Captain America is easily one of the greatest and most recognizable comic book characters of all time. He is pretty much featured in every ‘top superheroes’ list and is often sited as one of Marvel’s flagship heroes, alongside the likes of Spider-Man, Thor, and Wolverine. Now with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America is more popular than ever, constantly toe-to-toe with Iron Man as the franchise’s most iconic character.
But, did you know that this almost never happened? Did you know that Captain America almost never existed in the Marvel Universe? For those of you who don’t know, we must go back in time to explain. We must go back to 1940, when Marvel Comics went by a different name; Timely Comics.
During this time, the comic publishing house that would one day become one of the industry’s forerunners, was nothing more than a small company trying to keep afloat amidst the explosion of DC’s (known as National Comics at the time) superhero characters. Realizing that superheroes were the future of comics, writer Joe Simon decided to create a character of his own for Timely. The character, inspired by Simon’s disgust over the Nazi agenda and America’s lack of involvement in combating them, was created with artist Jack Kirby in 1940 as a political statement. Thus, a superhero legend was born in the form of Captain America.
Captain America was an instant success, with his first issue selling almost 1 million copies; a monumental feat for comics at the time. There was something about the character which instantly connected with the public. Perhaps the connection came from Cap’s bravery, self-sacrifice, loyalty, humility, or even his relatable origins as a weakling with a big heart. No matter the reason, people couldn’t seem to get enough of him. Captain America quickly became Timely Comic’s most popular character, and even rivaled some of the biggest heroes from other publishers during the era.
But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and with the end of WW2 the popularity of Captain America began to wane. The writers of Captain America didn’t know what to do with the extremely patriotic Captain without the black-and-white evils of the Hitler to function as a backdrop. It was clear that they could not continue writing Captain America the same way. However, instead of keeping the character’s personality and integrity, they made the mistake of using him as branding tool to sell their stranger and less-marketable comics. As a result, the character suffered even more and was eventually dropped.
The character stayed in limbo from 1949-1953 where he went largely ignored by Timely Comics, which was renamed Atlas Comics in 1950. In 1953 Atlas tried to revive many of its forgotten superhero titles and Captain America was first on the list to receive the new treatment. Atlas had the idea to not only revive the characters, but to also rebrand them, with Captain America now called “Commie Smasher” and being pitted against any ‘anti-American’ enemy that Atlas could imagine; often changing Cap’s personality to fit their more cynical stories. The result of this change in Cap’s morals and integrity was disastrous. Fans rejected the revival, and this version of the character didn’t last a year before being cancelled.
This was a major blow to the character, and Captain America seemed as if he would never rise to popularity again. It seemed as if Captain America would die a very slow and painful death as he slowly vanished from the public eye. Years passed, and although Cap never technically disappeared from Atlas entirely, he seemed to be constantly ignored.
Captain America almost disappeared forever. In fact, it looked as if comics would never see the good Captain’s return.
However, by 1961 two things would happen that would change the comic book industry forever. The first was cosmetic. After going through years of branding turmoil, leadership changes, and financial hardships, the company finally permanently renamed itself as Marvel Comics, the moniker that would eventually go down in history as one of the biggest names in comics. The second thing was much more tangible; the debut of Stan Lee’s ‘Fantastic Four’ which marked the first major step in Lee’s rapid rise as the comic industry’s biggest name. It also rebooted Marvel’s in-story universe; tying it all into a single interconnected continuity. The combination of the company’s attempt to rebrand itself, Stan Lee’s revival of superhero comics, and a firm new direction for its publications, all made the time ripe for a triumphant return.
In 1964, after 10 years of obscurity and neglect, Captain America finally made his triumphant return in 1964’s Avengers #4. Stan Lee had insisted on the return of the icon that he grew up with, and personally championed the retcon (meaning retroactive continuity) that changed Captain America’s history to fit the new emerging canon of superheroes in the 60’s. Firstly, gone were the embarrassing Captain Americas of the 50’s, which were revealed to be imposters that took over for the real Captain America. Secondly, it was soon revealed that, although Captain America had been thought dead since 1945, he was instead hidden beneath the ice of the North Atlantic Ocean, frozen in an ageless state; waiting to be revived. His emergence from this ‘suspended animation’ in Avengers #4 was an instant success. The rest is history.
Finally, the person writing Captain America’s story was someone who cared about the character’s personality and rich history. It certainly showed, as Captain America quickly gained the status of Marvel’s moral center; the character that fans could count on to do the right thing, no matter the cost. He’s someone to aspire to, and we all want to be like him. Even after his 75-plus years of existence, Captain America still challenges us to be the best that we can be, and to consider our fellow man over ourselves. He remains one of the most beloved comic characters of all time. So, it’s astounding to think that he was almost erased from comics forever! Could you imagine if he never existed in the Marvel Universe that we know and love today? We certainly can’t!
Let us know what you think makes Captain America so popular!