The Star-Spangled Avenger
Timely Declares War Against The Axis

One of the books on my reference shelf is Jeff Rovin's The Encyclopedia Of Super Villains. It's a thick book containing the biographies of over 1200 comic book bad guys, from The Abomination to Zogar Sag, spanning the entirety of comic's history. But of all these fictional psychopaths, none could match the sheer evil of a man who existed in reality. A man who terrorized, conquered, and enslaved millions in Europe, a man despised by most Americans even at the beginning of the 1940s: Adolph Hitler.

Most thought that it was only a matter of time before America entered the war against the Nazi colossus, watching in anger and dismay as London suffered the night bombing of Goering's Luftwaffe. But in the world of comics the war against Hitler was to begin almost two years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941. The first "shot" was fired by Timely Comics' Sub-Mariner in Marvel Comics #5 when Bill Everett's creation took on a Nazi U-boat.

Many comics creators of the time were Jewish, as was Timely's Martin Goodman, and were well aware of the depths of Hitler's evil. As ordinary Americans, they were powerless to do anything about events in Europe but through the comics they could at least express their bitterness and anger. As Stan Lee put it, "The whole country was anti-Hitler, Hitler seemed to be the closest equivalent to Satan that anyone could ever find."

Comic readers needed a hero to fight such evil and Jack Kirby and Joe Simon provided one nine months before Pearl Harbor. Smashing Hitler on the mouth on the cover, the new super hero debuted on April 1941 in Captain America #1.

That first issue featured the origin of the Simon/Kirby creation. The new "Sentinel of Liberty" started out as puny Steve Rogers; a 4-F army reject who had volunteered for a top-secret project (commissioned by President Roosevelt!) to produce the perfect fighting man. Injected with a serum by Professor Reinstein, Steve was transformed into "the first of a corps of super agents whose mental and physical ability will make them a terror to spies and saboteurs." Adds Reinstein, "Weshall call you Captain America, son! Because, like you, America will gain the strength and will to safeguard our shores!" But a Gestapo agent assassinates the scientist and Rogers is left alone to continue the struggle.

The new title was an immediate success, selling up to a million copies with its first issue, a sales figure unmatched by comics today. Captain America's patriotic appeal as a match for the growing Axis threat was powerful indeed.

The timing was perfect for Captain America and Jack Kirby was the perfect artist for the new flag costumed super patriot. Able to inject the maximum excitement in each panel, few could come close to matching the dynamics of the "Kirby look," with its mastery of movement and expertly choreographed battle scenes.

As fast as Kirby was, Captain America was a monthly title. Assisting on art chores were Reed (Blackhawk)Crandall and Mort (Vigilante) Meskin, who were heavy talents in their own right. Ed Herron, creator of Cap's arch-nemesis the Red Skull wrote a few of the early episodes, and Syd Shores helped ink.

Also assisting the Simon-Kirby team at such tasks as proofreading and erasing was the teenage cousin of Martin Goodman's wife, Stanley Martin Lieber . The newcomer had no ambitions to be a comic professional, harboring the ambition to become a novelist, but perhaps he caught the comics bug when he wrote his first piece, a two-page filler for the new title, signing it with the pseudonym, "Stan Lee."

At the end of 1941 Simon and Kirby had a dispute with Goodman over royalties and left Timely for DC Comics, where they were to create The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion. They had created a total of thirty- five Captain America stories, but now new writers like Manley Wade Wellman, Bill Finger, and Otto Binder stepped in. Artists on the title included Al Avison, Vince Alascia, and Alex Schomberg.

Just as The Batman needed a Robin, Cap was given a sidekick of his own, James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes, who would appear later in another title as the team leader of The Young Allies. The two would go on together through the remainder of the war battling opponents like the Red Skull, the Mad Torso, Dr. Necrosis, the Leopard, the Coughing Killer, and countless German and Japanese soldiers.

As the real war wore down so did Cap's popularity. Gradually he began shifting over to fighting crime, and by issue 58 he had become a civilian. Bucky was dropped for a new sidekick, Golden Girl. It didn't work. In October of 1949 Captain America became Weird Tales, and by the next issue Cap had vanished. Hitler was kaput and so was Steve Rogers.

Atlas Comics revived Captain America in the 1950s to fight communism. John Romita did a creditable job handling the art, but the attempted resurrection only lasted three issues. Cap's successful rebirth would be in The Avengers #4, 1964. Due to a temper tantrum by the Sub-Mariner, the Golden Age hero was unfrozen from the Arctic ice by The Marvel Age Avengers --and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee! By 1968 he had his own title again.

Since then Captain America has enjoyed a print run extending to the present and now appears in his own title, handled by Mark Wald, Andy Kubert, and Jesse Delperdang. He's also appeared in movie serials (1944), two made-for tv feature movies (1979), and in numerous animated cartoon serials. There have also been two Captain America novels: Holocaust for Hire by Joseph Silva and The Great Gold Steal by Ted White.

--Steve Stiles