Life & Culture

Happy birthday, Captain America

The comic character who embodies American values is 80 this month. Joel Meadows looks at how he's changed over the years


Captain America — 80 years old this month — is the ultimate all-American comic hero, created by two Jewish New Yorkers, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

The hero made his first appearance in March 1941. As Kirby explained (in a radio interview in 1967) “Captain America came from the need for a patriotic character because the times at that time were in a patriotic stir. The war was coming on and, to coin a cliché, the war clouds were gathering and the drums were beginning to beat and the American flag was beginning to show on the movie screens. And so Captain America had to come into existence and it was just my good fortune to, be there at the time when we were asked to create superheroes for the magazines that were coming into creation then.”

His roots were patriotic, but Simon pointed out in a recent interview that he was more than “a guy wearing the flag …we had him fighting mobsters and monsters — whatever made a good, action-packed adventure.”

After the war the character’s popularity waned, and his comic book was cancelled in 1950. He was brought back briefly in 1954 as “Captain America Commie Smasher” but that didn’t connect with the readers. It took another decade until the Sentinel of Liberty was reintroduced in Avengers #4. Since then, he has remained a staple in popular comics culture and beyond.

Writer Steve Englehart, who wrote the character in a successful run in the 1970s, had to reinvent him. He told me: “Kirby and Stan Lee brought him back in the 60s, as the ‘living legend of World War II,’ but by that time, America’s war in Vietnam had turned a lot of people against a symbol of America at war. Stan and later writers tried but couldn’t find any way to make him popular, and when I started writing the book it was close to cancellation, But I had the bright idea to have him stand for American ideals, not American hegemony, and that immediately made him Marvel’s #1 character.”

Englehart’s take on the character has continued to shape it even 50 years after he worked on it, he claims. “That characterisation became the default in the comics, and now the films, and the reason it has lasted for 50 years is that American ideals never go out of style. Whether we always live up to those ideals is another matter, but the ideals themselves are uplifting and hopeful, which gives him an aura beyond his mere presence.”

In the 1980s, writer JM DeMatteis, offered another new take on Captain America as a positive figure in a world that isn’t as optimistic as the ideal he embodies.

“In his original incarnation, he was pretty much reflective of the war effort: the All-American tough guy, taking on the Nazis, fighting the good fight, during World War II. That was a simplified, but honest, reflection of the American psyche at the time. After Lee and Kirby resurrected him in the 60s, the stories began to reflect the more troubled and confused aspects of that psyche. That’s only intensified over the years.

“What I appreciate as a writer is that huge gap between the ideals that Cap represents — the simple human decency Steve Rogers embodies — and the American reality, which can be extremely bleak. It’s that gap, and our need to bridge it, that makes for great stories.”

Mark Waid, who wrote Captain America during the 1990s, refined him once again for a new audience, telling me: “He’s certainly become more thoughtful and les jingoistic. In the 1940s, he would have been a New Deal Democrat. Today, as I write him, I’ve decided for myself that what he stands for and embodies isn’t necessarily the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but the Bill of Rights. That’s his remit.”

In 2011, for the character’s 70th anniversary, Marvel successfully brought Captain America to the big screen with Captain America: The First Avenger. It had tried to do this in 1990 but that film, just called Captain America, was a disaster. The First Avenger was a very decent hit, making $371m at the box office and spawning two sequels: The Winter Soldier and Civil War. The films made Captain America, played by Chris Evans, more recognisable and iconic than he had been since the 1940s, and each one made more at the box office than its predecessor.

For DeMatteis, their success is a testament to Marvel’s approach to Captain America: “It’s as if Steve [Rogers] stepped right out of the comic books and onto the screen. And, of course, the character — who, given his origins and gaudy (even by comics standards) costume, could have easily turned into a joke—has been treated with real respect and understanding in the Marvel films. When the first Cap movie came out, I was very reluctant to go see it — it seemed like a recipe for campy disaster—but it was so well done, so heartfelt and honest and genuinely entertaining, that it became, and remains, one of my all-time favourite superhero movies.”

So 80 years on, Captain America is still one of American comics’ most distinctive and much-loved figures, thanks to a new life through cinema. Not bad for something created by two Jewish creators who grew up in poverty on the streets of New York.


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