Patriotic shield-bearer and archetypal man-out-of time, Captain America (Steve Rogers) has an iconic crime-fighting legacy.
There’s a running gag among Marvel fans: If you don’t know who created a character, just shrug and say ‘I’m not sure, but it was probably Stan Lee’.
The point of the joke, of course, is that Stan Lee is responsible for the creation of a large percentage of the Marvel character roster. Surprisingly, however, Stan Lee didn’t create the one who is arguably the most iconic Marvel character, Captain America.
Stan Lee did create one of Captain America’s most iconic combat moves, but he didn’t create the character itself.
Captain America: Real-world origins
It might seem strange to modern comic book character fans, but superheroes were a very small part of the early days of comics.
Most comics at the time were either horror/sci-fi stories, war stories, or romance comics. Suphero comics were just a fun thing that didn’t bring in a lot of money on their own, and were often shoe-horned into horror/sci-fi comics. They weren’t what the work was about, just a casual addition – similar to how DVD film releases often contain bloopers and deleted scenes.
Of course, comic genres don’t just appear out of mid-air – they have to be created first. The people who are credited with inventing romance comics (and also having had a major hand in the creation of the horror comic genre as well) were two young creators who’d go on to become industry legends: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Not content with creating entire genres, Simon and Kirby also created many characters, even making a superhero called ‘The Fly’ for the Archie Comics universe. Interestingly, Archie Comics’ character ‘The Shield’ was the first America-themed superhero in the world, beating Captain America to the punch by a number of years. Simon and Kirby also created the Newsboy Legion, who’d feature heavily in the Adventures of Superman comic series during the Reign of the Supermen event, which happened right after the Death of Superman event in the early 1990s.
But Simon and Kirby’s most successful creation, of course, was Captain America.
Created during World War II, Captain America was designed to be a larger-than-life super-powered patriot who used his powers to protect and preserve the American dream. Simon said that his creation of Captain America was a deliberately political decision, which is interesting, given that so many people often decry modern comics for ‘being too political’. Also worth considering is the fact that the U.S.A. hadn’t entered World War II yet, so the image of Captain America punching Hitler (as seen on the cover of Captain America #1) was clearly also an overtly political statement.
In issue #3 of Captain America, a young writer named Stanley Lieber took his very first job at Marvel, writing a short text-only story about Captain America. This story featured the first usage of Captain America’s shield being thrown and ricocheting back to him, and the writer would eventually start using the pen name Stan Lee.
As comics declined in popularity after the war, Captain America was shelved in 1950, and would stay that way for well over a decade.
Since his return in the mid-1960s, Captain America’s usage often exemplifies the man-out-of-time trope. This is ironic, because his storylines have often gone side-by-side with actual events in American history, such as when he quit being Captain America due to a Watergate-like event in Marvel comics.
Other characters have also been Captain America, most notably John Walker (who’d go on to become the patriotic anti-hero U.S. Agent), and Sam Wilson (who’d often teamed up with Captain America as the winged superhero, the Falcon).
Captain America: In-universe origins
Steve Rogers hadn’t had an easy life.
Orphaned at a young age, his only natural gifts seem to be in the fine arts. The art school student, realising that America was going to join World War II, tried to enlist in the American Army order to do his part. His thin and lanky frame hardly inspired confidence in the recruitment officers (who rejected his application), but his can-do patriotic attitude had impressed a scientist, Professor Abraham Erskine, who saw potential in him.
Not potential for being able to be trained, potential for being the recipient of a new and so-far untested Super Serum which could enhance the human body beyond its normal limits.
Rogers, seeing an opportunity to serve his country, agreed to take part in the experiment, not expecting it to actually work.
But it did work, and Rogers, after mere minutes, had seemingly been made into a new man – a towering man with strength, agility, and reflexes to spare. Sadly, due to his lack of combat training in this early stage of his crime-fighting career, he could only watch on in shock when a Nazi spy shot and killed the Professor. Rogers snapped out of his daze, and immediately avenged the Professor.
As the professor hadn’t written any of his notes down, the formula for the Super Serum was now lost, and so Rogers would be the only Super Soldier.
The American Government (who technically owned Rogers due to his participation in the experiment) chose to use him as an inspirational war hero, and sent Rogers to train at a boot camp in Virginia. This is where he met James ‘Bucky’ Barnes, who’d go on to become his sidekick (and also eventually the Soviet assassin, Winter Soldier).
Captain America and Bucky would seemingly fall to their deaths after World War II, although both of them were simply frozen in different blocks of ice.
After being accidentally thawed out by Namor the Sub-Mariner, Captain America joined the Avengers, where he stayed until the Watergate scandal. This real-world event shook Rogers to his core, and he quit being Captain America. He roamed America as a superhero named Nomad, and eventually came to the realisation that he could represent and protect the American dream without needing to represent and protect the American Government.
This idea would later again come to a head during Marvel’s Civil War event, where he was the leader of the anti-registration heroes (heroes who believed they should be allowed to have secret identities). They would not win that battle, with Rogers ultimately surrendering.
And that’s part of why Captain America is so great – because he cares about the cost of a victory, and not just the outcome itself.