Seventy-five years ago this week, the first issues of Captain America Comics #1 hit store shelves. Captain America made his debut at the dawn of the "Golden Age" of comics and led the charge for other heroes during World War II, helping to define the modern superhero.
First sold a full year before the entry of the United States into World War II, though with a cover date of March 1941, Captain America is inseparable from his politics and patriotism. Devised entirely as a counterpoint to rising fascism in Europe, Captain America in his very first appearance takes on the Nazis.
Beating up the Third Reich might seem like a no-brainer now for any superhero, but publishers during that time generally avoided directly mentioning Hitler for a number of reasons, as explained in an essay in Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero.
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First, they feared being sued for defamation by the Nazis, as unbelievable as that sounds. Comic-book sellers also worried about antagonizing the German-American community, a large ethnic group in the United States. Finally, publishers generally viewed comics as a form of escape, and preferred more fantastical over real-world story lines.
Hitler, however, proved too strong of a draw for co-creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The Nazi leader was after all "the archvillain of all time," Simon once wrote, "hated by more than half of the world."
Earlier comic characters had taken on Hitler and his cronies, initially in an oblique fashion. In 1939, heroes beat up on Nazi lookalikes. Same uniforms, but no symbols. Also that year, Marvel Boy, created by the same duo responsible for Captain America, fought his archnemesis, a Hitler doppelganger named Hiller, so-named to avoid a lawsuit. In February 1940, the Sub-Mariner stood up to a Nazi submarine crew, as seen on the cover of that month's issue.
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Toward the end of the year, however, Hitler's army occupied most of Europe, and Americans began to feel the tremors of the war abroad. In the midst of the "patriotic frenzy," as Simon described it, that gripped America by the end of 1940, Captain America, infused with American idealism and of course super-soldier serum, arrived just in time, seen punching Hitler in the face right on his first cover.
The first issue also had other major characters from the series, including Bucky, Captain America's sidekick, and archvillain Red Skull, an American industrialist who betrayed the United States to the Nazis to serve his own interests.
Captain America proved an instant hit, becoming one of the most popular characters of the era. His first issue sold nearly one million copies, and he was one of the first superheros to jump on the big screen with his own movie serial. (Batman beat him to the punch a year earlier in 1943 with the premiere of his eponymous 15-part series.)
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With Captain America showing the way, writers, artists and publishers began to pit other superheroes against American adversaries. On the front covers, heroes like Superman would be shown taking out Nazi targets. Comic book characters also joined government efforts to sell war bonds. Comic book stories themselves continued to skew away from the war, however, pursuing more escapist threads.
The end of World War II saw the decline of reader interest of many of the era's most famous comic book heroes, including Captain America, whose history gets choppy after the 1940s. In the 1950s, publishers brought the character back, the inglorious "Commie Smasher," as he would later be known, essentially a superpowered McCarthy-ite. He would turn up again in the 1960s, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and again in the 1970s during the Vietnam War.
Captain America isn't the only comic book character reacting to and shaped by world events. The X-Men, for example, shortly after their introduction began to tackle themes around prejudice and racism, echoing the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Iron Man, Spider-Man and many other heroes have found themselves struggling with the broader issues of national security and privacy rights surrounding the war on terror. Captain America represented the side of civil liberties in the Civil War miniseries back in 2006.
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Captain America's story began as a contrast to fascism, but the superhero has become so tightly bound to American values that he's a modern Uncle Sam in many ways, recruiting other heroes to fight for those same ideals.