A Cap for All Seasons: Hero History #3
- Tuesday, March 29, 2011
To enhance your appreciation of the source material for the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger film, we offer this brief "hero history."
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America was a consciously political super-hero. Repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany, the duo responded with a cross between a medieval knight and Uncle Sam. With Europe aflame and Japan threatening the Pacific, Captain America #1(March, 1941) leapt onto newsstands across the country. The cover showed this dynamic figure delivering a smashing right to the jaw of Hitler himself. More than any other image, that cover captures the essence of Captain America: "God bless the United States of America and death to all her enemies"—at least, a smack on the jaw of her enemies!
Our hero wasn't always so robust. Before being recruited for a secret government project, Steve Rogers was the proverbial 98-pound weakling. Dr. Josef Reinstein's serum changed all that. Injected with the "strange, seething liquid," Rogers grew into a tall, powerful specimen of manhood—the first of a new kind of army. The scientist was murdered, however, leaving Rogers America's one and only super soldier.
Yet even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Having been given the cover identity of an army private, Rogers' secret is soon discovered by the camp mascot, James "Bucky" Barnes. Why this should entitle him to become Cap's partner is a mystery. Nor was any explanation given why, though masked, he continued to be called "Bucky." Ah, but these were simpler times and at least Cap was spared from talking to himself.
With hero and sidekick in place, it remained only for the arch villain to appear. The Red Skull provided Cap with the antithesis of everything he stood for. Their enmity has lasted seventy years.
From 1941-1945, Cap and Bucky battled the Nazi menace at home and abroad. His only weapon was his remarkable shield. Not only did it protect him from bullets, he could throw it like a Frisbee, bouncing it off bad guys like a boomerang.
After World War II, however, the shield-slinger's popularity declined. Though there was a short-lived revival in the early fifties, he disappeared for over ten years. With the success of Stan Lee's new Marvel Comics, Cap resurfaced—literally—as a man found floating in a cake of ice. The Avengers fished him out, marveling at how young he looked. Eventually, the battle-trained Cap became the leader of this bickering group.
He awoke from suspended animation to a world vastly different than the one he'd left behind. Bucky had been killed in their last battle. The woman he'd loved was growing old. Though strong and vital as ever, Cap struggled to find his place in late twentieth-century America. Thankfully, his old pal Jack Kirby was there to distract him from his angst, sending him hurtling across the panels in some of the finest rock-em-sock-em action ever drawn. And there was renewed purpose as the Red Skull again reared his ugly head.
But America had changed. She was no longer as sure of herself as she once had been. Though Lee managed to keep Cap out of messy Viet Nam, he couldn't ignore the tears in the social fabric at home. The letter pages bristled with political diatribes. Watergate was on the horizon. In an epic storyline, Cap became so disillusioned that he abandoned the red-white-and blue, becoming Nomad, the Man Without a Country. Only after a well-meaning Cap-wannabe was murdered did Steve Rogers raise the flag once more. By this time, he'd gained a new partner, the African-American Sam Wilson, AKA The Falcon, who shared cover billing with Cap. The times, they were a'changin' indeed.
During the eighties and nineties, the hero further explored the changing American landscape, addressing everything from jingoism to methamphetamines to homosexuality. Once again, he became so fed up with his government, he quit—for a while. In the wake of 9/11, Cap shied from unthinking patriotism, trying to understand the reasons other countries hate America.
In 2007, Captain America was murdered, gunned down on the steps of a New York City courthouse. Having been this route before, the fans bided their time until his inevitable return from the dead. Writer Ed Brubaker penned an absorbing serial which ended with the resurrected Rogers seemingly content to pass the shield onto his old partner, Bucky Barnes.
Whereas the old Captain America's motto might've been "My country right or wrong," the new Cap is more nuanced in his thinking. In a memorable appearance in Daredevil, he told a four-star general, "I'm loyal to nothing--except the dream." Those tempted to believe that America is what's wrong with the world should remember that many still cling to and seek ways to implement the dream of liberty and justice for all. On the other hand, those who equate our country with the kingdom of God tread on dangerous ground. If America has made any contribution to humanity, it's the idea (created by the Protestant reformation) that no man's conscience is the property of the state. In such soil, heroes grow.
Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and comics fan in Xenia, OH. He blogs at www.garydrobinson.com
*This article first published 3/29/2011
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