In the first issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers, released on May 25, the final pages dropped one of the biggest plot twists in comic-book history: Captain America, decked out in the stars and stripes, throws an ally out of a plane and says, “Hail Hydra.” (Hydra is the fictional representation of the Nazi party that Marvel created.) In just few pages, Marvel took one of the most beloved superheroes—the moral center of the Marvel universe—and made him into a supervillain. And people are not taking it lightly. Marvel Comics would tell you it’s more complicated than this, but Captain America is now (and apparently has always been) a Nazi.
The United States’ isolationist foreign policy and xenophobia fostered a debate about America’s involvement in World War II. 1939, the German American Bund, an organization of over 25,000 paying members who were known for their pro-Nazi stance, held a rally in Madison Square Garden “to proclaim the rights of white gentiles, the ‘true patriots.’” Against that backdrop, Captain America (Steve Rogers) first appeared in print in December 1940 (the issue is dated March 1941). The character was created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who, like many comic-book writers at the time, were first-generation Americans, born of Jewish immigrants. “The Nazi Party was not the unquestionably evil cartoon villains we’re familiar with today; coming out in strong opposition to them was not a given. It was a risky choice,” the comics and pop-culture blogger Jessica Plummer writes. The now-infamous first issue cover of Captain America featuring Cap punching Hitler in the jaw, nearly a year before the United States entered WWII, wasn’t just an amusing knock at a dictator; it was a staunch political stance. Kirby and Simon were galvanized by the atrocities being committed in Europe against the Jewish people. “They had family and friends back in Europe who were losing their homes, their freedom, and eventually their lives to the Holocaust. The creation of Captain America was deeply personal and deeply political,” Plummer continues. In Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Simon spoke about their motivations: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.”
Captain America’s run ended in 1949, and the character was phased out of most comics (appearing sporadically in single issues across various Marvel titles) after the end of WWII, when superheroes began to wane in popularity. With the war over, we didn’t need heroes anymore. He was reintroduced four months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in March 1964’s The Avengers #4. Later, during the Vietnam War, Rogers experienced an existential crisis, struggling with depression and contemplating his effectiveness in a world rife with such conflict. When the Watergate scandal happened, Rogers gave up the mantle of Captain America altogether, and became Nomad, a man without a country.