IT IS NOT AN ACCIDENT that Jack Kirby’s iconic image of Captain America “smashing through” and coming “face to face with Hitler” introduced American readers to a new kind of hero in March 1941. Born about a year prior to the United States’s entry into World War II, Captain America existed, uniquely, both in the world of fantasy that superheroes always occupy and in the political reality of the prewar United States. The cover of Captain America #1 provided a powerful visual rhetoric that both condensed and anticipated the United States’s evolving relationship to the global conflict that it would formally enter on December 11, 1941. Indeed, the cover so strongly streamlined the complicated geopolitical dimensions of the war, transforming them into a simple rhetoric of ultimate good versus ultimate evil, that its symbolic economy still retains its power over 75 years later.
What are we to make, then, of the resurgence of this imagery in the viral video of white supremacist Richard B. Spencer, creator of the term “alt-right,” getting punched in the face on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration? The original video has now logged over two million views on YouTube. It has been recut and remixed to the music of everyone from New Order and David Bowie to Céline Dion and dubstep artist Desembra, and has become fodder for innumerable GIFs and memes. A few days after the video went viral, the incident was revived on Twitter when it was revealed that Spencer had actually been punched twice that day by anonymous anarchists, both of whom managed to make their escape before being apprehended. And as anyone who spends any time on social media knows, the attacks on Spencer spawned a sprawling debate on the ethics and efficacy of punching Nazis.
It’s not the first time we’ve been here. At the time of his origin, Captain America was surprisingly controversial. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had not yet happened, and there was still significant opposition to a potential war effort. This opposition came from, among other sources, the America First Committee, an isolationist and anti-Semitic organization whose motto “America First” has become an important catchphrase for Donald Trump. The America First Committee, which was founded by Yale students in 1940, was not a fringe group: it included future president Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. It urged the United States to maintain peace with Hitler at all costs, even if it meant the defeat of England. This position was, from our vantage point, surprisingly popular. Jack Kirby and his publisher Timely Comics got so much hate mail after Kirby’s Captain America cover that New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally offered police protection to the Timely office. Despite the controversy, however, Captain America #1 sold nearly a million copies, making it the company’s all-time biggest seller.
The power of Kirby’s cover rests in the way it simplified the complex web of investments and intricate network of connections that were creating the possibility for US involvement in the war. Understanding the relationship between German inflation and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria might have been beyond the scope of most Americans, but understanding a symbolically laden standoff between good and evil was not. In a simple symbolic language, Captain America was outfitted from head-to-toe in the American flag and held a bulletproof shield. The comic was to serve as a political education of sorts for young boys who would potentially make up the next generation of patriots and soldiers.
Captain American was not the only politically charged superhero to come out of this moment. In fact, MLJ Comics (subsequently renamed, after its most profitable creation, Archie Comics) had introduced a character known as the Shield several months before Captain America made his debut. MLJ rightfully accused their rivals of copying the Shield’s imagery to create Captain America, and Timely was forced to change the shape of Captain America’s shield in response to MLJ’s complaints. But the Shield didn’t last, in large part because his adventures lacked the political gravitas that Jack Kirby infused into his version of an American super-patriot.
Both the resonance of Simon and Kirby’s creation and the controversy over Kirby’s cover can be understood in relation to the background the pair shared with many other early comic book creators. While the United States might have had multiple reasons for entering World War II, the desire to rescue Jews, sadly, was not prominent among them. In fact, the United States had been systematically limiting immigration precisely from countries that embattled Jewish populations were trying the hardest to flee. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were reportedly horrified by the events unfolding in Europe, and were among those who desired an early United States entry into the war. Kirby, who had been born Jacob Kurtzberg, and Joe Simon, born Hymie Simon — like Kirby’s later and more famous collaborator, Stan Lee, who was born Stanley Martin Lieber — were the products of recent European Jewish immigration. Though they were both born in the United States, their parents had emigrated from Austria and England respectively. They had particular and obvious reasons for supporting US intervention and reviling Nazi Germany, reasons that Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay draws upon and elaborates in its fictionalized version of the controversy over Captain America #1’s cover.
Nirit Anderman rightfully claims “nearly all great superheroes were created by Jews.” Scholars have accounted for this striking fact in a number of ways: by examining the exclusionary policies of other kinds of publishing versus the relative openness of “lowbrow” comic book publishing, for instance, or by exploring the outsider nature of comic book heroes themselves. But unlike Superman, who struggles with various aspects of his identity as Clark Kent and as a superhero, or Batman and Spider-Man, who both frequently brood darkly over their fate, Captain America’s robust patriotism doesn’t seem to allow any ambiguity that might mark him as outside mainstream American norms and values. Like Kirby and Simon, Captain America’s alter ego Steve Rogers was born in the state of New York (in this case, Brooklyn), but unlike his creators, Rogers is a blond and blue-eyed super patriot.
At the same time, Kirby and Simon drop hints that Rogers is not as straightforwardly Anglo-American as he seems, for instance by crediting his powers to a serum created by a scientist modeled on the most famous German Jewish émigré of all, Albert Einstein. In this way, the character punching Hitler on Kirby’s cover is both a mainstream American and a Jew. Indeed, in pointed opposition to the doctrines of the America First Committee, early comic books were a world in which the two identities were inextricably intertwined.
The idea of directly and violently smashing fascism continues to have a broad appeal, as can be seen in such examples as Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds (in which Hitler is graphically murdered in a movie theater) or in the cinematic focus on Hitler’s death in film’s like Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004), The Death of Adolf Hitler (Rex Firkin, 1973), and Hitler: The Last Ten Days (Ennio de Concini, 1973). Of course it’s worth noting that Kirby and Simon’s creation proved adaptable to conflicts that did not have quite the same potential for consensus across the political spectrum as that against the Nazis. Later Captain America covers would display the headline “Captain America … Commie Smasher.” The cover of Captain America #78 would ask “How Much Suspense and Action Can You Stand?” while promising to allow readers to “See Captain America Defy The Communist Hordes!!!” But the power of Captain America’s right hook to Hitler’s jaw has also, more recently, made itself available for appropriation on the left as well.
Marvel Comics threw all fear of identity politics out the window in 2016 when it began publishing G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, the story of a superhero whose alter ego is a teenaged Muslim girl named Kamala Khan. Khan’s world is multicultural and, though the comic is not usually political, it also does not shrink from occasionally addressing overtly political issues like gentrification, voting, and gerrymandering. Ms. Marvel was a surprise hit for the company, outselling many of their established superheroes and suggesting that Marvel fans might be more open to diversity than the majority of Americans — or if not the majority, then certainly the significant minority who supported Donald Trump’s campaign and its xenophobic and racist call for a registry for Muslims like Kamala Khan.
Many fans of the series saw Chuck Worthy, a villainous politician, as a stand-in for Trump. Trump presents an intriguing case within comic book history, insofar as he is, as an established New York celebrity, one of the few presidents to appear in a comic before he actually took office. Trump has appeared in Marvel’s books since the 1980s, beginning in 1988 when Tony Stark mentions having owned a floor in Trump Tower. More recent Marvel comics have taken a more aggressive stance toward Trump. In New Avengers #48 (2008), the African-American superhero Luke Cage lifts a limo over his head to allow a speeding ambulance to pass by. When Cage puts the limo down, its occupant is revealed to be none other than Trump, who threatens to sue the Avenger. Upon promptly telling him to get his “ass” back in the car, Cage is met thunderous applause from the crowd of New Yorkers. Another example that could only have come from the complicated universe of possibilities created by Marvel appeared in the comic Spider-Gwen Annual (2016). In this comic, set in an alternate universe, Captain America is a woman of color who takes on a Trump-themed villain. A spin on the longstanding Marvel villain M.O.D.O.K. (Mental Organism Designed Only For Killing), a deadly cyborg with a very large head, M.O.D.A.A.K. (Mental Organism Designed Only As America’s King) bears Trump’s face and is depicted ordering around Mexican workers near the border. Marvel’s competitor DC, meanwhile, may have been even more prescient (if less direct) in its allusions to Trump. In his 1980s retcon of Superman, the artist-writer John Byrne transformed the hero’s arch-villain Lex Luthor from a mad scientist into an evil Metropolis businessman who subsequently wrote an autobiography much like The Art of the Deal and, in the early 2000s, became president of the United States.
Ms. Marvel came into conflict with Trump most directly, however, not in the pages of her official comic book but in a drawing by a fan who recreated Kirby’s image with the teenaged superhero punching the then-presidential candidate. Matt Stefani, an illustrator by trade, created an image that is both a careful homage to Kirby’s work and a more avowedly political version of it. Kirby and Simon shrunk from openly attacking the racial politics of the United States, including the anti-Semitism that impacted their own lives, preferring to pit their American hero against the forces of evil overseas. Stefani’s cover reproduces Kirby’s iconography but locates the xenophobia and racism Ms. Marvel is fighting squarely in the United States. Stefani’s image quickly went viral and has become almost as famous as Kirby’s original.
In an even more recent image that he titled “Alt-Right Hook,” the cartoonist Matt Bors carefully replicates Jack Kirby’s original image to make a commentary on the vapidness of the debate surrounding the Richard Spencer incident. While Bors’s Captain America looks strikingly like the original, with the addition of a kerchief that alludes to the puncher’s anarchist politics, Bors replaces Hitler with Spencer to remind us that punching Nazis is an American tradition. Bors’s image deviates from Kirby’s original most strikingly in its background. Rather than a crowd of befuddled Nazis surrounding Captain America’s display of awesome raw power, Bors populates his scene with picture-taking onlookers. One says, “How Rude! Violence has never thwarted Nazis!” Another declares, “You’ll only alienate moderate Nazis.” And a third, standing next to an overturned trash bin, opines, “Even worse you hurt this innocent garbage.” Bors turns the myopic heroics of the original image back on its audience with an accusation of complicity that is absent from the original image. It directly asks the reader/onlooker to consider his position in relationship to the heroic violence that is being depicted.
Captain America, like many superheroes, fell into unpopularity after World War II and was discontinued in the 1950s. Kirby and his new collaborator Stan Lee brought him back, rescued from a block of ice by their creations the Avengers, in the midst of the United States’s war efforts in Vietnam. The revived Rogers became increasingly uncertain about American patriotism over the course of the 1960s, and in a story line from 1974 he fought a group of white supremacists intent on taking over the US government, unmasking one of their agents, amazingly, as Richard Nixon. In this respect, the character seems to have metamorphosed from a figure of straightforward patriotism to one whose greatest resonance lies in reflecting Americans’ ambivalences about war and nationalism.
So what does this tell us about the reemergence and reinterpretation of Kirby’s cover in recent years? In part, this phenomenon seems designed as a challenge to the ambivalence of those on the left who question the propriety of upping the game in the United States’s current struggle against fascism. Like the popular blog post, currently circulating on social media, titled “On The Propriety Of Punching a Nazi,” Bors’s cartoon criticizes liberal reticence.
Both strains — the ambivalence toward nationalism and the recommitment to combating fascism — exist in complicated tension in Marvel Comics’s recent reimagination of Captain America. In 2014, Marvel upended the franchise by announcing that, since Steve Rogers had lost his powers in an epic battle, the mantle of Captain America would be passed on to another man: Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon, Marvel’s first African-American superhero. A year later, Marvel, perhaps bowing to pressure created by the film franchise, reintroduced Steve Rogers as Captain America. But Wilson remains in the role, and serves as Captain America in the Avengers.
Nick Spencer, who writes both story lines, has tried to downplay the politically charged significance of transferring Captain America’s mantle to a black man:
If you’re liking what we’re doing in Captain America: Sam Wilson, with a more topical, of-the-moment take, we’ve got a lot more of that coming your way; but if you’re looking for that classic, timeless version, the one that’s steeped in the Greatest Generation with Cap fighting the face of true evil, now we’ve got that for you as well […] The country is as divided as it’s ever been, and Steve is one of a kind; he’s a unifying figure, someone we can all look up to, [and] someone we can all put our faith in.
Much can be said about today’s political landscape, but perhaps the most basic truth is that we find ourselves in a time of upheaval. Like Spencer’s discussion of what version of Captain America is relevant to whom, the Trump campaign and presidency has brought the question of national belonging into stark relief. Captain America’s evolution, his disappearances and reappearances, his existence in bodies of multiple races and genders, has much to teach us about the impossibility of understanding good and evil in simple metaphors — and the seemingly ever-present desire to do so anyway. Punching Nazis may not solve everything or arguably anything, but the sense of satisfaction its depiction brings us, it seems, is here to stay.
Mark Lofgren, a senior double major in History and Film Studies at Lawrence University, assisted with the research for this essay.