When fans ran out to grab Marvel Comics’ “Captain America: Steve Rogers #1” on its release Wednesday, they were not expecting this. Captain America discloses in the issue that he is in fact a secret operative of the evil formerly Nazi organization Hydra.
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The dramatic twist happens on the last page, as Captain America prepares to throw his supposed ally, Jack Flag, off an airplane and exclaims “Hail Hydra!”
The image has already become a meme on Twitter, with some critics filling the word bubble with similarly dream-crushing revelations. Even Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most recently in “Captain America: Civil Wars,” was shocked.
Oh, but it is so. Writer Nick Spencer assured readers that this wasn’t a gimmick or trick. Captain America, whose alter ego is Steve Rogers, is going to remain a secret Hydra operative, and the next issue will explore how he came to be a double agent for the sinister organization.
The news is particularly stunning because Captain America was created by two Jews. Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon) were certainly no supporters of Nazism. On the contrary, they sought to create a new superhero to uphold American values in the face of the Nazi threat.
The first issue – which was dated March 1941 but hit the newsstands in 1940 – depicted Captain America punching Hitler in the face. This was a full year before Superman had Hitler by the scruff of the neck and gave him a good shake.
Simon and Kirby were therefore urging U.S. intervention in the war long before Pearl Harbor. Simon once said that Captain America “was our way of lashing out at the Nazi menace.”
In the 1980s, Captain America had a Jewish girlfriend, Bernie Rosenthal. (And Bernie’s parents weren’t at all pleased she was dating a goy.) Bernie even mentioned the prospect of raising their children both Jewish and Christian.
In the 21st century, Captain America is still clad in the Spar-Spangled Banner. He still has the letter A on his forehead. This clearly stands for America, but its origins have deeper roots in Jewish lore.
Superheroes are reincarnations of the legend of the Golem, a man-like figure created out of clay to do the bidding of the Maharal of Prague, a 16th-century rabbi. Legend has it that the Hebrew word for truth, emet, was written on his forehead to bring him to life, with the first letter aleph, or A, erased when he was no longer needed. His indestructible shield with its five-pointed star recalls the Star of David.
This was part of a wider trend in which Jewish comic book writers and artists created all-American superheroes masking Jewish interiors. Superman is perhaps the greatest example. No amount of makeover can erase their – and hence Captain America’s – underlying Jewishness.
Captain America was created at a time when many American isolationists supported Hitler. Could the character be a comment on the return of such isolationism?
Well, Captain America has always changed with the times. In 1969, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, he felt he was an anachronism. Torn by his conscience, he once said: “Perhaps I should have battled less and questioned more!”
So maybe we can read a subliminal critique of the contemporary American (and in some cases Jewish) drift to the populist right?
Either way, some observers have suggested that the outrage over Captain America’s Nazi link is exaggerated. After all, this isn’t the first time the superhero has worked for Hydra, according to The Beat editor Heidi McDonald. And Kirby himself once drew the beloved superhero saluting Hitler (even though it was all due to mind control).
Still, Jessica Plummer, a writer for the comics media outlet Panels, is among those upset by the development, saying it is in poor taste in a world where anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past.
“I am angry, because Steve Rogers’ Jewish creators literally fought in a war against the organization Marvel has made him a part of to grab headlines,” she wrote.
Many of Marvel’s iconic superheroes were created by Jews. Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor and the X-Men were all created by Stan Lee, who like Simon and Kirby is the son of Jewish immigrants. Kirby co-created the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Hulk.
Yet very few Jews have actually been represented in the comics’ pages. Simon and Kirby may have modeled Steve Rogers’ childhood after theirs. Like Rogers, Kirby grew up in the 1930s in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, as did Lee. But the character is the son of Irish immigrants.
Joe Simon sued Marvel twice for the copyright for Captain America. He settled both cases out of court. The prolific comics writer died in 2011.