There have been about 50 red-white-and-blue superheroes (RWBs). They came thick and fast in World War II, but from the Silver Age on they have mostly been holdovers (Wonder Woman), revivals (Uncle Sam), satires (Fighting American and American Flagg), criticism (The American), or nonentities (Charlton’s Liberty Belle). Yet of all the RWBs, the head of the pack is still Captain America. Possibly that’s because he was the character who walked the walk.
Captain America Comics #1 introduced us to Cap, Bucky, and the Red Skull in a way that opposed Nazism and American isolationism. The cover showed Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face. The issue went on sale in December 1940 and we often hear that Captain America threw that punch a year before the war. What we hear less often is he did that ten blocks away from a Nazi rally.
Nazism in America was never very popular, but it was certainly more popular before the war than it was after it. Depending on who you read, Hitler was trying to stir a fifth column in the United States, or was wary of America’s great power and did not want to offend it. And the Nazi movement in the U.S. had a few thousand to a couple hundred thousand members and sympathizers. And you can generally tell the political attitude of the writer by what they count as historical facts.
What everyone can agree on is that there were Nazi-style organizations that marched, used the Nazi swastika paraphernalia, gave the stiff-armed salute, demanded America stay neutral in any coming European war, and condemned blacks as inferior and Jews as conspirators who ran the media. They ran several summer camps where American versions of Hitler youth could train the next generation. The largest of these was called the German American Bund, which was founded in 1936, and was run by a man named Fritz Kuhn.
Estimates of the GAB membership usually try to pick a single figure that is meant to apply for the whole period of existence. This is unlikely in any organization and I suspect there was a trickle of expulsion throughout its existence. What we can say is the Bund was a national organization with membership concentrated in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York City and nearby areas.
In 1938, Martin Dies of the House Un-American Activities Committee said the Bund had 480,000 members. It didn’t. An FBI investigation put it at 20,000 but I think they are too conservative. It’s an old trick, take the largest grouping ever seen, take that as the maximum number ever. Across the country they probably had 40-50,000 supporters, including the children of members.
On February 20, 1939, the German-American Bund held its largest-ever rally at Madison Square Garden. There were 22,000 supporters there, including 6,000 of their own Storm Troopers, the Ordnungsdienst or OD (order division or proper service). There were opponents to the rally, and there were fistfights. It didn’t get worse than that, due to a lot of police also in attendance.
That was the world in which Captain America was conceived and there are more traces of that world in his stories than most people have noticed.
Madison Square Garden is located, then as now, on 8th street, between 31st and 33rd. Timely Comics at the time was at 330 West 42nd street. Walk ten short blocks and one-and-a-half long ones and you get from one place to the other. It’s significantly less than a mile as the feet walk.
The creators of Captain America, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and his publisher, Martin Goodman, were Jewish. I find it impossible to believe that all three of them would not have known about the rally. It was the largest of its kind in history: it still is. It was widely advertised for months ahead of time with leaflets being handed out by the thousands often deliberately near Jewish shops. It would have been spoken about for months.
Besides the deliberate advertising, there was the publicity of street fights. Jewish veterans of World War I took it as their organizational duty to not stop fighting. Police had to pull the street brawlers apart and, not unsurprisingly, sometimes charge them with street brawling.
The rally was well reported, and those reports gave details of numbers (it’s why attendance numbers are known at all reliably), of the fights at the rally as well as those before, and the style the GAB took.
The rally displayed huge GAB flags with the Nazi swastika on them, but also huge American flags and a huge picture of George Washington. These were displayed specifically because the GAB wanted to promote the idea you could be a good American and a good Nazi. They said George Washington was the first fascist and he didn’t believe democracy could work.
There would have been another source of information. Put it this way, during the war, my great aunt in England wrote her sister, my grandmother, who was in Canada. As my aunt wrote in one letter, the previous night, “of 42 factories, 40 were hit” by the Luftwaffe.
Letters of the same sort must have passed before the war from Jews in Germany to their relatives in America. More than that, Hitler was driving Jews out of Germany. Something like 90,000 escaped or were deported (Hitler got paid to release these people). Many of these wound up in New York City in Yorkville, which is less than 3 miles, as the feet walk, from Timely Comics offices. They brought tales with them, as everyone admits.
The three no doubt heard about the concentration camps. In October 1941, Mystic Comics #6 came out and the Destroyer debuted as a man who got super soldier serum in a Nazi concentration camp – the term was used at the time.
The camps were not then death camps (that came later) but were camps where people were taken and beaten for days and released. They were beaten again and again and as many times as it took to shut them up. More than a few of those people were Jewish, though many were conservative, gays, Roma or Sinti, or just people who weren’t Nazis. Families must have written, escapees must have spoken. And I think Goodman, Simon, and Kirby must have listened.
These were men who knew what “restricted” in a job ad in America meant. No Jews, no blacks,…you know the list. And they could not be silent.
Well, they could have been. So many others were. But Simon sketched an idea for Super American before deciding there were too many Super… heroes in comics at the time. So he chose the name Captain America because, ironically, there weren’t many Captains in comics at the time. He added a sidekick based on Robin and named after a high school friend of his.
Captain America and Bucky. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby started putting together stories. But in the least noticed part of the story, Martin Goodman stood behind the character. His first appearance was in Captain America Comics #1. Captain America first appeared in his own title, something even Superman hadn’t done. So it is fair to say Captain America was given a push. Goodman wanted him to be noticed and I think it was unlikely that he didn’t know what Simon and Kirby intended.
Clearly, they were fighting back. But one day, Simon had an ice cream. No, really, he had an ice cream and looked at the chocolate flowing down over the chocolate and thought there was a villain in that. Thinking about it, he thought the cherry was an idea for a villain. That was how Joe Simon created the Red Skull.
We all know the history of the Red Skull, Johann Schmidt was a street urchin who was noticed by Adolf Hitler and turned into Hitler’s personal agent for evil. But in time even Hitler feared the Skull. Eventually the Skull got a new body, cloned from that of Steve Rogers. In that form he continues to threaten the world to this day, long outliving Adolf Hitler.
But that’s not the story. Not as it was when the GAB was marching and yelling sieg heil. In that first issue, the Red Skull was a man named George John Maxon. Just as the GAB had giant pictures of George Washington, Maxon hid behind the name George. It was an American name for an American businessman who was a saboteur and a secret agent. In this, Maxon is much more in keeping with the GAB and its giant American flags and pictures of George Washington, the first fascist. And he’s much more in keeping with that initial fear of a fifth column.
Basing the fiction so deeply in the realities of the time helped make Captain America enduring. He was America embodied, facing the threat America faced if you were already on that side of politics. Even little touches seem to come from reality. Captain America carried a shield much like the one used on a poster to advertise the rally. The challenge was obvious and the response was predictable.
But let’s not forget that when Captain America Comics #1 came out, he made a big splash. They sold almost a million copies of the first issue and sales continued at that level for years. Captain America went on to be one of Marvel’s big three (the others being the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner). Within a year the first Captain America spin-off appeared, the Destroyer. So, naturally, they also got hate mail.
Joe Simon has said when Captain America was first published some people really hated him. There were threats in letters, and threats in the groups of people loitering outside the offices of Timely Comics. These groups were menacing enough that police were posted outside the offices to keep the loiterers loitering and not attacking. Mayor La Guardia contacted Simon and Kirby to lend his support. It’s hard to believe now that a “mere” comic book could unleash this kind of political force. But they were dealing with significant issues at a time when those issues were spilling onto the street and no one could be sure how they would come out. Let us not forget, if Hitler had not been so wrong-headed, Germany could have won. People sensed something like that and they fought.
In the Yorkville district of New York City there was violence. Jews escaping Hitler found themselves living next to other Germans. There was a Jewish boycott of German shops, and a boycott of Jewish shops, and also the other way around. It escalated. There were fights. And there was the GAB pushing the boycott, pamphleteering against Jews, and trying to turn every fight and every issue into a recruitment for a movement which most German Americans didn’t like.
Probably not known publicly were meetings between leaderships of the GAB, the Silver Legion, the Christian Front, and others. They were looking to coordinate and possibly to merge. A merged group might have been almost formidable on a national level. We can be grateful big fat egos stopped the process but at the time, things hung in the balance. Any kind of loss, no matter how small, could hurt momentum.
When Goodman, Simon, and Kirby put out Captain America, they must have known what they were letting themselves in for. And that took courage.
There has been no comic book since that one which has taken a stand so forcefully or so early in a fight. Comics were in each case very late to support the idea of racial, gender, or orientation equality. Arguably, they still only support the idea but not the reality. Women are still sex objects or their corpses are put in fridges. Blacks are still guys in the background. People with green skin (Brainiac 5, Changeling) are still white guys underneath.
On the other side of the coin, comics also avoid any opinion at all about Ruby Ridge or Waco, despite having untold numbers of evil American government agents. And they have Superman fly to Iran and stand there while the crowds throw abuse and rubbish at him in a complete violation of both the rules of etiquette and the law in Iran. Not one police officer shows up? I am betting no comic book will have an opinion about the current troubles in Syria or the Ukraine during the lifetime of those troubles.
Captain America didn’t hide when the issue was still to be fought for and neither did the men who wrote, drew, and published him. They made a statement and they made it as big as they could. In tyranny, no one talks about tyranny. In freedom, everyone must talk about freedom all the time. In fact, Cap not only slugged Hitler and American Nazis in America in the face. He hit isolationism in the face.
Isolationism, the belief that the oceans kept America separate from Europe and Asia, has a long tradition in American politics. Certainly, all the Nazi groups wanted America out of the war in Europe, which the Nazis were expected to win.
But isolationism was really represented by a more formidable group, the America First Committee, which gathered 800,000 members from conservatives, socialists, communists (who all quit in June 1941), Charles Lindbergh, Gerald Ford, and Sargent Shriver among others. The ACF felt America should let Europe sort itself out. The Committee dissolved when Japan refused to let America feel that way in December 1941. The ACF did not threaten the creators of Captain America, they were not Nazis. What they were was a group who would keep America out of the war, but for Goodman, Simon, and Kirby, the war was already one of survival.
So in one action and on one cover, these guys who wrote, drew, and published comic books presaged American social and foreign policy for the next 80 years. And Captain America gained a gravitas that no other comic-book character has had ever after.
He fought the Axis in World War II. In the Cold War he fought the Communists. In the sixties he was revived and became a man out of time. In a sense he became a costumed noir detective, remembering when there was a more honorable time and fighting to preserve whatever decency was left.
He became a political voice again when he stopped the Secret Empire from taking over in the 1970s. We all knew that was supposed to be Nixon who shot himself (curiously parallel to Hitler’s suicide). But that was a lesser political stand, since at the time Nixon was already defeated and it was a matter of when he would finally go.
He opposed superhero registration in the Civil War arc. Though they never said whether the Punisher had to register his guns.
And in the movies he has become political again. He has said things that other characters would not. In The Avengers he says, “There’s only one God and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” The usual people might object to this, saying not everyone is Christian so the line should be left out of the movie for fear of giving offense. But the statement holds in Judaism and Islam, too.
In Winter Soldier he says, “This isn’t freedom…it’s fear.” Most of the readers of this site have probably already guessed the plot of the movie and know how deep the politics goes. But it seems he’s going back to defending freedom even at some risk to his franchise. No other comic book character could do that, and I predict it’s going to have an effect on 2016.
Actually, no, there’s lots more to be said, because under freedom you must never stop talking about freedom.