First appearing in March 1941, Marvel Comics’ star-spangled super soldier, Steve Rogers/Captain America, has become one of Marvel’s most recognisable and celebrated characters not just for his super patriotism or for famously punching out Adolf Hitler, but also for being a prominent member and leader of Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers. Having successfully made the jump to live-action, Cap is now a widely celebrated, mainstream superhero with a rich and full history and what better way to celebrate this than by spending some time paying tribute to the star-spangled man with a plan himself!
Story Title: Case No.1. Meet Captain America, Captain America and The Riddle of the Red Skull, and other untitled stories
Published: March 1941
Writer: Joe Simon
Artist: Jack Kirby
By 1941, World War Two was in full swing; Nazi Germany had overtaken Denmark and Norway in April 1940 and, after a period of resistance to joining the war effort, the United States entered the fray during 1941, providing much need support against the combined “Axis powers” of Germany, Japan, and Italy.
As a result of the ever-escalating conflict, patriotism and national pride was high, especially in America, and it was at this turbulent time that Joe Simon and the legendary Jack Kirby first debuted Steve Rogers/Captain America and his kid sidekick, James Buchanan Barnes/Bucky, two characters who would not only take the fight directly to the enemies of America and the free world but also encourage readers to support the war effort by any means necessary.
Captain America Comics #1 is a bumper forty-five page debut issue for the First Avenger that features four short stories (and even a two-page text story with only a couple of accompanying drawings and panels) but only two of these stories have actual titles.
The first, “Case No.1. Meet Captain America”, details the origin of the titular star-spangled Avenger; the War is in full swing and, while America faces real threat from the vast Axis armies overseas, they also face the threat of sabotage, treason, and terrorist bombings on their home turf thanks to the actions of the “Fifth Column”, spies and traitors from the Axis forces who perpetrated such heinous attacks.
To combat this threat, the President of the United States has J. Arthur Grover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) take two high-ranking military officers to “a sinister-looking Curio Shop” in a “shabby tenement district” in Washington, D.C. that is actually the front for a highly sophisticated laboratory.
There, they join other attendees in witnessing a frail, young man who was deemed unfit for active service be miraculously transformed into a man in peak mental and physical condition by Professor Reinstein’s mysterious serum. Reinstein thus dubs the young man “Captain America” and explains to his awestruck audience that he is to be the first in a “corps of super-agents” who will actively oppose spies and saboteurs on America’s home turf.
Unfortunately, one of the men in attendance is one of these spies (so much for the military’s stringent background checks…); with only a few frantic shots, the spy kills both Reinstein and Grover and destroys the only remaining vial of the super-soldier serum! Luckily, Captain America is able to subdue the spy, driving him to stumble into a bank of laboratory equipment and causing him to be summarily electrocuted to death.
Sadly, though, the damage is done; with Reinstein dead, the serum destroyed, and the laboratory trashed, America’s hopes of building an army of super solders are dashed. Undeterred, Cap enlists in the army as Private Steve Rogers whilst also battling enemies of American soil as Captain America. Cap’s heroic antics catch the awe and imagination of his regiment’s mascot, young Bucky Barnes. Bucky is both stunned and exhilarated to stumble onto the fact that Steve is his patriotic hero, literally walking in as Steve is halfway through changing into his Captain America costume in perhaps the most anticlimactic and convenient of accidents. If you thought that was contrived and ridiculous though, Steve decides that the only logical course of action is for Bucky to join him as his partner. And so, donning a brightly-coloured outfit, a domino mask, and the laziest codename ever (Bucky goes by “Bucky”…), Captain America and his woefully-inexperienced sidekick pledge themselves to opposing the Axis powers in all their forms.
They continue this fight in the issue’s next story, which goes untitled; in this story, a stage performer known as Sando has his diminutive, hunchbacked accomplice Omar stun audiences with predictions of the future, all of which detail terrorist attacks or destructive events. Although Bucky believes the two to be fakes, Cap is convinced when Omar’s prediction of the destruction of a nearby bridge comes true and the two suit up to confront the two stage performers.
Cap doesn’t pull any punches, aggressively questioning Sando and then laying him out with a punch while Omar makes a quick getaway. I wouldn’t mind but the two haven’t even done anything yet or been proven to be responsible!
Luckily Conveniently, Cap’s war-time paranoia turns out to be true as, when he races after Omar, he finds both Bucky and a beautiful reporter named Betty Ross (no relation, I’m sure) being held hostage at gunpoint by Sando and Omar, who are revealed to be working in league with Hitler’s spies to cause disasters across the country. Unimpressed, Cap and Bucky make short work of the Fuehrer’s goons, with Bucky swiftly tackling one and tossing the bomb he planned to use to kill them all out of the window before disappearing into the night.
The issue’s third story also goes untitled and introduces a crazed Nazi who is known only as Rathcone but who comes to brand himself “The Dictator”. A malformed, goblin-like man, Rathcone has his own plans for world conquest and favours crafting little chess pieces that resemble his opposition, announcing his intentions to kill a target over the radio, and then employing a number of Nazi agents to carry out the deed. Captain America and Bucky seek Rathcone out after the self-styled Dictator makes good on his promise to kill Admiral Perkins; the witnesses to the gruesome visage of Perkins’ execution are whipped into a frenzy and baying for blood but Cap and Bucky waste no time in tracking down the assassin responsible for the murder.
Despite Cap questioning (presumably in jest) Bucky’s ability to handle “a man’s job”, Bucky successfully tackles the killer and Cap is all set to force information out of him when an unseen assailant kills the man. This is also the first instance of Cap using his shield to…well, shield himself from gunfire, however neither he nor his kid partner are able to find the shooter. Next, Rathcone targets General Ellsworth; coincidentally (and conveniently) enough, Rogers and Bucky are ordered to report for “special duties” at Ellsworth’s hut, which means that they are the first to discover the General dead at his table!
The media, of course, has a field day and Rathcone is so enthused by the two murders he has orchestrated that he begins to set his sights on the lofty goal of invasion; but first, he plots to remove Cap and Bucky from his chess board by…having his goons lure them into a trap that Bucky walks right into. Returning to his tent and finding that Bucky has gone off alone, Steve pulls on the stars and stripes and sets out to rescue him, making short work of Rathcone’s muscleman, Herr Strangler, in the process. Rathcone, however, holds Cap at gunpoint and, typically, wastes his best chance to off the two masked men by explaining his master plan, which gives Cap the chance to lay him out with a good, old-fashioned punch to the jaw.
After freeing Bucky, the two are set upon by Rathcone’s goons, with Bucky again requiring Cap’s assistance when two Nazis pin him down and try to stab him (I mean, it’s almost as if Cap has partnered up with a child with no training or physical acumen of any kind…). Although Rathcone recovers, tries to make a break for it, and even attempts to fight Cap off by smashing a chair over the Avenger’s head, Cap easily puts him down for the count and they uncover detailed documents of the self-styled Dictator’s plans to put an end to his scheming.
The issue concludes with the first ever appearance of the Red Skull, Cap’s Nazi counterpart who would go on to be his most iconic, and enduring, archenemy. Though the Red Skull is typically the codename of Johann Schmidt, in his debut story it’s actually the persona adopted by George Maxon, a seemingly innocuous American businessman who has turned traitor and is working for the Nazis. Like Rathcone, the Red Skull’s modus operandi is to target influential military personnel in order to weaken America’s will and capabilities; he does this by stalking them, attacking them, and getting them in a choke hold all while chanting “Look at me! Look at death!” to, apparently, will his victims to death with a death gaze. So notorious is the Red Skull that he’s become something of an urban legend amongst the military personnel but, when Major Croy is found dead, the latest victim of the Red Skull, Cap takes it upon himself to investigate.
Annoyed at being left behind (to be fair, I don’t blame Cap for this but, at the same time, it is extremely random (and, again, convenient) that he decided not to bring Bucky along this time…), Bucky decides to conduct his own investigation and (…somehow) stumbles upon the Red Skull’s secret lair where he is outlying his plan to overthrow the American government by “[looting] the First National Bank” because nothing says “Superhuman Nazi Terrorist” like a bit of old-fashioned bank robbery!
Thanks to some shoddy masonry, Bucky falls into the villain’s lair as he moves to warn Cap of the Red Skull’s plan and, once again, finds himself being held as a hostage; this time around, though, Bucky’s slightly more feisty and doesn’t let himself get captured without a fight but, wouldn’t you know it, Cap also found the Red Skull’s lair and arrives just in time to bash up his goons, though the Red Skull manages to slip away.
The next day, Steve, Bucky, and their squad are introduced to Mister Maxon who has come to join them in watching his new plane take a test flight. However, the plane catches fire in mid-flight and plummets to the ground in a fireball. Steve is disgusted that Maxon only cares about the loss of the plan rather than the men who were in it and is reprimanded by his superior officer as a result but vows to investigate further as Captain America.
Later that evening, the Red Skull strikes again, literally crossing General Manor off his hit list, but is distracted from escaping into the night by the General’s wife. Though this allows Cap to get the drop on the Red Skull, he is knocked out cold when the nefarious Nazi smashes a chair over his head (which is odd as Cap shrugged off a similar shot easily enough earlier in the comic…). Luckily, Bucky flies in and rescues Cap from the Red Skull’s death gaze and, upon regaining consciousness, Cap fells his foe with a punch so hard that it shatters the Red Skull’s head! It turns out, of course, that the Red Skull was wearing a “false-face” and that Maxon had used the guise of the Red Skull, and a hypodermic needle filled with poison, to terrorise and murder his victims. Quite why he felt the need to make such a dramatic affair of it all with his “look at death” spiel is beyond me; it’s not like any of his killings took place in public or had any witnesses, after all.
Anyway, Maxon makes one last, desperate lunge for Bucky and, in the fracas, rolls over onto his own needle and dies! Interestingly, Bucky questions why Cap didn’t try to intervene and he simply replies: “I’m not talking, Bucky”. Regardless, with the Red Skull dead, Cap and Bucky flee into the night, returning to their tent for some much-needed rest (Steve loves to puff away on his pipe after a good bit of manslaughter…), and ready for more adventures as Captain America and Bucky!
Captain America Comics #1 is little more than what you might expect it to be; a bright, colourful piece of patriotic propaganda featuring a superhero literally wrapped in Ol’ Glory herself and tackling foreign enemies on American soil. It’s a brief, action-packed affair full of contrivances, conveniences, and long out-dated dialogue and virtues, but it’s a product of its time so you kind of have to expect that.
You’ll notice, of course, that Captain America uses a completely different shield in his debut appearance; Cap wields a diamond-shaped shield in these stories, one far less versatile and iconic as the discus-shaped shield he would acquire in the very next issue and generally favour over the next eighty-odd years. As a result, there’s very little shield-based action or combat in this issue; Cap only uses it as a shield once, never throws it, and the rest of the time it’s more of a prop than anything else as Cap prefers to use his fists to settle his foes.
Speaking of which, Cap’s a bit of a blunt instrument here; in contrast to the majority of superhero origin stories, literally no time at all is spent showcasing Rogers’ training or physical abilities (and even less is spent on Bucky’s) and Cap’s exact strengths and limitations are extremely vague. He’s described as hitting hard and fast and can clearly take a good deal of punishment, and yet he can be stopped in his tracks by a gun, knocked out cold, and never displays any of the near-superhuman levels of strength we’ve come to associate with the character.
Stylistically, the comic is obviously designed to make monsters out of the Axis powers, specifically Nazis and their ilk. Both Rathcone and the Red Skull take on grotesque visages and appearances, appearing more like demons than humans, and their underlings are depicted as slimy, cowardly traitors or muscle-bound henchmen who all blindly follow the Fuehrer’s commands even to their deaths. The idea is pretty simple: America is the bastion of all that is good and just, with their army made up of red-blooded men and patriots who are giving it all for their country, and the Axis powers are misshapen, demonic, nefarious devils who revel in spreading death and terror. In that regard, Captain America Comics #1 does its job extremely well but, overall, I can only really recommend it for containing Cap’s iconic origin story and the first appearance of the Red Skull.
Have you ever read Captain America Comics #1? If so, what did you think of it and the early adventures of Captain America and Bucky? What was your first exposure to Captain America and where do you rank him against other superheroes, where Marvel or otherwise? What story or character of his is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Captain America’s star-spangled debut today? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to pop back for more Captain America content in the next few weeks!