Reel History is a Bunkazilla podcast that discusses the relationship between media and History. We believe that the real historical background to films is an area of importance, as much of our media is being drawn from on the tales we tell of our past and using those events as brand names to draw in audiences. Accompanying it will is the Reel History blog, expanding and complementing the topics of each weekly show.
Captain America, AKA Steve Rodgers, has gone through many story lines and changes since his inception. A soldier during the Second World War, Commie Smasher in the 1950’s, an original Avenger after being discovered in the ice in the 60’s, became the Nomad during the Watergate scandal era, and has also occasion been a werewolf, a native American bodyguard, the President of the USA, and of course, always the owner of America’s ass. However, his origin, as a quiet man turned into a super-soldier due to a serum created by a German scientist working for the Americans to fight the Nazis, has remained the same.
The first issue, Captain America Comics #1, went on sale December 20th 1940 (although it had a cover date of March 1941) with its now-iconic cover, depicting Captain America punching Hitler in the face. It was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two comic book artists living in New York, and its first issue was a huge success, selling out its initial run within just a few days and going on to sell over a million copies. However, it wasn’t without its controversy, especially as the United States of America was not officially a participant in the war that was raging in Europe, remaining a neutral party until the Attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and attacks on other Pacific islands.
Joining the war when it first started was very unpopular with the American public. This was for many different reasons, however, a portion of American’s population did actively side with the Nazi Party, as people did in every country (Look at Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists for what was happening in Britain). Stateside 25,000 people joined the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi group and organised ‘Pro-American” Rallies, campaigning for ‘True Americanism.’ (Not going to mention the parallels with those and what is happening today….) The biggest of these was the rally Madison Square Garden, New York City, February 1939, which attracted 20,000 supporters to hear the group’s leader Fritz Julius Kuhn criticise the then-current President, Roosevelt, by denouncing the Bolshevik-Jewish leadership of the United States (Roosevelt was neither of these things).
This is not to say that many American’s were not sympathetic to what was happening in Europe. Many American’s simply felt that the United States should not get involved, preferring to be their nation to remain isolationist. When the Second World War started, most hoped that Great Britain and it’s Empire would be able to defeat Germany (which is why America provide the Allies with many arms, even while being officially neutral). This sympathy was expressed even as Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, 30th January 1933, and many American Newspapers were discussing the Nazi Party’s antisemitic politics, and were worried about how they would affect Germany as a whole, with warnings to the Jewish population were published such as The Boston Globe warning that “Jews who got out early would be wise.” Newspapers reported on what was happening in Germany, as the state-sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses, with pictures of the widespread book-burnings, as well as the attacks on American citizens living in Germany.
In response to this, there were protests in most major cities, with thousands marching from Jewish groups and Labour Unions, and retaliation boycotts of German Made goods. But this reaction was a minority of Americans, partly due to the fact that America was still coming out of the Great Depression where a quarter of all American workers had been unemployed until the New Deal started to turn the nation’s economic woes around.
The financial instability was mixed with recent memories of the Great War, where there had been roughly 40 million casualties and up to 19 million deaths among both the military and civilian populations. America had joined the war in the last nineteen months and had suffered roughly 323,000 wounded and killed servicemen and women returning home. When polled seventy percent of Americans believed that their assistance during the conflict being a mistake.
Groups like the ‘Keep America Out of War Congress’ that had been set up before WWII to oppose President Roosevelt’s foreign policy, started to directly lobby to keep America out of Europe’s affairs. U.S Congress passed many Neutrality Acts, and although a majority of American believed that another World War was on the horizon, many believed that America should not be part of it, with ninety percent of the American public hoping that the United States would not get involved at all.
With many American’s more worried about what was happening domestically, rather then what was happening to people across the sea, publishing a comic book with a cover that showed one of the present world leaders, being socked in the jaw by a soldier with the name of Captain America worried many, especially since it was so popular. Today, the front cover is seen as relatively tame: we are so used to our media depicting Hitler as someone that is the evilest person that ever lived or a figure to be mocked. But, at the time of publication this was a “daring and even dangerous move“, especially as Hitler had the support of many nations, a good number of sympathisers in the U.S, and other countries, as well as a huge standing Army ready to back him up. According to Marvel’s Executive Editor Tom Brevoort (2007-Present) talking to the Washington Post, this would be like “Today, putting Vladimir Putin or somebody on a comic-book cover and vilifying him.”
With the publication of issue one, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby started to receive threatening letters and hate mail, which included wonderful sentiments such as “Death to the Jews.” Groups of “menacing-looking” strange men started to hang around the offices, making the employee’s of the office scared to leave the building, even for lunch. However, the artists had the support of many Americans, including the Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, phoning the office, and informing Kirby and Simon, that “You boys over there are doing a good job, The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you.” personally promising the pair protection, and had NYPD start to guard the artist’s offices.
According to Simon “The opponents to the war were all quite organised. We wanted to have our say too.” The two men were highly aware of how political Captain America’s was, and intended for their superhero to be “socially conscious,” to represent what they believed America’s ideals should be. One of the main reasons for this strong stance was that both men were Jewish, and Kirby was the child of immigrant parents from Austria, and grew up in a rough neighbourhood of New York. Kirby’s background was reflected in his character, Steve Rodger, learning to survive his childhood by “acting tough and standing up to bullies” as Kirby had done, now Captain America was waging war against the World’s current bullies, the Nazi’s. Kirby and Simon even were able to show an understanding that “the first country the Nazi’s invaded was their own” and that what was happening in Europe, was not the will of all the German People, with the character of
Professor Reinstein, a German scientist deflected to the United States after being horrified by the Nazi Party’s actions.
According to Simon, the pair “felt very good about making a political statement…and taking a stand.” against Hitler, the Nazis Party, and their supporters as well as the isolationist of the United States. So how did Simon and Kirby react to the backlash against them, by publishing the next issue with Captain America attacking Hitler yet again!
Captain America would go on to “epitomise… the values and fighting spirit of the national war effort,” when America officially joined the war, remained a popular title throughout the period and selling over a million copies per issue. It was enjoyed by those either at home and those serving on the front, whom possibly hoped to punch Hitler in the face themselves.
It was the first daring cover that placed Captain America helped cement his place as one of the most popular Marvel Superheroes. Although it has depended on the writer in charge for how he has reacted event to event, Steve Rodgers always returns to act as a social metaphor for the ideal America, and what that could be. This can be very clearly seen in Captain America’s portrayal, performed by Chris Evans, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s films, where he has continued to do his best to defend little guy from the bullies, even huge purple ones with some very tacky glove choices.
For more information about Captain America, I would highly recommend the YouTuber, Lindsey Ellis and her video – Loose Cannon: Captain America.
Thank you for reading
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Captain America Comics #1 [Comic]
Academic Journal Articles
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
– The United States and the Holocaust
– The United States and the Nazi Threat: 1933-37
– The United States: Isolation-intervention
– How did the United States government and American people respond to Nazism?
Krypton Radio – Jack Kirby’s Lasting Impact upon Comic Books and Culture.
Comic Book Resources – The History Behind Captain America Punching Hitler
Antenna – In Memorian: Joe Simon, Co-Creator of Captain America
The Washington Post – Captain America was punching Nazis in 1941. Here’s why that was so daring