Marvel Comics recently announced that Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon, the first African-American superhero, will be taking over the role of Captain America from his old friend and partner Steve Rogers. People are still discussing their feelings on this, how long they think it will last, and what it means for the larger picture of the superhero industry. But did you know there have been many other people over the years who have stood in for Steve as the Star-Spangled Avenger? We’re not just talking about those times that Hawkeye put on the suit for an issue.
Let’s delve into the many Captain Americas after the break . . .
Steve Rogers was never supposed to be one of a kind. Operation: Rebirth was supposed to create an entire army of super-soldiers, but the perfected version of the super-soldier serum was lost after Steve’s successful transformation. However, in the 2003 mini-series TRUTH: Red, White & Black, Marvel readers learned that the U.S. government, in conjunction with other foreign powers, quickly went to work trying to recreate the serum and tested it out on African-American subjects deemed expendable. Out of hundreds, only five test subjects survived—but it came down to only one man who seemed to have successful results: Isaiah Bradley.
Later on, Isaiah went on an illegal mission behind enemy lines to prevent the Nazis from recreating the super-soldier program. He did this dressed in a copy of the Captain America suit and armed with a shield decorated by the seal of the Double V campaign. He was captured, then freed, then court-martialed and imprisoned in 1943 until pardoned in 1960. But despite this ill fate, many respected him as the “Black Captain America” and regarded him as a true hero. His grandson Eli later became the second Marvel Comics hero called Patriot.
WILLIAM NASLUND AND JEFF MACE
Quick history recap first. Steve Rogers was introduced as Captain America in 1940, alongside his kid partner Bucky Barnes. They fought throughout World War II. After the war, Cap and Bucky continued to appear in comics and were featured as part of the All Winners Squad. Later on, Bucky was injured and retired from heroics, replaced by the new hero Golden Girl. Then Captain America’s stories were cancelled, as superhero comics largely fell out of favor after WWII. There was a brief revival in the 1950s where Cap dropped the nickname “Sentinel of Liberty” and instead was called “Commie Smasher.” In this 1950s version, Steve Rogers was a college teacher and Bucky was one of his students.
Years later in the 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought Steve back in the pages of Avengers. The Avengers found him frozen alive and it was said he’d been in suspended animation since soon before the end of World War II. Bucky had died the same day he was frozen. This revised Cap from simply being a super-solider to now acting as a “man out of time.” It also meant that all the post World War II stories featuring the All Winners Squad, Golden Girl and the “commie smasher” days retroactively never happened.
Or did they?
In What If…? #4, writer Roy Thomas presented a story where the government decided that Captain America’s disappearance in 1945 needed to be concealed from the public lest it hurt American morale. The White House contacted the costumed hero William Naslund AKA Spirit of ’76 and asked him to stand in as Captain America. A young boy named Fred Davis, who had known Cap and Bucky Barnes, became the new Bucky. So those All Winners Squad stories happened, but that was William and Fred in the Cap and Bucky suits.
Roy Thomas then went on to reveal that William Naslund later died in action and was himself succeeded by Jeff Mace, who had previously operated as the first vigilante called Patriot. It was William Naslund then who partnered with Golden Girl before they both decided to retire.
This What If…? issue was intended to be a fun parallel universe story but did such a good job of explaining parts of Cap’s contradictory continuity that it became accepted as canon.
But what about that brief 1950s revival where Steve Rogers was a college teacher and fought communists? Well, turned out this was yet another person who took on the role while Steve was still in suspended animation. A man (whose name we never learned) came across some of the original Operation: Rebirth documents and became obsessed with it. He wanted to succeed Captain America’s legacy, so he even changed his name to Steve Rogers and had his face altered to look like him.He later found a college kid named Jack Munro who shared his desire to fight for justice and decided that this would be his Bucky.
This ersatz Steve Rogers then made his own version of the super-soldier serum from the notes he found and used it on himself and Jack. This gave them superhuman strength but, we later discovered, also damaged their mind and perception and they later had to be taken down like super-villains. In the modern day stories, the 1950s Cap later returned and fought Steve Rogers. He became more warped, donning the Nazi-themed identity of Grand Director before meeting a fatal end.
Not long before reviving Steve Rogers from the ice, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tested the waters to see if the audience really cared about bringing back Captain America. In Strange Tales #114, Johnny Storm AKA the Human Torch is shocked when Captain America turns up to help him. Johnny recalls hearing and reading stories about Cap’s exploits in World War II and can’t believe he’s meeting the legend in person. But then, the Human Torch learns that this isn’t really Cap, somehow still young after all these years. It’s just an impostor, a criminal named Carl Zante AKA the Acrobat.
After defeating the Acrobat, Johnny wondered what ever did happen to the real Captain America and what it would be like if he did truly come back. Months later, the Avengers found Steve Rogers in suspended animation . . .
THE BRIEF STAND-INS
In a 1974 story inspired by Watergate, Captain America fought the terrorist organization known as the Secret Empire and was shocked to learn that its leader was a “high-ranking White House official” (heavily implied to be the President of the United States). Immediately after confronting the Empire’s leader, Steve witnessed the man’s suicide and it shook his faith in the government. He decided he needed to step away from the role of Captain America. For a time, he operated as the original “Nomad, man without a country.”
When the public heard that Captain America had retired, a few people decided it was up to them to fill the star-spangled costume. With their own suits and home-made shields, three guys tried to take up the mantle. Bob Russo was excited to be the new Cap, but five seconds into it he attempted to swing from one rooftop to another and broke his arm. So he gave up.
Scar Turpin also thought it would be fun to be Captain America. A local thug living in New York, he figured he was tough enough to take on criminals and super-villains without any problem. He learned the hard way that confidence is no substitute for military training and being a super-soldier. After getting his ass thoroughly kicked, he gave up.
The Captain America stand-in who lasted more than a day was a young guy named Roscoe. Unlike Russo and Turpin, Roscoe didn’t want to jump in without some training. He met with Cap’s partner Sam Wilson AKA Falcon and asked the guy to show him the ropes. Falcon told the kid to go home, this wasn’t a job just anyone could fill. But Roscoe was determined and even got himself a Cap suit.
Falcon decided to scare the kid straight by taking him out on patrol. If they found crime, Falcon figured he could protect the kid but also let him take enough hits to realize this wasn’t a glamorous life. Sure enough, they came across a bank robbery. To Falco’s surprise, Roscoe held his own and was starting to look like he actually had what it took to be the new Cap, given more training and experience.
But it wasn’t to be. The Red Skull appeared and captured the two costumed heroes. When he realized that this wasn’t Steve Rogers but some pretender, the enraged Skull slaughtered the kid. Steve returned to the role of the star-spangled Avenger soon afterward.
John Walker underwent an illegal bio-engineering treatment that gave him superhuman strength and became the costumed adventurer Super-Patriot. But abrasive and violent approach brought him into conflict with Captain America, whom he saw as an old-fashioned has-been who didn’t have the strength or courage to properly stop evil.
It wasn’t much later that Cap was told he had to either swear full allegiance to the White House and start acting like a weapon rather than as a superhero, doing only as he was told, or he had to give up the Captain America identity. Steve chose the latter, saying he did not represent any one government blindly but rather an ideal that his country needed to strive toward. For months, he operated as a black-clad hero simply called the Captain. John Walker became the new Captain America.
However, things didn’t work out. Walker’s parents were killed by enemies and he realized too late that his appointment and missions were all manipulated by the Red Skull. He gave up the Captain America identity later and Steve resumed the role. Then Walker took Steve’s black costume and continued working for the government as U.S. Agent.
JAMES BUCHANAN “BUCKY” BARNES
For years, Cap was sure that Bucky had died on the day that he himself was frozen alive. Technically, he was right. But Bucky had been found and then revived by the USSR. He’d been dead long enough that his brain was damaged. He had no real personality or memories, but he was still an incredible fighter and killer if forced to act so. He was programmed into becoming a black ops agent known as the Winter Soldier.
Decades later, an encounter with Steve led to Bucky regaining his mind and memories. Horrified by what he’d become, he hoped to make up for his past in some way. Then the news got out that Steve Rogers had been assassinated. Reluctantly at first, Bucky wound up taking up the mantle, acting as a new, somewhat darker Captain America. Even when Steve turned up alive and well later, Bucky kept the role for a while. During the crossover Siege, Bucky was seemingly killed and Steve returned to his old suit and shield. He’d later discover that Bucky was actually still alive, once again preferring to operate clandestinely.
That wraps it up for those who have operated as Captain America in the mainstream canon (barring possible future, time travel, etc.). When you look at all this, Falcon isn’t replacing Steve. He’s joining a legacy that has included many heroes over the years and likely will continue to grow for many generations to come.