Captain America introduced himself to Americans by punching Adolf Hitler in the face on the cover of Captain America Comics #1. While this is something the vast majority of people would applaud in this day and age, Timely Comics, the predecessor to Marvel Comics, debuted Captain America in early 1941, when the U.S. was still a neutral party in the wars of Europe and Asia.
The early Captain America stories read like episodes of Scooby Doo filtered through the sensibilities of Dennis Lehane or Christopher Nolan. Captain America (henceforth, I will refer to him as "Cap") and his kid sidekick Bucky (kid sidekicks were all the rage at the time) frequently fought eccentric Nazis and their henchmen, who came complete with gimmicky costumes and outrageous plans to bring the Third Reich to American shores. When defeated, these villains were often unmasked and revealed to be seemingly innocuous characters like a handsome movie star or an American mayor.
This all seems a bit silly until you consider that pretty much all of Cap's foes succeeded to some degree in their plans. In the world of Captain America, German spies and terrorists are able to assassinate the Director of the FBI, attack leading generals and admirals, kidnap international financiers, blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, and drive a super tank-drill through the New York subway. When Coney Island entertainers impersonate Cap and Bucky, they are captured and hung as punishment, a la the fake Batman in The Dark Knight.
Cap's stories were first and foremost crackerjack adventure, but they reflected anxiety about German spying and sabotage capabilities. During World War I, when the U.S. was still neutral, German saboteurs successfully destroyed a munitions depot in Jersey City, creating a massive explosion that damaged the nearby Statue of Liberty. In 1941, a large group of German spies was arrested in New York City. They were led by Frederick Dusquene, a Gestapo agent code named "Black Panther" who had previously trained Teddy Roosevelt in big game hunting and helped assassinate the British national hero Lord Kitchener at the height of World War I. The so-called Dusquene Spy Ring was undermined from the beginning by an FBI double agent and luckily, it was never able to commit the violence seen during World War I or in the pages of Captain America Comics.
Some readers were outraged by Cap's provocative anti-Nazi stance, but sales of his first issue are reported to have been close to a million copies. At the time, the majority of the American people were not friendly toward the Nazi or the Fascist. When Captain America Comics #1 was published in March 1941, 70 percent of Americans supported giving aid to Great Britain to help their war effort. In practice, this took on more forms than guns and ammunition. In July 1941, a U.S. Navy expedition was sent to occupy Iceland, which had previously been taken over by the British. This safeguarded American interests in the Atlantic and freed up British soldiers for other battlefronts. It also put American soldiers at risk, should the Germans have decided to invade Iceland.
Captain America wasn't even the only fictional character to take a violent stand against Hitler. In the 1941 Hollywood movie Man Hunt, directed by German emigrant and staunch anti-Nazi Fritz Lang, the opening scene shows the main character lining up Hitler in his gun site.
The world of Captain America fit right with the world of his readers. The United States was about to drop off the precipice into the Second World War and even the comic books were in on the action.
image credit: Andrew Buckingham, Creative Commons/flickr