Captain America is everywhere right now. He’s in TV ads and action figures, comics and video games (also something else I seem to be forgetting). But how many of those who’ve seen Steve Rogers battle evil across diverse forms of media actually know the ifs, ands and buts of where he came from? Well, now you too can be a Cap expert, without having to read the 7000+ comic books (seriously) Captain America has appeared in.
Just consult the history below; a history portioned out by the eras of comic bookery. Traditionally, the Golden Age lasts from the late 30s – late 40s, Silver Age is mid 50s – 70, Bronze Age is 70 – 85, and Modern Age is 85 – today. Sometimes there’s a Copper Age and a Tin Age, but for ease of organization let’s not get into all that. Instead, let’s begin with the first of many Ages.
The Golden Age
Most people associate Captain America with Marvel. They probably should, given all these Marvel movies where a guy in red white and blue armor punches evil squarely in the jaw. But Steve Rogers wasn’t always Marvel’s golden boy. In fact, he was jaw-punching all those evildoers for about twenty years before Marvel Comics was ever a company.
Cap’s birthplace was Timely Comics, the company that would eventually become Marvel; his creators were two men by the names of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (the latter would go on to create heroes like The Hulk, X-Men, Thor, and The Fantastic Four with Stan Lee). And given that Captain America was created in the early 40s (his premiere issue went on sale December 20, 1940), his ultra-patriotic nature had a purpose. Simon and Kirby were not what you would call “fans” of Nazi Germany’s blitzkriegs throughout Europe. But the USA still wouldn’t join the war effort in 1940, and so Simon and Kirby needed a hero who could embody the American intervention they believed was right.
Which is why the cover of “Captain America #1” was Steve Rogers punching Hitler in the face. And why “Captain America #2” was Steve Rogers about to punch Hitler in the face. Granted, not every early Cap book had its eponymous hero in some stage of Fuhrer-assaulting, but pounding on Nazis was a common occurrence in Cap’s early days (and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Cap graciously included Emperor Hirohito in his campaign of “Punching Everyone We Fought in WWII”). His fist-based patriotism was a colossal hit with American comic readers — that first Captain America book sold nearly a million copies, and unlike most comic heroes at the time, Captain America didn’t start out as a side-story in a anthology series. His first appearance was all his, in “Captain America #1” (well, mostly his, considering Cap starred in four of the issue’s six stories).
And like any popular hero in the 40s, Captain America was soon the star of his very own film serial. A film serial that can only loosely be referred to as Captain America, as it had nothing to do with the character besides the costume. Comics Cap was Steve Rogers; Serial Cap was Grant Gardner. Comics Cap was a toothpick of an Army recruit, muscled up with experimental drugs; Serial Cap was a District Attorney with an extremely dad-like physique. Comics Cap wielded his trademark shield; Serial Cap shot people point-blank in the stomach with a revolver. Also, no Nazis and no intrepid boy sidekick Bucky Barnes.
Serial be damned, Cap’s initial popularity began to wane. WWII was over and there were no more Hitlers and Hirohitos to valiantly beat up; making matters worse was the decline of the superhero genre in the late 40s. Cap’s final two Golden Age issues were re-branded into something a little less superhero-y, re-titled “Captain America’s Weird Tales.” One issue had Cap dragged to Hell, and winning his freedom by knocking out the Red Skull. The second didn’t have a single Cap story in it. And that was the end… at least for a while.
The Not-Quite Silver Age
Captain America was a huge hit in his day, so eventually someone would have to revive him. And that someone was Stan Lee, now working at Atlas Comics (previously Timely Comics, and soon to become Marvel Comics). But this was 1953, and the USA’s greatest Nazi-puncher had no more Nazis to punch.
Instead, he turned to our current evil villain: Communists. Labeled “Captain America…Commie Smasher!,” the good Captain became a mouthpiece for McCarthy-era insanity. Communists were everywhere. They were in the press, in the government, and in the army. Random passersby would reveal themselves as Communist spies and throw themselves at Cap. And he performed his Caply duties with vigor, beating every Communist he could into a wet mess (and, on occasion, dousing them in gasoline). Cap’s Red Scare period did not last long- barely a year, from ’53 to ’54. That included three issues of “Captain America” (#76-78), five issues of “Young Men” (#24-28), and two “Men’s Adventures” (#27-28).
Unsurprisingly, post-insanity Captain America has distanced itself from what happened in the ’50s. Cap’s slight dip into McCarthy-like paranoia was not mentioned until 1972, when Marvel finally trotted out the nutty old Cap so he could be retconned away once and for all. Now, ’50s Cap was an American History professor with a fiendish pencil moustache, who became obsessed with Captain America and deduced the Super Soldier serum. He changed his name to Steve Rogers, got a little plastic surgery to look like Steve Rogers, and found a Bucky Barnes lookalike to be his equally unhinged sidekick. The two shot themselves full of serum, but lacking any forethought, forgot to expose themselves to any Vita-Rays (Vita-Rays, as we all learned in school, are necessary to stave off the hallucinogenic effects of any super-serum). So faux-Cap and Bucky became unmoored from reality and “hallucinated” all those Reds that were crawling out of every newspaper stand, government building and sewer grate. Problem solved.