In early 1941, before the United States had even officially entered the war, the iconic American soldier appeared on the cover of his debut issue socking Hitler in the jaw. This was, of course, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, a scene that is lovingly parodied in Joe Johnston’s movie, Captain America: The First Avenger.
So let’s revisit that first Captain America story and see what it was like. Notice on the splash page that Captain America’s shield is not round, something else the movie references quite nicely. The story opens with German saboteurs wreaking havoc on the American defense establishment. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (not identified, but recognizable) tells a couple of his top men about a secret project that should enable America to win the war.
We next see people being ushered into an unassuming curio shop, staffed by a kindly old lady with a pistol hidden in her desk drawer. She ushers her government guests into a secret room, where she removes her old lady mask and is revealed as “an astoundingly beautiful woman,” identified only as Agent X-13.
We next see a kindly old professor give an injection to a skinny, underdeveloped youth (neither is identified by name at this point). And it may be hard to relate to now, since the principal health problem the U.S. Armed Forces are dealing with is obesity, but in the 1940’s, the U.S. had more problems with people who were too skinny. The proverbial 98 lb. weakling was all too real at the time, a consequence of a mostly rural population going through an economic depression. If Captain America were to be updated to modern times, no doubt Steve Rogers would be an obese slacker being offered a wonder diet drug.
So the as-yet-unnamed youth is given the injection and suddenly swells up to amazing size. But suddenly, the professor is shot by a German spy, and the formerly skinny youth leaps into action. And though Joe Simon supposedly did the rough layouts, it looks as if Jack Kirby’s former animation training is serving him in good stead here. The lines of action couldn’t be clearer. That uppercut delivered with the feet planted wide apart is one of those moves that could never work in real life–it’s more of a dance move than a fighting maneuver–but looks awesome in comics.
Oh yeah, and we also learn that the Professor’s name is “Reinstein.” Which on the one hand, you go, “Ooh, he’s Jewish, how ironic.” But on the other hand, you go, “Dude, they took Einstein’s name and added an ‘r’ at the beginning. Could you be any more lazy?”
Next thing you know, Captain America begins battling Nazi saboteurs in America, and then one day, as Camp Lehigh unit “mascot” Bucky Barnes visits the tent of private Steve Rogers…
So Cap basically accepts Bucky as his partner because Bucky knows too much. You have to wonder if Cap was just anticipating that Bucky would soon be killed and therefore keep his secret secret. I mean, really, it’s about as by-the-numbers and uninspired as a Golden Age story can get.
And yet, somehow, this character managed to become iconic, even though he was never especially interesting. Which makes it even more ironic that Captain America: The First Avenger should be one of the best, if not the best, movies so far in the Marvel cinematic universe. Because in the comics, Cap was always as much a symbol as a character, while in the movies, the character of Steve Rogers is depicted better than practically any of the other heroes.