In 1941, 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 it.
Nazi Support in America
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. A group called the German American Bund held a 20,000-person protest in New York City in 1939. Though many Americans despised Hitler, he had enough support that American Nazi rallies in the 1930s were not uncommon.
That support 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 butt kicked by the newly drawn Captain America. Said Simon in his memoir, “Hitler was a marvelous foil, a ranting maniac.”
Backlash Against Captain America
Groups like the German American Bund had the advantage of organization. The pro-Hitler groups in America were efficient in their protests and often loud enough to drown out the majority that opposed the monster’s policies. Other groups, like the America First Committee, opposed American intervention in Europe on the basis of isolationism, but couldn’t help also mixing in anti-Semitic rhetoric that would have made Hitler proud.
Captain America was as political a comic as any. Written and drawn by Simon and Kirby, both Jews, the comic had a cover date of March 1941 – nine months before the Pearl Harbor attack pushed America into World War II. Following up the image of Cap decking the Fuhrer, Captain America #2 featured a similarly anti-Hitler cover.
The anti-Hitler sentiment didn’t go unnoticed. Simon and Kirby 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. Luckily for the employees, it happened that New York City’s mayor Fiorello LaGuardia happened to be a comics fan.
Looking Out for Comics
Timely Comics received a police guard due to the threats. Shortly after the police arrived, 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.
Images: Marvel Comics, Fred Palumbo