There has been some terribly reductive discourse on Twitter lately (when isn’t there?) concerning Captain America. Specifically, there’s a contingent of fans who feel that the MCU has somehow ‘elevated’ the character from some boring, lesser-than hero that existed before 2011’s The First Avenger.
A similar thread has been circulating about Superman as well, as if our big, broad-shouldered patriotic characters were too silly, flat, or otherwise hokey to be taken seriously. It would be easy to believe that the people who have bought into this line of thinking—that only modern (or, rather, post-modern or deconstructionist) takes on the characters can be interesting or nuanced—are people who have not read the comics in question. I don’t wholly think that’s true.
I think the deeper answer relates to the problematic misuse of patriotism as it’s been practiced in a post-9/11 American context, in which “patriotism” has become stringently conservative. “Patriots” storm capitols. “Patriots” put on their Dockers and march in racist force. It’s a poisoned thinking, and the most that those of us who were young (or unborn) in 2001 can muster toward civic or national pride is a sort of tongue-in-cheek, half-ironic mockery, one that relies on rolling our eyes at the silly sort of four-color propaganda found in Captain America Comics #1.
The deeper truth, however, is that there was a long stretch of time between the “Uncle Sam Wants You” years of World War II and the “Get Out of My Country” xenophobia of the War on Terror. In those years, Captain America’s brand of patriotism could sometimes be hokey, certainly—a lot of ‘We can accomplish it if we accomplish it together’ thinking, a lot of ‘if you believe in yourself, you can make it through’ jingoism.
At the character’s best—as he and his are found in Captain America Epic Collection: Sturm und Drang—he lived closer to progressive social justice. Originally released in 1983 through ’85, one might expect these issues to smack of the above-mentioned deconstruction that was taking over the industry at the time; one might expect these issues to see Cap beaten down, his ideals ruptured, a layer of gloomy grit blown over him.
Instead, the book sees Steve trying to live his best life in and out of the costume. There’s an air of domesticity between he and his then-fiancée Bernadette Rosenthal, and the book uses that domesticity to illustrate the sort of socially progressive man Steve is. Even when the book isn’t expressly exploring politics, Steve’s cast of supporting characters illustrates a patriotism that is liberal in its leanings, inclusive rather than exclusive. Cap’s capable of seeing a variety of political points of view not only as valid but as necessary. His boy-sidekick of the moment is Jack Monroe, whose post-war “Let Me At ‘Em” fighting spirit was preserved in his suspended animation chamber, but when Steve needs to talk through emotional concerns he turns to Dave Cox, a pointedly pacifist Vietnam vet.
DeMatteis even spends time with Steve’s oldest friend, Arnie Roth, a man as openly gay as DeMatteis could muster under Jim Shooter’s bizarre, draconian ‘no homo’ edict at the time. That Arnie was a boy Steve grew up with implies, of course, that even 1940s, boyhood Steve Rogers was socially progressive enough to accept and support Arnie’s sexuality.
When the book addresses social concerns within its superheroics, we find ourselves in conflict (and then supported by) Jesse Black Crow, an indigenous man with incredibly valid points of contention against the very idea of America—right up to and including the horrifying ‘assimilation schools’ which continue to be a problem.
Also included here is the four-issue Falcon miniseries, conceived and written by Christopher Priest (at the time the only African American comic book editor), a comic that concerns itself with gang violence that comes very close to commenting on the real concern: police violence against young Black men. Even while fleeing a sentinel or fighting Electro, Sam Wilson’s primary concern is being there for young men in trouble—and his biggest conflict is being an educated, super-powered Black man who might very well be powerless to help them.
Sturm und Drang is a book, then, that stands in argument against the current discourse. Captain America wasn’t ever a character that ever needed ‘elevated’, by the MCU or otherwise. What needs to be elevated is said discourse’s critical literacy; to undervalue the crucial social justice representation of these characters is to undermine the effectiveness of the medium as a whole.
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