[In March 1941, DC Comics published Captain America Comics #1. So for Cap’s 80th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy him and a handful of other comic superheroes, leading up to a post full of student responses to one of our most complex comics.]
On how timing helps us recognize the aspirational and political roles of superheroes.
I think it’s relatively well known, even among those (like me) with only a passing knowledge of early comic book history, that on the cover of his debut issue Captain America is punching Adolf Hitler (as part of a chaotic scene that also features other soldiers and various military paraphernalia as well as the first glimpse of Cap’s best friend and sidekick Bucky Barnes). It’s a literally and figuratively iconic image, one that immediately captured the essence of this patriotic super-soldier. But here’s the thing: the United States wasn’t at war with Nazi Germany, nor part of World War II at all, when that first issue was published—it was actually released in December 1940, with March 1941 as the cover date; so depending on how we date the issue it was either a year or 9 months away from the Pearl Harbor attack and the American entry into the war. Which is to say, Captain America’s iconic first action wasn’t that punch—it was to break neutrality!
In reflecting on that cover, and on the impetus behind creating Captain America as a new character overall, writer Joe Simon (who worked as usual with his partner, artist Jack Kirby) noted that that pre-war moment and context was precisely the point: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.” And he added that the response to that initial comic and cover included not just excitement and support but also controversy and opposition, remembering, “When the first issue came out we got a lot of threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for.” Given that the pair’s home base was New York City, which not very long before had hosted the largest Nazi rally in American history, it is no surprise that there were many Americans who did not appreciate the image of a patriotic hero attacking the German dictator, and that some of these Nazi sympathizers went so far as to make death threats and wait outside their New York offices, leading to a police protection detail for Simon and Kirby.
Those too-easily-overlooked contexts for Captain America Comics #1 certainly reveal a good deal about where America was in 1940 and early 1941. But they also help us remember two vital things about comic books and their superheroic subjects: they are innately political, reflecting and commenting upon aspects of their societies and time periods; and they are often aspirational, working to imagine and depict possibilities beyond those historical contexts and realities. The controversial graphic novelist Alan Moore (on whose iconic Watchmen see the upcoming weekend post) has commented in recent years on superheroes stories as fundamentally fascist; while I understand his point, and while different characters and stories can of course function in different ways, I would argue that very often they can be quite the opposite: not only literally opposed to fascism (as was Captain America, before his nation even was), but also portraying themes of justice and equality in ways that can literally and figuratively model those goals for their readers and societies.
Next SuperheroStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other superhero contexts or analyses you’d share?