Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrives this week. The critical reviews and word of mouth have been overwhelming, and the movie is guaranteed to be a hit. But how did a guy with an A on his forehead become the forefront of an international film franchise? Here’s what you need to know about Cap.
Captain America, Nazi-Puncher
Really, you can sum up Cap’s pre-1960s history in one image:
The Cap comics of the 1940 to 1949 era are mostly interesting as, well, the kind of propaganda you’d expect from a comic book called “Captain America.” Cap punched Nazis, defeated dastardly Axis plans, and supported the war effort.
To be honest, they’re not very good, aside from the goofy metafictional conceit that Steve Rogers is a comic book artist recording the stories of… Captain America. Captain America #1 moved nearly a million copies, though, which was an unheard of number of books at the time, and he kept selling at that rate every month.
And then the war ended. By the time Cap’s first run wrapped up in 1949, his last issue was actually a horror comics anthology that he didn’t even appear in. An attempt to revive him as a Commie smasher (literally, that was the title) ended in failure after a year in 1954. And that really would have been that… except for Stan Lee.
A Man Out Of Time
In 1964, Lee decided to test out bringing Cap back. Even in the early ’60s, Cap was corny as hell, so it didn’t really make sense to have someone “pick up the mantle.” Hence, as we all know, Cap turns out to have been in the deep freeze since WWII, and is revived nearly twenty years later in 1964.
A nice touch is that Cap just doesn’t fit in, no matter where he goes. The world has moved on, his friends are old, America as a place has changed considerably, and Steve Rogers isn’t sure if there’s a place for him any more. That doesn’t change, even as the world keeps spinning.
But it does make him the leader of the Avengers. In fact, for a lot of readers, the “real” Avengers are a core crew of Cap, Hawkeye, The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.
America The Beautiful
It seems odd that such a corny character, a guy literally draped in the flag, would endure so long, but that’s largely a credit to Marvel’s long-running willingness to tackle the difference between America as an ideal and America as it actually is. Cap has, over the years, fought racism; struggled with the fallout of Watergate and Vietnam in an arc that ended with a Richard Nixon-esque President blowing his own brains out; explored the moral ambiguities of the Cold War; and looked back at his own World War II days.
Not all of Cap’s comics are perfect, mind you, and they can be constrained by the Comics Code the further back you go. But they are all interesting, and it’s fascinating to see writers contrast Cap as a human being and America as an ideal. Arguably, reading Cap comics over the years is a good way to look at how America thinks of itself.
Where To Start Reading Captain America?
If you want to read some Cap comics, here are a few recommendations:
Captain America #444-#448
Mark Waid essentially taking the character back to one: Red Skull, shield, espionage, the whole bit.
Every member except Cap quits the team… so he replaces them with three criminals and starts Cap’s Dirty Quarter-Dozen. A surprisingly fun Silver Age book, not least because the team is tough but not invincible, so there are some actual stakes.
The Winter Soldier
Yes, the movie is based, somewhat, on Ed Brubaker’s run on the title. But this isn’t a case of seeing the movie and reading the comic: Brubaker’s sensibilities fit Cap surprisingly well.
War And Remembrance (issues #247-#255)
Notable for two reasons: One, Roger Stern and John Bryne make Cap’s dumber foes credible, even disturbing, threats. And two, it explains why Cap has never done the seemingly obvious: Run for President.
Captain America No More (Issues #332-350)
A sprawling, epic 18-issue arc where Cap tells the American government to go to hell… and is promptly stripped of the right to call himself Captain America. Mark Gruenwald is in many ways the defining Cap writer, and this was some of his best work.