One of the most popular superheroes to grace the pages of Marvel comics shares a common bond with real-life heroes who have proudly worn the patch of the "Big Red One."
Steve Rogers, known to fans worldwide as Captain America, served with the 1st Infantry Division's 26th Infantry Regiment, also known as the "Blue Spaders," during World War II, as shown in "Mythos: Captain America," a 2008 comic written by Paul Jenkins with art by Paolo Rivera. Throughout the character's 72-year history, Captain America has been depicted fighting alongside the Big Red One and other Army units during World War II, including storming the beaches of Normandy in the first wave of Soldiers to set foot on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
"Cap fit more adventures into his time being active during the war than there would have been days for during the war," said Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort, who began working for the company as an intern in 1989. "The service and devotion to duty of the American Soldier is something that we don't feel that anybody should take for granted, so having a character who represents that service to the protection of our nation and to the highest ideals of our land is a proud and special thing."
Captain America was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics, which would later become Marvel. In the final days of World War II, Rogers was frozen in a block of ice after falling into the Atlantic Ocean. The character was revived in the pages of "The Avengers" in 1964 and has been a mainstay of that team ever since.
"While patriotism and the specific meaning of patriotism has changed throughout all of the decades through which Captain America has been published, the one thing that hasn't ever changed is our desire for the ideal version of America that is embodied in the principles of the nation as laid down by the founding fathers," Brevoort said. "That's what Captain America truly represents -- not a particular political party or position, but the precepts that ours is a land of equality and opportunity and freedom for all men. And that dream, that hope, is always going to be relevant, no matter how bright or dark a particular day may be."
"The story of Captain America on the whole is a rather interesting one," said Cord Scott, adjunct instructor at Harold Washington College in Chicago who specializes in 20th century American history with a focus in cultural and military history. "Captain America was actually introduced almost a year before Pearl Harbor. He sees what's coming, and he wants to be proactive in fighting the forces of evil, whether it be the Axis or whatever."
Scott points out that Rogers was too weak to join the military, but was given superior strength, speed and tactical abilities thanks to the Super Soldier serum developed by a German scientist named Abraham Erskine.
"The idea was that this formula was going to turn him into the first of a new breed of "super Soldiers" that could fight against the enemies of the Unite States," Scott said. "In the original storyline [Erskine] was killed, so Captain America ended up being one of one."
The themes of justice and equality that come with the character appeal to readers, Scott said.
"He's the embodiment of what is America," he said. "He believes in the idealism of the country as a shining beacon to the masses."
"Since the very beginning, Captain America has always stood for our great American ideals of freedom, liberty and justice," said Capt. Kevin Sudsberry, deputy information operations officer for the 1st Inf. Div., who said that Captain America has been his favorite superhero since childhood. "He demonstrates an unwavering moral character and code of ethics which parallels our Army values and the warrior ethos. He is a straight arrow, always doing the right thing, dependable and dedicated."
Sudsberry said he found it interesting that Steve Rogers has ties to the Big Red One.
"Just like we think of Captain America when we see his iconic shield, the authors clearly thought of the division when they thought of our Army and World War II," he said. "That speaks volumes. It makes me that much prouder to say I am a Big Red One Soldier."
The real-life captain said that, as a superhero, Captain America is someone children can look up to and aspire to be like. Staff members at the First Division Museum at Cantigny, located outside Chicago in Wheaton, Illinois, use the character's popularity to help bring the division's history to life for their younger visitors.
"I think it's such a great thing to get to talk about with kids," said Laura Lyn Sears, volunteer and program coordinator for the museum. "Especially now with the Marvel movies being out, Captain America has had a resurgence in popularity."
Marvel brought the character to the big screen in 2011 with "Captain America: The First Avenger" starring Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. Evans played the character in the subsequent films "The Avengers" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and will reprise the role this summer in "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Captain America: Civil War" in 2016.
"It's one of my favorite extra facts that you get to talk to the kids about when you're talking to them," she said. "I think, for them, it makes history more exciting and it turns every single member of the 1st Inf. Div. we talk about into superheroes."
Originally from Great Brittan, comics author Paul Jenkins got his start in the industry at Mirage Studios in the late 1980s, where he helped Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird negotiate licensing deals for their black-and-white comic "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
After working as an editor and in the business side of the industry, Jenkins turned to writing. He's penned stories for characters from Wolverine and Spider-Man to the Incredible Hulk and his own Marvel creation, The Sentry. He now works exclusively for comics publisher Boom! Studios, where he writes titles such as the all-ages "Fairy Quest" and the upcoming steampunk adventure "Lantern City."
"In Europe, especially in Great Brittan, we're taught a lot about world history, so I find American military history fascinating," the author said.
"The first thing about storytelling is you have to decide on a theme," Jenkins said. "Let's take a character like Batman. I happen to think that Batman is one of the best modern tragic characters that there is. If you look at him, he's a guy who lost his parents, and he's spent his whole life since ever since trying to get the one thing he can't get. He wants them back, he wants them to come back to life. It doesn't matter what he does, he's got this built-in problem -- he'll never have his parents back. It's very, very tragic and very sad because of that. There's nothing he can do about it. That's my approach to writing him, so it kind of fuels everything that happens with him. He'll never win this mission of revenge, I suppose.
So with Captain America, I think you have to look at it and decide who he is first. Primarily, he's a product of a generation, but not the generation that we're in. Even though he's come through to the generation that we're in, he would have been a product of 1930s America, growing up in the Great Depression, and I'm just intrigued by that."
"When I wrote his origin story in "Mythos," I wanted to talk about the depression as well and what that might have done to shape his childhood, and what it was like to grow up with a single mother because his father died and all these different things.
Jenkins returned to the mythos of Captain America again in "Captain America: Theater of War," a series of standalone stories that in part explore what it would have been like for the nigh-invulnerable Avenger to fight alongside his mortal peers in World War II and beyond, many of whom died fighting thousands of miles from home.
"I've written comics for many, many years, and I'm not exaggerating … the 'Theater of War' stories are probably my four favorite comics I ever wrote for Marvel," Jenkins said. "My favorite review I've ever had … was 'it took a British writer … to teach me the true meaning of American patriotism.'"
The author said he chose the Blue Spaders for his Mythos story carefully.
"I found a unit that had been involved with so many important moments," Jenkins said. "I needed a unit that his father could have been in because, when you get down to 'why does he want to join up?' -- yeah, I get that he's brave, he's especially brave because he's a little guy before he takes that serum -- but more importantly, the secret was that he always wanted to honor his father, and that was his father's unit."