The Intellectual Rip-Off of Captain America’s The New Deal

There has been some discussion, as of late, of the politics of recent Captain America storylines. The last year has seen a relaunched Captain America series, as well as the mini-series Truth: Red, White, & Black, controversially showing the U.S. government use African-Americans as guinea pigs for the super-soldier serum that created Captain America. Such political discussion has been made in the shadow of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks upon the United States, as well as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter of which has produced worldwide discord and plunged U.S. approval ratings through the floor around the world, even in traditional U.S. allies.

Worth particular attention is Captain America’s The New Deal storyline, which launched the new series with great fanfare paid to John Cassaday’s beautiful art. Actually, the storyline was titled Enemy within the issues themselves (at least in the first three issues), though the collection of the first six issues received the title The New Deal. By comparison with Cassady’s artwork, John Ney Rieber’s script has gone all but ignored. The storyline is noteworthy, and garnered much attention, because it opened with a sequence featuring Captain America at Ground Zero — the World Trade Center immediately following the attacks.

Indeed, the story has two distinct parts: the first 24 pages of the first issue — and the rest. And the first 24 pages are stellar. Here we have the invocation of September 11 without ever showing the burning buildings themselves: the hijacked plane, the jutting rubble that has burned its silhouette into our consciousness, the smoke rising over the skyline, the bicycle abandoned in the road, and everything covered in ash gray, a scene of horror — I’m unable to read, or to see these images, without gasping anew, without my face involuntarily clenching, without crying. In the wake of the tragedy, Steve Rogers arrives and works in the rubble, traumatized with the rest of us. Nick Fury arrives, in a sequence setting up the rest of the storyline, and Rogers tells him off, refusing to leave Ground Zero. And then, the day later, Rogers stops some men on the street from stabbing an Arab, the sad and disgraceful historic undertone to the nation’s profound outpouring of sympathy, help, and rediscovered patriotism.

And then it all goes to hell, however beautifully rendered. We might expect, in a story about Captain America that responds to 9/11, that Captain America parachutes into Afghanistan, sees the people eating grass, helps the U.S. effort but also helps Afghans when strafed by a U.S. helicopter, and sees the famous ancient Buddhist statues that the Taliban destroyed — a loss to world culture, all of it echoing the horrors of 9/11 and showing a renewed sympathy with suffering people across the globe. This, is seems to be, would have been a beautiful, touching, and fair story — one that adequately responds to the new world created on 9/11, one of both American national pride and sympathy for others the world over, recognizing that we have made — and continue to make — mistakes.

No, in the last 12 pages of the first issue, we get a terrorist attack on Centerville, a rural little American town — precisely not the kind of place targeted by foreign terrorists. This is uncomfortably not New York City, the Pentagon, or the fields in Pennsylvania. No, this is Republican country, the rural swath of the nation colored in red on the county-by-county map of the 2000 elections. The second issue has Captain America fighting to free Centreville. A nice sequence juxtaposes black-and-white shots of Captain America amidst the devastation of World War II in Europe with color shots of this devastated rural American town. The point — that war has come home, that 9/11 happened on U.S. soil to civilians — is well-made, but the story itself has little to offer: as a commentary on terrorism in the present climate, it is distinctly out of place.

From this point on, three tendencies begin to dovetail: patriotism, anti-Arab sentiment, and anti-American sentiment. The patriotic element is visible from the start. The covers to the issues have successfully been designed to be stylistically reminiscent of nothing so much as state-issued World War II propaganda posters. In the third issue, Captain America’s saving of another terrorist from a suicide bomber’s blast inspires an end to the fighting, as if this simple act of courage could change a fanatic’s politics so easily. Still, it is a nice vision, however utopian — one of America the kind and generous, lessening anti-American sentiment through discernable care for others. There is truth to this, but its effect on a supposedly hardened terrorist whose colleague has just become a martyr smacks of super-patriotism.

We may be tempted to see the downside of patriotism as well; indeed, we may be tempted to see some considerable anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment in these pages. In the second issue, we see the doubtlessly Muslim terrorists (although their religion is hardly emphasized) lacing bombs on tripwires in a Christian church. The third issue has the terrorists themselves saying “I am hate” — a personification one would hardly expect someone to so freely make. The same issue has Captain America fighting with terrorists dressed in familiar Arab garb — although they are in the American Mid-West, not the desert environment in which such garb was developed. Also in the third issue, we get the previously mentioned suicide bomber, inhumanly certain of his actions in stereotypical fashion — but also a suicide bomber only because he is apparently too stupid to throw the grenades strapped to his chest, rather than simply let them explode when he pulls the pin.

Almost no sooner than we find anti-Arab sentiment, however, we find anti-American sentiment, foreshadowed in the more historically accurate depiction (in the first issue) of an attack upon an Arab in the streets of New York City. In the third issue, Captain America asserts that America doesn’t “make war – / on children” (page 3), only to be rebutted by the fact of landmines. In a nice super-hero touch reminiscent of James Bond villains and the like, the group of terrorists being immediately confronted has false limbs, themselves implicitly victims of landmines. While no American connection is yet asserted, one is strongly implied. Also in the third issue, the hostages in the church react to the terrorists having earlier said that Centerville’s industry is dominated by bomb manufacturing. While the depiction of Centerville is elsewhere idyllic, here a classically unattractive depiction of a Mid-Western family, sitting in a pew, finds the semi-obese wife confront her husband: “This is how you feed our baby?” (page 10). Somehow, everyone in the town but the employees don’t know what the local industry is — but is horrified to find out. And then (on page 15), we’re treated to Captain America’s internal narration, wondering if America is somehow responsible for the terrorists, juxtaposed to a terrorist leader saying that “when innocent Americans die – it’s an atrocity. / But when we die — / We are ‘collateral damage.’” The terrorist here has a point, but his own actions obviously perpetuate such universal humanitarian horrors.

Issue three, which concludes Captain America’s fight for Centerville, introduces a problematic plot thread that runs throughout the storyline and that directly ties to the anti-American sentiments of that storyline. On the corpse of a terrorist, Captain America finds one of the CATtags — an advanced version of dogtags that signal when the wearer dies — that Nick Fury offered him in the first issue, suggesting some insidious connection. After killing the terrorists leader, whose CATtag signals his death, Captain America ends the third issue by speaking to the camera, taking off his mask and revealing his identity during a live broadcast — ostensibly to avoid violent revenge against America for his actions. The fourth issue begins with Captain America confronting Nick Fury over the CATtags.

Not only, it seems, has this American technology landed in the hands of terrorists through some covert scheme, but Captain America points out how suspicious is “a hostile aircraft … / … [over] a small town three hundred milesinside American airspace” (page 9). This helps to explain how the terrorists could have gotten to the Mid-West while wearing stereotypically Arab desert garb, but it offers the most damning anti-American element of the storyline, relying upon conspiratorial thinking that renders possible to believe that the United States would allow the killing of a town of its own citizens — yet send Captain America to liberate them. This makes little sense, but it should remind us of the conspiracy theories that began to circulate about 9/11 as early as that infamous day itself. Obviously, there exists no grounds for believing that Jews orchestrated the hijacking — a curious anti-Semitic fantasy for anti-Americans to hold, since it also removes credit for the attacks from the Arabs who perpetrated them and removes any emphasis that might be placed upon U.S. foreign policy for inspiring the attacks. On the other hand, important questions remain about why the hijacked planes weren’t intercepted by U.S. fighter jets when air traffic controllers knew the planes to be hijacked and when such interceptions of foreign planes have occurred within shorter spans of time. Yet not intercepting a hijacked domestic flight — or not having better airline security — is quite different from allowing an unauthorized foreign flight to fly into U.S. airspace and drop bombs.

Curiously, this problematic point made by Captain America is dropped entirely. This is indeed curious because, while conspiratorial, the point comes directly from the narrative’s own suspicious events. What we get instead is Nick Fury sympathetically responding — against his superiors’ wishes — by giving Captain America a lead on the CATtags that will take him to Dresden. What we get instead is another action sequence: while waiting to fly to Dresden after talking with Nick Fury in the fourth issue, Captain America witnesses Fourth of July (2002) celebrations by the Potomac, then is inexplicably attacked again by terrorists, who seem to have free reign to operate in the U.S. The fifth issue begins with Captain America pulling himself from the Patomac — having fallen into it in the conclusion of the previous issue — and defeating the terrorists who attacked him. This time, the terrorists not only wear CATtags but seem to think the tags make they immortal. Talking with the last terrorist, Cap’s interlocutor dies suddenly, leading Captain America to question, as Nick Fury arrives, whether the tag killed him.

Another debate on U.S. foreign policy immediately follows. On the flight to Dresden the next day, Steve Rogers talks with a (presumably) German girl with a pierced eyebrow. As they spontaneously break out a chess set and begin to play, she charges America with ignoring their allies and any wars but their own, which seem arbitrary. Rogers responds by asserting the power of 9/11, important to note but hardly an argument. He continues, saying that he — and America — are fighting to prevent World War III and the millions of civilian casualties that come with such war. His argument is not great, but he ends it with a chess move: “Check. Mate in three” (page 19). In terms of the narrative’s rhetoric, he has won the debate. Here we have the anti-American element of the series expressed in more accurate fashion than the conspiratorial thinking of past issues, only to be trumped by the patriotism strain of the narrative, effectively ending communication. Yet Rogers’s point is humanitarian, and that is precisely the grounds upon which U.S. foreign policy may most effectively be attacked, and has previously been in the storyline through insinuation about landmines and through the terrorist rhetoric about non-American lives not mattering to the U.S. No real advance has been made in understanding, though the paradox of this in-flight “debate” will come to the fore in the next and final issue.

Before we get there, however, we are treated to an anti-American section that immediately follows the debate won by the narrative’s strain of patriotism. In Dresden, Rogers’s internal narration responds to the notorious Allied bombing of Dresden, killing an untold number of civilians in fire and terror: “You didn’t understand what we’d done here — / — Until September the eleventh” (page 20). This is, of course, pure bullshit. Steve Rogers was there. He, like many G.I.s during the war, saw the terrible price paid by civilians — both through the Axis governments and through inaccurate, if not indiscriminate, Allied bombing. People understood this in America, even if they forgot or their pampered children never learned. On the other hand, the Dresden bombing says more about the military technology and command of the time, in which neither side was humanitarian by our present definition, with the Allies ignoring the Holocaust they knew to be going on, but in which collateral damage from bombing cannot be morally equivocated with the genocide perpetrated by Germany, the torture used by both Germany and Japan, and the abuse and murder of prisoners of war by Japan. Moreover, the narrative provides no reason that the lead should take Rogers to Dresden, which seems chosen solely to artificially juxtapose Dresden to the World Trade Center. The facts, however, both implicate the U.S. in stronger terms than the sequence and exonerate America: the reality is far more subtle than the mask of ignorance would provide.

Unfortunately, at this point a bomb abruptly explodes without warning — ending the issue on a dramatic note even if it means truncating any discussion of war, 9/11, and terrorism for a rushed final page. The sixth — and final — issue of the storyline has Captain America recover from the rubble and fight the terrorist ringleader who reveals that he let the U.S. military get its hands on the CATtags so that they could be given to U.S. military personnel — who could then be killed en masse by remote control. How this could seemingly be done so easily, or how greedily the U.S. has began disseminating and presumably reproducing CATtags without understanding their ability to kill personnel, is never explained. Nonetheless, this revelation effectively removes the earlier conspiratorial implication that the U.S.’s CATtags somehow made their way into terrorist hands through some shady covert op — although the possibility remains that the earlier terrorists were unconnected with the later terrorists, and the U.S. somehow acted as conspiratorial intermediary, though this is never made clear.

The final battle between Captain America and the terrorist ringleader may be understood as a battle between the patriotic and anti-American strains within the narrative — a battle in which the physical victor need not be the intellectual one. Indeed, the terrorist ringleader reveals himself as the personification of America’s cavalier foreign policy: his father was shot dead while farming by American weapons, his mother interrogated and shot, and their family home burned, a fire that scarred his face. Challenging Captain America to guess where he’s from, Captain America can not — the point being that his father’s field could have been in any number of countries with U.S. weaponry donated to fight the Soviet Union, their crimes ignored by the U.S. government. This personal story has great resonance, in particular, with the history of Afghanistan, in which the U.S. was waging a war at the time and into which both the U.S. sent and the Soviet Union left weapons far exceeding the ability of the poor nation to produce or manage, given its tribal social structure. Captain America responds to this personal history, conceding the history of U.S. foreign policy but asserting that “My people never knew!” and that “We’ve learned from our mistakes” (pages 18-19); while the latter may be true, facilitated by military technology such as guided bombs and missiles that allow war to be pursued on terms far more humanitarian than carpet bombing, the former is decidedly untrue — the information on America’s foreign policy was part of my civics upbringing, at home and in school, although many Americans seem willingly ignorant or forgetful on such matters. In short, outside of the claim that the U.S. has learned its lesson through September 11, Captain America’s argument has little substance. Moreover, even the claim of having learned remains tentative, supported by many public statements but finding contradiction in a certain percentage of the U.S. population that yet unfortunately remains radically anti-humanitarian — a fact the story, and Captain America’s rhetoric, avoids addressing.

Having beaten the terrorist ringleader, Captain America treats us to a liberal platitude. He asserts that anyone who has suffered as his foe did wouldn’t cause such suffering in others — an assertion that is not only contrary to human experience and history but already disproved by the villain’s given (and unchallenged) origin. His point has become a liberal platitude, most often used in the argument that blacks, women, homosexuals, and any other invented “minority” political interest, all assumed to have intrinsically suffered severe discrimination no matter where or when they live, are intrinsically more humanitarian than others, particularly straight white males (who, of course, constitute a real minority, world-wide). This argument really has its basis in the attempt to cohere activist concerns, particularly the Democratic party in the United States, by drawing blunt comparisons between discriminated groups — or groups with ancestors who suffered discrimination, if not violence — and thus uniting diverse and unconnected, if not often conflicting, groups of constituents into a single unified and loyal constituency. Obviously, history is filled with people who have suffered injustice perpetrating injustice upon others, including abundant innocents who happen to share a religion or ethnicity or tribe with those who perpetrated injustice upon them, or who are felt to have the same mentality. This, indeed, is part of the true heritage of injustice and an essential part of dealing with that heritage — yet, of course, is avoided here. Thus, the story concludes with a comforting liberal platitude, dramatizing in Captain America’s victory the victory of reconstructed patriotism over anti-Americanism but rhetorically staging the impotence of U.S. patriotism, even in reconstructed form, against anti-U.S. charges.

The New Deal is a confused narrative. It juxtaposes Arab stereotypes not with their more conventional partner, a sort of dumb patriotism, but with anti-American sentiment lended legitimacy by the narrative. Patriotism finds its place here, but never in this reconstructed patriotism is problematic U.S. history juxtaposed to the far worse history of other powerful states in history, or of the states we were fighting that provided a context for U.S. errors and crimes. While the U.S. gave arms with “people’s revolutions” and foreign “minorities” that killed civilians, the Soviets had an even worse history, as did Germany and Japan during World War II. Moreover, the history of such “people’s revolutions” dispels the utopian rhetoric that Captain America employs. America gets short shrift here, but far worse is the treatment of the facts in a mature and subtle manner.

Perhaps it is not fair to expect the storyline to intelligently negotiate the post-9/11 intellectual and emotional landscape, but this is precisely how the book billed itself. It is clear that the storyline was, to some extent, designed to occupy a middle ground, and perhaps it is a good sign that it has alienated, though not in equal amounts, both super-patriots and those eager to simply blame America. Max Allan Collins, in his introduction to the collection, articulates this philosophy of finding the middle road:

What is even more remarkable is this story’s courage and ability to examine the complexities of the issues that accompany terrorism … specifically, not to duck the things America has done to feed the hatred that led to the attacks. That is not to say Rieber offers justification for terrorism. Rather, he insists that we examine the root causes in a more complicated, grown-up manner than one might expect from a super-hero comic book.

Rieber does not justify terrorism, making it clear that the solution to violence against innocents is not further violence against innocents. But he does place a lot of blame, at times reaching conspiratorial levels, on U.S. policies, on the one hand never articulating those policies outside of generalities and on the other never giving voice to those who would provide context to the particulars. At worst, this aids a sort of factually-impaired conspiratorial thinking, the kind of thinking that could easily envision the U.S. allowing its own town to be bombed while its government, post-Cold War, conspired with terrorists and perhaps gave them cutting-edge military technology.

With all due respect to Max Allan Collins, not to mention the lavishly beautiful art of John Cassaday and the consistently above-average writing of John Ney Rieber, it is exactly “the complexities” that are missing here. While The New Deal is indeed a far cry from the patriotic propaganda of 1940s comics or the dazzling stupidity of 1960s comics, it does not go much deeper than the social relevancy of the 1970s and does not attain the subtlety seen in many of the E.C. Comics of the 1950s, in which the killing of civilians during war might be depicted with brutal effect without relying upon phony arguments and conspiratorial thinking. There are those of us who expect a lot more from maturely crafted comic books (if not those labeled “intended for mature readers”), even those that do involve super-heroes.

What The New Deal really represents, and why — besides Cassaday’s art — it deserves to remain noteworthy in the future, is the American reaction to 9/11 in which we have been traumatized by the attacks and cannot justify terrorism, but in which we have renewed sympathy for innocents suffering everywhere, including in Iraq, where as I write we are waging a war sold as a liberation of a tyrannized people (while Marvel Comics effectively protests with the pro-peace anthology, 411). Among the would-be intelligencia, there have also been repeated calls to reexamine America’s own history of injustices, and the popular discourse has been no more or less informed or subtle than its reference points in Reiber’s narrative. What Reiber has really done is reflect, with a conscience, the popular discourse, to encapsulate in an admittedly confused narrative the conflicting responses of a nation at once drawn to anti-Arab sentiment and to renewed humanitarianism, to patriotism and to a reexamination, however lacking in subtlety, of the history U.S. foreign policy.

The New Deal deserves a score of footnotes in books referring to the American reaction to 9/11 — and a museum gallery wallpapered in John Cassaday’s artwork.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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