O Captain America! Our Captain America!

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

“Daddy,” Sylvia Plath

Camille Paglia has confronted her own prescience about the direct line from Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected governor or California to Donald Trump now being a serious candidate for president: “This is how fascism is born.”

And while these political realities—possibly catastrophic to a people clinging to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—will likely not receive very much attention by the mainstream public, please don’t **** with an iconic comic book superhero:

The goal, of course, is to shock readers into buying the next issue, and presumably that’s what comics scribe Nick Spencer and his colleagues at Marvel Comics hoped to do when they executed a final-page revelation in last Wednesday’s Captain America: Steve Rogers No. 1: We learned that Cap is actually … evil? The Star-Spangled Avenger uttered the words, “Hail Hydra,” the fascistic slogan of longtime villain collective Hydra. Say it ain’t so!

Comic books (and more recently graphic novels and the film adaptation of superhero comic books) have always been both a reflection of and fuel for pop culture in the U.S.

And the primary subgenre of comic books, superhero narratives, has done far more to perpetuate the very worst of our society than to confront or seek to rise above xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and warmongering.

Marvel Comics claimed the comic book throne in the 1960s—over long-time powerhouse DC—but has since experienced a renaissance through film adaptations.

Iron Man and Captain America, for example, have recaptured the public’s imagination—but only a few have offered that their appeal is strongly grounded in our militarism, our patriotism that is strongly tainted with nationalism and even jingoism.

These film adaptations have carried on a tradition of the comic book industry—one that is primarily market driven: the reboot.

Now, however, pop culture has two competing set of fans, clashing nerdoms—those who worship at the alter of the comic book universe(s) and those who worship at the alter of the film universe(s).

Captain America being outed as a life-long fascist, then, in the pages of the comic book reboot of Steve Rogers as Captain America along side Sam Wilson as the replacement Captain America (see below) has drawn the ire of fans.

However, that anger lacks a grasp of both the history of Captain America and that Captain America has always been our fascist.

The general public in the U.S. suffers under a lazy understanding of terminology—such as “communism,” “socialism,” and “fascism”—and under the weight of an idealized (and misleading) faith in capitalism, one that confuses the “free market” with freedom, liberty.

The horrors of fascism include its embracing totalitarianism and militarism in order to sustain corporatism. It is fascism, in fact, that is perfectly reflected in Captain America.

In a chapter I recently completed and is now in publication, I examine race in superhero comic books, and focus on the ascension of Sam Wilson, black and formerly The Falcon, to being Captain America. In that discussion, I researched and unpacked the history of Captain America.

Here is an excerpt of that unpacking from the section subhead “Comic Book Superheroes: From Gods to White Knights”:

While gaining a much larger cultural status because of the rise of Marvel films, Captain America may best represent how superhero comics represent race and racism—as the ultimate White Knight. “Captain America, an obviously Aryan ideal,” McWilliams (2009) poses, “has always had a curious relationship with racial ideals” (p. 66) [emphasis added]. In fact, Golden Age (from the 1940s), Silver Age (later mid-twentieth century), and contemporary Captain America each represents well the comic book industry (and Marvel Comics specifically) as well as how popular culture reflects/perpetuates and confronts race and racial stereotypes.

As superhero archetype, Captain America embodies the masked duality (Brown, 1999), the white ideal, the masculine norm, and the periodic rebooting of superhero origins as part marketing strategy and part recalibration that helps mend the tear between the official canon of the comic book universe with the changing real world. The rebooted origin stories of Captain America/Steve Rogers are powerful lessons in race and the comic book industry (Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009).

The 1940s Captain America arrived in the wake of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman from the minds and pencil of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Uber-patriotic, these foundational stories, including the original origin of Steve Rogers’ transformation into Captain America, are xenophobic and perversely fueled by eugenics (Hack, 2009). Somehow the medically altered superhuman maneuvers in the U.S. were morally superior to Hitler’s parallel ethnic cleansing [emphasis added]. The 1970s Marvel recasting of Captain America by Kirby and Stan Lee reflected the changing social mood about war (Vietnam)[i], and laid the foundation for coming face-to-face with race and civil rights with the addition of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (to be explored in detail below). Although this new Captain America in the Silver Age incorporated the best and worst of Blaxploitation conventions found in films of the era (McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011), this new origin sought to erase traces of eugenics from the Captain America mythos (Hack).

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011). While the Truth/Bradley side-narrative is important in an investigation of race in comic books, Captain America provides an even more important entry point into race and superhero comic books through the 1970s teaming with Sam Wilson/The Falcon, and then the more recent and new origin story in which Wilson becomes the new (and black) Captain America (see below). However, the entire Captain America mythos, as Hack (2009) concludes, “begs the question as to whether comics such as CA [Captain America] knowingly presented a different America from the one that actually existed [and exists], or if the creators of these books believed a version of reality in which eugenics was a boon to civic virtue and in which no American would knowingly profit from Nazism. …Good and evil were [and are] presented in reductionist terms, and offered little of what contemporary conservatives decry as moral relativism; yet these distinctions were no less blurry in pre-war America as they are today: war, as always, is business” (p. 88).

It is in that broader context, I believe, that the Falcon and Wilson’s donning the cowl of Captain America are central pieces of the complex puzzle revealing how comic books address race.

So Captain America has always been a fascist. But we actually didn’t need Marvel’s newest reveal to know that.

Captain America has always been our fascist, and that is all that matters.


See Also

Hydra the Beautiful: The American Roots of Captain America’s Quasi-Nazi Revelation, Noah Berlatsky

Having the good guys turn out to be bad guys is fun as a plot device. But, as Truth shows, the actual implications aren’t fun at all. When Captain America beats up Hitler, it’s a blow against white supremacy. But given the twisted origin and development of the protagonist, it can also be seen as a blow for white supremacy, Jim Crow, segregation, racism and the eugenic fantasies that helped inspire Hitler to begin with. Hate’s a big part of what made Captain America into Captain America, with his blonde hair and perfect muscles. “Hail Hydra” is as American as apple pie, or superheroes.

LGBT Visibility: This Fucking Week, Matt Santori-Griffith

Oyola, O. (2015, November 3). The Captain white America needs [Web log]. The Middle Spaces. Retrieved from https://themiddlespaces.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/the-captain-white-america-needs/

References

Brown, J.A. (1999, Spring). Comic book masculinity and the new black superhero. African American Review, 33(1), 25-42.

Connors, S.P. (2013). “It’s a bird … It’s a plane … It’s … a comic book in the
classroom?”: Truth: Red, white, and black as test case for teaching superhero comics. In P.L. Thomas (Ed.), Science fiction and speculative fiction: Challenging genres (pp. 165-184). Boston, Ma: Sense Publishers.

Hack, B.E. (2009). Weakness is a crime: Captain America and the Eugenic ideal in early twentieth-century America. In R.G. Weiner (Ed.), Captain America and the struggle of the superhero: Critical essays (pp. 79-89). Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.

McWilliams, O.C. (2009). Not just another racist honkey: A history of racial representation in Captain America and related publications. In R.G. Weiner (Ed.), Captain America and the struggle of the superhero: Critical essays (pp. 66-78). Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.

Nama, A. (2011). Super black: American pop culture and black superheroes. Austin: University of Texas Press.

[i] Corresponding as well with Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adam’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, DC, 1970-1972, identified by most comic books scholars as a key moment in the cultural awareness of the medium.

One comment

  1. Peter

    I’ve always been struck by the contrasts between Captain America and Luke Cage, characters who share the same origin device (injection with a super-serum). Steve Rogers comes out a government-approved superhero with a costume and identity; Luke Cage comes out as himself with more strength, viewed as a criminal. And Captain America ends up as one of the longest-running characters in comics history, while Cage struggles for years as Marvel can’t quite come up with a defining concept for the feature.

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