Capital Thoughts:

All-New Captain America #5

Comics have always wrestled with consistency and continuity—hence, the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, the Crisis on Infinite Earths series, and the ongoing Convergence. On the other hand, with all this talk of Secret Wars, Collapsing Universes, and film crossovers (i.e. Transformers and Star Wars comics), the industry has also embraced chaos—maddening fans who take this stuff seriously. 

In All-New Captain America #5, we have an example of a still odder form of genre collapse, an example of, for want of a better term I will call, “metatransgenre.” Meta because it is archly aware of itself, trans because it appropriates fictive elements but treats them as non-fictive.  OK, let me explain:

Ian (Nomad) tells Sam (Cap) that he’s ready to face Baron Blood, a vampire, who also happens to be the son of Marvel’s Dracula.  OK, weird enough, but we all know that Marvel’s Dracula was modeled from the Stoker novel (itself drawn from older vampire stories like Carmela and Varney the Vampire, etc.). Marvel has also made comics featuring many of Hollywood’s favorite monsters (the Mummy, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, etc.).  Further, the Count has faced off against many of Marvel’s heroes, including the Avengers, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and the X-Men.  So Dracula is very much a part of Marvel’s Universe.  Here’s a great link to some of Count Dracula’s pivotal Marvel moments from Den-of-Geek.

Did I mention that Baron Blood is also a Nazi?  Yup, Marvel created him as a Cap villain (more of that anon) and then back-storied him in the pages of The Invaders, a 1970s throwback to the original adventures of Cap and Bucky.  That Baron Blood is a Nazi makes some sense.  The Nazis, as we all know, were obsessed with racial purity.  So too were the Brits in the very era that Stoker was gathering details for Dracula. Sir Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) includes a footnote to the word “eugenics” which in part reads: “We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock,” which depends on “races or strains of blood.”

According to Galton, different races have unique strains of bloods.  However, in the original novel Dracula, it is the English who insist upon keeping their bloodlines clean; it’s the cultural invader from the East, the Count with his foreign money, accent, and exotic charm, who menaces sexually-staid English conventionality.  By extension, Baron Blood, whose every feeding further blends racial (not to mention sexual) lines—the Baron, like his father, will drink blood from any and all races and genders—is perhaps the oddest addition to Marvel’s stable of Nazis, led by the Red Skull, whose strain of blood is so powerful that he appears to have dispensed with skin altogether.

OK, so we’re now all on the same page.  Now the really strange stuff:  Ian says that he’s ready to take on Baron Blood because he has recently brushed up on the works of Bram Stoker.

What is unusual here is the mention of Stoker, the author of the Dracula novel.  So, if Dracula is real in Cap’s world, then Stoker is no writer of fiction.  The novel is then…. What?  A blow-by-blow history, a quasi-religious true-crime story, a D.I.Y. vampire-killing manual?  This reminds me of the film Men in Black, wherein tabloids fodder is taken as serious journalism. But even by that standard, there is something odd about the Baron’s re-appearance, since Cap beheaded him in issue #268, way back in 1981:

That Baron Blood is back without explanation is not so much a plot hole as it is a traditional Remender plot twist or technique. Ian/Nomad, left for dead only an issue ago, is still alive—a fact that bewilders even Sam.  Is Ian a vampire?  No, claims Ian; he was saved by some magic gel that somehow self-healed his blood-drained corpse.  That’s about as believable as Steve Rogers’ earlier run-in with this same Baron Blood.  At one point, Steve is bitten by the vampire, but was clever enough to wear chainmail around his throat.

The Baron gets a toothache, and Steve lives to fight another day.

But the highlight of the issue is not Steve’s showdown with Baron Blood but rather a confrontation with an armed punk.  Steve quietly and calmly convinces him to lay down his gun.  That’s Cap’s real strength, his moral conviction, which he asserts quietly but convincingly.  That’s what makes Steve so great.  But what makes Sam, Steve’s replacement, so great?  Well, he does save the day by telepathically ordering a bunch of birds to consume a swarm of plague-invested fleas.  And, as noted, in the last issue, Sam’s bird Redwing also saves Cap from certain death.

This reliance upon telepathy to save the day makes a real turn in Cap history.  This Cap, as we noted in prior columns, has a few new powers that Steve did not possess (including flight and a sixth sense), and Sam has shown himself to be a tricky adversary, often thinking his way past foes he cannot muscle into submission.

But is Sam Cap yet?  Is he Cap 2.0, or something else entirely?  If Sam wants to be Cap so badly, then why does he still wear remnants of the old Falcon costume?  Let’s compare Sam to Clint Barton. When Barton gave up being Hawkeye and took on the identity of Goliath, he didn’t continue to fire his bow and arrow; likewise, he favored the samurai sword when dressed as Ronin.  But Sam refuses to give up all aspects of his old heroic identity.

If we were to connect this argument to Baron Blood, it would seem that Sam is willing to mix the Falcon and Cap identities.  This merging of characteristics and cultural histories, explained to kids of my generation though Schoolhouse Rocks’s the Great American Melting Pot, is part of America’s strength.  In a weird kind of way, America, with all its mixed strains of culture, corresponds to Dracula’s (and presumably Baron Blood’s) vision of the world.

In terms of Sam, the question is, What should we make of all this?  After all, Sam has a right to change the Cap costume if he wants, and there is nothing in the hero rule book that precludes him from using some of the Falcon’s tactics, even while wearing Cap’s suit.  But on some level, that refusal to be Cap (costume-wise) separates Sam from his new heroic identity and mission.

But let’s return to a stanza of that “Melting Pot” song:

You simply melt right in
It doesn’t matter what your skin
It doesn’t matter where you’re from
Or your religion, you jump right in
To the great American melting pot
The great American melting pot
Oh, what a stew, red, white, and blue.

The promise that everyone will fit right in, is, ironically, overturned by another stanza in the same song that refuses to register the contributions of African Americans (or any other nonwhites) to America:

America was founded by the English
But also by the Germans, Dutch, and French
The principle still sticks
Our heritage is mixed.

Umm, by today’s standard, listing a bunch of Europeans hardly qualifies as “mixed.”

The cover of All-New Captain America #5 tells us a different story:  Sam rising from what looks to be a tropical swamp, in the backdrop, we see a monkey….

Sam didn’t come from Europe; he came from a land of primates.  It’s horrible.  It’s racist.  Marvel should be ashamed.

Or is Marvel trying to get us to think about Cap in a new way?

By asserting his old Falcon identity, Sam is refusing to melt or fit right in.  He’s affirming that there is a difference depending upon the color of your skin.  Sam’s resistance is yet another example of metatransgenre.  He refuses to give life to a mixed fiction.

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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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