Pop Culture Propaganda – Captain American History!

Si vis pacem, para bellum – If you wish for peace, prepare for war.

The great depression was a time of unprecedented poverty. Starvation struck Americans struggled to survive very harsh times in any way they could. This bred desperately enduring working class civilians under the emerging war clouds, grim and gloomy, over Europe. The economy imploded. The iron fist of the Nazi party was starting to pummel their way through country boundaries. Poland had been invaded. America still lay untouched… but not for much longer.

Don't be a sauerkraut!

You didn’t need psychic mutant power to sense the brink of world war; you just had to have common sense. Tights characters were fighting in the war even before we were drafted. In a now famed 1940 special for Look Magazine, Supes creators Siegel and Shuster had the man of steel end the war in a shallow 2-page spread. By simply flying to Germany, lifting Hitler and Stalin in a swoop, he effortlessly drops them off at the League of Nations. This now somewhat undermining feature made its way to the lion’s den itself. Upon seeing the comic, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, in typical anti-Semitic hate, is claimed to have called Superman Jewish. He even mocked Siegel as “physically and intellectually circumcised.” Suddenly truth, justice and the American way just didn’t seem American enough.

The Golden Age first ever appearance of the Gestapo-smasher!

Jewish writer Joe Simon predicted his country needed a hero in shining golden back-light. He set out to create a statuesque role model to lead the rally call to arms. The people needed inspiration. Alongside the pop art God that is Jack Kirby, the star-spangled adventurer was unleashed. Born to “lash out at the Nazi menace,” the land of the free was introduced to its truest patriot – Captain America!

First appearing in 1941’s self-titled Captain America Comics #1, Steve Rogers was a sickly wannabe soldier selected to be a rousing emblem – on and off the page! Mirroring the Arian uberman that German genetics so struggled to perfect, Simon took the enemies own concept and now used it against them. Instead of striving to birth the super race designed to destroy, Professor Erskine (then called Reinstein) ironically contrasts what eugenic ideology would have eliminated and instead makes Steve, the youthful spirit of Depression-raised courage, into an American shield. Our accepting of the frail Rogers became a very powerful counterbalance to the then fascist German philosophy of eliminating all they deemed inferior.

In a rather anticlimactic process, Roger’s was originally injected with the Super-Soldier Serum. It’s conducted as casually as getting a mere flu shot, yet suddenly he goes from anorexic to intimidating before astonished eyes. He’s now gifted with the abilities of peak human athleticism. Unfortunately for Major League Baseball Players, the supply and formula for the super-steroid died along with its creator in a sudden Nazi sabotage. Captain America was now the first and last of his kind.

Before the more iconic attire, Steve Rogers appeared in somewhat prototype fashion. He branded a short-lived angular shield and wore what then was more, uh…cap than mask. His infamous cover punch to the jaw of der Furhrer certainly helped put the mein kampf in Hitler. It grew to becoming so celebrated that it sold nearly one-million copies. Not only is he one of the few Marvel characters whose creation pre-dates Marvel Comics, then debuting under the stamp of Timely, but the patriotic protagonist even went into publication before the American war entrance by just under a year.

That seems reasonable.

At his side was the long forgotten (& recently revived) Bucky Barnes.  Think Robin-like boy sidekick…but with sexuality not nearly as questionable. When the Army camp mascot busted Rogers changing into his Americana, Cap did what every responsible superhero would do. Instead of swearing Bucky to secrecy, he enlisted the tot into the trenches to fight the goose-stepping Gestapo.  Together they become the greatest foes of the Axis, battling baddies in events like “The Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die” and “The Queer Case of the Murdering Butterfly and the Ancient Mummies.” With antagonists like the Butterfly, (oh the humanity!) it often seemed more like some wacky episode of Hogans Heroes. These classic stories had Cap and Bucky often comically dodging their Army superiors to run off and fight more incompetent bunglers than any true Nazi menace. The only real exception was the Red Skull, a murderous Nazi agent who came across so sincerely frightening that he became forever branded the arch-nemesis.

Don't ask, don't tell.

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked.”

DC and Marvel both subscribed to the belief that there were only two kinds of Asians - Bucktoothed or Fanged!

Dealing out an eerily political prophecy, Captain America Comics #5 had our heroes actually stopping an Asian enemy from crippling the U.S. pacific fleet. The bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred on the very same fleet mere months later. The attack threw the superhero genre into a state of  government-funded propaganda. The sentinel of liberty alone just wasn’t enough to satisfy the patriotic demands of the comic-book reading public. Captain America was enlisted in the somewhat Avengers-foreshadowing team called The Invaders. All the big comic companies were recruited into World War II. Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, the Submariner and the rest of the line-up of caped crusaders now became commanders on the front to shamelessly support the good ole US of A.

Draftee reading some Cap!

Throwing blows with varying amounts of political incorrectness, there were none that captured more attention during WWII than the shield wielder. Captain America Comics were even included in care packages sent overseas to soldiers alongside their few appreciated luxuries. Used to boost morale, comic books of that time had an often overlooked but profoundly positive psychological impact on our fighting draftees…and why not? In the books, the Americans always won. In obvious contrast to the bloody realities, the war was romanticized into something glorious. Captain America came to have a very tangible effect on the actual war, even avidly encouraging kids into purchasing war bonds. Like the proud photo of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, he became a symbol that offered hope to the very real world in its most deprived years. In a manner of speaking, he became a soldier.

I think it’s about now where you’d insert a montage of Cap serenaded by “America…FUCK YEAH!”

World War II was the muse of the Golden Age era – selling issues in amounts that contemporary numbers cannot contend with. While the world celebrated the thankful fall of the Nazi party, the novelty of the superhero temporarily died with it. Many now felt like an anachronism; so while the comic surged in popularity, it may seem hard to believe that the (now basically synonymous with comic book) superhero went into near extinction. The moment for  freedom fighting was over, the battle had been won. Who was left to duel? Going dormant, the genres of horror, romance, and comedy became favored as the will of the red, white, and blue wane – Captain America Comics was canceled in 1950.

Welcome to the Silver Age of the superhero!

Kennedy’s new frontier was afoot. With the emphasis placed upon the space program, popular culture saw science-fiction and fantasy see resurgence in comic books of the early 60’s. Although the Comics Code Authority forced a strict level of censorship upon the industry, the Silver Age had begun despite it. Then Atlas (previously Timely) writer Stan Lee swayed publisher Martin Goodman to change the company name to the humble little brand of Marvel – a tribute to Martins first published comic book –  Marvel Comics #1. With the birth of the Fantastic Four, the atomic era of science and discovery was used time and again as the creative force behind the marvelous modern heroes. Who couldn’t see the charm in radioactivity giving superpowers instead of leukemia? Well…except the Japanese.

Namor needs anger management.

Superhero ensembles were all the rage. Encompassing some of Marvel’s biggest names all rolled into one pulse-pounding pulp, The Avengers appeared in September of 1963. The roster included the Goldilocks God of thunder, a not yet alcohol-fueled engineer, the must be compensating Antman soon turned larger than life,  rather man-crazy misogyny in the Wasp, and the hulking jolly green giant all assembled to protect the world against problems no single-handed hero could solve. Yet still in infancy, the super group would soon learn that their true leader was yet to be found.

After just battling the Avengers, Prince Namor of Atlantis escapes to the Antarctic. Stumbling upon a group of Eskimo, he sporadically opts to bully the innocent Inuit tribe by toss their worshiped block of ice into the ocean. Why? You try being cheerful when you’re wearing nothing but scaled undies in the arctic. Gives new meaning to blue-balls! Fortunately, the Avengers sub coincidentally happens across this thawing Popsicle. Thought to have disappeared from democracy, our champions suddenly have the find of the century dropped upon their doorstep. The heartfelt American ideology was not lost – he just lay in hibernation!

Lending some credence to the Walt Disney myth.

Within those pages of The Avengers #4, Captain America made his gripping return as the Vietnam War accented his arrival. Unlike his failed and forgotten “commie smasher” restoration in the 50’s, this time he captivated. Revived from suspended animation, his membership replaced the misunderstood Hulk and delivered some riveting revelations. Awakening two decades later, a stranger in a strange land, he immediately erupts to action with a devastating detail. While the comics portrayed wartime with gusto-fueled fun…it was not without casualties. His one-time partner and friend, Bucky Barnes, was killed in action by the villainous Baron Zemo, acting on the orders of the Red Skull, right before he took the frigid plunge that lead to this eventual future.

The star-spangled hero needs Paxil.

Stan Lee introduced whole new defining aspects to the character. Winghead now brooded more about being brought out of his generation than 70’s teens do about the death of disco. Paralleling real and sadly too often forgotten veterans, he now feels depressingly like an archaic leftover. Steve also regularly looked back to guilt-ridden blame himself for the  death of his old sidekick. Who would think drafting a child into the war would go wrong? The hero of heroes sure became rather emo…and we loved it! This new version of the affected American relic went on to be regularly used in various Marvel titles, though somewhat confusingly jumping around timelines more than Doc Brown’s Delorean.

Alongside Captain America’s new exploits being told within the Avengers, Tales to Suspense would often retell his classic stories in reflection. Here, due to the comic’s code, we’re shown much more competent but tamer stories. Nazi terror and deaths were more suggested off-panel than ever shown. We have Cap and Bucky more often throwing guns themselves at enemies than shooting them. Did Steve miss the memo, you pull the trigger! If the war was like the 60’s revitalized 40’s era stories, I’m pretty sure we’d have about as many fatalities as an episode of G.I. Joe.

The inevitable return of the Red Skull was another large alteration. Now re-conceived (in a somewhat convoluted style) to be Johann Shmidt, the Golden Age version is revealed to have been nothing but a decoy. Indulging in the cliché villainy of  long-winded conversations that reveal way too much, Skull tells the bound Cap the story of his coming into being in Tales of Suspense #66, because just shooting him would be way too logical. Orphaned at a young age, he grew to become…an evil bellhop for a German hotel. This certainly reminds me to never forget to tip. Every evildoer has to start somewhere. Lucky for Johann, Hitler himself was temporarily boarding there. Upon entering his room, Shmidt witnesses the always angry Adolf chewing up some Nazi agent. In his fury, the Fuehrer turns to Shmidt and boasts the he could teach this lowly bellhop to become more powerful than the scolded subordinate. Hitler progresses to do just that.  Shmidt becomes personally trained by the leader himself. Now evil personified, the Red Skull begins the epic battle that would blaze on for decades after the war had ended.

Over the years, Steve Rogers has boundlessly gone on to battle the likes of Communism and terrorism alongside fictional organizations like Hydra and A.I.M. He’s gained new partners in the Falcon and Nomad. He’s periodically led the Avengers to many victories. Ever the enduring enemy, the Red Skull always manages to slither and crawl back into his life with new neo-Nazi allies and otherworldly weapons. All this proves one crucial truth: that America will never have a reason to retire its Captain. Now the circular shield has become a sparkling metaphor for our protector. Steve Rogers forever charges forward to indestructibly shield the free peoples of his homeland.

In the contemporary era of comic book culture, it was only a matter of defrosting the material for Cap to eventually hit cinemas. While I doubt I’m the only one who thinks they missed an awesome marketing opportunity by not releasing the film on Independence Day, it seems like a triumph just to have America in the title at all.  Sparking controversy overseas, the title has apparently been concealed to just “The First Avenger” in some foreign countries. In a world so populated by hip modern anti-Americanism, you just cannot help but wonder what the film will garner globally. Even domestically he’s sometimes treated as costumed Fox News, unfairly criticized as Captain Right Wing. He’s not going to deport El Capitan España. I’m not sure even Steve could endure Glen Beck.

Pledge or you'll get punched!

Practically having a costume sewn from Betsy Ross’s flag, Simon’s character certainly does politically segregate audiences. His garb alone will arguably only appeal to a certain national demographic. Taking on those possible isolationist insults is Chris Evans, who brilliantly plays the role to be the sympathetic soul that he is. All the naysayers burning irritation with the Human Torch being cast as the red, white, and blue warrior were extinguished once they saw his perfect and respectful portrayal of the patriot. This is the most accurate casting of a superhero I’ve seen since that of Robert Downey Jr. for Iron Man. Evans evokes the American-bred aesthetic. He captures the heartfelt requests of wanting to contribute to his county with audience-invested sincerity. How can you not love someone like Steve Rogers?

Throughout the years, the actual details of Project: Rebirth have been altered time and again. Here we see a far more dramatized and enthralling evolution from the quick and easy injection first seen in 1941, winking at the long-time fan with an inside joke about penicillin. Once emerging from the capsule, he’s transformed into the title role as the sudden spy murders the far more emotionally resonating Erskine. Despite showing his new-found stuff, Steve is now treated to be as dead as his creator. Being patronizingly placed to become propagandized USO entertainment in song and dance sequences, this brightly satirizes what he actually was within the real world while finding a more grounded way to explain the eventual costume and persona.

The thankfully updated and now even pre-war relationship between Steve and Bucky really removes the cheesiness of the comic version but somehow still retains the gist of the source material. Going from obnoxiously young on the page to now adolescent approaching adulthood, Bucky here is portrayed as Steve’s stand-in when the going gets tough – that is till they swap places. Rescuing his POW neighborhood buddy and the slickly inserted Easter egg of the Howling Commandos (sans young Nick Fury) really reflects the camaraderie that came out of battle. He becomes a natural born leader in his very first mission and encourages much of the bravery to come – inside and outside the comic.

Goodbye swastika, hello safe card.

In a somewhat disappointing move, the Nazi presence is replaced with Hydra – a secret Nazi weapons division now led by the Red Skull. While Hydra was ultimately written into much later revisions of Marvel’s World War II, they weren’t actually created until 1965 in Strange Tales #135. I can’t help but feel director Joe Johnson played it safe, despite his credentials with the earlier (somewhat Cap-inspired) Rocketeer. Are we really living in a world when showing the swastika has become so politically incorrect that you can’t even show its wearers taking the fist of freedom to the face? Yet fortunately the Nazi party still has a place in the pseudo-period piece. Hydra is not all that distractingly different. They were once part of the Gestapo until becoming a lunatic fringe movement at the will of the self-motivated Skull. Often comic film adaptations alter their evil to be slightly sympathetic. Here we refreshingly have an unrequited antagonist that revels in his wickedness without seemingly any redeeming qualities. That’s the Nazi!

Thinking outside the box.

In slight Raiders of the Lost Ark fashion, we see an otherworldly artifact turned into a sought after weapon. Unlike the Ark of Indiana Jones, in this case Germany actually does manage to utilize at least some of the abilities the supernatural Cosmic Cube offers with significantly less melting heads. Unlike the Cube of comic lore, the artifact portrayed in the film doesn’t seem remotely as omnipotent, but still offers great powers of Odin to whoever can harnesses it. Hydra scientists have somehow at least managed to use it as a seeming power source to fuel their incongruously futuristic armaments. Naturally, they aim to control the world with them in relatively typical supervillain fashion.

As any hardcore enthusiast will know, the biggest of spoilers have been known to us for decades. Staple tragedies like the inevitable passing of Dr. Erskine, the safely assumed death of Bucky, and the goodbye being lost to gorgeous Peggy as Steve ice naps in his makeshift time capsule are all old news. None of these plot elements should come as surprises. Somehow the writers still managed to achieve some uncanny way of making the expected emotionally resonate in spite of knowing where the plot is headed. What is achieved here is a victorious experience that glances back to the glory of silver screen adventures. With every toss of the shield I grew more immersed in the experience, longing for those golden days. While some details may depart, the films spirit remains a faithfully intact translation of the heart Simon and Kirby had for their country.

Modern America seems despised by many foreigners. In the vein of all the nationalistic hatred galvanized globally, Captain America can seem slightly dated in concept. For all the contemporary criticisms the country of the free bears, nothing remains more relevant today than the ideals upheld by the first and only super soldier. At his core, it’s not really about America – it’s about what’s right.

Looking past his appearance, the natural simplicity of the character’s morals have the profound ability to speak unanimously across all lines of demarcation. Freedom is not an American privilege; it’s a fundamental human right. That is something that Steve Rogers will sacrifice himself for within any border. He may not be physically the best at anything: He’s not the strongest, nor is he the fastest. He’s not even the smartest, but he has endless determination. He will never surrender. Not in this decade. Not in the next. What he timelessly teaches is that the era is never too late or the sacrifice too great for life, liberty and the purist of happiness. So while he may not physically be the best at anything…he’ll always represent the best of everyone. He embodies the qualities that really matter, the purest underdog heart. The disenfranchised spirit that became a soldier, the soldier who evolved into a leader, the leader who transformed into an idea. That is the formula that made a comic book superhero transcend fiction and become an inspirational motivator that helped change the world. That’s the American dream.

In dedication to all the American heroes of World War II – the true super-soldiers.

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