Capital Thoughts:

Captain America #23

Issue 23 has more than its fair share of mayhem, so much so that finding a theme to discuss is difficult.  Oh, there are plot twists, to be sure:  Zola is invading from Dimension Z with a new army of Steve Rogers-spliced clones – think Jurassic Park but with humanoid features.  And the new army also has spliced versions of Thor and Iron Man, though how you clone Iron Man’s body armor or Thor’s hammer is unstated.  More plot twists: The Avengers’ Mansion is under attack by a sole intruder who doesn’t break a sweat defeating Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk.  But this acrobatic bad-ass is no match for the caned and crippled Steve, who, even in his advanced years, takes his foe down in a split second.  Then the big reveal:  His foe is – GASP! – his son from Dimension Z, Ian (an adopted son; genetically, he is Zola’s).  Meanwhile, the Falcon and Jet (the latter, another Zola-offspring), sneak onto Zola’s ship and discover—GASP!—Sharon Carter.

Why the mock-gasps of surprise?  While both were presumed to have died in Dimension Z, their respective returns come as no real surprise. (This writer has been predicting their reappearance for months.)  That being said, we have also in those intervening months seen Steve Rogers wallow in tears and regrets.  The man has suffered terribly.  This is as it should be for anyone grieving, but, now that it’s all a misunderstanding, how will Steve react?  We can rest easy concerning Ian. Steve is damn happy to see his son, now fully grown.  We can also presume that he will be equally happy to see Sharon, though how they will react to Steve’s recent transformation (he’s aged about 50 years) remains to be seen.  There is room here for some comedy:  Will Ian become Dennis the Menace and Steve Rogers the new Mr. Wilson; will Ian hook up with Sharon?  Will they go on Oprah?

Our reaction to this odd situation will be lensed through Steve, not only because he remains the hero of the book— until Sam dons the red, white, and blue tights— but also because Steve’s reaction will speak to a larger philosophical issue raised some 400 years ago by Michel de Montaigne, who, in his essays tackled the greatest mystery known to him—himself.

Montaigne treated his mind like a foreign land; his essays are adventures in introspection, a survey of his behavior and quirks. In particular, Montaigne enjoyed comparing his present interests and behaviors to those of his younger self. A voracious reader, Montaigne also compared his own thoughts to those of authors in other ages, and he comes to one, inescapable conclusion: He really hasn’t got a clue.

That’s to say, he can’t really be sure of anything when his own history demonstrates that he’s been wrong before and likely will be wrong again, that other men in other eras have held different (failed) opinions and (untenable) principles. Any certainty reveals itself as, historically or culturally situated, accidental.  Montaigne’s doubts lead him to adopt a mild and forgiving view.  There is no use in getting too upset about anything or anyone.  No one has a hold on the truth, and no one, not even a wise philosopher, can afford to cling to the past.

Steve might have some common horse-sense; he might be a decent, noble, honorable man, but he’s no philosopher. Still, he’s living in a very Montaigne-like moment. He has wasted decades of his life mourning Bucky only to learn that Bucky never died. More recently, he spent months grieving the deaths of Ian and Sharon, only to discover that they are both alive and well.

Steve Rogers, a man from the 1940s, is already out of time, but now that he’s aged, he is also a man running out of time. Given the returns of Bucky, Ian, and Sharon, can Steve really afford to spend the last days of his existence certain of anything? And if certainty is on the table, then we must also table the possibility that Steve has been wrong about many things.  Maybe he has been wrong about all things….

Steve, like Montaigne, might be ready to adopt a mellower, easy-going view of history.

If Steve’s life really is winding down, then we should expect some payoff, a significant epiphany, but we’re more likely to get yet another cheat— anagnorisis subverted by a magician’s trick.  My best guess: Steve will be rejuvenated by the genetic materials stored in Zola’s splicing factory.  That can’t happen anytime soon, as the Falcon has yet to take Steve’s place, a much ballyhooed spoiler, which, along with Thor’s up-coming sex-change, signals Marvel’s newest multicultural rapprochement. A new Cap may lead to new adventures, but I am not yet convinced that we are, despite these whipsaws of plot, bound to see a wiser Steve.  This Mr. Rogers seems too feisty for much introspection.  But if heroes do not grow when they experience pain or sorrow, if they cannot experience real and permanent loss, then I submit that they are beyond the human condition, more gods than heroes.

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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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  1. tom liscord says:

    Always look forward to your take on Cap. When I think of transformative moments for this hero I immediately think of Steve Englehart’s run on the Secret Empire. And even despite returning to his Cap identity after a few months of being Nomad, I couldn’t help but think it was a learned experience for Steve Rogers that would carry him further. Of course it wouldn’t be too much later that Englehart would leave and Kirby would take over writing and art, and neglect those great themes of Englehart’s. It remains to be seen what transformation Steve Rogers will experience with this new volume.

    • Hi Tom,
      Thank you so much for the kind words. Yes, I LOVED Steve Englehart’s run on the Secret Empire. To my mind, it remains the greatest run in Cap history. As you have likely seen, I have also written an open letter to Englehart concerning Winter Soldier, which I maintain owes a lot to him. With all best, J.

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