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Captain America: A pop culture Rorschach test

Detail from the cover of the Captain America Lives Again issue of the Avengers comic book.

It was the punch that sold a million comics, the sock in the jaw that amazed newsstand readers in 1941 and still carries resonance to this day. Right on the cover of Captain America #1, the star-spangled superhero  gives a knuckle-sandwich to none other than Adolf Hitler while a group of Nazi storm troopers stare on in amazement.

To understand why Captain America was an instant sensation when he was first created and remains enough of an iconic figure to headline a Hollywood summer blockbuster, it's necessary to remember the historical circumstances that gave birth to him. Captain America was co-created by two young Jewish cartoonists, named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). As historian Gerard Jones argues in his 2004 book Men of Tomorrow, Mr. Simon and Mr. Kirby were immigrant Jews who strongly identified with American nationalism.

"What Simon and Kirby together brought to the superhero was the passion of the immigrant, of the Jew," Jones noted. "Captain America brought … metaphors of masking to a new poignancy. Steve Rogers shuffles into a secret lab scrawny and slump shouldered, then is given an injection of a super-solider serum and is transformed into an Adonis. … The underfed ghetto kid transformed into a roof-rattling power by seizing American opportunities, the weary old-country survivor reborn as the new fighting Jew through the crucible of American freedom and violence. And through that immigrant passion Simon and Kirby captured an entire national awakening: America the provincial stirring itself to become a world power."

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The cover of Captain America #1 made a spectacular impression because it came out in March of 1941, 10 months before America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and entered the war. At the time, much of the country was still isolationist and many in the media were afraid of featuring Nazis as explicit villains for fear of offending those who wanted America to stay out of the war. While there had been patriotic superheroes before Captain America, notably an also-ran called The Shield, no previous character was so forthrightly advocating that America become a global dynamo.

"It was a provocation for intervention as well as an anti-Nazi commentary," notes Matthew J. Costello, a professor of political science at Saint Xavier University and author of the book Secret Identity Crisis, in an e-mail interview. Since his birth as a Nazi-fighter, Captain America has remained the most topical of superheroes, with adventures that have reflected the vicissitudes of American foreign policy from the early Cold War to Vietnam to the current war on terror. Yet despite the changing political tenor of the times, Captain America has persisted as a symbol of American exceptionalism, the belief in America's invincibility, its inherent goodness and its world-historical destiny.

As American as . . .

There is a strong link between the genre of the superhero and the idea of America as a necessary superpower. Other countries have tried to create their own patriotic superheroes - a litany of also-rans that range from Captain Canuck to Britain's Jack Staff to Italy's Capitan Italia or Israel's Shaloman. None of these characters have achieved the iconic resonance of Captain America.

Arguably, the most successful Canadian foray into the superhero genre has been the Marvel comics team Alpha Flight, created in 1979 by cartoonist John Byrne and the stars of a long lasting title. Amanda Murphy, a graduate student at Carleton University interested in Canadian nationalist superheroes, argues that it is significant that Canada's most popular heroes work as a team.

The partial success of Alpha Flight raises the possibility of whether other patriotic superheroes could emerge during a period when the United States seems to be entering relative decline. When Mr. Simon and Mr. Kirby created Captain America, the United States was about to enter its long reign as the most powerful nation on earth. But what happens when American power goes into the ditch?

Foreign policy analysts like Fareed Zakaria talk about a "post-American world." Will such a world still need Captain America? And can other patriotic superheroes emerge from rising powers like Brazil, India and China? It is too early to tell, but one factor worth bearing in mind is that comic books are no longer the mass market powerhouse they were in the 1940s. If Captain Brazil or Captain China make a splash, it will be through video games and action-adventure movies.

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The fog of war

While the war against Nazi Germany offered a measure of moral clarity, Captain America's involvement in subsequent wars - Vietnam and Iraq - have been much more problematic.

In 1973, as the Vietnam war was winding down, the theologian Robert Jewett wrote a polemic against "the Captain America Syndrome," the tendency to see the world in simplistic black-and-white terms, with the United States an embodiment of pure goodness and its enemies the incarnation of Satanic evil. While Jewett acknowledged that this worldview had roots in the Bible, he thought that the most prominent contemporary emblem of this type of thinking were heroes like Captain America.

As recent scholars have argued, Jewett was only partially right. Undeniably, the superhero has often been an avatar for an unthinking nationalism, particularly in 1950s stories featuring "Captain America, commie smasher."

Yet many cartoonists have also used Captain America to offer a more nuanced view of national identity and the costs of war.

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon both fought in the Second World War. Mr. Kirby in particular saw intense fighting in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. In the 1960s, Mr. Kirby would team up with writer Stan Lee to revive Captain America but this iteration of the character was marked by severe survivor's guilt over the death of his sidekick Bucky. Given Kirby's background, it is hard not to see an autobiographical element in the tales of Captain America as a superhero suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

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In 1972, writer Steve Engelhart took over writing Captain America and used the comic to directly address the political turmoil of the time. "I was writing a man who believed in America's highest ideals at a time when America's President was a crook," Mr. Engelhart has noted on his personal website. "I could not ignore that."

Realizing that his faith in the American government was misplaced, Captain America renounced his identity in 1974 and became "Nomad, the man without a country." As Mr. Engelhart's Captain America explains, "There was a time, yes, when the country faced a clear aggressor, and her people stood united against it! But now, nothing's that simple. Americans have many goals - some of them quite contrary to others!"

High treason

As Prof. Costello notes, Mr. Engelhart's storyline has inspired more recent writers, who have used Captain America to exlore the contemporary dilemmas of American power. Writers like Mark Waid, John Cassaday and Ed Brubaker have all used Captain America to make allegorical statements about contemporary politics.  "Waid reiterated the Engelhart vision by having Cap stripped of his citizenship for defying government policies in pursuit of justice," Prof. Costello notes. "Cassaday's storyline emphasizes the need to avoid racial stereotyping in the wake of 9/11, as the Captain protects Arab-Americans from attacks, but also pushes for a sophisticated understanding of the sources of terrorism and anti-American sentiment by suggesting that terrorists might have some actual grievances against the U.S." Mr. Brubaker authored a controversial storyline in which Captain America seemed to express incredulity at the Tea Party movement.

Writing in the conservative journal National Review Online in 2003, movie critic Michael Medved referred to the contemporary Captain America as "a traitor" who "seems disillusioned, embittered, and surprisingly sympathetic to terrorists." But in many ways, the use of the character to intervene in political debates is in keeping with the spirit of the earliest stories, which were very controversial in isolationist America. As Joe Simon recalled, "when the first issue came out we got a lot of … threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for."

Jeet Heer is a freelance writer based in Toronto

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