The Shelf Is Half Full

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Archive for the category “Captain America”

Superhero Spotlight – Captain America

It is still Memorial Day in my timezone as I write this article, and I’d like to start by respectfully extending my thanks to every American soldier who has laid down his or her life in the service of my country. They paid the ultimate price so that I can enjoy the security and freedom to enjoy my life as an American citizen, and I will always be grateful for their sacrifice and for those who have served and continue to serve.

It only seems fitting that today I shine the spotlight on probably the most popular American soldier in comic books, the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan. Known to his friends as Steve Rogers, the super soldier is known around the world as…

Captain America

Steve Rogers

The Comic Book Origin

Steve Rogers was a scrawny, sickly kid from Brooklyn, New York, the son of Irish immigrants who wished to serve his country in World War II. After volunteering as a test subject for an experimental super soldier serum, Steve’s body was transformed to the absolute pinnacle of human ability. With his enhanced physical strength, agility and stamina, Steve was a weapon that the Nazis were ill-prepared to deal with. While these physical traits made Captain America a superhuman, it was the intangible traits of leadership, kindness and unflinching moral character that helped transform Steve Rogers into an inspirational figure. Fighting alongside the Howling Commandos and his sidekick and friend Bucky Barnes, Steve served his country until a fateful final battle that left him frozen in ice.

But Captain America’s story wasn’t done yet. When the Avengers discovered him frozen but still alive, they thawed him from the ice and Steve naturally found his place as the leader of the Avengers team. While he is a man from another era and often finds himself at odds with the America of today, Steve’s courage, charisma and compassion have made him one of the greatest superheroes of another era. He’s stood up in the face of certain death, as indomitable as his vibranium shield. He’s helped to save the world numerous times and become perhaps the most respected leader in the Marvel Universe.

Simon

The Real Life Origin

Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two American Jews who were angry and afraid of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Consciously choosing to make a politically minded hero, they created Steve Rogers as very deliberate war propaganda; the first issue debuted a full year before the United States entered World War II after the Pearl Harbor Bombings. While not without their (sometimes violent) detractors, Captain America proved to be an extremely popular character. The iconic first issue where Steve threw a right cross at the Fuhrer sold close to a million copies and Steve’s popularity remained close to this level throughout World War II. Though his stories originally had him going against Nazi spies infiltrating America, Steve would soon become a soldier battling in Europe when America entered the fray. And many of the most loyal buyers were American soldiers.

It is interesting to note that Captain America’s celebrated return (and intro into the Marvel universe proper) in the 1960’s occurred only a few months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The beloved president’s death weighed heavily upon the country, and it seems only fitting that a symbol of what is right and strong about the country was brought back to comics in response. Steve has been a steady presence ever since then, usually as a leading member of the Avengers cast but also in several of his own series. Though his popularity has waned at times as Americans have grown disenchanted with the nation, Steve is now enjoying a surge of public awareness thanks to his presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Captain

The Symbol of (Changing) American Ideals

One of the more interesting aspects of Captain America is that he is, by his very nature, a symbol of the United States and he thus has to be presented in a way that almost any American can relate to him and aspire to be more like him. To this end, Steve is almost apolitical in a sense, neither too conservative nor too liberal. If anything, one of his defining traits is his willingness to listen to all sides and to try to make a decision that will best serve everybody. And while the original Captain America was a gung-ho super patriotic soldier because of the time he was featured in, Steve has proven to have a more worldly view and to not possess any of America’s prejudices against various “enemy” nations or cultures. He is just here to defend the country and the world from evil, whatever form that may take.

Indeed, during periods where America was not at war and public conscience was more introspective, looking at the controversies and corruption in our government, Steve has proven to be a discerning citizen and not somebody who blindly supports the nation when it is in the wrong. He is a true patriot in that he loves America, but wants the best for it. If the country is doing something right, it should be kept that way, and if the country is doing something wrong, that should be changed. When Steve returned to comics in the 1960’s he had the first African American superhero, The Falcon, as his crimefighting partner during a time when the civil rights of black Americans was at a boiling point. This is an example of how Steve manages to be progressive simply by being a good man who treats people with decency and respect.

Chris Evans

What Steve Rogers Means To Me

Captain America has, over the course of the last year, become my second favorite superhero, behind only Wonder Woman. I initially had trouble connecting with the character because I’ve never considered myself to be especially pro-American, but came to enjoy Steve Rogers as a person. He is everything I want to be as a person; courageous, compassionate, discerning, and respectful of everyone regardless of their background. I think above all, it is his humility that really speaks to me; in a world where gods boast and inventors loudly proclaim their greatness, Steve is the quiet soldier who does what is right because it is the right thing to do. Whether he’s a super soldier or a ninety-pound frail kid, Steve’s inherent character makes him a hero.

But perhaps what Steve had done for me that is most meaningful is that through his adventures, I have found a way to be patriotic. Seeing a man who loves his country and is unafraid to loudly proclaim that he is American, but still possesses the moral fiber to question where America goes wrong and to hold it accountable is truly inspiring. Steve is what America’s values are; he stands for liberty and justice, not just for some, but for all. He is the ideals that we may never quite reach, but that we should always be striving for.

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Supervillain Spotlight – Red Skull

Captain America is one of the most popular superheroes in modern times, one of Marvel’s cash cows as part of The Avengers as well as headlining his own series of movies. And while the character’s popularity has somewhat fluctuated with the times, he has been an icon for almost seventy-five years, far longer than any other Marvel character. And he was popular right from the beginning; the first issue of Captain America sold millions of copies when it hit the stands in 1941. It depicted Steve Rogers punching Adolf Hitler a few years before the United States even got involved with World War II, and the comic would be an important propaganda tool to encourage buyers to purchase war bonds. The comic books were also cheap to reproduce and ship overseas to the American troops, where Steve became quite popular as the embodiment of American military might and the ideals of the country at the time.

Punching Hitler

While the image of Captain America dropping Adolf Hitler is iconic, there are numerous reasons that it doesn’t make sense to use Hitler as the actual arch-villain of Captain America comics. For one, Adolf Hitler was a real person, the tyrannical leader of Nazi Germany and generally considered to be one of the most horrible people in human history. While there is a time and place for historical fiction, I do not think the continuing saga of comic books or the world of Marvel superheroes is the place to do it. And since Adolf Hitler committed suicide and the Allied Forces won World War II, it would be in very poor taste to continue to use Hitler in modern comics. There is a reason that Adolf Hitler is never actually depicted in Captain America: The First Avenger, after all, and I think it simply boils down to good taste.

So it’s no surprise that Jim Simon and Jack Kirby created a separate, more fantastic character to serve as Captain America’s greatest enemy. While his birth name is Johann Schmidt, the world knows him by a much more terrifying alias.

The Red Skull

Cosmic Cube

The Comic Book Origin

Johann Schmidt was a German orphan who orchestrated his way into becoming Adolf Hitler’s right hand man. Possessing a ruthless killer instinct and a keen intellect, Schmidt was made the leader of Nazi terrorist activities, specializing in espionage and sabotage. Wishing to inspire fear in his enemies, Hitler had a special mask designed for Schmidt that would be the face of fear to all who opposed the Nazis, and Schmidt became The Red Skull. Though he initially had plans to overthrow Hitler and rule the world himself, the Skull’s plans never came to fruition as the United States countered with their own iconic champion; Captain America. Steve Rogers and Red Skull battled many times but were both presumed to be causalities in the war.

When Marvel Comics brought Captain America back to life to lead The Avengers, it was only fitting that Red Skull would return. Resurrected by A.I.M. scientists, Schmidt’s ambition and charisma made him a powerful leader once again; in his most famous story he used the cosmic cube to try to warp reality to his will, but was eventually defeated by Captain America once again. His body soon aged to it’s true age, leaving him a frail old man who died in one last duel with Rogers. But as it turns out, Red Skull’s mind would later be implanted in a clone of Steve Rogers, making him the Captain’s equal in combat. He has returned several times, always with the goal of world domination in mind.

Simon and Kirby

The Real Life Origin

It is somewhat ironic that one of the most iconic and fearsome images in comics was in fact inspired by melting fudge on a bowl of ice cream. Joe Simon was attempting to create a villain for Captain America in order, and saw fudge melting over half-eaten sundae that vaguely resembled a human figure. Inspired, he created the character’s basic look. Since “Hot Fudge” was hardly a suitable name for a Nazi terrorist, the name “Red Skull” was created, inspired by the cherry on top of the sundae.

While Johann Schimdt is the character most associated with the name “Red Skull”, he was actually the second one introduced to readers. The original version was named George Maxon and was easily defeated by Captain America in the first handful of issues. Schmidt was introduced as being the true Red Skull and was a much more formidable enemy.

Weaving

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Red Skull

While Red Skull in the comics certainly has an important place in history and is one of the greatest designs ever for a supervillain, I think the character’s history is a bit too complicated to put him in the elite class of comic book villains. In fact, I will argue that the version of the character that appears in Captain America: The First Avenger is the best interpretation the character has ever had. The character is still the arch-enemy of Steve Rogers in World War II and works as Hitler’s right hand man, but there are several important tweaks. First off, he is not an ordinary man; he is the benefactor (and victim) of an earlier version of the serum that eventually makes Steve Rogers into the titular hero. This instantly makes him a much more credible threat and is a simpler way to go about this than “his conscience is moved into a clone of Steve Rogers”.

The film also integrates the cosmic cube into his story in the form of The Tesseract, an Infinity Stone that he discovers and uses to fuel his weapons. While the cube is one of the defining aspects of the Red Skull’s character, it was not used in the comics until the 1960’s; using it as part of Red Skull’s story in World War II significantly alters the course of the MCU’s history. Another aspect that wasn’t originally part of Red Skull’s World War II era stories is that he is the creator and leader of the terrorist group Hydra; again, a much more terrifying threat in the MCU than in the comics.

Suspense

From Hitler and Nazis to Red Skull and Hydra

Using the power of the Tesseract, Johann Schmidt and Hydra effectively supplant Hitler and the Nazis as the primary threat of World War II. One could argue that in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Red Skull’s plans for global genocide have probably made him a more reviled historical figure that the fuhrer. And for the record, I think that’s a good thing; comic book movies are fantasy, after all, and using something as serious as Adolf Hitler as part of the often silly world of Marvel doesn’t really work.

Red Skull is a fascinating look at how comic books can take real life threats and turn them into something more colorful, more entertaining and infinitely less threatening. Johann Schmidt is essentially a caricature of Adolf Hitler, a Saturday Morning Cartoon version of one of the most evil men in world history. While more mature stories sometimes use Nazi imagery as part of Red Skull’s character in an attempt to unsettle us, I think it is safe to say that at this point, the Red Skull stands on his own. In the confines of his fictional universe, he’s far worse than the Nazis ever were. Fortunately, that fictional universe has plenty of heroes that will never allow a monster like Schmidt to win.

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