(Originally run on Komikazee, February of '06. Presented here with a few edits.)
If you've never read a single comic book in your life, you've probably still heard the name Captain America. Though not the first character inspired by national patriotism, he is definitely the most well known. But, let me suggest something else that makes Cap stand out - something that sets him apart from any other comic book character: I'm talking about his representative baggage.
As far as I can tell, there have been three distinct periods in which Captain America was a representative of a particular time, event, and even a distinct frame of mind. Anyone slightly familiar with comics history knows that the character got his start during World War II, a time that needed noble figures, as co-creator Jack Kirby once stated.
Introduced in 1941 by Marvel Comics, known then as Timely, he was the first character to ever be introduced in his own book, instead of a short story in an anthology comic. It was a good gamble, as the Captain became the most popular red-white-and-blue adventurer to grace the comic page. His covers leaped brilliantly to life with Cap battling Nazi madmen, Japanese forces, the Axis super-villain the Red Skull, and even Hitler, himself. Captain America became the embodiment of patriotic fervor in a time when it was greatly needed. Feelings changed drastically, however, when Timely revived the star-spangled hero in 1954.
Following the Korean War, when many were bitter over the loss of loved ones and the "naive" true-blue patriotism of the 40’s grew to a more introspective frame of mind, Captain America was criticized more than appreciated. Targeted by politicians and comedians, alike, as being an extremely conservative embodiment of out-of-date sentiments, the short-lived three-issue run elicited mostly negative response from the public.
Perhaps one of the most telling images of the character at that time was one of him, with his sidekick, Bucky, both silhouetted by the explosion of an atomic bomb, practically in worship of it's destructive power. A bit unnerving, even today. As an aside, it's fairly obvious that the disfavor of the 50’s version was actually inspiration for one of my favorite Captain America stories, which ran through issues 153 through 156, in 1972. The real Cap and his partner the Falcon battled the Cap and Bucky of the fifties, who were portrayed as bigoted, distrustful and generally unbalanced. The two had replaced the real deal, who, as stalwart fans know, was frozen in an ice burg, in a state of suspended animation, until found and revived by the Avengers. This brings us to…
March of 1964, and the fourth issue of Marvel's fledgling series, The Avengers. This landmark work of sequential art reintroduced the hero of WW II. It was at this time that Captain America entered his third representative phase. You see, Marvel Comics had done more than dump the Timely moniker. They had begun doing something truly unique; creating heroes with real character. They had faults. They had problems.
They didn't lead perfect lives. Heck, they were human. Cap fit right in, as he struggled to find his place in a world which no longer looked familiar to him.
Despite this conundrum, however, he, along with the company's other characters, now represented the Marvel Age of comics...A time when adults began to sit up and take notice of the four-color periodicals, once more - when college students who were steeped in the study of physics and philosophy made time for The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man - when comics were not just for kids, but could be read by them. Oh, Cap was still the embodiment of the good ol U.S. of A., but he was also a co-herald of a time when four-color literature returned to greatness.
So, the next time you look at Cap, straighten up, a little. Tuck in that shirt! Have a little respect, mister! (Or missy, as the case may be.) There's a lot of history, there, and the guy's come a long way and endured much to get where he is, today.