“america is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey” [Secret Avengers 21]

January 11th, 2012 by | Tags: ,

The crux of the American Dream, of America as a concept, is that we are required to be better. Not born better, because the idea of hereditary quality/morality or divine right inevitably results in corruption. The better I’m talking about is a struggle to become better. A need to be better. We need to be better than our enemies, better than our past, and better than the darker aspects of our minds. We are here. We need to be there. We need to work at being better. It isn’t a static state. It’s a constant struggle. We choose to go against our baser natures for the greater good. We avoid the easy routes to fame or fortune in favor of a more honest and rewarding path. That’s the dream. But when people talk about America the Beautiful, that’s what they’re talking about. The American Dream is about being a good person and having that be paid forward throughout every level of society. Sometimes it works out. A lot of times it doesn’t. It’s always worth believing in and striving for, though. It’s a goal, not a status quo or an end point.

Captain America, my favorite interpretation of him anyway, represents that Dream. As a result, he’s often disappointed with the actions of the country as a whole, from its government to its people. Cap represents the best of us, and that’s the source of his disappointment. There’s a Superman scene that I like a lot, created by Garth Ennis and John McCrea in JLA/Hitman. He flies up to Earth orbit and looks down at his planet. “If you knew how you are loved,” he thinks, “not one of you would raise a hand in rage again.”

It’s Superman, but it fits for Cap, too. He knows the heights humanity and America are capable of, and he’s often disappointed in the fact that the country and her people fall so short of the mark so frequently. The Falcon isn’t someone to be coddled or emancipated or attacked or guarded against. He’s Cap’s brother, someone he loves dearly and treats like family. The flag isn’t a scrap of cloth. It’s a symbol of what unity can do. And on and on and on. He’s a good man, and he represents a good thing.

Here’s a page from Secret Avengers 21, by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger, Dave Lanphear, and Chris Sotomayor. Drops this week.

Torture. It’s been a big deal over the past few years. The US has engaged in torture for ages, from slavery to the Cold War, but now that it’s public, it’s a lot harder to ignore. The behavior of the US government in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere has been deplorable on that front. Torture is a pretty simple concept. Even a child can define it. “I am going to hurt you until you give me what I want.”

But at some point, the government redefined it so that things like making someone think they’re drowning don’t count as torture. Waterboarding is something that Japanese soldiers were hanged for back in the World War II days, was defined as illegal in the Vietnam War, was used in apartheid South Africa on political prisoners, and was a favored tactic of both the Khmer Rouge (who murdered over a million people for unbelievably stupid and petty reasons) and Pinochet’s Chile.

Waterboarding, torture in general really, is indefensible, but the defense usually involves the words “necessity” and “protection” and other scaremongering ideas. We have to hurt them before they can hurt us.

If there is any one thing that it is important that 2012 America should be better than, it’s torture. It is an actual evil, and people who engage in it have no right to call themselves good people. Being better is about being better, not lowering yourself to the level of Pol Pot or Augusto Pinochet because you’re afraid of someone or something. Being better is about finding better ways to solve problems. Being better is about not hurting unarmed, defenseless men and women. Torture is vile.

“I don’t believe in torture. It’s ugly, dishonorable, and unreliable. So I’m going to let my colleagues do it.”

And here we meet the 2012 Captain America. He’s the antithesis of the Captain America that I enjoy reading about. He’s exactly what America should stand against. He’s a coward. This isn’t a momentary lapse in judgment. This is a man who knows better, who explains that he knows better even as he goes against what he believes, turns his back in the face of actual evil. He allows the existence of evil because it is convenient, which may well be worse than the evil itself.

There’s that axiom about all evil needing to prosper is for good men to do nothing, but I don’t agree with that at all. Good men don’t do nothing. Good men stop evil when it rears its head in their presence. They stamp it out and refuse to allow it to exist. Good men do better.

It’s 2012, and Captain America turns his back and tacitly endorses one of the worst crimes of the US government in recent memory. He turns his back on everything he should stand for and approves the use of everything America should not be. Captain America broke.

That’s vile. Maybe it’s a cynical statement on American politics and hypocrisy. Maybe not. It’s still vile. Reject it.

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52 comments to ““america is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey” [Secret Avengers 21]”

  1. Great post, sad comics shiznit. The way that Marvel allows its key characters to be mis-used and mishandled by their writers and artists isn’t criminal, but it sucks. To so fundamentally misunderstand or misrepresent Captain America is abhorrent.

  2. Okay. I don’t think I can ever read anything written by Warren Ellis again.

  3. Like everyone else, I haven’t read the issue yet so I’m holding out hope that best case scenario, Cap is just bluffing and wouldn’t actually permit Moon Knight–who has no such reservations–to actually go through with anything. That maybe in the immediate next page the guy says “okay, okay, I’ll talk” and the timer says 345 seconds.

    But it does bring up a point I as a relative comics newbie often notice, and it’s that every time I read an instance of Captain America behaving in a manner that seems far more appropriate of US Agent [aka: “jingoistic ultra-conservative jerk”], it’s always been from the pen of a creator from the British Isles instead of an American one. Mark Millar’s take on Captain America for The Ultimates embodies every negative preconception of what Cap is as held by people who’ve never read Captain America comics. “Okay, but that’s Ultimate Cap and so it’s okay to be a different take,” you might say. But his writing of Captain America in Civil War isn’t that much better. Garth Ennis’ take on Cap was limited mostly to having him get punked like Punisher (in keeping with his takes on the rest of the Marvel Universe), but it seemed along similar lines. And while I’ve been digging Warren Ellis’ one-shots on Secret Avengers, they do certainly feel like unused scripts originally written for something else altered slightly to feature Steve Rogers and friends.

    Can anyone provide me with instances of Captain America / Steve Rogers being written by someone from the British Isles (or anyone not from the US I guess) that don’t read as if they’re using him as the embodiment of American hegemony or whatever? Maybe it’s not right of me to say “that’s now how Captain America should be!” but it’s just not the type of characterization of him that resonates with me.

  4. Daryl – Like you, I’m holding out for “bluff” as well. Still, as a bluff, it’s really damn out-of-character for Cap.

    And to add to that thought, the author who wrote the infamous “What do you know about MySpace?” rant from Civil War: Frontline? The one Cap just responded to with mute resignation? Paul Jenkins, also of that sceptered isle. Just saying.

  5. Kalinara suggests Neil Gaiman in 1602 where well… he’s misguided and from a bad timeline, but he’s erring on the side of too idealistic.

    But yeah, British writers and Captain America… not a great track record.

  6. If it was a bluff, I wouldn’t have written about it, dudes. The next page is Moon Knight stabbing a dude, Widow shooting someone, and then Knight threatening to cut another’s face off.

  7. Like Ragnell said:

    I liked Neil Gaiman’s portrayal of Cap in 1602. I mean, there are caveats in that it’s an alternate universe (sorta), and this version of Steve is more than a little crazy. But if anything, he was erring on the side of TOO idealistic. I always thought if Cap did lose it, that’s the way he’d go: obsessed with an ideal to the point of irrationally and (most importantly) unintentionally endangering the world.

    I remember actually discussing Cap with non-American friends, and it did seem like they had strange ideas about the character. This was before the movie though. It seems like a lot of the people I knew who didn’t care for Cap before have a new understanding of the character since the movie came out.

  8. Dave Gibbons wrote a very straight-up heroic Cap in ‘Cap Lives’ (or whatever it was called).

    Trying to write a character who symbolises a country other than your own is a big challenge for any writer, I think, but it should definitely be possible because Cap or Superman represent American ideals, rather than reality – and a lot of the best Cap stories are about the tension between the two. (I say this as a British writer myself, btw.)

    I suspect that there’s a generational factor at work as well. Millar, Ellis and Ennis all broke into American comics with a very shocking, irreverent attitude, and I think they default to that as a matter of course, even though it’s an entirely inappropriate take on the character.

  9. This isn’t the Steve Rogers who gave up being Captain America after discovering the President was the head of the Secret Empire.–Captain America #175

    This isn’t the Steve Rogers who said “The world must never again make the fatal error of mistaking compassion for weakness! And as long as I live…it WON’T!”–Avengers V1 #6

    The movie got it right!
    This comic got it wrong!

  10. Yeah, Mark’s right. This line from an Ellis character? By the book, could come from any of the main leads in his popular books. This is how he writes.

    I do think Gaiman’s take is interesting, though, because of American Gods. He wrote an entire book on how concepts from other cultures, specifically those represented by the Northern European gods, were altered to suit American culture. The man has given serious thought to US culture and ideals, to the point that he can actually use Captain America as his bad guy and make it suit the character and everything he represents.

  11. Ahaha, wow…I had a whole thing written up defending it on the basis of A) not seeing the next page and B) assuming that Commander Steve Rogers is a role Steve uses so he can be the mild-to-majorly shitty that espionage work requires but Captain America can’t be involved with.

    Copied it, hit submit, page errored out, I refreshed, and saw a comment about what happens on the next page. Here’s a bit I saved from my longer comment:

    “Or Warren Ellis is just going to have a bottle episode where a roomful of techs get the dogshit tortured out of them while Steve Rogers doesn’t look and whistles, in which case I’ll feel very silly.”

    Thank god I dodged that bullet, then.

  12. (I was also assuming he was bluffing when I wrote the original defense. Kind of a bummer that’s not the case.)

  13. Aside from this talk on Ellis, I wanted to add that actual torture (from what I understand) is actually far less effective than other interrogation techniques, making places like Guantanamo ineffective from an intelligence standpoint.

    Whenever a fictional character actually points a gun at someone and demands answers, the believability and integrity of the story gets shot down to the bottom of the ocean, regardless of whether it’s Jack Bauer or Captain America.

    What it all comes down to is lazy writing.

  14. Friggen weak…maybe he’s a leftover Skrull agent? That’s definitely not the Cap I loved as a kid.

  15. @Josh:
    w/r/t this: “assuming that Commander Steve Rogers is a role Steve uses so he can be the mild-to-majorly shitty that espionage work requires but Captain America can’t be involved with”

    Steve Rogers is Captain America. Having Commander Steve Rogers think it’s okay to torture people carries an implication that the only reason he behaves morally as Cap is for show.

    I know you said you weren’t defending the portrayal, but this bit really rubbed me the wrong way.

  16. Warren Ellis also writes a really shitty Cyclops.

  17. @John F.: I actually dug Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis quite a bit.

  18. The American Dream is the biggest lie that has ever been bought. Social mobility is a myth, and America has always profited off of the misery of the underclass. Don’t see why torture is such a big surprise.

  19. I’d always interpreted that evil-to-prosper thing as just what you’re arguing. IF good men do nothing (Cap turns his back), evil will prosper… It’s a refutation of the idea that we can let evil happen while it’s isolated — rather, if we do nothing about it even while it’s a few bad apples, it will prosper, leech out everywhere even if we didn’t actively make it spread.

    Re Cap, I’d never read much of him, and as an outsider (Aussie), I’d always assumed he represented US hegemony — the film was the first time I’d seen a portrayal of that humility, and while I enjoyed it, it felt strangely out-of-place… I’d imagined him as always reflecting the contemporary American zeitgeist, rather than being the throw-back to earlier values that the frozen-in-ice storyline does to him.


  20. @david brothers: I don’t mind a Cyclops who does what he has to to protect the survival of his species. The X-Force thing is a cool idea. But having him say stuff like “I’m going to kill all of them!” ( think in the Ghost Boxes story) just doesn’t do it for me. There’s a huge difference between pragmatism and bloodlust.

  21. As many have said, it’s Warren Ellis trying to stay relevant in comics by being edgy. He obviously doesn’t get Captain America and so we get comics with scenes like that.

    Unless for some reason he’s decided that Steve Rogers can be a cold being when he’s wearing that uniform instead of the Captain America suit. But even then it doesn’t work because he’s still Captain America, even when out of costume.

  22. Let me ask you this: When Captain America, or Hawkeye, or Batman, or Daredevil or whoever go into seedy bars and beat up thugs, do you consider them to all be condoning torture as well? Beating people up until they get the information they want?

  23. @Jeremy: It’s more bad and lazy writing than anything else. I think you’re missing the point of the post. It’s not “Torture is evil, get it out of my comics, ew.” It’s “torture, when utilized by this specific character, who has this history, who has represented these values since the ’70s, breaks what feels like the core of the character.” There’s an interesting story to be had of Captain America falling from grace and embracing torture. From what I’ve seen, this ain’t it.

  24. Yes, but again, Captain America has used violence(or the threat of violence) to get his way for years now. He might not have called it “torture” outright, but the man is a soldier, who fights, shoots, and yes even kills, if that means preserving the freedoms and ideals in the country he represents and believes in. He doesn’t enjoy it, it doesn’t make any less heinous, but its part of his character. Not just from cynical snark machines like Ellis, but from Brubaker, Waid, Stern, DeMatteis.

    Where do we draw the line against violence when its ingrained into the character?

    (I say when he starts letting Moon Knight stab innocent people in the hand, but I’d like to hear your opinion on it).

  25. I also like Warren Ellis’s Cyclops. I think that his particular storytelling style suits the character as he has developed. (Whether you like or hate that development is a matter of personal taste, I think.)

    Actually, I think my biggest problem with this scene isn’t necessarily Steve condoning torture (which I think *might* be possible in the right story/circumstances, which this obviously is not), it’s the way he’s shirking responsibility while doing it.

    “I don’t condone torture, so I’ll leave the room and let my friends do it” is completely against everything that makes Steve Steve to me. Captain America isn’t infailable, he’s made bad decisions before. But he OWNS his bad decisions. He faces the consequences for them willingly. And IF he ever made the decision that torture was necessary, he would never shirk responsibility like this. It’s his decision, so he’d damn well be there to see it through.

  26. This is also a long way from the “If his way would have truly worked, he’d have find a way to fit in society and correct problems from within it.”

    Paraphrased from The Cap in the Busiek Avengers run…

    Honestly, that line used in S.A. fit Barnes Cap rather than Rogers…

  27. @david brothers: My mistake. I’d gotten so used to the way Internet discourse tends to operate that I forgot that there are in fact people who actually do have access to US comics a little before street date that aren’t just doing posts based on previews and news announcements.

    But now that I know what happens afterwards, I’m in full agreement with you. Based on my understanding of Steve Rogers and what aspects of him made him suited to become Captain America, the core conceit of the character that makes him compelling to follow is that he embodies the traits of what America should be. The fundamental problem with this scene in Secret Avengers and all the other scenes and moments that have rang false over the years is that they are written by people whose interpretation of the character is that he should embody what America actually is. And as noted, that idea got put to rest 40 years ago when it was retroactively decided that the “Commie Smasher!” was actually an imposter, giving us this unforgettable and defining moment.

  28. @David Fairbanks: I wasn’t approaching it as him only being moral for show, though I get that interpretation.

    I meant it more in the sense that when Cap feels like he can’t do what he’s doing in the Captain America uniform, he’s been known to change clothes.

    Like, take it as there’s Steve Rogers the guy, right? Then there’s Captain America, who’s a little bit more than just Steve; he’s a symbol. There’s Nomad, who’s also Steve, but who can’t in good conscience let the symbolism of Captain America be comprimised while he wears the suit. I’m saying that the Commander role/outfit is the one Steve’s using for the nasty practicality of espionage work without needing to be The Iconic Captain America doing those things.

    It’s not multiple personalities or anything, it’s just…uniforms, and what they mean, on what should be a good man who’s more complex than we usually see.

    Now, also keep in mind that I was originally basing that on the belief that “oh, that’s a shitty threat, but he’s bluffing”; it’s nastier than something Cap would do, and Steve Rogers the person is probably not happy with himself, but Commander Steve Rogers the spy with the job to do, I totally buy saying “well, it’s out of my hands… (3, 2, 1) What? You want to talk?”

    But that theory flew entirely out the window in this instance when it turned out those people get tortured, because I agree there shouldn’t be any kind of Steve Rogers, in any role, who’d let actual torture happen on his watch.

    (Which is bizarre, because things like fake fires and incapacitation threats in the previous pages are a perfect balance of “slightly harsher than normal Cap” without sacrificing a fundamental decency in how he deals with basically everyone. I could easily get behind Cap-as-a-No-Killing-run-of-MGS, but not this.)

  29. I snorted a laugh at the audacity of that line but don’t agree at all.

    Otherwise I think Ellis’s Secret Avengers run has been really fun, particularly the Shang Chi-centric David Aja issue.

  30. @Josh: The reason why Steve created the Nomad identity was that America had been compromised by the Secret Empire to such a degree that he could not in good conscience represent it anymore. It was because he felt that america had betrayed him, not that he needed to do things that Captain America couldn’t.

    Regardless, I can’t in good conscience accept that the mouthpiece for Ellis’ words in the scans in this post is Steve Rogers.

  31. Just read it.

    I assume that Ellis’ take on Rogers is that he’s “off the record, by any means necessary” in his Super Soldier garb.
    Ellis was already pushing it with the persona but that panel probably crossed it.

  32. For what it’s worth, I agree this is un-Cap-like in every scenario, but I’m curious if I’m reading the tortue rationale correctly:
    Torture a roomful of people (all of whom save one are incapable of honestly confessing, whether “innocent” or otherwise) in the hopes that the one person who IS guilty breaks down/confesses before someone else does? That should yield nothing but the most accurate intel.

  33. From one Cap fan to another: “Thanks.”

  34. My only qualm here is: after all these years, why would anyone expect different from Warren Ellis? He does not write individual protagonists. He writes Ellis Man. His character talks like Ellis Man and acts like Ellis Man. (Possibly with some demotic affectations to show whether Ellis Man is meant to be educated or streetwise.) If the protagonist is female, she talks and acts like Ellis Woman. In JLA Classified: New Maps of Hell you can enjoy the spectacle of Clark Kent and Lois Lane sounding like neither of those people, written instead as snarky Ellis Man and badass Ellis Woman. This is what Warren Ellis does. Individual personalities are for minor supporting characters; the hero is always Ellis Man.

  35. That really was out of character for Cap, and is disappointing.

  36. So Cap going to start the 2012 salem witch trails on a bunch of people for one spy. So what the chances of someone recording Steve doing this attach claims that “This is what captain America does in his spare time, watching colleges torture folks for inane reasons and ‘enjoying it’.”

  37. This post puts it very well. I didn’t think Civil War was a very good story, but at least Captain America went in the right direction. That storyline did contain the terrible Myspace/Youtube rant, but it also had Cap just telling Spider-Man the way it was. I think the “plant yourself like a tree by the river of truth” speech was written by JMS? This page looks like utterly lazy writing written by someone who just wanted a cliched sort of Jack Bauer line.

    I’m with Daryl, if you want to paint a picture of modern America’s moral bankruptcy, you do it by having a relic like Captain America look in horror and disappointment at the way things are, and fight to change them. He shouldn’t just become the embodiment of the cliched ends-justify-the-means hero that 24 embodied. I think the greatest potential in Captain America lies in his ability to be an American, yet and outside, and hold the mirror up us so we can contrast what we are with what we could be… rather than just becoming another reflection of what we see outside our windows every day.

  38. Spankminister-
    I agree. My quintessential Cap who delivered this speech to Spidey.

    “Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, you move.” ”

    I know I’m a new comics fan, but to me, that is Captain America. He doesn’t embody our current America, he embodies the best of what America can be. I like Ellis, but man, that is some character assassination.

  39. To non-American readers, perhaps I can explain a couple points about the American mindset.

    We Americans have taken to calling our WWII generation “The Greatest Generation”. Our perception of WWII is that evil had bled into the world, and when called upon, Americans stood up to that evil and beat it. To be sure we didn’t go it alone, but then again we didn’t have to get involved either … the important thing is, when the world needed people to stand up to evil, Americans from every walk of life stood up. I realize that this is a greatly oversimplified view of things, but what’s important to understand is that this is how many Americans see WWII and the Greatest Generation.

    Steve Rogers is the distillation of the Greatest Generation; he is what each of us could be at our very best. Steve wouldn’t even let a frail body stop him from joining the good fight, and when he fights he fights out of principle. He even eschews weapons for a shield, for protection and for non-lethal combat. Do not be confused about his wearing a uniform; so did every American soldier in WWII, but they were motivated by the common good, not by nationalism.

    Again, I’m trading a lot in how Americans look at the Greatest Generation, and not so much on the realities (such as America’s role in things was to stop Japan and later the Soviet Union more than defeating the Nazis), much less the unpleasant realities (many of the Greatest Generation soldiers later moved on to support racial segregation at home, sometimes through violence). But to understand Captain America you need to understand how Americans view the war that created him.

    So, Captain American torturing, or even just allowing torture to occur? No sir, not a chance. To put it in perspective, there is a long tradition in Marvel Comics of Cap taking on poor custodians of the American Dream, people who champion bigotry or oppression. At the end of the story is usually a brief speech on why America must be better than that … and it really should go without saying, but Cap wouldn’t stand for torture either.

  40. Just read the issue, and yeah it’s terrible. Not just the torture scene, either. The whole thing was confusing and dumb. Ellis seems almost incapable of writing anything other than a Planetary comic. Occasionally he’ll still write a good story, like last month’s issue with Black Widow and time travel. I liked that one a lot.
    This issue, though…whoa. So much terrible. The torture thing was bad and wrong in so many ways, but there’s another scene that feels even more out of character. The scene where Steve hears that the Lovecraftian monster keeps regenerating no matter how much they blast it, and his immediate response is that they should just blow up the building and kill his team? This guy is supposed to be a master tactician, and that’s his FIRST response? Freak out and kill everyone?

  41. Agreed that this passive, “plausible deniability” endorsement of torture really, really stood out for me, and made me stop reading the comic for a moment. And then, when I went back to it, we see (what turns out to be) an innocent man having the tendons of his hand severed, and another getting shot (by a stun thingie, but still) in the leg.

    What’s worse is if you think about this as a tactic. If they knew there was one even one innocent person in that room, and that injuring others would coerce the guilty, this is collective punishment. Which is a war crime. And I’d think the man who grew up fighting Nazis would be sensitive to war crimes.

  42. You know that Glenn Beck speech where he says to open, “I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me?”

    I hate Warren Ellis with everything in me.

  43. @Dan Coyle: I think we got that.

  44. Not only did we get it, it’s reached the point of being terribly annoying. Take it elsewhere, dude, because no one here cares.

  45. Maybe Steve Rogers, WW2 veteran could spontaneously announce how much he loves gays and that Al Queda terrorists are really misunderstood nice guys. Then it would be OK with everybody.

  46. […] U, isn’t it? Except all the characters are really generic? Like the inimitable David Brothers points out Captain America isn’t really being very Captain America, but then, none of the characters are […]

  47. @VDM: “Spontaneously announce how much he loves gays”. Yes, because if there’s anything about the man who did everything he could to put an end to the persecution of innocent people for being considered different, it’s that he hates gays.

    So anyway, thanks for the bigotry and strawman combo, douche.

  48. @VDM: So those are the only two choices? You either endorse torture or you’re a homo-loving apologist for Al Queda (sic)?

  49. @John F.: He’s right, you know. Either you hate Al-Cluedo and all they represent (homosexuality, religious tolerance, Sony PlayStation, not torturing people) or you’re totally in love with them.

    google ron paul 9/11 was an inside job fluoride in the water

  50. On a similar note to this blog, there’s an interesting Atlantic magazine article on parallels of today’s enhanced interrogation to the Inquisition, raising many of the same questions: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/01/torturer-8217-s-apprentice/8838/ :damn:

  51. This makes me sad. The Cap who fought Marvel’s Civil War would have never turned his back on people getting tortured by people working for him.

    The older I get, the less inclined I am to read Marvel anymore. I’ve gone into DC… but even that I get unhappy with. I just can’t tolerate episodic stories anymore. It’s too much like those stories in high school, where you’d write for ten minutes and pass it to someone else.

  52. Good Cop, Bad Cop, how does it work? :damn: