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A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 3


People's History Week 3

Face front, true believers!

Welcome back to A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, where I explore how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics. In this issue, I’ll be discussing how Captain America made the transition from his Timely Comics incarnation to the Marvel era.


Timely Comics’s version of Captain America was (to be kind) rather crude, still in that stage where superheroes as a genre are still emerging from pulp, so there’s a lot of repetitious scenes where Cap and/or Bucky get tied to chairs because that’s the only way the author can think of to get to the plot exposition, most of the villains are pretty generic mobster types, and so on. However, Kirby and Lee were able to go back and sift through the old material to find the stuff that worked – Steve Rogers as Captain America, the uniform and the mighty shield, the Red Skull, Agent 13 – while ditching the stuff that didn’t work (the secret identity, Bucky to an extent, etc.).


At the same time, there were a number of strategies that Marvel used to make the transition work. First, in the very act of updating Captain America from the 1940s to the 1960s, Kirby and Lee made Steve Rogers a man out of time, giving a previously rather thinly-sketched individual a rich source of Marvel-style pathos and interiority. The Steve Rogers who emerged in the pages of the Avengers, Tales of Suspense, and Captain America is a veteran haunted by the memory of his losses during WWII, a rare example in which PTSD is given its place in that conflict. (Indeed, a lot of stories from this era involve Cap having vivid flashbacks or hallucinations that make him question his sanity.)

However, with Kirby there as the keeper of the sacred flame to ensure that the original spirit of Captain America wasn’t lost, Steve Rogers’ status as a man out of time was never an excuse to position him as a conservative or reactionary figure. Rather, Captain America’s position was that he would embrace these changes and fight for the same progressive change that he had back in the New Deal:



And that’s what I think people often get wrong about Captain America: while he was born into the “Greatest Generation,” he’s not an old man. Rather, because of his variable number of decades frozen in the ice, he’s a young man who’s traveled through time, bringing the passion and idealism of youth into a new era.

Second, Kirby and Lee kept much of the political edge of the original comics by making a foundational element of the new Cap comics that Nazism was not dead, but had continued into the present day as a hostile force that threatened liberal values, often hidden beneath reactionary causes and movements (hence the usefulness of HYDRA as a dark mirror through which to question and explore the national security state in Captain America: Winter Soldier). For example, early on in Tales of Suspense, they posited that Nazi agents were at work in modern Germany:


To argue that Nazis were hidden in German society, as if Himmler’s Operation Werwolf had really come to pass, was a pretty bold political statement in a Cold War world only five years past the construction of the Berlin Wall and in which the Western German government had yet to publicly grapple with the legacy of the Holocaust. But Kirby’s political acumen shines in these issues, grounding these stories in contemporary politics, as with this reference to West German laws banning the display of Nazi iconography:


Third, another thing that Marvel could bring to the table is a fully matured Jack Kirby. As I mentioned above, the Timely Captain America comics were too close to the pulp era to really be distinctively superheroic. But by the 1960s, Kirby was Kirby. And so what the Red Skull’s sleeper agents were out to awaken was not merely a coup against the Federal Republic of Germany, but a giant Nazi robot:


The Timely Comics version of the Red Skull had been a petty saboteur and sometimes assassin, very much within the wheelhouse of pulp antagonists. The new Red Skull (who’ll be explored in future installments) was reimagined as a full-on supervillain with a flair for giant robots, doomsday devices, world conquest, and grandiloquent speeches complete with cigarette holder. And so Kirby gave the world not just a giant robot menacing the free world, but a Nazi Voltron:



This was the secret alchemy that brought Captain America into the contemporary world of Mighty Marvel Comics: on the one hand, Jack Kirby’s larger-than-life visuals and Marvel’s attention to interiority gave Captain America new life, but on the other, the original political spirit of the Timely Comics was carefully preserved, so that what made Captain America unique is a superhero is that his power is essentially weaponized progressive ideology:


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