In the late 1930s, comic books had become incredibly popular. In April of 1938, D.C. Comics released Action Comics 1, the first appearance of Superman, who quickly became a national phenomenon. In May of 1939, the same company published Detective Comics 27, which introduced readers to Batman, a mystery-solving vigilante.
Martin Goodman, the publisher of D.C. competitor Timely Comics, also wanted to get into the superhero business. Marvel Mystery Comics, which debuted in August of 1939, had already introduced two significant characters. Namor, the Sub-Mariner, was an anti-hero who lived in the ocean but could also fly in the air and breath on land. Namor was an enemy of the United States and had the strength of a thousand men.
The book also introduced the Human Torch, an android whose body was engulfed in flames that he could control. The android version of the Human Torch should not be confused with Johnny Storm, a member of the later created Fantastic Four.
Goodman needs more
Marvel Mystery Comics was a runaway hit. The title sold 80,000 copies almost immediately. Goodman went back and reprinted the issue, and 80,000 more copies were sold. The publisher began to press his team to develop additional ideas for superheroes and tasked his editor Joe Simon and ace artist Jack Kirby with coming up with one.
Simon initially created a character called Super American. He later said of the moment, “No, it didn’t work. There were too many ‘Supers’ around. ‘Captain America’ had a good sound to it. There weren’t a lot of captains in comics. It was as easy as that. The boy companion was simply named Bucky, after my friend Bucky Pierson, a star on our high school basketball team.” Goodman was pleased with the creation and told the duo to get working on the book.
A response to Nazism
While Simon and Kirby were creating the iconic character, Hitler was consolidating power in Germany. Simon, whose given name was Hymie Simon, and Kirby, whose given name was Jacob Kurzberg, were both Jewish. And they felt the character was a way for them to respond to what they saw going on overseas. The men were repulsed by the actions of the Germans and hoped for the U.S. to enter the war. Keep in mind, this was before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Simon later said, “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.”
Kirby and Simon’s Jewish upbringing also inspired Captain America. Kirby said of the creation, “Jewish kids then were raised with a belief in moral values. In the movies, good always triumphed over evil. Underneath all of the sophistication of modern comics, all the twists and psychological drama, good triumphs over evil.”
Cap’s first appearance was political
Captain America Comics #1 was released in December of 1940. And the intentions of the creators were clear. The book’s cover featured Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face. The interior of the story featured Cap and Bucky taking on the Nazis. The title was a smash, selling over one million copies of the first issue. The high sales continued, and Captain America Comics regularly outsold magazines like Time.
While the public was largely supportive of the character, not everyone was happy. Simon recalled, “When the first issue came out, we got a lot of … threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for.” The threats got so bad that Timely Comics had to have police protection posted outside of the office. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally contacted the creators to lend his support.
Captain America’s popularity wanes
The comic remained wildly popular for the duration of World War II. After the conflict ended, though, the popularity of Captain America waned. Despite multiple attempts to revitalize the character, fans didn’t seem interested. Captain America 78, published in September of 1954, was the last issue released before cancellation.
When former Timely staffer Stan Lee became the editor of Marvel Comics, he was eager to bring the character back. And he did so in 1964 in Avengers 4. It was explained that the superhero had been frozen in ice and had finally been rescued after decades of isolation. Since then, his character has been one of Marvel’s most popular heroes and an integral part of the Marvel film franchise.
The legacy of the character
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The story of how Captain America was created still resonates with comic fans. In 2016, Marvel published a storyline where the character was revealed to be a secret agent of the terrorist organization Hydra. While Captain America was being brainwashed during the tale, it did not sit well with fans. Many responded by giving donations to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Captain America’s Popularity Endures
These days, Captain America is more popular than ever. In 2011, Marvel released Captain America’s movie The First Avenger starring Chris Evans. Multiple sequels followed and numerous appearances in The Avengers series of movies. The films helped introduce a new generation of fans to the iconic character.