The Essential Avengers: Captain America Then & Now

With the release of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble last week to universe acclaim, it’s time to take a look at the backbone of the superhero team, the man around whom all the other characters rally – Captain America.

He may not be as technologically savvy as Iron Man or as strong as Thor, but Captain America possesses unique qualities that make him a patriotic icon in the Marvel Universe and the indisputable leader of the Avengers.

Created in the tension-filled build up to the United States’ entrance into World War II by cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America was the first of a new breed of super hero: A soldier and a living flag bearer for his country, gifted with the abilities that make him the peak of human perfection. Created as the driving force for the Allies’ super powered answer to the Axis forces of WWII, in later years he became the crux of Marvel’s definitive super hero team, the Avengers…not bad for a kid born during the Depression in the Lower East Side named Steve Rogers.

“He’s the glue that holds the group together,” explains artist Steve Epting, who has drawn both the AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA. “The Avengers are an elite group of super heroes, and Cap, more than any of the others I think, embodies what that means.”

Although he didn’t join the team until the fourth issue of THE AVENGERS in 1964, Captain America quickly became an archetypal part of the team and considered part of the core trinity–alongside Iron Man and Thor–that make the team work.

“The very early Avengers were a pretty disparate lot,” points out Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Publishing and Executive Editor. “So much so that we built an entire series out of how disparate they were, the AVENGERS: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES limited series that Joe Casey and Scott Kolins did years ago. You wouldn’t think there’d be a whole lot of common ground between an Asgardian god, a rampaging monster and a genius industrialist. So what Captain America immediately gave the team was a center, somebody around whom all of the other characters could form. And, of course, when Stan Lee, in trying to simplify the Marvel Universe so as to make writing the books simpler by taking out [of the Avengers] all the characters who had their own titles, Captain America stayed. At that point he really became the embodiment of the team, bringing up new recruits like Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch and making them into proper Avengers. He was the keeper of the flame.”

Longtime CAPTAIN AMERICA writer Mark Waid illustrates the Super Soldier’s importance to the team from a different angle, pointing out how the team was just as important for Cap early on.

“If you remember, Captain America was the first Avenger to join the team that didn’t have a series or book of his own at the time. The only place you could find him at the time was in AVENGERS, so it became his book in a sense,” Waid explains. “When you add in his natural leadership abilities on a team that had rotating chairmanships, and them being as argumentative as they were cooperative, he quickly fell into place as the ideal Avengers leader.”

As seen in his origin both in comics and last year’s hit movie, Captain America quickly went from a soldier to a leader–and amongst the Avengers he excelled to the point of being the measuring stick for other super hero teams even outside of the House of Ideas.

“In a very real way Cap is the quintessential team leader, the one all other characters and creators strive to emulate in their own titles,” says Brevoort. “I think it’s somewhat about the fact that he’s nowhere near the most powerful person in the room, yet he can stand toe-to-toe, face-to-face with anybody and never flinch, and that commands respect. He’s also a front-line fighter–he commands from the heart of the battle, not from the rear. And for all of his internal conflicts, when Cap goes into action, he’s not plagued by a lot of doubts. He instinctively does the job and carries out the mission, all the while hewing to his own personal code of conduct. So he’s a badass, but a badass that stands for something greater than himself.”

Comics have shown super hero teams led in many different ways, from the outside influence of Professor X in the early issues of UNCANNY X-MEN to Iron Man’s leadership during Captain America’s absence a few years back, but Captain America has a unique approach that seems to unite and motivate any assembling of people.

“Captain America is a guy who leads troops; he’s the guy who leads them over the hill and out of the bunker towards the enemy no matter how frightening it may be,” explains Steve Englehart, whose run on the character in 1970s helped redefine him for a modern generation. “He’s got that kind of personality that says that there’s a job that has to be done, and we’re going to do it. He takes charge of things by nature, whereas other guys like Iron Man or Thor could potentially be leaders but don’t have that same innate ability Steve Rogers has.”

Captain America is looked upon as both a person others can trust and also someone with decades of experience. Created back in 1941, Captain America is one of Marvel’s oldest heroes, outstripping his contemporaries in the Avengers by nearly twenty years. A member of what TV journalist Tom Brokaw calls ‘America’s Greatest Generation,’ he’s deftly been able to keep with the times and not be considered antiquated given his longevity. And there’s a reason for that.

“Stan Lee kind of solved this way back, by emphasizing Cap as a man out of his own time,” says Brevoort, alluding to Captain America being frozen in ice for decades after World War II. “So from the beginning of the Marvel Age, Cap was grappling with the vagaries of the modern world and his place in it, which made him relatable as an individual beyond just being an icon. Cap’s also continued to adapt as the times have changed. While his essence is still the same, we don’t play him precisely the same way today that we did a decade ago, or two decades before that. Cap isn’t about the country as it stands at any particular moment; he’s about the promise and the potential of America, the idealized, best version of what it could be. It’s like that old Frank Miller Cap line from DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN: ‘I’m loyal to nothing, General, except the dream.’”

That rock-solid belief in his country was on full display in 2011’s blockbuster movie “Captain America: The First Avengers,” the latest in a wave of Marvel movies continuing on to this summer’s “Marvel’s The Avengers.”

“His portrayal in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ was bang on,” says Waid matter-of-factly. “It showed him a little less seasoned than we comics fans are used to, and that’s good. We tend to think of Cap as an elder statesman because he’s been around for so long, whereas his movie version is more comparable to the early Marvel Age. As it shows in the movie, he’s not the one everyone naturally turns to for leadership at this point, and he’s more of a soldier than general at that time.

If his longevity in comics is any indication, the movie-makers behind “Captain America: The First Avenger” have a lot of material to pull from for future films. Both as a member of teams and on his own, Captain America has a string of classic comic storylines bridging the decades even to this day. Mark Waid himself has written over fifty issues of the character from 1995 to the present day, and when asked what comic moments make up his vision of Captain America he goes to the source.

“Beyond the obvious Joe Simon and Jack Kirby 10-issue run that led off the first series in 1941, the stuff that’s always been the most influential for me as a reader is the Steve Englehart run,” Waid reveals. “Englehart was able to put the character in the unique context of Americana. It was about making the struggles of today’s world on a political and social stage very important. Before Englehart, generally the Captain America stories were stories that could have been told with any character. Steve was the first to play up what made Cap so unique, his connection to the American dream and the spirit of this country.”

As editor, Tom Brevoort has steered the direction of Captain America for years and uses his expansive knowledge of the character’s past to inform creators on the path ahead. Given his deep understanding of the character over the years, the long-time editor has a big picture approach that sees the high point in every decade the hero has been around.

“I don’t know that I can boil this down to just two or three periods. Cap has adapted to each decade in which he’s been published,” Brevoort explains. “So whether it’s the Nazi-smashing Cap of the 40s, the man out of time of the 60s, the soul-searching Cap of the 70s, or the 9-11 reflective Cap of the early 2000s, each one has something valid to say about the character and his nature.”

When it comes to the future of Captain America in comics, it’s a vibrant picture with not only his self-titled solo series but a team-up book along with his ever-present role in the array of Avengers titles on shelves each week. When asked directly about Captain America in the year 2012, Brevoort promised a return his roots on the front lines.

“People can look forward to more of a return to Captain America as an action hero,” reveals Brevoort. “For the last couple of years, we’ve seen a lot more of Steve as a General, ever since his return from the grave and promotion to Norman Osborn’s old role. In the months ahead, though, we’re going to be getting Cap back to the thick of the action, and putting him more on the front lines, taking an active physical role in solving problems and carrying out missions.”

Whether it is in comics, on the movie screen or in his small-screen animated adventures, Captain America continues to be a super hero Sentinel of Liberty not just in America, but in the world and beyond.

Avengers Assemble is out now.