Secret Empire: What Does Worthiness Mean to Steve Rogers?

In comics, as in life, context is everything. At any other time in comic book history, the sight of Steve Rogers lifting Mjolnir would have been a confirmation of the inherent goodness of Marvel’s first and greatest hero. However, Captain America’s latest successful attempt to wield Thor’s mighty hammer occurred on the battlefield, in the pages of the Free Comic Book Day issue of Secret Empire; and it happened as he and his Hydra cohorts were taking the Capitol by force, overthrowing the government of the United States.

Striding through the chaos and the carnage to pick up the mystical weapon, Rogers sent a message to everyone fighting the battle, and to viewers watching the destruction live on TV and online: “I am worthy. Hydra is worthy.” After all, the enchanted hammer can only be hoisted by a person who meets Odin’s criteria of worthiness, concepts which have never been expressly stated, but which are widely assumed to include uncommon valor, honesty, integrity and the like.

But what if he wasn’t just trying to prove his worthiness to the world? What if Rogers was also trying to prove his worth to himself?

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Captain America was borne out of Steve Rogers’ desire to prove his worthiness. The 98-pound weakling refused to accept that he was too frail to serve in the U.S. Army against Hitler’s Nazi hordes, and kept re-enlisting despite repeated rejections. His perseverance got him noticed, and as result he became the first—and only—recipient of the experimental Super-Soldier Serum, which imbued him with enhanced strength and intelligence.

These new-found powers did not magically transform Rogers into a hero. They were, instead, a vector for his valor, and merely enhanced his ability to champion what he believed was right.

In many ways, Steve Rogers was a stand-in for his creators. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were two young Jewish men who were frustrated at the United States’ hesitation to enter the Second World War. Angered by their government’s refusal to stop Hitler’s atrocities, especially the persecution in Europe of their fellow Jews, the pair created a hero who would fight in their stead.

With a cover date of March, 1941, Captain America #1 went on sale on December 20, 1940. Although it was nearly a year before the United States entered the war (following the attack on Pearl Harbor), the iconic image of the titular hero punching out Hitler resonated with readers and propelled the debut issue to sales of over a million copies.

The national symbol who thus emerged was not an expression—or a celebration—of unquestioning patriotism. Kirby and Simon had put the nation on trial, and had found it unworthy.

Captain America was a call to arms. As the war progressed and the United States’ involvement escalated, Captain America -- like so much of the pop culture of the day—became part of the machine that bolstered the war effort at home and on the European front. Comic books were such an integral part of the war propaganda machine, so much so that the U.S. Army was their single biggest buyer.

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