Rhetorical Criticism | Captain America: The power of propaganda
In 1940 America was still limping from the blow the great depression had delivered. The possibility of a global war was looming and Franklin D. Roosevelt was hesitant to get involved even after watching European democracies fall one after another. The American people were weary and apprehensive about taking on the forces across the sea. This gloomy reality was in contrast to the success the comic book industry was having. It was their “golden age.”1 Comic book publishers quickly realized that young children were drawn to single-themed books and since 90 percent of children aged six to eleven read an average of 15 comic books a month, they were able to capitalize.2 Not only did children voraciously read these books but they were hugely popular among service men, possibly as a way of escape. Sales of comic books doubled from 10 million to 20 million copies a month between 1941 and 1944 in part because of soldiers reading habits.3 This popularity cut across economic boundaries and made it a great tool to communicate specific ideals to the public. Leaders in the industry recognized that these books were a form of advertising and propaganda. Captain America is a clear example of comic books being used to promote an idea; specifically that America needed to enter World War II.
The first issue of Captain America hit the stands in March of 1941 but the story was developed a year earlier by Joe Simon, a young Jewish writer. In fact, a majority of the key players in the comic book industry were Jewish such as Timely Comics’s publisher Martin Goodman and DC Comics’s Harry Donenfeld.4 It is no coincidence the atrocities the Nazis were inflicting on the Jews overseas influenced the industry as a collective to take action in the form of comic book propaganda. This action is visible on the cover with Captain America throwing a knockout punch to Adolf Hitler. Comic book writers and artists wanted to contribute to the wartime dialogue, and the best way for them to do that was through the imagery and plot lines of the popular books everyone was reading. The first issue of Captain America is an apologue filled with artistic nuances and suggestive language commenting on the social climate of the time.
The red, white and blue ink isn’t the only symbolism dripping off the cover. Captain America, otherwise known as Steve Rogers, is a muscular figure with chiseled features. His patriotic costume is adorned with the colors red, white and blue in similar shapes you find on the American flag. All of these elements strategically echo American strength and perseverance. His cowl has two small wings above the ears and a large A on his forehead. The A is clearly for America. The fact that it is placed directly over his eyes makes sure it is the first and possibly last thing the enemy sees. The placement could also be making reference to the intellect; stating that America represents ingenuity and progress. The wings might represent a hirer self; the fact that America will rise above their enemies or a possible angelic, god-like self-depiction, similar to the wings found on Mercury’s helmet.5 He carries with him a triangular shaped heater shield made of bulletproof alloy. His badge shaped accessory mimics the same blue strip and vertical stripes found on the Great Seal of the United States.6 Seals, by nature, are a sign of approval usually reserved for someone with power. Now, Captain America had that power. He had the right to approve or disapprove of the actions taken against America.
Captain America is juxtaposed next Hitler who he has just punched. The posture of Captain America is forceful and aggressive. He is leaning over Hitler at a dominant angle and the artistic speed lines emphasize the punch he just threw. Hitler is at a passive angle falling backwards. His unstable posture coupled with Captain America’s forceful strike suggests America’s authoritative role in world peace. It conveys that we are stronger, smarter and will be the victors in the end.
The scene around them is chaotic and filled with Nazi soldiers and bullets whizzing by. There are five swastikas visible either on the wall or the arms of the soldiers. Even though bullets are flying towards Captain America and he is outnumbered he still appears invincible. The artist is not subtle about suggesting Germany’s threat to the United States. Various elements around the room point to America’s demise. In the background there is an image of the US Munitions Works exploding. This was likely depicted because, before the US entered the war, they were providing aid to Britain and other allies. This imagery suggested that Germany was aware of our stance and were inevitably going to strike. In case the reader didn’t catch on to this, there is the more obvious image of a map and plans on the floor with the words “sabotage plans for the U.S.A.” In the right corner is the young patriotic sidekick Bucky. He is saluting to the reader as if to call them to action.
The unique aspect of both Captain America and Adolf Hitler was that they were actual people. Unlike Superman, Captain America wasn’t bullet proof. He couldn’t fly; he was the just like the reader. Comic book hero’s at the time had super powers mimicking the capabilities of mythical characters and their nemesis were the same.7 Typical comic book villains at the time were ominous characters usually consisting of mad scientists that could only be imagined, such as Ultra-Humanite, a criminal mastermind turned mutant ape-like creature, Superman’s first foe. Adolf Hitler was a real person and a mounting threat to the United States. He was now joining the ranks of super villains such as Dr. Death.8 Similar to other villains; he came with henchman, the Nazis. By contextualizing Hitler as a sinister antagonist against Captain America, the morally patriotic protagonist, Joe Simon was clearly sending a message; America needed to fight because it was the virtuous thing to do.
As the reader goes further into the book the propaganda thickens. The third page sets up the story using words such as “ruthless war-mongers,” “peace-loving America,” and “call to arm” warning of a Nazi plot to invade the U.S. military from within. The internal sabotage plotline feeds on the American paranoia at the time. If the threat was overseas at least we could see it coming but if it came from within, that would be unexpected so we better strike first. The top panel of page 4 shows the explosion of the Munitions Works while a Nazi double agent looks on with excitement. The agent’s face is heavily shadowed adding to his evil demeanor and his mouth is oddly large and open almost animal-like. These nuances define his role as a bad guy and his anti-American agenda. He is more animal than human and that is how the reader should view the Nazi’s.
The reader is not introduced to Steve Rogers, otherwise know as Captain America, until page 6 when two army officials are being shown plans to create super soldiers with a secret serum. The bottom left panel features a frail young man standing in front of a scientist, Professor Reinstein. The language used in this panel is a quintessential example of rallying propaganda. The scientist says to the hopeful army cadet, “Don’t be afraid, son . . . you are about to become one of America’s saviors.” There are two interesting concepts happening here; one, that he should not be afraid suggesting confidence in victory and two, America needs a savior. The threat is so serious that divine intervention is needed. Also, the fact that Steve Rogers has an anemic physique but still is compelled to fight for his country is the equivalent of the writer shaking his finger in disappointment at us. This is a blatant call to action and US citizens should be eager to enlist and ashamed of themselves if they haven’t already.
After the serum takes affect Steve Rogers is transformed into a tall, brawny man with a matching intellect. The scientist than names him Captain America because, “Like you – America shall gain the strength and the will to safeguard our shores.” This transformation references the potential America has. It can become a symbol of strength and power to the world.9 At that same moment one of the agents reveals himself as a Nazi spy and shoots the scientist while yelling, “Death to the dogs of democracy.” This is immediately met with Captain America ripping him through a glass pane and delivering multiple blows emphasized with speed lines and sound effects crossing multiple panel gutters. Captain America sends the spy to a “well deserved” death.
The story quickly jumps to Captain America as an established public figure, thwarting the periodic spy’s plans. While in disguise at an army camp he meets up with Bucky Barnes, a wide-eyed youth who wants to be just like Captain America. Bucky’s character accidently finds out his true identity and, in similar fashion to other sidekicks, is sworn to secrecy. As quickly as the reader can move their eyes to the next panel Bucky is enlisted, it’s that easy. He joins in Captain America’s cause to pursue justice and fight the Axes of Evil. Bucky is a stand-in for the reader. He is identifiable and Joe Simons grand finale to the recruitment effort.10
When Captain America was first released it was a precursor to the inevitable involvement the US would have in the war. Later that year, on December 7, Pearl Harbor was attacked and suddenly the enemy had been at our door just like the exploding Munitions Works. Young men rushed to enlist and patriotism was widespread. This came at a crucial time when the government needed troops for what could possibly be a long war. The seed that Captain America had planted was now in full bloom. Joe Simon had created a character that the American people could relate to and used the looming threat of the Third Reich to emphasize a need for action.