Comics

The Seventieth Pt. 1: The Golden Age of Captain America

Charlie Moss
"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that is worth war is much worse." --John Stuart Mill

With March marking the 70th anniversary of the first appearance of Captain America in comicbooks and Joe Johnston’s highly anticipated movie, Captain America: The First Avenger appearing in theaters this summer, PopMatters presents a three-part exclusive interview with Joe Simon, the character’s co-creator. Today, Part 1.

“A man's country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.”

--George William Curtis

Steve Rogers, like many other Americans during World War II, wanted to join the Army to defend his country. Rail thin and malnourished, the military would not let him join. Instead, the U.S. Government invited Rogers to join a top secret military initiative, Project: Rebirth. Intended to enhance U.S. Soldiers to the peak of human perfection, he was given a serum and exposed to vita-rays, transforming him into a super soldier.

During the process, the inventor of the serum, Dr. Josef Reinstein, was murdered by a Nazi operative, leaving Rogers the only successful test subject. The U.S. Government used him as a special agent meant to inspire and rally fellow U.S. troops to combat.

Wearing a costume made with the colors, stars and stripes of the American flag, and bearing an indestructible shield, he was known as Captain America.

“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”

-- Franklin D. Roosevelt

The 1930s were a turbulent time as the Great Depression left many Americans in despair. In response, President Franklin Roosevelt created the New Deal, a series of expansive government programs focused on relief for the unemployed, recovery of the economy and reform of America’s financial system. By the late 1930s, the country had begun to slowly recover.

In the new medium of comic books, superheroes battled domestic enemies bred from Depression-era life such as thieves, crooked politicians, mobsters and greedy, corrupt business men who preyed upon the poor. The new heroes stood for New Deal ideals, standing up for those who could not stand up for themselves.

By 1940, Roosevelt began to shift his focus from domestic policy to foreign affairs, encouraging a united patriotic front, urging Americans to condemn Nazism, buy war bonds, and recycle paper and scrap metal to help in the war effort in Europe.

Comic books, too, shifted focus. Instead of fighting small-time criminals and petty thieves, superheroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman began battling enemies on a much grander scale with the likes of foreign dictators and their armies. With American focus on patriotism and the war effort, a new breed of superhero was needed.

That hero came in the form of Simon and Kirby’s Captain America. And he became the Nazis’ worst nightmare.

Joe Simon, co-creator, remembers: “Captain America was inspired by what was going on in the world at the time. We read the newspapers, and saw the Bund meetings (an American Nazi organization formed to promote the ideas of Nazi Germany) at Madison Square Garden. We knew what was going on, and thought it was the right time for a patriotic hero.”

The brainchild of Simon and Jack Kirby debuted in the March 1941 issue of Captain America #1 for Timely Comics (which eventually became Marvel), hitting newsstands in December 1940, a full year before the United States entered World War II. Jack Kirby’s cover illustration was a proud display of patriotism, featuring the star-spangled hero throwing a right hook to the jaw of Adolph Hitler. Simon recalls, “We chose Hitler because he was the perfect foil for our new hero. He was already the most recognizable villain we could have asked for.”

It was a bold statement at a time when America was still reluctant to join the war.

Captain America became Timely’s most popular character, with him and his sidekick, Bucky, facing Nazis and other wartime threats. In an adventure in early 1941, Cap and Bucky stop Japanese forces from destroying a U.S. Pacific fleet. Unfortunately, in real life, there was nothing to stop a similar attack later that same year.

“I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

-- Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, upon learning of the success of the attack on Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941 the Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than two thousand Americans were killed and 1,200 were wounded. The attack was a shock to the American people. President Roosevelt declared war and America officially entered World War II.

The comic book industry reacted with swift action, sending more superheroes overseas to clobber the Axis Powers than ever before. Superheroes relentlessly kicked the crap out of their foreign enemies. Japanese soldiers and dictators were drawn with fangs or buck teeth, giving the impression that they were somehow subhuman, a reflection of how many felt at the time. Captain America and Bucky encouraged children to collect paper and metal for the war effort. Captain America comics, among others, were sent to American G.I.s in Europe, to help boost morale. The comic book industry and the U.S. Government seemed to work together to encourage a unified voice of American patriotism.

“Mother Night lives for such abuse from me.”

-- The Red Skull

If Cap was an American form of propaganda, then the Red Skull was his German counterpart. Timely felt he needed an arch-enemy, someone who stood for everything Cap didn’t. Hitler provided inspiration for the comic book universe’s ultimate threat, the Red Skull.

Simon and Kirby’s evil creation’s real name was Johann Schmidt, trained personally by Hitler to be his right-hand man, giving him a distinctive uniform, complete with a disturbing, blood-red skull mask. Cap and the Red Skull clashed in the very first issue of Captain America Comics, launching an epic battle between American values and corrupt Nazi ideals that still continues in comics to this day.

As Captain America’s popularity grew, Simon and Kirby became increasingly frustrated with their business arrangement with Timely, a common problem at the time for many superhero creators. After a falling out with publisher Martin Goodman, Simon and Kirby moved to DC Comics in late 1941. But Cap still thrived as Al Avison and Syd Shores continued the series. “Jack and I left over a disagreement concerning royalties, and didn’t look back,” Simon recalls. “It was all a matter of business. DC Comics wanted us badly, so we signed with them. Then after the war we got an even better deal with Harvey. We were too busy to worry about Captain America.”

“I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.”

-- Whittaker Chambers

After World War II, the popularity of superheroes began to fade. The Allied Powers had won, Hitler was dead and America began to prosper once again. America no longer needed its superheroes, not even a patriotic one.

Sales had gotten so bad that Timely changed the title Captain America Comics to Captain America’s Weird Tales, focusing the stories on horror, one of the popular genres at the time. One story had Cap facing off with the Red Skull in Hell, a far cry from the earlier stories of patriotism and pride. The final issue, Captain America’s Weird Tales #75, which was published February 1950, didn’t even feature the good Captain on the cover or in the story.

Captain America was briefly revived in 1954.Under the new name Atlas Comics, Goodman transformed Cap into a Commie-bashing, Cold War hero under the title Men’s Adventures. It lasted only two issues.

“Superhero comics were suffering everywhere after the war, so Captain America was canceled because of low sales,” Simon remembers. “He was very much a wartime hero. They tried to bring him back to fight the communists, but they didn’t have Jack and me. So it didn’t work.”

Captain America -- World War II hero and New Deal crusader -- was limited by the very ideals that made him so popular. It would be ten years before he would be resurrected by a young editor at Marvel Comics named Stanley Lieber.

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