Reminder: Captain America, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee Have Always Been 'Woke'
As acclaimed author and comic book creative Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to pen his take on Marvel's Captain America, it seems several right-wing trolls have used his work in yet another attempt to maintain their relevance in post-Trump America – decrying the comic as leftist propaganda.
Earlier this month, conservative professor Jordan Peterson made headlines after claiming Coates used his ideas listed in his 2018 book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos in molding the comic villian's ideology. “Do I really live in a universe where Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a Captain America comic featuring a parody of my ideas as part of the philosophy of the arch villain Red Skull?” he wrote on Twitter after a fan pointed out their similarities on social media.
Although it is unclear if Peterson was actually the inspiration for the evil character as Marvel declined to comment on the matter, several right-wingers jumped on the notion, including "WAP" cover artist, Ben Shapiro. “The wokescolds ruining comic books has been going on for several years," he wrote, later adding that "wokeness has hijacked the culture."
In their critiques of the hero's latest comic book appearance, Peterson and co. seem to have played it fast and loose with Shapiro's beloved “facts and logic,” conveniently overlooking one of the core components that comprises Captain America and Marvel as an entity: Both Cap himself, one of his creators, Jack Kirby, and Marvel legend, Stan Lee, all have a long history of decrying fascism, racism and bigotry, and generally being badass as hell.
From his first Marvel appearance serving Hitler a knuckle sandwich on the cover of his premiere comic, Cap has always been political, a direct response to the growing force of fascism during World War II.
"We both read the newspapers," Joe Simon, the hero's other co-creator recalled of him and Kirby. “We knew what was going on over in Europe. World events gave us the perfect comic-book villain, Adolf Hitler, with his ranting, goose-stepping and ridiculous moustache. So we decided to create the perfect hero who would be his foil. I did that first sketch of Captain America, and Jack and I did the entire first issue before showing it to (publisher) Martin Goodman at Timely Comics. He loved it immediately.”
Although making Hitler a villain is a modern commonplace, the dictator appearing as an antagonist everywhere from Oscar-winning flicks like Jojo Rabbit to cult TV classics, including Danger 5, such a move was revolutionary at the time. "But when Captain America came out, America wasn't yet in the war, so the American Nazis weren't happy with what we did to their beloved Fuhrer. ... We had a couple of personal encounters with the Bund . But that didn't stop us. If anything, it added fuel to the fire."
Yet in their commentary on Nazi Germany, the comic's creators also critiqued the United States, the patriotic hero getting candid about nationalism and how America could perhaps succumb to the same pitfalls as the European nation.
"Listen to me -- all of you out there! You were told by this man -- your hero -- that America is the greatest country in the world!" Cap says in an early issue of the comic. “Well, I say America is nothing!! Without its ideals -- its commitment to the freedom of all men, America is a piece of trash! A nation is nothing! A flag is a piece of cloth! I fought Adolf Hitler not because America was great, but because it was fragile! I knew that liberty could be snuffed out here as in Nazi Germany! As a people, we were no different than them! When I returned, I saw that you nearly did turn American into nothing! And the only reason you're not less then nothing -- -- is that it's still possible for you to bring freedom back to America!”
Much like the hero he helped bring to life, Kirby had approximately zero patience for fascism or racism. The child of Austrian-Jewish immigrants in New York City, Kirby fought in World War II, using his artistic talents, language skills, and combat training to help kick Hitler's ass. Upon arriving on the European frontlines in 1943 following his completion of basic training, his Lieutenant reportedly asked him if he was the creator of Captain America, to which he allegedly and “enthusiastically" replied “yes sir. I drew Captain America." As such, Kirby was made a Scout “on the spot” and given an important assignment – cartography, according to an article from Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America. “You go into these towns that we don’t have and see if there is anybody there," his Lieutenant purportedly instructed him. "Draw maps and pictures of what you see and come back and tell us if you find anything.”
Yet map-making was far from Kirby's only contribution to the war effort. “Unlike other comic book creators who were given either stateside or way-behind-lines assignments, and perhaps because Kirby understood Yiddish, the Jewish German dialect spoken by his family, he was sent as a scout behind enemy lines to draw maps," Randolph Hoppe, the Jack Kirby Museum's treasurer and acting director told Snopes via email, noting Kirby trained in judo to prepare for his time on the frontlines. “He endured and survived many harrowing violent experiences during his service, almost losing his feet to trench foot. He had no time for fascists or racists.”
Considering this zero-tolerance policy towards fascism, Kirby says he was a-okay with socking a nazi or two in his pursuits against fascism, a notion he alluded to in an archived 1990 interview with The Comics Journal. “I was a young man. I was still growing out of the East Side,” he said when asked about the 1954 Senate Subcommittee hearing on violence in comic books. “The only real politics I knew was that if a guy liked Hitler, I’d beat the stuffing out of him and that would be it.”
According to literature from Kirby's museum, it seems the comic artist and World War II veteran may have actually made good on these threats. “On occasion the Timely office would get phone calls and letters from Nazi sympathizers threatening the creators of Captain America," read the biographical excerpt. “Once, while Jack was in the Timely office, a call came from someone in the lobby. When Kirby answered, the caller threatened Jack with bodily harm if he showed his face. Kirby told the caller he would be right down, but by the time Jack reached street level, there was no one to be found.”
It's unclear if Lee, Kirby's Marvel colleague, shared the Captain America co-creator's apparent penchant for socking nazis, however the famed comic writer spoke candidly against racism during the Civil Rights movement and throughout his life. In the mid-'60s, the comic book company launched Marvel's Bullpen Bulletins, a news page that appeared in most of their regular monthly comic books. Providing fans with information on real-world events, their comic competition, and letters from readers, Stan Lee regularly contributed to this publication in a section known as “Stan Lee's Soapbox," in which he regularly opened up to his readers about complex social topics.
“Let's lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today," Lee wrote in a 1968 column. "But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”
Aside from decrying racism, Lee also used his platform to respond to critics who said his work shouldn't delve so deeply into politics. “From time to time we receive letters from readers who wonder why there’s so much moralizing in our mags,” Lee wrote. “They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul,” he continued. "None of us lives in a vacuum – none of us is untouched by the everyday events around us – events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. Sure our tales can be called escapist – but just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains as we read it!
Lee's dedication to speaking out against hatred didn't end with Stan's Soapbox. Even in his golden years, the comic mogul continued to take a stand against racism until his passing in November 2018. Following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, Lee sprung to action, resharing one of his anti-racist passages (which has since been deleted from his Twitter page) and taking to Marvel's YouTube channel with an important reminder that “hatred, intolerance and bigotry" are not welcome at Marvel.
“I want you to know: Marvel has always been, and always will be, a reflection of the world right outside our window,” Lee explained in the clip. “That world may change and evolve, but the one thing that will never change is the way we tell our stories of heroism. Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin.” he continued. “That man next to you, he's your brother. That woman next to you, she's your sister. And that kid walking by? Hey, who knows, he may have the proportionate strength of a spider.”
So, as you read the Captain America comics, watch Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or even revisit several of the MCU classics starring Steven Rogers, remember his origins and what he's stood for. Excelsior!
Images: Marvel Comics