How Captain America evolved beyond wartime propaganda and became who we needed him to be

It was December 1940: the attack on Pearl Harbor was a year away, and the American public remained largely content to sit on the sidelines of World War II. But there were those eager for the US to enter the fray even then, including young Jewish comic book creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Together, the pair created Captain America – a shield-slinging super-soldier clad in an American flag, intentionally designed to sway popular opinion on US involvement in the fight against the Axis powers.

Cap was propaganda, pure and simple. Heck, the Sentinel of Liberty’s very first appearance on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 (dated March 1941 but released three months earlier) saw him land a dynamite right hook squarely on Adolf Hitler’s chin! Even now, 80 years later, WWII is hardwired into the character’s DNA – no matter how often Marvel tinkers with its canon on the page or the big screen, Cap’s origins remain steadfastly tethered to a bygone era.

So why is Captain America still so popular? How has an ostensibly outdated superhero – one intrinsically linked to the politics and attitudes of yesterday – continued to connect with readers for eight decades and counting? It’s simple: by evolving beyond mere propaganda to become whatever each new generation of fans needed him to be.

The good kind of propaganda?

Of course, back in 1941, propaganda was just what America needed. Yes, the jingoistic pro-war literature from World War II was mostly racist and (like all propaganda) grounded in emotion and hyperbole not reasoned argument, and Captain America was no different in this regard – but that isn’t to say that there are no redeeming aspects to the character’s early history.

On the contrary, Simon and Kirby were all too aware of the atrocities being committed by Nazi Germany against the Jews (among other minority groups) and felt that the US had a moral obligation to intercede. Viewed in that light, Cap wasn’t just an acceptable form of propaganda, he was a necessary one.

After the US entered the war, Captain America’s mission wasn’t finished, either; indeed, his value as a propaganda tool only increased. Now, he was a four-colour morale booster, his unflagging dedication to the war effort as much of a rallying cry to troops on the front lines as it was to those at home. At its height, Captain America Comics’ circulation figures nearly hit the 1 million mark, even outselling respected periodicals like Time!

“The opponents to the war were all quite well organised. We wanted to have our say too.”

Joe Simon, in Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America

And then, the war was over – and nobody needed Captain America anymore. But unlike the real-life servicemen who returned to their civilian lives, retiring from active duty wasn’t an option for Cap, even if that meant continuing to headline stories about an event everybody just wanted to forget. Captain America Comics limped on for several more years before finally being cancelled in July 1949, by which point it had become a horror anthology series that didn’t even star its titular character.

Like the proverbial old soldier, Steve Rogers and his costumed alter-ego appeared destined to fade away. Not even the Cold War could reignite interest in the character, with efforts to reposition him as a “Commie smasher” falling flat. Cap’s clean-cut brand of heroism and unapologetically two-fisted approach to international conflict now seemed almost quaint amid the murky, paranoid atmosphere currently gripping the US.

If Captain America was going to survive, he’d need to find a new way to connect with readers.

From super-soldier to superhero

Enter: Stan Lee. The Marvel Comics Editor decided to reintroduce Captain America in 1964’s The Avengers #4, re-establishing the character as a man out of time, unsure of his place in the modern world and plagued by memories of a war that everyone else around him has seemingly moved on from. It proved a huge success, and Cap would soon assume the role of Avengers team leader, a position he’s held on and off ever since.

On the face of it, Cap’s transition away from propaganda into the realm of more out-and-out superheroics worked for a variety of prosaic reasons. There’s the obvious pathos of his new, time-lost characterisation, the fun interpersonal dynamics between him and fellow Marvel heavyweights Iron Man and Thor, and the dynamic artwork of Jack Kirby, whose clear affection for his co-creation shone through in his layouts for The Avengers.

But Lee and Kirby were tapping into something deeper than this, whether they knew it or not. By stripping Captain America of his propaganda trappings, they allowed him to show a greater vulnerability and to reflect more nuanced concerns than would have been possible before. In short: he became who contemporary audiences needed him to be.

Unlike the indefatigable champion of the wartime era – whose resolve never faltered, and who shrugged off the horrors of war with a flick of his impossibly-broad shoulders – the Cap of the 1960s was a guy struggling with some crippling emotional baggage. At long last, Steve Rogers’ war was over and he had absolutely zero idea where he belonged, which resonated with his new fans.

True, the average Marvel reader was probably too young to directly relate to Cap’s inability to adjust to life after the army. On a more symbolic level, though, there was something about the way Cap felt uncomfortable in his own skin and constantly questioned his place in the world that Marvel’s fanbase of misfit teens responded to. He was a square that these awkward high schoolers and university freshman could relate to.

As the decade drew to a close, Captain America was holding down his own book again, and had, ironically, adopted an essentially apolitical outlook – although he was used to help spearhead Marvel’s socially progressive agenda, forming a partnership with African American crimefighter the Falcon. Cap was done with propaganda; however, he was only getting started where politics were concerned…

Watergate, Vietnam, and the Dream

The 1970s had barely got underway when the Watergate scandal erupted. It was a collective “loss of innocence” moment for the nation so profound that then-Captain America writer Steve Englehart felt he had no choice but to tackle it head on in the watershed “Secret Empire” storyline. This time, however, blind patriotism wasn’t going to cut it, for Cap or for the readers who counted on him. He needed to evolve yet again, and he did, losing his faith in the US government for the first time – something unthinkable when the character debuted.

Of course, Captain America is defined as much by his eternal optimism as he is by his courage and integrity. So, despite Steve Rogers briefly renouncing the Cap mantle in favour of the non-government affiliated Nomad identity, Englehart and artist Sal Buscema wrapped up their Watergate-inspired epic on an uplifting note.

Ultimately, Rogers realizes that it’s possible for him to serve his country without blindly obeying its government and reclaims the Captain America moniker and costume – but this nevertheless marked a shift in the status quo that has continued to inform Cap’s characterisation even today.

“I’m loyal to nothing… except the Dream”

Captain America in Daredevil #233

The 70s Captain America comic book’s greater emphasis on the contemporary political landscape – and Cap’s position within it – carried through to the 1980s. Writers including Roger Stern, J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Gruenwald would challenge the Star-Spangled Avenger with socially relevant issues like homophobia and vigilantism torn from the headlines, and even had Cap contemplate a run for president!

Cap’s biggest political reckoning didn’t take place in his own title, though; instead, it happened in the pages of Daredevil. As part of the finale to their seminal “Born Again” story arc, creative team Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli used a guest appearance by Cap to explore the harsh realities of the military-industrial complex our hero is unwittingly part of.

Here, Cap went head-to-head with deranged Vietnam veteran Nuke, with the bittersweet aftermath serving as a poignant reminder that the top brass didn’t share his idealism or honour. Once again, Cap reasserted his commitment to the ideals America stands for and not to her elected officials – but it was with a grim determination (or even resignation) less readily apparent a decade earlier, to match the cynicism of the 80s.

Reverting to propaganda

Ambiguity-tinged adventures remained the order of the day for Captain America by the time the 90s rolled around, while the book reached a creative highpoint when new writer Mark Waid took over following Gruenwald’s ambitious 10-year run on the title.

During their relatively brief, disjointed stint on the book, Waid and artist Ron Garney delivered a pitch-perfect blend of escapist fun and weighty themes. Along with occasional fill in artists like Dale Eaglesham and Andy Kubert, the Waid/Garney team regularly forced Cap to confront the reality that the country he’s devoted his life to protecting has lost its way, before reaffirming his (and our) faith in the American Dream.

This “optimistic realist” spin on Captain America – a hero who isn’t ignorant to America’s faults, yet still believes in her potential – seemed to be more or less what fans needed as the new millennium dawned and it persisted even after Waid left the book… and then, 9/11 happened. For the first time in almost 60 years, Cap was back in propaganda mode with a vengeance, courtesy of writer/artist team John Ney Rieber and John Cassaday – only this time, there was a more cathartic edge to proceedings.

As people across the US and throughout the wider Western world tried to process this senseless attack, Steve Rogers effortlessly shifted gears. He stood at Ground Zero and mourned the victims the way readers needed him to, just as he channelled their thirst for retribution by embarking on a one -man War on Terror against a cadre of thinly veiled Al-Qaeda substitutes. Sure, Ney Rieber and Cassaday stopped short of having Cap deck Bin Laden on the cover of their inaugural story arc, “The New Deal”, but what they did do was only a shade more subtle. 

Yet Ney Rieber and Cassaday tried to depict the terrorists in “The New Deal” with greater sensitivity than the way the Axis powers were handled during Cap’s Golden Age exploits. To fault, in fact – their well-intentioned efforts often come across as clumsy and over apologetic, like their misguided attempts to paint Rogers as a reluctant soldier. As the War on Terror dragged on and views towards it (and this reactionary take on Captain America) grew increasingly polarised, it became clear that propaganda – even a decidedly more liberal strain of it – had had its day.

It was time for Captain America to evolve again.

A flawed yet unfailing hero for uncertain times

And he did – when Ed Brubaker took over scripting duties and, joined by artists Steve Epting, Michael Lark, Mike Perkins, Butch Guice and Luke Ross, embarked on a celebrated 50-issue run that married the espionage thriller and superhero genres to dazzling effect. Brubaker’s Cap was a decent man forced to deal with the kind of indecent threats we all sensed lurking just out of sight in the real world; insidious menaces like shadow governments and vestiges of the Cold War that can’t be defeated by planting a knock-out punch on any one person’s jaw.

Brubaker’s run overlapped with Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s blockbuster, Marvel Universe-spanning Civil War event, which explored contemporary concerns over freedom versus security, positioning Cap as the ultimate champion of the former. Again, we’re presented with a scenario that Cap’s unfailing moral compass is ill-equipped to deal with, and despite Cap nearly winning the day, Millar controversially had him surrender upon realising he was causing more harm than good.

“Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so the people could be free.”

Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Despite their many differences, what both these stories shared was a vision of a Captain America who (like readers) wasn’t always equipped to deal with the uncertain, complicated society he found himself submerged in. His heroism now manifested itself as much in his persistence and refusal to embrace apathy as it did his ability to KO the Red Skull.

(Incidentally, it’s not surprising that these two storylines would serve as the basis for Marvel Studios’ second and third Captain America movies: even now, there’s still a thematic resonance to both that’s equal parts compelling and disturbing.)

In the wake of Civil War, Brubaker would seemingly kill Steve Rogers, clearing the way for his wayward protégé Bucky take up his fallen mentor’s mantle before Rogers resurfaced alive and well. Despite these shake-ups and others, the tone remained the same throughout the rest Brubaker’s run and beyond: regardless of whether it was Steve or Bucky (or later, Falcon) wielding Cap’s iconic shield, Captain America was (and still is) about doing the best you can, no matter how hopeless the odds or muddy the waters.

Indeed, nothing – not even the emergence of an evil, world-conquering Cap clone (comics, people!) – has been enough to trigger Cap’s next big metamorphosis. So, for now, Captain America remains exactly who we need him to be in this exact moment: a weary, occasionally ineffectual, yet utterly unwavering guardian of our crumbling democracy who inspires us to stand at post right alongside him.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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