Capital Thoughts:

Captain America #13

Cap wallowing in bed, grief-stricken over the loss of his son; in the next room, Zemo’s daughter, the shapely Jet, works a heavy bag and tells Sam that he’s no longer numero uno in Steve’s life; a world away, Nuke obliterates a town in “Nrosvekistan”/Eastern Europe. On orders from SHIELD, Cap rises from his funk. But he’s not the man he was. Nuke is unphased when Cap roundhouses him with “everything I have”; Sam, needless to say, is useless. It’s his telepathic bird Redwig who saves the day, or at least buys Cap some time…

Let’s go back to Cap, now crumpled in a sad heap at Nuke’s boots. In a comic that is based on timeless ideals, what does a weakened Cap have to say about heroism?  Answer (thus far): nothing. Instead, Steve fears that Nuke will win the propaganda war: “stop the madman. … Every dead body—another family that’ll see the U.S. as an enemy. They say all we offer the world is war—They say we’re corrupted by military ambition. He’s going to prove them right.”

But will the message be heard or seen? SHIELD has somehow imposed a blackout on the region, although one intrepid reporter is busy filming everything. She seems to be local and virulently anti-SHIELD, hence anti-American. Not that it matters what she thinks. In an age of Wikileaks and iPhones, no one controls the media anymore, not even the people who record the images. That’s why SHIELD needs Cap to fight Nuke under the inevitable gladiatorial glare of CNN’s pro-American camera lights. Yes, SHIELD needs to defeat Nuke, a murderous speed-freak-super-soldier, but it’s more important to promote Cap than it is to humble Nuke.

This notion of image over substance is reiterated by Cap himself: “Burning soldiers– Too far gone. Dead at the hands of a man who wears my flag on his face.” (Emphasis my own.)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is a video clip worth, especially when it’s a running feature of American rage?

And even if Cap is filmed throwing-down with Nuke (one flag-covered American at war with another), doesn’t that just blur the image/message of America still more?

The question, I suppose, comes down to a perception of power. SHIELD’s media blackout is at best a stop gap; military fury (whether by Nuke or Cap) seems anachronistic, and Cap and Nuke seem like identical jingoist challengers waiting for Friday night lights. If America is merely a PR exercise, then it doesn’t much matter how things get done– expect perhaps that they get done flamboyantly and under-budget. After all, SHIELD’s agents could take Nuke out themselves. But the image of Nuke going mano a mano with Cap is too good (and too cheap) to pass up.

But what if it doesn’t work out? What if Nuke wins? What would that say about American power? Of course, we might say that Cap can’t lose; it’s his comic after all; but, for the sake of fictive authority, we have to conceive of Cap’s demise– or else reading the comic is about as dramatic as watching a swimsuit competition. But in this case, since PR is more powerful than heroism and since media images are entirely malleable, the message can be twisted into an anti-American rant even if Cap wins.

That’s a gloomy thought.

The more Cap explores our world, the safer Dimension Z, with its fearful super soldiers, seems. Fighting Zola was easy: Ideology versus ideology; an American hero versus a fascist Nazi scientist. But our world is more pyrrhic. Cap can win a war and lose a media battle. He is thoroughly unprepared for a world that confuses announcement with news.

The connections to MSNBC, FOX News, and the divided nature of the American psyche are now coming into focus.

Lincoln warned that a house divided cannot stand against itself, but he never imagined that the house would be wired with cameras streaming live to the internet, or that hearts and minds would be decided by viral videos and hash tags.

What role Cap might still play in our world is distinct– distinctly minor. Going forward, we can only hope that Rick Remender will find some way to galvanize Cap’s epic heroism.

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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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