One thing is for sure, Captain America’s March 1941 debut issue isn’t remembered for the subtlety of its cover.
“Smashing thru, Captain America came to face to face with Hitler …” reads one of the captions below an image of the star-spangled superhero bursting into a Nazi bunker as the bullets of stunned SS troopers bounce off his invincible shield, while Cap cold-cocks Adolf on the jaw. It’s memorably straightforward and endearingly sincere, with no hidden context to read between the lines. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the newest comic book hero on the block wasn’t here to save the United States from deadly aliens or evil genius supervillains – all that would come later – he was here to punch out real-world, tyrannical bigots. No amount of Nazi ammunition could kill Captain America. We didn’t need to fear his demise, because he and his ideals were here to stay. A children’s comic book giving a statement on ethical and moral imperatives, nine months before America actually entered World War II.
There’s no real surprise as to why the Golden Age of comic books refers to the period stretching from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. DC’s Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, along with those from other publishers, like Captain Marvel, the Human Torch and Namor, came into their own during this time, entertaining and inspiring a young generation through a fledgling medium that was cheap to produce and sold at high volumes. There was as much to protect us from outside our doors as there were invented enemies on the paneled pages.
As time wore on and the Axis powers were defeated, comics drew less from real-world evils and instead began focusing on fictional antagonists. Those foes could mirror real individuals, groups or institutions, but rarely did they include outright villains like Hitler and his cronies. In the modern era, you’ll hardly, if ever, find Captain America and company going toe-to-toe with a dictator covered on the nightly news. In fact, rarely do publishers even address the current global events like those that peppered the medium’s Golden Age.
In light of all our recent troubles, however, it’s well past time for them to return to what made them so special in the first place. Comics should fight the good fight once again. It’s pretty unanimously agreed that 2016 will not be looked back upon kindly. The challenges facing Americans are too numerous to count, and too serious to dismiss as irrelevant or exaggerated. It’s safe to say that one of the many reasons comic books have seen such a resurgence in popularity is their ability to briefly entertain and distract us from the horrors in the headlines. While comics were immensely popular during the mid-20th century, few could have anticipated just how they would take over almost every other cultural medium, from film to television to video games. The cinematic superhero renaissance of the past decade and a half churns out a caped hero flick every four months or so, while seasons of interwoven TV adaptations air in between, all to the tune of billions of dollars annually.
Like always, detractors will dismiss superhero stories as vacuous or overly simplistic, doing more of a disservice to audiences than providing any real benefit. But superhero comics — like with jazz, blues and baseball — are a distinctly American innovation. In a country as relatively young as this one, superheroes give our nation its own Olympian mythology, telling us how to handle intangible hardships while also astounding us with legendary tales of amazing feats in outlandish worlds. But superheroes are at their most classic, and most American, when they are standing up to the bullies who are scaring not just the voting public, but our children, as well.
These aren’t mutually exclusive goals. The Big Two publishers can, and should, explore original and wholly unrealistic worlds. But at a time when we face a national identity crisis the likes of which we haven’t encountered for generations, when kids are afraid of being deported due to their nationality, or ridiculed for their beliefs, superheroes can inspire and entertain them in ways few other mediums can. The heroes of the Marvel and DC universes need to take on real-world villains, because political criminals go unpunished so frequently that the least we can do is exact some modicum of justice on the page.
We need Superman addressing Congress on the importance of climate change accords. Aquaman should pay a visit to BP oil executives. The X-Men owe the resurgent Klan a visit. Captain America should stop by the Oval Office.
Some of those individuals and groups clutching for power today in the United States aren’t a threat to us in the same way their Nazi forebears were — they’re too disparate, disorganized and reckless to establish any Reich equivalency. But that recklessness could be just as dangerous in other ways, and it needs to be checked at any available opportunity.
As comic books and their various iterations continue their slow march toward equal representation, many argue that this is not the place for political statements and protest. That, however, ignores the very foundations of the industry, storylines and artwork that’s as iconic as it is necessary to our cultural identity. Seriously, what’s more patriotic than Captain America beating the hell out of Nazis? It’s time to get in the ring again.