From the late 1930s to around 1950, America experienced what is known as the ‘Golden Age of Comics’. It was in this period that comic books began to be published and read, gaining huge popularity. It was also during this period that the world went to war for the second time in twenty-five years. Whilst real-life super-villains wrought chaos and destruction across the globe, fictional superheroes saved the day time and time again, in comic-book stories which served not only as entertainment, but as propaganda and a form of escapism for many. It was in this era that characters like Superman and Batman made their debut, in publications from Detective Comics (DC’s predecessor). Between 1939 and 1941, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Green Arrow, the Atom and Aquaman appeared, and Marvel’s predecessor (Timely Comics) presented the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner and Captain America. Perhaps because of the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films, it is probable that if most of us were asked which superhero we think of first when considering World War Two and comics, Captain America would be our answer. From 1939 to 1945, many comics were illustrated with patriotically clad superheroes who fought the Axis powers, just as America and her allies were. Among the first to appear was the Shield – the name of several fictional, extremely patriotic superheroes created by the predecessor of Archie Comics.
The Shield was famous for wearing costumes based upon American patriotic iconography, which undoubtedly resonated with the American public in 1940, despite the fact that they were technically not at war yet. World War Two began in September 1939 when Nazi Germany attacked Poland. America became directly involved when on December 7th 1941, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. The Japanese, allied with Nazi Germany, had intended for the attack to prevent the U.S. Pacific Fleet from interfering with their planned attacks on British, American and Dutch territories in Southeast Asia. They gave no formal warning or declaration of war, and the attack profoundly shocked the American public. The day after the attack (December 8th 1941), the U.S. formally declared war on Japan, and a few days later on Germany and Italy. America’s traditional isolationism and reluctance to intervene in overseas conflicts had been slowly waning, and World War Two did not come as a surprise to many countries that were involved in it. Captain America Comics issue #1 was, according to the Grand Comics Database, cover-dated March 1941, nine months before the U.S. was actively involved in the War. It is probably not an accident, then, that the issue went on mass sale on December 20th 1940, thirteen days after the Pearl Harbour attack. Long before U.S. involvement in World War Two cartoonists were illustrating comics which depicted superheroes like the Shield fighting in the War, but it wasn’t until Captain America appeared that the U.S. itself was actually doing so. Cap serves as a personalisation of war for the U.S., who came out of isolationism to aid the Allied war effort. In 1941 it is possible that many Americans struggled with the idea of going to war thousands of miles away, as it was not in their country’s inherent nature to do so. Captain America served as a form of propaganda, depicting the evil villains, Hitler and Red Skull, as an enemy which the man who embodied America’s virtuous values had a responsibility to defeat. It was most likely of some small comfort for Americans of all ages to see Cap facing and defeating Japanese enemies, as well as the Nazis. Though, as war approached, other superheroes had fought in it, Cap was the one who accompanied the first American soldiers on their way to the battlefields, reminding them that the world needed their help.
Designed as a patriotic super-soldier, Captain America was Timely Comics’ most popular character throughout the course of the Second World War. His costume bears the American flag, and he couldn’t be any more patriotic if he tried. He carries a virtually indestructible shield, which he throws at his enemies. His superior strength and constant victories over his foes no doubt went some way towards convincing at least the younger American generation of America’s strength and ability to defeat evil enemies, which was probably a great comfort as their young men went to war in Europe and the Pacific. The embodiment of American patriotism and values, it is no surprise that Cap was so popular at a time when people needed to believe more than ever that America were superior and capable of saving the world.
Captain America is usually depicted as the alter ego of Steve Rogers, a young man physically inferior to his friends, who are being deployed as soldiers whilst he has to stay behind in the US, rejected by military recruiters repeatedly due to his size and health. Desperate to fight alongside his buddies, Steve volunteers to test an experimental serum for the US government, which enhances him to the peak of human perfection. His transformation from a tiny, weak young man into a tall pillar of seemingly unlimited strength is an amusing hat-tip to the American Dream – American freedom includes the opportunity for success, regardless of humble beginnings. Indeed, Steve is the defender of American ideals and values, on behalf of the world, which of course would prefer American democracy, liberty, equality and opportunity over Nazi aggression, censorship and general evil. My personal favourite picture of Cap is his very first appearance in Captain America Comics issue #1, which shows him punching Adolf Hitler in the face. No doubt this brought a smile to many faces in 1941, especially after Pearl Harbour. Unsurprisingly, it sold about a million copies.
Cap’s creators, cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, actually said that he was a ‘consciously political creation’. They were morally repulsed by the actions of the Nazis, and Cap was their way of ‘having a say’ in opposing their violent occupation of Europe. (Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America). This was probably of great importance especially to Joe Simon, who was Jewish. Despite the fact that he wasn’t the first patriotically themed superhero, Cap instantly became the most popular superhero of his time. His comic, one of the only ones centred completely around a single superhero, sold almost a million copies a month, which in the 1940s exceeded sales of magazines like Time. America needed a hero – a symbol of hope and national pride, and Cap fit the bill. The fact that we are still watching him (played by Chris Evans) makes him one of the most enduring comic-book characters too.
Captain America is a favourite in our house. My husband is American (an explanation in itself), and we have the best conversations about Cap with our wonderful nephew Joshua, due to his encyclopedic comic-book knowledge. I have written previously on how Agent Peggy Carter, Cap’s girlfriend, inspired the direction that my career has taken. Comic book heroes are, to some, just pictures on pages, mere entertainment. To others, they are more – they are a source of inspiration, hope, joy and pride. None more than Captain America, the poster-hero for Allied victory in one of the most destructive, terrible wars ever to have ravaged the world.