The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.
I want to acknowledge at the top here that if you ever read a Captain America comic, chances are, I’m going to be reiterating a lot of stuff in this week’s Silber Linings that you already know. The thing is, as with so many other decades-old superheroes now reemerging as TV and movie stars, it’s easier than ever to have strong opinions about Captain America without ever seeing a single panel of good ol’ Steve Rogers in his native medium. And that’s fine. Until Fox News blowhards start talking out of their asses.
Fox News guest, having a completely normal one: “It’s so sad when Captain America is like Captain Woke or Captain Propaganda… I’m done with Captain America. He’s dead!” pic.twitter.com/g4p3qE2oxI
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) July 6, 2021
I got pretty miffed when I saw that on Twitter. And it wasn’t just that one segment. Fox News kept Cap in their outrage cycle for a long stretch of their programming, roping in public figures like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton…
Actor Dean Cain, best known for playing Superman on that ’90s Lois & Clark show…
…and former Hercules: The Legendary Journeys star Kevin Sorbo who, much like Dean Cain, claims to have breathed new life into his career with a string of roles in Evangelical fare like the Left Behind series now that mainstream Hollywood, including at least one former costar, apparently doesn’t want anything to do with him now that he’s been voicing his repugnant right-wing views.
Again, I realize that for most people reading this site, I’m not going to blow your mind when I tell you that Captain America has always been political. You don’t need me to tell you that Captain America was created in December 1940 (cover-dated March 1941) by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two young, working-class Jewish-American cartoonists who drew Cap punching Adolf Hitler in the fucking face on the cover of the first issue, which was especially bold considering that the US would not officially enter the European theater of World War II for another year. You don’t need me to tell you that contrary to his name and appearance, Captain America was never designed to to be an unquestioning poster-boy for America as it is, but as an aspirational figure for what he believes America ought to be.
But I’m going to write about it anyway, because I’m pissed. I don’t expect the bad actors in the government or Fox News or C-micsG-te or whatever the next bullshit is to stop their hate-for-profit grift just because it’s pointed out to them that they’re spreading misinformation. But that misinformation gets spread to people who absorb it in good faith. I’d like to at least try to set the record straight for them.
So before we go any further, let’s talk about the new comic book that’s got Fox News pundits so up in arms: The United States of Captain America #1, which debuted on June 30, 2021 just in time for the USA’s Independence Day. The lead story, “You Brought Too Many,” comes courtesy of writer Christopher Cantwell and artist Dale Eaglesham, with a backup story, “Tracks,” by writer Josh Trujillo and artist Jan Bazaldua, and it’s all colored by Matt Milla and lettered by VC’s Joe Caramagna.
It’s a strong start to a new Captain America run and I recommend it. I love the idea of marginalized young people around the United States who choose not to succumb to cynicism or defeatism in the face of oppression but instead, taking inspiration from Steve Rogers and erstwhile Captain America Sam “The Falcon” Wilson, band together as a ragtag team of Captain Americas (Captains America?) fighting injustice. That includes the much-hyped “Captain America of the Railways” Aaron Fischer, a gay 19-year-old runaway, who’s already proven to be a compelling new addition to the cast.
But before we even get to the “gay Captain America” whom I’m sure homophobes have already said plenty about in the few months since he was announced, there’s a monologue in which the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, waxes philosophical about the American Dream.
The far-right pundits have largely taken this speech out of context, of course, but they’re not entirely incorrect in characterizing it as Cap declaring that the American Dream is “dead.” The thing is, while that’s certainly subversive, there’s an optimism and, dare-I-say-it, patriotism at the core of Steve’s words once you look past the fact that he isn’t saying anything as blindly jingoistic as “America is wonderful and always has been.”
In The United States of Captain America, and so many other Captain America comics, Cap doesn’t consider the American Dream a given. That shallow notion of the American Dream, the one that suggests life in America is good simply by virtue of American values, is indeed a lie. The American Dream that Cap believes in is more aspirational, that America can be better, for its citizens and on the world stage, but we can’t take those ideals for granted and just expect everything to be peachy keen. It takes radical compassion, plus a willingness to stand up against American hypocrisy and speak out when asked to accept an unjust status quo without question.
Writing this the week after Independence Day, that’s how I often think about my relationship with my country too. I want to love America, because it’s my home. I was born here, I was raised here, my great-grandparents escaped violent antisemitism in Eastern Europe to get here, the vast majority of my friends and family are here, and I don’t see myself living anywhere else anytime soon. But America makes itself difficult to love when it refuses to properly confront its own violent, bigoted history, or recognize the harm it continues to cause on its own soil and around the globe in the name of American exceptionalism.
I’ll get off my soapbox in a moment, but it must be acknowledged that gross misconceptions about Captain America don’t only come from the political right. There are legions of other progressive Captain America fans, but I don’t blame those who aren’t familiar with comic book history for absorbing a certain perception of Captain America through cultural osmosis, and balking at the idea of such a character.
A blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy draped head-to-toe-to-shield in American flag paraphernalia, traveling around the universe preaching America’s greatness? Of course that sounds troubling! And if you’re one of the millions (billions?) of people who know everything they know about Captain America from the movies, they may not change your perception. The unfathomably profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe has a distinctive militaristic streak, and while I mostly enjoy those movies, it’s hard to deny the imperialist implications that often creep in, even if it’s not as obviously harmful as the crap Fox News peddles.
Besides, now that Marvel is owned by the terrifyingly powerful megacorporation that is Disney, with all the ethical questions that raises, it’s difficult to see how he can be reclaimed from his scrappy, countercultural working class roots. In recent years, the Disney-owned Marvel, overseen by Marvel chairman and Trump-advisor Ike Perlmutter, neutered an essay, featured in their 80th anniversary Marvel Comics #1000 special, by longtime Captain America writer Mark Waid by editing out the most explicitly political passages. They even forbade Art Spiegelman, of all people, from referring to Donald Trump as the “Orange Skull” in an essay of his own.
But Captain America has been around long before Kevin Feige and Chris Evans. “Captain America is antifa” surely sounds absurd to the uninitiated across the political spectrum, but that’s quite literally the truth. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon knew a fascist was rising to power overseas, so they created a hero who would stand against him, at a time when that wasn’t as popular an idea as you may think if you don’t know history (I’ve heard toxic fans complain that you can’t compare “woke” current Captain America to the Captain America of the early ’40s because “everybody was against Hitler back then,” a wild oversimplification*).
[Editor’s Note: Whereas today, apparently, not everyone is against Hitler.]
Moreover, one of the recurring motifs in Captain America comics is Cap’s own disillusionment with the country he strives to represent. Sometimes Steve Rogers has even (temporarily, of course) retired the Captain America identity in disgust. The best Captain America stories, in my experience, are the ones that force him to directly confront America, as a nation and a concept, as well as his relationship with it.
Take 2010’s Captain America: Man Out of Time by Waid and Jorge Molina, which retells the story of Cap being brought back to the modern day as he realizes that America as he thought it was as he fought in World War II is not how America turned out to be, or ever was.
Then there’s the original “Secret Empire” storyline from 1974 by Steve Englehart, Mike Friedrich, and Sal Buscema, a startlingly daring depiction of the post-Watergate American psyche that effectively ends with Richard Nixon himself committing suicide just off-panel.
I doubt Captain America would’ve remained popular very long if he was as shallow as many assume he is, or Fox News wants him to be. I don’t think groundbreaking writers like Mark Gruenwald, Ed Brubaker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or even Stan Lee would’ve been very interested in him if there wasn’t a sad internal conflict at the heart of who he is. Captain America endures not because he’s mindless state propaganda, but because he desperately wants America to be better.
Shouldn’t we all?