What would Captain America make of Donald Trump? That’s not as fatuous a question as it might seem. Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter is getting a place on the President-Elect’s team, and also donated money to his campaign. But what about one of Marvel’s best-known characters? Captain America is an inherently political figure. After all, someone assumed to represent a country could never not be. But Cap is far from the mouthpiece of government-sanctioned conformity many assume.
The cover of Captain America Comics #1 shows Cap punching Hitler. From a twenty-first-century perspective, that image fits neatly into America’s sense of itself in the mid-twentieth century. There’s nothing politically controversial, even strictly political at all, there. Right?
The first ever Captain America comic had the character fighting Hitler. All pictures: Wikimedia Commons
But Captain America Comics #1 was published in March 1941, months before Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into World War II. Before, even, the signing of the Lend-Lease Act, which provided for American financial/military support to allies when its interests were threatened. That’s a time when thinking that the US becoming involved in “Europe’s War” was a political position, a divisive one, and at odds with government policy.
This makes Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, a figure who takes positions on controversies in domestic American politics from literally the first image of him ever released. This should not be surprising. Cap was the creation of Jack Kirby (1917-94) and Joe Simon (1913-2011), a pair of New York-born Jewish cartoonists, who were making a statement about America’s role in the world, and what America should be, during a global conflict with an antisemitic criminal state in which America was neutral.
Once America entered World War II, Cap became a more straightforward figure politically-speaking, aligned with the age of moral certainty created by fighting fascism.
It’s worth noting that Captain America was neither the only, nor even the first, patriotic American superhero created in response to World War II. Will Eisner’s Uncle Sam predates him by over a year, and MLJ Comics’ The Shield beat Cap to the newsstands by a few weeks. Nedor Comics’ Fighting Yank is almost his exact contemporary.
The Fighting Yank, a contemporary of Captain America.
But it’s Steve Rogers who endures, partially because of Kirby’s brilliant design (compare Cap’s costume with that of Fighting Yank) and partially because his creators endowed him with layers that other examples of his archetype lack.
By the 1950s, Captain America was portrayed – by hands other than those of Simon and Kirby – as an uncomplicated “Commie Smasher”. His creators responded with “The Fighting American”, a bizarre, whimsical and satirical series for another comics company, which took pot-shots at Cap’s then adventures and almost McCarthyite mindset.
Two decades later, Captain America’s comic was earmarked for cancellation. Steve Englehart, then a young comic book writer, was assigned to the flailing title. Englehart thought the character had been badly served of late. A character “wrapped in the flag”, who had been conceived to be pro-WWII, worked badly amid the counterculture revolution and Vietnam War protests. (Englehart himself had been a conscientious objector when called up.) But it was not that Cap had failed to move with the times, more that the character’s essence was not being applied properly to the Seventies.
Englehart’s Captain America #156 sees the series abandon the character’s Fifties incarnation, revealing him to have not been Steve Rogers, but an imposter called William Burnside. Burnside is portrayed as explicitly racist and increasingly deranged, and later becomes the leader of a Far Right group called National Force. Far from Cap being an approving symbol of unthinking nationalism, Englehart’s stories used the character as a device to interrogate it.
Captain America battles his far-right imposter.
For an encore, Englehart embarked on “Secret Empire”, in which Cap fought “Number One”, a Klan-like hooded figure leading a conspiracy lodged at the heart of American government. The story was Englehart’s baroque reaction to Watergate, and as far as he was concerned “Number One” was literally Richard Nixon. As the writer later explained:
“I was writing a man who believed in America’s highest ideals at a time when America’s President was a crook. I could not ignore that. And so, in the Marvel Universe, which so closely resembled our own, Cap followed a criminal conspiracy into the White House and saw the President commit suicide.”
This storyline led to Rogers’ disillusionment with America, and abandonment of the Captain America identity, becoming “Nomad” or “The Man without a Country”. When Rogers later readopted the Captain America identity, he did so with the specific mission statement that he would represent the ideals of America, rather than its present reality or current administration. This explicit framing of the character has proved influential ever since, and political events have prompted Rogers to abandon being Captain America on more than one subsequent occasion.
In 2003, writer Robert Morales (1959-2013) took on the main Captain America comic. Morales had encountered controversy with his and cartoonist Kyle Baker’s brilliant miniseries Truth: Red, White and Black, which posited links between the super soldier programme that created Captain America and the racist Tuskegee experiments, using that as a metaphor for the treatment of African Americans throughout history. It also established that an African American, Isaiah Bradley, had been Captain America before Rogers. (Which made some corners of the internet VERY ANGRY.)
Morales’ initial story “Homeland” (art by Chris Bachalo) saw Rogers sitting on a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, where an American citizen, a history professor, is being tried on manufactured charges. The story ends with the suggestion that a senior American military officer – who announces he believes in “obeying orders, whatever they are” – is all but admitting that he sent federal agents to kill Cap, as his determination to see due process done had become an embarrassment.
Rogers concludes that civil liberties are the US’s immune system against authoritarianism, and ponders accepting the Vice Presidential spot on a liberal senator’s planned third-party run for the White House. Sadly, neither this nor his second arc “Requiem” (art by Eddie Campbell), which built on Truth, were considered a success and Morales left the title after eight months.
Civil War (2006-7), written by Mark Millar and drawn by Steve McNiven, saw Captain America drawn into conflict with the US government, and several erstwhile friends, over civil liberties issues. Written against a background of the ongoing Iraq War, the story’s central conceit doesn’t really work, and was heavily revised for the 2016 film adaptation. But it served to indicate the curiously anti-establishment nature of this man wrapped in red, white and blue – particularly when Rogers was assassinated for his convictions in the story’s aftermath.
Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Luke Ross’ Two Americas (Captain America, #602-605) resurrected William Burnside as the head of a barely disguised Tea Party and set him against Rogers’ successor as Cap, Bucky Barnes (the character played in MCU films by Sebastian Stan). Complaints from conservative pressure groups saw Marvel’s editor-in-chief apologise, while Brubaker publicly pondered:
“Left-wing fans want Cap to be giving speeches on the street corner against the Bush Administration, and all the really right-wing fans all want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam.”
What has all this to do with Trump? Just that a fictional character who opposed mandatory identity registration and refused to sanction Guantanamo Bay is unlikely to remain quiet at the construction of “a beautiful wall” between Mexico and the United States, or acquiesce to an unconstitutional national register of Muslims.
Captain America works best when he’s used as a device to illuminate the distance between the ideals of America and their execution in the real world. If that gap becomes a chasm in the coming years – as many believe it will – there is no better fictional device for casting light on what that chasm contains.