Here we are on the eve of the release of the feature film Captain America: Winter Soldier, and I’ve found myself more excited than I’ve been about a movie in a long time. Because it’s specifically based on what I would consider the best superhero comic stotyline of the 21st century so far- Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Captain America run is already legendary, particularly for breaking one of the single biggest rules of good taste established by Marvel (No spoilers, but if you know what I’m referring to, you know) and actually making it work. I’m excited because seeing one of my favorite characters, long relegated to the B list at best in terms of popularity, get his shine on is completely irresistible.
To the uninitiated, Cap is often thought of as a jingoistic, dense, corny character. Symbolic of American imperialism (real or imagined) at worst, a silly bit of propaganda at best, a simpleminded boy scout character. And those interpretations aren’t completely incorrect when he’s mishandled, but the truth is more complicated. There’s much more to the character than that.
The Captain first saw publication almost a year before Pearl Harbor. That’s the cover to up above, where he’s socking Hitler in the mouth. We weren’t at war yet, but for Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, we couldn’t be soon enough. Two Jewish men living in the relative safety of New York, reading the news of what was happening across the world, hearing brutally frightening rumors from friends and relatives still in touch with the homeland. For them, creating Captain America wasn’t aggressive warmongering. It was born from the desire to do something. It’s been whitewashed now, but there were many Nazi sympathizers in America back then, and even besides them it wasn’t an uncommon view that bloodshed elsewhere wasn’t our problem. That didn’t sit well in the hearts of Jack and Joe, and since they couldn’t pick up their guns and go to war, they picked up their pens.
The key to understanding Cap is in his origin. Steve Rogers, a sickly young man driven to do his part, rejected by the army as 4-F every time he tries to enlist. The kind of guy the Nazis would have no problem gassing to death and sticking in a mass grave. But for Americans, it’s the textbook guy who can come from nothing and nowhere and reinvent himself into whatever he wants to be, in this case a super soldier. Thanks to hard work and some sci-fi serums and beta rays, Steve becomes a little faster, sharper, stronger, and tougher than anyone who had ever lived before, and all he wanted was to make a few wrong things right.
And so he did, on paper at least. All through the war, Cap was always there at the newsstand knocking the shit out of some awful bastard. It’s not pretty, but for a nation at war, and particularly kids, it’s important to have some kind of outlet for that pressure through art.
Once the war was over, most costumed do-gooders in general vanished. For whatever reason, super heroes weren’t a commodity anymore post war, and except for a very small handful were brushed aside for Western, Sci-Fi, Horror, Crime, and Romance comics (EC will be a post for another day). This was the case until the early 60′s, when the Captain returned to a world that had changed dramatically.
I’ve always related to a good Rip Van Winkle story, and Captain America’s is probably the single greatest one from the fiction of our time. In order to explain his disappearance from the newsstand, the storyline was invented that Cap had been frozen in suspended animation just as the tide turned our way in the war. He reemerged from ice in the modern day. Actually 1964, but it’s the perpetual “Modern Day” in Marvel continuity; from that point to today’s stories only about 10 years have passed. The less time you spend dwelling on that the better.
Cap was brought back both for nostalgic reasons and also to bring some stability to a book that was still trying to find it’s way. The Avengers had been created by Stan Lee to appease Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, who had taken note of DC’s Justice League of America comic and ordered Stan to do something similar. DC was where Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and most other characters with the underwear outside the pants resided. Characters who were inclined to be united by the common cause of heroism. Unlike Marvel guys like Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor, who were all more likely to dislike each other, and didn’t seem likely to be friends and want to work together.
Stan and Jack Kirby said a few times that their characters tended to write themselves, and as this Avengers series progressed, it became less and less easy to contrive reasons Marvel’s solo heavy hitters would still be hanging out. Hulk was a loose cannon and was written out early on, likely to go berserk at any time. Iron Man was just in it for kicks. Thor was an actual God. It took Cap’s return to give the book focus, and from there, Avengers was a winner with a sure direction.
Like most Marvel characters, Cap found himself a bit haunted. The last thing he saw before his life broke apart was his pal Bucky losing his, he came to in a world where his friend had been dead longer than he had been alive. His family had all gone, as well. He found himself adrift. There was always the question of whether strength of character really meant anything anymore. Patriotism was definitely something different. he struggled with the possibility of being irrelevant, meta-textually. Vietnam wasn’t mentioned much, if at all, but the implications were there. His anguish over his fallen friend became an analogy for his mourning of lost time and confusion. If he just had an old friend from before to talk to…
As the 70′s arrived, Captain America became a vehicle for loaded symbolism and something not unlike satire. An allegory for Watergate came across where Cap unraveled an insidious plot that took him to find that the President had been calling the shots. He was so shaken by this that he gave up being Cap and became Nomad. He eventually came to understand that America is not its government, it’s the people of the Nation, and it’s up to him to represent and fight for them.
In the 80′s, the military called him to the carpet and ordered him to work directly for them, and get paid to do so. His reaction was to resign, switch to red, white, and black, and merely go by “The Captain.” A gung-ho xenophobic lunatic with a buzzcut took his place, and served as a representation of what the uninitiated might have thought Cap was until he finally went too far, got his walking papers, and Steve Rogers returned to the role. The idea of going on the army payroll was dismissed. He established a telephone hotline, citizens in trouble could call him to investigate superhuman crime. Cap has always been at his best when depicted as nothing less or more than the champion for the people.
In the wake of 9/11 all superhero fiction was a difficult proposition, but perhaps for none more than Captain America. It fell in the hands of writer John Ney Rieber and artist John Cassidy to tell a story of Cap on the defense against a literally faceless enemy, a terrorist from an unknown locale that had been done wrong in American military intervention, scarred to the point of being entirely unrecognizable, hounding the “American Way” with acts of unbridled destruction and a self righteous fury. It was a story that tested the resolve of many readers, but for those open minded enough to see it through to the end, it was a treat.
“My people never knew!” Cap told him, in the final battle, as he was dispatching the enemy. “We know now. And those days are over- we’ve learned from our mistakes. But you- you say you’ve seen the innocent die- known that loss. Felt that suffering. You’re blind.You haven’t seen anything but your own pain. Your own hate- Or you’d die before you’d cause another man that pain- any man. Any woman, any child. You’re no better than the warlords who created you. Wherever you’re from.”
It was this very pragmatic take on the character that Ed Brubaker riffed on when he took on the book, weaving elements of intrigue and espionage into the DNA of the character, playing on the wartime grit that time had washed out. It is this version of the character, hopefully, that film goers will be meeting this weekend at the multiplex- a complex and complicated warrior, ready to do what must be done for the greater good, a beacon of light in a murky world of gray. Go get’em, Cap!