Master Of The Obvious: Issue #101

Wed, July 4th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July.

As Dave Alvin once sang.

Over on the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, someone last week started a conversation about whether Captain America has any continuing relevance today. And whether a character pulling double duty as a symbol has any place in today's storytelling. And what the hell being a symbol of America today is, anyway.

[Captain America by Kirby]I have to say I was never a big Captain America fan. When I was a kid, the character always struck me as hokey as hell – a perception not helped by the seeming Marvel fetish for tiny little wings, and I couldn't help but wonder what nutjob (sorry, Jack!) had to put them on Cap's head and Namor's ankles. At least on Namor's ankles they served a function, if one were willing to accept the aerodynamics of a roughly 200 pound man flying on the goofy little things that could barely lift the more proportionately appropriate Wasp, but I couldn't figure out – still can't, now that I think about it – what possible symbolic meaning they could have on a costume representing America. That we're on the side of the angels? Then why such little angels?

The red white and blue stars and stripes part I got.

[Avengers #8]Which didn't make him any less hokey. My first exposure to the character was in AVENGERS #8, introducing The Masters Of Evil, which was a cool name when I was 10 or so, and, gosh, it turned out Captain America was back. (I didn't even know he'd been away.) And he was already loaded with bathos.

So here we had a superhero who a) had no visible superpowers beyond his dogged belief in American values, yet was the essence of physical perfection (though, let's face it, something of a speechifying dunderhead given to leaping heroically into action without considering his options); b) was a symbol of all that was good and true about our country; c) had lost his partner in a sacrificial heroic act, for which he sought vengeance (righteous, of course); d) was a man out of his own time, having been frozen for twenty years (though in current Marvel chronology I guess it'd have to be more like 50, if the start point of the Marvel Universe actually does shift forward every ten years, making Reed Richards the first unconceived zygote ever to work for the OSS... ah, what a tangled web we weave…); and e) eternal house guest at Avengers mansion, since he can hardly go out and apply for a job ("Your last position was..." "Um... peeling potatoes in occupied France...").

That's a hell of a lot to dump on a single character. You could even call it overkill. Add in ten or twelve other characters per story, and it amounts to a sheer lack of focus, like Stan (or Stan and Jack; it's hard to tell at this point who was responsible for what, though I have to think much of it was due to a difference of opinion between the two). Unfortunately, that sort of character structure has been a model for many characters since: just dump aspect after aspect on instead of exploring one or two aspects well. Take the Thing. The Thing was one of the greatest pure comics characters ever created, and his shtick was simple and straightforward: an immensely physically powerful being and arguably one of the greatest goodhearted salt of the earth guys you'd ever want to meet, trapped in a hideous form that made people run screaming from him. That was before Marvel turned him cute and cuddly, and the whole character was based on a dichotomy, a tension you could lock onto into a flash. Identify with, even. But Captain America? Jeez. You knew he was a hard act to follow, but you couldn't figure out what the act was.

That's been the problem with the character to this day. He's got all these aspects, none of which really mesh (or even really inform the character or make him more interesting), and nobody will strip him down. It doesn't surprise me that, despite every effort to push him as an icon he has always been among the worst selling Marvel characters, his book kept alive on a couple occasions not because of sales but because CAPTAIN AMERICA is supposed to mean something to the company. Marvel religiously clings to the whole package because that's what Stan and Jack did, and for once in their lives Stan and Jack were wrong.

[Captain America]Or maybe prescient. You could make a case either way. I mean, here's a guy who's the symbol of everything we hold dear, and what does he do with his time? Wails and gnashes his teeth and mopes like #$&*ing Hamlet. "Oh, poor, poor Bucky! Why is he dead and yet I live? Why didn't you take me instead, God, why?" This is the American character? (And, looking back on the snowballing trend over decades to let psychobabble rule our lives, culminating in the our current nightly spectacle of hundreds of competing news programs and talk shows beating every kneejerk revulsion or touchy-feely pathos out of every situation great or minor and capping it with great heaping doses of Protestant judgmentalism, yeah, I have to kind of think it is now.) Lee had already ground 50s romance comic sentimentalized self-doubt into his formula like an alchemist grinding dried frog legs into powder for a philter, and there were characters for whom it worked. Spider-Man. The Thing. But was it really believable for Thor, of all heroes, to worry that he wasn't worthy of the woman he loved? Yeah, Ant-Man I could believe that from, but Thor? And if an essential part of the typical Stan Lee hero was to doubt his own worth, it really wasn't appropriate to Captain America.

Part of the problem couldn't have been foreseen. Who'd've expected Captain America to collide with American culture, particularly in 1964? Hell, we were containing Evil Communism and waging wars of freedom on foreign soil, and that was just like fighting the Nazis, huh? It might've seemed like a good idea to bring back the living embodiment of patriotism, but what is a patriot these days, anyway? WWII was easy (we're still trying to suckle off that particular teat, simplify our experience down to that single defining moment and claim the grace of God for it, as this summer's not-quite blockbuster PEARL HARBOR show) and the WWII definition of a patriot – someone who selflessly joins up and does serves his country via the armed forces – is something they've been trying to reimpose on this country ever since. But this presumes something Americans have always refused to presume, with exceptions that are presented as much more common than history shows they were, that America = the government, and the government is always right. And that's nonsense. We know it's nonsense. Study history and you'll find that Americans have always hated their government. From before the government was even formed, Americans have essentially mistrusted and defied their own government. It's an American tradition, as strong a tradition as anything we've got, and the current militia/New World Order blather is only the latest version.

And we know too much now. They didn't tell us when we were kids, but it's easy now to learn Revolutionary War was fought as much for land speculation – many colonial eyes were on potential moneymaking opportunities in the Ohio Valley, which the British government refused to open to settlers – as for more idealistic reasons. World War II might not even have been necessary had American financiers and industrialists not given (or, rather, sold) so much support to Nazi Germany in the '30s. And given 200 years of expeditionism by one U.S. government or another, not to mention privateer expeditionism tacitly or clandestinely supported by "official" sources (like William Walker's mid-1800s invasion of Nicaragua) I can understand why foreigners might be a little unsettled by a character "representing" America. The program of annihilation of the American Indians and their culture. Dozens of other actions taken over two centuries that betray or deny the founding principles of the country. Is the patriotism we're supposed to adhere to, "My country, right or wrong, but my country?" or "My country, right or wrong. If it be right, to keep it right. If it be wrong, to right it once again."?

This particular dichotomy has been a stumbling block for Captain America for years, ever since Steve Englehart thrust him into the midst of Watergate. It made him relevant for five minutes, sure, and deftly undercut the symbolic baggage he'd carried since the turmoil of the '60s began. There's probably never been a better run on Captain America than Englehart's, and in one aspect there has never been a worse one. Because in his search for why there needed to be a Captain America, Englehart ultimately came to the conclusion that everyone's been following ever since: because someone's got to stop The Red Skull.

[Captain America]If that's the best we can do, Marvel should pack up shop on the character right now. Someone suggested sending him back to WWII and letting him live out the rest of his days in that milieu. Given the success of war comics these days, given how interested the audience over the last few years has been in Cap stories set in that era, I'd say his days wouldn't last long. But it's the place he can be truly symbolic, as things sit now. Because no matter what you do you can't shy away from the symbolism of someone named Captain America.

And the character has always suffered in the shadow of the symbolism. We've seen Steve Rogers as cop, Steve Rogers as comic book artist, Steve Rogers as this and that and whatever. We've seen Steve Rogers quit time and time again now, replaced by this new Captain America and that, who die or go nuts or betray the true ideals of the character or whatever. We've even seen, in UNIVERSE X, a broken, embittered Captain America, his ideals shattered and his life meaningless. And it always comes back to whatever. Steve Rogers has no real existence separate from Captain America (at least not on the level of the difference between, say, Peter Parker and Spider-Man), which makes him difficult to identify with. Yet make Captain America someone besides Steve Rogers and, I dunno, that isn't really Captain America either.

Do we even need a symbol now?

The question is less a matter of need than why the hell not? A guy with strong ideals yet a firm grasp of the reality those ideals have to contend with can still make for an interesting story. The problem is we're all cynical sons of bitches now. We've all been disappointed in the country once too often, and anyone who simply comes in flagwaving is going to miss the point entirely. Maybe that kind of character shouldn't be a joke, but it is, because we all know better now. Play Captain America as a symbol, sure, but play the symbol right.

Because we all know what this country is supposed to be about. Because it doesn't matter what the reality of our situation is; no matter how bad we perceive things being, we know what we're supposed to be about. We've got it written down. The United States Of America isn't the government, it isn't the flag, it isn't our foreign policy, it isn't even the land between our borders. The USA is a piece of paper, that has the tenets of our beliefs on it. The USA is an idea, a dream. A lot of people here in America find this concept laughable now, but they're wrong; despite every stupid action this country has ever taken there are still millions, maybe billions, of people around the globe for whom America is a great ideal, a dream of freedom. And that's what America is. None of the thousands of idiot steps we take away from that, because we're tired or scared or someone's greedy or someone's stupid, alter that principle. No action our government or any of us takes that betrays that principle alters that principle. No attempt we make to throw away any of the things we gained when we became a nation alters that principle. That many of our founding fathers intended our freedoms to be available only to white males of money doesn't alter that principle. (Many founding fathers didn't.) That we, as a nation, have never had a unified vision of what freedom actually means doesn't alter anything. America is about freedom, and America is about excitement and adventure and accomplishment, measured as much by the wilderness as by its known territories. Since the moment the country was founded, we've had people trying to make kings of themselves, to tell other people what to do, and a lot of us go along with that, but, as Jim Morrison once put it, this is the land where the pharaohs died. As I once told Archie Goodwin at the Epic offices, our sole true birthright as Americans is that we can tell anyone – anyone! – to go &^%# themselves. That's America. We can betray these principles – we can undercut freedom, destroy any sense of adventure, crush accomplishment – but they still exist, because we the people aren't really the United States Of America either.

America is a dream. America is an idea. We're not there yet, but it's still a possibility. America is an act of imagination, and every act of imagination – it doesn't matter where or by whom – is a song to America. And that's where we come in.

Give me a Captain America who truly reflects all that, with an acceptance of all our little betrayals and a clear and unwavering understanding of our true nature despite it all, that truly reflects what America is today and where we should be going – without the soap opera baggage and all that sanctimonious WWII blather - and that'd be a character worth reading. An industry that reflected all that would even be an industry worth working in.

Now go enjoy some fireworks.

Just wanted to remind everyone this week to read Larry Young's LOOSE CANNON every Friday. I also hear Rob Liefeld has started his own web column, so I'd like to welcome Rob to the fray and to all the other comics people out there starting up web columns to get that huge payday only web exposure can bring, I'd like to say, "Ha!" Still, let's get those points of view out there. And don't forget to check in at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE to get your own point of view out there.

The question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what kind of covers do you prefer – representational (reflecting events from the story) or symbolic (a single image perhaps not indicative of the story but reflecting the nature of the character or the story)? Why?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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