A Frum Forum Spotlight On Captain America
In an article called “America’s Greatest Superhero Turns 70,” writer Tim Hodgson goes really in depth into the history of the superhero Captain America. For mainstream media coverage of comic books, this article is really something special. Here’s some of it:
It remains the most memorable blow ever struck for liberty in the history of American popular culture. When the first issue of “Captain America Comics” appeared on newsstands 70 years ago, the cover depicted a flag-draped symbol of young American manhood administering a crushing uppercut to Adolf Hitler’s jaw.
It was a knock-out blow to fascism delivered by the giddily idealized embodiment of American virtue. And it gave vicarious expression to the impulses of a country where the public mood had been on a war-footing for months.
Cover dated March 1941, the crude but galvanizing imagery amounted to a declaration of war on Hitler, a full nine months before the Führer declared war on the U.S. in the days following Pearl Harbor.
At a time when isolationist voices were still cautioning against American involvement in another European war, this was FDR’s pro-war case rendered in four primary colors and reduced to its essentials.
As Captain America vaulted into the Berghof, he interrupted Hitler watching a U.S. munitions plant being dynamited by fifth columnists on a TV screen. The Eagle’s Nest, littered with logistics maps showing his sinister territorial ambitions on America, delivered a message with all the subtlety of Cap’s jaw-breaking haymaker: Hitler was not just the mortal enemy of European civilization–he was America’s mortal enemy, too.
The cover art ensured the book sold out in days. The dynamic stories inside in which careening, non-stop action threatened to burst out of the restrictive panels, ensured readers came back for more. Super-patriotism and super-heroism proved an unbeatable combination. The second issue of “Captain America” had a print run of more than a million copies.
In 1941 the comic book industry was as very youthful as the audience it appealed to–an audience aware it would soon be donning uniforms and being called upon to perform Captain America-style acts of derring-do against the Axis.
Superman had rocketed from Krypton into the national consciousness just three years previously. Batman had only started stalking Gotham’s City crime-haunted streets in 1939. Comic books featuring the two characters (no one called them super-heroes yet) sold millions of copies a month. What’s been described as a “mushroom-growth” of rival New York publishers appeared almost overnight, all trying to replicate National Allied Publications’ phenomenal success. Nothing worked. Dozens of long-underwear characters appeared on newsstands and just as quickly disappeared. The would-be contenders could have inspired the Charles Atlas campaign, a fixture of comic book advertising for decades. Yet they were all 97-pound weaklings compared to National’s twin titans. Until Captain America bound past a Gestapo bodyguard to deck the Führer.
Captain America was co-created by New York cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. There had been an earlier comic book super-patriot (The Shield) and Captain America’s success ensured there would be dozens more in an industry where plagiarism was and remains every bit as much the prevailing “ism” as in Hollywood. But none could compete with Captain America’s unbounded vitality, unembarrassed love of country and, most crucially, the sense of near-universal identification he inspired. That’s because the character amounted to an almost primal exercise in wish-fulfillment on the part of co-creator Kirby.
Kirby was a compact and socially awkward man intent on escaping from Hell’s Kitchen armed only with a pencil and a seemingly boundless imagination. Born Jacob Kurtzberg, this son of Austrian Jewish immigrants legally Gaelicized his name, partially for professional reasons, partially as a tribute to his idol Jimmy Cagney — another scrappy bantamweight from New York’s Lower East Side. Largely self-taught, he began selling his work professionally while still in high school.