74 Years of Captain America: A History of Marvel’s America-iest Superhero

Captain America

Walt Disney Pictures

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

Captain America No.1

Kirby Museum

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 Commie Smasher

Marvel

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.

(A note to anyone eager for news about Captain America 3– when the screenwriters for the next Cap sequel hinted at a “psychotic 50’s Cap,” this is the guy they were referring to.)

The Actual Silver Age

Avengers No. 4

Marvel

By the late ‘50s/early ’60s, superhero comics were in vogue once more. And that meant Captain America could return to the forefront of comicdom- no longer a Nazi buster or a Commie Smasher, but as a regular old superman who vanquished all evil, regardless of whether it was currently in conflict with the United States. Cap’s reintroduction came in “Avengers #4,” when he was discovered in a block of ice, thawed, then promptly given a leadership position in the Avengers.

It’s at this point when Captain America became the Cap we know today (and the one we see in all those movies). The backstory of “hooked to experimental plane, fell off and became encased in ice, woke up in the present day” became his official origin. He also got a regular cast of characters.

  • Col. Nick Fury. At this point Fury was a white ex-WWII Commando-turned-spy, and not Samuel L. Jackson in a trenchcoat. After meeting Fury, Cap began working with S.H.I.E.L.D. on the reg.
  • Sam Wilson. Cap trained him in the art of punching crime, and when Wilson combined a set of robot wings, his pet falcon and his psychic bird powers (two aspects that were left out of the upcoming movie, probably because they’d be too awesome and overshadow everything else), he became the Falcon. The two were bestest buds and even shared a book title- “Captain America” became “Captain America and the Falcon” from ‘71-’78. Fun fact: Falcon was both the first major African-American superhero, and the first black superhero to not be named “Black Something”- Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black Blackguy, etc.
  • Sharon Carter. Cap began an on again/off again love interest with Carter, an on again/off again S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

All that stuff you’ll see in Winter Soldier – the bulk of it originated here. Everything except the actual Winter Soldier part.

The Bronze Age

Cap’s stories started pushing new boundaries in the ’70s and into the ’80s. After a non-specific, Nixon-like government official was revealed as the head of the evil Secret Empire, Cap turned in his shield and his star-spangled everything and took up a new superhero identity, the non-America-affiliated Nomad. His disillusionment with the American government did not last long- five issues, to be exact, from “Captain America 180–185”. He eventually realized you can fight for the American Dream without specifically working for the non-specific Nixons secretly planning to erode our very government from the inside.

Cap also made a gay friend. In 1982, he met up with his old childhood pal Arnie Roth, and saved Arnie’s “roomate” from being turned into a horrible monster by the nefarious Baron Zemo (a saving that didn’t really take, as this “roomate” would eventually die in a freak being-turned-into-a-monster accident). And for Captain America’s 250th issue, Cap considered a run for president. His ties to the X-Men guaranteed the mutant vote, but Cap decided against it, claiming that running the country would detract from his time fighting for the Amercan Dream (a dream where our founding fathers kickbox using red white and blue eagles taped to their fists).

And with nearly two decades of consistent success from Silver to Bronze, Cap got another shot at the live-action world. This time, they’d get things right. The made-for-TV Captain America had the right name (Steve Rogers), the right origin (army recruit + super-serum), and the right amount of Cap gutshotting people he didn’t agree with (zero). He even got a sick van that housed a sick motorcycle that could turn into an OK hang glider. Look below to see Cap zoom across straight, flat distances and jump to and from tall things, all set to the sounds of 70s wah-wah guitar. America.

Captain America churned out a sequel ten months later, Captain America: Death Too Soon. More running. More jumping. More conspicuously non-twisty motorcycle paths. And a new villain to face, the world’s deadliest criminal: Miguel. Criminals don’t need last names; not when they’re so deadly and not when they’re played by Christopher Lee.

The Modern Age

The comic books of the ’90s were not known for their subtlety or their true-to-life character designs. No, two decades ago, comics were known for being aggressively awful, and Cap was not immune to the failings of ’90s comicdom. That which plagued mainstream superheroes – shoulderpads, pouches (endless pouches, sewn onto every costume and never actually used to store anything), and musculature like two Dwayne Johnsons taped together – was plastered into Cap’s previous, subtle-in-comparison flag outfit.

What happened was, the super-serum that made Captain America into Captain America finally conked out, and Rogers was left paralyzed. Tony Stark made him a fancy new suit of power armor so Cap could keep on Cap’n, but the results were not tasteful. See below.

Cap is Three Caps Wide

Marvel

Not to be outdone in ’90s edge, another Captain America film was put out. Cap (played by the son of J.D. Salinger, of all people) fights the Red Skull, only the Red Skull is a ridiculous Italian stereotype, rather than a ridiculous German one. Also, the ending is slightly more mean-spirited than the usual Cap fare. The Red Skull has a bomb and is prepared to detonate, but Cap valiantly begins playing a recording of Red Skull’s family being murdered. As his arch-nemesis relives a traumatic moment, Cap shoves him off a cliff. Then he looks at the camera and smirks “heads up,” as his shield cuts the head off of villainess Diamondback. America.

When the embarassment that was the 1990s ended, Cap’s comic world saw a run of major events. There was the whole “Winter Soldier” thing, and “Civil War,” where he and Tony Stark had an argument/massive superhero war over whether heroes had to register their secret identities with the government. Oh, also Cap was murdered in 2007. The Red Skull orchestrated an assassination attempt that actually worked, and for a time comics had no Steve Rogers (but still a Captain America, as former sidekick/current Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes donned the shield and pointy ear-wing things).

Eventually, Rogers came back, when it was revealed that the gun that shot him was not a regular gun, but a magic space gun that allowed Marvel to keep printing “Captain America” comics. But for a few years after his resurgence, Bucky remained Captain America. Take that piece of information, factor in Chris Evansplanned retirement from acting and Sebastian Stan’s nine picture contract with Marvel, and you have a whole lot of comic book nerds stroking their chins and proclaiming “iiiiiinteresting” to no one in particular.

It’s also around this time when Marvel began putting out their own Captain America movies; movies where Cap had no radical America van and didn’t chuckle to himself as people were decapitated by his own hand. I actually think there’s one coming out in the near future, “Winter” something or other. Fancy that.