It’s a character introduction like no other — a muscular figure, clad in the Stars & Stripes, punches Adolf Hitler right in the face.
This is how audiences first encountered Captain America on the front cover of issue #1 of his self-titled comic book, officially released in March 1941.
While punching Nazis is as relevant today as it ever was, that striking image helped set the tone for Marvel Comics’ “star-spangled sentinel of liberty” through to today.
Often dismissed as a jingoistic patriot, Captain America’s relationship with his own country’s government over the past 80 years has been complex.
Far from being an attack dog for the US government, Captain America has often been a staunch critic of the White House, holding up a mirror to America amid the “crash” and “pow” of a comic book.
The first issue of Captain America is dated March 1941, but sneaked onto newsstands in the US in December 1940 — a full year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
America was yet to enter World War II, and prominent Americans such as hero pilot Charles Lindbergh and industrial innovator Henry Ford were pushing for that to remain the case.
But comic book writers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby — both Jewish — were less isolationist in their views.
“We both read the newspapers — we knew what was going on over in Europe,” Simon said in an interview with NJ.com just prior to his death in 2011.
“So we decided to create the perfect hero who would be [Hitler’s] foil.”
Martin Goodman, the publisher of Timely Comics (which would later become Marvel), was also Jewish and loved the story of a scrawny Brooklyn kid named Steve Rogers who was transformed into the ultimate soldier by government-created serum.
He particularly liked the front cover, through which the two Jewish creators lived out their fantasies in a far-from-subtle way.
Some members of the public were less enthused.
“It’s kind of difficult in the context of today to remember what a provocative image [that front cover] was,” Marvel Comics senior vice-president of publishing Tom Brevoort recently told a panel to mark Cap’s 80th anniversary.
“In a modern-day context this is like Cap punching [Angela] Merkel in the face — this was a sitting head of state of another country.
“But both Simon and Kirby and Martin Goodman … were aware of the things that were going on in Europe with the rise of Hitler and Nazism and in their way they wanted to proselytise that the United States should probably be involved in that conflict and on the right side of that conflict.
Simon and Kirby got death threats from American Nazi sympathisers, and extra security had to be arranged for them.
“But that didn’t stop us,” Simon said.
“If anything, it added fuel to the fire.”
The man without a country
The end of World War II saw Captain America put on ice — quite literally, in fact.
Over the next two decades, as Timely Comics turned into Marvel Comics, Cap lay largely dormant, seen as an anachronistic character out of step with a country seeking to put WWII behind it.
It wasn’t until 1964 that Marvel guru Stan Lee revived Captain America, having fellow heroes The Avengers find him in the Arctic, frozen but still alive thanks to the super-soldier serum that gave him his powers back in the ’40s.
Brevoort said Lee “had figured out what a modern take on Captain America was going to be” — a combination of a man living in a time he didn’t understand while haunted by the war he had somehow survived.
As Marvel Comics editor-in-chief C.B. Cebulski noted at the 80th-anniversary panel, Lee kept Simon and Kirby’s notion of Captain America battling the social injustices of the day.
Brevoort noted that timeliness had a strong impact on the character, especially in the late ’60s – early ’70s.
“[That was] not a great period for Captain America, largely because of what was going on in the country [with] the Vietnam War and the opposition to that war,” Brevoort said.
“So while Captain America on the surface seemed to be a very ‘ra-ra, my country right or wrong’ sort of a figure, Stan [Lee] and the people he was working with … began to try to add a little bit more nuance … to make him question whether his country was always right.
“He went through the same questioning and struggles that many of the people of the late ’60s and early ’70s grappled with.”
Brevoort said an example of Captain America’s “questioning” can be found in issue #130, where Cap is asked to help police quell a demonstration but “actually stands side-by-side with the protesters rather than the establishment”.
Soon after, against the backdrop of Watergate, Marvel wrote a storyline that saw Captain America and his African-American partner Sam Wilson (AKA The Falcon) pursue a shadowy organisation called The Secret Empire.
They finally confront the group’s leader in the Oval Office in the White House, where Captain America unmasks him dramatically.
“He’s never shown, but it’s clear from context that he’s meant to be Richard Nixon, president of the United States, and to prevent Cap from taking him in and forcing him to be locked up in disgrace, he … [kills] himself,” Brevoort explained.
“In the wake of this revelation that the president could be this corrupt and that everything he believed in was a sham, Steve Rogers for the first time gives up his identity as Captain America, he lays the shield down and says he can’t do this anymore.”
Rogers became known as “Nomad — the man without a country”, and while it didn’t last long, it confirmed a stance that began when he punched out Hitler in 1941 — that Captain America represented American ideals, not necessarily the US government.
Fight the power
The biggest display of this stance in post-9/11 comics came in the Civil War storyline, in which the US government asked superheroes to renounce their independence and to register as government agents in the wake of a tragedy.
The plot began as a metaphor for the Patriot Act and explored the notion of freedom vs security, mirroring a real debate of the time.
Civil War split superheroes into two camps, with Iron Man leading the pro-registration side and Captain America opposing the government.
As Civil War writer Mark Millar put it at the time, “there’s a certain amount of political allegory in a story where a guy wrapped in the American flag is in chains as the people swap freedom for security”.
Brevoort said it was another opportunity for Captain America to ask whether he could trust his government.
“Captain America had to contemplate what was right and what was wrong, what was being a defender of the nation and what was tyranny, who were the enemies that were around them, and how to deal with battling and fighting a war in this new world,” he said.
When the Civil War comics inspired the film Captain America: Civil War, elements changed — the United Nations were the ones seeking superhero registration, not the US government — but the core principles remained the same.
Cap, once again, argued he couldn’t trust big government-style organisations “run by people with agendas” because “agendas change”.
“What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go?” he tells Tony Stark AKA Iron Man in the film.
“What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us?
For the people
When Marvel revealed Captain America as a secret Hydra agent in 2018 (for reasons too crazy, complex and comic-booky to explain here), it angered fans because it stripped Cap of his true superpower — his unwavering dedication to truth, justice, and what is right.
“Steve Rogers shows that loyalty and honour can take you far,” wrote Comicbook.com in ranking Captain America at #6 on their list of the most important superheroes of all time.
Or as Rolling Stone put it, “Cap represents the ideals of what America could be if its heart were only so pure as his”.
Over 80 years, Captain America hasn’t always had the US government’s back, but he’s always been true to the American people.