Comics/Graphic Novels

Will the Real Captains America Please Step Forward?

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S.W. Sondheimer

Staff Writer

When not prying Legos and gaming dice out of her feet, S.W. Sondheimer is a registered nurse at the Department of Therapeutic Misadventures, a herder of genetic descendants, cosplayer, and a fiction and (someday) comics writer. She is a Yinzer by way of New England and Oregon and lives in the glorious 'Burgh with her husband, 2 smaller people, 2 cats, a fish, and a snail. She occasionally tries to grow plants, drinks double-caffeine coffee, and has a habit of rooting for the underdog. It is possible she has a book/comic book problem but has no intention of doing anything about either. Twitter: @SWSondheimer

Y’all hate John Walker yet? Good. In the comics, Walker was given the shield when Steve retired, a soldier turned professional wrestler turned patriotic symbol who was, if anything, even more obnoxious (and more dangerous) than his TV doppelgänger. Politically and religiously conservative, Walker believed in country before anything else, including basic human decency or human rights, which is pretty much counter to anything Steve Rogers stood for ever so, as you can imagine, Walker’s tenure did not go, or end, particularly well.

Walker’s appearance on The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, however, may have you curious about who else has carried the shield. The short answer is: really a lot of folx. I’m here to fill you in on those who had extended or notable runs, because if I tried to cover all of the Captains we’d all be here for weeks, and there’s a new episode of Sam and Bucky Bicker Like an Old Married Couple on Friday so I don’t have that kind of time.

So, without further ado:

Steven “Steve” Rogers

First appearance: December 1940

The man, the myth, the legend. The origin story we got in the MCU doesn’t differ significantly from the one in the comics with the exception of Steve having gone to a year of art school before being recruited into the super soldier program. He’s very much the same man, more concerned with the spirit of the law than he is with its word though he’s willing to go a bit further in the comics to protect those values than in the films in that he has fewer qualms about cracking skulls and…well, murder. When he does kill, though, it’s always in the name of the good fight. We’re just going to pretend that Hydra crap never happened.

Isaiah Bradley

First Appearance: 2003

Fandom Wiki has Bradley marked as an “alternative universe” version of Captain America; that is incorrect. When Marvel first hired Robert Morales and Kyle Baker to work on Truth: Red, White, & Black, they intended to market it as a What If… but ultimately decided the story was too important and relevant and assigned it a place in the main 616 continuity.

In a story reminiscent of the very real Tuskegee Experiments, Truth sees 300 Black soldiers being used as test subjects for the U.S. Government’s super soldier serum without their consent. Of those 300, Bradley is the only survivor. When he goes to Europe to beat on Nazis with a stolen uniform and a shield he had to make himself, without the government’s permission, they charge him with treason and sentence him to life in prison. Though he’s ultimately released after almost two decades, it’s with significant cognitive deterioration caused by the experimental serum, left untreated while he was in prison, which has also made him sterile.

Now the all important question: did Steve know? Not during the war and not until many, many, many years later, and when he did find out, he went to meet Isaiah and made quiet efforts to help with his care. There is no mention of Bucky and Isaiah ever meeting in combat or otherwise in the book but I have to tell you, I think that was an extremely powerful scene and it added a dimension I hadn’t considered to the story.

And for the purists, yes, I know Isaiah didn’t technically carry Cap’s shield but you will leave him off this list over my cold, dead body.

James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes

First Appearance: December, 1940

Comics Bucky was an orphan who was recruited into the army during WWII where he served with his best friend Steve Rogers. Captured (and believed KIA) near the end of the war, he was brainwashed and transformed into the Winter Soldier, used as an assassin by the Soviets for the next 50 years.

Steve restored Bucky’s memories with the cosmic cube (remember that old thing?) but then appeared to be assassinated. Bucky stole Cap’s shield and took it off on a merry quest to kill the responsible parties, Red Skull and then S.H.I.E.L.D. director Tony Stark, Wolverine tagging along to make sure both culprits ended up macerated for good measure. Stark, as it turned out, had promised Steve he would save Bucky from himself and find a successor, and doubled down by anointing Bucky as that successor, figuring that asking the former killing machine to fight the good fight would bring out his better nature.

Shockingly, for once, Stark was right, though it was a battle to get the government, the public, and many other heroes to accept Barnes as Cap (like you had a leg to stand on, Barton). Steve, of course, wasn’t actually dead, but he decided to leave the official heroing to his best friend. Alas, Zemo leaked Bucky’s past to the public, Bucky was extradited to a Russian gulag, and, though he escaped, decided to remain underground as the Winter Soldier, leaving the star spangled pageantry to Steve.

Samuel “Sam” Wilson

First Appearance: September, 1969

Cover of Captain America: Sam Wilson

Sam grew up in Harlem, the son of a preacher man who was murdered trying to stop a street fight when Sam was 9. His mother was later killed by a mugger trying to protect him and his siblings from a mugger. Sam tried to walk the straight and narrow, but since therapy wasn’t so much a thing back in the day, he ended up not so much doing that.

While on a run for the gang he had joined, his plane crashed on a small island off the coast of Brazil where the Red Skull and his thugs just happened to be hiding out. Cap also just happened to be there, and Red Skull decided to use the innocent hostage to lure the hero out by tapping the cosmic cube to give Sam the power to…talk to birds. Yeah, I got nothing. I mean, it meant he could chat with a falcon he just happened to bring with him on the plane to Rio who was named Redwing, but beyond that… comics, I guess? Cap rescued Sam and they became partners when it revealed the whole thing had been a long con by the Red Skull who had been manipulating Sam for the entire duration of his criminal career and he had never, in fact, been a bad boy at all.

Rude, Red Skull. Very Rude.

When Steve started aging rapidly post–Civil War II, he appointed Sam his successor as Captain America. America, as a bunch of rampaging assholes, immediately treated him more horribly than any villain ever would, but Sam tried to fight the good fight anyway, parting ways with the government and going the Steve route of “doing what’s right no matter what the paperwork says” with Misty Knight and (redacted because potential show spoiler) rounding out his team (he and Misty were for sure comics’ hottest couple for a while there, holy hells). Of course, Steve had the benefit of being white. Which is why when Steve de-aged back to a blonde bombshell and offered to let Sam keep the mantle despite a lot of screaming from the government and the public, Sam gave him a hearty “fuck you,” and threw it back.

Clint “Hawkeye” Barton

First Appearance: September, 1964

After Steve’s death, Clint, like so many others, has a good long think about how he’s going to deal with the loss of a man he’s looked up to for so long, the man who was the lynchpin not only for what was the best about the Avengers but best in the people who comprised the Avengers. Stark, acting director of S.H.I.E.L.D., decides Barton, man of action and charming dumbassery (remember this is comics Clint, not *waves hands at Renner*), would be best served by putting on Steve’s uniform, grabbing the dish-shaped projectile, and heading out to hunt. Then he gives it back, having come to the conclusion that no one can replace Steve Rogers but if anyone is going to come close, it’s probably the former Winter Soldier (for which he then gave Bucky massive amounts of crap? I don’t know. Continuity issues).

I could go on. And on. And on. And on some more. And I will if y’all so desire, because there are some real weird ones on the list. But, for now, I hope you enjoyed this foray into the many shield-bearer Captains America.