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Comicscape - June 16, 2004

Captain America: The Rehabilitation(s) of an American Symbol

By Tony Whitt     June 16, 2004


Cover art to CAPTAIN AMERICA #50
© 2001 Marvel


OPINION:



Over the last three weeks, we've discussed the relevance (or lack thereof) of Superman to modern-day society, a discussion sparked by the recent "reboot" of the character in all the SUPERMAN books. As many have noted, though, the changes don't count so much as a "reboot" as they do a change in attitude of the writers and artists approaching the character. At his base, for better or for ill, Superman is still Superman, and while the way he talks may change, or the way he dresses (temporarily) may change, the way Superman is has never really changed.



Captain America, the character at Marvel that most closely parallels Superman, is a different story. Why do I call him the closest parallel, you may ask? Because at several points during our discussion of the Man of Steel, and truthfully

Let freedom ring! MARVEL LEGENDS CAPTAIN AMERICA

whenever he's discussed by anyone, the fact that he has come to symbolize "truth, justice, and the American Way" comes up. No other character in the Marvel pantheon come closer to fulfilling that function than Captain America and for that matter, he fulfills it so completely that calling him a symbol of those ideals is almost a misnomer. It's more accurate to call him a personification of those ideals, a characterization which Superman just barely misses and not just because he has red and blue but no white in his costume. If Superman symbolizes America, then Captain America is America, in just about every sense of the word. And that's one of the reasons why he has changed as often as he has and one of the reasons why we might question his relevance to our times just as much as we question Superman's.



The short answer is, of course he's relevant much more so than Superman, Captain America has reflected our national obsessions and has served as a reflection of our national psyche. At the very beginning, it was a mirror which Americans were more than willing to peer deeply into. Cap was the biggest runaway hit that Marvel (at that point Timely) had when he appeared in 1941. The following passage comes from MARVEL: FIVE FABULOUS DEACDES OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COMICS:



"'Basically,' says Joe Simon, 'we were looking for a villain first, and Hitler was the villain.' This idea was made quite clear by the cover of CAPTAIN AMERICA #1, which showed the new hero, dressed in red, white and blue, punching Adolf Hitler in the face. The date was March 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor. The timing was perfect, and the unusual move of starting a new character in his own comic book would prove to be very successful...'Captain America was exceptional, a sellout,' says Simon. 'We were up to, after the first issue, close to the million mark, and that was monthly.' A circulation figure like that, far above what most popular comics achieve today, put Captain America in the same league as Superman and Batman as one of the true giants of The Golden Age. As a contrast, consider that the weekly circulation of TIME magazine during the same period was 700,000 and that there were dozens of comic books on sale for every news magazine. 'We were entertaining the world,' Simon says."



Not only were they entertaining the world, they were also reflecting what Americans were thinking about the situation blooming in Europe or at very least, what two young comics creators thought about it. The fact that the book sold so well doesn't imply that the people (well, kids) buying it necessarily agreed with the blatant politics of the books (or even had a political bone in their body) but they certainly didn't disagree with the notion that Hitler was a villain who needed to be taken out. (Do you remember any backlash in early 1941 about parents being concerned about their kids buying a book in which an American character waged a private war against a foreign leader whom the country had yet to declare war upon? Nor do I, and I doubt we'd find any evidence that such a backlash occurred.) By the time December rolled around, the point would have been moot, anyway: Hitler was the bad guy (along with Tojo and Mussolini), and Cap had been fighting him by that point for nine months. Someone less careful about his facts (and less scared about being quoted out of context) might even venture to say that Captain America gave birth to World War II. But that would be silly. It might not be too far-fetched to say that Cap's whaling on Hitler through that nine-month period made American kids far more likely to accept the notion that what we were about to fight was a just war, one which needed to be fought a question that was being raised among Americans at that time, until Pearl Harbor put any doubt out of their minds.



It's no surprise that Cap's first "retirement" occurred not long after the war had ended. (This retirement led to all sorts of continuity snarls later on, but let's not address those right now.) The last issues to deal with the war directly

From June 1945 comes this blast from the past, CAPTAIN AMERICA #47.

were 46 and 47, after which Cap went through a series of miscellaneous adventures that had greater difficulty utilizing the character than before. More guest stars showed up; the mag changed its name to CAPTAIN AMERICA'S WEIRD TALES with issue 74 in 1949; a Captain-less issue 75 appeared in February 1950; and then three more issue featuring tales of Cap's fight against communists appeared before the comic was cancelled in 1954. The fact that Cap got to fight communists at all before superheroes temporarily "lost" their popularity shows that Cap was still to some degree relevant to his audience even if that audience was turning away from superhero comics in droves, preferring to read about decapitations and love stories, instead.



I sometimes wish we had an entire decade's worth of anti-communist Captain America stories to look back on, just to see what the results would have been. Would Cap have remained virulently on the side of American ideals even as those ideals were being perverted by the actions of Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunt of the early 1950's? The McCarthy hearings were going on strong around the same time that those last three issue of Cap's title were being printed, but the fact that the series ended before McCarthy was finally censured by the Senate in December of that year might show that Cap still reflected the American public's feelings about communism and McCarthy's war on it but it did so by going silent. Has Cap suddenly turned against people like McCarthy, his creators would no doubt have ended up in front of the genuine article, eventually. (A fictional PLAYBOY interview conducted with Captain America, written by Justin Thompson in 2002, suggests that the "real" Cap would have spoken out against the hearings but of course he was frozen in ice at the time.) It's also interesting that Cap never got to fight in Korea, and we have to wonder just what, if any, role he might have played there. Would Cap have taken to referring to the fight against the "Gooks," even as he talked about fighting the "Krauts," the "Japs," and the "Reds"? (In his defense, every other hero around during those times threw out the same slurs as a matter of course.) Would it have been too controversial to show Cap leading troops through that war-torn country, or sharing a joke with Bucky (provided Bucky were still alive at that point) in Seoul?



Despite any stories retroactively set during that conflict featuring pseudo-Caps and faux Buckys, we'll never have a definitive answer to that question. By the next time Cap appeared, in AVENGERS #4 in March 1964, the very question of whether Cap was relevant in the modern world was made part of his character, as Cap sought to seek a place in a new world

Even more from Marvel Knight's CAPTAIN AMERICA #1

painted less in black and white and more in shades of grey. But as Steve Englehart points out, before he took over the book with issue 153, Cap's adventures were already becoming problematic. "The problem across the board at Marvel was that this was the 70s - prime anti-war years - and here was a guy with a flag on his chest who was supposed to represent what most people distrusted. No one knew what to do with him...Me, I had been honorably discharged from the Army two years earlier as a conscientious objector - but I was supposed to also be a writer. So I did something for the first time that marked everything I've written since. I said, 'Okay, if this guy existed, who would he be?' Not 'Who am I?', but 'Who is Captain America?'...Six months later, the wayward book slouching toward cancellation was Marvel's Number One title, and I seemed to have found my career. I'd also found an artist, Sal Buscema, who could draw exactly what I envisioned, so it was all good."



Obviously, what made it "all good" was that Englehart had once again brought the character in line with what much of the American public was experiencing at that point: a worry about the direction the country was going in, a concern about the Vietnam War (which, by and large, Cap had not said anything about as yet), and a distrust of the government. When that mistrust reached a head with the Watergate scandal, it did so in the Captain's universe, as well. He discovered a criminal conspiracy in the White House, which led to the President committing suicide and being replaced by a government quick to hide the truth with an actor. It also led to Steve Rogers doing away with his Captain America identity and becoming Nomad, the Man Without a Country. Again, the character reflected the sense of loss that many (but surprisingly not all) Americans felt at being betrayed by their President - and, by extension, their government. The most pro-American comics character ever created thus continued to be relevant, even at a time when strongly pro-American sentiments were not always popular.



Cap took the uniform again soon after this, and Englehart left the series with issue 186 after which it began to decline again. Interestingly, this period of decline came at the time when America was experiencing a period of relative peace. Cap had gone back to being a typical ol' superhero again, with about as much relevance as any other superhero and thus just as much chance for his sales to plummet as any other superhero. He'd doff the uniform at least once more in 1987, when the U.S. Government Commission on Superhuman Activity would attempt to make Steve their agent and then would revoke his right to wear the costume when he refused but since that time, Cap's main claim to fame was rattling off the occasional (and seemingly always unchanging) speech about the American Way and constantly obsessing about Bucky. Only a few writers, such as Kurt Busiek, have handled Cap in a way that makes him less like a walking flag and more like a fully fleshed-out character.



Then came 9-11.



Suddenly, the repetitive speeches coming out of Cap's mouth every month weren't enough anymore though at that point, many still believed they were. (I made the mistake of reviewing one of the last several issues of the "regular" CAPTAIN AMERICA

Cover art to CAPTAIN AMERICA #50

title and made a few criticisms about the seeming emptiness of Cap's speeches that I thought (and still think) were entirely accurate, and got some of the most nasty hate mail I'd gotten since...well, since making on the ball criticisms about Superman. Some of Cap's fans are like certain presidential administrations: they cannot abide criticism of their hero, even when that hero clearly has flaws.) Marvel must have seen this, too, for the regular series quickly came to an end, soon followed by the current Marvel Knights incarnation we have today. Suddenly, Cap was in our universe, dealing with the aftermath of our national tragedies, and for a while there, even those who were the most blasť about the good Captain genuinely wished that he were here to chase the terrorists and make everything right again.



Unfortunately, some readers have begun to feel that Cap has become just a tad too mired in our world or at least mired in the sort of politics they don't like. Some, such as movie reviewer turned political analyst Michael Medved, even went so far as to call this new version of Cap "anti-American" and a "traitor." As some do when they're disagreed with, I suppose. Granted, Medved does make a few points that are difficult to dispute equating the bombing of Dresden in WWII with the destruction of the World Trade Center in issue #6 was just a tad out there. But to say that Cap's sudden bitterness towards some of his country's previous actions (though, mind you, never towards his country) and his questioning of the "shoot first, ask questions never" approach to foreign policy indicates a "deep cultural malaise afflicting the nation on the eve of war" which must be addressed is simply wrong-headed. What Medved and others failed to note was that, for the first time since Watergate, Cap was relevant again and he was reflecting not a deep cultural malaise (whatever the hell that is) but the sort of questions that many Americans were asking themselves in the years following September 11th. In looking carefully at what his country had done in the past and choosing to serve it anyway rather than doffing the uniform and becoming Nomad again, for instance he was being far more American than ever before: he was exercising his right to question and his right to think, and he still chose to serve. Surely nothing could inspire a sense of patriotism more than that and nothing could have been more relevant at the time.



Of course it couldn't last. Now Cap's fallen onto hard times again, brought about by worries on the parts of some that he's become too political (Cap as Vice President? Yes, that probably would have been taking things a bit too far) and the resultant merry-go-round of writers and artists that have rotated through the book since its inception. We even got another damn Bucky story, for goodness' sakes.



The reason I bring all this up and the reason I'm willing to risk the rain of hate mail that is likely to come bucketing down on my head as a result is something that one

An American hero struggles with deep issues in CAPTAIN AMERICA #11.

of you said in your e-mail regarding Superman. Scott Kent (no relation to Clark), who wrote in after I'd already posted the "Superman is Timeless" comments, had this to say (among other things): "To me, there are two classic comic characters who represent the highest ideals of American society, reflecting all that is good about us: Superman and Captain America. The comic universe is chock full of 'relevant,' brooding, conflicted (and in some cases, corrupted) superheroes (or super-anti-heroes). Those who find Superman and Cap to be one-dimensional Boy Scouts can find satisfaction in reading a whole slew of titles that present 'realistic' characters. Why must Kal and Cap be changed (or lowered) to meet the lowest common denominator? Haven't they earned the right to stand on their pedestals, apart from the rest? Again, if you don't like them, don't read them. Me, I read nothing but superhero books (I'm old skool), and I read a bunch of different characters, dark and light with many shades of gray. I also read Kal and Cap. They fill a niche. Please don't take that niche, that choice, away from me by turning Superman into a brooding Batman or a wisecracking Spider-Man (and I really like Batman and Spidey). I didn't like the post-9/11 Cap stuff, where it was, in my mind, a bit sympathetic to terrorists (the old 'we must understand why they hate us'). I don't want to get into politics here, but let me just say that post-9/11 there ought to be one comic character who stands up for America and kicks terrorist ass, just like in the 1940s when facing the Nazis. And that guy should be Captain America. I'm really not interested in Cap being conflicted by the Patriot Act. Doesn't mean I want him to swallow it whole, either. I just want to see him defeat terrorists. Let Tony Stark deal with all the political crap (although that's been boring as hell, too).



"Let Cap be Cap. Let Kal be Kal. The comic universe is big enough to accommodate these two guys in their classic personas, unchanged."

I might disagree about the "understanding why they hate us" bit, Scott, but the rest of your e-mail got me thinking

The Captain American statue comes with a cloth flag.

that these two characters have much the same problem: they represent such vast concepts that any major change in them is traumatic but that trauma goes double for Cap, who is supposed to embody all our ideals and not just those of the liberal left or the conservative right. The "middle ground" Cap you and I would both like to see is hard to pull off, if only because finding that "middle ground" is so hard for everyday Americans to find otherwise, we'd have no need for partisanship, or even politics.



But here's the question I want to put to the COMICSCAPE readership: should Captain America change? Or should he have changed? Should he be out busting terrorist heads, or should he be challenging anyone, foreign or domestic, who would have us turn against the ideals that he so ably represents?



I know this wasn't the most straightforward or cohesive column I've ever written but hey, you try writing an even-handed column about anything political with the full knowledge you'll be getting nasty letters for it and see how focused you can be. Anyway, I do hope the issues and questions I was trying to raise eventually came clear, so if you'd like to contribute to the discussion, send your ideas via the web site contact address here or to me directly. Just bear in mind, if you do send a nasty or abusive letter, it's just as likely to be printed as something that isn't nasty or abusive. Hey, why should nice people have all the fun? And again, a bit of help - if you should happen to make reference to a title of a comic series please use CAPS when giving the title. I do the HTML coding on this column every week, and having the titles in caps already makes my life much easier. Finally, as always, don't forget our discussion boards! Next week, we'll look at your responses, and the following week, we'll look at the unreleased FANTASTIC FOUR movie to generate a list of Do's and Don't's for the producers of the new one.



Now...do you remember what it was like back in elementary school when you had to write a book report that was due the next day because you'd put it off ever since it was assigned four weeks ago, and of course you haven't read the book, and you have to be up at 7 AM and it's 10 PM now and your mom doesn't even know you're awake still trying to come up with something decent to say? Well, if you do, then you'll know where I'm coming from right now and why the forced humor in the following listings is even more forced than usual, so bear with me...more so than usual...




THIS WEEK:



Kids who are also DC fans will be pleased that the POWERPUFF GIRLS will be defending the City of Townsville (or is that the Town of Cityville?) this week in issue #51. The more adventuresome tykes can also have BATMAN ADVENTURES #15 which will get them off their parents' backs when they see what Mommy and Daddy are buying with the Bat in it (see below).



The slightly older kids out there, however, might want to check out RUNAWAYS #16 still made kid-friendly every month by the House of Ideas! (See? No jokes to be made there. Can't find the strength. Mom's just gone to the bathroom, and she's going to come in and discover me any moment now...)



Whoops! Turns out there's one more title for kids, and it's MARY JANE #1, produced for Marvel Age by Sean McKeever. Just in time for some movie or other...



Could it be? Is AMAZING SPIDER-MAN out twice this month? Either that, or I've got #508 in place of #509 from my sources... Oh, yeah, there's also SPIDER-MAN/DOCTOR OCTOPUS: YEAR ONE #1 (Of 5). But you knew that was going to happen, right?



From Dark Horse comes GRENDEL: DEVIL'S REIGN #2 (Of 7), the HELLSING VOL 3 trade paperback for $13.95, and NAIL #1 (Of 4) none of which are being made into movies any time soon. Possibly a good thing, that.



Lois

Gene Ha's cover to ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #629.

isn't much liking the constraints put upon the press in Umec in ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #629. Can't imagine why all she wants to do is report the truth about what's going on in the war, right? Oh. Right. Oops.



Speaking of wars, there's also CABLE/DEADPOOL #4, in which one's mutant healing factor is out and the other's powers are not quite working. So, it's basically just two guys having a fight. And we're paying $2.99 for this?



You do realize, of course, that if you have kids and you don't buy them that copy of BATMAN ADVENTURES #15, they're never going to forgive you for buying the BATMAN: BROKEN CITY hardcover for $24.95, BATMAN: NO MAN'S LAND VOL 2 trade paperback for $12.95

? Hell, they may not even forgive you for buying yourself BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #54 or GOTHAM CENTRAL #20, and those are the Bat-Fan's equivalents of compulsory reading! Just remember, buying that mag for them means you won't get peanut butter and jelly (or whatever other unhealthy, funky crap you're feeding them while you're doing your reading) all over your books. A minor price to pay, I think. Besides, it's all those snacky foods and video games making them put off their book reports in the first place...



Of course, the last time I wrote about a Captain from Marvel, no one wrote in at all but I'm sure that events in CAPTAIN MARVEL #24 will give everyone plenty to write about...



Speaking of Peter David's writing, you now have a chance to experience FALLEN ANGEL from the beginning as the first story arc is collected in trade paperback this week for $12.95. Not for kids, mind you...



Existence itself could be threatened in Wildstorm's AUTHORITY VOL 2 #13. What, did writer Robbie Morrison tell some tall tale about his military service, too?



Brian Michael Bendis writing the Black Widow in DAREDEVIL #61 the "real" Black Widow, and not some "Ultimatized" version. And here you thought reading comics was boring...



Why

CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #1.

Howard Chaykin should feel the need to reinvent the wheel and give us a brand-new take on CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN is beyond me, but #1 (Of 6) is out this week. Somehow I doubt I'll be able to keep from picking up a copy. How about you?



Oh, yes any similarity between the original Challengers of the Unknown and the FF is purely coincidental. Besides, the original Challengers didn't have a girl member...at least, no one who'd ever admit to it. Anyway, FANTASTIC FOUR #514 is out this week, as well, and they're confronted by a "cracked mirror" version of their own team. What, they've gone and met the Ultimate FF or something?



With a title like EX MACHINA, you'd think this was a Marvel title featuring mutants, but it's not. Oh, well, it's not like there aren't enough of those, anyway. Issue #1 of the DC title is out this week, at any rate whatever it's about.



Not only does the INCREDIBLE HULK VOL 7: DEAD LIKE ME trade paperback feature issues #66-69 of this series, it also collects the Marvel Knights miniseries HULK SMASH #1 and #2. And all for only $12.99! Kind of makes up for that disappointing Ang Lee movie after all, doesn't it?



I'm not quite sure why Vertigo lists the FABLES VOL 1: LEGENDS IN EXILE trade paperback ($9.95) coming out this week hasn't that been out for ages? And with a pull quote on the front from a certain reviewer of our acquaintance? but HUMAN TARGET #11 and LUCIFER #51 are both out, as well, so someone will be reading new and exciting stuff somewhere. And hey if you've never read FABLES, it's new to you! (Used without permission from NBC. I know, but...book reports, you know.)



Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray's new approach to the...the...the Winged Guy continues in HAWKMAN #29. (Yes, yes, I know, but for some reason I blanked for a moment on what else Hawkman is called! Superman's the Man of Steel, Batman's the Caped Crusader, Flash is the Fastest Man Alive, Green Arrow's the Emerald Archer...so that makes Hawkman the Winged Wonder, right? Or will Grant Morrison sue us for using that for anyone other than Zauriel?) Anyway, it's great whatever he's called.



If you're seeing ads for NEW X-MEN #2 hovering around out there and getting confused, never fear: it's only NEW X-MEN: MUTANT ACADEMY #2, the title which used to be NEW MUTANTS before NEW X-MEN became X-MEN because it wasn't new anymore... Oh, do I need a vacation...



Spidey finally - finally! - finds a way to sue JJJ for libel without revealing his identity on the stand, with the help of a certain green-skinned lawyer of our acquaintance, in SHE-HULK #4. Can anyone not understand why I think this is one of the best books ever?



The

Ethan Van Sciver's cover to JSA #62.

Spectre's making the ultimate sacrifice to save the town of Portsmouth from the walking dead (no, not Bill Jemas, behave now) in JSA #62. Somehow I'd feel a bit more excited about that if I didn't already know what that "ultimate sacrifice" was going to lead to... Oh, well, they don't also call the autumn "fall" for nuthin'...



Loki threatens the end of the Aesir's world in THOR #81, but given that this issue is tied into the "Avengers: DisLoad" event or whatever it is, I have a feeling that's the least of it...



JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: ANOTHER NAIL #2 (Of 3) continues the story of a world without Superman. Only it has Superman. Or it does now. Guess they've now got Darkseid, too. Lucky them. Anyway, it's out for $5.95.



Wow...Warren Ellis begins his tenure on ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR with issue #7. Bet that would make a good movie... And speaking of movies, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #61 actually has nothing to do with certain movies coming out this month at all. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) it does have to do with the Ultimate versions of Carnage, the Punisher...and Ben Reilly. Yup, you heard me...friggin' Ben Reilly. Oh, Brian Michael Bendis, how could you? Or should the question be: did you? Guess we'll all be reading this week to find out...



One more mag possibly suitable for kids old enough to do book reports (even late ones) but not old enough to read books like LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER: PLASTIC MAN #7. Hey, if Kyle Baker lets his daughter read it and give editorial input on it! then you can, too.



Everyone's favorite over-X-posed mutant gets a two-shot this week as Logan appears both in WOLVERINE: THE END #4 (Of 6), in which he finds his brother(!), and in WOLVERINE #16, in which we promised we'll see a part of his life we've never seen before. No, I'm not even gonna go there...



And finally, surprise twists galore in X-MEN #158. Don't ask me what they are, but they have something to do with Gambit. Hey, you trying writing a book report in...



...oh, it's done. Whew.


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