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Becoming Captain America

May 21, 2011

Superhero film adaptations tend to hide the most interesting and socially relevant aspects of the mainstream comic genre. It’s not how the story reads at any given time, it’s how it got that way. Because the super-hero staples span decades, generations of continuity problems tend to make comic book narratives long, brilliantly nonsensical mash-ups. The ancestral text thus created provides ferment for comic writers and artists in the short-term. Every writer has decades of colorful history to resurrect, destroy, re-create and re-invent. In the long term, however, narrative headaches abound. DC comics has had to destroy and re-create its universe no less than three times to explain an eternally youthful [and even younger] Superman, and has now made the act a yearly occurrence. Likewise, Marvel comics has had to create its own patchwork solutions to maintain the narrative integrity of its super-heroes. Ironically, this leads to even more continuity upgrades, more monkeying around with timelines and origins, more ret-conning fixes.

The chore of dealing with the accumulated narrative clutter, create a never-ending discourse and dialectic on the ideological hegemony of the past and future, though rarely an intentional one. Alan Moore gets almost exclusive credit for creatively utilizing the narrative treasure chest in his style of comic book dissertation. His reinterpretation of Supreme in the nineties reads less like an attempt to revitalize a boring and derivative Superman clone for a wanna-be comic book company usurper, than a rumination on the mythos, ethos and generational zeitgeist that the character left to the memory hole through the decades.

But Moore was not the first. In the early seventies, Steve Englehart, the writer of Captain America and a recent military conscientious objector, took advantage of similar narrative detritus to examine his own moment in history, and the American narrative that had preceded it, through the logic of comic book continuity. With the recent death and re-birth of Captain America in the war-mongering double otts and with a film adaptation on the way, it may be instructive to examine Englehart’s narrative pitting the forgotten Captain America of the fifties, with the ever-more anti-establishment Captain America of the seventies.

McCarthyite Commie Smasher Cap

From 1946 to 1953, Captain America disappeared. The character’s utility as a cartoon chaperone and guardian angel to youthful American troops in Europe and Japan began to fade with the end of World War II and the comic was cancelled soon after. But in 1953, the character achieved a sort of rebirth; first as an ongoing companion in Young Men Comics, and then in his own book in 1954, where he was nicknamed the “Commie Smasher”. Its comes as little surprise that the writers of Captain America at that time would seek to emulate Joseph McCarthy, who, though reviled by many Americans, had a fifty percent national approval rating according to polls from the period. The Captain America of 1954 battled American communist sympathizers more often than not. His signature villain, the Red Skull, was re-invented as an American communist, rather than a German Nazi. The last cover of the run, in fact, depicts a triumphant Captain America and Bucky, standing over brutalized bodies dragged out of what appears to be an American factory—obvious commie infiltrators caught sabotaging American industry.

Captain America’s second life was unfortunately star-crossed, coinciding with McArthyism’s public flogging in the Army McCarthy hearings that Spring. Though there may have been no direct link, it seems likely that the fall of McCarthyism in the Spring brought about the end of Commie Smasher Cap in September, just three issues into his new run.

The Captain America character was revived, quite literally, in 1963. The commie-smasher days expunged from his history, this new Captain America had fallen into an icy patch of the Atlantic Ocean in the last days of WW II and was flash-frozen and thus preserved as a pristine champion of World War Two era values. The red-hunting paranoid of the fifties fell into the memory hole, and was written out of the continuity. The Captain America of the sixties enjoyed renewed vigor and became one of the leading characters in the company’s line super-heroes—and even the leader of the company’s super-team, The Avengers.

But by the seventies, Captain America faced yet another crisis. The civil rights movement, the black power movement, feminism, the unpopular Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, had begun to re-define concepts of liberty and of American-ness. Flagging sales of the comic mirrored Captain America’s own growing identity crisis, and by the early seventies, the comic book faced cancellation once more. As Steve Englehart, who assumed the comic’s writing duties at the time, notes, the comic “had no reason for existence…here was a guy with a flag on his chest who was supposed to represent what most people distrusted.”Unless Captain America could successfully face the enigma of his own inextricably America linked symbology in 1974—and, more to the point, what it meant to be the country’s zeitgeist—he faced the same oblivion that had claimed his predecessors.

The Falcon, Marvel's First African American Super Hero

Englehart devised an elegant, if somewhat antagonistic, solution. He brought Captain America face to face with these existential questions—quite literally—in issues 153 to 156, with the sudden re-appearance of the Commie Smasher Captain America.

At the beginning of issue 153, Captain America departs New York for a much needed vacation in the Bahamas, leaving the city in the hands of his unofficial partner, the African-American Harlem native, The Falcon. But a Captain America imposter suddenly appears to terrorize Harlem, “roughing up coloreds” to get Captain America’s attention. It is later revealed, after a period of suspense native to the genre, that this is the Captain America of 1954, “ret-conned” as a distinct individual. Such “retroactive continuity” engineering has gained popularity and utility with comic book writers as comic book universes become messier over time. But few, if any, characters have confronted the ghosts of their continuity in such a literal way—fighting an earlier version of themselves, a product of the disturbing xenophobia, bigotry and paranoia of an unapologetically flawed American period.

Englehart creates a neat battleground in which to pit the two comic book standards. On a primary level, it is almost exactly two decades later—the Captain America of 1954 versus the Captain America of 1974. The characters are physically identical: through the magic of comic books, commie-smasher Captain America discovered a method to duplicate Captain America’s super-soldier formula in the fifties, and has had “plastic surgery” to give himself the face of Steve Rogers [and even, somehow, his voice]. Commie Smasher Cap’s real name is never revealed, but he has it legally changed to that of his hero, Rogers. Commie Smasher Cap reaches the modern period with his youth and vigor intact through the same trope of suspended animation that brought the current Captain America into the modern period.

In some sense, then, the battle between Commie Smasher Cap and Seventies Cap seems less about a claim on the costume and insignia, than a struggle for narrative hegemony. At stake, a vital link to the World War II narrative—the “good” American period where, as Seventies Cap states, America’s enemies were foreign, and it was a clearly noble cause to fight them. Who will be the inheritor of 1940’s American virtue, the champion of the “greatest generation” at this pivotal moment in American history?

Seventies Cap, like his commie-obsessed doppleganger, also acknowledges that his enemies are now domestic. Of course, as always,  super-heroes must fight some generic “organized crime”, and Seventies Cap is no exception. But unlike many heroes of that time and since,  Seventies Cap is far more interested in facing unpleasant undercurrents in American society—what he observes as a revival of fascism and American “injustice”, an obvious, if  thinly-veiled, critique of economic and race inequalities. Seventies Cap, then, represents the progressive American narrative, linking and deleting historical periods, jettisoning the American history of bigotry in favor of the nation’s progressive and civil rights movements. World War II,  becomes a fight against race-based oppression, which sneaks past the fifties and straight into the civil rights era and the expanding race, class and gender consciousness of the seventies.

Commie Smasher Cap is the stark opposite of Seventies Captain America, representing the fading hegemonyof white male America against the forces of Un-American ideas disseminated by scandalous women, subversive leftists, and traitorous people of color. The commie smasher clings to the narrative of American exceptionalism, where morals are simply as they are, made by the most powerful for their own benefit. This is recast in the Pat Buchanan inspired rhetoric of white male grievance of the seventies.

Central to this struggle for hegemonic control of the American narrative are the cast of supporting characters. On the Seventies side—a racially and gender diverse group, at home in the big city. Seventies Cap’s love interest, Sharon Carter, is an establishment drop-out, having recently rejected her role as a government agent. The Falcon, a Harlem resident, represents a liminal African American super hero, trying to wed his role as Captain America’s new partner with the restive militancy of his Harlem community. In fact, the appearance of Commie Smasher Cap, who lures the Falcon into a trap by “roughing up some coloreds”, ignites new tensions in the community. As Falcon notes, Commie Smasher’s naked bigotry has driven his own love interest into the arms of “the militants”.

On the commie-busting side, “Bucky”, Commie Smasher Cap’s sidekick, is a foul-mouthed bigot—a misogynistic hypocrite with an authoritarian streak. He serves as a sadistic attack dog, hungrily doing the violent bidding of his superior. He is the white supremacist everyman; a colorfully-costumed “Bull” Connor, the white police chief who beat, hosed and used attack dogs on civil rights activists during the iconic Selma demonstrations.  Faced with the opportunity to beat Carter and the Falcon, Bucky nearly salivates at the opportunity to “pound on a colored creep and a tomato at the same time.”

There are two symbolic replays of iconic civil rights organizing and clashes involving Bucky in the story. In one, an overpowered Falcon is saved by a group of his neighbors, who recruit, organize and then attack the superhumanly powerful Bucky, despite the odds against them and Bucky’s official status as a white super-hero. Later, when Seventies Cap wants to face off with Commie Smasher and Bucky alone, he is reminded of the virtues of solidarity by Carter and the Falcon. The multi-racial and gender-diverse group echo the solidarity of the Freedom Riders as a paradigm of diversity and coordinated action to oppose a racist infrastructure. The trope of the individualist white male hero is challenged by an African American man and a white woman. Similarly, the Falcon and Carter finally defeat Bucky’s superhuman strength by organizing their efforts. As Carter notes, “we’ve got teamwork and you’ve only got hate.”

The two Captain Americas are also depicted at cultural odds, despite their physical similarity. Seventies Cap is urban and working class; he seems increasingly alienated from the standards and mores of the American super hero. Entering his seedy single room occupancy hotel in full costume, at the beginning of the story arc, he wearily questions the traditional super hero protocol of secret identities. On vacation, Cap, in his civilian identity of Steve Rogers, allows Sharon to defend herself at first from an assailant, rather than stepping in to protect her. He also lets her cover the cost of the vacation. Most interestingly, Seventies Captain America is uncomfortable with his role as a symbol of America. While pursuing Commie Smasher Cap, his thought-balloons are packed with self-doubt and recriminations—

–he is what he is because he admired me—wanted to copy me

–I’m responsible for all the evil he’s done.”

–he [Commie Smasher] could have been me”.

So disturbed is Seventies Captain America by the experience that he walks away, downcast, “to be alone” and ponder his role in the world in the last panel of the story.

By contrast, Commie Smasher Cap was affluent before assuming the mantle of Captain America in the fifties. He has none of his twin’s confidence in his masculinity, but is instead a running sore of wounded masculinity. At one point, he runs back into a losing battle simply to respond to a cat-call of ‘coward’; in the penultimate battle, Commie Smasher screams at Seventies cap that he is a “real man”.

Englehart’s portrait of Commie Smasher Cap is merciless—perhaps because of the writer’s own recent experiences of being discharged from the military as a “conscientious objector”. Commie Smasher Cap is not merely some misguided, but ultimately, patriotic and well-intentioned American [as the character is later portrayed in subsequent revivals]. Englehart specifically links Commie Smasher Cap’s anti-communist paranoia to hateful bigotry and chauvinism, not attachment to ideology—a point which is emphasized consistently throughout the three issue arc.

In his flashback origin story, where its revealed that the effects of an imperfect super-soldier serum may have driven Commie Smasher over the edge, the decline of his mental faculties is represented in one succinct panel: Commie Smasher looms over a cowering African American, saying, “we began finding reds where others saw nothing, like in Harlem and Watts. In fact, we found that most people who weren’t pure-blooded Americans were commies”. To Englehart, the fifties seem less about fear of communism, than fear of the “other”—of women, of African Americans, of diversity, non-conformity and of the subversion of hegemonic control. His Seventies-era Captain America, and his allies, are the champion of those people and ideas.

Englehart’s disdain for Commie Smasher Cap is explored through the symbols of the character’s iconic costume and shield throughout the story and in its climax. Seventies Captain America’s shield [emblazoned with a stars and stripes] is made of an indestructible material, Commie Smasher goes through one disposable shield after another, as they visibly crumple after only a few uses. Moreover, his costume is imperfect, lacking the stripes on his back, like Seventies Captain America; Commie Smasher’s back is, appropriately, emblazoned with a lone star. The costume itself becomes the symbol of his counterfeit status as American symbol in the final fight with Seventies Captain America as it begins to rend and shred, finally leaving him looking like a crazed mendicant. Though he is far stronger than Seventies Captain America, his moral weakness and hatred eventually prove his undoing; Seventies Captain America defeats him with one blow.

Englehart’s message is clear; the fifties were an inauthentic aberration to be excised from the American progressive narrative. In Englehart’s comic book Seventies, one of the most American things one can do is to cast off stale notions of patriotism and to question the idea of “America”. Indeed, Seventies Cap has only begun to fight; in a later issue, he discovers a Watergate like scandal which leads to the White House and the suicide of a disgraced President. Throwing away his costume, Steve Rogers leaves crime-fighting to the Falcon while he searches for the real person beneath the shield and the true meaning of a Captain America. The often-confused, introspective and rapidly-changing Captain America—who eventually shuns even the name and costume—becomes the true heir to the American narrative.

PTSD Cyborg Assault-Weapon-Toting Bucky

Interestingly, the film adaptation of Captain America will focus on the World War 2 years only, eschewing Cap’s most recent near half-century of history. It’s not surprising that again, writers seek the “good war”, even more so in a time of ambivalence to the American fighting spirit and sagging interest in the idea, if not character, of Captain America. When the current source material is considered, the break in the linkage is understandable. Captain America’s death actually made news in real world newspapers in 2007, at the height of American dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and Occupation. At the same time, rather than contest the current American political narrative in favor of a progressive one, Marvel’s writers chose to mirror the ever-more occluded and repressive security state, reviving Bucky as a cyborg assassin with PTSD who takes up the mantle of his former mentor. When, as is the norm for comics, Captain America returns from the dead, he mirrors the seventies cap storyline, eschewing the stars and stripes and patriotism.

Unlike Seventies Cap, however, the Captain America of the new millennium opts for a role as the director of a clandestine intelligence agency, that would, if it existed in the real world, violate dozens of international and domestic laws—invading other countries on a regular basis and rendering super powered villains in an extra dimensional Guantanamo.

Cynical Neo-Con Captain America

The evolution of seventies cap, perhaps, embodied the ethical struggles and hopes of its writer–a conscientious objector, in tune with the grassroots social movements of his day. Today’s cap is aligned with a neo-con “realism” that most Americans accept out of apathy, ignorance and fear, or some combination of all three. Still looking back to World War 2, we’re unable, or perhaps unwilling, to link the narratives. There may be nothing to validate with the blessing of the “good war” in our current era of cynical power-brokering and militarism.

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