How do you suppose it came to be that "Captain" became the military rank most often adopted by super-heroes who did adopt a military rank as part of their super-hero code-name?

Sure, once it became established as a popular choice, there was probably a certain amount of "me-too-ism" in its adoption for subsequent characters, but how did it get so established in the first place?  Yeah, you see the odd "Sergeant" or "General" or "Major" or "Colonel", but "Captain" seems to be the most common. How come, do you think?

The only thing I can come up with is that maybe "Captain" resonates with a certain amount of authority, but not so much that it starts to have a "top brass" vibe that might not be a good fit for the "Everyman" sort of character that super-heroes tend to be.

So, what do you think?

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It's something that goes right back. Criminals who used "Captain" names include the bushranger Captain Moonlite, the Irish gang-leader Captain Gallagher, and the highwaymen Captain Thunderbolt and Captain Lightfoot. I suppose when a criminal operated with a gang the name could refer to his leadership of the gang.

The Wikipedia history of military ranks here represents the rank as predating the ranks major and colonel. So perhaps in popular usage it continued to be thought of as the standard officer's rank or the rank of an officer who leads men in the field, or as indicating a soldier out of the ordinary. Or it may be ordinary people rarely encountered soldiers of higher rank.

Finding prose antecedents is complicated by the point that Captain heroes/villains/antiheroes include boat/flying ship captains. (Captain Nemo, Kapitan Mors, Captain Justice.) Captain Midnight dates from 1938, but he was the leader of a squadron. But note Captain Future (1940).

The first definition for the word in The New Shorter Oxford is "A chief or leader, esp. a military leader or commander." The usage originates in late Middle English. The second is "A military officer holding subordinate command.", which is dated the same.



Jeff of Earth-J said:

"How do you suppose it came to be that "Captain" became the military rank most often adopted by super-heroes who did adopt a military rank as part of their super-hero code-name?"

I don't know, but "Captain Why?" sounds like a superhero name Grant Morrison or Rick Veitch migh have come up with.

That's the vibe I was going for.

I wrote carelessly: Captain Midnight, of course, was a radio hero. Also, that should be Kapitän Mors.

Captain Comics said:

And Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was named for a real person who was a real officer, U.S. Army Captain Wilford Hamilton Fawcett. 

Just to muddy the waters, National Allied Publications, which evolved into DC Comics, was started by Army Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, but "major" didn't become the ubiquitous rank that captain did. 

Which touches on a subject that I've always pondered.

After World War One, a number of men who had held commissions as officers in the Army left the service and returned to civilian life.  However, looking though the history of America, it seems that, for some reason, figures in the publishing industry continued to refer to themselves, and insisted on being addressed by, their former military titles. You had:

Colonel Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News

Colonel Robert McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune

Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, owner of the New York Daily News

Captain Joseph T, Shaw, publisher of Black Mask magazine

(As Cap mentioned) Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, owner of National Allied Publications, Inc.

Plus, closely related in the field of commercial radio:

Brigadier General David Sarnoff, president of the Philco Corporation

Commander Eugene F. MacDonald (hey, a Navy guy!), founder of the Zenith Radio Corporation

Major Edwin Armstrong, inventor of FM radio

Bear in mind, I'm not registering a complaint here.  First, because if any of the above retired from the service, he retains his commission and thus, is entitled to the honorific. As far as the ones who achieved that rank in the service then resigned, yes, they no longer hold their commissions and aren't technically entitled to the honorific.  But I kind of look at it the way the British do;  once a (military rank), always a (military rank), and I don't mind referring to them by their former rank as a courtesy.

No, my question is:  why was the continued use of their military rank so prevalent among those in the mass communication industry?  One rarely saw noted personages in other fields continue to use their military titles.

A point I didn't bring out is that the rank also has an association with aviators e.g. Captain Midnight and the early DC hero Captain Desmo.

Wash Tubbs, with Captain Easy, was popular at the time. I assume he could claim the rank on the basis of his soldier-of-fortune past (unless he'd been in the US military).

Something to ponder.

One possibility is that there really wasn't any coast-to-coast mass communication until radio. Perhaps the former military men felt they needed the honorific to lend a little weight to this new, and possibly suspect, industry.

But that's just a WAG.

Commander Benson said:

Captain Comics said:

And Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was named for a real person who was a real officer, U.S. Army Captain Wilford Hamilton Fawcett. 

Just to muddy the waters, National Allied Publications, which evolved into DC Comics, was started by Army Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, but "major" didn't become the ubiquitous rank that captain did. 

Which touches on a subject that I've always pondered.

After World War One, a number of men who had held commissions as officers in the Army left the service and returned to civilian life.  However, looking though the history of America, it seems that, for some reason, figures in the publishing industry continued to refer to themselves, and insisted on being addressed by, their former military titles. You had:

Colonel Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News

Colonel Robert McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune

Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, owner of the New York Daily News

Captain Joseph T, Shaw, publisher of Black Mask magazine

(As Cap mentioned) Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, owner of National Allied Publications, Inc.

Plus, closely related in the field of commercial radio:

Brigadier General David Sarnoff, president of the Philco Corporation

Commander Eugene F. MacDonald (hey, a Navy guy!), founder of the Zenith Radio Corporation

Major Edwin Armstrong, inventor of FM radio

Bear in mind, I'm not registering a complaint here.  First, because if any of the above retired from the service, he retains his commission and thus, is entitled to the honorific. As far as the ones who achieved that rank in the service then resigned, yes, they no longer hold their commissions and aren't technically entitled to the honorific.  But I kind of look at it the way the British do;  once a (military rank), always a (military rank), and I don't mind referring to them by their former rank as a courtesy.

No, my question is:  why was the continued use of their military rank so prevalent among those in the mass communication industry?  One rarely saw noted personages in other fields continue to use their military titles.

Might we just be more likely to be aware of how businessmen who worked in communications liked to be addressed than businessmen in other fields?

Wheeler-Nicholson is a special case. He had been a career military man and was only briefly a publisher. He otherwise worked as a writer, writing on military subjects and pulp fiction. Via the list here I've found cases of his rank being used on pulp covers (War Stories Sep. 1931, Thrilling Adventures Apr. 1939), but many more cases where it wasn't. Possibly it was more often used in interiors. He did use his rank on his work on military subjects. I don't have information on whether in his post-military life he expected to be addressed as "Major".

Commander Benson said:

Bear in mind, I'm not registering a complaint here. First, because if any of the above retired from the service, he retains his commission and thus, is entitled to the honorific. As far as the ones who achieved that rank in the service then resigned, yes, they no longer hold their commissions and aren't technically entitled to the honorific. But I kind of look at it the way the British do; once a (military rank), always a (military rank), and I don't mind referring to them by their former rank as a courtesy.

I am currently reading a historical novel set in the year 1899. Referring to prominent people by their former military rank was a holdover from the nineteenth century. The high-ranking former army and navy officers were habitually referred to by their highest rank. President William McKinley was affectionately called "The Major," referring to his Civil War army rank. This was probably an affectionate jab, noting that his presidency followed those of several former generals. Today we refer to retired politicians as "Senator, "Governor" etc. even though they no longer hold that position.


Richard Willis said:

Today we refer to retired politicians as "Senator, "Governor" etc. even though they no longer hold that position.

Interestingly enough, after leaving the Presidency, Ike preferred to be addressed as "General Eisenhower", vice "President Eisenhower".

I am always amused (perhaps bemused is a better word!) when watching Hogan's Heroes, and occasionally a German army officer is referred to as "Kapitan."

Kapitan was only ever a naval rank in the German military. What we would call a "captain" was always "hauptmann" in the German army and air force.

Poor research by the offending writers is my guess.

The same sloppiness is evident with the naming of Colonel Crittendon. Colonel was never a rank in the RAF.

We just rewatched the entire run of MASH (over a period of time). It was a little annoying when the doctors would call for a "corpsman." Corpman is Marine Corps terminology referring to a Navy medic, not Army terminology. On top of that, the men referred to were really just orderlies, not medics.

Then again, "captain" has uses outside the military. You can be captain of a sporting team or a project as well as of a non-military airplane or boat.

If someone is a major or a colonel, you'd be looking for a military association, but "captain" is a handy handle for less formal leadership situations. "Okay, you're the captain: what do we do next?"

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