is revealed that the drug has bonded with the super soldier formula in his blood, forcing a transfusion to clear it from his system. Seemingly weaken he nonetheless defeats the villains. In doing so he says, “I can be Captain America even without the drug.” Offered the chance to receive a transfusion to restore the super soldier drug in his blood, he declines claiming, “If I can’t just say no, who can?”

In post 9/11 context Captain America, like many comic book heroes has shifted in light of the new war on terror, but not in the manner we might expect. Captain America briefly engaged directly with post 9/11 politics. In Captain America #1 printed in June 2002 writer John Ney Rieber and John Cassaday take Captain America on an adventure in Centerville, USA where a terrorist has taken the community hostage. Captain America goes into the town to rescue the hostages. He is horrified when he is forced to battle children with artificial limbs. The story turn more complex as it is revealed people in Centerville make bomb components used by the military that maimed the children. Captain America defeats the terrorist force, but the ultimate patriot is left wondering if the United States understands who and why it is fighting. Fans and critics alike dismissed this story, but a new volume of Captain America offers a more engaging narrative for fans and critics.

Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting Captain America series starts in 2006 with new emphasis on Steve Rogers as a “man out of time.” Despite this, the new series is deeply reflective of contemporary concerns. The political narrative is framed in the context of Cold War consequences. In many ways more realistic, this take on Captain America recognizes that the world has grown more complex as the United States has sought to understand the reality of new global threats. In a twist, the reader is reminded these challenges greeted the United States in the ’40s as much as they do in the 2000s. In this context, the moral values represented by Captain America have become more important as they suggest holding on to your personal integrity in the midst of political struggle has happen in the past and can happen in the future.

The new series is noteworthy for its resurrection of Bucky Barnes, Cap’s teenage sidekick believed killed at the end of WWII, as the Winter Soldier. Saved and brainwashed by the USSR, Barnes has become the ultimate assassin. Kept in suspended animation between assignments, Captain America battles to save him against a resurrected Red Skull. Captain America breaks his former partner brainwashing and defeats the Red Skull. In doing so, Captain America maintains the ideas and values associated with WWII, but contextualizing them within the context of economic and political relationships created by Cold War decisions and compromises. In this framework the complexity of the Cold War world reflect contemporary concerns as compromises pursued in the search for security haunt the heroes.

Captain and America: A Civil War

This question of morality and security come into play in the 2006 Civil War mini-series event. In the story a battle in Stamford, Connecticut, between a group of heroes (employed by a reality television show) and villains leaves several hundred dead, including more than fifty children. This disaster turns the public against superheroes and leads to a Superhuman Registration Act. The law requires all heroes to register and receive training in the use of their power or face the consequences. Iron Man becomes the leader and public face of the pro-registration forces. Captain America opposes the Superhero Registration Act, and goes on the run from the government. The problem posed by registration versus nonregistration mirrored debates about the preventative war, terrorist surveillance programs, and forcible rendition sponsored by the US government.

Ultimately, Captain America surrenders to end the destructive clash. His gesture leads to his supposed death and elevate his former partner into the role of Captain America. Resurrected after a time traveling adventure, Captain America’s return from the dead was heralded as the beginning of a new Heroic Age and marks the Avengers ascension to the central role in world security. Reclaiming the role of Captain America after his partner’s past as a Soviet agent is revealed to the public, Steve Rogers once become Captain America and bring certainty of principle and ideas to the role.

Captain and America: Cinematic & Nostalgic

The key to Captain America: The Winter Soldier success is clear. What the film captured and integrated into the Marvel cineverse is Captain America’s dedication to American ideas. These ideas are the same one held by the common man. Whatever the challenge, Steve Rogers is the dedicated to facing them. As a result, Captain America continues to reflect the aspirations that informed his creators. He believes, as they believed, that the United States is great country made so by a citizenry empowered by great ideas. If box office is any measure, then that idea remains as powerful today as it was in 1941.