Captain America could be an army captain. What about all the other Captain (Adjective)s?
December 20, 2010 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Naming any person or character not obviously in the armed forces "Captain (Adjective)" automatically signifies Superhero. Where did this trope originate?

Superheroes often tend to be Captain this or Commander that - or "The (Color) (Noun)". Say Captain Awesome, Commander Steel, The Red Panda, and just about everyone starts imagining a mask and a cape.

This comes from half a century of naming superheroes using these conventions. You could also say that any Doctor or Professor whose surname is a proper noun = supervillain mad scientist.

But how did that get started? The group next to me at the bar thinks its from Captain America, but that can't be right. Granted, if anyone in the comics universe holds an actual military rank, it would be Cap.

Back in his original Nazi-punching days, Captain America was often to be found leading a squad or two on a commando raid, and he'd certainly have to have a place in the military chain of command to do that. Army Captain is actually the perfect spot - highest rank while still being on the battlefield. (I even have a pet theory that the A on his forehead started out as stylized captain's bars.)

But Captain Marvel (Shazam) was much more popular than Captain America, and much earlier. But he has no reason to be captain of anything, land, air or sea. So did it start with him, just because it sounded impressive? Or was Captain Marvel following some even earlier namiing convention?

P.S. Yes, Captain Nemo is earlier than comics, but he actually had a ship, so of course he's a captain.
posted by bartleby to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Captain Kangaroo, Captain Beefheart, Captain and Tennille, and Captain Fantastic (and his Brown Dirt Cowboys) think perhaps your premise is a bit flawed w/r/t superhero or armed forces.
posted by jamaro at 6:28 PM on December 20, 2010

Best answer: I think you're overstating the case for "Captain" as a superhero marker here. Captain America came in the first wave of comic book superheroes (just two years after Superman; Captain Marvel, similarly, was an explicit taking up of the genre following the success of Superman). Generally, a superhero character would have a name that emphasized a key aspect of his crimefighting persona. It was pretty common for this to be two words, e.g. Human Torch, Plastic Man. Character names like Red Panda actually predate this and hark back to the pulps and dime novel genre, where you had The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Phantom.

I would say only a tiny minority of characters have a name like "Captain". But your take on how expressive these names are is somewhat circular. They were given the names in the first place because they evoked qualities of the characters.
posted by dhartung at 6:45 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Because a captain is a leader.
posted by gjc at 6:50 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Captain Easy predates them both, and he was an adventure hero who was also really a captain. It's likely that early comics heroes were drawing from two ideas: characters with names like "The Human Torch" and "The Whizzer", who were superheroes, and characters like "Captain Easy" and "Blackhawk", who were aviators that had adventures.

You haven't factored newspaper comics into your theory, and that's why I think it's wrong. In other words, it's more likely that "Captain Marvel" was named that way because kids already knew and liked "Captain Easy" than it is that adding "Captain" to a name made it sound like a superhero name.
posted by interrobang at 6:52 PM on December 20, 2010

I'm no authority, but my instinct is to connect this to space opera quasi-military heroes like Captain Video (1949), Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers.
posted by foursentences at 7:23 PM on December 20, 2010

Response by poster: OP here : I didn't mean to state that the sets of Captain and Superhero are congruent, simply that where they overlap, there is a strong association - in pop culture.

dhartung makes the point with "a superhero character would have a name that emphasized a key aspect of his crimefighting persona"; some noun or adjective preceded by Captain signifies a strong association between that and the character's aspect or behavior. Even if you've never seen or heard of the character, you get the essence quickly by using that trope.

Thus you might point out a young drunk with a "Hey, check out Captain Jagermeister over there". I might possibly associate that with a military or nautical captain, but it's much more likely that I'd make the association based on comics superpowers.

But that's after decades of the self-reinforcing trope. Once you've established Captain Marvel as one of the earliest very popular comics superheroes, publishers start building on that association when creating or introducing new characters. Got a guy with atomic powers? Call him Captain Atom. Etc, etc.

In the pulps, this didn't happen. Often, all that was needed was a one-word moniker - the Shadow, the Spider, the Avenger, etc. But it seems like once popular super-characters moved from text to graphics this thing with rank starts appearing. Is it as simple as comics exploding after WWII?

Let's take Captain Marvel in 1939 as a mark on that timeline, after which Captain X could become a shorthand. Given that he has no military, nautical, or leadership associations with his powers, origin, or general bearing as a character, my original question was where the "Captain" part would have made its way into the picture.

I had never heard of the Captain Easy that interrobang cites, but I'll take the combination of 1933 + popular + comics + adventurer + captain - works for me. Even better if he was easy going in the face of calamity. Or if it's ironic, where Captain Easy always ends up having to do things the hard way.
posted by bartleby at 7:47 PM on December 20, 2010

I just wanted to chime in with the factoid that Captain Marvel's name (the Captain part), his secret identity (Billy Batson's first name, anyway), and the title of his original series (Whiz Comics) all tie back to "Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang", a humor magazine that started in 1919. Captain Billy was the publisher (not a fictional adventurer or superhero).

Also, I don't know why, within the mythos, he's *Captain* Marvel (the wizard Shazam seems to name him that), but there were actually 3 Lieutenant Marvels. I gotta say, I'm truly surprised Roy Thomas never came up with an explanation of the Marvel chain of command, and that no one's come up with a Major Marvel or General Marvel (that I know of).
posted by kimota at 9:08 PM on December 20, 2010

Just to chime in that Captain doesn't always mean superhero. One of the most famous captains was an antihero: Captain Nemo (first seen in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870).

My guess is that the rise of "Captain" comes first from the Great War and then from the Second World War. Captains would have been the highest tiers of officer in the army regularly required to show the same levels of courage as their men, and because of the rates of attrition would have been young men.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:09 AM on December 21, 2010

Cap'n Crunch - while super delicious, isn't so superhero-y
posted by alchemist at 3:19 AM on December 21, 2010

This is a cool question. I think honorifics in general (Reverend, Commander, whatever) just convey authority and special, well, honor. "Captain" just seems like an easy prefix for a name that's meant to convey noteworthiness and superheroes are nothing if special.

(Tangentially, in our house we give all our cats honorifics. My favorite was Subcommandante Minerva. Also, if you are so inclined, you may refer to me as the Rev. Dr. Mrs. Dr. SublimityHusband'sName.)
posted by Sublimity at 9:54 AM on December 21, 2010

I didn't know that Captain Marvel was actually a captain. Captain America, I guess, is or was actually a captain. Captain Planet is not, as far as I know, assigned any rank.

In addition, searching for "captain superhero -america" gives mostly real life super heroes who have taken names like "Captain Australia" and "Captain Jackson." I assume that these guys are not ranked either, so there are apparently those in the superhero community (yes, there's a superhero community. It's weird.) who would agree that "Captain" can denote super-heroism.

Tangentially, I know a guy who introduces himself as "Captain," people actually call him Captain, and the name is by all accounts self-imposed. It's not his real name, obviously, and it irks me that he takes a title that people actually earn. Unfortunately, while we've met several times, we've never been formally introduced so I can make him call me Admiral.
posted by cmoj at 10:45 AM on December 21, 2010

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