What You Need to Know About Captain America's Secret IdentityRoundup
tags: comics, Jewish Americans, popular culture
You know the story: a young, undersized, aspiring artist from New York’s Lower East Side who loves his country and hates bullies uses a superhero persona to take on the Nazis and becomes a war hero. It’s the origin of Captain America. It’s also the origin of Jack Kirby, his co-creator.
Captain America debuted 82 years ago this month, in 1941’s “Captain America Comics” no. 1, the brainchild of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The sons of Jewish immigrants, born Hymie Simon and Jacob Kurtzberg, in 1939 they became the first staffers of nascent publisher Timely Comics—later Marvel—Simon the editor and writer at age 26 and Kirby the artist and art director at age 22. Their Captain America was an instant hit, selling almost a million copies a month.
This embodiment of America had a square jaw, blond hair and blue eyes, but he didn’t hail from a Mayflower family or the Midwest heartland. He came from the ethnic slums of the Lower East Side, born to poor Irish immigrants.
Kirby grew up in the Jewish tenements of the neighborhood, and like Steve Rogers was a short and scrawny kid who got constantly picked on by bullies. Like Rogers, he always stood his ground, getting into scrapes, often at the defense of his blond younger brother, Dave. And, like Rogers, he developed a lifelong intolerance of bullies of any kind, his son Neal says.
Kirby never used his real name in his work, assuming a series of alter egos like Curt Davis, Jack Curtiss and Fred Sande before settling on Jack Kirby, which he also adopted legally. Though by all accounts fiercely proud of his Jewishness, not one of his pennames sounded remotely Semitic. They were all Anglo, mostly Irish names. His parents were none too happy, but he wanted “to be an all-American.” For Captain America’s alter ego, he chose the Irish name Rogers.
Making Captain America a product of the Lower East Side was also meaningful (the 2011 movie changed it to Brooklyn, and it’s been inconsistent in the comics since). It was known as the most multiethnic neighborhood in New York, if not America, a ghetto of impoverished, mostly recent immigrants. Simon and Kirby’s all-American icon was a powerful reminder that being an immigrant is all-American.
It could also be that Kirby, who borrowed regularly from Bible stories, was inspired in part by King David, also a small, overlooked, artistic youth who was rejected from armed service but who, with unwavering faith, picked up a star-shaped shield and saved his nation.