Captain America versus Nazis…in the US
In December 1940, the people of the United States got their first taste of a superhero known as Captain America. This star-spangled soldier introduced himself to the world by punching Adolf Hitler in the face. Can’t get more American than that, right?
Too bad Cap’s creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby got death threats over that cover.
America loves to promote the image of our country as a Nazi-hating, freedom-loving savior to the world. But World War II began in 1939, and the United States didn’t enter the war until after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It wasn’t because we were too busy doing something else – it was because a large and vocal portion of the country didn’t want to get involved. In fact, Hitler had quite a number of supporters over here in the US.
Those supporters did not include Simon and Kirby. They both hated what was going on in Germany and consciously picked Hitler as the guy who needed to get his ass beat by the newly drawn Captain America. Said Simon in his memoir, “Hitler was a marvelous foil, a ranting maniac.”
Kirby was originally going to be only one of three artists on Captain America #1 due to a tight deadline that Simon didn’t think he could meet. He got visibly upset when informed of this and promised that he would be able to draw the entire issue himself. He not only promised – he delivered. And he made sure Cap smacked Hitler in the jaw.
Pro-Nazi support certainly wasn’t rare at the time, though, and several well-organized groups had their claws in a lot of American media. Some of this support was incidental, as a lot of people just didn’t want to see the US engaged in another World War. Comics saw some of this sentiment leak in during the debut of the modern superhero, when Superman’s debut issue Action Comics #1 involved him kidnapping a politician to keep America from “being embroiled with Europe.”
It wasn’t all just a desire to avoid getting into a war, though. Several groups loved Hitler’s policies and his hatred of the Jews. Critics of President Franklin Roosevelt accused him, among other things, of being part of a Jewish communist conspiracy. The country had its own pro-Nazi organizations, such as the German American Bund, which existed to promote Nazism in the US and didn’t fall apart until a concerted effort from district attorneys, congressmen, journalists, and prominent German-American celebrities crippled it.
This is an actual flag you might have been flying in pre-WWII America.
As far as I’ve been able to determine, it was never a majority of Americans who supported Hitler, but there was a well-organized Pro-Nazi movement through the 1930s and early 1940s that gnashed their teeth at the image of a comic book superhero smacking around a caricature of the Fuhrer.
Simon and Kirby, both Jews themselves, got angry phone calls and death threats. People in the Timely Comics were afraid to leave the office for lunch due to ominous-looking groups that gathered outside.
This was terrorism – using fear and threats in an attempt to silence a pair of artists who just wanted to tell entertaining stories. The offices at Timely had to be put under police protection. Luckily for the employees, it happened that New York City’s mayor Fiorello LaGuardia happened to be a comics fan.
LaGuardia personally called Simon to deliver a message: “You boys over there are doing a good job. The city of New York will see that no harm will come to you.”
In the modern era, the idea of Nazism being a threat in America seems too far-fetched to be taken seriously. But we have a racist and xenophobic past in this country. We have politicians right now actually suggesting policies similar to what Hitler himself put in place, and they’re doing it with a straight face. There is a dark, scary part of the US, and it’s often the people who crow loudest about America’s greatness that push it further down that path.
At the same time, we have a history of people who are brave enough to stand up for what’s right, no matter what. Creating a comic book doesn’t seem like much, but art has always been one of the best ways to tell a truth about the world. The creation of Captain America took guts, and it took guts from Simon and Kirby to continue working on the character after terrorists tried to silence them.
Captain America punching Hitler seems like something that would get universal support in America, but there was a time when it was controversial. Even at his inception, the character was somebody who stood up against racism and xenophobia, whether that came from without or within. The average American can only hope to do so well.
The majority of this rant comes from three main sources:
- Books for Victory: Mayor La Guardia Rescues Captain America from American Nazis!
- Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed #93
- Joe Simon: My Life in American Comics