The Timely Comics Watchamacallit treads the Earth again. Having discussed the first Marvel comic, Marvel Comics #1, some familiar names with unfamiliar Golden Age faces, the Golden Age Civil War, the origins of the Marvel Universe, and the top ten Timely Comics B-Listers and sidekicks, I turn my gaze to 1941 and the introduction of two seminal Marvel heroes, Golden Age Captain America and his pal Bucky Barnes.
If you’ve seen any of the recent MCU Captain America movies, you’re familiar with Captain America and Bucky already. You may also know the star-spangled duo because of the many comics they feature in. With a crime-fighting résumé that spans over 75 years, Steve Rogers and his pal Bucky Barnes are tough to miss. But Steve wasn’t always the Hydra-hailing shield slinger and neither was Bucky the amputated misanthrope we see today. Things were a bit different back in ’41.
Golden Age Captain America & Bucky – A Bit of History
1941 was a difficult year. Nazi forces launched their ultimately failed invasion of the Soviet Union, the Luftwaffe gained control of the air over the Mediterranean, a weary Greece surrendered to overwhelming Nazi forces, and Charles Lindbergh, a real-world American hero of the time, advised the US congress to sign a neutrality pact with Hitler.
It’s no surprise, then, that the buying public, especially the American buying public, was looking for heroes in their comics who seemed as though they could overcome the fears the public had about the real world. Add to this the fact that comics publishers were trying to attract readers to their fledgling four-colour publications (many of whom were boys and young men who wished they could enlist–USA wouldn’t officially enter WWII until the end of 1942), and it becomes obvious why it seemed like a good bet to introduce a “super solider” and his boy sidekick into Timely’s ranks.
Golden Age Captain America & Bucky – Bucky’s Origin
First, the name. Why name the character “Bucky” and not, say, Jimbo? Joe Simon said in The Comic Book Makers that the character’s named after his high-school chum Bucky Pierson. So, be nice to nerds who write; they just may name a sidekick after you.
Unlike in the MCU movies, Golden Age Bucky is a child. Camp Lehigh, Private Steve Rogers’s base camp, adopts Bucky as their mascot. Ret-cons eventually modified Bucky’s age to make him a teenager during his Camp Lehigh days, but originally Bucky was very much a boy sidekick. Although no one mentions Bucky’s exact age during his Golden Age run, he seems like he’s 11 or 12. Bucky discovers Steve Rogers’s secret identity when Bucky walks into Steve’s tent and finds him halfway in his Cap duds. In an effort to keep Bucky from blabbing, Cap recruits the starstruck boy and trains him as his sidekick.
Golden Age Captain America & Bucky – “Distinguished Competition”
Over at what would become Timely/Marvel’s main competition for the next seven decades (Detective Comics), another big name in boy sidekicks had already made his debut. Referred to as “the sensational character find of 1940” on the cover of Detective Comics #38 (cover date April 1940), the original Robin, Dick Grayson, exploded onto the scene a full year before Bucky Barnes.
Aside from the proximity of their first appearances, the two sidekicks share other similarities: both are orphans; both serve to lighten the often somber moods of the heroes they fight alongside; and both have replacements (Bucky’s is Cap’s girlfriend Betsy Ross). But, unlike Batman and Robin, Cap and Bucky don’t get to recover from their wounds in a cushy mansion. Like the real-world soldiers they represent, they have to sleep on hard cots and eat bad food. But, instead of talking about Cap and Bucky’s living arrangements let’s talk about their creators.
Golden Age Captain America & Bucky – Cap’s Creators
As with other unforgettable and genre-defining comics characters, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created Captain America and Bucky. Cap and Bucky weren’t the first heroes these two sequential art gurus came up with, though.
Although I’ve never been able to find a copy of the comic (collected or otherwise), Kirby’s first and only, as of 1941, Timely character creation “Red Raven” debuted in Red Raven Comics #1 (cover date August 1940).
Joe Simon had created a few characters by the time he and Kirby came up with Cap. Semi-notable Simon creations include The Fiery Mask, John Steele (both appearing for the first time in Daring Mystery Comics #1, January 1940), The Phantom Bullet, and Trojak The Tiger Man (both appearing for the first time in Daring Mystery Comics #2, February 1940).
Bird people raise Kirby’s Red Raven from boyhood on Sky-Island (a hidden city in the clouds), and teach him to fly using a mechanical suit. A mad scientist turns Jack Castle into the super-powered Fiery Mask while experimenting on him. John Steele is a seemingly invulnerable WWII soldier (a precursor to Cap with no origin story). The Phantom Bullet, a reporter, becomes a crime fighter who murders criminals using a gun that shoots untraceable ice bullets. And, Trojak is essentially a Ka-Zar knockoff (even down to his base of operations, the Belgian Congo). But enough of the obscure characters, let’s get back to Captain America
Golden Age Captain America & Bucky – Prof. Reinstein
You read it correctly, True Believers. The ill-fated inventor of the super soldier serum that turned puny 4-F Steve Rogers into Captain America originally went by the name “Reinstein”. Subsequent ret-cons have renamed Cap’s creator “Abraham Erskine” but the Einstein-inspired biochemist debuted as Prof. Joseph Reinstein in 1941. In a timely reference to the man who became the most high-profile WWII-era German refugee, Simon and Kirby showed their knowledge of current events in picking such a recognizable name.
By 1941 Albert Einstein had become a valued correspondent of President Roosevelt‘s. Einstein wrote to and met with Roosevelt to discuss the need for US research into atomic weaponry. And, though Simon and Kirby wouldn’t likely have known what Einstein had written to the American president about, it was safe to assume the letter was more than a friendly postcard from Princeton.
Golden Age Captain America & Bucky – The Red Skull
As important as, if not more important than, a hero’s creator(s) is its villain. Cap and Bucky meet theirs in their fourth story (Golden Age comics were 64-page collections of stories, not single issues) from Captain America Comics #1, “Captain America and The Riddle of the Red Skull”. Somewhat less terrifying than his Modern Age counterpart, the Golden Age Red Skull is a swastika-emblazoned-coverall-wearing Nazi in a mask.
In fact, the original Red Skull is a different man altogether from his modern-age counterpart. The original Red Skull is an American saboteur named George Maxon. Hitler promises Maxon control over American industry once the Nazis occupy the US. Maxon robs banks and murders high-ranking targets to fund the Nazi overthrow of the American government. Maxon eventually concedes his title as Cap’s #1 villain, though, to the true Red Skull Johann Schmidt (who appears in Captain America Comics #7, cover date October 1941, but isn’t revealed to be Schmidt until later).
Golden Age Captain America & Bucky – Cap’s Legacy
So, they’ve been around for over 70 years. They’ve been in major motion pictures. They’ve been the subjects of advertising campaigns and enlistment drives. But, Cap and Bucky’s greatest contribution to pop-culture is their influence on the concept of the superhero. Captain America straddles the line between superhuman boy-scout (like his Golden Age contemporary Superman) and gadget-using super-detective with a boy sidekick (like another Golden Age contemporary, Batman). I’m not implying that Cap and Bucky are knockoff characters: it’s the synthesis of elements from both Superman and Batman (plus some trademark creativity on Kirby and Simon’s parts), that puts Cap in a league of his own.
This novel take on the superhero laid the groundwork for future Marvel characters like Spider-Man and Daredevil. Like Cap, these brightly costumed heroes can’t float on the air (or leap over tall buildings). Instead, they rely on powers that tune up their reflexes and make them more athletic and agile. And, unlike Batman, these characters aren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. They’re working-class guys who often have to deal with real-world problems, like a sick aunt or an ornery drill sergeant.
Golden Age Captain America & Bucky – Bucky’s Legacy
Bucky isn’t quite the home run that Cap is but Bucky managed to develop a solid fan base. He, along with the Golden Age Human Torch’s boy sidekick Toro, eventually came to lead the Young Allies (originally The Sentinels of Liberty), a group meant to represent something of a cross-section of American boys of the time. Unfortunately, in what may have been an attempt at being racially inclusive, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby included a racist caricature named Whitewash Jones among the team’s ranks that were also home to a fat kid (Henry “Tubby” Tinkle), a smart kid (Jefferson “Jeff” Worthing Sandervilt), and a brawler (Percival Aloysius “Knuckles” O’Toole). Not surprisingly, Whitewash didn’t age well. But, through the magic of the ret-con, Whitewash is now a more culturally sensitive character named Washington “Wash” Carver Jones.