Captain America: Sentinel of Liberalism?
Tony Keen — 12-Sep-11
In the window of the old location of Gosh Comics on Great Russell Street in London, there was, back in 2003, a cartoon by Chris Riddell, which had originally appeared in The Observer, a Sunday newspaper in the UK. It depicted a bloated Captain America serving the needs of US agribusiness. In the SFX Superhero Special of the same year, Cap was described as a card-carrying Republican. On the back cover of the first Ultimates collection, he was said to have the politics of John McCain (at that time merely a Republican senator, of whom I’d never heard, before his failed Presidential bid).
This is very much a common view of Cap, one I first encountered in the early 1980s when my admission to liking the character got the response “If it’s fascism you want, why not read Judge Dredd?” Back in 2003 it looked as if this would be perpetuated in the rumoured Brad Pitt (Brad Pitt? Not my idea of Steve Rogers!) movie. (At the time it seemed legal issues as much as anything were holding up development of this property, though in the event that version of the Captain America movie proved to be so much hot air, and Pitt may well never have actually been attached to the project. Such is the world of Hollywood rumour and bullshit.)
And I think this idea of Captain America is completely wrong. I believe (and I know I’m not completely alone in this – Roz Kaveney in Superheroes! is good on Captain America) that it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the roots of the character. Steve Rogers came from a poor background, and grew up in New York in the Depression. He is, therefore, a natural Democrat, a Roosevelt New Dealer. And one must not forget that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America as a fighter against Nazism at a time, before America was in the Second World War, when such views were not universally popular (hate mail was sent to them in 1941), and the forerunners of today’s Republicans were advocating an isolationist policy that treated the Nazis as Europe’s problem, if not (as George W. Bush’s grandfather was) actively trading with them.
Today’s Republicans have hijacked patriotism as if they are the only party in America with a claim to it (as the Conservatives did in the United Kingdom). Extreme texts in the US label all Democrats as traitors. But this does not seem to me to be Captain America’s patriotism. He honours his country, and respects the American flag, but for the values they represent, not for any intrinsic sacrosanctity they possess. I like to believe that Captain America would abhor those Americans who believe in “My Country Right And Wrong”, who believe dissent is anti-American, and who pursue agendas of narrow self-interest whilst paying only lip service to the values America is supposed to represent. After all, Cap spent five years fighting exactly that sort of blind patriotism. This is why I think it’s important to remember that Cap went into action against the Nazis in March 1941, eight months before the US officially went to war (even if in practice the Roosevelt administration was doing everything it could short of an actual declaration of war) – this is something that I miss in Joe Johnston’s otherwise excellent (from a Cap fan’s point of view) movie.
My Cap therefore is similar to that of Steve Englehart, or Frank Miller’s in the Born Again storyline in Daredevil (in his slightly less right-wing youth); a noble soldier, who obeys orders, but needs his commanders to fulfil their side of the bargain, and uphold the values he has signed on to protect. This, I think, is the Cap of the brief but rather good Roger Stern/John Byrne run, which were the first solo Cap comics I read. It’s not Mark Millar’s from the Ultimates, or at least, not wholly so – it must be noted that it is Cap to whom Millar gives the speech telling Nick Fury that the Ultimates must no longer act as a wing of US foreign policy (on Cap in The Ultimates, see this review). It may not be Jack Kirby’s Cap when he returned to the character in 1976, and expressed dissatisfaction with what Englehart had done. It does, at least partially, seem to be Ed Brubaker’s Cap.
But maybe I give it away when I say ‘my’ Captain America, and talk about Englehart’s, Miller’s, Kirby’s, Millar’s or Brubaker’s. Because maybe Cap represents whatever we each personally want America to represent. I want America to be a land where ‘freedom’ is not restricted to those of certain ethnicity, economic prosperity and political values, that acts to uphold and foster the values of equality and liberty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. George W. Bush’s Cap probably is a symbol of America’s God-given right to arrange the world to suit itself. To Osama Bin Laden, Captain America may have been just another emblem of a corrupt, decadent and evil nation. You choose your reading of the character to suit your own prejudices.
Except that I think my reading is closer to the intentions of two Jewish kids, doing the only thing they could to persuade America that she could no longer stay out of the European War, and I want to reclaim Cap from the right-wing ideologues who have taken him as one of their own, and the leftist critics of America who caricature him.
Would the real Captain America please stand up and be counted? Perhaps he never can fully. But for my money, he would (had he not been ‘dead’ at the time) have voted not for McCain, but Obama.
This is a revised version of a piece that originally appeared in B-APA 141 (August 2003).