Captain America is a Political Character

Posted by Jennifer

The short version, for those who don’t know:

Last month, Captain America #602 was published. In the comic, Cap (still Bucky, not Steve Rogers) and the Falcon encountered a group of anti-tax protesters in Boise, Idaho. The images of these protesters included this panel:

Apparently, this upset people in the Tea Party Movement, who felt that their portrayal in the comic was unfair, particularly the Falcon’s assertion that black men like him wouldn’t be welcome there. They complained and, consequently, Marvel yesterday blamed the specific Tea Party reference on a rushed letterer and promised to remove the sign from future editions of the comic, including the inevitable trade paperback. You can read the Fox News coverage here, the New York Times coverage here, and Joe Quesada’s response here.

I’m not here to debate whether or not the Teabaggers are racist, though evidence points to the conclusion that racism is an element for some members of the Tea Party movement. I’m also not here to dispute Joe Quesada’s claim that the words were a mistake. I have no reason to doubt that his explanation, about a letterer adding the words at the last minute in a rush, is the truth. I believe writer Ed Brubaker when he says he didn’t write the words, and didn’t expect them to appear.

But what troubles me – what angers me, if I’m being honest – is the fact that Joe Quesada and other Marvel bigwigs are willing to be bullied by an anti-government fringe group into changing and publicly apologizing for a product that was, “mistake” or no mistake, not in need of change or apology.

Let’s consider a few facts:

1.) Whether or not these words belong to Ed Brubaker himself, they did not appear on the page by magic. The letterer (who I won’t mention by name as I’m not sure if it was the regular series letterer or another individual) is part of the creative process. Therefore, intent WAS involved.

2.) The letterer would not have put those words there if they did not fit the scene. If someone can name me another major anti-tax, anti-government movement in the country right now that the characters in this scene were meant to represent, I’ll give them a cookie. Specific words or not, those people were Teabaggers, and it’s cowardice to claim otherwise, because, most importantly:

3.) Captain America comics have always been political.

When a character dresses up in a flag, controversy is bound to follow. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby knew that when, in 1940, they robed their new creation in red, white, and blue, and set him on the cover of a comic book to punch Hitler across the jaw. And you know what? Some people got mad about this! Americans — specifically, the German American Bund – got mad about this, because we had not yet entered World War II and some still believed Hitler was of unimpeachable character. But did Timely Comics apologize and grovel and pull the issue from the stands? No. They stuck to their guns, and New York even sent a police detail over to protect the Timely building.

In his essay “Retconning America: Captain America in the Wake of World War II and the McCarthy Hearings,” scholar Jason Dittmer notes that “since 1940, Captain America has served as a bellwether for changing attitudes about the values and policies of the United States.” This was the premise for the entire first chapter of my senior thesis, and even a cursory look at Cap’s history proves it to be true. In the 1960s, both Vietnam and its protesters were addressed in Cap comics. Once Cap met the Falcon in the 1970s, race and racism became major topics as Cap learned to grapple with the country’s racist legacy, a grappling that continued into the new millennium with the Truth: Red, White, and Black miniseries, about a black soldier who was used as a guinea pig for the super-soldier formula before Steve Rogers. Years later, Cap helped clean up after 9/11 and fought terrorists overseas. And after Watergate, Cap comics even had an entire analogue story called “Secret Empire,” in which a high government official – implicitly Richard Nixon – is discovered to be the leader of a terrorist organization.

Let me repeat that: in the 1970s, Captain America comics implied that the PRESIDENT was a TERRORIST. And now we’re worried about Teabaggers?

Cap comics have frequently walked a tightrope, producing stories that can be read favorably by either side of a political argument. But they have always been political in nature, always complicated and often heavily-disputed. If you look at letter columns from Captain America comics from the 1960s, it seems like the Vietnam War itself was being fought in the Cap mail bag. But that didn’t stop the writers from writing their stories, or defending their work. Nor have recent events stopped Marvel writers from creating politically-charged stories (about Cap or otherwise), from the Patriot Act allegory in Civil War to the straight up Glen Beck parody in the currently-running Siege: Embedded miniseries. And yet now, when the fringe right is upset, Marvel is groveling.

What makes me angriest about this whole situation, however, is how starkly it contrasts with the list of all the things Joe Quesada and Marvel writers have REFUSED to apologize for in recent years – all the people whose legitimate complaints have been brushed aside derisively in the name of art or the almighty dollar. Let’s start with Jonathan Hickman’s use of the offensive slur “retard” in a recent issue of Fantastic Four, defended in the letter column as necessary to his art because “that’s what a three-year-old would say.” Let’s talk about how editors spent months defending the Chameleon raping Peter Parker’s roommate in Spider-Man without repercussions or even acknowledgment that it had been rape. What about all the times people have brought up the sexism or racism in certain comics and been brushed aside as crazy entitled fans, as if they were banging on the doors of the Marvel offices demanding the return of Deathlok? Marvel does not make a habit of apologizing, even when it probably should.

But when Fox News starts whining, it’s time to bend over backwards to apologize and excise the material that offended a few ultra-conservative white people. Because, as we all know, it’s a FAR bigger crime to accuse someone of racism than to be racist oneself. And while offensive slurs MUST be used to preserve the realism of a preschooler’s portrayal, it’s unacceptable for a black character to call the Tea Party Movement racist. Right?

This move on Marvel’s part is offensive on two different levels. On one hand, it’s a weasely attempt to deny the obvious political content of the comic, content that is completely in keeping with the comic’s and character’s history. But on the other hand, it’s yet another example of the company bowing to the desires of the rich, powerful, and bigoted, as they do when they refuse to engage with the aforementioned fans and instead give attention and satisfaction to the people at Fox News.

I love Marvel Comics, and I expect better.

By Jennifer Smith
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • *applauds* I told you last night, but this post is beyond awesome, and I agree with every single thing you said.

  • Caroline

    Nicely done. It still kills me that “retard” passes because it’s realistic that a three-year-old would say it, but God forbid we should suggest that a black man thinks a movement devoted to throwing the worst kind of insults at a black President just might not be welcoming to black people. CRAZY TALK!

  • CoreytheDevil

    I agree with what you’re saying here and part of me thinks that their newest mouse-eared authority figure may have a hand in this. Call me a conspiracy theorist but I cannot ignore that Marvel is owned by a global, multimedia company who may rather make Marvel suck it up and apologize for opinion instead of standing by the creative team.

    I also think the “backlash” here is incredibly ridiculous. I noticed several people on the Marvel boards claiming that Cap would never support a socialist system and that Brubaker is pushing his liberal agenda – but it appears that they didn’t even bother to read the comic. They act like Bucky Barnes approached each protester individually, insulted them, and then ripped the constitution in half in front of their eyes. No, Bucky came off as quite neutral with his reply to Falcon that they “weren’t in New York anymore”. The truth is that most of the people on those boards who are so offended were also the same people who felt Captain America wasn’t “American” enough because he wasn’t fighting terrorists in Iraq in every issue. Also, I agree with Caroline, it is believable for Falcon to think that these people are racist when they’ve thrown slurs at a black president.

    However, I fully think that it is in these peoples’ rights to protest, voice their opinion, and support their cause – despite how hypocritical it comes off when they were outraged that liberals protested the war in Iraq and the agenda of President Bush. If they want to be outraged and angry, fine. I was when I felt there was a president in the office who didn’t support my beliefs and opinions. If they feel offended that a comic called Captain America looks down on them when they believe they are fighting for America’s integrity, that is fully in their right to do. I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten legitimately pissed off over something I’ve read in a comic.

    I do have a problem with Marvel not having enough integrity to stick by their guns and admit “yes, these were members of the tea party and, yes, we don’t think these people are right.” Its downright hypocritical when they ignore what fans want or feel like they got ripped off from, just to bend over backwards and backtrack when Fox News gives them some negative publicity. Besides, as Jennifer’s post pointed out, this isn’t the first time Cap or Marvel has taken a stand in a political issue. Either stick by your guns and creative teams, or force writers to stop doing political stances unless they’re willing to present both sides so that no one gets their feelings hurt.

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  • Anika

    A number of my friends who don’t read comics but know I do have sent me links to various reports of this and in response I’ve now sent them all the link here.

    The fact that this all happened at the very same time that Congress took four days off from discussing Climate Control legislation due to uncharacteristic weather — I don’t know, put together that’s a lot of my issues with the state of the country in a nutshell. The Tea Party People are allowed their assembly and expression but SO IS EVERYONE ELSE. I do not care that they were offended. I am offended every time they show up on my television and computer.

    And Marvel scrambling to apologise for it hurts my soul. Bet it sells a lot of comics, though.

  • Selling my Cap 602 on ebay would be wrong, right?

  • chlop

    Wanted to get your point of view. Not trying to attack, and I’m sorry if it sounds this way:

    “the company bowing to the desires of the rich, powerful, and bigoted” – are you serious, or is that sentence a joke?

    As for the history claim – racism was rampant in comics’ characters history. Does that mean people can’t complain when something they perceive as racist or stereotypical?

    The same goes for the portrayal of women in comics as scantily clad, big bosomed eye candy – which happens of the men in the comics as well. Just because it’s there, people shouldn’t complain?

    Also blaming Fox for Marvel apologizing is stupid in my eyes. Marvel are big boys, and if someone doesn’t like the response he’s getting for a claim he made, he should vote with his dollars.

    Also criticize again and again. Once someone’s point of view is brought to the masses, the problems it highlight can be corrected, or prevented at least – by the people making the comics and the people in charge of the publishing companies.

    As for the claim that there is racism in the Tea Party – does that stain the movement itself, or the people associated with it?
    Was there racism in the civil rights movement?
    Does that make the movement’s claims any less valid?

    As for the characters’ comments in the comics – they were the writer’s comments. Whether you add signs or not, it doesn’t matter. Comics are timely and everyone will know who you’re talking about.

    Should writers preach to readers via the comics? Aren’t we past that step? Aren’t we adults?
    Also, should people protesting be portrayed as racist?
    To say a black man has no room in that movement is racist in itself and stereotypical.

    It keeps the portrayal of the protesters as rich white racist people, who have everything in life, and the portrayal of black people as people who are poor, and amount to nothing.
    Maybe I’m seeing too much in the comics, but those are my thoughts. Would love to hear other people’s point of view. Sorry if I sound preachy or ranty.

  • Thanks to everyone for reading this, and for your kind words!

    Now, chlop. First of all, I never once said that these people didn’t have the right to complain. This is America. Freedom of speech is protected. Complain away! What I OBJECT to is Marvel removing the language and apologizing. I object to Marvel silencing itself in the face of this criticism, especially since they have refused to do so when others have complained about other issues.

    Second of all, this isn’t preaching. This is featuring a real-life political event in a comic, which has always been a part of comics. Art is inherently biased. It is not produced in a vacuum. And when you’re writing a comic called Captain America, your views on America are going to be present. Not everyone is going to agree, but there’s no way to MAKE everyone agree.

    Many people in this movement ARE racist. They have thrown slurs at a black president. It’s only natural that a black man would look askance at those actions — especially in Idaho, headquarters of the white supremacist movement. And considering the comic features Sam Wilson posing believably as a tax agent, I don’t think this in any way portrays black people as poor people who will amount to nothing.

    Thank you for your comments, but I am going to have to politely, and firmly, disagree.

  • piscespaul

    Slow clap Jennifer. That was so well said that I will not sully it with any pithy words of my own. Well done!

  • chlop

    “not produced in a vacuum” – yes, but it’s how you present those views. They were presented in a talkback style, and not in the style of your response.

    “… didn’t have the right to complain” – but you alluded (intentionally or not) to their point of view not being valid – or driven by racism.

    “Many people in this movement ARE racist” I don’t know how you quantify that. Many is a relative term. Tens of thousands of people protested in the previous year and in this one – I imagine some of them weren’t present in every protest, and I imagine some of the people holding those views didn’t protest at all – so there are even more “members”.

    As for Marvel silencing itself – just because they didn’t do it for certain claims, they shouldn’t do it for all? It’s a flawed argument, because something (else) might appear that will outrage a lot of people around the US and the world. Should Marvel not apologize for it?

    Marvel apologizing for something it did should looked upon as a good step in the right direction, for people who want it to apologize for other things as well, and to change them.

    As for preaching – the writer used the comics to give his point of view, in a matter that seems to be talkbacky. When things are put on print, I expect them to be better than that. If the writer created and owned the character, I wouldn’t mind – or mind less.

    And I don’t agree that it would be natural for a black man to call an entire movement or protest racist, because some of the people participating in it are racists, saying he has no room there. Especially because of the way it was written in the comics.

    When you need to clarify things after the fact, in a print publication, it’s better to rephrase.
    Since when does Captain America needs to infiltrate a protest movement, that isn’t secretive at all?
    “we’re not in New York”.

    I might be seeing too much, but it screams of the writer’s commentary – that the protest movement is racist to the core, which is a serious accusation.

  • sigrid

    Thank you, everyone, for your remarks! We appreciate them!

  • Right on, you said it. I don’t mean to be crass, but the only possible thing I could think of saying to Quesada on this whole issue was “grow a pair”. I’m terribly disappointed in Marvel Comics.

  • handyhunter

    Good post. Not reading some of the comments. :/

    “promised to remove the sign from future editions of the comic, including the inevitable trade paperback.”

    Does this mean the original editions of this issue are now Worth Something? Also, has anyone cited censorship/lack of free speech yet? It always seems to come up when it’s the other way around…

  • Sam

    Nice entry. Regardless of my feelings on the actual statements made in the book, it’s interesting to know more about Cap’s history (as published media) of not only being political, but sometimes radically so.

    I also agree (again regardless of my feelings on the Tea Party movement, which I don’t think is as fringe as many of us would hope) that Marvel’s reaction was disappointing in general but particularly in light of all the things they’ve done in the past that they either don’t apologize for or don’t even realize are bad.

    So, yeah. Great entry, thanks for the info, I agree, etc! :)

  • Chlop — did you even read the thing?

    He’s not infiltrating the protest movement. He’s infiltrating the secret militia being run by the Cap impostor who got the protesters riled up.

    And 2) That’s Sam Wilson, the Falcon. That is what Sam Wilson would say when faced with a large crowd of white people shouting “we want our country back” — were the writer to make him say “I see where these people are coming from”, the writer would be writing Sam Wilson out of character.

    Now, USAgent and Battlestar would probably react more sympathetically to the protestors, but they aren’t the characters in this comic. The characters are Bucky Barnes (who is fairly conservative, actually, and has had BAD experiences with Communists, but actually knows knows what one is) who reacted cynically because he’s cynical, and Sam Wilson who is a social worker from an urban ethnic neighborhood and who was unsettled by the display.

    Cripes, you can complain on the theme once it’s ultimately revealed, but you can’t say that the writer is twisting these characters without betraying a complete lack of familiarity with these characters.

  • Monica

    Chlop, you said Should writers preach to readers via the comics? Aren’t we past that step? Aren’t we adults?


    As for preaching – the writer used the comics to give his point of view, in a matter that seems to be talkbacky. When things are put on print, I expect them to be better than that.

    This makes me wonder if you’ve ever read any Captain America comics. They are preachy. Making moving, preaching speaches are practically one of Cap’s superpowers. Granted, this is Bucky-Cap, not Steve-Cap, but he acted in a way that made sense for him.

    Just because a comic book presents a view in a strong way, that doesn’t mean it’s juvanile or bad writing. It just means it’s blatant.

  • Menshevik

    Great post. And Marvel’s behaviour is disgraceful.

  • chlop

    @Ragnell – due to an earlier move by Marvel I stopped supporting them, so no – just the two scanned pages. And since I can’t get an issue for free where I live – legally, I didn’t read it.

    Thanks for pointing that out. Also – I didn’t say he was twisting characters, but rather using them to complain or convey his own feelings on the subject – which isn’t disallowed, but the way he chose to do it is stupid – either with those signs the letterer is said to have added later on, or without them.

    Whether the character is acting in his regular way, doesn’t lessen the iconic way in which he was used – a black man from Harlem – which is associated with poverty & abuse from the (white) government around the 70s, white government-hating protesters, “this isn’t New York City” – while they’re in Idaho, which alludes to the image of rednecks, who are free to do whatever they like, due to the stereotypes associated with this place and with New York.

    Saying that government hating isn’t limited to a racist group – The Watchdogs, draws comparisons straight away. Especially because of the way the book was lettered. I doubt the writer didn’t choose to add a big panel showing protesters, and “… bunch of angry white folks” lettered on it.

    As I said – I might be seeing things that aren’t there, but there are too many arrows pointing in one direction, and too many things alluding to a commentary on the Tea Party, which was sneaked into a comic.
    I doubt Marvel doesn’t check to see that the letters sit correctly on the page – despite previous omissions of censorship of swear words, or due to it – since they would be more inclined to check the finished product before printing it.

    @Monica – yes, I did.
    It is a matter of definition. A well explained view or argument is not preachy to me, or at least an acceptable level of preachy, but pointing to protesters and saying they are government haters and equating them to a racist group, is simply using a somewhat famous platform, to spout your ideas.

    Especially with the nature of the big 2’s comics – being printed on a mostly timely manner, on a mostly regular schedule.

    And it didn’t present a view, but rather sneaked in a jab at the movement, equating it to a fictional racist group, and saying it hates the government. That type of commentary is juvenile and stupid – it paints an entire group of people as bad, instead of addressing their views.
    It says that by simply protesting in a civil manner, they are government haters.

    It is the same as saying Obama is anti-America, that he’s a socialist (which isn’t a crime or a bad thing), that he’s a Muslim – so he’s not pro-America, etc.
    It’s the same as saying that a certain part of the political spectrum is enlightened or correct, or white guys with silver spoons, or fascists, or even traitors.

    It doesn’t deal with the contents, but rather dismisses people based on who they are, or what they look like. It’s a Twitter commentary, which I expect a writer to avoid doing in print – when there’s time to cool off, and re-think things.

    I might be crucifying the writer for nothing, but it reeks of trying to take a jab at a big group of people and getting away with it – especially due to the aftermath. I expect more from a payed professional.

  • I think this conversation has taken an off-topic turn. Chlop, I respect your opinions, but since you haven’t actually read the comic in question I’d prefer you didn’t make sweeping statements about its contents. If you are offended by implications that the Tea Party movement is racist, I suggest you move to the party itself and try to change from within the quotes and images the movement has used. Otherwise, I am going to have to close this particular aspect of the debate.

  • Pingback: Rage-Inducing LinkBlogging » Comics Worth Reading()

  • chlop

    @Jennifer – as you wish.
    As for changing it from within, since I don’t live in the US I doubt I could, and since it’s a loose movement, I doubt someone can keep racist and hyperbole-loving people away. It’s basically protests – how can you stop people from protesting, and should you?

    You can move away from a protest that turns mostly hyperbole and racist, but that’s it.

    As for sweeping statements – I don’t think I made any.
    I think I made it clear how people may perceive it as taking a jab at the protesters and calling them racist. I think the writer went too far, but I don’t support the boycotts – since there is still a reasonable room for doubt.

    But Brubaker isn’t helping – posting links to articles saying Marvel shouldn’t apologize, which also seem to say that the jab was intended.

    As for implications – I don’t see how an entire movement is to blame for people calling it racist. Some racists using a protesting movement, which is hard to govern, doesn’t turn the movement into a racist one. I would expect any person making such a claim to back up his claim, or to avoid making one.
    It just widens the rift between people.

    As for the link – I’ll read it later (busy working).
    If anyone wants to continue this conversation else where – since I’ve been told I’m passive aggressive in the past, and since I don’t want to seem as grabbing the last word, I’m “fanboychlop” in Twitter. Send me a text and we’ll choose a blog to speak in.

    Thanks, Arie AKA chlop.

  • lilacsigil

    Well said – I’m very sad to see that this, of all things, is the complaint that sees Marvel backing down and falling over themselves to apologise.

  • Great post. Marvel’s response sounds like a load of cobblers.

    Brubaker’s Captain America is a bloody brilliant book. I’m a Brit and it’s one of my absolute favourites.

  • Pingback: In Brief — Jeffer$on $tolar$hip()

  • Pingback: Race & Comics Round-up: Around The Marvel Universe | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture()

  • Mike

    I have been a lifelong Captain America fan. As a symbol, Captain America should never be used to slander just plain folks who happen to be outraged at the fiscal irresposability of our employees in DC. That is what happened, and Marvel can’t apologize enough. Race is irrelevant. The viability of our tax system is not! Thanks.

  • Всё это в общем-то очевидно.

  • Pingback: Politics and the Hero: a personal view     Tastes Like Comics - Tastes Like Comics()