Captain America – 70(ish) Years of Heroism

Tim Boden

Tim Boden has been a grumpy old man since he was about 13. Born and raised in the darkest East Midlands, he now lives in Australia as part of an ongoing project to avoid getting a proper job and settling down for as long as reasonably possible. His interests include comics, beer, rugby league, 20th-century history and other things mostly favoured by middle-aged men who spend a lot of time in sheds. He has very strong opinions on vegetables.

I love Captain America. Of course, I fit exactly within the target audience for the character, but even if you aren’t a geek with a World War Two fixation and a height-related inferiority complex, Steve Rogers is still one of the most relatable characters in the superhero A-list. He’s not a millionaire, a genius, a mutant or an alien; underneath the spandex and the muscles, he’s just an ordinary dork who got lucky. Also, he punched Hitler right in the face on the front cover of the very first comic he was in and considering it was published a year before the USA entered the war, that’s pretty darn ballsy.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier premièred in the UK last Thursday. I haven’t seen it yet, as it won’t be released here in upside-down land for another week, but whether you’ve already seen it or you’re still eagerly awaiting your chance, now’s the perfect time to take a quick look back at seventy-ish years’ worth of the best, the worst and the weirdest of Captain America’s comic-book past.

The 1940s: So this is the bit that you probably all know: in 1940, patriotic but weedy Steve Rogers (thanks to the help of the US military and a bit of comic-book science) acquires superhuman powers and promptly sets about giving the Nazis what for. All the classic elements of wartime comic books were present and correct: an uncomplicated hero, a kid sidekick, plot-lines full of morale-boosting propaganda (and, er, horrible racial caricatures), and bondage. Lots of bondage.

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It’s all very well having a safe-word, but what do you do once you’ve already been dropped out of the plane?

As well as starring in his own title, Cap was also the leader of the 40s precursor of the Avengers, the rather less snappily-named All-Winners Squad, in which he fought evil alongside Namor the Sub-Mariner, the original non-Fantastic Four-affiliated version of the Human Torch, and some more obscure characters like the Whizzer – who between his name, his garish yellow outfit and his backstory about acquiring superspeed from a transfusion of mongoose blood, is right up there with the Red Bee (superpowers: owning a swarm of trained bees) on the list of Old-School Superheroes Least Likely To Get A Movie Adaptation.

 

1964:  By the end of the 40s, superheroes were going out of fashion. The original series of Captain America comics folded in 1949 – and other than a brief attempt at reviving the character as Captain America: Commie Smasher in the hysterical heights of the 50s, nothing much was heard until 1963, when the legendary team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (name a classic Marvel character and it’s a safe bet that at least one and probably both of them created it) brought back Captain America for a cameo in a Human Torch story.

That Captain America was revealed as an impostor at the end, but the reaction to the trial run was positive enough that the real Captain America came back for good in The Avengers #4, with the old ‘frozen in a block of ice’ story we’ve all come to know and love:

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Like peas, superheroes keep better if frozen while fresh.

 

1969: Captain America might have come back, but his old sidekick Bucky was still dead. In 1969, however, Cap was given a brand new sidekick for these very different times – Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon, one of the first black heroes in mainstream comics.

The Falcon’s original backstory is basically Kes as written by Stan Lee. Sam was a guy from the mean streets of Harlem who had adopted and trained a wild falcon. He came across a newspaper ad placed by some guys ‘in the tropics’ who were looking for a hunting falcon, who on meeting up turned out to be a bunch of Nazis working for the Red Skull. (This is why you should never trust classified ads.) Captain America got involved, they defeated the baddies together, and so began a beautiful friendship.

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Proper bo, I tell thee.

 

1974: Marvel comics have never shied away from taking inspiration from real-life current events – and then generally adding a heaping dose of weirdness. In our world, Richard Nixon resigned after revelations of political spying and sabotage. In the Marvel universe, a president not directly named as but heavily implied to be Nixon was revealed to have also been the head of a nefarious organisation called the Secret Empire, was confronted by Captain America, and promptly killed himself. Understandably, Cap was so shaken by the whole thing he decided to give up the whole ‘Captain America’ deal for a while and restyled himself as Nomad (‘the man without a country’), including a costume change to this stylish little number:

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Because nothing says ‘I feel betrayed by my country’ like a deep V-neck and a cape.

 

1982: Another example of Captain America comics addressing social issues, and the character of Steve Rogers himself not being the hardcore right-wing lunkhead you might expect a man covered in flags to be, was the Arnie Roth plotline in the 80s. Back before Steve Rogers had got all buff and superhuman, Arnie Roth had been the childhood pal who’d helped defend him from the bullies (pretty much the same role Bucky has in the first movie); later on, they met again, when Arnie figured out Captain America’s identity and enlisted his help in rescuing his ‘roommate’ Michael from kidnappers.

And by roommate, obviously, I mean boyfriend. Not that he needed to have been cagey about it, because Steve was completely fine with it.

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Side note: Bernie’s a girl, by the way. The comic might’ve been progressive for its time, but it wasn’t that progressive. I can also assure you there was a temporary plot-related reason for the clown outfit and that wasn’t what straight writers thought gay guys looked like back in the 80s.

 

The 90s: Oh dear, the 90s. On the one hand, it was the decade which gave us ground-breaking comics like The Sandman and brilliant adaptations such as Batman: The Animated Series. Captain America, however, was stuck with a terribly clunky attempt at a movie adaptation (watching that, it’s hard to believe that it’s from practically the same time period as Tim Burton’s Batman), and then got caught right in the middle of that retrospectively awkward period when everything had to be in your face, with attitude, and TOTALLY X-TREME TO THE MAX.

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Making fun of Rob Liefeld’s artwork is like shooting fish in a barrel (using a gigantic gun covered in pouches), but still. THIS WAS AN ACTUAL COMIC BOOK COVER THAT SOMEONE GOT PAID FOR.

This was also the era which gave us Capwolf:

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CAPWOLF.

Ah, the 90s.

 

2005: Moving swiftly on, let’s jump to the mid-00s and the original version of the Winter Soldier plotline, the start of writer Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run on the comic. Just in case there’s people who’ve been devotedly avoiding plot spoilers I won’t say too much, other than to say it does a pretty neat job of tying together various disparate elements of several decades of comic history and changing the status quo in a big way, but one that makes perfect sense.

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Marvel Comics Covers For Beginners, Lesson #35: When in doubt, draw the main characters running at one another and yelling.

Not long after that was the Civil War plot-line, which I now fondly remember as that thing which was a really big deal right at the moment I was getting into superhero comics. Like those everlasting school holidays of your youth, it seemed to go on forever; unlike your school holidays (unless you’ve had a very fucked-up childhood), it involved the entire community going to war over a proposed government plan to make official registration compulsory for anyone with superpowers. Captain America led the anti-government side; Iron Man the pros. As you can imagine, this put something of a strain on their friendship.

The whole thing ended up with Captain America getting shot and killed. Except he wasn’t really killed, it was a magic bullet (no, literally a magic bulletwhich sent him back in time, and after various adventures he managed to find his way back home again.

 

And that’s Captain America, everybody! He’s fought Nazis, communists, a great big armadillo, and a French guy who’s really good at kicking people! He’s been a zombie, a gorilla, a vampire and an unusually intelligent baby! He’s been going strong for over 70 years, and the way things are looking, he could easily be around for 70 years more.

Now, however we look forward to the future of The First Avenger as he strides into new and ever-more exciting adventures. We salute and celebrate you Cap, in the best way we know how! A gif of Chris Evans’ butt:

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God bless America.