Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Traitor-Saint Of The Marvel Universe: More Thoughts Inspired By Ed Brubaker & Bryan Hitch's "Captain America: Reborn"

1. "Don't Be Afraid, Son ... You're About To Become One Of America's Saviors!"

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 ...
And so on. I was going to continue, to discuss for instance how easy it was for The Red Skull to become a surrogate of an elected representative of the people, and how many times SHIELD has been subverted and utterly perverted, and then I realised that I don't think I need to add to the list. The fact is that Government tends to be either invisible, a hindrance, or an absolute evil in the Marvel Universe. And where Captain America's dealings with the American State are concerned, there are at the very most far fewer positive examples of the American Government being competent let alone good than are examples of the opposite.

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.
Now, it's not as if a graph can be drawn that shows a steady upward line describing, for example, the degree of Government "evil" in stories involving Cap. There are creators who are more or less willing and able to portray the possibility of Governmental virtue as well as vice, and there are comic books which explicitly challenge Captain America's implicit virtue at times too. (*4) To track the too's and fro's of the above influences would be too much for this piece, and I don't have the resources to exhaustively do so anyway. But I offer this analysis up for what it's worth, as perhaps a starting point for some more profound thinking. I think that the above developments are innocent in themselves, and yet pernicious in combination and developing intensity over time. And I think that a more conscious grasp of what's shaping the representation of characters such as Captain America might be of use in making sure that the character doesn't end up, for example, undermining and destroying the Constitution in the name of the Constitution.

*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.



.

35 comments:

  1. This is a bit OT, but I've always found Henry Gyrich to be one of the fascinating characters in the MU. On the surface, his portrayals seem relatively consistent (i.e. he's an unpleasant, psychopathic bureaucrat), but if you dig a bit deeper, he shifts according to the needs (or perhaps political bias) of the writer, going from a hard-nosed professional who's really looking out for the best interests of the American people to a megalomaniac with a bad haircut, between outright villainy to anti-heroic antagonism with every new story he appears in.

    Dude is basically a personification of your (very intelligent)point about how the government is portrayed in Marvel Comics boiled down into one ginger nightmare. I just thought that was sort of neat.

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  2. Hello Josh - not OT at all. I think Mr Gyrich is an excellent example used in the way you have. In the Geoff Johns' Avengers, I was deeply touched by how he was allowed to redemn himself, but it did rather seem to emasculate the character. The solution, and I think you've nailed it, is not to make him "our" Gyrich, but to be able to conceive of service to the state as being something other than service to "The Other", to Dad or Teacher or Speed-Cops or whatever. If Gyrich could just show a little more of his sense of loyalty and meaning where his service is concerned, it wouldn't make him right or the Avenger's wrong. It would just help to bring the state in as a player and service to it as something other than Gyrich has been portrayed.

    I really do perceive myself to be in a state of almost permanant disappointment with my own Government, but I think that's normal and healthy as long as it doesn't sour and become a sense that we need "leadership" because "they're all the same". I'm not on the side of the state, as you've so obviously picked up. But I think in his own way Gyrich is admirable when he's not shown as the fruitcake agent from i.l.l.m.e.s.s.y.o.u.r.l.i.f.e.u.p.

    Thanks for your comment. I hope your Sunday is a splendid one!

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  3. Thanks a lot for this. Strange as it may sound, the vast majority of the Marvel I've read has been 21st century stuff, which I've obtained through the public library mostly in the last year or so; this includes most of the Civil War stuff as well as Brubaker's Captain America, right up until just before "Road to Reborn." I recently read Avengers #1-10 in the first Marvel Masterworks volume, and it was honestly my first inkling that Cap was, well, not originally who he is now, to put it lightly. I really appreciate your identification of the point where he changed, as well as the very convincing rationale for that change. I will definitely mark part 3 to read later, after I've finally gotten to Reborn (might have to buy it though! heh).

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  4. Hello Carl - always glad to hear from another man of public libraries! There must be a tie or something that can be worn so those who get their graphic novels from libraries can recognise each other and quietly nod as they pass by. And it really is interesting to hear from a 21st century Cap fan, because, as you say, that Cap really is a different character from the one I first knew. I'm certainly relieved to hear that I didn't invent for myself the difference you too note; when I'm trying to work out what I think, I'm always aware of how easy it is to make connections when there's none there to spot. Of course, I'm no authority on Cap, just abit of a casual reader to tell the truth, so I'm absolutely ready to be told that I've missed the key points in Cap's development. Still, I think there's some validity in the "Secret Wars" example.

    Please do free to drop in when and if "Reborn" falls into your hands. You'll know far more about the modern Cap than I do, and you're very welcome to let me know where I've got the wrong end of the stick.

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  5. Thanks Colsmi! I do think it's no coincidence that Brubaker kills Steve off so quickly (seems like that's what you'll be getting to next post) but he also seems to be trying to muck him up a bit as early as #1 (when he more or less kills the terrorist, although maybe Brubaker is cheering him on there, I dunno). Actually, I guess you could say that the neurotic Cap is always just below the surface of the iconic Cap: a great example would be the abrupt surrender at the end of Civil War, usually described as unmotivated, but in your interpretation, it starts to seem like a sudden return of sanity and/or humility. I've also recently read some of Busiek's Avengers, which actually shows Scarlet Witch (rightfully) criticizing Cap's leadership style! (I guess that's why she had to be punished with insanity later on :P).

    I guess you could also say that Cap has Batman-in-JLA syndrome, except that the Marvel Universe is such that Cap can't have an appropriate contemporary setting to himself (as Batman has Gotham), rather he must always justify himself in the context of Marvel's NYC. I'm really enjoying Brubaker's Cap, to the extent that I may actually buy the first two Omnibi when I have the money to spare on it, although I have heard it jumps the shark subsequent to Reborn.

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  6. Hello Carl - and I can only agree with you that Mr Brubaker has certainly had a clear and individual take on Cap since the beginning, starting with the terrorist incident he began with which you rightly refer to. I'm sure that he's had to change his strides to incorporate evenst such as "Civil War", but there's a level of purpose to his stories which I certainly missed first time round. His Cap is in some ways a rather radical one, for it certainly follows something of a different vision than is currently "given", and it's good to see. I'm not suggesting that I've cracked some kind of mythical "Brubaker" code, just that there's more going on than just the difficult-enough-in-its-own-terms job of selling Cap to today's audience.

    I'll be having a natter about the nuerotic Cap next time around here. "He" functions in some strange ways and it's worth, I think, having a little dig there to see what turns up there. I very much like your point that neurotic Cap is an escape clause to any story-lines where Cap is hubristic. And the Busiek & Gruenwald stories where everybody DOESN'T follow Cap are, again as you say, interesting in what they show about how the character works - and doesn't - when the moral leadership card gets compromised a touch. Yep, you're right there.

    That's also a sharp and interesting point you make about Batman having both an intense importance in the DCU and also a distinct city to be played in - in a sense, yes, Cap is actually doomed in a sense to take centre-stage in the MU because he doesn't have his own niche to retreat into. That's a comparison I certainly didn't make, and it's damn instructive to think about. Seriously. I'm sitting here by the 'putor stroking my chin, metaphorically and actually; I shall let that one settle. Thank you.

    And I agree with you, Brubaker's run is a damn good one. It is in places a touch deconstructed for me - I do like my comics to be a touch more old-school in the sense of being more dense & quicker paced in some areas. But that doesn't in any way compromise my respect for his work, as I'll hope to show when I have a grapple with "Reborn". Strangely enough, it's not by far his best Cap work, but it's dense with ideas and I've enjoyed them immensely.

    Thanks for popping in again!

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  7. re Osborn and Obama, one note I saw repeated was that it looked like Dark Reign was written on the assumption the Republican Party would win. As a OTT metaphor for the neocons and as a comic-type story, having Osborn in makes sorta sense - he probably moved in the same circles as them, he's able to put up a nice-guy-front to disguise horribleness, Warren Ellis gave the Thunderbolts a shiny media front covering the badly run, criminal mess - even though it doesn't make sense something Bush would really do.

    But Obama? Doesn't work except as a metaphor for Bush-era stuff Obama has to clean up after, and not well at that because Osborn is too powerful and influential even though he's not even trying to cover himself up. That's not fitting a metaphor at all. If Osborn had to cover himself more and cringe & smile in public while quietly doing stuff behind Obama's back - as the CIA and Bagram are allegedly doing with their black sites - then THAT would be an Obama-era metaphor. As is...

    (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has Obama as President via its tie-ins, and then shows the President as a weak fool who wants to negotiate with Decepticons and Stops The Heroic Troops Doing What Must Be Done. This was just a generic "government is holding back our heroes!" plot, but it's sure unfortunate in context of Obama's presidency & his opposition's claims, eh?)

    - charles RB

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  8. Charles - You're right, the Obsorn plot did have some small EXTREME value as satire, but it was SO extreme that I'm with you: it stumbled from the exaggerated immediately into the ridiculous, and the root cause of that were, I think, somebody didn't know enough about (1) psychology and (2)politics, meaning that the "Oh wow yes!" idea didn't get thought through. And the truth is, though the Neo-Cons carry some dodgy ideological baggage and practise with them, I'd still like at least the measure of respect that John Stewart shows them, in that he mocks and attacks, but he knows what he's talking about. The satire is targetted and so it hits home. Is it the business of Marvel to engage in political satire? Well, they've been doing it, trading off their "engagement" in issues and using them to give their narratives force. And I'm glad that they're doing so, really, but it needs to be cleverer, more informed. Just as you're arguing.

    And it was that sense of either "we don't care this is ridiculous" or "we don't know this is ridiculous" that bothered me, as if Marvel didn't want to truly engage with what they were in truth playing with. Now, I know how smart folks are at Marvel. So, why not use what they're doing in a way that's more accurate and productive? There's been too many political gaffs from DC and Marvel recently for both companies not to have noticed perhaps that they need to be more careful. I hope this doesn't mean they leave politics alone, but that they engage with them more carefully and with some greater forethought. The example of Osborn being so open to so many people about his behaviour? You're right. Can only come from ignorance or not caring. And democracy is more important than that. I know it's unfashionable, but I believe it.

    Now, on the CIA et al. I have on the desk before me "Legacy Of Ashes" by Tim Weiner. a brilliant book on the history of the CIA. Perhaps you've read it? Any comic book creator would find a thousand story-ideas within, both from the point of view of showing how the state can be corrupted and how it can be pulled back. And you can only pull back a state's activities if you care enough to believe that doing so is possible and worthwhile. I don't get that from American superhero comics enough. And I don't think it's irrelevant to comics. Everybody talks about politics in their work, whether they mean to or not, so it makes sense to sort it out first.

    On your Transformers point, of which I knew nothing. Obama as an appeaser? Obama as an enemy of the fighting man? That's ... an interesting take for a major franchise to take. As I've said before, I have no hero-worship for Obama and he's not "my" President, as so many Brits who don't grasp anything of US politics seem to think. But, honestly, the man's as tough as nails. It's as if the folks who create this stuff don't actually know what politics is, so they can't see the harm they do as they pile on the contempt, drip by drip by drip. Pah, I say. Pah.

    But no "pahs" for you, Mr C. You are, as I've said before, welcome over here every time. Have a fine day.

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  9. "Legacy of Ashes" is a great book if you want to hold your head in your hands and say "ohhh, man," for a whole afternoon. Depressing and amazing. Well worth the read. Lots of surprises in it. Most of them bad, but hey.

    The particular aspect of Modern Cap that both fascinates and troubles me is the unspoken fantasy aspect. His appeal as a fantasy figure is that while physically an unimposing superhero, he is unstoppable. Modern Cap is the idea of Right Makes Might. His virtue makes him the Man Who Always Wins, the guy who always finds a way. That's enormously appealing
    as a fantasy. Because we all so desperately wish it were true.

    The problem is, there are many aspect to the character, and his explicitly nationalistic side makes the Right Makes Might angle a little...sticky.

    For historical reference: once the Right Makes Might angle developed, it's been established that Steve Rogers was always like that. The super-soldier serum just gave him the means to express his righteousness. (Which, in four-color world, means "punching giant Nazi robots until they explode.")

    For another historical reference: Cap has had giant state funerals several times. Due to his inherent weight as a symbol of righteousness and a bygone era that was presumed to be righteous, the man has been killed and been given presidential-level funerals about a half-dozen times.

    The fascist implications of the character and his massive popularity was called to the forefront at least once, in one of the great comics Marvel ever produced: What If... #44. It's fitting that such a take was in a non-canonical series.

    The call for "leadership" rather than "politicians" is so old in American politics that it's got lumbago and a bad hip. That it's an anti-democratic idea and smacks of dictatorship is mostly ignored. It's a cheap rhetorical ploy to downplay the aggravating sides of politics (conflict, responsibility, caution) while ignoring the downside of authoritarianism. It combines the urge to have a simple, direct form of government that doesn't require the people to have to do anything or think, with the urge to maintain the constantly trumped wonders of democracy.

    Excellent explanation on the shifting meaning of WW2 inflecting on Cap's character. Kirby fought in France during the war, and many of the early Marvel guys served back then. They romanticized it as a necessity of genre, but kept some proportion. Later generations, for various reasons, have an image in their heads that bleaches out details and leaves a sense of wonder, debt, appreciation, and "OH KICK ASS!" Thus, Cap is...yeah.

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  10. Harvey, you give me hope that the tone of these pieces is better than I sometimes fear, in that all I want to do is throw up a hypothesis, try to operationalise it - as my students used to have write in their exams - and then have supplemented/strengthened/disproved etc. That may sound daft, but I remain quite fond of the principles if not always the practise of the scientific method, just as I am of democracy.In fact, I'm going to invent a pseudo-religion for myself, and those two things will be there as the holy necessary evils.

    And this is going to really make me sound a little late-night chat show, but I used to read Filing Cabinet Of The Damned! I really did enjoy it very much. Hope I've been inspired by it without unconsciously stealing from it, of course.

    Right, down to business: that Peter B Gillis script for "What If" # 44 is so obviously a conscious attempt to deconstruct the standard Cap narrative that - you're so right - it's worthy of the time you gave it on FCOTD. As a social scientist by training and trade, I tend to focus without meaning to on trends across time, accepting that in comic books, for example, there will be endless contradictions and anomalies in trying to track the path from "a" to "b". (In my mind, it's like one of those huge maps of the evolutionary tree, with speculations, thumb nails, hobbit cave-dwellers, all codified into a schema which will only last until the next South Africa burial site is found.)But I am plodder by nature. I'm not very bright, so I have to really throw everything up in the air and look it at from as many angles as I can in order to make it sense to me, so the long-view suits me. But I really do need folks like yourself that can qualify my generalisations with fact, with detail AS WELL AS your own grand paradigms too, as in that fantastic post of yours about the many deaths of Cap, and I'm grateful. I hope my point is that these tendencies in Cap have always been there, often been exploited and countered, but there's a historical momentum that starts to enter into the equation as well, and that's what I was most interested in, the combination of factors which may or may not have created this strange traitor-saint Cap.

    (cont)

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  11. Part 2!:

    Harvey: I've got the notes to touch upon Steve Rogers and his vague pre-life as a committed "democrat" before the serum & vita-rays or whatever they are this week. But if you have any specific references for that, or a blog, to flesh out the issue, PLEASE throw it at me. I'm massively unconvinced by every portrayal I've seen of Steve Rogers as a young man before chemical enhancement. Again, the NYC of the '30s is such a fascinating and diverse environment, & the Roosevelt administration hardly the pseudo-social democratic paradise it's so often reduced to. For both your nation & mine, the 1930s/early '40s might seem like today, but they look a long away & tremendously different now. Or rather, that's how they SHOULD look. And there's often that strange dual world in representations of the period in comics; on the one hand it's tough, but never as tough as it was in reality for even the middle classes. The poverty is always so non-specific, idealised, almost as a laboratory for the production of virtue rather than a life where a rusty nail scratch could have you dead in a few days. And on the other hand, there's this strange sense of a nation united, of a government helping the people, the depression being slowly defeated, and a naive vision of what a pre-war Democrat would be; oh, there's some bad bosses, some Capone-esque villains, but so often there's that idea that it's AMERICA that's there, ready to enter the war, and again, for obvious reasons, I find that pernicious. And ridiculous, it makes Democratic values on Cap's part too easy to "own", too easy to deliver as slogans. And it also seems to give him even more authority as a man from that golden generation. But 1930's morality seems to me to have in many ways been quite alien to today, and trying to make Cap a '30's democractic virtuous man relevant to today means that he has to be a premature anti-homophobe, premature anti-racist, premature anti-fascist, and so on. Better, I think, that Cap learns as we do. And Engelhart's Cap did that best, I think.

    And finally, your words on Kirby are exactly where I stand. I had a section on Kirby & his war-time experiences in this piece, actaully, which I had to cut. (It's obviously missing, actually, in the discussion of Cap's appearance in that early Sgt Fury.) Because Kirby knew how the US Army was full of real men and women, of kind souls as well as the kind of terrible American brutes which people his WWII comics and which the likes of Nick Fury land a few punches on. (The breadth of difference in the American Army in England, for example, is touched upon well in Lynne Olson's "Citizens Of London", which in its' own way is as much a historical corrective as "Legacy Of Ashes".) And so you're right again; Kirby admired the American soldier in individual terms and as a force for good in that context, but he was NEVER party to the sentimental and dangerous romanticisation that has, again, gathered force as the years pass.

    Gosh. Filing Cabinet Of The Damned. How are you, sir?

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  12. re Osborn and extreme parody - Ellis' Thunderbolts is the only time Osborn-as-power-player really worked for me (I liked Diggle's run but Ellis' worked better) because he's blatantly going for black humour and absurdism when he does it. And he also shows what a mess it would really be as a result - Norman puts on his costume and flies around Thunderbolts Mountain moaning that everyone wants him to do the work for them, and cheerily asking two guards (who've cunningly stationed themselves away from the fighting) how much they're liking their job even in full Goblin gear. If you're going to have such an absurd concept as Norman Osborn as a government spook, go absurd.

    re Transformers: they added Obama in as the President after writing the script. Basically, it was a generic President who is generically holding back Our Boys, and... well, that just doesn't work whoever the President is. No US President would react so wimpily to a fucking invasion of US soil. It's daft.

    re "leaders!" - a number of American politicians do like running for office on "I am an OUTSIDER!" platforms (at least two Repub nominations are). IIRC, they nearly always turn out to be MORE corrupt and inefficient.

    - Charles RB

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  13. Charles - I will sit down with Marvel Digital tonight, as they have the Thunderbolts issues - I've only read a few of them, but those I did were, as you'd expect, clever. I recall the Goblin flying round the mountain, but because I'd read so little else of the Osborn-affair at that time, it didn't sink in until you mentioned it how interesting a take that was. And in fact, just from your description I'd buy it. It does indeed sound like ABSURD would be the way to go. And that makes me think; could the crossover have worked if it was ALL turned up to 11 in that way? Is it possible that it wasn't the idea so much as the execution? I wonder ..

    You know, again, your remark about NO US President permitting an invasion; it's so true. Carter would've put them down, Clinton would've dropped a submarine fleet of nukes on them. Even the most apparently liberal Presidents wouldn't stand for it. They-just-wouldn't. And as a bloke who's often pointing out the dangerous myths that Americans can tell of themselves - just as all nations do - one of them is that their Government is anything other than pro-active when it comes to defending the state against REALLY BIG ROBOTS!

    That "outsider" myth. In some ways it's the WORST myth of all. Yep, it's the lie of the man or woman who wants to deny they want the sweet shop before tucking into the Hershey Bars. It's easy to spot 'em, isn't it? The minute someone stands up and enters the political debate enough to say "Outsider", they're in the debate. You can't be an outsider from the moment you say are. Pah! I'm starting to steam under the collar, Charles. Steam, I say!

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  14. Harvey - speaking of me not being bright - your point on Cap's life before the serum went over my head until about 30 seconds ago when, like a dinosaur realising it was shot minutes before, I saw your point. Yeah. You're right. Contradiction in what I wrote. Thanks!

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  15. re Ellis-Osborn - I did see a few people criticise Dark Avengers (Osborn and other villains pretending to be specific superheroes) as being Bendis thinking "wow, Ellis' Thunderbolts was great, I'll continue it!" and then playing everything straight. The deliberately ludicrous idea of Venom as "America's Cannibal Cop" with his own toys gets replaced by the unfortunately ludicrous idea of Venom pretending to be the real Spider-Man while the actual Spider-Man is out there and nobody going "hey, it's Venom".

    And when you have Osborn naming his team HAMMER and wearing an American-flag battle armour under the "Iron Patriot" name, it kinda does sound a bit like 2000 AD style absurdist black humour. But, nope, played straight. And Osborn is very canny and in total control until it's narratively necessary for him not to, when really he should've been running a total mess from the start. It's a big mess and the Obama administration are desperately trying to get rid of him except he's too good at self-promotion & propaganda and they don't have anyone who can fix his crap up.

    re outsiders: the latest American ones are Linda McMahon, wife of the WWE mogul, and Rand Paul, son of right-wing career politician & attempted Presidency candidate Ron Paul. Now, a rich person related to a large company and a second-generation career politician do not sound like "outsiders" to me. Certainly, Paul does not sound like someone who can legitimately claim to be totally one of the common folk.

    - Charles RB

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  16. Charles - you know, I've never thought about how far you could push a mainstream comic book in the direction of complete 2000AD-satire while still retaining the readership used to more traditional fare. You certainly wouldn't want to go as far as to arrive at the extremes of "Marshal Law", much as I'd like to see a month where every book pushed out THAT far from shore. There was a piece on Mr Ellis' page where he mentioned a thanks he'd got from JQ for the inspiration to use Osborn in that evil-ruler-of-SHIELD role, and yet you can perhaps see how the idea got somewhat changed/lost/diluted/misapplied/made more commercial (delete according to taste) between Mr E and Mr Q.What a shame that the satire you've got me thinking of couldn't have been mustered and sent out into the four-colour marketplace.

    My feeling is that Obama would have eaten Osborn alive, or that events would've got to the point quickly where that was obviously coming pronto, which would've been a much better scenario for me; it would make the state seem something other than a moron, which it is every once a million years or so, and that HAMMER vs America scenario would have appealed much more to me. Not to make "America" seem faultless; hell, have some generals defect, some CIA spooks shift their allegiances, even doubt in and between classes and regions and so on, but have the state doing something! That would've been a battle for America's soul that didn't end up with everyone who wasn't in a cape looking like a (polite word) twit.

    On Madame McMahon: I couldn't work out if the WWE comment you left was some kind of joke I'd missed. But no. I'm only just coming up to speed on her politics, and of course America has the right to its' politicians; Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown aren't exactly a back-four to be proud of. But I am amazed at a culture that sees the possession of huge economic power as somehow a symbol of a common touch, as if to have INDIVIDUAL power makes that individual SEPERATE FROM and BETTER THAN the state, and by dint of that, somehow a representative of the common person. I can easily imagine Asterix the Gaul with a speech balloon above his head in which is written "These voters in the West are crazy."

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  17. First, thanks so much to Colin for the blogging award nomination! As soon as a I have a spare minute, I'll try to start earning it by, like, actually doing some blogging.

    Meanwhile, I'd love to jump in on the Cap thread - at least to offer a dissenting thumbs-up for "Civil War" - but as soon as I start thinking about the intersection of superheroes and politics, I start flashing back to that bit in "Secret Invasion" where we see the Avengers executing unresisting prisoners of war, and I remember the exact moment at which the modern Marvel universe lost me as a reader. Sigh.

    Still, where the Cult of Cap is concerned, I think Civil War made good use of him; is there any other Marvel hero who could have taken up arms against the entire concept of democracy and still commanded a credible share of audience sympathy? You could just as plausibly have placed Cap and Iron Man on the opposite sides, but then it would have been even less of a balanced debate.

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  18. Hello Mark - I was hoping that you wouldn't mind the nomination. I'm glad to see that's not so. It's the chance to see an artist developing even further, being disciplined and successful; I find that inspiring on your blog. I so need to raise my game where my other writing is concerned and it really helps to see folks like you working. Gladwell's 10 000 hours - it is 10 000, isn't it? - has become an ideal in my head, and I'll take all the inspiration I can from others doing their time at the inspiration/hard work mill too, even if they've worked so well that they're about, oh, 10 000 hours ahead of me.

    Jump in on these threads, jump in! When I started my blogs, I wanted to do a weekly review bite-sized pieces blog. And it was already being done so well that I felt I'd have to go and find something that wasn't being done so often. Hence these bloody epic pieces, which were never my intention, though I've learnt from it of course. But I like the idea that, even if the appeal of the blog is in "Spinal Tap" terms "more selective", it is a place where these matters can be discussed at whatever length & detail folks want, knowing that everyone around will take 'em seriously. Again, if the "market" has driven me out here to try to find a niche, having able & kind people teaching me things I'd not considered to whatever degree seems to me an unexpectedly fine thing.

    On your point about Civil War; what's important to me about your comment is that it reinforces the point - which I hope I've always fully accepted - that all the pseudo-academic argument in the world doesn't mean that that argument is correct. You enjoyed CW. You felt the Cap role was a productive and enjoyable one. And that's a necessary corrective to any reviewer hubris. But! But! (My brain has just started turning over. Must pause and think.)

    Ok. I've been mulling. Your comment made me think, of course. What I most worry about where Cap and CW are concerned is that you can have a story where the Constitution can be so subverted and yet that act masked by the presence of the character doing so. So, in a way, your argument and mine run parallel to each other rather than being in conflict, or at least I think so. (I'm sorry if I've missed your point. It'll be my denseness & rather than arrogance if I have.) You're looking at it from the utterly valid point of the effect of the story itself in its own terms. Absolutely right. It worked for you as it did for about 4 million others, and there's no snarkiness about my comment there at all, or snottiness about popular appeal. I never subsribed to the punk rock manifesto that said popular = bad. And though I had concerns about the story in "superhero" terms themselves, my main objection is a different issue, if you like; a political one. If I was going to dissent with you over Civil War in superhero terms, it would have been so many characters behaving out of character and so many key events unexplained properly. (eg: Reed being involved in the Thor clone project & the sudden and quite unforeshadowed and poorly explained change of heart by Cap at the end.)

    Dissenting ideas are splendid ideas, I can't help but think as I type this on an overcast English morning. If you are ever over this way again, and I hope that you may be, I hope you'll dissent and dissent again.

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  19. Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere! :-)

    I think we're very much on the same page when it comes to the political role of Cap in Civil War. I'm in enthusiastic agreement with everything you said in your previous post, and I always felt like the "pro-registration" side was self-evidently correct. The only point where the registration principle breaks down is that the Marvel-verse incarnation of the U.S. government seems to be an utterly berserk, out-of-control Nixonian nightmare. At this point, the project of making superheroes accountable to the government seems a bit less urgent than making the government accountable to the people! For starters, the last couple of Marvelverse U.S. Presidents should clearly have been impeached.

    Speaking of which, I think you're also quite right that the superheroes only seem concerned about civil liberties when it affects them directly. The X-Men tie-in series for "Civil War" actually scored some really good points on this, with the mutants basically jeering at their "norm" comrades and saying "now you know how we feel, and what have you ever done for us?"

    My point, inasmuch as I had one, was that the "anti-registration" side struck me as so blatantly wrong that their cause wouldn't have stood a chance without the saintly Cap in their corner. But maybe the rest of the readership are more steadfastly pro-vigilante than I am.

    There are a bunch of other interesting issues with superheroes being answerable to the government, like cops and soldiers, which the post-Civil War stories generally failed to exploit. But that's really a digression from the topic of Cap, and I'm eager to find out how the "Reborn" series laid your concerns to rest!

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  20. Glad I could help you procrastinate! Isn't that really why we're all here?

    Regarding the X-Men "Civil War" tie-in, it's been a while since I read the story in question. But this was taking place under the current regime of Cyclops and Emma Frost, who've been consistently written as a lot more hard-nosed regarding the interests of Their People, especially since there aren't many of them left nowadays. Under the circumstances laid out in the story, I thought their reaction seemed credible enough, and it was interesting to consider how the registration foofaraw might look from the mutant perspective.

    As for the Marvelverse U.S. government, I guess most fictional versions of it are lousy with conspiracies and coverups and sinister secret agencies, and the Marvel one probably isn't the worst of the bunch. But the Marvel version does seem to be skewed very heavily in favor of an all-powerful chief executive. If the M-POTUS weren't so consistently spineless, he or she could do a lot of damage!

    Honestly, I wonder if the whole "Civil War" thing hasn't spoiled superhero comics for me. The questions it raised were so interesting, and so fundamental to the basic assumptions of the genre, that I think I'd rather read stories about that instead of alien invasions and caped bank robbers. What would politics look like in a world with superheroes (or aliens, or Bigfoot)? I guess if we want to explore that, we'll just have to write the stories ourselves...

    If you're still in the mood for CW-related distractions, I can point you to some writeups on the various spinoffs and tie-ins that I wrote for my old LiveJournal site, here and here and here. Not nearly as in-depth as your analyses, but I feel like we actually had fairly similar reactions to some of the plot points.

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  21. Hello Mr M - I'm glad I didn't get your point entirely wrong, and seeing this comment coming up allows me to avoid the dreaded AM visit to the gym for a few minutes. I am doubly grateful to you.

    I agree with you absolutely, as of course you know, about the MU version of Govt. It must be that folks there so have much of their eye on the ball of producing succesful comics - which is of course their business - that some of the other important "stuff" gets missed. I can think of no other explanation unless they ARE working to bring down democracy by undermining its' popular appeal.

    Let me think about that.

    And is that so about the X-Men tie-ins? Is that really what was said? Well, of course it is if you say so, but .... no, that's just cheap. "My" X-Men wouldn't have done that. Oh, of all the characters up to my jumping off point around # 176, Wolverine might shouted about it. Sunfire would've been an ass .... That's about it, as far as I can see. Well, from oppressed minority to embittered friends of the oppressors. I can't see Nightcrawler putting up with that ... opps ... I'm told they killed him. Honestly ...

    Oh, and absolutely right: without Cap, the resistance wouldn't have had the reader's support. But wouldn't it have been interesting? I'm not suggesting commerically or even artistically this would've been the right approach, but wouldn't it have been interesting to have the truly Libertarian or extreme Conservative heroes rebel, even if to secure a state for themselves. Strange political bedfellows might appear: Luke Cage and the Texas Twister? I know it shows how I'm SO not the target audience, but I'd have a bought a civil war that really was a CW, without Cap, as you say, loading the dice, or with him actually for once really leading the fight for democracy. (And given that Lincoln got shot for his own suppression of a succession, well, that still left a "Death Of Cap" option wide open.)

    As for "Reborn" laying my concerns to rest, well ... given I've not read what comes after - finances etc blah-blah-blah - I'm aware that I'm going to look like a right BERK "spotting" escape routes from the problems we've been discussing when they'll probably turn out not to escape routes because they weren't seen as problems anyway. Argh.

    And, please: kind-hearted and intelligent digression and well as dissent is always encouraged here. Take care Mr M.

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  22. Another digression for you: in the first story arc of the 2002 Captain America series, Cap fights against a shadowy villain who sponsors and equips terrorist groups that strike inside the United States.

    The story had a rudimentary idea of the downside of being "the embodiment of America" means. Among the villain's minions were children who lost their limbs to American munitions in various wars around the world. They were suicide bombers with cybernetic limbs. Cap being Cap, he separated the kids from the bombs and showed them that Americans maybe aren't uniformly evil. Okay, groovy, in a heavy-handed four-color way.

    Then came the final showdown. The villain (who, if memory serves, never had a super-villain name) proved to be a weapons manufacturer with a headquarters in Dresden. Yes, Dresden. So we have a theme working here: sins of the past, etc.

    Cap and the guy get into a Big Ol' Fight, because it's a comic book, and in the end, the villain tells our hero this (I'm quoting from memory, so it's a paraphrase):

    "When I was a boy, a group of armed men came to my family's small, poor farm. The men were trained by Americans and carrying American weapons. They slaughtered my family and tried to kill me. They killed my entire village.

    "Captain, I have had my features surgically removed and bear no foreign accent in my English.

    "If you can tell me where I am from, if you can tell me who it was that did that to me, I will surrender to you right now and turn over all of my associates and arsenal.

    "Tell me, Captain: who am I?"


    Damn.

    That's...that's...damn. What do you do?

    How does Our Hero respond?

    "The American people didn't know about that! We didn't know! You can't blame them!" The dialogue then suggested that America doesn't do things like that anymore, because we know better now.

    As an American, I can assure you, all of that is utter horse manure. Americans didn't want to know, and still don't, which is hardly the same thing as being innocent. I wanted to reach into the comic and punch Cap in the face myself for that self-serving lie.

    The story veered right up to the edge of hard political ideas, and then weaseled out, giving the answer a teenager would give. Ugh.

    What's worse is that Cap didn't need to come up with such crap. He could have refused to argue that line and countered with "None of that gives you the right to slaughter the innocent yourself! America has done and still does horrible things, but that doesn't excuse mass murder!", or something like that.

    A loss of nerve or a failing of insight?

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  23. Mark - Blogger is playing silly buggers with the comments at the moment, so your words and my replies are out of sequence in playing. I'm sorry about that, but given that I'm usually responding to specific points, I hope it'll make sense.

    Thank you for more data on the X-Men in "Civil Wars". I'll take your advice and give it a break on Marvel Digital before judging what I've not read.

    On the issue on "real world" issues. I've always thought that stories about superheroes fighting superpowered folks were, on the whole, the dullest of all. But in fact, even duller are the stories which deal so directly with real-world issues that the sub-text and the text become one and the same. I could just about cope with it in the late '60s with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, but beyond that the appeal weakens for me. But I think having the meaning as a real world one while still letting the surface being about superheroes is undoubtedly the way forward. It's that clever balance between fun costumed absurdity and a sense that the real world is being discussed without preaching at me. But I do think, with you, that more of the real-world needs to be in there. It's just that those "relevancy" books which came along after "Watchman" in particular felt so worthy ... Would I love to see a new attempt to merge the one world and the other? I would, but it makes me think that are the best are often those "engagements" are often far from obvious; the early Spideys dealing with adolescence, for example, are as much about the real-world as any worthy piece, but they hide their cleverness, which is where it should go. Ah, you've done it again, Mr M. I'll now be walking around imagining how I'd have a run at writing such a thing. (Not from fanboy hubris, I hasten to add. I enjoy the intellectual exercise.)

    I shall be invetigating your old LiveJournal stuff when I finish this. It'll be cool to see what you wrote as the material came out. Thanks.

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  24. Harvey - that's not the first time your comment has arrived with me via Blogger after it was posted. This comment section is starting to turn into some kind of puzzle; can anyone work out what relates to what else?

    I hope you caught my brief reference in a short comment above to the young Steve Rogers issue you helped me with that I completely missed. Thank you.

    I was onboard for the beginning of that Cap arc you describe. If I remember right, it was partially sold off the back of the idea that this was Marvel engaging with real-world affairs. I couldn't stay the course, myself, for all the reasons you say, but I'm pleased that you stayed with it. I think I'd much prefer to read you writing about. And what you write is ... well, it's just appalling. It's terrible. I'll say it again; Marvel & DC need some kind of political coordinator, not as a Stalinist giver-of-the-party line, but just to help out with the issues of representation, of issues and groups and so on. Just somebody who could say "Have you considered that you're killing off all your characters who aren't mainstream "White"? "Did you realise that the meaning of this is close to fascism?" and so on. There's some great Universities within an easy day's journey to NYC. It could only help. And it wouldn't set a specific political line, it would stop specific political lines being laid down accidentally.

    But now you've discussed those issues, I'm going to HAVE see if they're on Marvel Digital. I'm sure there's lots to learn there. Car-crash political comic books, perhaps.

    Thanks, Mr H. Have a splendid evening.

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  25. Hi Colin! I think part of the reason I responded so well to "Civil War" was the sense that, for once, we were seeing the people of a comic-book world engaging in a political dispute about their concerns rather than ours. A lot of "political" superhero comics are thinly-veiled allegories about real-world politics, which, as you observe, quickly becomes thudding and tiresome. I find it much more interesting to explore the political dynamics of fantastic situations; "Watchmen" did this very well, and I think "Civil War" made a surprisingly good attempt for a sprawling, multi-author marketing event.

    Surely people who are dealing with superhero registration, war with Krypton, and global tensions with Atlantis would find our real-world political obsessions thoroughly boring. "Leaky oil well on the sea floor? Yeah, whatever, just get Reed Richards or Namor or Aquaman to fix it. Where does your Obama fella stand on amnesty for Galactus?" On some level, these fantasy debates still have some bearing on real-world issues, but I think they work better when the connection is subtle and indirect.

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  26. Mark - just typing this out as the Splendid Wife taps her foot and reminds me of the evening's obligations, but I saw your above comment - yes, what you say is excellent, and I picked up that point about the POLITICS of the SUPERHERO UNIVERSES when I read your "Has he lost his mind" via the LiveJournal link. Yep, I thought, that's a really good way of looking at it. And, no offense to the foot-tapping Splendid Wife - who really is Splendid - but that's a point I'll probably be thinking about tonight rather than more mundane and social matters. I sometimes enjoy reading your words, think we're almost disagreeing, and end up thinking we're in agreement. Splendid. I'll go with the assumption it's you patiently bringing me round.

    And now .... Real Life!! Argh!

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  27. i am trying to research the worth of a comic book collection in the family. i have a copy of the sgt. fury captain american and bucky comic pictured above. do you have any idea about it's worth? you seem to have a vast knowledge on this topic! thank u

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  28. Hello Emily:- no vast knowledge, I fear, just a measure of enthusiasm.

    The business of assessing what a particular comic book is worth is one which can only be done by someone who can see the comic before them. There are so many aspects of the comic's condition combined with the demand for it that it's just not possible for me to answer your question. Why not give your local comic book shop a call and ask their opinion?

    I'm sorry that I couldn't be more helpful.

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  29. "The people don't want a politician .... They want a leader."

    I don't read that quite the way you do. In America, it very often seems that the mark of a politician is someone who is afraid to speak his mind and stand up for what is right, instead focusing on polls and being very careful to not offend anyone. That's a politician. A leader, on the other hand, is someone willing to say what needs to be said, and possibly be rejected by the voters for it, but at least earn people's respect by standing for something.

    If my reading of politician vs. leader holds up, there's nothing fascistic about it. Even if you want to say "ah but all of that COULD be turned to fascistic ends", we're still talking about Captain America, who has, I think, a pretty respectable track record for understanding civic duty.

    "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."

    Every origin story of Cap, from the 1940s onward, has him enlisting for WWII, being rejected because of poor health, but making an impassioned plea that he be allowed to serve anyway. So yes, he was always this brave. Further tellings of his story show that he was trained and tested by the US Army (and even faced competition from other candidates) until they were certain they had the right man for the super-soldier serum (AND vita-ray treatment, the part that mad scientists usually forget, with unfortunate results). As for the fact that he's American, well, it would far harder to justify an American comic book company making the bravest man in the world NOT American. Unfortunate, but if it makes you feel better, Steve Rogers' parents were Irish immigrants, so he's only one generation removed from the British Empire. (None of this "Northern Ireland" business either; Steve Rogers was born in 1917, back when Ireland was still in one piece.)

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  30. Also wanted to comment on this:

    "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 ..."

    You have entered my field of expertise, Mark Gruenwald-ology, so I'll share what I know. First of all, John Walker replacing Cap was the first significant superhero replacement in comics; it beat the Reign of the Superman, Azrael/Batman, Eric Masterson/Thor, and all the rest by years. And it was not just a publicity stunt; going into it, Gruenwald wasn't sure that he'd be putting Steve Rogers back in the role after 18 months. What he wanted to do was to demonstrate how difficult it is for a man to step up into the Role of Captain America, and he gave that job to the Super-Patriot and one of his three B.U.C.kies ("Bold Urban Commandos"), crappy one-shot threats from several issues past who were a statement on the brain-dead militaristic patriotism of the Reagan years. John Walker's early issues as Cap were all about him learning to man up and embrace the burden of being a symbol, for example not abusing his power, and fessing up when he does.

    As for the Bucky in question, Lemar Hoskins, that was a creative misstep on two counts, which Marvel quickly corrected once they realized their mistake. 1) Mark Gruenwald, being a Wisconsinite, was not aware that "buck" is a slur for black men in some parts of the country. (I didn't know it either, as an Ohioan.) 2) A "Bucky" who is larger than Cap and is physically his equal, yet is subordinate to him, sends the wrong message -- the intention was to show that minorities are as American as white men, it just backfired. But as mentioned, Marvel addressed these matters, and pretty directly: a black S.H.I.E.L.D. agent made these very points to Lemar Hoskins in-comic, Lemar talked to the superhero council, and they set him up with a new costume and code name as Battlestar.

    As for the superhero council that was causing all this grief, turns out the Red Skull had corrupted the head of the council, and was orchestrating all this just to prove a point to Cap. Once that head of the council was killed (dust of death!), reason very quickly reasserted itself: Val Cooper apparently took over and did a responsible job, and even Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a good man who was furious that he wasn't even consulted over Steve Rogers' firing. (Personally I think that was a generous view of Reagan, but anyway.) The upshot of all this is that the council decided, in Cap #350, that Steve Rogers may continue to wear the costume and throw the shield in perpetuity, because whatever original claim to ownership the US Army might have had on them, it's Steve Rogers who made them count for something.

    This ties us directly to "Civil War": Cap is the one hero that the government had already given carte blanche to, so even by the end of issue 1 "Civil War" wasn't making any sense. But really, so much was wrong about "Civil War" that I don't find it productive to use it as the basis for discussing the nature of Marvel's heroes. Pretty much every hero was written in howlingly poor fashion, they were inconsistent from comic to comic, and by the end of it Marvel so desperately wanted Iron Man's side to be right (even though they clearly weren't) that they went out of their way to write Cap like a brain-dead oaf. Writing Obama poorly in the face of all that ain't nothing! Marvel was so dedicated to their idiot storyline with Norman Osborn in charge, they were going to make morons out of everyone just to make it happen. Seriously, google "Sally Floyd" and see how much love the comics community has for her; "Civil War" is what happens when comic book companies get a really bad idea and don't know when to stop.

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    1. Hello There:- I find myself in the very strange position of returning to something I wrote close to four years ago in order to engage with your well-reasoned points. It's a strange situation for me to be in, since I very much doubt I'd attempt the above today, and even if I did, I certainly wouldn't write it in the way I did.

      Yet re-reading the material leaves me to conclude that I very much agree with the points I made, and that the past nigh-on-four years have merely seen the process by which Cap becomes a symbol of American exceptionalism and reactionary politics speed up. You'll be aware, I've no doubt, of Cap leading a team in which he directly oversaw two other Avengers engage in a serious bout of torture in Secret Avengers. You'll also be aware of how Cap is now so virtuous that the whole universe was inspired by him to fight back against unspeakable - and unspeakably boring - threats in "Infinity". Quite what he did to have this effect is impossible to say. He shouted alot and ran around, and yet somehow his virtues inspired hosts of ancient and super-advanced cultures to stand up and fight when otherwise they .... wouldn't? What tosh. You'll have also seen Cap ineptly leading a team to arrest a group of harmless Skrull refugees in Infinity #1, which I discussed at some length in this blog because of the stupidity, cruelty and brutality of how he went about things.

      So, though I respect your POV re: my argument, I fear I'll have to disagree with you. To argue your points one by one would be unfair to you, since I've already largely had my say. If the above is unconvincing, then shouting louder and repeating myself - as it were - will do neither you or I any good. (I mentioned the development of Cap over the past few years - particularly in BMB and JH's Avengers books - merely because it was material I self-evidently couldn't have mentioned in the above.)

      I wouldn't disagree with you about the Gruenwald-era material you mention. How could I? I'm sorry you thought that such material was unknown to me. But my point - and I can apologise for not accentuating even more than I did - was that the state has become more and more of either the enemy or tool of Cap. In short, that story added to the roll of tales in which the state was so intrinsically weak at best, and downright pernicious at worst, that Cap had to save it from itself. It contributed to the process, and I think that holds up as an argument.

      Yet I'd have no problems if Cap - as it did to some degree during the Englehart era - actually engaged with the real corruptions of the state. The triumph of the hyper-rich, the moral corruption and practical ineptness of the intelligence agencies, the cravenness of the political classes; to attack the state in real-world terms can be to suggest that its current flaws - though 'flaws' is far too mild a word - can be countered and, for a while at least, corrected. But to simply but heads against a state that's inept and corrupted in comic book terms - The Red Skull! Norman Osbourne! etc - merely feeds into a reactionary argument that the state is itself an inevitably corrupt and quite frankly evil business. (No, I'm saying that Gruenwald story was a milestone in the development of that tendency, and not that it made that argument in itself if it were read from beginning to end.)

      We of course agree entirely about the stupidities of Civil War.

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      Finally, I really have no desire for Steve Rogers to be anything other than American. The character as portrayed in the first 21st century Cap movie is very much 'my' Cap, and it's a shame that the comics haven't taken that Cap on board. I certainly couldn't care less if Cap was 1st generation Irish, Scot or whatever. My point isn't that there's anything wrong with his being American. My point, for the little that I know it counts - and that's very very very little, of course - is that Cap shouldn't be a reactionary embodiment of American exceptionalism. Indeed, I'm convinced that that's something that creators and editors should work overtime to counter. Some do, of course, but many are either reactionary themselves or unable to control even the broad meaning of their own work.

      And I think that Cap has become that reactionary figure. The Cap that Nick Fury mocked in Lee/Kirby's Sgt Fury until he'd proved himself as a soldier? The Cap of the first movie? The Cap of the Englehart and the Gerber and the Gruenwald and the Grant - & much of the Stern/Byrne - issues? (I know there's many more who could be mentioned there too.) They're versions of Captain America who stand against bullies without being bullies themselves, and they can be used to question the difference between ideology and practice, ideals and practicalities. (I often admired the Brubaker Cap, but I fear his politics were often significantly determined by the daftness of Civil War and other events away from Cap's own book.) The Cap we have now in Marvel's books is THE perfect human being on a weirdly profound and apparently unchallengeable level. Indeed, he's not just the best of humanity, but the premiere citizen of the Universe. He's the best of just about EVERYONE and EVERYTHING.

      And why? Well because he's CAPTAIN AMERICA, and that's supposedly true regardless of what he does and doesn't do.

      To be honest, that turns my stomach, and I'd feel the same if Captain Britain, or Captain Clyde or whoever - though British, I'm predominantly Scots - was portrayed in such a fashion.

      All the best to you. I know I haven't convinced you, but then, that's not what writing such pieces is about, is it? Someone's opinion is just that, and I make no claims for it beyond the fact that it makes some kind of sense to me.

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  31. My apologies for making you revisit old articles of yours and defend them -- which you needn't really do, it's perfectly fine to say "sorry, the statute of limitations on arguing this article is over". That said, it does illustrate that people are reading your blog, and that counts for something, I suppose?

    My apologies as well for assuming you didn't know your Gruenwald. Your description of the Lemar Hoskins / Bucky affair sounded like you perhaps weren't "there", and didn't see how they'd published the letter where it was brought to their attention, and immediately fixed the problem as transparently as possible. So I inferred that you were perhaps going off a summary you read somewhere that left out some details (also, John Walker's being forced to shed his patriotic goonishness in order to be a Cap worth the name).

    I will agree that Cap has been portrayed pretty reprehensibly lately, and I like to hope Marvel will snap out of it. I will fully agree with you that Cap SHOULDN'T be the embodiment of American reactionary exceptionalism. As you say, it's a shame that movie-Cap isn't shown enough in comics.

    But with the portrayal of the government during the Gruenwald run ... Steve Rogers' attitude was that he still needs to be respectful of the government, he is obligated not to shame them, and as much as possible he needs to operate within the law. And indeed, once the one corrupt official was gone, the government started behaving sensibly again. Contrast with Tony Stark going through his "Iron Wars" at the same time, attacking government employees who may or may not have been wearing armor built with Stark intellectual property ... Steve came down hard on Tony for that. (Same issue where Lemar became Battlestar, I think.)

    So I guess I'm reading the Gruenwald run differently from you -- yes the government is sometimes a foil, but not one you take arms against, ever. Civil disobedience is occasionally called for, but government is never to be viewed as an enemy; if you have grievances, try to work through the system. And if you've taken it to the highest office of the land and still you discover the president is a lizard man, rassle with him until his metabolism shakes off Madame Hydra's formula.

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    1. Hello There:- No, I don't mind at all! How could I mind? It's just .... disappointing to see points that I could have made so much clearer. Your example of the Gruenwald run is a prime example of that. I tried to use it in one way, as an example of a tendency which, with time, would become ever less subtle and thoughtful. I should've done it better, I really should have. Mea culpa. The slide from "Cap as a servant of the state" to "Cap as an opponent of all but the reactionary state" is a complicated business, and I regret suggesting that MG was in any way other than liberal. Could I reach myself 4 years ago, I'd get him adding several more qualifying sentences before this reached print.

      And as you imply, John Walker's belligerent patriotism began as a respectful and yet undoubtedly obvious critique of reactionary politics. Later writers would, of course, attempt to return him to that far-right state, an attempt which I wish had been with more skill and conviction. Why can't the Tea Party have its own representatives in the MU, or, at least, its own openly far-right representatives?

      But I stand my ground that the years have seen the state being progressively treated with less sympathy and respect, and that aspects of the Gruenwald run helps to show how that tendency develops. I also wrote in the above that Cap was an opponent of some of the Avengers decision to murder the Supreme Intelligence during the same period. The intention was not to label one run as reactionary, given that noted that liberal POV, but to note how some tropes began to predominate over time. With that came a very different way of using them.

      I'm not sure that we're reading the Gruenwald run differently at all. The truth is, the above just wasn't concerned with that period in anything other than the sense I mentioned. I had almost 50 years of Cap history to deal with and I didn't want to focus on each era in the book's history. I wanted to focus on the idea of the government and the state as the enemy, either because of weakness, ineptitude or good old fashion evil. As I say in the above;

      "Now, it's not as if a graph can be drawn that shows a steady upward line describing, for example, the degree of Government "evil" in stories involving Cap. There are creators who are more or less willing and able to portray the possibility of Governmental virtue as well as vice, and there are comic books which explicitly challenge Captain America's implicit virtue at times too. (*4) To track the too's and fro's of the above influences would be too much for this piece, and I don't have the resources to exhaustively do so anyway. But I offer this analysis up for what it's worth, as perhaps a starting point for some more profound thinking. I think that the above developments are innocent in themselves, and yet pernicious in combination and developing intensity over time."

      Actually, reading that once again, I feel comfortable that it explains my intention back in the day. The jump from Englehart's to Hickman's Cap is a huge one, and the road from the first to the second is complex and often contradictory. I was laying out a schema, not detailing it in a way that stood for every regime on the book over time.

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      Which is not to say that your points are in any way invalid. But as I hope the quote above helps to begin to show, you and I aren't at loggerheads so much as fighting different battles. That doesn't mean that I couldn't have done my work in a better way. Sadly, I could have. But this was a tracking of plot elements over time and not an argument that was ever intended to stand for every run within that period. Luckily I said so in the piece, so I feel somewhat happier than I might otherwise do.

      I greatly admire Mark Gruenwald. I followed his career from Omniverse to Cap at the time, and found myself deeply troubled by the account of his later years at Marvel in Sean Howe's recent book on the company. I wouldn't want to insult him or his work, though I may feel less charitable and respectful about some of those who took his work and used it in ways that I very much doubt he'd countenance.

      Perhaps one day I'll have the time to express my respect for MG on this blog. I'm lucky to have commissions to fulfill for elsewhere, but if I have the moments to make my respect as obvious as I'd like to, I will most certainly do so.

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