Reflections on Captain America

Reading Truth: Red, White and Black and Winter in America

Over a year into our colloquium and we finally dip our toes into the world of superhero comics. Captain America is one of the classic figures in American comics, first appearing in March 1941 (cover-date; first sold in December 1940) punching Hitler on the jaw, briefly resurrecting in 1950s in an ill-conceived anti-Communist title, and then being re-introduced in main Marvel continuity in 1963 by Stan Lee. In the nearly six decades since, Cap has consistently reckoned with America’s own problematic legacy on the national and world stage while forever remaining the “Man Out of Time.” The titles we read for our meeting,  Truth: Red, White and Black (Robert Morales, 2003) and Winter in America (Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2018) both engage with Cap’s legacy in the twenty-first century.

Captain America Punches Hitler: "Smashing thru, CAPTAIN AMERICA came face to face with Hitler..."
Captain America’s 1941 debut, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Truth was written after the declassification of records regarding the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in the 1930s-1970s, exposing American scientists’ immoral co-option of Black men as live experiments. In the book, explicit parallels are laid between America’s supersoldier program (from which Steve Rogers benefits) and Nazi experiments on Holocaust victims, as the Americans experiment on Black soldiers to refine serum. The story goes back and forth between the horrific experiments of the 1930s and 1940s, from which emerges Isaiah Bradley the “Black Captain America” as the sole survivor, and Steve Rogers’s discovery of Bradley’s history and attempts to locate him. The story renders Rogers as unknowing beneficiary of white privilege, separate from and “innocent” of the events that have given him his power while also still punching modern neo-Nazis. The conclusion has Rogers meet Bradley, now elderly and mute, and marvel at the wall of photos of Bradley with a host of Black and African cultural figures, including Mohammed Ali and Nelson Mandela among many others, thus iterating the “hidden history” of Black culture. At the same time, the art throughout the story is often exaggerated, reinforcing the ugliness of American history as well as the ugliness of trying to grapple with it. First written as a standalone series that is later incorporated into main continuity (Bradley’s story was used to catapult his grandson, Eli, as Patriot in the Young Avengers), the book is currently, and shockingly, out of print and only widely available in digital editions.

Isaiah Bradley fights enemy soldiers. 
*Isaiah, do not stop for anyone*
Isaiah says, "Ladies, run! Run and hide wherever you can!"
Panel from Truth: Red, White, and Black, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker

Winter in America likewise tries to grapple with America’s current cultural crises of race and extremist nationalism, as well as a revanchist Russia. Coates picks up from Rick Remender’s “Secret Empire” and “Hail HYDRA” storylines that centered HYDRA as a deep state entity, similarly to the way it was portrayed in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and with Cap seeming to be a secret HYDRA agent (that story was so controversial that Marvel had to release press statements addressing and contextualizing it, which went about as well as such statements ever do). Coates, coming fresh off his Black Panther run, shows Cap struggling with how to clear his name from the Supreme Hydra Commander as well as the national and  geopolitical turns of white militarism. As is currently common in publishing practice, the omnibus collects the first six month arc of the book and concludes with a cliffhanger, enjoining the reader/collector to continue. The story is also very much in medias res which led to a complicated experience for colloquium members not steeped in either current or historical Marvel stories: characters are introduced, whisked away, have brief cameos, or shocking reveals with little cohesion for the novice reader.

Captain America looks down on a clash between pro- and anti-HYDRA protestors.
"So much has changed."
Captain America: Winter in America, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Sunny Gho

Colloquium meeting discussion thus circled around the gap between the experienced superhero readers steeped in Cap’s history and those less familiar with both the character and the genre. Indeed, some readers were surprised by how up-to-date and culturally engaged both books were even given their disparate publishing dates (of 2003 and 2018 respectively). In a summer of protest and high anxiety amid cultural reckoning, the use of Captain America as a figure who is deeply ambivalent about his own role in American history is deeply relevant. At the same time, Captain America as a title that has been consistently produced since 1963—alongside the numerous one-offs and reboots that are just Marvel imperatives at this point—creates a telescoping character that is not easy to comprehend or even render consistently. (And a sideline of conversation regarded how the multitudinous authors and takes on the character over the years made for a messy experience of consumption for both fans and new readers.)

We likewise briefly touched on the trevails of superhero publishing generally, which has historically relied on serial issue delivery to brick-and-mortar stores that has proved not only disruptive in the age of Covid but bankruptive: The comics publishing history has been hit incredibly hard and it is genuinely unclear whether or how it can recover. But this has likewise shown the structural failures of a model that relies on an initial model of 22 page issues published monthly, then reprinted as bound paperback collections, then (sometimes) reprinted again in “complete” omnibus editions that actually provide a reading experience with a beginning, middle, and end. This in tandem with the Marvel live-action productions (and the sad passing of Chadwick Boseman) that pick and choose what elements to highlight or discard demonstrates yet more of the issues that stem from making a coherent story and character accessible to broader audiences as well as long term textual stability.

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