Sunday, 30 May 2010

Gail Simone & "Secret Six: Six Degrees Of Devastation": The Misdirection Of The Magician's Hand Part 1 - Deadshot


1. "If She'd Wanted You Dead ... "

I. If our recent discussions about Captain America have been, in part, about how to portray a villain as a hero, or a traitor as a martyr, then it's instructive to turn to Gail Simone's work on the "Secret Six" and note a similar if more deliberate process at work. Because, of course, Ms Simone has to portray her cast of largely irredeemable and frankly mostly monstrous n'er do wells as sympathetic and engaging to a greater or lesser degree, or few readers would be motivated to pick up the "Secret Six" at all. And, so, where some creators have by accident, or perhaps even by carelessness and lack of forethought, ended up having Captain America undermining the Constitution while eliciting our support for his endeavours, Ms Simone must month after month achieve the same end of making the unconscionable congenial without having the sympathetic and patriotic cloth that Captain America is cut from to play with.

And I think that even though most every reader is aware of the trick that Ms Simone is performing with such unpromising and super-villainous material, the degree of bold cleverness and sheer story-telling dishonesty in "Secret Six" is at times perhaps under-recognised. Or perhaps I should say, it's at times been under-recognised by me. For, until I read "Six Degrees Of Devastation" recently, the library book rescued from the back of my car while I was waiting for a blown tire to be repaired, I hadn't noticed how incredibly studied and, yes, how cold-blooded was the trickery involved in writing that's on show in most every page and nearly every panel of the "Secret Six". For it isn't that Ms Simone doesn't openly declare that her characters are, at best, rather dense and impulsive, and at worse, frankly flat-out bloodcurdling monsters. She does indeed openly and regularly declare this to all and sundry, but she does it with such a cunning misdirection that the reader's eye, and heart, is usually simultaneously caught by a far more endearing and attractive piece of information, a declaration of love, perhaps, or an escape predicated upon uncommon bravery. And so the mind is distracted and the heart is deceived and the reader carries on engaged with the fate of a pack of monsters who, almost to a super-villain, shouldn't trouble our feelings other than to cause us to hope that they're all soon safely locked away from the good people of the DCU for an exceptionally long time.

And so, in preparation for the soon-to-come "Secret Six: Depths" trade paperback, which is released next month and which I'm looking forward to reviewing (*1) , I thought I'd put that not-too-unpleasant few hours spent reading and re-reading "Six Degrees Of Devastation", while waiting for that tire to be fixed, to some good use here, and to try to examine how the appalling characters of, in particular, Deadshot and Scandal have been made into something both more shiny and yet still utterly grubby in "Secret Six".

*1 - The Splendid Wife has offered to fund this, er, "research" as an early birthday present! What an unexpected and yet typically Splendid gesture from the Splendid Wife.

II. Now, are you ready? Please notice. There is nothing in Ms Simone's hands .....

2. "You have to admire her fortitude ... "

It's the most obvious and commented upon - and perhaps the least interesting - of Ms Simone's narrative strategies with the "Secret Six", that she engages our sympathies for her reprobates by having them in conflict and combat with characters who are considerably more despicable than even they are. In such a fashion can pretty much any recidivist from psychopath to petty thief be made sympathetic, and, in "Six Degrees Of Devastation", Deadshot is placed in such dire situations against such appalling antagonists that the reader instinctively sides with him. So, whether it's the torturing beasts murdering their prey in North Korean concentration camps, sword-wielding and shapely female assassins who attack him while he's walking with his family through a park, the killer monks of the deadly super-villain Cheshire, or the armies of the psychotic Immortal Man Vandal Savage, we're never allowed to take anybody's side except for Lawton's. We readers, after all, tend strongly towards the taking the part of the powerless against the powerful, and Deadshot in "Six Degrees ... " is often both staring at his imminent doom while still appearing capable of mustering a damn good fight. We can share in his power, cleverly, while being moved by his powerlessness.


But this is, of course, a well known, if no less laudable, narrative trick, though it does become a rather obvious sympathy-generating strategy over a collection of 6 issues, with the dice being so constantly loaded against "our" super-villains. And yet, there's a lovely and telling quote on Wikipedia that illustrates how we readers know we're being played by Ms Simone in this fashion while, despite ourselves, being subject to the terribly insidious effect of what's being done to us by this trick;

"Although the current incarnation of the Secret Six are technically villains, several members of the team are treated sympathetically and come across as heroic, if only on the virtue of the team encountering individuals who are even more bloodthirsty and villainous."

Accurately said, of course, except that the Secret Six aren't "technically villains". They are villains. That word "technically" is a reflection of the doubt and emotional misdirection that Ms Simone's technique causes. There's not a member of the "Secret Six" on show in these pages who doesn't commit herein a string of incredibly serious crimes, against both American and International Law. Even Catman, who seems to be positioned in "Six Degrees Of Devastation" as a man on the road to redemption, is constantly invading the sovereign territory of other nations and wounding and murdering substantial number of opponents.

And that's for me one of the most amusing and effective methods used by Ms Simone to make us sympathetic to the Six. For it's not just that the enemies of the Six are portrayed as being worst beasts than "our" heroes-not-heroes, but that the crimes that the Six commit rarely seem to be actually that; crimes. So, in these 143 pages, Deadshot engages in the following mayhem:
  • trespassing on the sovereign soil of North Korea. (But North Korea's in the Axis Of Evil!)
  • effecting the murder of "The Commandant". (But that Commandant was horrible!)
  • takes part in a massacre of North Korean prison guards (But they're horrible too and it's all in self-defence anyway.)
  • fails to take responsibility for the fate of the prisoners themselves after the massacre.
  • stands by as Scandal undertakes the appalling and protracted torture of one "Pistolera" (Oh! But Pistolera set Savage's girl-friend on fire!)
  • murders Pistolera in stone-cold blood in order to "save" Scandal from the "feeling bad" which might result if she finished off the woman she'd just been torturing for such a long time in such a horrendous fashion. (What a nice man, to save his friend from such guilt!)
  • slaughters large number of knife-waving monks protecting their home from assault. (He couldn't just avoid the fight! He had to help get the woman who tried to assassinate his team-mates!)
  • sleeps with the lover of his team-mate Scandal. (It's not a crime! There was no compulsion! And she was so hot! She was naked!)
  • helps, or at least stands by, as the Mad Hatter commands Elasti-Girl to eat Beast Boy. (Er ... well, Deadshot didn't actually order her to eat him, and it was a neat scene! And there wasn't any eating in the end, was there, so no harm done! And it's only the Doom Patrol.)
  • massacres a huge number of Vandal Savage's guards, during his third trespass on foreign shores in 143 pages. (But they were bad! Vandal Savage is bad! They deserved to die! And our baddies are good baddies! And they HAD to do it!)
And it can't be said that Ms Simone ever hides any of these appalling acts from us, except in the sense that she does so in plain sight. She does pick crimes which many of her audience aren't particularly concerned with. If a squad of Taliban soldiers were to appear in American territory to, for example, hunt down Allied soldiers who'd been involved in shipping Afghan citizens to Guantanamo Bay circa 2004, then perhaps the concept of inviolable national territory might engage the reader. But "all" the Secret Six are doing here is invading other territories, and killing bad people. So we're not upset. In fact, we're cheering on our heroes, who have of course been provoked into being so appalling, who have no choice but to defend themselves, against their awful, awful, awful opponents.

And in such a way, as we know, the awful Deadshot becomes something of the heroic Deadshot. Huzzah!

3. "You're A Good Friend, Floyd ... "

I. I'm particularly impressed by how the reader is constantly being informed of how Deadshot is a great guy while at the same time being shown how his behaviour is often utterly unethical, to say the least. We should be overwhelmingly appalled and disgusted by his murder of the tortured Pistolera, if we have the slightest degree of engagement with the concept of human rights and, indeed, normative standards of empathy, but in nips Ms Simone, who with one hand shows us something terrible and then;
  • makes us laugh with Deadshot's laconic wisecrack following the murder: "Who wants Cake?"
  • has Deadshot portray his actions as self-sacrificing and noble: "I knew you'd feel bad if you pulled the stopper and let the water drain out, so I did it for you. No big deal"
  • shows Scandal kiss Lawson tenderly on the head after the murder while saying: "I think, this once, a kiss, Lawton."
And it's not as if Ms Simone hides any of this misdirection; it's all there. These are the most dreadful people. They are absolutely depraved. But the man with the guns and the red tights is made to play the part of the old, worn-out and yet compassionate cowboy, full of what seems like empathy and self-depreciating humour. Yet the truth is, he referred to Pistolete's life as "water" to drain out of a bath once the "stopper" had been removed. He saw that woman, that human being, as a thing, as an object, as a problem to be tidied away rather than a life to be preserved. The idea that Pistolete didn't need to die, that she might have been allowed to live, that she might even have been rescued or permitted to go free; these ideas are kept quite outside of the narrative, so that the reader doesn't question that any opposition to torture and murder was even worthy of consideration by the actors involved. We're actually directed into a situation where we're so engaged with the pace and intensity of the story that we fail to step outside it and ask whether what's being portrayed as inevitable and even good is anything of the sort. And, let's be honest, our emotions are finally quite derailed from any disengagement from this rotten business when Scandal marks her gratitude with that supreme and sweet reinforcer of a kiss on Deadshot's head. It's a desperately sad business that the reader should be touched by the twisted notions of fondness and appreciation batted around between the members of this tawdry gang of killers.

Yet, we are touched.

II. Ms Simone laces these pages with similarly exploitative and effective tricks, as indeed she should, for it's of course the business of the writer to manipulate the reader until the job at hand is achieved. When Deadshot is ambushed in Star City's park while walking with his daughter's mother and their child, he is represented as nobly unconcerned about his own fate (*2), as we'd expect from a man with a death-wish, but deeply concerned with the fact of his families' survival. How do you make an evil mass murderer sympathetic? Why, have him offer to lay down a life that he cares little for anyway while making sure that his daughter doesn't suffer, in body or mind;

"Get out of here, Susan. Make sure ... Don't let the kid look back, hear?"

What a top bloke! Look he's saving a stereotypically attractive young woman and her innocent cute child. What else can we feel, faced with these traditional markers of virtue, except "What a top bloke!"


(*2), Yet it's really not so noble, is it? In this scene, it feels as if Lawton has assumed the qualities of Gary Cooper as High Noon approaches, but Deadshot's a man with a death-wish, so self-sacrifice hardly carries the weight for him that it would for Diana Prince, or Barry Allen, or you and I. Again, a really clever narrative trick. The appearance of a hero, but the absence of heroic virtues.


III. So, let's take a look at the many virtues of Deadshot in the pages of "Six Degrees Of Devastation". He's a family man, a lsupportive ex-lover and father,working at a difficult trade in order to put his daughter through " ... Harvard a hundred times with the money you've saved for her education." He's a loyal friend, willing to murder tortured women in order to spare a team-mates' conscience. He stands beside his friends and comrades, facing down overwhelming odds, though while he looks so heroic firing off all those bullets, and even as he seems so tragic as Knockout announces that he "has the deathlust", the truth of it is that because of his lack of desire to stay alive, he's a liability to them all.

Still, that isn't obvious on the surface, as little is in "Secret Six". On the face of the story, he's that walking arsenal that you'd appreciate having beside you as those fiendish North Koreans charge towards you. And as a convivial team-member, in addition to a hard-fighting one, he even seems to like Ragdoll enough to not murder him when he has a clear shot at his mind-controlled team-mate. (He's also the reader's point-of-view character when he gently mocks the strangeness of Ragdoll and the Mad Hatter too. He seems to see these characters as we do, and yet his response to their oddness isn't excessively cruel while it is quietly amusing, so we warm to him.) Why, even when Deadshot argues against going after Scandal when she returns to her father's house, he does so from what appears to be a respectful perspective, mindful of his team-mate's right to choose her own destiny. It is as if he's a tarnished gun-slinging Western hero, down to his wise-cracks and his nimble, supple trigger-fingers. And whether that role is played by John Wayne in "The Searchers" or Gene Wilder in "Blazing Saddles", that's an ornery stereotype we've become accustomed to opening our hearts to.

It's an brilliantly effective role which is particularly evoked for deceptive purposes in the book's opening scene set in a North Korean concentration camp, where a fellow prisoner declares that Deadshot is "Like a savior ... ", tellingly just before being shot dead. And at that murder, Deadshot declares "All right, you bastards." and shots down the guard who killed his prison acquaintance. And our hearts jump at that action, as Deadshot apparently takes up the death-dealing six guns of the aroused Eastwoodian hero, and look how noble Floyd Lawson seems. Or at least, he does until we notice how, after a firefight, he and his friends race off to their own escape while leaving the prisoners behind. Some saviour, that Deadshot. Saviours, after all, tend to get crucified while facing down impossible odds in order to save the powerless, but the "Secret Six" are off and looking after themselves while Deadshot intones;

"It's only five miles to China. They might make it."

Ah, he seemed like a saviour, made us thrill as if he were the saviour, and then he saved himself.


IV. And Deadshot's vices? Well, he engagingly spoils his daughter, and he finds it hard to keep it in his pants, though even that's with Knockout, who's quite unfortunately disengaged from conventional notions of monogamy. (It is very hard not to feel considerable sympathy with Knockout when the issue of her creation and abuse, and the effect of those tragedies on her behaviour, is considered, but Deadshot had, as Catman put it, "... screwed all of us this time.") Oh, and he cares not a whit for any moral or legal notion that doesn't grab his inadequate powers of attention, which leads him down to endless crimes of murder and indeed mass-murder and, oh, yes, yet more mass-murder, and so on.

Deadshot may appear to be a sad man worthy of our sympathy, and since every human being is worthy of our consideration, perhaps that may be true. He's certainly a man with a troubled past. It would take a cold heart and a callous mind not to pity the boy who was fated to become Deadshot. But our first and only thought should be; "When is somebody going to protect humanity by taking this monster, one way or another, off of the board?"

And yet that isn't even our last thought. Good writing, ah?


4. "I Got The Shot! I Got The Shot!"


Quite this reader's favourite moment in "Six Degrees Of Devastation" involves Catman's narration during the assault on Cheshire's home, wherein he asks himself;

"You're a good friend, Floyd. Maybe the best I've had. So why am I so sure I'll have to rip your throat out someday?"

With Catman being the closest to a truly heroic figure in "Secret Six", his fondness for Deadshot obviously carries a great deal of weight with the reader, particularly those who know of Floyd Lawton's fondness for surrogate brothers. Yet it isn't the warmth of Catman's feelings for Deadshot that I so enjoyed, but rather the stupidity of his question; "So why am I so sure I'll have to rip your throat out someday?". It's so rare to have a character in comic books who is quite so lacking in either self-awareness or common sense, and I like having a comic-book lead who is neither hyper-engaged or utterly ignorant in a mainstream book. (Even given how unrealistic superhero "realism" is, Catman seems far more human than the four-colour norm.) But, honestly, hasn't Catman got the nous to figure out that the reason he'll one day have to rip out Lawton's throat is that Deadshot is a seriously damaged, not-to-be-trusted mass-murderer? And that one of Deadshot various loyalties and afflictions, if not an interacting set of them, may well result in Deadshot turning on Catman one day, even despite Lawton's faux-filial fondness for him.

How brilliantly Ms Simone plays her cards here. We like Catman, Catman likes Deadshot, we like Deadshot. It's so manipulative that it deserves applause. Misdirection, if not outright lying, is what good writers do, after all.

End Of Part 1: Coming Next: Scandal!

nb 1: My thanks to Josh Reynolds for help with the identity of Deadshot's ex-lover. Cheers, Mr J!

nb 2: "Secret Six: Six Degrees Of Devastation" by Gail Simone, Brad Walker and Jimy Palmiotti, is published by DC Comics, and available bookshops and in Norfolk Library stock too. I feel guilty that I didn't discuss the involving work by artists Mr Walker and Mr Palmiotti in this piece, but the object of concern here was Ms Simone's script. Any reader who hasn't already picked up the book should do so, and there they'll see that the art is very certainly worthy of attention on its' own, with in particular a full page splash of a naked Mad Hatter which once seen will be very hard to forget. I'm only saying .....

I'd like to try to take a look at how Ms Simone gets us on-side with Scandal in the next post on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics in a few days time. Scandal is a character quite previously unknown to me, so my response to her is a touch different to that of the familiar Deadshot. I hope my admiration for Ms Simone's craft and purpose shone through here, and that the piece didn't seem in any way snipy or sarcy. I do have concerns about this business of presenting obvious villains as heroes, but that's for another day, and this was about respect and not carping. I hope to see you soon, and please do feel free to torpedo these musings! That ol'comment box is just below.

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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

On "Captain America: Reborn!" by Ed Brubaker & Bryan Hitch - Part 3 of 3!


1. "It Is Great Cleverness To Know When To Conceal One's Cleverness."

I like clever, I really do, but the type of clever in comic books I tend to notice on first reading is the sort of clever which shouts about itself alot. It may take me a while, but I'll probably get that that masked crusader story-line is referencing Shakespeare, or that there's a touch of Wagner in that sword'n'sorcery barbarian-fest. And that'll be because there's a real big sort-of-cleverness-here flag flying in full view over those stories, helping me out, helping me spot where "x" marks the cleverness.

But then there's really clever, clever that hides its' own cleverness in plain sight, clever that doesn't even care if sombody never notices how really clever it is, and I think that Ed Brubaker and Bryan Hitch's "Captain America: Reborn" is very possibly that sort of clever.


2. "We Think We're In The Present, But We Aren't. The Present That We Know Is Only A Movie Of The Past."

I. My first response to "Captain America: Reborn" was, as I've already touched upon, lukewarm. It seemed a perfectly competent run of issues, though nothing particularly special. In an ideal world, this would mark the plimsoll line of superhero comic books: nothing below this standard would ever be permitted, and everyone setting sail in a book like this in future could feel secure that the journey would be safe and worthwhile. But it did seem, all the same, to be terribly familiar. Indeed, the plot was so well-worn, the characters so predictable, the action so by-the-numbers, that I almost feared to look too hard at the pages in case I could see through the more threadbare elements on the panels before me.

I had, of course, so missed the point.

And I continued to miss the point as I started to note the homages to previous Captain America artists that Bryan Hitch had so fondly peppered throughout the story. For example, isn't that a perfect evocation of a Simon/Kirby Cap at 2:2:1/2:3:1, that hunched, compact figure with the stretched running legs, one thrown far back behind the body and one hauled up before it, just as in the very first Captain America story from 1941? And that has to be a tip of the hat to a great solid Dan Jurgens' Cap at 6:17, surely? Oh, look, Neal Adams-ness in the Kree/Skrull War scenes (3:20:3), Steranko-isms in the Rick Jones and Hydra brawl (4:5:1), and - be still my 12 year-old heart - that must to be a strangely elongated, appropriately and oddly foreshortened Frank Robbins riff in the Masterman punchup. (1:6:1.) The sheer love for Captain America borne by Mr Hitch must be exceptional. (*1)

But exceptional reverence for a comic book character doesn't necessarily produce work which will in itself inspire reverence. All this re-heating of previous achievements just seemed to me to be more evidence that this was warmed-over greatest hits, stitched together into a mundane and functional plot which efficiently took Captain America from (a) assassinated hero at the beginning to (b) prospective modern super-spy at the end. It was, I couldn't stop myself believing, the sort of story which is so often advertised as a celebration and so often revealed as an effective cut'n'paste job.

We're walking over the same hallowed ground time and time again, I thought, and it's not even as if we've reached an audacious post-modern synthesis of the material a-la-Morrison just to make things a little bit more different. No. This is just the same super-heroes hitting the same super-villains in exactly the same places in precisely the same ways as so many times before, even down to Captain America throwing off the Red Skull's mental control simply because he's Captain America and he can think in a more patriotically focused sense than anybody else.

Oh, look, there's an Avengers's Quinjet crashing yet again with all the inevitability of a SHIELD helicarrier plunging to the ground, though Quinjet's strangely often seem to leave more damage behind them. And there's the Avengers themselves, and a showdown before the Lincoln Memorial, and a visit to a what-if-the-Nazis-conquered-America-world, and, taken in sum total, it seemed like the laziest, if albeit fond, collection of Captain America cliches that could be imagined.

And just as Mr Hitch was riffing off the styles of previous artists on the strip, so Mr Brubaker seemed to be doing so similarly as a writer, even down to the classic Marvel dialogue given to second-level characters in the story. Consider, for example, how utterly un-Brubaker-like the following speech bubble is in its' traditional-evil-super-villain tone from Arnin Zola;

"Once I crack the Vision's security codes, the secrets of the Avengers will be mine."


II. But it was at that exact point that the proverbial penny dropped, and even I realised that for a supposedly lazy grab-bag of Captain America's most popular and commonly-recycled story-elements, this was a remarkably careful and well-researched one. It simply couldn't have been that Mr Brubaker's mind was so full of Cap's history that he decided without a great deal of preparation and care to represent so much of Captain America's past with that much precision and purpose. For that presumes that Mr Brubaker was behaving out of character as a writer, throwing off a piece of work which stands apart and distinct from his usual careful plotting and delieberate scripting. No, that much care and rigor in discussing Captain America's past could never have been generated by chance or even by a sloppy intention to take the easy route to a commercial success.

Indeed, could it really be chance that Mr Brubaker just happened to touch base with, for example, every situation which we've been discussing here that possesses a considerable disadvantage for how Captain America is used and read as a superhero in the modern MU?

BoldAnd that realisation left only one conclusion possible about the nature of "Captain America:Reborn", and that is that this really is Captain America REBORN, that this is more than the return of Steve Rogers to the modern-day MU again. This is more than the temporary transference of the concentric circles of the shield to one Bucky Barnes for awhile. This is, at least for a good period of time, and for longer no doubt if Marvel decides to run with it, a complete reboot of the franchise on a fundamental level. "Reborn", it seems to me, is a deliberate sealing off of the flaws in plot and theme which have trapped Cap as both a middle-ranking public sort-of-success as a superhero, and as a dubious political icon in much of the material he's appeared in, while also opening up new and more productive avenues for the development of the franchise.

Or, to put it another way: what if this wasn't yet another nostalgic tour of the familiar, but a fond and long lasting and quite deliberate goodbye to it? What if Captain America wasn't lost in time in the narrative simply as a plot-point, but rather to ironically show how Mr Brubaker knows that Cap has been forever looking backwards into his own past, re-experiencing the same themes with the same villains, forever saving the world now simply by the virtue of the fact that he saved the world back then from the forces of fascism?

(*1) Somebody who knows their stuff must have listed these homages somewhere. Can anybody point out such a splendid reference? Or have I imagined homage where no such homage exists?


3. "For Everything You Have Missed, You Have Gained Something Else .. "

What if the point of "Reborn" was, therefore, in addition to creating a popular series and a suitable celebration of Cap's past, to change his life completely, to revisit certain familiar scenes and themes for one final time before leaving them utterly, if not permanently, behind. Because, rather like a sports' fan who knows the result of a game that's been taped for them and therefore watches it with a somewhat distracted involvement and a smaller degree of interest in finding out how the final whistle is reached, so too the readers of "Reborn" knew the ending of the tale before the tale delivered it. Scheduling snafus and commercial logic had combined to leave the reader knowing that Steve Rogers would survive, meaning that "Reborn" seemed to often be engaged with by readers as an old piece of necessary business. And too, there was a fair degree of certainty that "Reborn" would conclude without Steve Rogers resuming the post of Captain America, so again, there didn't seem to be anything too fundamental and radical going on as the series progressed. There was, indeed, a widely-reported and respectful sense of anti-climax at "Reborn", as if somehow Cap might have, for example, found himself convinced of the merits of Nazism through his flashbacks and become Captain NaziMan instead, if only Marvel Comics had kept their nerve and done something radical.

But they did do something radical, and they did it right before our eyes. It's just that some of us - and that "some of us" includes me as a brightly-decked out standard-bearer of missing-the-pointness- couldn't see what was going because it was hidden in plain sight. It was the kind of cleverness that knows it's so clever that being seen to be clever wouldn't be clever at all.

And if you'd like some evidence for what might be seen as a theory that's reading too much into a perfectly competent comic book, why not start with the very first few pages, and the narration from Sharon Carter that intones over deliberately bog-standard, if impressive, shots of Cap leading the American assault into Normandy on D-Day;

"The story of Captain America is filled as much with myths and lies as it with truth, but that, after all, is how you build a legend. You leave out the ugly bits, the death and hardship, and you focus on the parts everyone can digest easily. The natural born hero, the super-soldier built in a U.S. laboratory, the finest of his generation, always the first into battle .. always leading the way, always the victor ... That is the story everyone knows about the life of Captain America."

And that narration surely has to be serving a double-purpose. Yes, it's perfect to bring new readers up to speed, but it isn't actually something that Sharon would say to Henry Pym in these circumstances in that way. These are words, I suspect, that are also designed to tell the audience that the writer of this book knows all about the moral and story-telling pitfalls that have developed over the years since 1964, "the myths and lies", and that he intends to do something about it too. (He'd hardly bring up how the legend of Captain America is "filled with myths and lies" if he wasn't even in part going to reference them, which is at the very least the first step towards engaging with the problems those "myths and lies" might create.)

So, is it possible? Did "Captain America: Reborn" signal up something of a fundamental deconstruction of Captain America on its' very first pages , and yet do so without very many folks even noticing it, having hid this particular purloined letter in plain, four-coloured, Summer-popcorn-widescreen movie splendour from the first?

And perhaps Mr Hitch was so keen to do his excellent work here, in spite of what was reported as being a very tight deadline, because he knew it would be the last time for a good while that these familiar themes, characters and events were to be placed centre-stage in Cap's books. It may be that this was more than Mr Hitch's celebration of a character so obvious dear to him. It might have been his chance to be there when that whole traditional approach and deep history was to be, at least for awhile, consigned respectfully to the "been-there, done-that, must-move-on" file.

4. "An Expert Is A Person Who Has Made All The Mistakes That Can Be Made In A Very Narrow Field."

Or perhaps, yes, I've been thinking too much about it. This is absolutely likely. Perhaps, then, you'd be best to read this as an example of how the hubris of the bottom-of-the-food-chain comic-book blogger can generate a beguiling and invalid artefact from the misapplication of inappropriate methodology, or, namely, I thunk too much and I thunk too poorly and I thunk wrong too.

But I do think that "Reborn" is far more clever and significant than just a mini-series which saw Steve Rogers return to the present-day MU while Bucky Barnes became Captain America. And that's not simply because of what's been achieved by "Reborn" within the pages produced Mr Brubaker and Mr Hitch; it's also because of the depth of understanding of the franchise, if I may use that ugly word, that informed the radical changes I'll be engaging with. And, like most clever solutions to complex problems, the answers on show in "Reborn" are elegantly straight-forward. So elegant, in fact, that they might be mistaken for principles which had existed all along.


5. "History Is A Nightmare From Which I Am Trying To Escape."

If Captain America had previously become so indistinguishable from the moral centre of the Marvel Universe, and if that leaves his every action equivalent to the highest ethical standards, with all the problems that that brings, then "Reborn" cuts that particular Gordian Knot. Because, as we discussed, although the Captain America costume is a holy relic, it's Steve Rogers who is the sacred object. It's Rogers who fought for decency even before being blessed with Dr Erskine's formulae (*2), Rogers who won the Second World for us, Rogers who was broken and denied entry into the holy land of the post-war peace, and Rogers who has set the ultimate moral example to a greater and greater extent in the MU ever since. Take Rogers out of the costume and that wretched business of the last golden warrior, from the last American generation to deservedly win a Just War, disappears. (*3) And with Rogers elsewhere, the costume can return to being what it was originally meant to be; a uniform for a lone man fighting for the survival of America's civil society, rather than a signifier of America itself.

Of course, replacing Steve Rogers with Bucky Barnes is a stroke of comic-book plotting genius, and only a fool would think that the replacement by Bucky of Steve Rogers was so obvious that it was inevitable. I think alot of folks in some strange fashion forget that Bucky Barnes was as dead and buried as it is possible for a comic book character to be when Mr Brubaker took over "Captain America". It was actually inconceivable that "Bucky"could be returned to the MU in a way that was involving to the reader while not undermining the poignancy of the character's death in World War II. In fact, it was as unbelievable then as the idea of President Obama parachuting Donald Rumsfeld into the White House now as Secretary Of State for Whatever-The-Hell-He-Wants-To-Do. It simply wasn't something that anybody with an ounce of common sense would consider, unless in truth they had an excess of common sense ounces hidden away where the rest of us put our prejudices. Yet Bucky Barnes we now have, the "Winter Soldier", fully integrated over many years into the MU, a character unblemished in the eyes of the audience by his unlikely and unlooked for return, and perfect as a choice to adopt the role of the new Captain America. If this isn't a sign of the kind of intelligent design that doesn't have us reaching for Richard Dawkin's latest learned tome with steaming ears, then I'll eat my hat. And it is, so I won't. Because Mr Brubaker took such time and care to place Bucky Barnes where he did, the cleverness and radicalism of the whole affair is masked by familiarity. It feels inevitable because Mr Brubaker made it feel that way.


And Bucky Barnes is an appropriate bearer of the Captain America costume because his character and experience is a mass of contradictions which both express and undermine the very qualities which made Steve Rogers such a problematical figure. Barnes too is a survivor of World War II, but he's in truth a far more disturbing and actually representative figure than Rogers, for Barnes was the teenager turned into the killer, the orphan taken into the Army and in return turned into propaganda mascot, assassin and man-of-war. His run at fame was not the simple straight forward sprint towards glory that was Steve Rogers', and Bucky, as with all the other fighting men and women of the US forces, was no superhuman. Barnes was and is a creature of both light and shadow, and the shadow was truer to his experience, but he was no insult to the "ordinary Joe", in that he was as ordinary as they were. And considering how "ordinary" and terrible his experiences in the War were, God only knows how he would've acclimatised to returning to the USA after the fighting ended. I doubt that it would have been easy. He certainly wouldn't have returned to American shores as anything other than a brave and yet compromised human being, which is, in so many ways, something quite different from how Steve Rogers might have experienced his homecoming.

And yet of course, Bucky Barnes didn't get to return to America at War's end. But unlike Steve Rogers, frozen in ice like Christ behind the rock and Arthur in his tomb, waiting to save us because they are better than us - which is what that metaphor says, of course - Bucky was perverted by the Cold War, taken by the Soviets, rebuilt by their industrial technology - unlike Steve who was rebuilt by America's chemical technology - and sent out to kill in the name of Communism. It's hard to believe, even as it's hard to admit that such a thought is anything other than stupid, that Steve Rogers would have allowed himself to have been similarly taken, although Bucky had no choice, or that Captain America would've permitted himself to stay a killer for the "Reds" when his force of American will would surely have broken him free, although Bucky could not help himself. But Bucky? No matter how brave and true, Bucky was already the compromised boy-killer by the time the Soviets reached him. There was that shadow in his soul, that darkness that the child with a gun and a good excuse is held to carry. And so Bucky is both American patriot and American vulnerability, American strength and weakness, superhero and susceptible everyman. As a soldier for America, he's one of us, compromised and well-meaning, and we can in a way support him even more than Steve Rogers. But we can't ever mistake his CAPTAIN America for Captain AMERICA. Though he is in many ways more American than Steve Rogers, because America is the sum of fallible as well as impressive humans too, he can't ever be mistaken for any abstract mindwiping symbol of the Home Of The Brave. Bucky was brave too, but he didn't get to come home. Not for far too many decades. And when he did come home, it wasn't as Arthur, or Steve Rogers, but as something far more profane, and yet laudable and human too.

So, perhaps Mr Brukaer has removed "Captain America" from the problematical and ethically compromising role as the moral centre of the MU, and in the place of Steve Rogers given us back our super-soldier, or at least, America's. And in doing so, another of the problems we discussed gets resolved too, because if Captain America is no longer the best of us all, but rather our representative and servant, then Cap isn't going to be able to close every conflict. Things are going to be more interesting from now on, because the Captain America who used to both graciously take and yet in effect give orders is no more. And now we have a Captain America who exists to be a soldier, and another "Cap", of sorts, far higher up the chain of command, a member of the brass, a man of political as well as physical power.

And who's to say that the two of them, best of friends and oldest of colleagues, are even going to be able to agree on the mission anymore, let alone the best way to undertake it? Not one America, but, at the very least, two.

* 2 - Credit to Harvey Jerkwater to pointing out how my own mind was contradicting itself over this point in the last blog. But it wasn't my fault! It was that pesky mind of mine!
* 3 - Let us thank the spirits who try to watch over the superhero world that the new Captain America wasn't a poor soldier who'd survived the recent wars of liberation and stabilisation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Boy, but that would have thrown up enough moral confusion and story flak to wipe out a generation of comic book readers.


6. "So We Beat On, Boats Against The Current, Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past"


I. Something very strange happens to Steve Rogers in "Reborn" even before he hangs up his wingnuts and shield. He stops in part being the character who settles every debate and closes every conflict. Now, I know that it's an exaggeration straying into the territory of an outright lie to suggest that that's how adventures with Cap have always worked, but I think, as I've argued, that there's enough evidence to suggest that over time that was becoming more and more so. But in "Reborn", it's Cap who needs saving time and time again. It's as if Mr Brubaker was gently lowering him from his pedestal and placing him back into the ranks of the super-heroes and the super-heroic, in preparation for a more prosaic and functional future. Consider how, for example, it's Sharon Carter who "takes out" the Red Skull at the battle's end, not either of the Captain Americas. And if Steve Rogers is still strong enough by himself to expel the Red Skull from his mind, just because he's Captain America and no Nazi can defeat him in his soul, then it's undoubtedly a massive team-effort which results, often by mishap and mischance, in bringing Cap back to the present day at a time and place where he might be freed from Fascist control.

And what of those Fascist relics from a war won and lost 65 years ago? No matter how dangerous today's fascists are, they aren't quite the same beasts as those who swept across Europe and were in the end swept right back again. (*4) Today's Fascists are political beasts to a man and woman, of course, but they're different to their ancestors in Rome and Berlin. Constantly having Captain America cycling back to fight once more against the Red Skull, and another Zemo, a Zola (*5) and so on, has locked the character, just as his WW II experiences and his holy aura have, into endless repetitions of fights which have become less relevant to the world that we know as time passes. And in that light, surely "Reborn" is also more than a grand tour of Steve Rogers' previous adventures. It's a closing of the door on them. It's the outcome of some hard thinking, I believe, which has seen that Cap's association with the War has brought not only a depth of informing experience to the character, but also a limited and ever-more irrelevant set of conflicts to play out. I don't think that the following discussion between The Falcon and Captain America is merely panel-filling on this point;

FALCON: "Is that it? Is the Skull really dead this time?"
STEVE R: "There's nowhere else for him to go, Sam ... Not anymore."

So perhaps "Reborn" was in some sense a Gottersammerung for the old Nazis of Captain America's past, and those endless loops of the Just War and its' sacred triumphs and travails, as well as a necessary updating and repositioning of Cap? It's interesting to note how it's the Skull who collapses in flames at the end, in a typically Wagnerian fashion, after all, and how his daughter ends up so terribly burned that she can return as a Red Skull of a similar but more contemporary fascism, one of terror and opportunism. This is a reboot on a more complete level than just costumes, I think. For again, what we have here isn't one more jog round the grand tour, but the last fond look before locking the door on the past.

And if that's so, then here has been created a remarkable opportunity to completely recast the myths of Captain America. Bucky as Cap, for example, means that the halo effect of the Second World War is dimmed into something more real and less pernicious. The War itself can finally be ended, with the old Nazis dead, and the old reinforcement of Captain America's virtue by constant comparison with exhausted historical stereotypes gone. And in the place of that old metaphysical dogma comes something new, because now Steve Rogers himself is free to travel to somewhere he hasn't been able to travel before; his own future. And therefore it can't, just can't, be coincidence that Mr Brubaker and Mr Hitch show us, in the last scene of "Reborn", that Steve Rogers is haunted by visions of a future alien invasion of America which only he has the foreknowledge of. Ah, the land of the free still needs saving, but not entirely from the Government, or even from those bloody-handed Nazi relics. There's something worse out there, and something perhaps less ideologically fixed and more morally informing. (*6) It's a remarkable change of direction for Steve Roger's mind, because ever since 1964, his thoughts have been those of the past, of his lost mother, and his lost partner, and America's implicit and explicit loss of unity and purpose. He's been the neurotic, traumatised war veteran, the old man in a young man's body, the survivor who can't rest in or belong to the society that he's been beached upon.

No wonder it's been hard for a mass audience to attach itself to Captain America in a way that would allow his solo book to feel as significant, and to sell as many copies, as his appearances elsewhere in the MU might lead us to believe would be the norm. Captain America has perhaps not spoken to a present-day audience because he's so often not been living in the present-day. And beyond all the political implications of that, which we've discussed, lie fundamental problems of what he is to his audience. After all, it isn't hard to be bored and disinterested by the very things that we regard as sacred, and all that being dragged backwards in time by psychology and history can't be said upon reflection to always make for the most obviously dynamic of characters, though I have always retained my fondness for "Captain America".

II. It wasn't my intention to touch upon events since "Reborn" here, but there one or two developments in Mr Brubakers' "masterplan" that are impossible to ignore, and several which are essential to pay attention to in order to appropriately close off the above discussion. Firstly, as we all know by now, Steve Rogers has been made head of America's "security system" by the MU's President Obama, a service to the State which the ex-Captain America undertook upon condition that he could he could do things " his way". And secondly, we're told that Rogers will be, in addition to his bureaucratic duties working within the State, in order to protect the State, leading a team of "Secret Avengers", though their exact reason for existing hasn't yet, to my knowledge, been announced.

Though I worry greatly about the idea of President Obama allowing anyone to run the U.S.A.'s "security system" - whatever that constitutes - their way, for I dearly hope that way is a Constitutional one, the fact is that Steve Rogers is now working within the American State, and for it. And while I have no doubt that he'll find endless corrupt politicians, twisted spooks and parking-privilege-abuser secretaries, this does provide a historic opportunity for Marvel to stop the State being represented as being little except incompetent or evil. I hope against hope that we're not going to see the return to the type of tale told by Mr Brubaker in "Captain America" # 8, where Cap and Nick Fury invade, in complete contradiction of international law, a foreign state on the Mongolian border only to be ordered back by the corrupt Chief of Staff To The Vice-President of the U.S.A. Oh, those corrupt politicians, stopping superheroes invading other countries while they themselves pile into the Middle East and even yet-more distant lands without a binding UN Resolution to cloak their own political modesty with. And if only the State would just let superheroes do what they want, well, would 9/11 have happened? Invade more countries was the message there, and, on the whole, I'm against that, given that, as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us all over again, surgical or more brutal strikes upon the leaders of rogue states don't solve the problems at hand at all. The messy business of lasting engagement is the only solution, and I hope Steve Rogers represents such real-world knowledge in his new role.

But placing Steve Rogers within the State is a tremendously positive move. Played out in a way which would combat those tendencies to denigrate the state we've been discussing for a while here, it could be a cracking idea. The contradictions between individual morality, political exigencies, the Constitution and international law, and the pleasant absurdities of the superhero comic book, would surely generate enough conflict to power an endless string of stories. And of course it separates Steve Rogers further away from any abstract notion of America and grounds him in politics, that grubby matter of compromise; it strips the sacred away a touch and shows the profane beneath, which is exactly the opposite process that's been underway since 1964. When he comes to his fellow superheroes in his government guise from now on, Steve Rogers won't be the saintly Captain America anymore, and he won't even be Steve Rogers: ordinary man of the people with some very big muscles. Instead, he'll be a representative of a political system, part of the debate, on the side of some policies and against others. He won't be able to speak for everyone anymore, because nobody rightly embedded in the State can, even as it's their duty to try to do so. And so, through him, unless we're going to swamped with even more of the might-as-well-be-Ayn-Rand anti-democratic rubbish that we've been talking about, we might get the idea that Americans can value being citizens of the Constitution as much as they might want the kudos of being the holder of an Avengers privilege card. ("Privilege" meaning, of course, that you can HIT people, and be admired for it!)

We might even see Steve Rogers taking orders as well as giving them. Assuming that Mr Roger's "way" is the American way of, er, following American law, might we not see him being contradicted, being rightly as well as wrongly admonished, and from more than just a cuddly Liberal version of President Obama. Might we hope for some oversight of his activities, for example, and not just a pen-pusher moaning about budgets? May we even see that Steve Rogers doesn't actually know anything about running this American security system, that he needs the help and advice of those already in place, as much as he needs to start cleaning out the filth from the many stables of King America.


And perhaps we might see a superhero or two breaking the law in the name of Justice and actually being punished for it, no? Similarly, perhaps we might see Steve Rogers sullied not by some ugly adolescent sense of emasculation because politicians won't let him beat up who he wants, but rather because of the noble compromise of real life. For he'll be living in something which could be just an story-beat closer to the real one of ours than before, where nothing is easy and no one action entirely morally secure, so that Steve Roger's lost halo becomes so coated with fluff and dust, as all ours are, that he won't be able to pick it up and go straight back to solving every moral problem with a swish of a shield anymore. Because certainly Bucky Barnes can't play the "perfect American" card either. They're both grounded in something more mucky, and far more interesting, than the martyrs' garments and the saviour's glow. And neither can act alone anymore, saving the world by themselves, or rather, not in such a way that their actions, regardless of what they actually do, can be read as being as beyond question and perfectly good.

Which is a good thing, no? A really good thing.

*4 - Readers might care to check out "Well, Is Judge Dredd A Fascist" in the May archive of my other blog for some more on this question of the definition of fascism where comic books are concerned. And if you do go there, that means that I don't have to cover the material here, as it seems I haven't.
* 5 - Er, isn't "Zola" a name more commonly associated with the fine and brave French author who fought against anti-Semitism? Why did Mr Kirby choose that name?
*6 - Readers who are curious about what this future threat might be are advised to head to "It Came From Darkmoor", the blog by Mark Roberts, where his May 25th entry "A Theory About Captain Britain And The Avengers" is a fascinating look at what Steve Roger's vision might involve. To get there, head for the Comic Book Blog Of Honour box UK box to your right.


7. "What A Splendid Summer Morning And It Seemed As If Nothing Could Go Wrong."

I realise that the above on the future of these characters is 100% conjecture, and that Steve Rogers' future role both within the state and possibly against it is something which will play out in the MU over the months to come. But the truth is that Mr Brubaker's "Captain America: Reborn" has created the possibility for such future developments. "Reborn" simply wasn't a look backwards over Cap's career, and in the story-paths it's closed off and the ones it's opened up, it has created the template for the most radical, successful and appropriate re-setting of a super-hero franchise since Frank Miller shook "Daredevil" up with his fusion of crime noir, Will Eisner and Ninjas. That template set down by Mr Miller for "Daredevil" has largely held ever since, and if it's been drifting more and more away from "morally compromised" to "morally disgusting", it's still an example of that rarest of all tricks; seamlessly picking up the threads of a less-successful-than-it-should-be franchise and making it sturdy and self-consistent enough to flourish. For where many fans of Spider-Man, for example, will say that they've enjoyed the stories since the deal-with-the-devil, they'll still see "One More Day" as a discontinuity, as something broken and unresolved in the character's history. But the current status quo of Steve Rogers, Super-Soldier, and Bucky Barnes, Captain America, has been arrived at so relatively quietly and carefully, and yet to such radical effect, that beyond what is often assumed to be a temporary leave-of-absence by Rogers from his old role, nobody is too much on their feet applauding.

But everything has changed, and even if the intention I've thought I've seen here was absent, the changes to "Captain America" have effectively shown how this comic book and this character could be rescued from problems which have afflicted it in the past. And that's an incredibly useful thing. Because when we consider how hard it's been to find a new and workable status quo particularly for characters of World War II vintage, we have to conclude that it's a nearly-impossible job to get right. Consider how Superman and Wonder Woman, and Namor and Captain Marvel, have all suffered multiple and radical surgeries to bring them into the modern day marketplace without losing their charm or core values, and how those many interventions have often fared so poorly, despite the highest level of craft and the greatest measure of good intentions. And I think, despite whatever may have happened since "Reborn", or whatever may happen from now, there is in this mini-series the keys to this particular kingdom.

The old Nazis are gone, and so is the halo effect of WWII. And there's a strong possibility that Steve Rogers is going to be more an active component of the America State rather than America's Olympian conscience, and the old narrative cycles which Cap has been thrown through endlessly have, since "Reborn", been taken off the table. This is, as I said at the beginning, really clever. It was hidden in plain sight, it was placed in a mini-series which has often been assumed to be backward looking and conservative, and yet at the end, look, all is pleasingly not-shiny and new.

So I admire "Reborn", partially for what it has achieved as an enjoyable widescreen comic book "event", and partly for the oppurtunity for lasting and positive change to the Captain America franchise that it's created. It's clever. It's helped to clear the board even of Steve Roger's obsession with the past. And I'm sure that it's got a tribute to Frank Robbins in it too! What more do you want?


It may be that I admire "Reborn" more for how it reworks Cap's franchice, its' informed functionality, than I do repect it as a superhero story, but it is indeed the plimsoll line of modern comic books and anybody who knows how important the principle of the plimsoll line was will know I'm not being insulting there at all. I say "Try It Out"!

And anyone who recalls me promising to discuss "Reborn" as a fairy-tale, that idea threatened to take over this piece and it's now been hived off into a piece on Golden Age superhero origins and the structure of fairy-tales. I hope you'll join me for that at some undetermined time in the future. And that you'll join me in a few days for more "shot-me-down-I'm-a-fool" musings on comic books and stuff. I wish you, whoever you may be, kind reader, a splendid day!


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Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Traitor-Saint Of The Marvel Universe: More Thoughts Inspired By Ed Brubaker & Bryan Hitch's "Captain America: Reborn"

1. "Don't Be Afraid, Son ... You're About To Become One Of America's Saviors!"

I. I'd like to return for one final time to the pseudo-presidential funeral of Captain America which we discussed last time around, but for a quite different reason and to a quite separate purpose than before. And perhaps we may indulge ourselves here in a thought-experiment of sorts, which might help us define a touch more precisely the status and position which Captain America holds as a character in the contemporary Marvel Universe. The thought experiment at hand is a simple one; can we imagine any other Marvel character being given such a "presidential" funeral immediately after committing such significant acts of Treason against the American state as Captain America did during "Civil War"?

Now, I may be wrong, but there's nobody that comes to my mind, except perhaps a swiftly-suppressed and horrible mental shiver that was the beginning of an idea that perhaps the Sentry's passing could be made to carry something of equal weight of poignancy and loss, since, after all, the Sentry seems to have been everybody's best friend, confident and lover. (He was a remarkable man, that Sentry; trusty pal and sainted confessor to 306 000 000 individual Americans would surely not have been beyond him.) That disturbing thought aside, why don't we try to imagine how the deaths of other characters in the Marvel Universe under similar circumstances could have been legitimately and convincingly presented.

Spider-Man? Well, it's hard to imagine the crowds would be out for a public funeral for Peter Parker's alter-ego even if he hadn't, as Cap had, just been apprehended undertaking an armed insurrection against the United States Of America on the streets of New York City. (Peter Parker, mind you, would probably be lowered into the ground as a private citizen before a quiet gathering of perhaps of a dozen-and-a-half people, all of whom loved and valued him greatly.) Daredevil? No, at the best of times, today's Matthew Murdock might be lucky to be mourned by more than a handful of witnesses, most of them corralled by Foggy Nelson, no doubt. Thor? (Not an American national, not likely to buried in America.) Ms Marvel? (Perhaps a small military funeral.) Dr Strange? ("Who?") Reed Richards? (A black tie and jeans affair for the intellectual geekarati, mayhaps?) Iron Man? (At best a Hollywood procession, all paparazzi and "loyal" ex-employees and weeping once-girl-friends. But no state funeral of such scale and sentiment lies in wait for Tony Stark, I suspect.) Any of the X-Men? (Well, the old furry Beast might have inspired a fond line of sorrowful female admirers to mark his passing, but otherwise, I think not.)

In fact, there's no character that I can think of who could convincingly be granted such a funeral even on their best days, short of saving the world in the most dramatic and painful circumstances as the result of a noble sacrifice beamed live into every home in the USA. And even then, even if Speedball had bounced Galactus to death or the Angel had wing-whipped Dr Doom into the realm of the Mindless Ones, there surely wouldn't have been that air of conjoined respect and despair at their passing, of that subdued and yet desperate need to huddle together that human beings experience when a cornerstone of their understanding of the world is violently removed. (Even when that cornerstone had been arrested for violently subverting the Constitution and rebelling against the State just a few days before.)

II. And if I'm right in saying in effect that only Captain America could be depicted receiving such honours just hours after mounting a rebellion on American soil with the aid of foreign troops, then it must be obvious that we can't entirely "blame" the creators of "Civil War" and its' associated tie-ins for how Captain America was depicted during the superhero rebellion. Because the character of Steve Rogers must have already been established, in part through design and largely - I suspect - through the steady and unconscious accumulation of superhero tradition and tropes, as the supremely sanctified and morally incorruptible centre of the Marvel Universe for "Civil War" to convince its audience of that in the first place. The fact that Cap's acts of treason passed by largely unnoticed by the mass audience for "Civil War" was therefore at least in part because it had already been fiercely established that, in the last instance, when all the shilly-shallying and doubts have been processed, Captain America doesn't get it wrong. When wars are fought, he ends them. When good examples are demanded, he sets them. When aliens invade and Nazi zombie armies rise, he faces them down as much through his ethical rectitude as by his good and strong shield-slinging right arm.

Yes, Captain America has minor personal failings, but they're always resolved in such a way as the final victory over tyranny is achieved. Yes, he gets knocked down, but he always gets up again, and indeed that's part and parcel of who he is. He's the fallible human who is infallible where moral issues and overwhelming opposing odds are concerned.

And so CAPTAIN America, the super-soldier, must have already on many levels become established as Captain AMERICA, the traitor who can never be a traitor because he and not the Constitution or Congress is the real arbiter of how national conflicts should be resolved. And from that indefinable and yet ever-present quality of super-heroic goodness comes the popular standing of CAPTAIN AMERICA, the dispenser of absolute justice through sanctified violence.

Or, as one Samuel T. Underwood, "The N.P.P. Convention Chairman", declared to Captain America in Roger Stern and John Byrne's highly entertaining tale of how Cap came be offered the nomination for a third party's quest for power in the 1980 national election;

"Cap, how would you like to be the New Populist Party Candidate for President? ... The people don't want a politician .... They want a leader." (CA # 250)

2. "We Shall Call You Captain America, Son!"

What the carnival huckster-like "Mr Underwood" is arguing for when he says that "The people don't want a politician .... They want a leader." seems to me to at the heart of what has led Captain America to the position where he can function so irrationally and yet so movingly as Marvel's "traitor-saint". For Underwood's words carry the meaning, so often expressed in so many walks of life, that men and women engaged in the Constitutional framework of debate as regards the governing of America are by the simple fact of doing so disqualified from being worthy of such responsibility. Politics is dirty, politicians are a parasitical class quite different from those they rule; that's apparently not what America wants from the people it votes for . No, the only politician who deserves power in the name of this "people" of Underwood's is one who is no politician at all, one who doesn't negotiate or make deals, but one who rather "leads".

One who rules because they know best, who deserves power because they wield power without compromise, since that's what that wearisome stuff politics inevitably is; discussion and compromise. No, what Underwood believes is that America is weary of Constitutional government. Presumably, America wants to be told what to do without having to be disappointed or misled, and so America requires a President who can be relied upon to get it right every time, who can be justified in "leading" because that President is serving the greater good simply by doing so.

Who could be more suitable for so leading the Nation than Steve Rogers with those wings on his head?


Which all sounds rather beguiling until of course it dawns that that would be in practise the opposite of democratic, since democracy is actually designed to be concerned with compromise, with strict and binding and time-limited constraints on the power of government, particularly in America, where the Framers of the Constitution focused with such intensity of purpose on making sure that no one branch of government could ever "lead" without the other branches - with the people's will expressed through regular elections - acting as a brake on them.

In fact, leading while rejecting politics and "politicians", and dressing in a costume composed of the stars and stripes while doing so, would effectively be fascism, wouldn't it, in the context here? In reality and in principle, or rather, in the lack of both of them?

Good for Captain America, therefore, that he eventually turned down that nomination. Bad for him that he didn't reject Mr Underwood's offer with far more force, and far more instantaneously, and at the precise moment when he heard that dangerous and revealing crack about "politicians" and "leaders".

Because what kind of America would Captain America be representing if anyone including he himself was by implication as well as fact above the business of the Constitution, of the business of politics, of the restraints of the rule of law?

Why, that wouldn't be a Captain America in power at all. That would be a Captain "ME" in the Nation's highest office, and all the citizens of America would be citizens no longer.

I wonder how content they'd be to be free of "politicians" and safe in the hands of a super-heroic "leader" then?

3. "Because Like You -- America Shall Gain The Strength And The Will To Safeguard Our Shores!"

I.
In Captain America's first canonical appearance in the modern Marvel Universe, in "Avengers # 4" (1964), long before the temptations of office and leadership came his way, there appears a telling splash page which establishes for us today how different Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's take of Steve Rogers was to ours. In it, Cap is showing striding respectfully and purposefully forward towards the four remaining founding Avengers, while Thor declaims; "Step forward, Captain America! Your rightful place is here, among the Avengers!". And it's so noticeable that Thor has the authority over Captain America here, and that the Avengers are the team which Captain America needs to join for his own good rather than a superhero strike force incomplete without him. This is no paragon of virtue or even a sentinel of liberty. As Thor says when the Captain's frozen body is discovered and recognised, Captain America was no more and no less than " .. the once mighty crime-fighter ... ", which is a rather limited take on Captain America's status and role in the Marvel Universe compared to that he held at the time of the conclusion of "Civil War", where Sam Wilson declared;

"He did more than wear the flag. He believed in all the things it stood for, and he actively worked to inspire men, women and children to be the heroes he knew that they could be."

How significant the jump from 1964 to 2007 has been for Captain America's role. Of course, all characters must develop across such a period of time in order to survive. And yet I can think of no other superhero who has become so fundamentally altered until the virtues which they could originally could be seen to stand for have become synonymous with the character themselves. By Civil War, Captain America wasn't the "crime-fighter" who on occasion discussed liberty so much as liberty itself.
II. One of Captain America's first significant appearances outside of the pages of "The Avengers" in the MU was in "Sgt Fury" # 13 (1964), in a tale set back in World War II, which showed the ordinary American soldier of the '40s remarkably, by modern MU standards, free of awe and reverence for Cap. Oh, there's no doubt that he and Bucky are publicly popular, as shown in the newsreel which begins the tale, and the captured American airmen freed by Cap and Bucky later on in the tale are surely grateful for their rescue. But rather than being both the everyman of the people and the saviour of the people, this Captain America is regarded by the belligerent Sgt. Fury as one of the Brass, as an officer who needs bringing down a peg or too, as a man who plainly isn't fondly thought of one of the common herd. ("Mebbe I oughtta wear a nutty mask with two cornball wings on it, phooey!" and "Who's that fancy-pants costumed clown think he is, requestin' me?" are two of Fury's more telling phrases here.)


And that very image of Captain America as an officer, as a soldier with special privileges of rank which need to justified to the common soldier is far away from, for example, how Mr Brubaker and Mr Hitch portray Cap's wartime exploits in "Reborn". (Although there's a clever trick to how they do that which we'll discuss next time.) There, Captain America is constantly shown to one of the ordinary, classless fighting men of the war in the sense that nothing divides him from the rank and file he represents. (Well, beyond his uniform, abilities and exhortations.) Class, rank or power aren't issues in "Reborn". Nothing separates Cap from his people. He's a colourful soldier, there's no denying, no matter how many ammunition belts and wingless-helmets are added to his costume, but Mr Hitch is still showing the improbable fact of a superhero who is nothing more in fact if not paycheck than one of the ordinary ranks. Yet the original take of Lee and Kirby is on reflection a far more convincing picture of how American soldiers in Europe might have related to a "... fancy-pants costumed clown ... ". Yes, Cap would probably have won many if not most of them over, but there must have been some sense of difference between Steve Rogers in his chain mail with his big stripey shield and the men under fire around him.

Yet the trick, or one of the many tricks, of the modern version of Captain America is that he is both one of the people and yet in fact better than them. He's not just more powerful, he's a kinder, braver, more American individual than his fellow men and women. And of course he pulls this off without having to try too hard to do so. He's one "one of us", that's just what he is. A perfect pose for a politician, you might expect, if "politics" wasn't too compromised and dirty a trade for Captain America.

4. "Death To The Dogs Of Democracy"


I. Readers unfamiliar with the first twenty years of Captain America's adventures in the modern Marvel Universe might find themselves surprised and even shocked by how peripheral he seems in many of them compared with his modern status, especially where the conflicts taking place outside of his own book are concerned. For today, as in the climax of the Skrull Invasion of Earth, such is the need to find Captain America at the centre of the defeat of the fearsome transgressors that even the appearance of a surrogate Captain towards the closing of events signals to the audience that everything will be alright now. But prior to Jim Shooter's "Secret War", Captain America was at best a major character among equals in the MU, and certainly not first among them. The less familiar reader might indeed be amazed at how often Iron Man, or even one of Hank Pym's many identities, took the lead in "Avengers" tales without even a hint of agreement from Steve Rogers being necessary; he's often just one of the guys. (It's usually guys, sadly.) And in most of the greatest battles that Cap fights outside of his own comic, it's actually Thor who takes the leadership of the Avengers, as in the Invasion Of Olympus (# 100), the invasion of Dormammu's home dimension by the Defenders and the Avengers (# 118), or the final confrontation with "Michael" (# 176) where only the "gods" Thor and Moondragon seem to survive.


Even in the Kree/Skrull War (# 96), Cap only takes charge where it's the only function he can provide, given that Iron Man, Thor and the Vision can all actually take part in the fighting in the vacuum of space and Cap can't, and indeed he practically disappears from the action of the War's conclusion. And in the famous full-page shot by Mr Byrne and Mr Day of a huge cast of Avengers awaiting Henry Gyrich's decision about who is to be allowed to be in their ranks (# 181) it's instructive to note that of all the characters present, only Cap is shown as an almost-disembodied head facing away from the reader. He's the least important character in the design of the page. Even Nikki of the Guardians Of The Galaxy is more prominent.

That simply couldn't happen today. Captain America would have to be stage-centre of any heroic gathering, or there would have be an explicitly-stated reason for why not.

II. By the time 1984's "Secret Wars" had been reached, Captain America is a still-recognisable and yet rather different creature to the one described above. Indeed, he's already perceivable as something of a kinsman to his Civil War counterpart, to the "traitor/saint" Cap who we've been discussing. In truth, this Captain America of the "Secret Wars" is already considerably more than just a super-soldier or even just a super-hero; there's the scent of some major new deity from the East crossing the Aegean here, of a new Captain America appearing fully-formed from the head of the old one, looking remarkably similar but behaving in some substantially different ways.

For example, in "Secret Wars" the question of who will lead the disparate superheroes who've been marooned on a planet far from Earth soon raises its' "political" head. And in the absence of the common sense and political nous which would've permitted the gathered super-heroes to realise that a small and highly skilled group don't need authoritarian leadership, the current Avenger's leader The Wasp nominates Cap for such a role. (Operational units of the S.A.S., for example, are trained to make decisions and share responsibilities in a far more democratic fashion than is commonly known, for example, and that's because highly trained fighters need to learn to think and contribute rather than to be simply "led".) For Janet van Dyne doesn't have the faith of all those present, she declares, but nobody has any doubts of Captain America's capacity to "lead", except for snotty little Wolverine, poster-boy at that time for bad tempered poor judgements, which was as good an endorsement as Cap could then be given. (*2) Everybody respects Captain America and his leadership capabilities, and so Cap is duly established as very much the very first among super-heroes.

How odd that decision is. Trapped on an alien world, facing God-like antagonists on the other side of the Universe: it would seem that Thor would undoubtedly be the appropriate choice, given his centuries of experience leading troops into battle and experiencing alien environments. But Thor's opinion of Captain America and his skills of leadership are so fulsome and redolent of Uriah-Heep that I still find it cringingly embarrassing to read;

"I will ... (follow Captain America) ... I am a Prince of the Gods. I do not pledge allegiance to many of mortal stature. This man I follow through the gates of Hades."

Gosh. Captain America, leader of gods, then and forever more. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Sersi, Thor. Captain America seems to know so much more than these folks who've been living their Godly lives and generating their Godly experience for endless centuries.

How fantastic is he?

And the indecent Oscar-night level of adulation doesn't end there. Professor X has already been put to use to deliver the key-note with his declaration that;

"I'm also good at reading hearts -- No man in existence equals your courage, Captain America."

Now, if we decide to put on one side the hitherto-unrevealed mutant capacity to read hearts, which seems an incredibly unlikely mental power even in the context of the Marvel Universe, this marks a complete sea-change in the relation between Professor Xavier and Steve Rogers. A decade before, both Captain America and the X-Men's battleground leader and strategist Cyclops were taking their orders in the field during the conflict against the Secret Empire from Professor X. (CA 174) But things are different now. Even the limited authority granted Captain America retrospectively by Roy Thomas in "The Invaders" during that comic's run in the 1970s is now nothing compared to the modestly-accepted, but absolutely wielded authority that Captain America now has as his apparent right.

And yet, his modest reluctance to lead his various superhero troops into battle, his wish that his endless wars could be over so that he could lay down his burdens, his capacity to represent authority without seeming to possses power, only makes Captain America more worthy in the reader's affections. For not only is he so essential and so capable, he's also so very much the improbable love-child of Henry Fonda and John Wayne too, reticent and fearsome, improvisational and practical, self-effacing and stare-you-down indominable.

In many ways, this is a perfect man, perfect even in the fact that he can't conceive of himself as being perfect at all.

*2 - This was of course before endless resets and memory implant removals - or whatever it's all been about - revealed Captain America and Wolverine to be ancient allies of each other.

III. It isn't difficult to gather some presumptions for why Captain America became re-codified in this way during Mr Shooter's reign. There was already a developing momentum to straighten out the many neurosis which the character had developed after his reawakening in '64, as can be seen, for example, in Steve Engelhart's run on Cap's own book. This momentum picked up pace under Roger Stern's time both on "Captain America" and "The Avengers", where much of Cap's survivor angst was understandably and ably dampened down and replaced by a more stoic competency. But it's obviously Mr Shooter's determination to make Marvel's characters as distinct from each other and individual in themselves which is, I believe, the key here. For Captain America was indeed a major Marvel property, yet he was constantly under-powered on the battlefield outside of his own comic book, and was therefore hard to put to use in the company of his stronger compatriots. Most of Marvel's other marquee lead characters at the time - from Thor to the Hulk to the Thing and even to a degree Spider-Man - effortlessly outclassed Steve Rogers once the big punch-ups began. And following the failure to "take" of Steve Engelhart's decision to grant Captain America super-strength, the only solution was to make Cap more valuable if not essential on the battlefield without messing with his original powers. And what more could the World War II super-soldier offer except his supreme courage, his mastery of strategy and his apparently undoubted right to lead his fellows in combat?

And it's here that the slippage of Captain America from super-soldier to morally free-floating American icon really starts to gather force and pace. For if Cap is the character who every other super-hero takes their orders from, and Captain America is braver than every other character too, then he's suddenly appraoching the status of a morally superior individual too. His virtues are those of all his fighting colleagues who defer to him, since they don't just follow him in practical terms. They defer to him in terms of their personal characteristics too. He's brighter than them where it most matters, where super-heroes prove themselves, where the metaphors of super-hero conflict are played out, on the punching grounds. He's braver than them there too.

He's the best of all of them, because the killing grounds are where virtue is determined in the superhero universes. And we love and admire him all the more because he's not Thor or Iron Man. He can threaten Thanos when the Titan's wearing the Infinity Gauntlet, lecture Galactus on the necessity to resist overwhelming force, he could no doubt modestly help God's choirmaster keep the Heavely Choir singing in key if he could just be convinced that his help would be truly needed.

And this is obvioulsy the root of part of the problem which we've been discussing, of how Captain America can be so saintly when he's at the same time so sinful. But it's also rather offensive in itself, this idea of Captain America as the absolutely perfect, superheroic man. While I fully accept that the qualities embodied in superheroes are metaphors, it's still disturbing to my ears to hear Captain America described as the most courageous man alive. Was he so before he was given the super-soldier serum, in which case what a coincidence it was that he ended up being the only one to be so augmented, and how telling that the most courageous man should be American, as if God was ensuring that American Liberty should triumph. (We'll look at the patriotic problems with Cap in a moment below.) Or was Captain America to become the most courageous man after he was chemically boosted, in which case it looks less like courage and more like the confidence of a man in a supremely powerful and unearned physique.

Anyway, surely we're not having Cap as the most courageous "man" anyway. People with fatal illnesses who still go to work to provide for their families, political prisoners sacrifing their lives for principles they believe may never come to fruition, folks who can barely swim paddling out on storm-lashed seas to save strangers; those folks are my take on "courageous". Captain America is a brave bloke with the super-soldier serum in his muscle-tissue. That's a completely different thing.

My point? By "Secret Wars", the profane was already falling away from Captain America, and the hidden god beneath was becoming revealed as someone - or something - that was the centre of everything and the master of everyone.

And yet, because of the beguiling myth of the super-hero, it was a process which was damn difficult for most of us to spot.

5. "Come On Out, You Skunk"

I. If the first unseen development leading to "Civil War Captain America" was the placing of Cap at the centre of the Marvel Universe as the superior man with the superior - and metaphorically significant - skills of winning the big fights, then the second has been Captain America's changing relationship to the Second World War. For where Captain America was originally described on his return as a "crime-fighter", he quickly become essentially associated with the war against fascism rather than that against crime, and as our perception of the War itself changed, so Cap has changed from a surviving old and worthy soldier to the virtuous flag-bearer of the Last Just War. This has anointed Captain America as the years have past with greater and greater measures of both martial and civic valour, and as the war recedes into time and from the living memories of Americans, Captain America has become less a soldier who fought in the war and more a symbol of the struggles and triumphs of the Last Just War itself.

For the World War II roots of Captain America have marked him historically as no other super-heroes' past has. Of all the cape'n'coloured booties brigade, only Captain America's past can't be shifted forwards to more recent years and conflicts as time goes by. Iron Man began his career being tortured by the Viet Cong, but that war is now a more and more distant and impersonal memory, and Tony Stark's original maiming has been relocated to a host of other conflicts in several different lands. Spider-Man's original campus-hell of 1961 is now one of the late 1990s, or even later, and so on. But Cap is doomed, and blessed, to forever be portrayed in the light of the same events and the same representations of them, within the shimmering of changes in artistic tastes. Essentially, there are the same four or so years in which the formative and most meaningful events of his life can be played out. Backwards and forwards through the war years we readers trudge, meeting the same commonly-known events, learning little of the historical reality but being affected by the modern sentiments associated with D-Day, with the Liberation of the Death Camps, and so on. Captain America always seems to have stepped straight from a better, significantly more moral time, a man who's by his very presence saving ourselves from our corruption and the degeneration of our times.

And at D-Day, at Death Camps which may or may not be Auschwitz, at the first meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt, during the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia, and wherever the Fascist troops of the ultimate evil are on the march, why, there's Captain America. He can't be a soldier who occasionally is involved in the major turning points of the War, because those events carry such a significant punch where text and sub-text are concerned. So, Cap rides the first wave into Omaha - or is it Utah? - Beach, though which idiot in the Army Command let a practical and propaganda resource like the only surviving functioning super-soldier into a killing field like that for no appreciable return is beyond me. And as the War recedes in the common memory and is replaced there by media-takes upon it, by "Band Of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan", so Captain America moves centre-stage into those events which carry a sacred meaning divorced in part from any kind of direct experience of the time.

It is possible that it's actually something of an obscenity, for example, to have Captain America appearing near and even within the Death Camps of the Third Reich, because that kind of ultimate evil really shouldn't be decontextualised by superheroes in their jim-jams agonising about how, if only they'd known, they'd have saved everybody. The issue, after all, is not that we could have saved the Jewish race and the other victims of the Holocaust from slaughter if only (a) we'd had enough super-powers, and (b) we'd known more about it. That demeans the historical record, and it leaves the reader associating with the super-hero's good intentions and the cleansing knowledge that they could have helped "if only". But the real issues are too pressing and demanding to be twisted by the superhero narrative, because we all know that the minute that a superhero appears in a scene, the scene becomes about the super-hero, and the survivors of a Death Camp become a way of showing a superheroe's sorrow rather than illuminating the plight of Fascism's victims. (And pity is hardly the meaning that we should be taking from the Holocaust, anymore than sympathy for our poor heroes and what they're being forced to feel.) Or: put Wolverine in a concentration camp and the story is primarily always going to be about Wolverine, baring a story-telling miracle, which, where the camps are concerned, is not the point.

So the placing of Captain America at the major and often catastrophically traumatic events of WW2 means that his very presence at the suffering of others strengthens his worth and appeal in the reader's eyes. He becomes the witness, the survivor, the bringer of succour, the living embodiment of the better society over the foulness of Nazi Germany.

Super-soldier CAPTAIN America starts to transmute into Captain AMERICA.

And it isn't so much the individual stories concerning Cap in World War II which effect this process, for there have been notable and noble tales about super-heroes and the War. (*3) I've been especially impressed by the care and challenges built into several stories which Mr Brubaker has written about the War during his time as writer of Captain America, for example. It's the cumulative effect of these stories over the long of span of time that so many readers experience super-heroes across today, and it's also the repetition of super-hero involvement in certain events. Look, Berlin has been liberated by the super-heroes again! Normandy is free once more! Those poor hungry people in those camps have been liberated by a man in a costume snarling and jumping over razor-tipped fences and punching Nazi guards! Where once stories set in World War Two were concerned more often with beating Baron Zemo or tracking down the Red Skull, the apparent realities of the conflict, with their greater depth of emotional potency, have since Cap's return in '64 become more and more common.

And locked within this repitition of moving historical set-pieces is the character of poor suffering Captain America, the Young Moses who freed us all and lost his boy companion and yet will never be able to enter the promised land of freedom. (Or, importantly, be compromised by the Cold War years which followed the WW2's end.) We'll return to that piteous Captain America later, but for now, shall we all accept what an intoxicating image that is, its' power constantly reinforced by narrative duplication, adding another layer of holiness to Steve Rogers' already significant reserves of worthiness?

*3 - Of course I'm not saying that the major events of World War II and the Holocaust should never be represented in super-hero comic books. I'm suggesting that the repetition of certain images and themes can have a counter-productive and insulting effect, and that more care needs to be taken so that more of the historical record and less of the super-heroes themselves appear in the story. I'd love to see that.

III. And of course the moral power associated with World War II has become so much greater as time has passed. It's far too complicated a matter here to discuss why and to what degree the perception of the facts and meaning of World War II has changed since the mid-60s and Cap's resurrection, though please do discuss it with me in the comments. But America's relationship with its own myths of 1941 to 1945 has of course changed, as all such relationships do, with the passing of the years and the accumulation of foreign conflicts in the historical record which have a more complicated relationship to feeling "clean" and positive about the flag and all it's held to stand for. Korea, Vietnam, The Contras, Grenada, the incompetence and corruption of the CIA, the Gulf Wars, and even the current Wars of Stabilisation/Liberation, have in combination with each other created something of the opposite to the sense of worthy necessity and achievement which hangs over the memory of the war against fascism. The Second World War has become the last undeniably Just War, the War which was for an undeniable good end and which was beyond disputation successful in its' mission. And the quite appropriate measure of respect for American's fighting forces in that Just War has deepened with time into an emotion which is more about absolute reverence than appropriate respect, and the myth has in many ways quite over-shadowed the historical record.

The World War of 1941 to 1945 was, to most modern Americans, as necessary and as moral an enterprise as the War of The Rings was to Middle Earth, and bears the same clear lines of difference between our side and their side as Tolkien's epics do. The baddies were all really bad, the goodies were all impressively virtuous, and the familiar progression of events from ignominy to triumph are set in ritual stone and endlessly played out for we believers on digital-TV's endless War-porn channels. It's all become a feel-good war, in so many ways. They were bad, we won; that's what the story is and that's what the stories' about.

And look! There's Captain America. Not a super-soldier among soldiers any more. But the Sentinel of Liberty!

Which puts the character largely beyond censure. He may not have exactly died for us, but he had a hard time and he certainly got frozen for us. If he's disgusted with the government, then the government's wrong. Because Steve Rogers comes from the Good Time, and the Noble Men, where Justice was died for and Evil destroyed, and where the Government was correct in its purpose in a way which the government today is somehow not.

Compared to the historical myth, our universe and the Marvel Universe are in many ways often presented as an example of how we live today in a tarnished epoch, in a world which shamefully abandoned the great virtues of the golden generation only to live in this world of compromise, of "politics", this world without "leaders".

III. One of the odd things about Captain America's ever-developing status as a strategic master is that it never seems to be based on much of a knowledge of strategy. More than that, it rarely seems to be founded on a knowledge of what strategy is, or of how such a knowledge might actually be acquired. The assumption seems to be that because Captain America fought through the war, he must know what fighting's about on a sophisticated and able level. And this assumption has been buttressed by the brief mentions of Roger's time "training" and learning military tactics and the like before the War broke out. And yet, America's armies were full of Officers who'd undergone a great deal more training than Steve Rogers who upon their first exposure to the battlefield collapsed like a pack of cards. It was true for the British too, because a "knowledge" of tactics has little to do with warfare itself. All plans collapse in the first encounter with the enemy, as Clausewitz tells us, and I'm not sure where Captain America learned how to operate as a command officer rather than an essentially irregular fighter.

But he fought in the War, and the War was good, so he must be a good warrior.

And what a brilliant master of war Steve Rogers is. His mastery of it's arts comes hand-in-hand with his excess of unconscious moral virtue. A master of logistics, like General Marshall. A master of personal relations and coalition-building, like Eisenhower, or until "Civil War" at least. A master of the dashing and daring thrust, as the myth of MacArthur would have us believe, and a master as strong and yet supportive of human frailty as General Ridgeway in Korea was. And of course, after "Civil War", a master of war as loyal to the Constitution as Benedict Arnold.

If Captain America really in some ways a celebration of the fighting man, and the character certainly takes his odour of sanctity from the travails and suffering of the common soldier, I do wish that he seemed more informed of what a soldier actually was and what a soldier actually does.

For, good example or not, if Captain America had started his exhortations up on many of the boats heading for Normandy, even filled deliberately as they were with greenhorn soldiers who wouldn't know enough of the realities of war to be paralysed with terror, I believe that he may have been asked to keep his sanctimonious mouth shut.

Except that I wouldn't bet that anybody would have used exactly those words.

For the myth of Captain America the virtuous soldier is embedded in the fact that Captain America is both the same as and quite different from the men and women who actually fought the war. And while on reflection Cap doesn't seem like any soldier who actually slogged their way through that long and hard and Just war, his myth relies upon us perceiving him to be just the same as the rest of the fighting men of the Allied armies, while being in so many ways better than them too.

He fought the War for us. We helped him helped us.

6. "Nothing Left Of Him But Charred Ashes ... A Fate He Well Deserved!"


So, I'm contending that part of the reason why the traitor Captain America of Civil War could co-exist with the patriotic martyr-hero Captain America is because of (1) how his character had been redefined in terms of innate moral superiority, and (2) because of the sacred air which his association with the Second World War has generated through the constant repetition of certain historical events in a time when memory of the War itself is disappearing.

But there's a third factor which, working together with those I've mentioned above, serves to pump up the specialness of Steve Rogers until he really can get away with anything, and that's
the constant representations of Captain America as the guardian of American virtue in opposition to the American government. Because ever since Steve Engelhart, Steve Rogers has been in costumed conflict with the American State so regularly that Washington has emerged in the Marvel Universe as a far more significant centre of evil activity than any supervillain-ruled foreign nation or great secret underground base of HYDRA or A.IM. If Captain America can rebel against the American state and his readers not notice, it may be in part because the American Government is so regularly represented either as incompetent or flat-out nefarious in Marvel Comic Books that we fail to recognise it as an institution worthy of our respect or support in comic book terms.


II. Quick! Here's a quiz for long-time Captain America fans. How many good and noble members of the Government Of The United States can you recall from your years reading the adventures of Steve Rogers? How many inspiring employees of the American State not in the Armed Forces or the Police can you name? (How many in them can you?) How many efficient and supportive Departments of State, agencies of the people, or organisations supported by tax-payers' dollars can you bring to mind?

Well, I'm sure that you can think of quite a few, but I can't. Some of that is that there are long years of Captain America's adventures that I've read, consigned to a dodgy memory, and then given away, but I think the point is an instructive one, even though I'm sure that there are many significant exceptions to the rule.

Now, please don't think I'm writing this as some kind of authority-loving Statist, who thinks the purpose of Captain America should be to perpetuate blind obedience to and trust in the government of the United States Of America. As I think should be obvious. I am by nature a non-conformist. Groucho Marx didn't want to belong to any club who'd have the likes of him as a member, but I don't want to belong to any club because I've no faith in human beings once they start dividing themselves up into in-groups and out-groups. But I am a passionate democrat, an absolute supporter of the rule of law and of the appropriate manner to challenge laws that I don't personally support. And it worries me that the State is so rarely shown in a positive light. Are Governments in our real world often incompetent and corrupt? Well, yes, but then any time spent reading psychology will illustrate how that's what human beings as a whole are. To expect politicians to be different from so many of the rest of us seems to me to be the thinking process of an idiot. The game is obviously to stay engaged so that no power in the State, from Government to Big Business and beyond, gains an unfair advantage over any other. And constantly portraying the State as at best stupid and at worst evil is to suggest that Democracy itself cannot work, and so we're back to "politicians" and "leadership" again.

I don't want a representation of the American State as the province of Angels. But since I've been reading Captain America, we've had;
  • Steve Engelhart's tale of how the criminal "Secret Empire" was actually run by Richard Nixon. (Nixon is often suspected of having been a psychopath, so I've got no problem with the story. But where are the non-criminal Presidents who are embedded into a narrative so that their virtues gain an equal measure with Nixon's super-villainy?
  • President Obama, despite receiving a great deal of positive press with Marvel Comics in general as an individual, being presented as a complete idiot where running America is concerned, permitting, for example, Norman Osborn to retain complete control over the super-armed and operationally independent H.A.M.M.E.R. Look, I know many people don't like President Obama. There's lots of folks in Westminster, I'm told, upset because Britain and the Special Relationship isn't so special anymore, so it's not just some FOX-TV news folks who get upset. But Obama is fearsomely bright. He knows what a psychotic schizophrenic is. A narrative where Osborn has to attack Asgard before Obama acts against him is as derogatory in principle and practise to the President and the men and women of the American state as an everyday comic book can manage without tipping over into truly dubious waters. Once again, all those in politics are either useless, incompetent or evil. Only Cap and his costumed army can be trusted. (Which is at least an impression which Paul Cornell avoided giving of Britain's government in the "Captain Britain" tie-ins during "Secret War".)
  • Bush too was implicitly portrayed as the President who supported the passage of the SHRA, so he was a fool and a idiot too by super-hero logic, where disagreeing with Cap and wanting masked super-heroes acting without oversight as vigilantes on the streets is a badge of considerable civic virtue.
  • Henry Gyrich constantly representing some nebulous Governmental urge to rain on the Avenger's parade by insisting that they don't, er, fly their supersonic jets through NYC without warning anyone, or constitute themselves as an organisation so independent as a body and so powerful as a unit that they challenge the State itself. (Which is what happened in "Civil War" anyway.)
  • Government Agencies which take away Cap's uniform and identity, which set up right-wing brutes as alternate Captain Americas, that give Black sidekicks to replacement- Captain Americas the title "Bucky", and so on and on ...
And so on. I was going to continue, to discuss for instance how easy it was for The Red Skull to become a surrogate of an elected representative of the people, and how many times SHIELD has been subverted and utterly perverted, and then I realised that I don't think I need to add to the list. The fact is that Government tends to be either invisible, a hindrance, or an absolute evil in the Marvel Universe. And where Captain America's dealings with the American State are concerned, there are at the very most far fewer positive examples of the American Government being competent let alone good than are examples of the opposite.

Which means that Captain America and Marvel Comics are often without intending to be, exceedingly right wing in their world view. The State is bad, individuals taking their lives into their own hands is good. And this tendency was, as a thousand bloggers have stated before, powerfully expressed in "Civil War".


III. If there is a single example of how rare it is to experience a positive representation of a Federal employee, or a Federal institution and its' legal authority, in the MU, then it must be the shockingly-decent nature of Federal Agent Duanne Jerome Freeman, (*4) the wonderfully non-stereotypical Federal Security Liaison of the Avengers under Mr Busiek and Mr Perez. (vol 2 # 3), who is amazingly not only competent, but kind and helpful too;

"The way I see it, you do an important job, and I'm here to make it easier, not harder."

This is certainly a way ahead of, for example, Agent Gyrich's approach to working with The Avengers, who, when challenged to the bounds of his authority (#181), closed the debate forcibly with:

"I'm the Government, mister. Any more questions?"


Thank God we've got the Avengers to save us from the Government, and Captain America to lead the Avengers.

(*4) - Of course, Agent Freeman died in Kang's Invasion. I don't know who replaced him, or how competent they were. I had lost a little heart by then.

7. " .. A By-word Of Terror In The Shadow-World Of Spies"

I. The "traitor-saint" Captain America of "Civil War" was no new invention, of course. That Cap was the culmination of far more than a few enthusiastic story conferences, a great deal of thought by editors and creators, and the exigencies of setting up a massive line-wide crossover. If the "traitor-saint" Steve Rogers had appeared out of the blue, many more readers would have disengaged from at least some of the absurdities of "Civil War". That they didn't was due to more than the superior level of craft present in the pages of "Civil War" which distracted so many of us from what was really going on in the story. "Traitor-saint" Captain America existed and worked convincingly to a degree because he's been gathering form, flesh and blood for many decades, and the pace of his development has picked up greater measures of steam the closer we've got to the present day. For with the commonly-accepted shift to widescreen stories, greater levels of explicit violence, and the increasing disengagement of the fantastic world of the superheroes from the mundane world of ordinary folks, have also come the maturing of less-well documented forces driving the evolution of Steve Rogers' character and positioning in the Marvel Universe.

And so by 2007, Captain America had become the Traitor-Saint", a democrat in ill-defined sentiment and an anti-democratic rebel in fact, all possible because Captain America;
  • had been re-positioned as the moral centre of the Marvel Universe, leader of Gods and Men, the one character who can lead any group of characters to the victory in battle which always marks ideological success in super-hero comic books
  • had become more and more associated with an aura of sanctity and moral exceptionalism associated with modern perceptions of World War Two, a process intensified by the constant returning of Cap to emotionally-affecting key events associated with the virtuous war.
  • had been, in common with the Marvel Universe as a whole, regularly engaged in conflicts with the American State and its institutions and employees which portrayed them as either incompetent or enemies of the American Constitution, establishing Captain America as the living embodiment of the Constitution he so little understands rather than the State itself.
Now, it's not as if a graph can be drawn that shows a steady upward line describing, for example, the degree of Government "evil" in stories involving Cap. There are creators who are more or less willing and able to portray the possibility of Governmental virtue as well as vice, and there are comic books which explicitly challenge Captain America's implicit virtue at times too. (*4) To track the too's and fro's of the above influences would be too much for this piece, and I don't have the resources to exhaustively do so anyway. But I offer this analysis up for what it's worth, as perhaps a starting point for some more profound thinking. I think that the above developments are innocent in themselves, and yet pernicious in combination and developing intensity over time. And I think that a more conscious grasp of what's shaping the representation of characters such as Captain America might be of use in making sure that the character doesn't end up, for example, undermining and destroying the Constitution in the name of the Constitution.

*4 - To take but one classic example, it was interesting to note how Cap's failure to convince some of his fellow Avengers not to murder the Supreme Intelligence in "Galactic Storm" seemed to emasculate the character as Mr Gruenwald wrote him, as if Cap by the very fact of being Cap has to win the moral debates or have his central purpose wounded.

8. "I Guess You Got Me Bang To Rights --- I Am Captain America!"

In the final part of this look at "Captain America:Reborn", I'm actually going to be looking at "Captain America:Reborn", and reviewing how that series has offered considerable scope for changing the direction and meaning of Captain America's comic-book journey. For example, I'll be discussing how installing Bucky Barnes as a more permanent "Captain America" solves a great deal of the problem of Cap's status as the moral centre of the Marvel Universe, while making Captain America a more engaging and ethically-compromised character.


And how Steve Rogers' new role without the Captain America costume allows his strategic, conflict-closing skills to be put to use without his being either necessarily at war with the American State or constantly possessed by the posturing spirit of the American Dream.

And how Steve Rogers abandoning the role of Captain America allows the moral weight of World War II to be removed from the characters shoulders without removing the meaning of that War from the contemporary Marvel Universe altogether.


And we'll also look at how "Reborn" is a splendid fairy-story, with magic bullets and time travel, princes and princesses, and new worlds to conquer opening up as old worlds are closed off for lying fallow for awhile.

I hope you'll join me there, for the unexpected-to-me third part of this two-part series.



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