In life, they say only three things are certain: birth, death, and change. Within comic books, the three things that are certain are that there will be retcons, reboots, and resurrections. Retcons are elements retroactively added to a character’s history, reboots can either be revivals of a character/their title or extensive changes to canon, and resurrections are characters clawing their way back from the afterlife.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
*This week we continue the whole month of Captain America-focused entries that look at various times the star-spangled Avenger has faced retcons, reboots, and resurrections!*
Currently, there are two men operating as Captain America in the Marvel Universe, both the original Steve Rogers and his long-time friend, partner, and ally Sam Wilson are carrying the shield and the mantle. Over the decades there have been many others that have held the shield and name such as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier, John Walker who now goes by U.S.Agent, and in the future, Danielle Cage (the daughter of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones) has been seen many times to be the Captain America of her era.
Time travel and alternate realities have given us looks at varieties of Captain Americas. Within the Marvel Prime/Marvel 616 Universe there is even a whole slew of other current civilians who have been inspired by Captain America and carry their own shields as revealed in the recent United States of Captain America mini-series.
Before all these others took on the shield, though, a trio of men were the first Captain America replacements thanks to ignored continuity and some handy dandy retcons.
All the way back in 1964, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby made the decision to bring the World War II hero Captain America to their present-day in Avengers #4, where the Avengers found Steve Rogers frozen in the ice. As we all well know at this point, he attempted to stop an experimental drone plane that exploded and (seemingly) killed Bucky while flinging Steve into the ocean where he ended up frozen in a block of ice for decades. Saved by the Avengers, he became a man out of time but eventually became a stalwart member of the team and has been a huge part of the Marvel era of comics ever since.
Problem is, in making this choice Lee and Kirby ignored a ton of already published Captain America stories. See, in the real world, Captain America and Bucky’s adventures continued well past the Second World War. In fact, they continued to appear in the Captain America series as well as other titles such as All Winner Squad and Young Men all the way into the early 1950s (1953 specifically). These issues had them taking part in the ends of World War II, going into the Korean War, and even tried to rebill Captain America as “Commie Smasher” in the ’50s.
These stories were mostly considered out of the canon for Captain America as he now stood within the Marvel pantheon (those stories having been published when the company was still known as Atlas). Until 1972 and 1977 when two different retcons brought the stories right back into full continuity.
The Nitty Gritty:
With his first issue on Captain America (#153) in 1972, Steve Englehart (alongside Sal Buscema, Frank McLaughlin, and Joe Rosen) dove right into the mystery of the 1950s “Commie Smasher” Captain America and his Bucky. Within the four issues of this story, a dead ringer for Steve Rogers/Captain America and Bucky arrives and fights Falcon while searching for the real Steve Rogers (who is out of the country with Sharon Carter at the time).
It’s later revealed that this man, who was born William Burnside, was a fan of Captain America when he was a boy. The news that Captain America went missing seemingly broke him and he became obsessed with Captain America and Bucky. Attaining a Ph.D. in American History with a thesis on Captain America’s life he graduated and did far more research on “Project: Rebirth” which led him to the discovery of a secret Nazi file in Germany about the true identity of the original Captain America as well as the lost Super-Soldier serum.
Taking that information back to the United States, he legally changed his name to Steve Rogers and approached the F.B.I. with the serum and a plan to become the new Captain America to be used in the Korean War. Burnside went so far that he even had himself surgically altered to appear and sound just like Steve Rogers, but the situation changed in Korea and the FBI pulled out of their deal. Instead, they set him up as a teacher at the private preparatory Lee High School in Connecticut.
This didn’t dull Burnside’s obsessions as he came across a student by the name of James “Jack” Monroe who was just as obsessed with Captain America and Bucky, who happened to resemble Bucky in many ways. When the Red Skull (another imposter) attacks, Burnside injected them both with an untested version of the serum, and they went after Skull. Without the vita-ray exposure that activated and stabilized the serum for the real Steve Rogers, the two began to experience psychotic symptoms while becoming unreliable and paranoid, attacking people because of different opinions or their race. Once they were arrested, the government put them into suspended animation where they remained thill they were awakened to attack the real Steve Rogers.
They were returned to suspended animation but would return. Burnside ended up in the care of Captain America’s foe Doctor Faustus who brainwashed him into the Nazi villain Grand Director before Burnside broke free and burned himself alive. He would be revealed to be fine and still in the care of Faustus and the Red Skull in the 2010s during the time when Steve Rogers was dead and battled Bucky (who was Captain America at the time) before being later defeated by Rogers and hasn’t been seen since (at the time he was said to be getting help and was given a new identity).
While this answered who was Captain America in the stories that were published in the ’50s, it didn’t deal with all those other stories after Steve’s disappearance in 1945. To answer that we must turn to a surprising source: What If? #4 from 1977.
While the What If? books are known to showcase alternate realities where the title question can be applied to some story that we think we know, this is one of the rare cases where the story in question was firmly told within the Marvel 616 reality.
In this particular issue (from Roy Thomas, Frank Robbins, Frank Springer, George Bell John Costanza, and Rosen), the question asked was about what would have happened if the Invaders, the team that Captain America and Bucky were part of, kept operating after the war. The Human Torch and Toro were the ones that took down Hitler while Namor is fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and Spitfire & Union Jack are protecting Churchill in London. The team is called back together and President Truman tells them they must keep fighting till the war is over, and adds Whizzer and Miss America to the team as well as a new Captain America and Bucky.
This Captain America was actually William Nasland who used to be the hero known as the Spirit of ‘76 and Bucky was Fred Davis a former Yankees batboy who once was a decoy for Bucky. Truman believed that the country could not know that their star-spangled hero and his partner had died, so the world was allowed to believe that this was the same Captain America and Bucky. This group continued to work together until Japan Surrendered and then came back to fight crime in the US as the All-Winners Squad. Nasland was Captain America all the way into 1946 when the team was dispatched to take on Adam-II, the second android created by Phineas Horton who had created the Human Torch.
With the help of another hero The Patriot (Jeff Mace), the team escapes a trap of Adam-II and finds out he means to replace a young senator (Jack Kennedy) with a robotic duplicate. They split the party and go to try and find the androids, and Captain America and Bucky are the unlucky ones that happen to find them. As Nasland goes to signal the team one of the androids grabs him and breaks his ribs.
As the All-Winners Squad arrives they fight Adam-II who tries to flee when Captain America miraculously returns to join the battle, only to crash his car and seemingly explode with the vehicle. Once the team is alone Captain America unmasks to reveal that it is Jeff Mace/Patriot underneath, who tells them that he found the dying Nasland who revealed his secrets before death. Mace took up the mantle promising to carry on the legacy of Captain America.
Interestingly enough just a few months later Roy Thomas would pen a story for Captain America #215 (with George Tuska, Pablo Marcos, Bell, Costanza, and Rosen) that would bring all of these retcons together into one place. It essentially was a giant Captain America origin/flashback story as part of a storyline where Steve Rogers is trying to recall who he was before he became Captain America. It was here that the Nasland, Mace, and Burnside versions of Captain America were all fully tied together continuity-wise and fully answered where those Atlas stories fit into the Captain America timeline.
Retcons are often a necessity when it comes to these long-form never-ending ongoing comic book storylines, to fill in the gaps between different incarnations of a character/series. Sometimes they are very messy or totally revamp things. Other times, like this one, they actually make a ton of sense and add a great amount of stuff to the tapestry that is a character’s backstory.
Not only did the work of these creators make it so that the original Atlas Comics stories fit into what Lee and Kirby brought to Marvel, it gave future creators plenty of toys to play with. Over the decades we’ve seen these former Captain Americas come into play in various ways, there was even a whole miniseries dedicated to Jeffrey Mace/Patriot to fill in the gaps of his story.
Over time as noted there have been tons of others that have a claim to the shield or the name, and it’s just made for a richer more fertile story ground.
Next Week: A star-spangled retcon and resurrection wrapped in a cosmic cube.