How the Military Has Shaped American Superheroes

“Captain America Comics #1” , 1941, hanging on the wall of the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibit at the Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle.

Everyone has a superhero.

It could be Michael Keaton’s play on the infamous vigilante Batman. Or, the ‘60s super-activist Black Panther, whose 2018 Blockbuster won three Academy Awards.

Perhaps it’s the recently re-made Spider-Man, with an origin story that’s both relatable and inspiring to fans everywhere.

Your superhero might also be someone from your real life. A parent, grandparent, mentor or friend — this person has influenced you in a way that makes them worthy of the illustrious ‘hero’ title.

Maybe your superhero is you.

Regardless, we all need heroes, especially in times of duress. They make us strive to be better; to know we are strong enough to make it through anything; and, most of all, superheroes give us hope.

This hope and high morale was something that Americans were in desperate need of during World War II.

 

A superhero born from war

“Wake up, Americans!”

This was Captain America’s message to young Americans on the homefront, as the Allies and Axis Powers waged war in Europe.

“You too can help… You too can do your bit… Join young America’s fastest growing organization… Become a Sentinel of Liberty to-day!”


War efforts were made through comic books, encouraging American kids to donate waste paper and money to the cause.

Comics like these became more and more popular in the ‘40s, as a way to garner donations to the cause, as well as American unity and support. The “Super Hero Boom” took off in 1941 with the first ever Captain America comic from Marvel (then called Timely Comics).

Published with art from Jack Kirby, the front page contained thrilling imagery of superhero Captain America punching Hitler in the face. The display was intended to make a splash among both service members and civilians — and it did.

Captain America was truly the first “military superhero”, and came to represent the unparalleled power of the American military. He embodied the overarching reason for war with the Nazis: justice.

When Kirby left Timely Comics in late 1941, the well-known actor and publisher Stan Lee took his place as editor-in-chief. Before the war’s end in ‘45, thousands of comics were shipped to servicemen overseas in care packages, and many more were sold in the States.

The superhero craze “combined nationalism with the concept of justified violence”, and left Americans with no doubt in their minds: the United States would win the war.

As Captain America said, “This war can only end in one way . . . In victory for America!”



Popular military superheroes

While superhero comic sales declined after the end of World War II, they made a comeback in the late ‘50s, and began to dominate the market again in the ‘60s.

One of the most common traits among superheroes ties back to Captain America’s inception: they almost always seem to be war veterans. Probably because military superheroes are “elite” in a way they can’t be as civilians, and also hardened from years of training and combat.

Here are some of the most popular military superheroes:

 

Nick Fury

Originally released in 1965 as an aging white veteran, Fury was re-imagined by Marvel as an African-American man; specifically, one who bore a resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson. Credit: Nerdist.

Colonel Nick Fury made his first appearance in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1, which took place during WWII. Fury served as a colonel in the Cold War before taking the mantle as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division). He comes equipped with the Infinity Formula, to prevent him from aging, and he’s also missing an eye.

 

Wolverine

Wolverine in full suit. Credit: Syfy Wire.

James Howlett/Logan was born in the 1800s, and has served in the American Civil War, both World Wars, and the Vietnam War. He was discovered by military scientist Maj. William Stryker, who was against mutants, so Howlett fled his role in the military and joined the X-Men as Wolverine.

 

The Green Lantern

Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. Credit: DC Comics.

Hal Jordan and John Stewart are both members of the Green Lantern Corps, and also both veterans. Jordan was an Air Force pilot in the Korean War before he donned the Green Lantern ring. Stewart served as a Marine in WWII before he put on the ring. Stewart’s skill as a military-trained sniper, mixed with his superpowers, allowed him to snipe the villain Bedovian from across the galaxy.

 

Agent Venom

Flash Thompson wearing his Agent Venom suit. Credit: CBR.

Flash Thompson was a bully, then friend, of Peter Parker (Spider-Man). He joined the Army after high school and volunteered to fight in Vietnam (this was later changed to another conflict, due to Marvel’s sliding time scale). When fighting in Iraq, he was wounded and had to have both legs amputated from the knees down. With the help of the symbiote, Flash is able to turn into the dark superhero Agent Venom, though he can only maintain his powers for two days at a time before the symbiote tries to take control of his body.

 

The Falcon

The Falcon, as seen in comics with his bird Redwing and his flight harness. Credit: IGN.com.

Sam Wilson was an Air Force pararescue jumper, and one of the first black superheroes in mainstream comics. He was created by Stan Lee in 1969. Traditionally, The Falcon has powers that allow him to see through his pet bird’s eyes with a telepathic connection, and operate a harness that allows him to fly. In the movies, he just has his harness and combat skills to rely on. He also counsels veterans with PTSD.

 

Captain Marvel, or Ms. Marvel

The newer version of Captain Marvel — who was originally a male hero — as a redesign of “Ms. Marvel”. Credit: Pursue News.

Major Carol Danvers is the epitome of a military superhero. She’s a military intelligence officer and spy, graduated from the Air Force Academy, and was recruited by Nick Fury for the CIA. In the comics, she retires from the Air Force as a colonel to work at NASA, and then acquires superpowers when an explosion fuses her DNA with the former Captain Marvel’s. She can fly, shoot dangerous energy from her hands, and has increased strength and endurance.

 

The Punisher

The Punisher was introduced in a 1974 issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” as an antagonist. His only power? Military tactics. Credit: Elite Daily.

Frank Castle joined the Marine Corps after he gave up on becoming a Priest (he was asked if he could ever forgive a murderer — obviously, the answer was no). Marvel made the Punisher with the vision of a classic gun-slinging, cuss-word-using Marine, who isn’t afraid of anything. He’s troubled, and has no problem taking it out on criminals in the most violent ways you can imagine. It’s part of why people love, or love to hate, the Punisher.

 

What connects superheroes with service members?

If you think about it, it’s not all that strange that superheroes and service members have been lumped together since the dawn of comic books in America. Service members are American superheroes — even without special abilities.

They are fighting for a greater good, for their country, family and themselves. Our soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines put in the time and work to make a difference in our lives, sometimes at the cost of their own.

If uncommon courage was a superpower, it’s theirs.

 

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