Comics/Graphic Novels

Yep, That Happened: Captain America Was Once From Maryland

With a character as old as Captain America, you’re bound to get some conflicting information about his origins. With every retelling, elements of a character’s history are reshaped, reframed, and revisited, producing something more in line with what’s currently being published and blurring the lines of what is and isn’t “canon.” But sometimes, a story is so antithetical to the character’s core concept that it needs to be chucked out entirely by later writers. Such was the fate of the first story to tell Captain America’s childhood: Steve Gerber’s Captain America #225, from 1978.

The setup of the story is pretty simple: Steve Rogers, who could not remember his childhood due to memory blocks that came with the Super-Soldier Serum, pays a jailhouse visit to Dr. Mason Harding, a sympathetic villain who created the Madbomb. He wants Harding to hypnotize him so that he can unlock his memories. Harding acquiesces, and we get… a story.

Sensitive Steve

It starts with little Steve growing up in a lovely middle class household in Sayville, Maryland. He looks up to his athletic big brother, Mike — and faces his father’s disapproval over his own, more artistic interests. “Walter Rogers wasn’t a bad father,” the narration tells us, “just anxious to see his sons grow tall — and straight.” Then he throws a baseball at his kid’s head.

Steve getting hit by a baseball.

The queer subtext doesn’t stop there — and that’s part of what’s so interesting about this origin. It’s not just that Steve is scrawny and ill and unathletic; he’s positioned as sensitive, artistic — and not nearly butch enough for his father.

Steve's father continues to be terrible.

Eventually, the tension between Steve and his dad gets so bad that he runs away from home to New York City and starts art school at Empire State University, where he finds what his father describes as “socialist, pacifist, scum-of-the-earth friends.”

Steve at art school.

Everything changes, though, when Pearl Harbor happens, and big brother Mike, who was stationed there, dies. Steve tries to make peace with his father, but he still won’t speak to him, so he does what anyone with daddy issues and a dead big brother would do: he throws away his socialist pacifism and attempts to join the Army. And thus begins the Super-Soldier Serum origin we all know and love.

Steve yells about his brother.

While I find the queer subtext of this origin fascinating, I’m not at all surprised that, a few years later, in Captain America #247, Roger Stern and John Byrne “revealed” that the memories unlocked by Dr. Harding were actually implanted memories given to Steve by the Army so that his real identity couldn’t be revealed if he was captured and interrogated. Steve got his “real” memories back at that point, and the more familiar origin was established — growing up poor in New York City (either the Lower East Side or Brooklyn, depending on the writer) as an only child with a father who died when he was very young and a mother who died of pneumonia when he was 14. (This is also when he learned that his middle name isn’t Grant — he doesn’t have a middle name at all. Steven Grant Rogers was the real Maryland boy whose memories were implanted in Steve.)

It is, of course, entirely possible that this was always the plan, and the Maryland memories were meant to be false to begin with — but the two year gap and change of writers implies that this was a hasty retcon to fix a mistake, and I can see why. Making Steve’s choice to join the military primarily the result of his daddy issues and guilt and grief over his brother’s death strips all of the nobility from his choice, removing the inherent goodness in the character that would lead him to try to enlist despite all of his health problems. It’s also problematic within the Maryland story itself, as it implies that Steve’s terrible father was ultimately right: he needed to abandon his paints and his pacifism and become the pinnacle of athletic perfection. Either way, it’s a betrayal of character, not to mention a terrible message to send to the child readers, many of whom were probably the awkward, stay-at-home-and-read types that Maryland Steve is presented to be.

But I have to admit, I’d read a comic about Steve and his 40s bohemian art school friends. They are groovy.