Sometimes the real world needs heroes. And sometimes those heroes need inspiration.
To anyone only passingly familiar with Captain America, it's easy to assume he's nothing more than the embodiment of blind patriotism. A muscled-up blond white man in stars and stripes, he looks like an American fascist's dream.
But Captain America was created to fight fascism in America’s name, and for that, he’s a perfect icon for the modern-day resistance.
The early days of the comic book industry were deeply rooted in New York City, so it's no surprise that most superheroes with a pedigree that old were created by the children of Jewish immigrants. Plenty of scholarly examinations of Superman have made a big deal of that aspect of that superhero’s creation. Though Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster started in Cleveland rather than New York, their experiences growing up in immigrant Jewish families influenced the creation of the ultimate immigrant character.
Captain America was created in the opening days of World War II – before the US was involved – by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, both second-generation Jewish men from New York. Though Steve Rogers was no alien, he grew up urban poor in an Irish immigrant family, and in many ways his background mirrored Kirby’s own, something that later writers embraced and embellished in honor of his legendary creator.
And Kirby and Simon didn't shy away from portraying their idealized embodiment of America as a force against the fascism gripping Europe at the time. The Hitler-punching cover that’s been invoked so much recently was on the very first issue. In the pages of Captain America Comics, fascism wasn’t a criminal to imprison, it was an evil that had to be purged. It could not be bargained with, it could only be punched.
The Timely offices – the publisher that became Marvel Comics – got hate mail and threatening phone calls for daring to publish a character who represented America but who actively fought against the white nationalism they felt the country should stand for. Let’s not forget that the US didn’t actually get involved in WWII until we were directly attacked. For a while there, fighting fascism was a genuinely controversial issue. There were so many regular threatening loiterers outside the Timely offices that they needed police protection, with Mayor LaGuardia giving them his support.
As with the superhero genre as a whole, Captain America’s popularity didn’t survive into the 50s (Kirby and Simon moved on to create the immensely popular Young Romance series), but he was revived, both in and out of fiction, in the early 60s with the help of fellow Jewish New Yorker Stan Lee.
Though over the decades Cap has been at the mercy of a long series of writers with their own political views, he’s always represented a progressive view of America as a place where all should be welcome and fascism cannot be tolerated. He has been among the first to welcome fellow heroes from marginalized groups with an acceptance that makes the idea of bigotry as an American value seem ridiculous. In recent stories – both in comics and the movies – he’s been the one to argue against giving authority too much power.
That is the America we all need to believe in right now. And if modern-day fascists are going to embrace icons from WWII, who better to be an icon for the movement against them than someone who made his debut punching Hitler?