At first glance Captain America seems to be an ideal comic book character to include in stories with a political viewpoint. After all, a man who literally wraps himself in the stars and stripes should have a lot of resonance as a symbol of America and its swagger, symbols and sense of itself.
In reality most of the attempts to add a level of political relevancy to Cap have been either dull, pointless or plain awful. The recent “Two Americas” storyline, which put Cap in the midst of a giant Tea Party rally held by white supremacists in Northern Idaho, was an awkward attempt to graft current news items to an action plot.
Still, Captain America can be used well as part of a political storyline. It just takes an extraordinarily skilled writer to pull it off.
Perhaps the most interesting political takes on Captain America came at a point when America’s self-esteem was at its lowest ebb, in the mid-1970s. When writer Steve Englehart assumed the reins of Captain America in mid-1972, the United States was trapped in a seemingly endless war in Vietnam that deeply and painfully divided the American people. On top of that, the ’72 election was extraordinary divisive and served to split the American populace further. The ’72 election also was the one in which Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” engaged in the Watergate break-in, resulting in the worst American scandal of the post-World War II era.
In those times, the idea of a Captain America seemed more and more irrelevant. When teenagers were burning their draft cards, when the movie Easy Rider ironically nicknamed Peter Fonda’s rebel motorcycle-riding character Captain America, when the idea of pride in one’s country seemed like a quaintly dated idea, Captain America felt like a relic of the World War II era, something to be tossed aside next to Liberty Bonds and Rosie the Riveter. Sales were tumbling on the title as a never-ending parade of writers and artists – often very skilled creators but unable to get a grasp on the title – tried and failed to give the book a direction.
Enter Steve Englehart. Englehart was at the time one of Marvel’s youngest writers, and was perhaps one of the least likely to turn the book around based on his political leanings. As he relates the state the character was in at the time he assumed the title:
Captain America was my third Marvel series. It was being considered for cancellation when I got it, because it had no reason for existence. Stan Lee had written it for years, and it was clearly his least favorite book; the stories had become not only lackluster but repetitive. Gary Friedrich had picked it up a year before and done some interesting stuff, but he hadn’t stayed long; then Gerry Conway did two issues as a stopgap; and then I got it. The problem across the board at Marvel was that this was the 70s – prime anti-war years – and here was a guy with a flag on his chest who was supposed to represent what most people distrusted. No one knew what to do with him.
Me, I had been honorably discharged from the Army two years earlier as a conscientious objector – but I was supposed to also be a writer. So I did something for the first time that marked everything I’ve written since. I said, “Okay, if this guy existed, who would he be?” Not “Who am I?”, but “Who is Captain America?”
Against all odds, Englehart’s run on Captain America was a blockbuster.
Instead of backing away from the politics of the title, Englehart embraced them. Instead of having Cap be a living paragon of American hegemony, Englehart depicted a man of his times, full of questions about America’s future, a man who saw it as his patriotic duty to question his role in the deep splits that defined America in the early ’70s.
And he was not just creatively successful, but also financially: as Englehart relates in a 1980 interview in The Comic Times, “The book had been at the bottom of the Marvel line and in danger of cancellation until I took it over. It went to the top of the line within six months and stayed there as long as I had it. It immediately went back into the toilet as soon as I left.”
The first story Englehart wrote for the series is one of his finest: the story of the forgotten Cap of the 1950s. Running from issues 153 to 156, this story was created to answer a simple question: if Captain America was frozen in ice at the end of World War II and unfrozen in the 1960s, who was the Cap of the 1950s? Englehart answers this question with great intelligence and insight, insight not just into costumed characters but also into the changes in American society between the 1950s and ’70s. The Cap and Bucky of the ’50s were violent, racist anti-Communist crusaders who saw the world as a simple struggle between good and evil. That contrasted nicely with the ’70s Captain America, who then was teamed with the Falcon, a black character, and who seemed to be struggling to find his place in a turbulent time in America.
Englehart relates the genesis of the storyline on his website: “Roy Thomas had been thinking about the Captain America who appeared in Timely (Marvel) books in the 1950s. Marvel’s Cap was supposed to have been frozen in ice during that time, so who was that man in the flag suit? He asked me that question as he handed me the book, and I ran with it for my four-issue initial story.”
The perversity of the ’50s Cap and Bucky can be seen in this speech by the ’50s Cap in CA #155: “Oh, it was glorious! To be a living legend – and fight the Red Skull – who turned out to be a real Red who had stolen the name from the Nazi villain! To battle the clutching hand of all Communism all across the globe – in such other forms as the Russian killer Elektro and the Chinese assassin, the Man With No Face. We were the champions of democracy, the inspirations to millions – Captain America and Bucky, the sentinels of liberty! But somehow we seemed to outgrow the world. We began finding Reds where others saw nothing, like in Harlem and Watts. In fact, we found that most people who weren’t pure-blooded Americans were Commies!”
The ’50s Cap and Bucky were paranoid funhouse-mirror versions of Cap and the Falcon. When the ’70s Captain America confronts his distorted ’50s counterpart at the end of CA 156, Cap realizes he’s battling his doppelganger: “I’ve never fought the evil side of my own nature. And that’s what he is, after all – a man who began with the same dreams I did – and ended as an insane, bigoted superpatriot. He is what he is because he admired me – wanted to copy me. In a very real way, I’m responsible for all the evil he’s done.”
The ’70s Cap is finally able to defeat the ’50s Cap, but the battle shakes the ’70s Cap down to his bones. He’s confronting an evil version of himself, but more than that, he’s confronting an evil version of the American dream that he stands for and believes in. The modern Cap’s defeat of his counterpart is symbolic: not only is the ’70s Cap ending an injustice, but he’s defeating an example of America’s distorted past. He’s defeating a man who represents the myopic vision of anti-Communism, proven wrong by the lessons of Vietnam.
All of the comics referenced in this article are available in collected form. The adventures of the ‘50s Cap are available in volumes one and two of the Atlas Era Heroes Masterworks. The ‘50s Cap storyline is collected in Essential Captain America vol. 3 and the upcoming Legacy of Captain America collection. Hopefully soon that run will be collected in the Masterworks format that it deserves.