I. I'd like to return for one final time to the pseudo-presidential funeral of Captain America which we discussed last time around, but for a quite different reason and to a quite separate purpose than before. And perhaps we may indulge ourselves here in a thought-experiment of sorts, which might help us define a touch more precisely the status and position which Captain America holds as a character in the contemporary Marvel Universe. The thought experiment at hand is a simple one; can we imagine any other Marvel character being given such a "presidential" funeral immediately after committing such significant acts of Treason against the American state as Captain America did during "Civil War"?
Now, I may be wrong, but there's nobody that comes to my mind, except perhaps a swiftly-suppressed and horrible mental shiver that was the beginning of an idea that perhaps the Sentry's passing could be made to carry something of equal weight of poignancy and loss, since, after all, the Sentry seems to have been everybody's best friend, confident and lover. (He was a remarkable man, that Sentry; trusty pal and sainted confessor to 306 000 000 individual Americans would surely not have been beyond him.) That disturbing thought aside, why don't we try to imagine how the deaths of other characters in the Marvel Universe under similar circumstances could have been legitimately and convincingly presented.
Spider-Man? Well, it's hard to imagine the crowds would be out for a public funeral for Peter Parker's alter-ego even if he hadn't, as Cap had, just been apprehended undertaking an armed insurrection against the United States Of America on the streets of New York City. (Peter Parker, mind you, would probably be lowered into the ground as a private citizen before a quiet gathering of perhaps of a dozen-and-a-half people, all of whom loved and valued him greatly.) Daredevil? No, at the best of times, today's Matthew Murdock might be lucky to be mourned by more than a handful of witnesses, most of them corralled by Foggy Nelson, no doubt. Thor? (Not an American national, not likely to buried in America.) Ms Marvel? (Perhaps a small military funeral.) Dr Strange? ("Who?") Reed Richards? (A black tie and jeans affair for the intellectual geekarati, mayhaps?) Iron Man? (At best a Hollywood procession, all paparazzi and "loyal" ex-employees and weeping once-girl-friends. But no state funeral of such scale and sentiment lies in wait for Tony Stark, I suspect.) Any of the X-Men? (Well, the old furry Beast might have inspired a fond line of sorrowful female admirers to mark his passing, but otherwise, I think not.)
In fact, there's no character that I can think of who could convincingly be granted such a funeral even on their best days, short of saving the world in the most dramatic and painful circumstances as the result of a noble sacrifice beamed live into every home in the USA. And even then, even if Speedball had bounced Galactus to death or the Angel had wing-whipped Dr Doom into the realm of the Mindless Ones, there surely wouldn't have been that air of conjoined respect and despair at their passing, of that subdued and yet desperate need to huddle together that human beings experience when a cornerstone of their understanding of the world is violently removed. (Even when that cornerstone had been arrested for violently subverting the Constitution and rebelling against the State just a few days before.)
II. And if I'm right in saying in effect that only Captain America could be depicted receiving such honours just hours after mounting a rebellion on American soil with the aid of foreign troops, then it must be obvious that we can't entirely "blame" the creators of "Civil War" and its' associated tie-ins for how Captain America was depicted during the superhero rebellion. Because the character of Steve Rogers must have already been established, in part through design and largely - I suspect - through the steady and unconscious accumulation of superhero tradition and tropes, as the supremely sanctified and morally incorruptible centre of the Marvel Universe for "Civil War" to convince its audience of that in the first place. The fact that Cap's acts of treason passed by largely unnoticed by the mass audience for "Civil War" was therefore at least in part because it had already been fiercely established that, in the last instance, when all the shilly-shallying and doubts have been processed, Captain America doesn't get it wrong. When wars are fought, he ends them. When good examples are demanded, he sets them. When aliens invade and Nazi zombie armies rise, he faces them down as much through his ethical rectitude as by his good and strong shield-slinging right arm.
Yes, Captain America has minor personal failings, but they're always resolved in such a way as the final victory over tyranny is achieved. Yes, he gets knocked down, but he always gets up again, and indeed that's part and parcel of who he is. He's the fallible human who is infallible where moral issues and overwhelming opposing odds are concerned.
And so CAPTAIN America, the super-soldier, must have already on many levels become established as Captain AMERICA, the traitor who can never be a traitor because he and not the Constitution or Congress is the real arbiter of how national conflicts should be resolved. And from that indefinable and yet ever-present quality of super-heroic goodness comes the popular standing of CAPTAIN AMERICA, the dispenser of absolute justice through sanctified violence.
Or, as one Samuel T. Underwood, "The N.P.P. Convention Chairman", declared to Captain America in Roger Stern and John Byrne's highly entertaining tale of how Cap came be offered the nomination for a third party's quest for power in the 1980 national election;
"Cap, how would you like to be the New Populist Party Candidate for President? ... The people don't want a politician .... They want a leader." (CA # 250)
2. "We Shall Call You Captain America, Son!"
What the carnival huckster-like "Mr Underwood" is arguing for when he says that "The people don't want a politician .... They want a leader." seems to me to at the heart of what has led Captain America to the position where he can function so irrationally and yet so movingly as Marvel's "traitor-saint". For Underwood's words carry the meaning, so often expressed in so many walks of life, that men and women engaged in the Constitutional framework of debate as regards the governing of America are by the simple fact of doing so disqualified from being worthy of such responsibility. Politics is dirty, politicians are a parasitical class quite different from those they rule; that's apparently not what America wants from the people it votes for . No, the only politician who deserves power in the name of this "people" of Underwood's is one who is no politician at all, one who doesn't negotiate or make deals, but one who rather "leads".
One who rules because they know best, who deserves power because they wield power without compromise, since that's what that wearisome stuff politics inevitably is; discussion and compromise. No, what Underwood believes is that America is weary of Constitutional government. Presumably, America wants to be told what to do without having to be disappointed or misled, and so America requires a President who can be relied upon to get it right every time, who can be justified in "leading" because that President is serving the greater good simply by doing so.
Who could be more suitable for so leading the Nation than Steve Rogers with those wings on his head?
Which all sounds rather beguiling until of course it dawns that that would be in practise the opposite of democratic, since democracy is actually designed to be concerned with compromise, with strict and binding and time-limited constraints on the power of government, particularly in America, where the Framers of the Constitution focused with such intensity of purpose on making sure that no one branch of government could ever "lead" without the other branches - with the people's will expressed through regular elections - acting as a brake on them.
In fact, leading while rejecting politics and "politicians", and dressing in a costume composed of the stars and stripes while doing so, would effectively be fascism, wouldn't it, in the context here? In reality and in principle, or rather, in the lack of both of them?
Good for Captain America, therefore, that he eventually turned down that nomination. Bad for him that he didn't reject Mr Underwood's offer with far more force, and far more instantaneously, and at the precise moment when he heard that dangerous and revealing crack about "politicians" and "leaders".
Because what kind of America would Captain America be representing if anyone including he himself was by implication as well as fact above the business of the Constitution, of the business of politics, of the restraints of the rule of law?
Why, that wouldn't be a Captain America in power at all. That would be a Captain "ME" in the Nation's highest office, and all the citizens of America would be citizens no longer.
I wonder how content they'd be to be free of "politicians" and safe in the hands of a super-heroic "leader" then?
3. "Because Like You -- America Shall Gain The Strength And The Will To Safeguard Our Shores!"
I. In Captain America's first canonical appearance in the modern Marvel Universe, in "Avengers # 4" (1964), long before the temptations of office and leadership came his way, there appears a telling splash page which establishes for us today how different Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's take of Steve Rogers was to ours. In it, Cap is showing striding respectfully and purposefully forward towards the four remaining founding Avengers, while Thor declaims; "Step forward, Captain America! Your rightful place is here, among the Avengers!". And it's so noticeable that Thor has the authority over Captain America here, and that the Avengers are the team which Captain America needs to join for his own good rather than a superhero strike force incomplete without him. This is no paragon of virtue or even a sentinel of liberty. As Thor says when the Captain's frozen body is discovered and recognised, Captain America was no more and no less than " .. the once mighty crime-fighter ... ", which is a rather limited take on Captain America's status and role in the Marvel Universe compared to that he held at the time of the conclusion of "Civil War", where Sam Wilson declared;
"He did more than wear the flag. He believed in all the things it stood for, and he actively worked to inspire men, women and children to be the heroes he knew that they could be."
How significant the jump from 1964 to 2007 has been for Captain America's role. Of course, all characters must develop across such a period of time in order to survive. And yet I can think of no other superhero who has become so fundamentally altered until the virtues which they could originally could be seen to stand for have become synonymous with the character themselves. By Civil War, Captain America wasn't the "crime-fighter" who on occasion discussed liberty so much as liberty itself.
II. One of Captain America's first significant appearances outside of the pages of "The Avengers" in the MU was in "Sgt Fury" # 13 (1964), in a tale set back in World War II, which showed the ordinary American soldier of the '40s remarkably, by modern MU standards, free of awe and reverence for Cap. Oh, there's no doubt that he and Bucky are publicly popular, as shown in the newsreel which begins the tale, and the captured American airmen freed by Cap and Bucky later on in the tale are surely grateful for their rescue. But rather than being both the everyman of the people and the saviour of the people, this Captain America is regarded by the belligerent Sgt. Fury as one of the Brass, as an officer who needs bringing down a peg or too, as a man who plainly isn't fondly thought of one of the common herd. ("Mebbe I oughtta wear a nutty mask with two cornball wings on it, phooey!" and "Who's that fancy-pants costumed clown think he is, requestin' me?" are two of Fury's more telling phrases here.)
And that very image of Captain America as an officer, as a soldier with special privileges of rank which need to justified to the common soldier is far away from, for example, how Mr Brubaker and Mr Hitch portray Cap's wartime exploits in "Reborn". (Although there's a clever trick to how they do that which we'll discuss next time.) There, Captain America is constantly shown to one of the ordinary, classless fighting men of the war in the sense that nothing divides him from the rank and file he represents. (Well, beyond his uniform, abilities and exhortations.) Class, rank or power aren't issues in "Reborn". Nothing separates Cap from his people. He's a colourful soldier, there's no denying, no matter how many ammunition belts and wingless-helmets are added to his costume, but Mr Hitch is still showing the improbable fact of a superhero who is nothing more in fact if not paycheck than one of the ordinary ranks. Yet the original take of Lee and Kirby is on reflection a far more convincing picture of how American soldiers in Europe might have related to a "... fancy-pants costumed clown ... ". Yes, Cap would probably have won many if not most of them over, but there must have been some sense of difference between Steve Rogers in his chain mail with his big stripey shield and the men under fire around him.
Yet the trick, or one of the many tricks, of the modern version of Captain America is that he is both one of the people and yet in fact better than them. He's not just more powerful, he's a kinder, braver, more American individual than his fellow men and women. And of course he pulls this off without having to try too hard to do so. He's one "one of us", that's just what he is. A perfect pose for a politician, you might expect, if "politics" wasn't too compromised and dirty a trade for Captain America.
4. "Death To The Dogs Of Democracy"
I. Readers unfamiliar with the first twenty years of Captain America's adventures in the modern Marvel Universe might find themselves surprised and even shocked by how peripheral he seems in many of them compared with his modern status, especially where the conflicts taking place outside of his own book are concerned. For today, as in the climax of the Skrull Invasion of Earth, such is the need to find Captain America at the centre of the defeat of the fearsome transgressors that even the appearance of a surrogate Captain towards the closing of events signals to the audience that everything will be alright now. But prior to Jim Shooter's "Secret War", Captain America was at best a major character among equals in the MU, and certainly not first among them. The less familiar reader might indeed be amazed at how often Iron Man, or even one of Hank Pym's many identities, took the lead in "Avengers" tales without even a hint of agreement from Steve Rogers being necessary; he's often just one of the guys. (It's usually guys, sadly.) And in most of the greatest battles that Cap fights outside of his own comic, it's actually Thor who takes the leadership of the Avengers, as in the Invasion Of Olympus (# 100), the invasion of Dormammu's home dimension by the Defenders and the Avengers (# 118), or the final confrontation with "Michael" (# 176) where only the "gods" Thor and Moondragon seem to survive.
Even in the Kree/Skrull War (# 96), Cap only takes charge where it's the only function he can provide, given that Iron Man, Thor and the Vision can all actually take part in the fighting in the vacuum of space and Cap can't, and indeed he practically disappears from the action of the War's conclusion. And in the famous full-page shot by Mr Byrne and Mr Day of a huge cast of Avengers awaiting Henry Gyrich's decision about who is to be allowed to be in their ranks (# 181) it's instructive to note that of all the characters present, only Cap is shown as an almost-disembodied head facing away from the reader. He's the least important character in the design of the page. Even Nikki of the Guardians Of The Galaxy is more prominent.
That simply couldn't happen today. Captain America would have to be stage-centre of any heroic gathering, or there would have be an explicitly-stated reason for why not.
II. By the time 1984's "Secret Wars" had been reached, Captain America is a still-recognisable and yet rather different creature to the one described above. Indeed, he's already perceivable as something of a kinsman to his Civil War counterpart, to the "traitor/saint" Cap who we've been discussing. In truth, this Captain America of the "Secret Wars" is already considerably more than just a super-soldier or even just a super-hero; there's the scent of some major new deity from the East crossing the Aegean here, of a new Captain America appearing fully-formed from the head of the old one, looking remarkably similar but behaving in some substantially different ways.
For example, in "Secret Wars" the question of who will lead the disparate superheroes who've been marooned on a planet far from Earth soon raises its' "political" head. And in the absence of the common sense and political nous which would've permitted the gathered super-heroes to realise that a small and highly skilled group don't need authoritarian leadership, the current Avenger's leader The Wasp nominates Cap for such a role. (Operational units of the S.A.S., for example, are trained to make decisions and share responsibilities in a far more democratic fashion than is commonly known, for example, and that's because highly trained fighters need to learn to think and contribute rather than to be simply "led".) For Janet van Dyne doesn't have the faith of all those present, she declares, but nobody has any doubts of Captain America's capacity to "lead", except for snotty little Wolverine, poster-boy at that time for bad tempered poor judgements, which was as good an endorsement as Cap could then be given. (*2) Everybody respects Captain America and his leadership capabilities, and so Cap is duly established as very much the very first among super-heroes.
How odd that decision is. Trapped on an alien world, facing God-like antagonists on the other side of the Universe: it would seem that Thor would undoubtedly be the appropriate choice, given his centuries of experience leading troops into battle and experiencing alien environments. But Thor's opinion of Captain America and his skills of leadership are so fulsome and redolent of Uriah-Heep that I still find it cringingly embarrassing to read;
"I will ... (follow Captain America) ... I am a Prince of the Gods. I do not pledge allegiance to many of mortal stature. This man I follow through the gates of Hades."
Gosh. Captain America, leader of gods, then and forever more. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Sersi, Thor. Captain America seems to know so much more than these folks who've been living their Godly lives and generating their Godly experience for endless centuries.
How fantastic is he?
And the indecent Oscar-night level of adulation doesn't end there. Professor X has already been put to use to deliver the key-note with his declaration that;
"I'm also good at reading hearts -- No man in existence equals your courage, Captain America."
Now, if we decide to put on one side the hitherto-unrevealed mutant capacity to read hearts, which seems an incredibly unlikely mental power even in the context of the Marvel Universe, this marks a complete sea-change in the relation between Professor Xavier and Steve Rogers. A decade before, both Captain America and the X-Men's battleground leader and strategist Cyclops were taking their orders in the field during the conflict against the Secret Empire from Professor X. (CA 174) But things are different now. Even the limited authority granted Captain America retrospectively by Roy Thomas in "The Invaders" during that comic's run in the 1970s is now nothing compared to the modestly-accepted, but absolutely wielded authority that Captain America now has as his apparent right.
And yet, his modest reluctance to lead his various superhero troops into battle, his wish that his endless wars could be over so that he could lay down his burdens, his capacity to represent authority without seeming to possses power, only makes Captain America more worthy in the reader's affections. For not only is he so essential and so capable, he's also so very much the improbable love-child of Henry Fonda and John Wayne too, reticent and fearsome, improvisational and practical, self-effacing and stare-you-down indominable.
In many ways, this is a perfect man, perfect even in the fact that he can't conceive of himself as being perfect at all.
*2 - This was of course before endless resets and memory implant removals - or whatever it's all been about - revealed Captain America and Wolverine to be ancient allies of each other.
III. It isn't difficult to gather some presumptions for why Captain America became re-codified in this way during Mr Shooter's reign. There was already a developing momentum to straighten out the many neurosis which the character had developed after his reawakening in '64, as can be seen, for example, in Steve Engelhart's run on Cap's own book. This momentum picked up pace under Roger Stern's time both on "Captain America" and "The Avengers", where much of Cap's survivor angst was understandably and ably dampened down and replaced by a more stoic competency. But it's obviously Mr Shooter's determination to make Marvel's characters as distinct from each other and individual in themselves which is, I believe, the key here. For Captain America was indeed a major Marvel property, yet he was constantly under-powered on the battlefield outside of his own comic book, and was therefore hard to put to use in the company of his stronger compatriots. Most of Marvel's other marquee lead characters at the time - from Thor to the Hulk to the Thing and even to a degree Spider-Man - effortlessly outclassed Steve Rogers once the big punch-ups began. And following the failure to "take" of Steve Engelhart's decision to grant Captain America super-strength, the only solution was to make Cap more valuable if not essential on the battlefield without messing with his original powers. And what more could the World War II super-soldier offer except his supreme courage, his mastery of strategy and his apparently undoubted right to lead his fellows in combat?
And it's here that the slippage of Captain America from super-soldier to morally free-floating American icon really starts to gather force and pace. For if Cap is the character who every other super-hero takes their orders from, and Captain America is braver than every other character too, then he's suddenly appraoching the status of a morally superior individual too. His virtues are those of all his fighting colleagues who defer to him, since they don't just follow him in practical terms. They defer to him in terms of their personal characteristics too. He's brighter than them where it most matters, where super-heroes prove themselves, where the metaphors of super-hero conflict are played out, on the punching grounds. He's braver than them there too.
He's the best of all of them, because the killing grounds are where virtue is determined in the superhero universes. And we love and admire him all the more because he's not Thor or Iron Man. He can threaten Thanos when the Titan's wearing the Infinity Gauntlet, lecture Galactus on the necessity to resist overwhelming force, he could no doubt modestly help God's choirmaster keep the Heavely Choir singing in key if he could just be convinced that his help would be truly needed.
And this is obvioulsy the root of part of the problem which we've been discussing, of how Captain America can be so saintly when he's at the same time so sinful. But it's also rather offensive in itself, this idea of Captain America as the absolutely perfect, superheroic man. While I fully accept that the qualities embodied in superheroes are metaphors, it's still disturbing to my ears to hear Captain America described as the most courageous man alive. Was he so before he was given the super-soldier serum, in which case what a coincidence it was that he ended up being the only one to be so augmented, and how telling that the most courageous man should be American, as if God was ensuring that American Liberty should triumph. (We'll look at the patriotic problems with Cap in a moment below.) Or was Captain America to become the most courageous man after he was chemically boosted, in which case it looks less like courage and more like the confidence of a man in a supremely powerful and unearned physique.
Anyway, surely we're not having Cap as the most courageous "man" anyway. People with fatal illnesses who still go to work to provide for their families, political prisoners sacrifing their lives for principles they believe may never come to fruition, folks who can barely swim paddling out on storm-lashed seas to save strangers; those folks are my take on "courageous". Captain America is a brave bloke with the super-soldier serum in his muscle-tissue. That's a completely different thing.
My point? By "Secret Wars", the profane was already falling away from Captain America, and the hidden god beneath was becoming revealed as someone - or something - that was the centre of everything and the master of everyone.
And yet, because of the beguiling myth of the super-hero, it was a process which was damn difficult for most of us to spot.
5. "Come On Out, You Skunk"
I. If the first unseen development leading to "Civil War Captain America" was the placing of Cap at the centre of the Marvel Universe as the superior man with the superior - and metaphorically significant - skills of winning the big fights, then the second has been Captain America's changing relationship to the Second World War. For where Captain America was originally described on his return as a "crime-fighter", he quickly become essentially associated with the war against fascism rather than that against crime, and as our perception of the War itself changed, so Cap has changed from a surviving old and worthy soldier to the virtuous flag-bearer of the Last Just War. This has anointed Captain America as the years have past with greater and greater measures of both martial and civic valour, and as the war recedes into time and from the living memories of Americans, Captain America has become less a soldier who fought in the war and more a symbol of the struggles and triumphs of the Last Just War itself.
For the World War II roots of Captain America have marked him historically as no other super-heroes' past has. Of all the cape'n'coloured booties brigade, only Captain America's past can't be shifted forwards to more recent years and conflicts as time goes by. Iron Man began his career being tortured by the Viet Cong, but that war is now a more and more distant and impersonal memory, and Tony Stark's original maiming has been relocated to a host of other conflicts in several different lands. Spider-Man's original campus-hell of 1961 is now one of the late 1990s, or even later, and so on. But Cap is doomed, and blessed, to forever be portrayed in the light of the same events and the same representations of them, within the shimmering of changes in artistic tastes. Essentially, there are the same four or so years in which the formative and most meaningful events of his life can be played out. Backwards and forwards through the war years we readers trudge, meeting the same commonly-known events, learning little of the historical reality but being affected by the modern sentiments associated with D-Day, with the Liberation of the Death Camps, and so on. Captain America always seems to have stepped straight from a better, significantly more moral time, a man who's by his very presence saving ourselves from our corruption and the degeneration of our times.
And at D-Day, at Death Camps which may or may not be Auschwitz, at the first meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt, during the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia, and wherever the Fascist troops of the ultimate evil are on the march, why, there's Captain America. He can't be a soldier who occasionally is involved in the major turning points of the War, because those events carry such a significant punch where text and sub-text are concerned. So, Cap rides the first wave into Omaha - or is it Utah? - Beach, though which idiot in the Army Command let a practical and propaganda resource like the only surviving functioning super-soldier into a killing field like that for no appreciable return is beyond me. And as the War recedes in the common memory and is replaced there by media-takes upon it, by "Band Of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan", so Captain America moves centre-stage into those events which carry a sacred meaning divorced in part from any kind of direct experience of the time.
It is possible that it's actually something of an obscenity, for example, to have Captain America appearing near and even within the Death Camps of the Third Reich, because that kind of ultimate evil really shouldn't be decontextualised by superheroes in their jim-jams agonising about how, if only they'd known, they'd have saved everybody. The issue, after all, is not that we could have saved the Jewish race and the other victims of the Holocaust from slaughter if only (a) we'd had enough super-powers, and (b) we'd known more about it. That demeans the historical record, and it leaves the reader associating with the super-hero's good intentions and the cleansing knowledge that they could have helped "if only". But the real issues are too pressing and demanding to be twisted by the superhero narrative, because we all know that the minute that a superhero appears in a scene, the scene becomes about the super-hero, and the survivors of a Death Camp become a way of showing a superheroe's sorrow rather than illuminating the plight of Fascism's victims. (And pity is hardly the meaning that we should be taking from the Holocaust, anymore than sympathy for our poor heroes and what they're being forced to feel.) Or: put Wolverine in a concentration camp and the story is primarily always going to be about Wolverine, baring a story-telling miracle, which, where the camps are concerned, is not the point.
So the placing of Captain America at the major and often catastrophically traumatic events of WW2 means that his very presence at the suffering of others strengthens his worth and appeal in the reader's eyes. He becomes the witness, the survivor, the bringer of succour, the living embodiment of the better society over the foulness of Nazi Germany.
Super-soldier CAPTAIN America starts to transmute into Captain AMERICA.
And it isn't so much the individual stories concerning Cap in World War II which effect this process, for there have been notable and noble tales about super-heroes and the War. (*3) I've been especially impressed by the care and challenges built into several stories which Mr Brubaker has written about the War during his time as writer of Captain America, for example. It's the cumulative effect of these stories over the long of span of time that so many readers experience super-heroes across today, and it's also the repetition of super-hero involvement in certain events. Look, Berlin has been liberated by the super-heroes again! Normandy is free once more! Those poor hungry people in those camps have been liberated by a man in a costume snarling and jumping over razor-tipped fences and punching Nazi guards! Where once stories set in World War Two were concerned more often with beating Baron Zemo or tracking down the Red Skull, the apparent realities of the conflict, with their greater depth of emotional potency, have since Cap's return in '64 become more and more common.
And locked within this repitition of moving historical set-pieces is the character of poor suffering Captain America, the Young Moses who freed us all and lost his boy companion and yet will never be able to enter the promised land of freedom. (Or, importantly, be compromised by the Cold War years which followed the WW2's end.) We'll return to that piteous Captain America later, but for now, shall we all accept what an intoxicating image that is, its' power constantly reinforced by narrative duplication, adding another layer of holiness to Steve Rogers' already significant reserves of worthiness?
*3 - Of course I'm not saying that the major events of World War II and the Holocaust should never be represented in super-hero comic books. I'm suggesting that the repetition of certain images and themes can have a counter-productive and insulting effect, and that more care needs to be taken so that more of the historical record and less of the super-heroes themselves appear in the story. I'd love to see that.
III. And of course the moral power associated with World War II has become so much greater as time has passed. It's far too complicated a matter here to discuss why and to what degree the perception of the facts and meaning of World War II has changed since the mid-60s and Cap's resurrection, though please do discuss it with me in the comments. But America's relationship with its own myths of 1941 to 1945 has of course changed, as all such relationships do, with the passing of the years and the accumulation of foreign conflicts in the historical record which have a more complicated relationship to feeling "clean" and positive about the flag and all it's held to stand for. Korea, Vietnam, The Contras, Grenada, the incompetence and corruption of the CIA, the Gulf Wars, and even the current Wars of Stabilisation/Liberation, have in combination with each other created something of the opposite to the sense of worthy necessity and achievement which hangs over the memory of the war against fascism. The Second World War has become the last undeniably Just War, the War which was for an undeniable good end and which was beyond disputation successful in its' mission. And the quite appropriate measure of respect for American's fighting forces in that Just War has deepened with time into an emotion which is more about absolute reverence than appropriate respect, and the myth has in many ways quite over-shadowed the historical record.
The World War of 1941 to 1945 was, to most modern Americans, as necessary and as moral an enterprise as the War of The Rings was to Middle Earth, and bears the same clear lines of difference between our side and their side as Tolkien's epics do. The baddies were all really bad, the goodies were all impressively virtuous, and the familiar progression of events from ignominy to triumph are set in ritual stone and endlessly played out for we believers on digital-TV's endless War-porn channels. It's all become a feel-good war, in so many ways. They were bad, we won; that's what the story is and that's what the stories' about.
And look! There's Captain America. Not a super-soldier among soldiers any more. But the Sentinel of Liberty!
Which puts the character largely beyond censure. He may not have exactly died for us, but he had a hard time and he certainly got frozen for us. If he's disgusted with the government, then the government's wrong. Because Steve Rogers comes from the Good Time, and the Noble Men, where Justice was died for and Evil destroyed, and where the Government was correct in its purpose in a way which the government today is somehow not.
Compared to the historical myth, our universe and the Marvel Universe are in many ways often presented as an example of how we live today in a tarnished epoch, in a world which shamefully abandoned the great virtues of the golden generation only to live in this world of compromise, of "politics", this world without "leaders".
III. One of the odd things about Captain America's ever-developing status as a strategic master is that it never seems to be based on much of a knowledge of strategy. More than that, it rarely seems to be founded on a knowledge of what strategy is, or of how such a knowledge might actually be acquired. The assumption seems to be that because Captain America fought through the war, he must know what fighting's about on a sophisticated and able level. And this assumption has been buttressed by the brief mentions of Roger's time "training" and learning military tactics and the like before the War broke out. And yet, America's armies were full of Officers who'd undergone a great deal more training than Steve Rogers who upon their first exposure to the battlefield collapsed like a pack of cards. It was true for the British too, because a "knowledge" of tactics has little to do with warfare itself. All plans collapse in the first encounter with the enemy, as Clausewitz tells us, and I'm not sure where Captain America learned how to operate as a command officer rather than an essentially irregular fighter.
But he fought in the War, and the War was good, so he must be a good warrior.
And what a brilliant master of war Steve Rogers is. His mastery of it's arts comes hand-in-hand with his excess of unconscious moral virtue. A master of logistics, like General Marshall. A master of personal relations and coalition-building, like Eisenhower, or until "Civil War" at least. A master of the dashing and daring thrust, as the myth of MacArthur would have us believe, and a master as strong and yet supportive of human frailty as General Ridgeway in Korea was. And of course, after "Civil War", a master of war as loyal to the Constitution as Benedict Arnold.
If Captain America really in some ways a celebration of the fighting man, and the character certainly takes his odour of sanctity from the travails and suffering of the common soldier, I do wish that he seemed more informed of what a soldier actually was and what a soldier actually does.
For, good example or not, if Captain America had started his exhortations up on many of the boats heading for Normandy, even filled deliberately as they were with greenhorn soldiers who wouldn't know enough of the realities of war to be paralysed with terror, I believe that he may have been asked to keep his sanctimonious mouth shut.
Except that I wouldn't bet that anybody would have used exactly those words.
For the myth of Captain America the virtuous soldier is embedded in the fact that Captain America is both the same as and quite different from the men and women who actually fought the war. And while on reflection Cap doesn't seem like any soldier who actually slogged their way through that long and hard and Just war, his myth relies upon us perceiving him to be just the same as the rest of the fighting men of the Allied armies, while being in so many ways better than them too.
He fought the War for us. We helped him helped us.
6. "Nothing Left Of Him But Charred Ashes ... A Fate He Well Deserved!"
So, I'm contending that part of the reason why the traitor Captain America of Civil War could co-exist with the patriotic martyr-hero Captain America is because of (1) how his character had been redefined in terms of innate moral superiority, and (2) because of the sacred air which his association with the Second World War has generated through the constant repetition of certain historical events in a time when memory of the War itself is disappearing.
But there's a third factor which, working together with those I've mentioned above, serves to pump up the specialness of Steve Rogers until he really can get away with anything, and that's
the constant representations of Captain America as the guardian of American virtue in opposition to the American government. Because ever since Steve Engelhart, Steve Rogers has been in costumed conflict with the American State so regularly that Washington has emerged in the Marvel Universe as a far more significant centre of evil activity than any supervillain-ruled foreign nation or great secret underground base of HYDRA or A.IM. If Captain America can rebel against the American state and his readers not notice, it may be in part because the American Government is so regularly represented either as incompetent or flat-out nefarious in Marvel Comic Books that we fail to recognise it as an institution worthy of our respect or support in comic book terms.
II. Quick! Here's a quiz for long-time Captain America fans. How many good and noble members of the Government Of The United States can you recall from your years reading the adventures of Steve Rogers? How many inspiring employees of the American State not in the Armed Forces or the Police can you name? (How many in them can you?) How many efficient and supportive Departments of State, agencies of the people, or organisations supported by tax-payers' dollars can you bring to mind?
Well, I'm sure that you can think of quite a few, but I can't. Some of that is that there are long years of Captain America's adventures that I've read, consigned to a dodgy memory, and then given away, but I think the point is an instructive one, even though I'm sure that there are many significant exceptions to the rule.
Now, please don't think I'm writing this as some kind of authority-loving Statist, who thinks the purpose of Captain America should be to perpetuate blind obedience to and trust in the government of the United States Of America. As I think should be obvious. I am by nature a non-conformist. Groucho Marx didn't want to belong to any club who'd have the likes of him as a member, but I don't want to belong to any club because I've no faith in human beings once they start dividing themselves up into in-groups and out-groups. But I am a passionate democrat, an absolute supporter of the rule of law and of the appropriate manner to challenge laws that I don't personally support. And it worries me that the State is so rarely shown in a positive light. Are Governments in our real world often incompetent and corrupt? Well, yes, but then any time spent reading psychology will illustrate how that's what human beings as a whole are. To expect politicians to be different from so many of the rest of us seems to me to be the thinking process of an idiot. The game is obviously to stay engaged so that no power in the State, from Government to Big Business and beyond, gains an unfair advantage over any other. And constantly portraying the State as at best stupid and at worst evil is to suggest that Democracy itself cannot work, and so we're back to "politicians" and "leadership" again.
I don't want a representation of the American State as the province of Angels. But since I've been reading Captain America, we've had;
- Steve Engelhart's tale of how the criminal "Secret Empire" was actually run by Richard Nixon. (Nixon is often suspected of having been a psychopath, so I've got no problem with the story. But where are the non-criminal Presidents who are embedded into a narrative so that their virtues gain an equal measure with Nixon's super-villainy?
- President Obama, despite receiving a great deal of positive press with Marvel Comics in general as an individual, being presented as a complete idiot where running America is concerned, permitting, for example, Norman Osborn to retain complete control over the super-armed and operationally independent H.A.M.M.E.R. Look, I know many people don't like President Obama. There's lots of folks in Westminster, I'm told, upset because Britain and the Special Relationship isn't so special anymore, so it's not just some FOX-TV news folks who get upset. But Obama is fearsomely bright. He knows what a psychotic schizophrenic is. A narrative where Osborn has to attack Asgard before Obama acts against him is as derogatory in principle and practise to the President and the men and women of the American state as an everyday comic book can manage without tipping over into truly dubious waters. Once again, all those in politics are either useless, incompetent or evil. Only Cap and his costumed army can be trusted. (Which is at least an impression which Paul Cornell avoided giving of Britain's government in the "Captain Britain" tie-ins during "Secret War".)
- Bush too was implicitly portrayed as the President who supported the passage of the SHRA, so he was a fool and a idiot too by super-hero logic, where disagreeing with Cap and wanting masked super-heroes acting without oversight as vigilantes on the streets is a badge of considerable civic virtue.
- Henry Gyrich constantly representing some nebulous Governmental urge to rain on the Avenger's parade by insisting that they don't, er, fly their supersonic jets through NYC without warning anyone, or constitute themselves as an organisation so independent as a body and so powerful as a unit that they challenge the State itself. (Which is what happened in "Civil War" anyway.)
- Government Agencies which take away Cap's uniform and identity, which set up right-wing brutes as alternate Captain Americas, that give Black sidekicks to replacement- Captain Americas the title "Bucky", and so on and on ...
Which means that Captain America and Marvel Comics are often without intending to be, exceedingly right wing in their world view. The State is bad, individuals taking their lives into their own hands is good. And this tendency was, as a thousand bloggers have stated before, powerfully expressed in "Civil War".
III. If there is a single example of how rare it is to experience a positive representation of a Federal employee, or a Federal institution and its' legal authority, in the MU, then it must be the shockingly-decent nature of Federal Agent Duanne Jerome Freeman, (*4) the wonderfully non-stereotypical Federal Security Liaison of the Avengers under Mr Busiek and Mr Perez. (vol 2 # 3), who is amazingly not only competent, but kind and helpful too;
"The way I see it, you do an important job, and I'm here to make it easier, not harder."
This is certainly a way ahead of, for example, Agent Gyrich's approach to working with The Avengers, who, when challenged to the bounds of his authority (#181), closed the debate forcibly with:
"I'm the Government, mister. Any more questions?"
Thank God we've got the Avengers to save us from the Government, and Captain America to lead the Avengers.
(*4) - Of course, Agent Freeman died in Kang's Invasion. I don't know who replaced him, or how competent they were. I had lost a little heart by then.
7. " .. A By-word Of Terror In The Shadow-World Of Spies"
I. The "traitor-saint" Captain America of "Civil War" was no new invention, of course. That Cap was the culmination of far more than a few enthusiastic story conferences, a great deal of thought by editors and creators, and the exigencies of setting up a massive line-wide crossover. If the "traitor-saint" Steve Rogers had appeared out of the blue, many more readers would have disengaged from at least some of the absurdities of "Civil War". That they didn't was due to more than the superior level of craft present in the pages of "Civil War" which distracted so many of us from what was really going on in the story. "Traitor-saint" Captain America existed and worked convincingly to a degree because he's been gathering form, flesh and blood for many decades, and the pace of his development has picked up greater measures of steam the closer we've got to the present day. For with the commonly-accepted shift to widescreen stories, greater levels of explicit violence, and the increasing disengagement of the fantastic world of the superheroes from the mundane world of ordinary folks, have also come the maturing of less-well documented forces driving the evolution of Steve Rogers' character and positioning in the Marvel Universe.
And so by 2007, Captain America had become the Traitor-Saint", a democrat in ill-defined sentiment and an anti-democratic rebel in fact, all possible because Captain America;
- had been re-positioned as the moral centre of the Marvel Universe, leader of Gods and Men, the one character who can lead any group of characters to the victory in battle which always marks ideological success in super-hero comic books
- had become more and more associated with an aura of sanctity and moral exceptionalism associated with modern perceptions of World War Two, a process intensified by the constant returning of Cap to emotionally-affecting key events associated with the virtuous war.
- had been, in common with the Marvel Universe as a whole, regularly engaged in conflicts with the American State and its institutions and employees which portrayed them as either incompetent or enemies of the American Constitution, establishing Captain America as the living embodiment of the Constitution he so little understands rather than the State itself.
*4 - To take but one classic example, it was interesting to note how Cap's failure to convince some of his fellow Avengers not to murder the Supreme Intelligence in "Galactic Storm" seemed to emasculate the character as Mr Gruenwald wrote him, as if Cap by the very fact of being Cap has to win the moral debates or have his central purpose wounded.
8. "I Guess You Got Me Bang To Rights --- I Am Captain America!"
In the final part of this look at "Captain America:Reborn", I'm actually going to be looking at "Captain America:Reborn", and reviewing how that series has offered considerable scope for changing the direction and meaning of Captain America's comic-book journey. For example, I'll be discussing how installing Bucky Barnes as a more permanent "Captain America" solves a great deal of the problem of Cap's status as the moral centre of the Marvel Universe, while making Captain America a more engaging and ethically-compromised character.
And how Steve Rogers' new role without the Captain America costume allows his strategic, conflict-closing skills to be put to use without his being either necessarily at war with the American State or constantly possessed by the posturing spirit of the American Dream.
And how Steve Rogers abandoning the role of Captain America allows the moral weight of World War II to be removed from the characters shoulders without removing the meaning of that War from the contemporary Marvel Universe altogether.
And we'll also look at how "Reborn" is a splendid fairy-story, with magic bullets and time travel, princes and princesses, and new worlds to conquer opening up as old worlds are closed off for lying fallow for awhile.
I hope you'll join me there, for the unexpected-to-me third part of this two-part series.