Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Captain America — Young Punk?

One of the things Silver Age Marvel (nor most later Marvel that I can recall) rarely touches on is how fricking young Captain America was in the Golden and Silver Ages. He’s usually portrayed as a mature, sensible adult or an aging veteran — Stan Lee sometimes writes Steve Rogers as grappling with a midlife crisis — when he’s actually a young whippersnapper.

Not as young as the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe claims. According to OHOTMU Steve Rogers was born in the Depression. That means when he took up the shield he couldn’t be older than 11, so I’m sticking my neck out and calling that an error. Even so, as someone pointed out to me recently, he’s still way younger than usually acknowledged.

Consider: when he signed up for the Supersoldier Project he was probably 17. A year later, when he began his long career of Nazi-punching, he’d have been 18. When he went into the ice in 1945 he’d have been 23 years old and the same age when he thawed out in Avengers #4. Ed Brubaker’s retconned version of Bucky was only be a couple of years younger, though classic Bucky might be as young as fourteen (kid sidekicks were often real kids).

After the Avengers thawed Cap out, the stories read to me as if Stan saw him as a contemporary of the other Avengers and a kind of surrogate father to Rick Jones. In reality, he’d be as close or closer to Rick’s age as to Don Blake or Hank Pym whom I’m guessing are both in their thirties.

Once Cap got his own series in Tales of Suspense, Stan continued writing the Star-Spangled Avenger as if he were a veteran of close to Stan’s own age. In Cap’s first solo Silver Age story (#59) he flips through an old scrapbook (where did he find it, I wonder?) commenting that he still remembers his WW II experiences “but an eternity seems to have passed since then.” Then he sees a photo of Bucky and puts the book away, cursing himself for bringing up old memories.

Old memories? From Cap’s perspective it hasn’t been a year since his little buddy died. Later in the story he talks about “a lifetime of athletic training” when it was only been a handful of years (a story years later cleverly had the villain sneer about having had decades more training than Cap). At the end of the yarn Steve quips about how he’s really feeling his age (in fairness that’s a joke people make at almost every age).

In TOS #72, after telling the Kookies about some of his old adventures, the subject of Bucky comes up. When Cap abruptly walks away, Hawkeye wonders how he can possibly be hung up on something that happened twenty years ago. Yes, I know Hawkeye was a jerk back then but it still sounds like Cap’s had two decades to process his trauma. Later Steve pulls out an old clue to the secrets of the Sleepers and refers to carrying it around with him for years. When he thinks back to Peggy Carter in #77 he concludes she must be dead because “it’s been more than twenty years since then — if she were still alive, surely she’d have found me by now.” Uh, Cap, don’t you think that would have been a neat trick?

In Avengers #17, Hawkeye scoffs at Cap as “a relic of World War Two” while Cap calls his new teammates young. In reality, they were all roughly the same age. For all the mockery Wanda crushing on Cap gets, it was hardly a May/December romance.

Swear to God, I’m not trying to make this an Everything We Think About Cap Is Wrong article. I have no trouble with the idea Steve was way mature for his age, much as Superboy was. Five years of constant combat with the Axis undoubtedly strengthened and matured him further. For a 23 year old to look at Rick in his late teens and think of him as kid is normal enough (there’s a lot of growing up in that stretch) and the second Avengers team certainly was inexperienced compared to Cap. The attitudes and relationships aren’t implausible — but the dialog is still ridiculous.

It would be interesting to do a story that deals with Cap being a kid, albeit an exceptional one. Did he look at Rick and see himself, young and ready for action? Or was that precisely why he fought, so other teenagers wouldn’t have to be in the front lines? How did he feel about young heroes such as X-Men or Spider-Man? Did he ever think about connecting with people his own age or did he find the gulf too wide? Was Sharon Carter, an experienced SHIELD agent when they met, an older woman? Spitfire, who was hot for him in Invaders, very probably was.

We’ll probably never get those answers, but I enjoy speculating.

#SFWApro. Avengers #17 page by Don Heck, other art by Kirby.

7 Comments

    1. Rantel

      I can’t remember where I read this, but I thought Cap’s canonical birth year was somewhere around 1917 or 1918, which would make him slightly older than your estimate, but still fairly young during his early adventures.

  1. I don’t know if I ever have seen a definitive answer on Cap’s bday year, although I’m pretty sure he was born on the Fourth of July, but yeah, he was really young. I think the 1990 Adventures of … mini showed him getting lots of training on leadership and stuff, and he may have been early 20s, but yeah, still really young.

    I do know even in Avengers 4, he’s acting like he’s been unfrozen for years and not hours, and acting like time actually passed for him. It’s an oddity that I see continued in other appearances.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    You want to get a real world perspective on Cap, then I suggest looking at the life of the most decorated American combat soldier, in WW2: Audie Murphy. Murphy’s father abandoned his family and Audie dropped out of school, during the 5th grade, to earn money to support his family. He tried to enlist, after the attack on Pearl Harbor; but, was turned down, due to age and being underweight. He was finally accepted for enlistment in June, 1942, at the age of 17. By that point, he had been the “man of the family,” earning the money to keep it going. He did a lot of growing up, in his teen years, due to circumstances and the harsh realities of life. Steve Rogers was also without a father, trying to earn his way through the Depression and was turned down for military service. Murphy stood about 5 ft 5, was skinny and malnourished. Sound familiar?

    Murphy’s unit was posted to Italy and within a couple of months, at age 18, he was a sergeant. His leadership went well beyond his years and the men looked to him. In 1944, after earning 2 Bronze Stars and 2 Silver Stars, he was given a battlefield commission to 2nd Lieutenant, at the age of 19. In 1945, during a battle, he ordered his men into a treeline, to take cover, while he used a field radio to call in artillery on his position. He used the abandoned .50 cal machine gun to hold off German troops, until he ran out of ammo and rejoined his men. That action lasted about an hour. For an hour, one man held off a platoon or more of German soldiers and inflicted 50 casualties on the enemy. Again, does it seem familiar?

    Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was several months shy of his 20th birthday.

    Leaving aside the temporal manipulations of Marvel writers and editors, a child of the Depression, who lost at least one parent and had to earn their way in the world, and then fought through at least 2 years of WW2, was an old man. A lot of people grew up in a short time, in those two decades and it is something lost to modern generations, when it seems like everyone wants to hang onto childhood, well into their 30s. So, it is easy to conceive Captain America feeling old, no matter how much subjective time has passed. He did and saw more than most will, in a lifetime; lost friends and loved ones, and fought the battle against EVIL, with a capital E. I’d cut Stan and the rest a break, for their interpretation. Kirby grew up fast, made a name for himself in his chosen field, then went off to war. Stan didn’t; but so many of their generation was involved in something bigger than them, pretty early on. They had to go out and earn, at a young age. They all aged pretty quickly and those stories reflect their stories, too.

  3. A couple more thoughts.
    1)Kirby’s Steve Rogers in the first Cap story could easily be an adult. There’s no reference to his age and while he’s clearly young, he could as easily be 19-22.
    2)When Kirby retells Cap’s origin in Captain America 109, Steve again makes no mention of his age.
    3)The first reference to age I know (and I’ll note I’ve read almost zero Golden Age CA stuff) is Steve Englehart specifically saying Steve was 18 when he was recruited.

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