When asked to name a patriotic comic book superhero, most people would likely say, “Captain America”. Indeed, he’s been around the longest time and has the highest profile, especially now with the live-action movie hitting theaters this summer. However, a minimal amount of research identifies at least 50 other heroes who have sported red, white and blue in their careers as crime-fighters. While Cap was a direct influence on many of them, he wasn’t actually the first.
The events in Europe preceding World War II occurred just prior to the Golden Age of Comics in the United States. In fact, the first patriotic superhero, Mr. America, debuted in what many consider the first comic book of the Golden Age: Action Comics #1. Published by DC Comics (then, National Comics) in June of 1938, this comic is better known for introducing the granddaddy of all heroes, Superman. Created by Ken Fitch and Bernard Baily, Tex Thompson became Mr. America when he was believed dead following the Nazi sinking of an American ship carrying food to Europe. A few years later, President Roosevelt asked Thompson to go to Germany to battle the Nazis; Thompson then used the name “Americommando”.
American Ace, the first patriotic superhero from Marvel Comics (then, Timely Comics, the original publisher of Captain America), appeared in Motion Picture Funnies Weekly #1 (1939). Created by Paul Lauretta, American Ace was cancelled after only two stories, perhaps because the storyline was too adult and politically intense for an adolescent audience. After a plane crash, Perry Webb became American Ace, swearing vengeance against the country of Castile’D’Or for invading the Balkan nation of Attainia, home of his love, Jeanie.
The best-known of the pre-Captain America patriotic superheroes may be The Shield, who first appeared in Pep Comics #1 in January of 1940, created by Harry Shorten and Irv Novick, and published by Archie Comics (then, MLJ). The origin story came a few months later in Shield-Wizard Comics #1. After his father’s death, chemist Joe Higgins completed work on a formula for super-strength, applying chemicals to parts of his anatomy: Sacrum, Heart, Innervation, Eyes, Lungs and Derma (SHIELD). As an FBI agent with a secret identity known only by J. Edgar Hoover himself, The Shield fought various foreign agents and threats to America.
Other pre-Captain America patriotic superheroes include: Red, White & Blue (a trio of soldiers from the Red/Marines, White/Army and Blue/Navy), Uncle Sam (a mythical being who was originally the spirit of a slain soldier from the Revolutionary War) and American Crusader (an astronomy professor blasted with radiation when trapped in a failed experiment with an “atom smasher”).
Before we discuss Captain America’s influence on other patriotic superheroes, we should probably mention their influence on him. First appearing in Captain America Comics #1, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and published by Marvel/Timely Comics in March of 1941, the character immediately became the most prominent (and later, enduring) of the existing patriotic superheroes. However, his story does share some elements of those who preceded him. Super-Soldier serum? The Shield. United States government using as agent/symbol of propaganda? Americommando. Patriotic costume? Well, all of them, particularly Uncle Sam.
Another thing Captain America shared with his predecessors was his interaction with real-life people. While Americommando went to war for President Roosevelt and The Shield’s alter ego was kept secret by J. Edgar Hoover, Captain America, on the cover Captain America Comics #1, punched Adolf Hitler in the jaw. In fact, the depiction of the actual war in comics is a fascinating subject that is beyond the scope of this article. It blurs the line between fantasy and reality and begs the question: with all these superheroes fighting for us, why were they unable to end the war?
Circulation figures for Captain America remained close to a million copies per month after the debut issue, which was more than the circulation of news magazines at that time. It’s no wonder that other publishers wanted their own patriotic superhero; nearly 20 appeared in 1941 and 1942. Rather than provide a complete list, here are a few of the more unique or interesting ones:
- Patriot. Jeffrey Mace was a reporter who became a costumed adventurer after seeing Captain America in Action (The Human Torch #4, Timely Comics/Marvel, Spring 1941).
- Miss America. Joan Dale was a reporter who, after dreaming that the Statue of Liberty appeared to her and gave her powers, awoke to find that she had those powers (Military Comics #1, National Comics/DC, August 1941).
- Yank & Doodle. Identical twins Rick and Dick Walters were super-strong and invulnerable as long as they remained near each other (Prize Comics #13, Crestwood Publications, August 1941).
- Star-Spangled Kid. Sylvester Pemberton was unique in that he was a kid superhero with an adult sidekick, Stripesy (Action Comics #40, National Comics/DC, September 1941).
- Captain Flag. Tom Townsend was a wealthy playboy who became an elite physical specimen after being carried away by a giant eagle (Blue Ribbon Comics #16, MLJ Comics/Archie, September 1941).
- Fighting Yank. The location of a magical cloak was revealed to Bruce Carter III by the ghost of an ancestor from the American War of Independence (Startling Comics #10, Nedor Comics, September 1941).
- V-Man. Freed from a German POW camp, Jerry Steele suddenly possessed powers after taking an oath called the “V-Pledge” (V Comics #1, Fox Features Syndicate, January 1942).
- Liberty Belle. The powers of Libby Lawrence-Chambers were linked to the ringing of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (Boy Commandos #1, National Comics/DC, December 1942).
- Yankee Girl. Lauren Mason’s powers were bestowed by the wizard Merlin to produce a champion for the dark times of World War II (Dynamic Comics #23, A.C. Comics, November 1947).
At the end of the Golden Age of Comics, superheroes went out of style in favor of other genres such as Westerns, horror and romance. But during the Silver Age, Captain America was just one of many heroes who was reintroduced and/or revitalized. His success, this time as a hero awaking from decades of suspended animation and trying to adapt to life in the 1960s, again spawned creation of new patriotic heroes for the next 20 years, from Agent Liberty to Yankee Poodle (no, not a typo).
Why Captain America? Why not one of those who preceded him? Perhaps it’s the origin story of a patriotic man who wants desperately to fight for his country, yet is not healthy enough to do so. Volunteering as a test subject, Steve Rogers then becomes the ultimate soldier. Talk about wish fulfillment! There’s a deeper, richer story here than just an adventurer or reporter who generically assumes super powers and dons a red, white and blue costume.
Captain America’s influence remains not only on other characters, but also on comics themselves. It was recently announced that in the comic Savage Dragon, the corpse of Osama Bin Laden will rise from its watery grave after being bombarded by radiation. How likely is it that the cover shown below would exist if not for that of Captain America Comics #1:
Studying the history of comic books is also a creative way to study the history of our country. They are a reflection of the times, and times change. Captain America was born in an era when most comics were anthologies with names like All-American Comics, National Comics, Military Comics, V Comics, etc. Captain America may not have started the trend of patriotic superheroes during World War II; however, there is no doubt that his unprecedented success led to an explosion of similar characters.
Even today, when patriotism is demonstrated in different ways and comics are thin, one-chaptered versions of their Golden Age ancestors, Cap is relevant. Why else would his death in 2007 generate so much controversy and publicity, causing his original co-creator, Joe Simon, to comment, “It’s a hell of a time for him to go. We really need him now.” He’s back from the grave now, Joe, and leaping onto movie screens everywhere. Captain America, the person and the ideal, will never die.