Since the dawn of the Silver Age, legacy characters have been a staple of superhero fiction, and having a new character step into a well-loved role can open up new opportunities for writers and artists to tell different kinds of stories. In this new feature, I’ll be looking back at some of the notable and not-so-notable heroes and villains that have assumed some of the most iconic mantles in the superhero genre.
For our first installment, we’re looking at the legacy of Captain America, and the men who have carried the flag in Steve Rogers’ stead. From America’s wartime shame to Steve’s very best friend, there have perhaps been more people to wield the shield than you may have realized, and not all of them have been as virtuous and upstanding as the man himself.
Captain America (Isaiah Bradley)
Created by Robert Morales & Kyle Baker (Truth: Red, White & Black #1)
Following the death of Professor Erskine and the U.S. Army’s loss of his Super Soldier Serum formula, the Army began the process of attempting to recreate it. They brought in three-hundred African-American soldiers to use as test subjects, and only a handful survived. These super-soldiers were sent on covert missions to help the war effort, but shortly only one remained, a man from New York named Isaiah Bradley.
In his final mission during the war, Isaiah stole a Captain America costume and the original shield in order to halt the Nazi’s attempt at creating their own Super Soldier Serum. Although successful, Isaiah was subsequently court-martialled and sentenced to life in prison for stealing the costume and taking the mission into his own hands.
Isaiah’s wife Faith was tireless in her efforts to get him released, and after seventeen years Isaiah was released with a full presidential pardon but over the years his mind and body deteriorated due to a side-effect from the serum. The legend of the black Captain America spread and Isaiah became a cult hero to those in the know, and was followed by his son Josiah and his grandson Elijah AKA the Young Avenger, Patriot.
Spirit of '76 (William Nasland)
Created by Roy Thomas & Frank Robbins (Invaders #14)
William Nasland served as the only American and the only non-powered hero on the British WWII super-team The Crusaders, under the name The Spirit of ‘76. Following their dissolution, he fought alongside other patriotic heroes such as Captain America and the Red Guardian during the war, helping defeat The Red Skull on one occassion.
After Steve Rogers’ presumed death, President Roosevelt wanted to keep the legacy of Captain America alive and recruited Nasland to assume the mantle, with a Yankees bat-boy named Fred Davis as his Bucky. They fought alongside The Invaders until the end of the war, and then returned home to America.
Their adventures continued at home and he and Davis joined the All-Winners Squad. A year after the war, during a battle with the robotic menace Adam II, William Nasland was fatally injured and in his dying moments passed the mantle of Captain America onto its next host, Jeffrey Mace.
The Patriot (Jeffrey Mace)
Created by Carl Burgos (Human Torch Comics #3)
Jeffrey Mace was a reporter who grew up on Yancy Street. Inspired by the efforts of Captain America overseas, he became the costumed crimefighter known as The Patriot to fight back against Nazi espionage on the homefront. When The Red Skull captured and brainwashed The Invaders, Bucky sought help from the heroes back home who became The Liberty Legion, of which Patriot was a member up until the end of the war.
Following William Nasland’s death, Jeffrey Mace took over as Captain America and teamed with Fred Davis as Bucky, until Davis's retirement in 1949. A year later, Mace himself stepped down as Captain America, believing that the country no longer needed a unifying symbol to rally around as it did during the war.
Years later, as Mace was dying of cancer, the cosmic being known as The Contemplator granted him one last wish, and he asked to fight crime as Captain America one final time. He was pitted against an Adam II of an alternate Earth, and in defeating the robot gained a sense of peace and later passed away peacefully with Steve Rogers at his side.
The Grand Director (William Burnside)
Created by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema (Captain America #153)
William Burnside was what you might call a Steve Rogers superfan who changed his name and underwent plastic surgery to emulate his hero. Using a lost vial of Super Soldier Serum, he became Captain America, and his student Jack Monroe became the new Bucky, and they served together during the real Rogers’ absence in the 1950s.
After five years as Captain America and Bucky, the incomplete serum took its toll on them and they slowly drifted into madness, seeing ordinary citizens as dangerous communists and they began attacking innocent people in Harlem. Unable to cure the heroes, the government instead placed them into suspended animation until such a time a cure could be found.
They eventually fell under the sway of Doctor Faustus, who brainwashed Burnside into a fanatical neo-Nazi named The Grand Director, leader of The National Force. The real Steve Rogers was forced to take down his dark reflection and Faustus triggerd a self-destruct device in Burnside’s costume, seemingly killing him.
Burnside resurfaced following Steve Rogers’ death as a pawn of The Red Skull, who intended to introduce him to America as the real Steve Rogers, and a Captain America that he could control. Although Skull’s plot was stopped by the new Captain America, Burnside reappeared briefly threatening to blow up the Hoover Dam, and was eventually taken in for treatment to restore his mind under a new identity, and honored for his service to America in a staged funeral.
Captain America (Roscoe Simons)
Created by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema (Captain America #178)
When Steve Rogers stepped away from the identity of Captain America to become Nomad, he was succeeded by Bob Russo and “Scar” Turpin, who both abandoned the identity after their first outing. Roscoe Simons, however, was a Captain America superfan, and was able to prove himself to Steve Rogers enough to be gifted the shield and given Rogers’ blessing to be the new Captain America.
Simons was taken under the wing of The Falcon, who hoped that the rookie would realize how dangerous it is to be Captain America and step down like the previous two successors. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and Roscoe Simons was killed in the line of duty by The Red Skull, who was offended that anyone other than Rogers would try and take him on as Captain America.
The Red Skull displayed Simons’ corpse for Nomad and The Falcon to find, tied to a rooftop chimney as a message to Rogers about what will happen to any imposter who crosses his path. Roscoe’s death led to Steve returning to his role as Captain America to get justice for his sacrifice, despite Rogers’ own disillusionment with the government of the time.
Super-Patriot (John Walker)
Created by Mark Gruenwald & Paul Neary (Captain America #323)
John Walker gained powers from The Power Broker, but instead of becoming a professional wrestler as planned, he became the heroic Super-Patriot, who publicly lambasted Captain America for not accurately representing the American people. When Steve Rogers stepped down as Captain America, Walker took the role with his ally Lemar Hoskins as his Bucky, but he soon discovered how dangerous the role can be when his identity was leaked and his parents were murdered.
Walker was a much more ruthless Captain America than Rogers, and after the pair took down The Red Skull, Walker was forced to step down so Steve could re-assume the role. He then became the U.S. Agent, wearing the red, white and black costume that Rogers had adopted in his time as the unsanctioned hero The Captain, and wielding a shield of similar design.
Walker is often known as “the conservative Captain America” due to his no-nonsense attitude and brash personality. During his career, he served on several teams including West Coast Avengers, Force Works, The Invaders and Omega Flight. As a member of the Mighty Avengers, Walker engaged the forced of HAMMER during the Siege of Asgard and had his left arm and leg severed by Nuke.
After his injury, Walker served as the warden of the superhero prison The Raft, home at the time to The Thunderbolts, and later the Dark Avengers. When the latter team found themselves in an alternate dystopic New York, Walker was briefly bonded to a Venom symbiote which restored his limbs, and upon returning to the real timeline he resumed his role as U.S. Agent.
The Winter Soldier (James Buchanan Barnes)
Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby (Captain America Comics #1)
James Buchanan Barnes, AKA Bucky, served as Steve Rogers’ partner and best friend during the war, until he was thought dead following a plane explosion while battling Baron Zemo. It wasn’t until decades later that Captain America discovered that Bucky had been rescued by the Russians and brainwashed into the ultimate assassin codenamed The Winter Soldier.
Steve was able to snap Bucky out of his conditioning with a Cosmic Cube, but Bucky used the Cube to disappear for a time to try and find his place in the world. When Steve Rogers was killed on the courthouse steps following Civil War, Bucky blamed Tony Stark and sought to kill him, but was eventually convinced to work with Stark to find Steve’s real killers as the new Captain America, per Rogers’ final wishes.
Bucky and co eventually saved Steve Rogers, who was trapped in time, and remained Captain America upon his friend’s return. He was put on trial for his crimes as The Winter Soldier and sentenced to life in a Russian gulag but broke out, forced to live as a fugitive. Bucky’s final act as Captain America was to fight The Red Skull’s daughter Sin, who had been transformed into Skadi by a magical hammer, and he was killed in the fight.
Or so everyone was led to believe; Bucky’s death was faked so that he could resume his identity as The Winter Soldier and track down a Russian sleeper agent on U.S. soil. He later took Nick Fury’s role protecting the planet from extranormal threats, and has now become the leader of the reformed Thunderbolts team following the events of Avengers Standoff.
The Falcon (Sam Wilson)
Created by Stan Lee & Gene Colan (Captain America #117)
Sam Wilson served as Steve Rogers’ partner The Falcon and they fought together as partners, often starring in a comic that bore both of their titles on the masthead. As The Falcon he has wings made of vibranium that he can use to fly, and a psychic link to birds that he utilizes with his pet falcon Redwing.
Sam’s origin is often more confusing than it should be. Sometimes he’s a community activist from Harlem, sometimes he’s a former hustler nicknamed “Snap” Wilson, but recent stories have written out the “Snap” Wilson persona as mind-manipulation on the part of The Red Skull.
When Steve Rogers had the Super Soldier Serum drained from his body by The Iron Nail, he asked Sam to step in and become the new Captain America, taking on Steve’s adopted son Ian as his sidekick, the new Nomad. Sam’s costume incorporates elements of his Falcon identity, notably the wings, because if something’s broke you don’t fix it.
In a recent battle with Doctor Karl Malus and the Serpent Society, a young man named Joaquín Torres was forcibly mutated, turned into a human/falcon hybrid, and upon his rescue became the new Falcon and Sam’s newest partner. Following the events of Avengers Standoff, Steve Rogers is once again young and healthy, and will serve as Captain America alongside Sam, who will also remain in the role.