Marvel is known for having introduced many popular and enduring characters in the 1960s like Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. But Captain America, one of the most popular and enduring, was introduced in the 1940s back when Marvel still went by the name Timely Comics.
Created by writer Joe Simon and legendary Marvel artist Jack Kirby in 1940 and first introduced in Captain America Comics # 1 in 1941 (one of the few superhero characters from the golden age of comics who was introduced in his own series rather than an anthology like when Superman first appeared in Action Comics), the political and patriotic nature of the character was very deliberate since both Simon and Kirby were hugely critical of what Nazi Germany was getting away with in Europe even before the U.S. got involved in World War II. Simon originally named the character “Super American” but changed it to “Captain America” to make him more distinguishable from the super-powered competition at other comic book companies.
The first issue, which featured an image of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler on its cover, sold almost one million copies, inviting support from patriots and hate from Nazi sympathizers. It was a huge hit for Timely and the character even had a fan club and inspired a lot of patriotically themed superhero imitators at other companies.
The character Captain America’s real name is Steve Rogers, an artist who was born in Manhattan and on the scrawny side. He decides to enlist in the U.S. Army after learning of the devastation caused by the Nazis, but he is deemed too physically frail to enlist so he is rejected, but he captures the attention of U.S. Army General Chester Phillips who is overseeing subject selection for a super soldier experiment called Project: Rebirth headed by Professor Abraham Erskine.
Steve agrees to take the Super Soldier Serum and it successfully transforms him into a near-perfect specimen of strength, agility, stamina and intelligence. Erskine had originally planned to replicate the serum to create more super soldiers but when Nazi spy Heinz Kruger murders Erskine, the knowledge of how to create the serum dies with him.
The American government, unable to create more super soldiers, decides to provide Steve Rogers with a patriotic costume, a bulletproof shield and the persona “Captain America” while promoting him as an inspirational mascot for the war effort. Meanwhile, Cap fights in World War II, often alongside his sidekick Bucky Barnes as well as such groups as the Invaders, the Sentinels of Liberty, the 1st Battalion and the 26th Infantry Regiment (aka the “Blue Spaders”) taking on the Nazis and the Axis threat.
His shield was originally a more traditional shape, but after Archie Comics threatened to sue for its similarity to their patriotic superhero The Shield, it was changed to the iconic round shape that it is most widely known as today. In the fictional universe, the shield is made out of a combination steel alloy and vibranium (a material mined from Black Panther’s home country Wakanda) and it not only serves as a great defense against gun fire but Cap is also able to hurl it at his foes. And it always comes back to him like a boomerang.
One of Captain America’s biggest archenemies throughout the war was the Red Skull, a Nazi agent and protégé of Adolf Hitler who worked closely with terrorist organization HYDRA and who was actually a successful propaganda tool for the Nazi party, prompting the U.S. to start Project: Rebirth.
In addition to the Red Skull, Cap fought various costumed villains like the Black Talon, the Fang, the Hangman, the Wax Man and the White Death, but none was worse than the hooded Baron Zemo.
Baron Zemo, a brilliant but sadistic scientific genius who created weapons for Hitler’s army, was almost responsible for the death of Captain America following the aftermath of the war in 1945 when Zemo launched a plane armed with an explosive, intending to destroy an experimental drone plane. Steve and Bucky tried to diffuse the bomb but it exploded in mid-air and sent the two heroes into the North Atlantic Ocean where they were presumed dead. However Steve is later discovered to be alive in issue # 4 of Avengers (written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby in 1964) frozen in ice in suspended animation. After he is revived, he joins the Avengers and fights alongside them often as the team leader, with Stan Lee changing him from a war hero to a fish out of water, struggling to adapt to 1960s society, haunted by his past and guilty over being unable to save Bucky.
Bucky Barnes, however, would later turn out to have survived his icy plunge in a 2005 issue of Captain America written by Ed Brubaker in which it is revealed that he was brainwashed by HYDRA and given the alias Winter Soldier.
Cap has had many allies and made new enemies since joining the Avengers. Allies include Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and former war comrade of Steve’s in the Howling Commandos, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter who eventually becomes Steve’s love interest, and Sam Wilson aka the Falcon, a winged superhero who joins the Avengers and becomes a battle partner and friend of Steve’s.
New dangerous and memorable enemies would include Crossbones, Flag-Smasher, Doctor Faustus and the evil organizations HYDRA and A.I.M.
Captain America would obviously outlast Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and the character would go on to appear in many other titles brought to life by many other writer-artist teams.
Atlas (the name Timely changed to in the 1950s) attempted to revive the character after superheroes went out of fashion in the post-war era. This attempt to bring back the character saw Captain America teaming up with Timely’s other two most popular characters Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch with a focus on fighting commies instead of Nazis, but this was a commercial failure and the series was cancelled in 1954 after just 78 issues. This period was later retconned out of the continuity of the original Captain America, who as I said earlier froze in the Atlantic in 1945 and was discovered by the Avengers in 1964, by the revelation that the commie-fighting Cap of the fifties was an imposter who only called himself Steve Rogers.
After Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creatively brought the character back in Avengers, Captain America got his own comic book series again in 1968. The character has been a mainstay at Marvel ever since but some of my favorite stories involving Cap were written in the modern age, such as Captain America and the Falcon (2004), the crossover storyline Civil War (2006) which leads to Captain America’s death, Captain America: Reborn (2009) which brings him back to life, and spin-offs like Truth: Red, White & Black (2003) which tells the story of how 300 African American soldiers were experimented on by the U.S. Army to create a super soldier army with a particular focus on a soldier named Isaiah Bradley, who actually assumed the title of Captain America, as others would also do throughout the years, most prominently Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson.
Since first appearing in comics in 1941, Captain America has made the jump from the page to novels, film, television and more.
Screen adaptations include a 1944 serial which starred Dick Purcell and was only loosely based on the comic, two 1979 TV movies Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon which aired on CBS and differed significantly from the comics by making Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) a modern-day hero whose father fought in the war as the real Captain America, a 1990 feature film starring Matt Salinger as Steve Rogers and Scott Paulin as Red Skull which was helmed by straight-to-video action B-movie director Albert Pyun and was largely a critical failure, and most famously the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where Cap is played by Chris Evans who portrays him in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) as well as the Avengers films.
Captain America has also appeared in various TV series, including the animated shows Marvel Super Heroes (1966), Spider-Man (1981), Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends (1981), X-Men (1992), Spider-Man (1994), X-Men: Evolution (2000), Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010), Ultimate Spider-Man (2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2015), as well as the animated movies Ultimate Avengers (2006), Ultimate Avengers 2 (2006), Iron Man & Captain America: Heroes United (2014) and Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors (2018).
I have really come to love Captain America more and more through the years which is something that was a long time coming since I was always paying more attention to Spider-Man and X-Men and characters like Wolverine, Iron Man and Deadpool all seemed way more interesting, but the first time I read a comic book about the Avengers, I learned about Captain America and his origin story from WWII hero to modern-day outsider and instantly loved the character. I never expected him to measure up to the ranks of my favorite Marvel characters since he seemed a bit like a product of a bygone era (besides I am a child of the hippie movement so I hate characters whose personalities revolve around war) but kudos to brilliant comic book writers like Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar and films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier for making a character like him interesting for a person like me.
What really made me connect with him was when writers leaned into politics like in Civil War. In one story, Steve Rogers struggles with his place in society as the country that he knows is different than the country he chose to represent when he took up the mantle of Captain America, but he ultimately decides not to choose sides in political wars and instead represent universal ideals like freedom, something that is demonstrated in Civil War when he fights against the government registration of superheroes. For someone who took a serum to become the strongest soldier in the U.S. Army and later became the most patriotic American symbol since Uncle Sam, there was something about his anti-government stance and pro-rights conviction that was refreshing and told me that this was like no superhero I’ve seen before.