Capital Thoughts:

A Column on Captain America

Dear Readers, I’ve been collecting and thinking about Captain America for the better part of 40 years and am delighted to offer this monthly column on his ongoing adventures. For my first piece, I’ll be discussing Captain America #9 (Sept 2013), by Remender / Romita / Janson / White.

The latest issue has Cap trapped in an alternative dimension, Dimension Z—“Z” standing for “Zola,” aka, the Bio-Fanatic,  a guy with a TV-screen face, conveniently mounted on his chest. Zola’s physiology echoes that of Othello’s enemies, the Anthropophagi, cannibals “whose heads. /Do grow beneath their shoulders.”  Sure enough, Zola is here reconceived as a dog-eat-dog capitalist, and his demagoguery has all the tin-eared fascism of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). But we are not quite set in a pre-Hitler brand of fascism, as genetic purity remains very much on the cutting table.  Zola uses the locals for genetic experimentation and, of course, is tinkering with Cap’s super-soldier-spiked bodily fluid to create a headless army.  To keep them loyal, Zola’s own DNA is injected into all coding.  In essence, he will become God because he will have created every being and be within every being.  As Zola says, he just wants to give his children the world, and if our world is already taken, well, the weak must make way for the strong.

One can already hear Cap’s red-booted rejoinder, “Not if I can help it, Zola!”

But Cap’s role in this is far more personal than the usual “save-the-world-from-alien-invasion” shtick.  For one, having been stuck in Dimension Z for over a decade, Cap uses the downtime to do some much-needed psychoanalysis.  We learn, for example, that what really drives Cap is not his love of country or freedom or any jingoist claptrap.  Rather, it is his father, a man dragged down into drink by the hopelessness of the Great Depression:

“He was drinking, escaping what he saw as a hopeless situation the only way he could.  Over time he just… disappeared.” (Captain America #7)

So Steve always stands up for the weak because as a child he watched and was unable to save his father, a fall-down drunk. Steve’s father becomes our hero’s new core, the engine that keeps him going.  It’s Bucky Barnes in another key, feeling helpless while someone you love slips away.

I relate this to Bucky because, as I argued in Caped Crusaders 101, from his reawakening in The Avengers #4 (1964; Kirby/ Lee) Steve Rogers has been the moral center of the Marvel Universe, and, at the center of his psyche, is death, particularly the death of his old sidekick Bucky Barnes.  Yet, in Ed Brubaker’s recent run, Bucky didn’t die at all; in fact, he becomes, for a time, the new Cap.  So what has been the foundation to Cap’s character in over forty years of backstory, is premised on a mistake.

Bucky has since “died” in a SHEILD cover-ops, but it’s all good, since Steve knows that his former sidekick is actually very much alive.

So the question then becomes, what is now at the core of Steve Rogers, aside from boilerplate “American Values”?

That’s where the new story ultimately takes us, and it’s an interesting place.  It seems that Zola has had two children— no motherboards were involved—Leopold and Jet Black.  Cap steals the boy away and a raises him as his own.  Along the way, he teaches the boy to protect the weak and all the other virtues endemic to decency and heroism.  Yawn. But here is the interesting part: Steve begins to understand his own father and falls into some of his failings.  No, Steve does not take to the bottle; rather, just as his father selfishly put his own needs before those of his family, Cap begins to put his family before that of his country.  His reasoning is both perspicacious and purblind:

“I spent my life running so hard away from his shadow, trying to be strong in every way he was weak… I did disappear.  Became a slave to an ideal.  Disappeared into duty. And instead of abusing those I loved… I was entirely unavailable to them.”

So Leopold, renamed as “Ian,” is Cap’s chance to heal himself.  In raising Ian, Steve becomes the father he never had.  But is Steve being available to Ian or using Ian to be available to himself?

It is tempting to read Ian as a reflection of Cap’s psyche (Ian/I am).  Certainly that reading is more tempting than the traditional etymology: “Ian“, “Iain” (Scottish Gaelic pronunciation) is a name of Gaelic origin, corresponding to English John).

But whatever the ultimate origins, Ian turns out to be bad news. Zola reprograms him faster than you can spell iPod.

Ian is later killed by Sharon Carter, and Steve, an emotional heap, can’t go on. Sharon is shocked:

“What the hell is this?  Are you letting Armin Zola reduce you to this?!  I’m not leaving here!  Stand up!”

“Stand up!” recalls Steve’s father, and Captain America, the angry son, is back.  He stands up and fights.

“There’s the man I love,” Sharon coos.

And it turns out that Zola has taken a page from Dr. Faustus; Cap has been in Dimension Z for only about 30 minutes.  Ian’s death is no more real than Bucky’s.  Emotionally, however, Ian’s death is tangible, and it remains to be seen how Steve’s emotional awakening will affect his character going forward.

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Jeffrey Kahan is a is a well-established Shakespeare scholar with about two dozen books and editions to his name. He is also the co-author of Caped Crusaders 101 (MacFarland, 2nd ed., 2010), and is a co-editor of The Dark Man, a journal dedicated to the works of Robert E. Howard, and an associate editor of The New Ray Bradbury Review. He teaches a class on superhero comics and has twice appeared as a speaker at Comic-Con, as well as at New York’s Big Apple and other comic conventions. His newest book, Shakespeare and Superheroes, will be published in 2018 by ARC Press. He works in California but lives in his own world.

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