Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Bad Captain America

During the George W. Bush years, we leaned heavily on the Captain America brand. In the late 1980's there were two Captain America's: one good, one bad. The newer bad Cap was supposed to be righteous like the old good Cap, a similar botched comparison took place when the War on Terror was sold as a World War II like struggle. The confusion concealed reality and contributed to accepting otherwise unacceptable policies.

In 1941, before the US entered WW II, comic book writer Joe Simon, and illustrator Jack Kirby created Captain America. His alter ego was, Steve Rogers, a skinny sickly GI. Rogers was rejected by the Army, but because of his big heart was chosen to be a guinea pig and was injected with a super soldier serum. Simon and Kirby, faced with an evil nemesis, depicted a hero whose violence always proved reassuringly right. Cap was good not bogged down by the truth. There was no nod to the Japanese American internment or US equivocation toward the Holocaust, that would have complicated the image of the American freedom fighter. Rogers was devoid of the messy facts, he simply fought the fascists.

In 1988, Rogers quit the job of Cap and became a vigilante. His growing disenchantment with US governmental corruption, mirroring the mood of the country, was a decisive factor in his resignation. A new blood thirsty cavalier character named John Walker was his replacement, the bad Cap. Mark Gruenwald, the psycho Cap saga writer, made a hero that was patriotic, but not admirable. Walker was part of a wave of psychologically troubled antiheroes introduced in the late 80's. He was the type for teens that grew up watching Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. They knew about the Iran-Contra affair and watched Oliver North testify on TV. Generation X had come of age, they were cynical and proud of it.

The Good Comics blog described a Walker scene as, a crazy blood frenzy, and freakish. “Walker used a bad guy’s body as a human shield to protect him from gunfire."  At nine years old, that image irked me. I became unnerved by the convergence of zeal and homicide. At stake was this great state gone wrong and its one time fascist nemesis. The black and white comic world turned grey and the classic patriotic symbol suffered an identity crisis. Rogers used his shield to deflect gunfire and threw it like a boomerang, whacking the gun out of a Nazi soldier's grasp, and Walker used his shield as a guillotine; slicing and stabbing his way through the world. This neophyte transformed the shield from protector to slayer.

For the first six years of the Bush era, it seemed as if the original icon was hovering above. Almost everyone was going along with the War on Terror and anti-Arab crusade. Engaging a standing army with slate wool uniforms was no longer in the cards. Skipped was the fact that our military would fight a guerrilla, and civilian insurgency.

Let's look at this scenario as if it was a comic. Once an Iraq War veteran was asked to appear as the good Cap. On paper, he was to operate on the moral high ground, but was put in a position of duality. He didn’t want to, as he put it, “hand out candy to kids when he had just blown up the house across the street.” The soldier arrived in Falluja soon after Blackwater contractors were burned and hung from a bridge.  During the day he gave candy to kids and talked with locals, but at night he called in bombs. He stopped talking with locals. He was the enemy, not the candy man. The fairy tale of walking through the desert helping the Iraqi's didn't square with the reality of blowing them to bits.

By the early 90's Steve Rogers was back as Captain America and Walker exited the series. Rogers was killed in 2007, and his WWII sidekick, Bucky, took up the mantle of Captain America. Ed Brubaker, the death of Cap series writer, said that the left-wing fans wanted Cap to stand up and be out front against the Bush administration and right wing fans wanted Cap fighting in Baghdad, punching out Saddam. Our actions pinball back and forth between, freeing the oppressed and working as the world's bully.

The good Cap and bad Cap compete in the popular mind. The weird dualism in this icon reveals something, generalizations don't get at, a trippy unrealized attempt to integrate right and might -- the great democracy morphed into a hyperpower, leaving the relationship between might and right unsettled and glossed over by pieties about flag and country.

The "human shield" image is from issue number 335 of Captain America.

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