The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Captain America was punching Nazis in 1941. Here’s why that was so daring.

Captain America’s 1941 debut, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. (Timely/Marvel Comics)

IF THERE’S one superhero character whose rise might be most tied to the events of World War II, it is Captain America, who emerged from the minds of legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and sprung forth from an iconic 1941 debut cover on which Cap smacks Hitler right in the kisser.

Captain America is so identified with his victories over the Third Reich, in fact, that it proved controversial last year when Marvel debuted Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz’s tales of “Steve Rogers: Captain America” by having Cap utter two unthinkable words: “Hail Hydra.” Since then, Spencer has launched Marvel’s “Secret Empire,” in which the rule of Cap’s villainous group Hydra provides parallels to the Nazi Party’s rise in 1930s Germany.

Captain America hailing Hydra isn’t the end of an icon — it’s just the next great chapter

Amid the violence in Charlottesville last weekend, one participant in the white-supremacist rally was spotted wearing a “Hydra” T-shirt and some wore Captain America helmets, reports Bleeding Cool. But equating Captain America with Nazis marks a 180-degree ideological turn from everything Steve Rogers stood for back when Simon and Kirby dreamed up the character while at Marvel predecessor Timely Comics.

It bears remembering that even having Captain America deliver a haymaker to Hitler, nearly a year before the United States had even entered the war, was a bold stroke at the time.

“Putting Adolf Hitler, a still-living world leader, on the cover of a comic book as the villain was definitely a daring and even dangerous move,” Marvel editor Tom Brevoort tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “Apart from Bundists and supporters of the Axis cause, there was a strong isolationist feeling in America.”

“We’ve lost some context over the years because of the passing of time,” he continues. “Most people today, including myself, only know Hitler from history, and our view of him and the Nazis has been shaped very heavily by the popular culture that he was featured in, which lampooned him.”

To illuminate just what Simon and Kirby were attempting, Brevoort uses a contemporary parallel:

“Today, this would be like putting Vladimir Putin or somebody on a comic-book cover and vilifying him,” the editor says. “Hitler was then a standing world leader with an impressive military machine behind him and a number of sympathizers in the U.S. So make no mistake about it: Had this been something that genuinely angered the real Hitler, he most likely possessed some apparatus to strike back against Simon and Kirby, and even Timely as a whole.”

Brevoort, as a true Marvel historian, notes that Timely boss Martin Goodman wasn’t simply pursuing creative heroism, let alone pushing anti-isolationist politics. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, depicting the Third Reich in comic books sometimes proved to be popular American fare.

“Goodman had already published comics on whose covers the Nazis were depicted as enemies,” the editor says. “The cover to Marvel Mystery Comics No. 4 was the first. It depicts the Sub-Mariner saving a woman menaced atop a Nazi submarine, and manhandling enemy sailors. But putting Hitler himself on as a character was taking things to a whole other level.”

“Based upon my understanding of the forces that drove Goodman,” he continues, “I would guess that he thought that the provocative image would cause copies to fly off of the stands — which it did.”

Simon would later write that he was threatened with physical harm over that cover. He also wrote that then-New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia — a noted comics fan — offered the Manhattan-based publisher protection, with the mayor promising that “the City of New York will see that no harm will come to you,” Simon recounted in his 2003 book “The Comic Book Makers.” 

My grandfather helped create Captain America for times like these

“There are two or three stories that have become legendary over the years concerning threats to Simon and Kirby individually and as a team, along with Timely itself,” Brevoort says. “It’s impossible to tell how much they may have become embellished in the retelling over the years.”

But the threat was real, Brevoort says, with Simon swearing that La Guardia pledged to protect Captain America’s creators and their work at Timely till the day he died.

Two words, Cap: “Hail history.”

Read more:

Joe Simon: The Comic Riffs interview