Captain America vs. FranceA column article, Killing Jokes by: Steve Morris
Steve Morris wants to know "What's so funny about funny books?" So each week in Killing Jokes he'll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
Mark Millar's Ultimates series for Marvel was revelatory in the way it took established concepts like the Hulk, Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. and merged them all into one grandstanding storyline which contemporized ideas which had spent years growing increasingly stale. It took the team dynamic and made it dysfunctional in a realistic manner, bumping characters against each other as egos fractured and relationships tore apart. It's hard to remember just how big an impact Ultimates had upon the way superhero stories were told, but it took the atmosphere of comics like The Authority and translated it into a mass-market book.
Hulk became a self-conscious behemoth whose neurosis as Dr. Banner transformed into rage whenever somebody questioned his sexuality, intellect or worldview. Captain America became a jingoistic relic of the war who couldn't let go of the past. Iron Man . . . remained a drunken playboy, but Nick Fury became Samuel L. Jackson and became far more suspicious a leader than the "616" Universe's portrayal of him. Everything became darker and edgier in true comic-book style, but made relevant points about American society and their military's approach to modern warfare. The book grew into a mini-classic, keeping action at the forefront but grounding it in character and full-blooded satire.
But still, all anybody remembers is the bit where Captain America screams "SURRENDER? You think this letter on my head stands for FRANCE?!!?"
Appearing in issue #11 of the first volume, it's a joke which only works in the very specific context Millar presents it in, and he has to work very hard in the rest of the issue to build readers up to the punchline. If the line dies on the page, then the character has failed and the satire behind Cap will fall flat. Although it appears to be a splash page joke which makes fun of Cap's xenophobic dislike of the French based on his experiences in World War II, in many respects this joke acts as the central grounding of the character's reinvention within the Ultimates universe as a whole. Without this one-note joke, the character himself becomes one-note. It's only because he can make petty jokes like this that he is developed as a character in his own right.
Let's go back a little bit, and provide the context for Cap's joke. In issue #11, America is in the midst of an alien invasion, as shape-shifting villains descend upon the Earth and attempt to take over. The central focus of the issue lies in Captain America's fight against the leader of the alien forces, whom he first faced off against back during the war. While the villain, Kleiser, has spent the past forty years developing as the world around him has developed too, Cap has been unconscious all this time and has no comprehension of how the world around him works. So their battle forces old-time heroics up against modern warfare, to see which can come out on top. Kleiser makes note of this specifically when he boasts, "It's just like 1945 again, isn't it? You really haven't learned a thing, have you?" Cap is immediately positioned as the underdog, who is overpowered and alone against a vastly powerful enemy.
Much of their fight over the issue gleefully dismantles Steve Rogers, as he is taken apart by his more experienced nemesis. With every punch he sustains, Cap is subjected to more boasting from Klesier, who constantly refers back to their time together in the war. All this works as grounding for the later punchline, as it keeps the conflict of World War II in the back of readers' minds all this time. The dialogue also refers to how Cap is only strong because he has super-serum in his blood, which keeps him going even though his mind and self-belief are weak. Again, he is shown to be an underdog who can't hope to keep up with contemporary society. Millar's commentary on the modern-day Captain America of the 616 Universe (who, lest we forget, sided with Punisher during Civil War and was poised to murder Iron Man until a last-minute intervention stopped him), is apparent: he's only shown as a hero because writers position him as one. It would be just as easy to make him a dark, conflicted villain as it is to have him save the day. It's all in the way he's presented.
Fury attempts to break in on the fight and save Cap, using modern technology. But that fails, and Fury is kicked aside. With nobody to help him, no gadgets to get out of this scrape, and a powerful enemy towering over him, all Cap has left is himself. And then, Kleiser makes his mistake: He asks Captain America to surrender. That one word activates something in Steve's head, and gives him the willpower to make one last stand against his opponent. With his attempts to integrate into society a failure, his knowledge of contemporary culture and society weak at best, he accepts himself as a product of the past and resorts to classic hand-to-hand combat. He fights dirty, punches Kleiser in the face, and cuts him in half using the shield. Then, in the heat of combat, with his blood running and warfare coursing through his mind, he yells "SURRENDER??!! YOU THINK THIS LETTER ON MY HEAD STANDS FOR FRANCE?"
The battle is shortly won, and Captain America becomes a hero to the people. Never mind that the letter on his head is an "A" and France starts with an "F." The xenophobia of the remark isn't what makes the joke work. It's that it sums up the character in a nutshell, and makes a point that sometimes what readers want to see isn't a dark, conflicted hero who second-guesses himself at every turn. Sometimes what they want is a return to fisticuffs, old-fashioned values, patriotism and a healthy dose of self-belief. Sure, Millar oversteps the joke in the next issue by having Fury reference it AGAIN and in the process congratulate himself for being so clever. But in that one unsubtle, brash splash, Millar shows us the face of modern warfare, and it looks remarkably similar to the face of 1940s warfare.
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet's 139th most-favourite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favorite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favorite DC character is, also, Darkstar. Never forget! He writes The Book of Monsters, a webcomic which updates every Sunday with a new story, monster, and artist. Join in!