“Smashing Thru, Captain America Came Face to Face with Hitler”: American Comics and World War II History

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Thalia Ertman
May 3, 2019

Over the past week, the internet has been buzzing about Marvel Studios’ latest film, Avengers: Endgame. This film is exciting and new and full of spoilers for fans across the globe. It also has connections to World War II history!

One of the main characters in Marvel’s franchise is Captain America, played by Chris Evans. The first film that featured him, Captain America: The First Avenger, was indeed a World War II story, featuring Steve Rogers as a super soldier sent over to Europe to fight Nazis.

That movie wasn’t just a fun period piece. It also highlighted Captain America’s World War II origins. In fact, Cap’s first appearance not only featured him punching Adolf Hitler on the cover of a comic book, but also that that very comic book was published a full 8 months before the U.S. entered World War II!

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s “Captain America #1” was released March 1, 1941 and introduced readers to the super soldier who fought against Hitler and the Nazis. Both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were Jewish (as were most of the early comic book creators), which might help to explain why a super hero wearing the American flag is shown “socking Hitler in the jaw” on the cover of their comic before the U.S. was even officially fighting Hitler himself.

Simon and Kirby also served during World War II. Simon served with the U.S. Coast Guard and Kirby was drafted into the U.S. Army and was assigned to Company F of the 11th Infantry Regiment. He landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on August 23, 1944, two-and-a-half months after D-Day. Kirby recalled that a lieutenant, learning that comics artist Kirby was in his command, made him a scout who would advance into towns and draw reconnaissance maps and pictures, an extremely dangerous duty.

Stan Lee, perhaps the most famous Marvel comics creator who died in November 2018, was also a World War II veteran. He entered the U.S. Army in early 1942 and served in the Signal Corps, repairing telegraph poles and other communications equipment. He was later transferred to the Training Film Division, where he worked writing manuals, training films, and slogans, and occasionally cartooning.

Captain America and other comic book superheroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were also featured in propaganda campaigns throughout the war, specifically to encourage Americans to buy war bonds. These propaganda campaigns mostly targeted children (and through children, their parents). The superheroes embodied the ideal virtues of American soldiers and demonstrated the courage and resolve needed to fight evil during World War II.

Sales of comic books increased during World War II, as they were cheap and portable, but also had inspirational, patriotic stories of good triumphing over evil which were very appealing while the country was at war.

It was not just children who contributed to the rise in comic book sales, but also young men in their late teens and early twenties who were being shipped off to war and perhaps wanted to emulate Captain American and knock Hitler out themselves.

In fact, American troops became one of the primary consumers of comic books during World War II. In addition to superhero comics, many GIs also enjoyed non-fiction comics that featured actions in the other theaters of war. For example, service members in Europe enjoyed reading comics about action in the Pacific Theater like Guadalcanal Diary, while the island-hopping Marines enjoyed reading about U.S. soldiers in France in comics like USA Is Ready.

Ever since their inception, comic books have had a special place in American popular culture. And the connection between comics and World War II history is fascinating and undeniable.