I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. The Captain America film is coming out, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Captain America, I guess. I like the costume and the shield and all that, but I’m still not happy. I guess I really don’t know what Captain America is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Captain America is all about?
As the excitement over the new Captain America movie has built, I’ve found myself feeling a little like Charlie Brown at Christmastime. I really liked Captain America when I was a kid, but as an adult reader, he rarely seems to work for me. I can sometimes lose myself momentarily in a simplistic, straightforward action story, but when the character begins to take on extra stature—the symbolic weight of an entire nation’s ideals—I tend to check out.
This is puzzling because normally I like ambition and even a little pretention in a genre story, but when Cap is presented as a symbol of the nation’s best ideals, he seems reduced rather than enlarged—simplified into a costumed platitude. And the more a story piles on abstract notions like truth, fairness, freedom, and teamwork, the less clear and less believable Cap becomes. Those ideals all sound good and universal, but unless they are complicated or challenged in a way that reflects the ambiguity of the real world and the myriad splinters of meaning that extend from each of those abstract principles, then we’re left with nothing more than a hollow shell of a character trapped in a self-conscious story and punctuated with empty gestures.
But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a good story to write that explores the symbolism of Captain America. It’s simply that most Captain America stories fail to go far enough. I need to see Captain America fully deconstructed before I’m ever going to be able to buy him as a character. I want a revisionist Cap—a Cap I can believe in because he rings true and speaks to the world we know.
Where are the great revisionist takes on Captain America? Given the way Steve Rogers is usually depicted, you would think that his super soldier serum had been formulated to enhance nobility as much as muscle fiber. Unquestionably, he is a brave, patriotic guy who originally just wanted to serve his country, but it shouldn’t necessarily follow that he would be incapable of kicking his dog, picking his nose, or lying to get out of going to a party. He’s not Kryptonian and he’s not deity. He’s Audie Murphy on steroids.
To be honest, we all treat him with such reverence—self included—that even writing that previous sentence makes me a little uncomfortable. But it’s this excessive reverence for the character that can often get in the way and prevent the suspension of disbelief.
There’ve been minor exceptions, of course. In Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, we get hints of the ways in which someone could complicate the character. Millar plays with a kind of Mad Men irony by exploring some of the attitudes a World War II-era Rip Van Winkle would express when confronted with the contemporary world. It doesn’t always make him likable, but it makes him believable. But where are the really ambitious efforts at complicating his character or re-examining those generic ideals?
What would a real exploration of the concept of “Captain America” look like? Being the living embodiment of a large country with an extensive history has to be a lot more complicated than generic notions of “fairness” or “freedom.” If someone truly wanted to take an iconic representation of the entire country and then try to craft a story around it, what would they wind up with? That’s when I realized that it’s actually been done a few times before—just not with Steve Rogers.
Brought to Light, a graphic novel published by Eclipse Comics in 1988, was written in conjunction with the Christic Institute, a legal organization that helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. One of the stories in the book, called Shadow Play: The Secret Team, takes place in a bar and focuses on a former member of the CIA who drunkenly recounts the entire history of his organization—“The Company” as it is known. The 30-page story was created by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz when both were coming off career highs. But what makes Shadow Play relevant to this discussion is that the drunken CIA agent is depicted as far more than a retired agent. He’s a man-sized bald eagle. Literally.
Here, we get a hint of what could be done with Captain America—using an iconic emblem of the nation like the eagle to symbolize American foreign policy, and letting the reality of the world inform the depiction of the character instead of vice versa. With this bald eagle, Moore and Sienkiewicz take the premise of Captain America-as-symbol to its full fruition, defining the country’s ideals based on its actions rather than its platitudes. In terms of plot, Shadow Play is little more than an information dump, as Moore takes the unpublicized history of the CIA and turns it into a monologue about blood and treachery, corruption and greed. But by applying the same revisionist lens he had already used to deconstruct popular characters like Marvelman and Swamp Thing, Moore is able to use his cartoon symbol to deconstruct one of the most recognizable emblems in the nation’s history.
Throughout Shadow Play, Moore emphasizes that most of “the Company’s” activities—activities that some might condone as part of the national defense—have ultimately been designed to defend free market capitalism. From its earliest days of opposing the Soviet Union, Moore’s eagle notes that everyone from John Foster Dulles to Harry Truman viewed Soviet communism as the greater threat than Nazi Germany: “See, business-wise, we recognized our real competitors.” And in almost every instance of CIA incursion into Vietnam, Central America, or the Middle East, the overriding goal was protecting and aiding American corporations, with the eagle couching everything in crass business terms.
It’s an extraordinary story in many ways, beautifully written and riotously illustrated, and it contains more direct commentary on the nature of America’s foreign policy in its humble thirty pages than I’ve read in more than a thousand pages of Captain America.
The same is true for Shadow Play’s spiritual descendent, Uncle Sam. Released in 1997, the two-part Vertigo series was created by Steve Darnell and Alex Ross, and it came as Ross was still riding the enormous success of Marvels and Kingdom Come, though Uncle Sam couldn’t have been less commercial. As with Shadow Play, it features one of the fundamental iconic symbols of America—the cartoon character of Uncle Sam—in order to explore the current reality of America. Only in this case, the iconic character is experiencing an identity crisis and suffering from dementia.
Uncle Sam has been reduced to a series of de-contextualized sound bytes, muttering random sayings from the sublime to ridiculous, reciting from Thomas Jefferson one minute and quoting Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” the next. This Uncle Sam is a derelict, wandering the streets, racked by guilt over mistakes from the past, and dismayed by the present where his image has been appropriated by a larger, brassier, and louder “Uncle Sam” on stilts.
The biggest difference between the conclusions of Shadow Play and Uncle Sam is that Darnell and Ross depict more of a character arc for Sam who learns from his mistakes and grows. In the final panels, he fights with the usurper Sam for his hat and for the right to call himself “America.” As he dons his hat in the final scene, we get the sense that he’s learned better how to locate those abstract, Captain America-style principles in a very real, very ugly world. And maybe we have too.
Both of these stories offer a template for how the symbolic qualities of Captain America could be addressed in a story. The same is true of one other book—this one specifically about Captain America, but not Steve Rogers. Truth: Red, White & Black succeeds wildly at re-examining the origin story of Captain America, taking the revisionist lens to the concept if not the specific character.
Written by the late Robert Morales and illustrated by Kyle Baker, Truth appeared with much ballyhoo in 2003. It was a heady time for Marvel following the promotion of Joe Quesada to Editor-in-Chief in 2000. This was the era of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, Milligan and Allred’s X-Force, Neil Gaiman’s 1602, Garth Ennis’s Punisher, and Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil, not to mention the launch of the Ultimate line. For a company that had often suffered from painful stagnancy when it came to depictions of its iconic characters, this was a daring period.
Amidst this flurry of activity, Morales and Baker presented a radically revisionist take on Captain America’s origin. Truth does what no version of Captain America has ever really done. It totally rethinks the Captain America project in a realistic, logical, and historically-sound manner. Morales and Baker identify the implausibility of Steve Rogers being the first test subject for the experimental super soldier serum, recognizing that any preliminary tests would’ve likely utilized more marginalized, less represented test subjects. In other words, they posit that the serum would’ve first been tested on African-American soldiers.
It’s bold, revisionist thinking, and not just because it’s plausible. Lots of things are plausible. Cap surviving for years in a frozen block of ice is … plausible (maybe). But the Captain America origin detailed in Truth is more than just plausible. It’s likely. Having a regiment of African-American soldiers experimented on and then discarded as preparation for the unveiling of the blonde-haired, “all-American” Steve Rogers is far more than just plausible, interesting, or challenging. It, more than any other revised version of a popular character’s origin, is almost what had to have happened. Once you’ve seen it you can’t un-see it.
If the series has a flaw it’s that its concept is so strong that the actual story has trouble living up to it. The most interesting issues are the first two, during which there are hardly any white characters, nor is there any mention of Captain America or the super soldier serum. Considering that it’s part of the Marvel Universe, it’s a startling book. In the opening chapters of Truth, we’re thoroughly immersed in the lives of the African-American characters who will eventually be drawn into the tests. Morales gives us lots of period detail particular to the African-American experience and bits of characterization that are specifically part of the African-American literary tradition. When was the last time you ever read a joke about W. E. B. DuBois in a superhero book?
As noted, the story slowly loses steam as it moves forward and the test subjects begin dying. In the later chapters, Morales starts splitting time between the story of these characters and a contemporary investigation of the history by Steve Rogers. These scenes appear with little-to-no context and almost feel like they’re designed to satisfy any concerns that readers might’ve had about whether Rogers was complicit in any of this. It’s a somewhat weak ending for an otherwise astonishing premise.
No one seems to talk about Truth much anymore, and Marvel didn’t even bother collecting it into a single volume until 2009. I’m not sure if the story itself remains in continuity or not. Similarly, Shadow Play has been out of circulation since Eclipse went bankrupt, and Uncle Sam also appears to be out of print. Like Charlie Brown’s pitiful little Christmas tree, all three books have seen better days. But perhaps, if we wrap a blanket around them and string a few lights, they might find renewed life. Perhaps, as Linus might say, all they need is a little love. Then comics readers can gather around and hum, “America the Beautiful” while the end credits roll.