Well before America entered World War II in December 1941, comic books had already declared war on Nazi Germany and its Axis allies.
Marvel’s Sub-Mariner battled Nazi raiders on a submarine in Marvel Mystery #4, cover-dated February 1940 (but released in late 1939), and both he and The Human Torch fought the Nazi menace, albeit separately, in Human Torch Comics. The duo joined forces in Marvel Mystery #17 (March 1941).
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At the same time as that issue of Marvel Mystery was released, Marvel also published Captain America Comics #1, featuring a star-spangled hero punching Adolf Hitler in the face on its cover by co-creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. It was a bold statement to make months before isolationist America officially entered the war.
In Kirby! (2008), author Mark Evanier wrote, “The timing helped. The first issue reached newsstands on December 20, 1940. Just nine days later in a fireside chat, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the U.S. of A. that war was imminent and that America must be ‘the great arsenal of democracy.’ If ever there was a moment for a patriotic hero, that was the week.”
While the other heroes in Marvel’s stable had been introduced in anthology titles with other characters, Captain America was different, being one of the first to be introduced in his own title. Sales bore out the decision with close to 1 million copies sold, putting the series in a league with other well-known (and longer-established) series such as Superman and Batman from rival publisher DC. By contrast, Time magazine’s circulation in that same period was 700,000.
In his 2011 autobiography, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, co-creator Simon wrote of Cap’s creation with Kirby, “We knew what was happening in Europe, and we were outraged by the Nazis — totally outraged. We thought it was a good time for a patriotic hero. I did a sketch of him with a chain mail tunic, and wings on the side of his mask like Mercury, the god from Roman mythology. I gave him a shield, like the ones the knights had carried.”
Simon also suggested that the character have a young sidekick so that “he wouldn’t be talking to himself all the time.”
Captain America’s comic-book origins are well known to many and this summer’s feature film focuses on it. Scrawny artist Steve Rogers wants to fight in the war, but is rejected due to his physical limitations. However, his fighting spirit gains the attention of military personnel assigned to create a new type of soldier and they choose Rogers to be the first in that group. Injected with a secret formula and exposed to an energy ray, Rogers gains muscle mass, stamina, and speed at the peak of human perfection. Unfortunately, due to Nazi sabotage, he’s the only soldier given the treatment.
Assigned to an Army base, Rogers first works to stop Nazi plots to weaken U.S. pre-war training. Along the way, the camp mascot, James “Bucky” Barnes, discovers Rogers’ secret identity and is taken under the older soldier’s wing to become Bucky, the young sidekick Simon envisioned.
During World War II, the duo fight the Nazis both on the homefront and abroad. Their adventures continued after the war, but lacked some of the edge of the wartime stories, pitting Cap and Bucky against the rising Communist menace, various horror-based villains, and plenty of gangsters. After 75 issues, the series went on hiatus in late 1949. A revival was attempted in 1954, but only lasted three issues.
Captain America Comics was also famous for launching another career. Simon and Kirby’s workload necessitated hiring an assistant and Marvel Publisher Martin Goodman had a young relative, Stanley Lieber, who needed a job. When a text piece was needed for Captain America Comics #3, Lieber was given the assignment and Stan Lee’s first bylined story was published.
By the early 1960s, Lee had risen to become Marvel’s editor and launched a number of successful series featuring such characters as Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, and The Fantastic Four. Lee also brought back his 1940s heroes, beginning with a new Human Torch in Fantastic Four #1 in late 1961. (That Torch would later face his earlier counterpart.) In Fantastic Four #4, the 1940s Sub-Mariner emerged from a decades-long bout of amnesia. And, teaming several characters together as The Avengers, Lee added to that group’s roster in its fourth issue by having the team find and revive Captain America, who, readers were told, had been frozen in ice since the end of World War II. (Later stories explained Cap’s post-war and 1950s adventures as being performed by other heroes in Captain America costumes.)
Captain America quickly rose to prominence in The Avengers, almost immediately becoming the team’s main strategist. Before long, new solo stories of The Star-Spangled Avenger began appearing in Tales of Suspense and, when that title ended in 1968, Cap took over its numbering with #100. Captain America’s solo series has been restarted several times in the decades since, most recently this summer with a new #1, but fans continue to demand more from what many consider to be the most patriotic hero of them all. ?
Brent Frankenhoff is editor of Comics Buyer’s Guide.
Karen Knapstein is print editor for Antique Trader.
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