The other day when I said that the style of WW2 era propagandistic superhero comics just couldn’t work today, but there is one anti-Nazi comic book of that era that deserves to be better remembered as an iconic image of the war period in America. This dramatic cover, published in March, 1941, marked the very first appearance of Captain America, who was given the very unusual honor of premiering in his own full length comic, instead of being tried out as a backup character in an anthology.
Why is this cover so different from the others? Where the DC covers were full-fledged propaganda posters, this is a proper comic book cover. Of the seven DC covers I posted before, five of them have propagandistic slogans as corny as any you would find on an official government poster, and the sixth is a highly stylized, static image of Superman standing astride the world holding Hitler and Tojo in each hand, clearly symbolizing the globally dominant power of the USA. The seventh cover, which depicts Superman ready to punch out the oddly jaundiced looking Japanese pilot of a warplane, is the only one that actually looks like it could be a comic book action scene as opposed to a propaganda poster, but the simplicity of the scene and the isolation of the two characters on a largely monochromatic background still feels kind of static.
On the other hand, we have Captain America-not about to punch Hitler, but clearly having just done so. There are Nazi officers all around, firing bullets at the Captain, who has clearly interrupted a planning session of “sabotage plans for U.S.A.,” which are conveniently laying on the ground, labelled in English. By opening with such a dynamic and dramatic scene, Captain America is portrayed from the beginning as a man of action and the champion of American virtue-but not necessarily the vehicle of the official government line and propaganda.
Why is that? Well, notice the date-March 1941. The US did not enter WW2 until December of that year, but the creators and publishers of Captain America at Marvel Comics (then called Timely Comics) were clearly urging us to. It is of course no coincidence that both the writer (Joseph Simon) and artist (Jack Kirby) were both New York Jews, the sons of immigrants from Europe. In fact, at this time basically the entire comic books industry was New York Jews. Naturally, they were no fans of Hitler, and this cover reflects what must have been a universal fantasy at the time. Certainly I myself, as a member of a New York Jewish family born decades after WW2, can hardly imagine anything more satisfing than smashing Hitler in the face. Even the staunchest critics of modern US foreign policy should admit that the cover of Captain America #1 is best summed up in one word: awesome.