Captain America, the Sentinel of Liberty. Or maybe “sentinels” is more accurate. While several characters wielded the shield, there are three who represent the character more than any others. For most readers, especially Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z, Captain America is really three heroes: Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and Sam Wilson. Each one represents a different aspect of America. In many ways, they show the past, present, and future. But it’s more than that. These three amazing characters represent America’s dark history, spirit, and potential. However, we can’t discuss Captain America without starting with the original: Steve Rogers. And Rogers, if it isn’t apparent, represents the present spirit of America—ever-changing, and sometimes broken.
The Creation of the Captain—and a Controversial Character from Page One
This issue featured Stan Lee’s first comic book work ever. (Image: Captain America #3, Marvel Comics)
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics, Captain America had one defining aspect that set Steve Rogers apart from most other heroes at the time…he wasn’t “Super” something. In fact, his original name was “Super America.” Pretty silly sounding right. As Joe Simon wrote in his autobiography, “There were too many “Supers” around. “Captain America” had a good sound to it. There weren’t a lot of captains in comics. It was as easy as that.” So, Captain America debuted, punching Hitler. It seems like that would be a beloved moment—and we’ll get to that moment a bit more later. But it wasn’t.
“When the first issue came out, we got a lot of…threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for,” Simon noted. There were more than just threatening messages. Violent mobs started to hang around the Timely offices. It got to the point that the NYPD set up a police presence. The problem wasn’t so much wat Captain America stood for, but rather what he stood against: Fascism and white supremacy.
How Steve Rogers Went from Sickly Young Man to Captain America
Steve Rogers before the Super Soldier serum. (Image: Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel Studios)
We can’t truly understand his role without looking at his beginnings. Rogers was a weak, little guy who desperately wanted to serve his country in World War II. Unfortunately, he failed every health test the military performed. But because of his spirit, a geneticist, Dr. Reinstein (later changed to Dr. Erskine) chose him for the “super-soldier” experiment. Tiny Steve Rogers went from the guy in the picture above to this:
Steve Rogers after the…the um…the…sorry, I’m distracted. (Image: Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel Studios)
It took the United States a long time to become the superpower it is now. However, the Steve Rogers to Captain America transformation mirrors the country’s progression of a scrappy young nation to a global juggernaut. And just like the character himself, America achieved its status with a mix of determination and a lot of ingenuity. Erskine is that ingenuity. It’s interesting that Disney, the folks who brought Cap to the big screen, chose his birthday weekend (also, Independence Day in the US) to bring Hamilton to their streaming service. It tells a similar story, about a “young, scrappy, and hungry” man who exemplifies the best of what America hoped to be. The fictional Hamilton brought to life by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Steve Rogers are both men who hold values and ideals even in the face of authority (and have no small amount of self-righteousness).
Despite everything America has been through, everything it is currently going through (and it’s a lot), and everything we’re going to face, Americans hold on to the ideals of equality, opportunity, freedom, and using what power we have for good. Even if you are a principled progressive or conservative, a Republican or Democrat, fans of Star Trek or Star Wars, what unites us is supposed to be greater than what divides us. We all know that our civic mission is to create that “more perfect union.” We just fight over what that’s supposed to look like.
Steve Rogers, the Man Pulled Out of Time, the Man Perfect for the Times
THIS caused controversy. THIS! (Image: Captain America #1, Marvel Comics)
As a World War II hero, Steve Rogers made Captain America a symbol of determination against hate. In his first appearance, before the United States officially entered World War II, Cap punched Adolf Hitler in the face on the cover of the book. It’s one of the most iconic images in comic book history. Of course, the character would crash into the North Atlantic Sea, where he spent a couple of decades in a block of ice.
The Avengers found Steve Rogers, frozen in his Captain America uniform, in the March 1964 issue #4 of Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reintroduced Captain America intentionally at a time when the US was in turmoil. 1964 was one of the powder keg years in America. In just a few months, President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign the second Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. John F. Kennedy had been killed only four months earlier. The war in Vietnam was quickly escalating. The body counts grew larger. And it all played out on live television for the first time. Lee and Kirby tapped into the zeitgeist of a fraught nation, giving their readers the symbol of Captain America to look to for inspiration. Captain America consistently represented the determination of the country to fight the battles worth having.
Unfortunately, the nation didn’t always reflect the values that made Captain America who he is.
When Steve Rogers Lost Faith in America, and Stopped Being the Captain
Yeah…that’s Steve Rogers, Captain America, in an open shirt and a cape. It wasn’t his best look. (Image: Captain America and the Falcon #180, Marvel Comics
Captain America is a political character, and Steve Rogers is a very liberal citizen who fights for his country. However, in the 1970s, the system he protected turned out to be corrupt. This was the era of Watergate. In the original Secret Empire, Steve discovers that a high-ranking person in the government—never named but assumed to be Nixon himself—is the leader of a terrorist organization. Writer Steve Englehart deliberately referenced aspects of the Watergate scandal in the story. Eventually, the leader of the Secret Empire, again, probably Nixon, commits suicide…but a double takes over.
The important part is that after seeing his country nearly destroy itself from the inside, Steve Rogers ditches the Captain America identity. He becomes the Nomad. It’s a bleak reflection of America during the Nixon presidency. Having Steve denounce his title meant that everything his symbol stood for was compromised. Eventually, Hawkeye convinced Steve Rogers to be the Captain again. Still, the fact that America was so broken that he could no longer wear its symbol weighed on the character for decades to come. It also separated Captain America from the American government. He no longer represented the American system. His new title, Nomad, represented that he was, essentially, a
man symbol without a country. Those who held Steve Rogers’ values close to their hearts were nomads in their own land for a time. Hard not to notice similarities to that today.
Yes, Captain America is a Liberal Democrat—and the Stories Reflect that Consistently
One of the most shocking moments in comic book history. (Image: Captain America (2004) #25, Marvel Comics)
We’re going to skip forward to 2006. I know, how can we not mention Cap-Wolf? That seminal story deserves several posts on its own. . In 2006, Marvel released its most significant event in years: Civil War. Civil War is a very divisive story, but it’s essential to look at the historical context of the event. America was only a few years out from the September 11th attacks, and the USA PATRIOT Act signing. For some, the Patriot Act was a gross extension of law enforcement and military power that infringed on the civil liberties of Americans and represented a dangerous precedent for the amorphous war that followed those attacks. (There are hints of this story in Captain America: The Winter Soldier in how Cap reacts to Project Insight.)
Mark Millar’s Civil War is a George W. Bush-era story commenting on the Patriot Act. The Superhero Registration Act would make all superheroes government agents. As we saw from the first Secret Empire storyline, Steve Rogers made it clear that Captain America represents citizens and not the government. Cap opposes this and ends up opposite Iron Man, and the other Marvel heroes take sides. They fight a brutal battle, Spidey switches sides (and reveals his identity). Eventually, though, Cap admits defeat and surrenders to the authorities. At the end of Civil War, Steve Rogers dies on the steps of a courthouse. He’s shot by Crossbones on the order of the Red Skull. It wouldn’t be the end of the Captain America mantle, or Steve Rogers. However, the Bucky Barnes era is a conversation for another time.
An America Without Steve Rogers is a Very Dark Place
The Heroic Age not-so-coincidentally lined up with the early days of the Obama Administration. (Image: Steve Rogers: Super Soldier #1, Marvel Comics)
After Steve dies, the Marvel universe starts spiraling. The Avengers keep fighting each other while fighting actual villains. Their division left them unprepared for a Skrull takeover in Secret Invasion (Marvel loves their “Secrets”). At the transition from the Bush to the Obama era, Marvel moved into Dark Reign. That’s how Marvel capped the Bush era. Within a year, Steve Rogers returns, but isn’t ready to be Captain America yet. But he can’t just not act, so he assumes another new identity. As the Super Soldier, he leads SHIELD, bringing honor back to their name. Eventually, though, Steve Rogers takes up the Captain America identity once again.
The Perversion of America’s Soul, the Corruption of Steve Rogers, the Fall of the Captain
If this image disturbs you…good. It’s supposed to. (Image: Secret Empire #0, Marvel Comics)
It’s time to talk about the second Secret Empire. This event was so controversial, there’s no way to write about it without angering someone. The plot of the story? Captain America was twisted and altered into a Hydra agent, and took over America. Remember, Hydra = Nazis, but worse. As Captain America, Steve Rogers fought hard against Hydra all his life. Also, Nick Spencer made some weird choices. For instance, an Inhuman character barfs up a piece of the cosmic cube.
Let’s not mince words. Secret Empire is about the rise of white supremacy in America and the candidacy and eventual election of President Donald Trump. Don’t believe me? Well, consider this. The series ended in August 2017, the same month of the Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, Va. If we look at Captain America before Secret Empire as a reflection of the best parts of the American people, warping him this way represents the poisoning of America’s soul. This is a far more drastic political message than Englehart’s original Secret Empire storyline. Then, the government was corrupted and Steve relinquished the Captain America mantle. This time, it’s not just the government—it’s the people too.
Secret Empire Offended Liberals and Conservatives Alike, but for Very Different Reasons
Why was this series so controversial? Well, if you are a Trump supporter, it probably feels like an attack on you. To that, we say it’s not directly. However, it is an indictment of the ideology of fear, hate, and willful ignorance that makes up the foundation of the president’s rhetoric. But liberal readers were disgusted, too. They objected to the very notion that Steve Rogers wore his Captain America suit emblazoned with a Hydra symbol. Well, that’s the point. It was supposed to be upsetting and disgusting. Because, as a reflection of the nation, this is what the creative teams saw. That’s also why the ending of this storyline, that brings back the “really real” Cap failed to land. Far too many of the American people are still very lost in the way that the good part of Captain America was.
Thankfully, Steve Rogers is back to being Steve Rogers, and the Hydra Captain America sits in a prison built for him. But that doesn’t mean things are going well for Cap.
Steve Rogers Faces a Nation That No Longer Trusts Him—or Captain America
A spiritually defeated Steve Rogers tries to save the image of Captain America. (Image: Captain America (2018) #1, Marvel Comics)
Now in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ hands, Steve is always on the run, but also trying to repair both of his names: Steve Rogers and Captain America. But how can Captain America ever represent America again? How can Steve Rogers honestly wear the flag again? As Coates himself put it, when looking at a man out of time, and a man with a tarnished reputation, “Why would anyone believe in The Dream?” So, if the entire concept of Captain America is so problematic now, why would Coates even consider writing Steve Rogers? He continues, “What is exciting here is not some didactic act of putting my words in Captain America’s head, but attempting to put Captain America’s words in my head.”
This is the true essence of Captain America, and what Steve Rogers brings to the character. Even if America isn’t doing great, that dream and perseverance are still there. We always seek it. It’s an ideal that we still strive for and want to uphold—or in Coates’s case, rebuild. Maybe part of the problem with the second Secret Empire was that Nick Spencer was “putting words in Captain America’s head.” This made the politics of the story a little too extreme. But Coates’s method, trying to figure out what Captain America, and Steve Rogers, means to him—that is The Dream. It doesn’t need an answer. When we believe in Captain America despite every reason not to, we’re tapping into the hopeful spirit of America.
Featured image via Marvel Studios
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.