Professor Abraham Erskine, codename Dr. Reinstein, left Germany after the new Nazi party had taken over and begun World War II. Working in the U.S., Erskine headed Operation: Rebirth, an experiment to tap into the hidden strength of humanity, turning an ordinary person into a peak-level human, a super-soldier.
Young Steve Rogers, born in New York as the child of two Irish immigrants, was selected as the first test subject of the perfected Erskine super-soldier serum, which would then be tempered by an experimental radiation emitter called the “vita-rays.” The experiment was a success but then Nazi sabotage ensured that the full secret of the super-soldier serum was lost. Instead of being the first of many, Steve was now one of a kind and the mission changed. He was now to be a rallying symbol, given a colorful suit of body armor and the name “Captain America.”
After fighting for years in the 1940s alongside his partner Bucky Barnes, soldiers such as Nick Fury, and super-powered allies such as the Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch, Captain America wound up frozen alive. Decades later, he was discovered and revived by the newly formed Avengers team and joined their ranks. As a member of the team and on his own, he has continued the fight for justice and has also operated as a world protector. According to one account, it was actually Cap who coined the now famous battle cry “Avengers Assemble!”
After the popular movie Captain America: The First Avenger and the new film The Avengers, Cap’s popularity has soared and spread. So it seems like the perfect time to look back on his many uniforms and the evolution of his design. Join us as the battle cry goes out: “Avengers Ensemble!”
THE FIRST LOOK
Captain America (and his young partner Buck Barnes) debuted in 1941, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. During the Golden Age of comics (roughly 1935-1951), most superhero costumes were based on circus style outfits or what seemed to be mardi gras costumes. Captain America fits in the same vein, but since he was a human being with no super-powers entering a battlefield, creator Joe Simon wanted a slightly more practical element of protection and so he added a layer of chainmail to block small arms fire and blades. Later comics said that this chain mail was made of duralumin, which is one of the earliest aluminum alloys, often used in aircraft construction (the name deriving from “durable aluminum”) and known for being both strong and lightweight. As we’ll see decades later, the costume would evolve to involve scale mail rather than chainmail.
Since the chainmail is lightweight and only covers his upper body, it doesn’t give us an impression that it is weighing Steve down or impeding his movements, which is important since he performs acrobatic feats regularly. The colors of his undershirt complete the outfit, with stripes all around his lower half. The gloves and boots are leather and practical for battle in different terrains, but their colors also complete and balance out the suit. They are also done in an older military style, indicating that Cap is not just a superhero but also a soldier.
The loose shorts fitting over the trousers are in keeping with the style of the time, when artists seemed to think that superheroes needed to wear outer-briefs. I’m not a fan of this design element, but in this case I’m more forgiving since they’re the same color as the trousers and don’t stand out.
The mask is a simple cowl that covers his face and speaks of the time period. It looks as if someone took a leather helmet that an American football player would wear at the time and extended it to cover Cap’s eyes. In recent flashback stories, artists have taken to adding a strap to this original flexible cowl, indicating that it is not a cloth or leather mask but a actually a practical helmet.
The wings may seem silly, but I like them. There’s the obvious eagle reference, but there’s also the fact that they intentionally echo the Greek god Hermes. This suits Cap, who has been engineered to be the perfect man, a living incarnation of the Ancient Greek ideal of physicality. It lets us know that he’s not quite like the rest of us and adds to his silhouette.
Cap’s original shield is, like him, pretty patriotic and functional. But this item actually got the character into a bit of trouble, because MLJ Comics (now called Archie Comics) complained that it looked too similar to the shirt worn by their own patriotic hero “the Shield,” who had made his debut about fourteen months before Steve Rogers was introduced. Rather than get into a legal dispute, Timely Comics (the 1940s incarnation of Marvel Comics) altered Cap’s shield by the second issue, giving it a disc design.
This original uniform and shield only lasted for Cap’s debut issue, Captain America Comics #1. But as far as story continuity is concerned, Steve used this uniform and the triangle shield for the first several months of his career. The colors and details of the triangle shield vary from artist to artist. Many flashback stories also picture Cap with a gun holstered to his side during these early days, since he needed a weapon for long-distance attacks.
THE STAR-SPANGLED MAN WITH A PLAN
Starting with Captain America Comics #2, Steve began using a new disc shield with four circular lines surrounding a stylized star. These days, we take it for granted that the shield can be thrown like a discus, ricocheting off of walls and ceilings in order to take down multiple enemies at once if Cap wants. But in the original golden age comics, this was not the case. The shield was just a shield.
The first time Cap tossed it was in a story written by Stan Lee and featured in Captain America Comics #3. Steve threw it like a weapon later again in that same issue. But after that, it was very rare indeed to see him hurl it. The idea of the shield-toss attack wouldn’t become a regular thing until the 1960s when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought the character back.
The disc shield is a fantastic accessory. It’s stylish but not overly complicated. Its design of co-centric circles and a large star in the middle also makes it a target of sorts, as if Cap is daring his enemies to attack at their own risk. The discus nature of the shield also matches our character metaphorically. Steve is not a guy who goes looking for trouble. He is, more than anything, a protector, a metaphorical shield for those who need him. But when he must, he can go on the offense and enemies won’t know what hit them.
It is a unique weapon for our hero, as intrinsic to him and his whole design as Thor with his hammer and Spider-Man with his web-shooters. Any other time I see a hero with a rounded shield, my first thought is “that looks like Cap.”
Starting with his second issue, Steve made a couple of cosmetic changes. The mask was now extended, with the neck connecting to the shirt. This looks a bit better and is also more functional. Many years later, writer Roger Stern and artist John Byrne revealed that Cap had decided to adopt this full cowl when he found that his first mask could be easily dislodged during a fight. The full neck attachment lowered this risk considerably.
The comics tell us that Cap’s second costume covered his neck with a layer of chain mail that was thinner than the armor that composed his shirt. This meant that enemies wouldn’t find it as easy to choke or garrote the good Captain. In one comic, we saw that this neck protection saved Steve’s life from the Nazi vampire called Baron Blood. Yes, I said “Nazi vampire.” That’s the kind of cool/messed-up thing you can find in a good superhero comic.
Another change Steve made to his costume didn’t quite make sense to me. In his first appearance, the stripes of Captain America go all the way around his lower torso and back. But starting with Steve’s second issue, the stripes only covered his stomach (with a few occasional exceptions when an artist would make a mistake).
Why design the suit like this? Before, we had the chain mail thrown over a striped undershirt. Now we are implying either that Cap’s entire shirt is chainmail (which is fine, but then the artists should do a better job of conveying that) or that he decided to protect his back and chest with chainmail but not his stomach, possibly because then he wanted show off his abs in battle. It’s a strange design choice that breaks an otherwise symmetrical suit.
THE COMMIE SMASHER & THE ACROBAT!
After World War II, many superhero comics dropped in popularity. Captain America in particular seemed to lose a lot of steam with no Nazis to fight. He took on more street-level crime for a while, aided by a new female partner – Golden Girl – starting in 1947 after a bullet wound forced Bucky to retire. Not long afterward, Cap simply vanished from the newsstands.
In the 1950s, Cap returned to comics to combat a new American fear. He was now called “Commie Smasher” rather than the “Sentinel of Liberty” and Cap’s arch-enemy the Red Skull was reinterpreted as a Communist terrorist and spymaster. This reboot left Cap’s costume mostly untouched, though he now wore a star-decorated belt like Bucky. Cap’s shield also changed slightly, losing two of its stripes. During some of these stories, artists would occasionally alter the color of Cap’s “A” from white to red, though whether this was trying out a new design or simply an error isn’t known. In any event, the Commie Smasher adventures didn’t last long since it didn’t resonate with readers and Steve vanished again for a few years.
The Silver Age of Comics began in 1956 and by the 1960s, Marvel Comics was well underway with its new wave of superheroes such as the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Spider-Man. The 1930s android hero the Human Torch had been replaced by a new Human Torch who was a super-powered teenager and was quite popular. The 1930s hero Sub-Mariner had been brought back as an anti-hero who clashed swords with the Fantastic Four. So why not bring back the other hugely popular Marvel hero of the Golden Age? Why not bring back Cap?
To test whether audiences wanted this, Marvel first did a story where Johnny Storm (AKA the second Human Torch) ran across what seemed to be the WW II hero, still young and kicking. The Torch figured out that this wasn’t the real Sentinel of Liberty and unmasked the impostor as a villain called the Acrobat. The Torch was left disappointed, musing on how cool it would be if the real Cap had actually shown up in the modern day. And readers wound up thinking the same thing.
The Acrobat wore Cap’s second WWII outfit with two differences. First, the stripes now went around his lower back again. Secondly, the shorts were now colored red, which brings us into the danger zone of this becoming a pure circus costume. His shield also regained a stripe.
RETURN OF A CLASSIC
In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had several of their new superheroes join forces to become the team known as the mighty Avengers. The Hulk was originally on the team, but quickly left due to his suspicion that the others would never trust him. But the group found a replacement member soon enough, one who would actually become the heart of the group. In Avengers #4, the Avengers discovered a man literally frozen alive and wearing a familiar star-spangled costume. It was Steve Rogers, having been in suspended animation since just before the end of World War II (his adventures as a “commie-smasher” in the 1950s were later said to have been a different person playing the part of Captain America). With this explanation, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were able to not only revive Captain America as a modern-day character but now gave him the new premise of being a “man out of time,” a super-soldier doing his best to adjust to a modern world that saw some of his idealism as “old-fashioned.”
Captain America was back and once again his costume was altered a bit. His co-creator Kirby had him wear the same basic suit that the Acrobat had worn, except the shorts went back to being blue, thankfully. The cover of Avengers #4 showed a shield with four stripes, just like what Cap used in WW II except with two red stripes as opposed to one red and one blue. The interior pages, however, had Steve using the same shield that the Acrobat had used, with two red stripes and one white stripe surrounding a stylized star over blue. This design became the standard not just for years to come but also retroactively. From now on, in all flashbacks, Steve’s circular shield would be depicted this way.
It was also at this time that Captain America truly developed his method of shield-slinging, mentally calculating his throws so his shield would take down his enemies and then ricochet back into his grasp moments later. For this reason, artists began drawing the shield a bit more carefully, conscious to shape it more like a discus and never to make it seem flat. As time went on, we also got more history behind the discus shield.
Readers learned that Captain America’s shield was presented to him by FDR months after he began his career and that it is composed of an iron-vibranium or steel-vibranium alloy. For any of you who don’t know, “vibranium” is a fictional metal that exists in the Marvel Universe and has the unique property of absorbing sound and kinetic energy. Created one night by accident, this shield is one of a kind and the fact that it is part-vibranium allows Cap to block incredible firepower or punches from someone like the Hulk and yet not break his arm in the process.
The kinetic absorption property is also how the shield can ricochet off multiple surfaces with little to no loss of velocity. The fact that it absorbs sound also makes this a great sneak-attack weapon, since enemies don’t hear it whistling through the air as it closes in on them.
The shield’s creator, Dr. Myron MacLain, spent years attempting to re-create this unique alloy and never succeeded. His experimentation eventually created a new metal he called “adamantium.” For this reason, Cap’s shield is occasionally (but erroneously) referred to as being an adamantium-vibranium alloy. Adamantium is, of course, the same metal that is surgically bound to Wolverine’s skeleton.
This classic look is, in my mind, just about perfect. It is stylistic and symmetrical, while also being functional and streamlined. The wings, star and letter “A” stand-out nicely even when the character is in shadow.
A couple points of fun trivia here: first, soon after Cap was revived in the modern world, Tony Stark AKA Iron Man outfitted his shield with magnetic technology so that Cap could cause it to fly through the air and move at his remote control. But Steve later removed this technology since it threw off the shield’s balance.
Second point of trivia: before he became a government-created super-soldier, Steve Rogers was an artist and did some commercial work here and there. In one version of his origin story, presented in a mini-series entitled The Legend of Captain America, we saw that the famous star-spangled outfit was actually based on some sketches he jokingly did of a patriotic superhero he called both “American Eagle” and “Mr. America” (both names that were indeed used by other patriotic WWII comic book heroes).
The design shows us how the simple additions of a flag-cape and an eagle belt buckle are enough to make Cap look a lot more outlandish. This might work for a wrestler, but not for someone we’re supposed to take seriously as a soldier-turned-superhero.
The idea that Steve himself designed the costume also truly emphasizes that he IS Captain America, it is not just an identity that was assigned to him.
THE OTHER COSTUMES
Soon after the Watergate scandal, art imitated life and then took it to a further level. After taking on the subversive terrorist group known as the Secret Empire, Cap cornered its leader in the oval office, realizing this hooded terrorist was really a “high-ranking White House official” (possibly the President) moments before the villain killed himself. This story caused Cap to lose faith in the country he was serving. He decided he could not trust the government anymore and became “Nomad, man without a country.” As we saw in the comic, Steve designed this new outfit to have an adventurous, swashbuckler feel.
The cape, boots and gloves certainly say “swashbuckler.” He almost looks like a modern-day pirate. But the V-neck reaching all the way to his belt is just ridiculous and, coupled with the black leather mask, make him again look like a wrestler. Or possibly a figure skater in disguise. There’s also nothing marking this costume. There’s no symbol, no unique design. Just a black outfit with a belt and cape.
The cape didn’t last long, though. While chasing some enemies, Steve tripped over it and then realized that there was a very practical reason he had never worn a cape before. He quickly ripped it off and continued wearing the Nomad suit without it. A while later, Steve resumed his Captain America identity, reaffirming his belief that he could represent the ideals of his country without necessarily agreeing with its government.
In the 1980s, the Commission on Superhuman Activities formed and demanded that Steve be under their direct control. The US government had created the super-soldier serum and the Captain America persona and therefore, they argued, no one could use that identity or the shield without their permission. Still determined that he would serve American ideals rather than solely the government or any single administration, Steve said no and turned over his outfit and shield.
It wasn’t long before he started acting as a superhero again, though. The CSA said he couldn’t be Captain America but there was nothing to stop him from acting as a hero with a new costumed identity. Now he simply called himself “The Captain.” Whereas Nomad had been a completely new persona, Steve’s new role as “The Captain” was meant to hint at his previous identity, letting people know this was the same man they’d trusted for years. It was also a way of saying “screw you” to the CSA. This design accomplishes all this very nicely. It’s clearly still Captain America, just with a different agenda. It also suits the darker feelings of 1980s superhero comics, where the world seemed more grim and moral ambiguity was increasing.
With his shield gone, Cap tried a couple of replacements. First, he had an adamantium shield he used which was not painted and simply shined with a silver color. This was functional, but from a design perspective just didn’t look right with the character, whatever costume he was wearing. It was just too plain.
The second shield Steve got was much better. The paint job emulated his old weapon but again made it clear that things were now different. The lack of a star in the center is very telling. But while serves its purpose, it’s still just not as eye-catching as the classic shield. A bunch of co-centric circles doesn’t give a lot of graphic impact.
Eventually, of course, Steve returned to his Captain America identity. His temporary replacement, John Walker, wound up taking the black “Captain” costume and using it in his new job as an agent for the Commission on Superhuman Activities. In the black costume, Walker started going by the name U.S. Agent. But that’s a whole other story. Now let’s fast forward a few years …
TOO MANY ACCESSORIES
Have we talked about how much the 90s sucked for superhero designs? We have? Well, here’s further evidence. In the early 1990s, there was this idea that you needed belts, pouches and padding in order to look cool because all of that stuff was “realistic.” In 1994, Cap followed suit by accessorizing for a few issues.
It only got worse in 1995. The super-soldier serum in Steve’s veins was finally taking its toll, causing a degenerative illness. As his health and abilities weakened, he found it more and more difficult to even move on his own. To help him continue operating as a superhero, Tony Stark offered to make Cap a special exo-skeleton and Steve (apparently forgetting the horrible outfit Stark had made for Hawkeye just a few years earlier) accepted the gift.
This armor… man, I don’t know what to say about it. It really looks to me as if a homeless man got a bunch of trash cans and painted them in patriotic colors. It’s bulky and clunky and kills any sense of Cap being an agile acrobat. The shoulder pads are ridiculous, the helmet is just oddly designed, and I don’t know why you would want metal armor to emulate the extra cloth of swashbuckler boots.
Thankfully, this storyline ended and Steve’s health was restored in the following story “Operation: Rebirth” by Mark Waid and Ron Garney. That same story saw Cap return to his classic outfit. During this story, though, Cap found himself forced to go against the direct orders of the President of the United States. Though ignoring the order enabled him to save the world, he had still, in effect, committed treason.
In the following storyline, Cap was not imprisoned or executed for his actions due to his record of service and the fact that the had, in fact, been trying to save the world. But he’d still gone against direct orders from the President of the United States and so, as punishment, he was deported and told he was no longer allowed to step onto U.S. soil. To reflect his new status, his love interest and occasional fighting partner Sharon Carter, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., gave him a new outfit that reflected his “ex-patriot” status. It is, rather cleverly, the Captain America outfit with all the stars and stripes removed. With his shield gone at the time, Steve instead used an energy weapon that created a disc-shaped force field.
Although this is a very plain and generic costume, it works for the reasons mentioned above and because it was only meant for this one story. The only thing about it that bugs me is the bandanna. I would’ve preferred Cap in a real mask and cowl rather than wearing a bandanna that makes him look like a gang member.
In the story event Heroes Reborn, Steve and several other superheroes wound up transported to “Counter-Earth” where they were reincarnated and lived out lives that were similar but still noticeably different from the ones they used to lead. In this version of things, Cap wore basically the same outfit except that the “A” on his cowl was replaced with a stylized eagle.
As a concept, this is not a bad idea. The execution isn’t great though. That eagle doesn’t look as proud as the big white “A” did. And what’s more, this actually looks a lot like Wonder Woman’s symbol now and Cap should have something that is uniquely his own.
ENTERING THE 21st CENTURY
After Heroes Reborn came to an end, Cap and the other heroes returned to the mainstream Marvel Earth. Steve went back to his classic outfit but soon afterward he lost the famous shield. So, starting in 1998, he began using a new high-tech energy weapon instead. The idea was to give Cap a new challenge of having to master and rely on a different weapon than the trusted “old friend” he’d been equipped with for several decades. It was never meant to be a permanent replacement, of course.
This energy shield could be summoned forth at will via a device on his wrist. Its shape could also be warped so that it became a staff instead. While this allowed him to have a weapon and a defensive tool, the nature of this meant that Steve couldn’t do his classic shield-toss attacks at all. It was okay for the story’s purpose but, naturally, Steve regained his old, trusted shield about a year later.
When Captain America’s regular series was relaunched months after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, artist John Cassaday redesigned the outfit a bit. The chain-mail was replaced with thicker scale mail and now we saw a visible division between the outer armor and the shirt worn underneath that attached to the cowl.
Of course, this new design meant that Cap no longer had any kind of chain mail (or even scale mail now) protecting his neck as he had in the past. Cassaday also got rid of the shorts, leaving Steve with simple blue, canvas trousers.
The design has been so effective in appealing to people that nowadays most artists use this design when they depict Captain America in flashback as well. Likewise, the characters U.S. Agent and Isaiah Bradley began to be depicted as wearing scale mail that ended at a visible seam at the neck rather than chain mail that extended to the mask. We’ll talk more about those two characters in just a bit.
Following the events of Avengers Disassembled, Cap’s series was relaunched and our Star-Spangled Avenger had his look slightly altered again. Nowadays, whenever the classic design is used, Cap has pouches decorating his previously simple belt. There are also now seams on the mask, emphasizing that it’s leather and not cloth.
Considering Cap is both a soldier and a superhero who believes in being prepared, so a utility belt definitely makes sense for him. And it isn’t so large or complicated that it takes away from the stream-lined appeal of the outfit.
Death and Return
After the events of the story arc Civil War, the world believed that Captain America was dead. His old buddy Bucky Barnes stepped to the plate and became a new Captain America, with a new design by Alex Ross and some added weapons.
Bucky was a little wilder and at times more violent than Cap even in his early stories in the 1940s. In recent times, we learned that he had been trained more as a stealth fighter and that he later (against his will) spent some time acting as an assassin after the war. With all this in mind, the added weapons and the black make sense for his style of operation. But the shiny, metallic look of the colored parts seem to work against the idea of stealth. Also, while the torso is not a bad design, it does bring to mind the Puerto Rican flag as much as Old Glory.
Steve returned, of course, alive and well. In the mini-series that brought about his return, Captain America Reborn, we saw flashbacks to his days and WW II and got a new retroactive change to his costume of that era, inspired no doubt by the design of “Ultimate Captain America” (whom we’ll discuss later) and possibly by the new film designs. We saw that Cap occasionally went into battlefields wearing more practical boots and a serious helmet over his mask. This helmet had wings painted on the side and its letter “A” was of a different, more military font. Another scene also showed his classic costume sporting this military style A.
I dig this look and it’s definitely more practical for a guy if he’s going to be operating in the European Theater. But that same quality makes it very dated and, unlike some of the other looks, this doesn’t work as well as a superhero costume in the present. Then again, it’s not supposed to.
After his return, Steve initially felt that Bucky could continue being Captain America. He was then assigned by the President of the United States to operate as a world trouble-shooter, sporting this new, cool look. His new outfit was a nod to the U.S. but no longer as star-spangled. The stripes are more subtle, going down the legs and across the shoulders. This is sort of “Captain America meets James Bond.” A very interesting design by Marko Djurdjevic.
By the way, some have claimed that Djurdjevic’s design here was inspired by the costume of the Fighting American, another Simon/Kirby creation. This is incorrect.
Bucky later died (okay, not really, but the world thinks he did) and Steve Rogers wound up taking up the Captain America costume again. He is sporting the look he’s been rocking since Ed Brubaker began his new Post-Avengers Disassembled series and man, it still works.
In the meantime, his “world super-cop” outfit has been adopted as a uniform by the newly re-organized S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact, Nick Fury Jr. has been seen sporting it. So it definitely won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
And that wraps it up for us, folks. Hope you enjoyed this look at the Star-Spangled Avenger and his evolution. Upcoming pieces will look at those characters directly inspired by Captain America, as well as the Ultimate Captain America and his own contemporaries. And be on the look-out for updated annotations on the film Captain America: The First Avenger!
So until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!