Marvel Comics' shield-slinging Captain America is, bar none, the most famous of the star-spangled freedom fighters known as the superpatriots. But he was not the first superhero to wear the colors of Old Glory.
The Shield was the first superpatriot. Pep Comics #1 (January 1940) introduced Joe Higgins, a man who avenges his father's murder by applying dad's secret formula
SHIELD (an acronym for Sacrum, Heart, Innveration, Eyes, Lungs, and Derma) to his skin. The formula is activated when Higgins wears a specially designed outfit—which just happens to be star-spangled—that boosts his strength, speed, and stamina, making him the Axis-busting superhero, the Shield. The Eagle promptly parroted the Shield by flying into print in Science #1 (February 1940). Secretly Bill Powers, the Eagle, dressed in a blue suit with a golden eagle chest logo and red-and-white striped cape, fights the Nazis and their American sympathizers. Manowar, a superpatriot android, also premiered in February 1940, in Target Comics #1.
Uncle Sam—the Uncle Sam, the top-hat-wearing, white-goateed icon painted by James Montgomery Flagg in his immortal military recruitment poster—became a superhero in National Comics #1 (July 1940) in a tale by Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit. Imbued with patriotism-induced superstrength, Sam is more than a match for Nazis and saboteurs. Uncle Sam, a 1997 miniseries published under DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, features a dispirited Sam, muttering madly as the America he once knew has fallen apart.
Private Jack Weston was a true patriot, but not a superpowered one, which did not deter his zeal: In a red-and-white-striped shirt with blue sleeves dotted with white stars, he blazes onto the frontlines as Minute-Man, the
One Man Army, in Master Comics #11 (February 1941). One month later, in March 1941, comic-book readers witnessed two flag-furled firsts: Captain America #1, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and Feature Comics #42's USA—
the Spirit of Old Glory—the first star-spangled superheroine. Both debuted nine months before the United States entered World War II.
A survey of 1941 comic books would lead one to suspect that America was already at war. Publishers barraged readers with a surfeit of superpatriots, each clad in democratic duds that would warm Betsy Ross' heart. Some carried guns, some were supported by sidekicks or kid gangs, some were superstrong, and virtually all were indistinguishable from each other: the American Crusader; Captain Battle (dubbed the
One-Man Army, the difference from Minute-Man's moniker being a mere hyphen); Captain Courageous; Captain Fight (
America's #1 Defender); Captain Flag; Captain Freedom (aided by the Young Defenders, a patriotic street gang); the Conqueror; the Defender (a Captain America clone by Cap's own creators, Simon and Kirby); and the Flag (who, as an infant, bore a U.S. flag birthmark, predestining his fate as a superpatriot).
Joining them were Flag Man, Lady Fairplay, the Liberator, Major Liberty, Major Victory, Man of War (who received a flaming sword from Mars, the god of war), Miss America (granted the superpower of matter alteration by the Statue of Liberty in Military Comics #1), Miss Victory (often spied winking and flashing the
V for victory sign at her readers), Mister America, and the Patriot (joined by his girlfriend Miss Patriot). Also originating in 1941:
War Nurse Pat Patriot (accompanied by the Girl Commandos,
five fearless freelance fighters of the United Nations); the Sentinel; the Skyman; the Spirit of '76; the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy (a kid hero with an adult partner); the Unknown Soldier; and the no-nonsense U.S. Jones (one of his earliest stories in Wonderworld Comics was titled
Traitors Die Fast!). By the time Stormy Foster—a.k.a.
the Great Defender—premiered in Hit Comics #18 (December 1941), all the good superpatriot costumes (and names) had been taken: Below the belt Foster wore white briefs with no leggings, looking as if he had left his pants at home. Another superpatriot debuting that same month had better fortune in fashion and longevity: Wonder Woman.
In Startling Comics #10 (1941), the Fighting Yank receives superpowers while wearing an ancestral cloak from the American Revolution. His tri-corner cap and buckle shoes differentiated him from other superpatriots. Likewise, from his first appearance in Mystic Comics #6, the Destroyer is clearly no average star-spangled hero. His grim blue face and piercing yellow eyes terrorize the Nazis, as does the foreboding white skull insignia on his black shirt. Many of the Destroyer's earliest stories were written by a teenage Stan Lee, who later became the driving force behind Marvel Comics.
More comic-book superpatriots appeared after the United States entered the war: American Avenger, American Eagle, Captain Commando, Captain Red Blazer, Commando Yank, Crimebuster (a young hero), Liberty Belle, a different Miss America (this one from Timely/Marvel Comics, a female Captain America who remained in print for several years), the Phantom Eagle, Super-American, V-Man (with his young aides, the V-Boys), Yank and Doodle, Yankee Doodle Jones, Yankee Boy, Yankee Girl, and Yankee Eagle. Superpatriot sidekicks were common, including Dusty (partner of the Shield), Buddy (the Eagle), another Buddy (Uncle Sam), Bucky (Captain America), Dandy (Yankee Doodle Jones), Sparky (Captain Red Blazer), and Rusty (Flag Man). The Axis could not stop these invincible superpatriots, but the end of World War II could: Peacetime almost instantaneously put them out of business, although some limped along until the early 1950s.
Pack leader Captain America suffered an ignoble fate in 1950, being ousted from his own series as it briefly became a horror comic (Captain America's Weird Tales) before being discontinued. Timely revived Captain America in 1954 with a new agenda: fighting Communism, as Captain America,
Commie Smasher. Within several issues, however, the character and series were once again retired.
Yet Communism remained a new threat to explore in superhero comics, and the next superpatriot to combat it plied a different weapon: satire. With tongue rooted firmly in cheek, Simon and Kirby melted the cold war in Prize Comics' Fighting American. Issue #1 starts harshly, though, as an American Adonis, blunt-tongued broadcaster Johnny Flagg, is executed by Russian agents. The life force of Flagg's meek brother, Nelson, is transferred into his slain sibling's
revitalized and strengthened body, and he resumes the Commie Smashing abandoned after Captain America's cancellation. As the Fighting American, he and teenage sidekick Speedboy tackled broadly portrayed Red menaces like Super Khakalovich and Poison Ivan. During this era of rampant paranoia, however, Fighting American's cavalier approach was rejected by readers and the series died after seven issues (though similar spoofs in the 1990s and 2000s, like AC Comics' retooled Fighting Yank and Alan Moore's First American, have shown that the strip was simply ahead of its time).
The next superpatriot to materialize bore a familiar name: the Shield. In Archie Comics' The Double Life of Private Strong #1 (1959), by Simon and Kirby, Army private Lancelot Strong ventures down three familiar superpatriotic paths: He is orphaned; his late father, a scientist, leaves behind data that helps Strong develop superpowers; and he adopts a red-white-and-blue supersuit and battles the United States' enemies. This Shield incarnation lasted a mere two issues.
Another superpatriot appeared in DC's Revolutionary War series, Tomahawk #81 (1962): Miss Liberty. In her debut tale, the
Frontier Heroine, clad in red, white, and blue, rescues the magazine's heroes, Tomahawk and Dan, from British soldiers by chucking explosive powder horns at the Redcoats. Miss Liberty stuck around as a member of the Tomahawk cast off and on throughout the 1960s.
The Revolutionary War heroine Miss Liberty aside, superpatriots lay dormant for several years after the Shield's disappearance. America was embroiled in the controversial Vietnam War, and heroic characters could no longer rouse the nation's spirit. In Marvel Comics' Avengers #4 (1964),
Earth's mightiest heroes discover the most famous superpatriot literally frozen in ice. Captain America is thawed into an uneasy existence as an anachronistic superpatriot (his
Commie Smasher stint is conveniently forgotten). Cap's Archie Comics doppelgänger, the Shield, resurfaced again in Mighty Crusaders #1 (1965), this time as the son of the 1940s Shield. This version of the character enjoyed a brief blip of popularity during a superhero boom of the mid-1960s, but soon hung up his star-spangled togs. Meanwhile, Charlton Comics used the name Captain USA for a hero who could fly at the speed of light in a one-shot tale in Charlton Premiere #3 (1968).
In the 1970s, Captain America, having mostly ignored Vietnam, diverted his attention to the urban streets, partnering with the African American superhero the Falcon. In his essay
The Vietnam War and Comic Books, from James S. Olson's The Vietnam War (1993), scholar Bradford Wright observed,
The Captain America of the 1970s symbolized a nation, weary of confusing and painful overseas adventures, that had turned inward to confront serious domestic ills, brought on, in part, by a decade of war. Captain America soon rejected his patriotic persona, becoming Nomad, but before long was in the red, white, and blue once more.
The 1976 American bicentennial renewed interest in patriotism, but instead of wading into potentially polarizing waters, comic-book publishers returned to safe ground: World War II, where the menace, the Axis, was clear. Captain America headlined Marvel's The Invaders (1975–1979), a series retrofitted into the 1940s; Uncle Sam joined other superheroes in a 1970s-set title called Freedom Fighters (1976–1978); and Wonder Woman temporarily published
untold tales set during World War II, mimicking the setting of the then-popular television series starring the superheroine. DC also introduced a new title starring a 1940s superpatriot, Steel the Indestructible Man, lasting only five issues in 1978.
By 1980, American cynicism rooted in the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal had triggered a transformation: The anti-hero was displacing the altruistic caped crusader. Superheroes representing traditional values had no place in this harsh new world, and a new breed of superpatriot was born.
In DC's Batman and the Outsiders Annual #1 (1984), the American Security Agency's Force of July—Major Victory, Lady Liberty, Mayflower, Silent Majority, and Sparkler—toe the line for the government, but once his teammates die in battle, the Major reevaluates his loyalty. In 1986, Dark Horse Comics introduced a conflicted superpatriot, forged in the fires of conspiracy. The American (no relation to the 2000s hero of same name from Com.X), serialized in the anthology Dark Horse Presents, was a jingoistic juggernaut, genetically enhanced to protect the United States' foreign and domestic interests against terrorist threats. The public was led to believe that the American was a sole individual, and did not suspect that he was actually an army of interchangeable soldiers, one always ready to replace another who died in action. When the latest American decides to go public to honor his predecessors who perished while fighting terrorists, he is thrust into conflict with a tight-lipped U.S. government. DC's Agent Liberty storms into Superman vol. 2 #90 (1991) brandishing firearms, retractable gauntlet blades, and an energy shield. An expertly trained operative for the CIA's covert squad the Sons of Liberty, Agent Liberty questions his employers' motivations after encountering Superman and members of the Justice League of America. Image Comics' superpatriot, appositely named Superpatriot, is a hard-hitting freedom fighter first seen in the pages of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon series in 1993.
In 1986, Marvel introduced into Captain America a former soldier named John Walker, publicly known as the grandstanding guardian Super-Patriot. With augmented strength and a well-oiled publicity machine backing him, this superpowered yes-man leveraged Steve Rogers out of his job as Captain America. Rogers eventually returned to his guise and Walker became USAgent, a bounty hunter of supervillains employed by the U.S. Commission on Superhuman Activities. Captain America suffered through several subsequent reboots, with varying degrees of success, until being renewed by a real-life catastrophe: the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America, after which the hero was reinvented into a kind of
terrorist smasher. Taking a cue from the American and Agent Liberty, however, the post–September 11 Cap is suspicious of the government he is sworn to defend.