O Captain, My Captain

July 5th, 2007 by | Tags: ,

And every place I go, man, people wanna come to America. They really do. I mean, they start talking about America, make your dick hard for America. You hear ’em talk, man, you say, ‘We got all that shit in America? I gotta get my ass back!’
–Richard Pryor

Captain America is a tricky subject.

He can easily be viewed as a jingoistic symbol of Yankee imperialism. He wears the flag and he’s got blonde hair and blue eyes. He is the Aryan ideal.

That’s not what he’s about, though. Not at all.

Cap represents the American ideal. He is what America claims to be on paper, if not in deed. He is what other people should strive to be.

Captain America was born Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers was a patriot. He saw a war coming and wanted to do his part. The problem is that Steve was 4F– unfit for service. He was too weak to do what he thought was right.

Someone saw potential in Steve and got him into the Super Soldier program. He was injected with the serum, which was destroyed shortly after it took hold. He’s one of a kind. He’s finally fit and able to do right.

Steve Rogers died back when Captain America was born. Steve realized that he was a symbol. He was bigger than Steve Rogers now, and he had to be better. He had to be impeccable. He fought for the government. He was employed by the government. But, he was not the government. He could not represent the government. He represented the ideal. He had to show people what they could become if they embraced the ideal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I wasn’t really a Cap fan as a kid. The Avengers, save for Thor and Hawkeye, were pretty much universally lame. They were made up of shrinky people, rich dudes in robot suits, robots dating humans, and other characters I didn’t really care about.

I think that my first real exposure to Cap was in the pages of a What If. What If the Avengers Lost Operation Galactic Storm? It was cover dated 1993. I’d never read the original OGS, and I wasn’t reading the Avengers, so I’m not sure how I ended up with that comic. In it, Earth gets blown up and everybody dies, as befits a proper What If. A cadre of Avengers are left behind on the Kree homeworld, where they are immediately imprisoned. Among their number is Cap.

They’re planning a public execution of Cap. Clint, in his Giant-Man costume, sneaks into his cell and changes places with him. He understands that Cap is important. He knows that he’s one of the greatest. And… Cap gets it done. He frees other Avengers, he gets the job done, and the Kree empire goes down. There were a lot of characters in here that I did not, and do not, recognize, but it was a pretty rocking story. It actually made me believe that Cap was it. He was a big deal.

Captain America is a truer portrait of the ideal than Superman. Cap is a kid from the Bronx who couldn’t cut it, but still was thirsty to do right. Superman is, at the end of the day, an alien. Cap is All-American, with all the baggage and possible snark that entails. I think that that is why he works. Cap looks like the kind of guy who doesn’t have to worry about oppression in his day-to-day. He can coast… but he doesn’t.

Cap isn’t about coasting. He’s about helping whenever he can. He’s about self-sacrifice, he’s about doing the right thing, he’s about being good.

I think that a lot of people miss that. They see a man wearing the flag, they assume that he’s your typical jingoist. A running dog imperialist tool of the capitalist bourgeoisie. That’s not Cap, though. He’s the symbol of the American dream. Not the American Way, not the American Government. He’s a symbol of the Dream and the People. Cap’s quit the government more than once. If he disagrees, he doesn’t hesitate to take them to task. By the people, for the people. He’ll quit being Cap if he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

There’s a school of thought that thinks that Cap should address every single atrocity America has perpetrated, and that since he does not, or has not, he’s a symbol of blind patriotism and flag-waving. I don’t think that that is true at all. He’s shown a remarkable willingness to go in the face of his owners, even to the point of getting on television and revealing his identity when he did something that he felt was wrong. America has done a lot of wrong, Cap doesn’t represent those wrong-doings. He represents the good in the concept. The potential of the great experiment.

This isn’t to say that Cap has never addressed these things. In the stellar Truth: Red, White, and Black, he comes face to face with his legacy- the last survivor of the project that created the serum. He’s a black man who was left with a greatly extended life, but diminished mental capacity. He is, to put not too fine a point on it, a victim of America.

Cap hears a rumor about the run-up to his entrance into the Super Soldier Program and tracks down all the facts. He’s horrified at what he finds and does his best to make it right. The book ends with Cap and Isaiah shaking hands and standing side by side as equals.

That’s about as real as it gets. That’s what Cap stands for. Righting wrongs and being righteous in your life. He’s about being all that you can be, so to speak.

Also, he was awesome in the Capcom fighting games. Final Justice, indeed.

Captain America is half of why I like Jack Kirby so much. Maybe a quarter. I need to factor in Black Panther and the Fourth World. A third. Anyway, Kirby and Simon created a character that speaks to the best in all of us, and isn’t about the garbage politics or hatred. He is better than that.

I finally got a trade copy of Truth this week. I’d been looking for it since it came out, since it was such a good story. It’s one of my favorite Cap stories, and he’s barely in it. It’s Marvel canon, as well. It’s true, it matters. That’s a risk on Marvel’s part, but it’s a risk that paid off. I can respect that. I think that it says a lot about how Marvel relates to the real world.

Christopher Priest followed up Truth, in a way, in The Crew. Josiah X was the son of Isaiah Bradley, and the series was going to deal with his life and how he lived up, or didn’t, to his father’s legacy. It was cancelled after 7 issues, but it was Priest in his prime. Every issue is great.

It also features Kasper Cole, the White Tiger. That’s a character that definitely shouldn’t have been left by the wayside. He’s got a great hook and a great visual design, as well. Link to the cover gallery. Kasper is on issue 2.

Man, and now that I’m thinking about it, I’d totally read (or write) a comic about Kasper.

Ultimate Captain America isn’t Captain America at all. Don’t even get me started.

I found this here while looking for images to illustrate this post with.


That’s Cap, out of his co-creator’s own mouth.

It’s almost eleven pm on July 4th, 2007 in San Francisco, so I just barely made it.

There’s your Happy Independence Day.

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8 comments to “O Captain, My Captain”

  1. Thanks so much for this essay – I’ve only just discovered 4thletter, and you’ve all smacked me over the head with awesomeness and intelligence, but this essay was *amazing*.

    Righting wrongs and being righteous in your life.
    That’s Cap. I never expected to like him; I thought he was corny and cardboard-y, but you’ve articulated many, many reasons why he’s so great.

    I think Truth: Red, White, & Black did some seriously *cool* work in highlighting the strength of the character. Plus, it gave us Faith Bradley.

  2. A friend pointed me here. I’d always felt, for a bunch of reasons, that Captain America represented the small-town Heartland, the America that didn’t want someone like me in all my demographics. But here you’ve completely changed my mind (not least by telling me that he’s from the Bronx — I’M from the Bronx!)

    Thank you for this beautiful essay.

  3. Thanks for reading, the both of you.

    Ny: I may have been slightly mistaken! Cap is either from Manhattan or the Bronx. Wikipedia says he’s from the Lower East Side, but I could’ve sworn someone recently said he was from the Bronx. Or maybe he was living in the Bronx recently?

    gloss: I always figured that Cap would be corny, but he’s really at his best when he isn’t. He’s kind of like Superman in that way. He’s earnest, rather than cornball.

  4. To me, Cap is the guy who fights for a purpose. He doesn’t fight to win, he fights because it’s he thinks it’s right, or because someone has to, or because someone ought to. He’ll go down swinging against Galactus or Thanos, or he’ll quit fighting when he realizes he’s not acting in the people’s interest in the Civil War. (Even if that realization is heavy handed.)

    I guess he could do that without wearing the flag, but it the message it sends is that much stronger when you can relate it to the Revolution and the real American Civil War as well as every superhero created before Wolverine.

  5. To be honest, I like Ultimate Cap a lot as well for the exact opposite reasons. Captain America is interesting because it’s his responsibility to rise above jingoism. Ultimate Rogers is a straight product of it, but ultimately a good guy at heart. Captain America is admirable; Ultimate Cap is America.

  6. Ultimate Cap’s learning, though. He’s still going through the man out of time stuff, but if you look at Ultimate Six and the second Annual, you see more the good guy. He straight up asks Fury, after discovering that essentially all of the Ultimate Six are attempts to recreate the super-soldier serum, if it might just be that a genetic war’s coming because guys like Fury are doing what they’re doing. And in the Annual, sure, he doesn’t understand some of the things that’ve happened, but he’s still angry in the right way.

  7. […] though, I had a pretty well received post about Captain America and America last year. It’s 2008 now. I’m older, wiser, and meaner. Why not give it another go, […]

  8. […] There’s so much to love about this series. Leila is awesome, but has disappeared down the same black hole as Glory Grant. I’d love to see her show up again, since last I remember, she was in Priest’s Cap & Falcon. I’ve talked about Kirby here, here, and here. […]