How Captain America Became My Higher Power
“I’m ready to make it, don’t care ’bout the weather
Don’t care ’bout no trouble, got myself together”–Marvin Gaye, “Trouble Man”
In the relatively brief period when I collected comics as a kid, I had a few mainstays, favorite characters that became such as a result of my luck in stumbling across them at a time when the books had creative teams that were reinventing and reinvigorating the characters and the medium as a whole. Frank Miller’s “Daredevil” run, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s early ’80s “X-Men” work, the Bill Sienkewiecz era of “Moon Knight,” Miller and Claremont again, teaming up on the first-ever solo “Wolverine” mini-series (comics readers born since that time period would be shocked to learn that there was a time when Logan was not a ubiquitous character with his name gracing multiple X-titles and pulling multiple duty in the Avengers and dozens of recurring guest appearances all across the Marvel Universe). I suppose I was a Marvel guy by default, because I couldn’t tell you who was pulling creative chores on Batman, Superman or the Justice League in those days (though I remember enjoying the hell out of some borrowed ’70s Batman issues when Marshall Rogers was doing the pencils–best presentation of the modern, super-psycho Joker up to that point).
So it wasn’t until recently, when my parents mailed me a boxful of the old comics they’d been carting from house to house for me for the last three decades, that it struck me that there was another character I was evidently drawn to in those days, even though the writing and art in those books was mostly undistinguished, and other than Roger Stern and John Byrne, I’d be hard-pressed to recall who was writing them. But however you slice it, I’ve apparently been a fan of Captain America for a long-ass time.
Flipping through those brittle yellowing issues from the ’80s, some of which I can distinctly remember plucking from the spinner rack at the neighborhood Walgreen’s, already crumpled and well-past mint even then, the one thing that stands out now (and probably did even then, compared to those other titles I mentioned) is that they’re pretty lame. Uninvolving or utterly ridiculous stories with absurd enemies (Ameridroid, anyone?) and undistinguished writing and art. Sure, I suppose Steve Rogers traveling to merry old England to fight Nazi vampire Baron Blood within the walls of a castle (and ultimately beheading him with his shield) was exciting to my young mind, but it didn’t seem like a very intriguing adventure for a time-displaced supersoldier who traipses around literally draped in the American flag.
In the intervening years, as my political leanings evolved (I’m sure some fellow Texans from my past would say devolved) into a diehard leftist “question authority” stance, Cap became an antiquated symbol of patriotic nationalism, the Boy Scout in blue whose flag-waving rhetoric seemed representative of everything I couldn’t stand about knee-jerk conservative “real American” values. Of course, this was patently unfair, considering he’d rarely been written or portrayed as a jingoistic propagandist in his modern incarnation, even if that was what he was created to be in the early “simpler times” of WW2. If anything, he came across like a staunch old school progressive, a protector of the poor and downtrodden, proudly teaming up and sharing a title with one of the first black superheroes in the racially charged ’70s.
Still, among the subset of people I ran around with in those days, a guy branded Captain America registered as patently unhip, and when held up against the dark psychology of Bruce Wayne, the troubled, tragic life of Matt Murdock, or the constantly careening rollercoaster of the X-men’s interpersonal dynamics, how interesting was the hopelessly idealistic upholder of old-fashioned American values–even if they were legitimately the best of what America’s values were meant to be? Add to that a costume, with its chainmail shirt and buccaneer boots, that was in serious need of an upgrade it wouldn’t get until the early 21st-century, in Mark Millar’s “Ultimates” series (and thankfully the solo Cap movies, which took their cue for costume inspiration, if not Cap’s more assholish behavior, from those titles), and Cap was unironically retro, possessing all the dimensions and depth of a crepe.
Cut to 2011, when I was in the depths of two things, one that almost destroyed me, and one that helped pull me out of the abyss, believe it or not. On the one hand, I was several years into an unplanned and utterly surprising addiction to prescription painkillers (not prescribed to me; I drove around to seedy apartments and residence hotels as part of my “doctor shopping”), and in the midst of a reawakening of my love for comics in general and superhero adventuring in particular. I was lucky enough to get introduced to the work of Ed Brubaker, whose dark-hearted and tragically delicious “Sleeper” was just the kind of grounded-yet-fantastical tale of espionage and betrayal in the margins of a superpowered universe that would ignite my troubled brain. My friend Rodney Ascher, who loaned me the books, described it quite accurately as “The Departed with superheroes.” It had all the edge of Miller’s early “Sin City” stories (and a lot of the rough-edged misogyny as well), but was far less trite in its pulp indulgences. It may have helped–or hurt–that I was reading it during a period of mind-cracking insomnia brought on by the hell I was playing with my brain and body as I overindulged and then went through physical withdrawal from the opiates I couldn’t seem to stop ingesting on a near-daily basis (in fact, the only thing that ever stopped me during that time was running out altogether–hence the withdrawals).
Even as one addiction was nearing its bitter conclusion, another one was rising to take its place, and thanks to Ed Brubaker, I was back on the comics teat all over again, realizing “Hey, this Sleeper/Criminal/Incognito guy is not only really great, he’s the same guy who wrote that Death of Captain America/Winter Soldier arc everyone was crowing about a couple years back. Maybe I need to look into this.” And so I snapped up as many trade volumes of Brubaker’s run up to that point as I possibly could, and pored over them in opiate-addled ecstasy, feeling for maybe the first time ever like here was someone who really got this character, placing Cap in a paranoid conspiracy espionage thriller with lots of great action set pieces, sly humor (I especially loved how often his heroes muttered “Ouch!” after taking a spill or a beating that would leave an everyday human broken and comatose), over the top weirdness, callbacks to previous adventures, copious flashbacks to his days in the war, and satisfying arcs for his deep bench of recurring and regular characters, both friends and enemies alike. The Ameridroid was, mercifully, left off the table (for a long while anyway. Sigh.). I was hooked into the world of a mainstream superhero comic like I had not been since I read Marvels fifteen years before.
That same summer, Captain America: The First Avengers hit theaters, and while many would rate it as one of the MCU’s lesser “first wave” flicks, it hit me right in the sweet spot. I loved that they didn’t just cram his origin and WW2 background into the first third or even half of a more conventional superhero movie, but went for a full-on sepia-toned period piece. This displayed a surprising level of confidence in not just Cap, but all of their franchises, and the wide array of stories they could tell and the tones they could use to tell them. I was a sucker for the poignant portrayal of the scrawny kid with the huge heart and all the suggestive details of the Marvel Universe yet to be (the original Human Torch, the early repulsors on Howard Stark’s ill-fated flying car, the rise of Hydra and the feints toward the fate of Bucky) and the very earthy portrayals by several first-rate actors (Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci in particular imbued their characters with respective amounts of grit and soul) and an underrated and very low-key performance from Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. I loved the shorthand Joe Johnston and the film’s writers used to show his smarts (pulling the pin on the flagpole to lower and capture the flag and earn the ride back to camp in the jeep), his bravery (the “live grenade” scene) and his determination (“I can do it! I can do it!” when they try to shut down the experiment for fear it’s killing him). While Robert Downey, Jr. gets the showy, flashy fun role as Tony Stark (and nails it), Evans had to do something far less blatantly crowd-pleasing and potentially thankless, and make us love this shy, quiet, noble and even occasionally hokey kid. For me, he did it. Post-transformation, I knew I loved the movie even harder when we were treated to the USO musical montage of the cheesy-costumed Cap stumping for war bonds across the country. And seeing him carry the old-style shield into battle his first time out, and the functional, utilitarian take on the classic uniform with its muted colors and worn leather belts and pouches. Cap firing a gun, like soldiers do, not looking like someone who was shooting just to wound. Cap fighting the motherfucking Red Skull on screen forty feet tall and not looking like the whole thing was filmed for Saturday morning television. I thought it was a smart, sweetly nostalgic, appropriately badass, take on this particular origin story, as much an homage to old movie serials as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (and superior to ANY of that classic film’s disappointing sequels). And on top of all that, because of the very nature of that origin, the movie had permission to be gently tragic in the end, with Cap’s “death” over the Arctic proving real enough for the people who had to live the next 75 years under the assumption that he was dead, and the love of his life lost forever to time.
I won’t go into all the details of how my addiction caught up to me and nearly brought my whole world crashing down, because I don’t want to write a book-length ramble here, but I will say that when it finally did, and I had to throw myself into the program, a sworn atheist in a world of Higher Powers, it took me awhile to settle on one. And when I did, at first it was strictly ironic. If I had to give thanks, praise and power to a fictional character, it might as well be one I genuinely loved and respected. Besides, you’d be amazed how neatly “Cap” fits into all kinds of places, like, “Cap, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” or “I humbly asked Cap to remove my shortcomings…” But as time wore on, in that way that it do, I started to realize that my ironic choice actually made a lot of sense for me. Because at his best, in the hands of Brubaker or screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, I realized how much me and the old dinosaur of the Marvel universe have in common. We’re both bruised idealists, with ideas about how we think the world should be that are often damaged, if never quite destroyed, when they run up against the harsh realities of the way the world really is. Now, it’s not an entirely fair comparison, because I’ve definitely succumbed to cynicism, pessimism, and depression in my life and I haven’t been through half the shit he has, and those are sentiments he only rarely allows himself. For Cap, despair is the feeling that comes when it seems that all is really, hopelessly lost. Then again, like me, he’s almost always proven wrong at the last possible moment. So his bottom’s a lot lower than mine, so what? Guy’s fictional!
While people of a certain stripe write him off as all those things a mentioned before–blindly patriotic, ossified and old-fashioned, without all the self-doubt and darkness that makes our modern heroes so “complex” and “interesting”–the fact is, he’s the kind of patriot who will question his country to its face and to its core, because he believes so strongly in the ideals and the dream of what this place could be if everyone could just set ideology aside long enough to realize we all need the same things–food, love, friendship, security, a sidekick and a vibranium shield. For an old fart whose last memory is from the mid-’40s, he’s proven surprisingly adaptive, engaged and resourceful when it comes to assimilating into the modern world (just look at the mixed martial arts fighting styles he’s picked up in “The Winter Soldier,” not to mention his carefully tended list of things to explore and discover). And while he’s not a troubled neurotic like Batman or an arrogant alcoholic like his pal Tony Stark, he’s well-stocked with plenty of righteous anger, moments of soul-deep disappointment, and there’ll always be that hint of the wounded weakling lingering inside, the powerless kid who can’t fight back no matter how hard he tries.
I think if my Higher Power can’t be a genuine Godlike being in the heavens above, but more of a symbolic aspirational higher self, the best me I could possibly wish to be, and the embodiment of a possibly unattainable but still worthy ideal, even if I don’t have the supersoldier serum to get me there, Cap is as good a choice as I could probably hope to make.
Like you Steve, I came upon Cap as an afterthought but I bit deeply early into the ‘man out of place’ themes and stories that either were the call of the day or periodic reminders and remainders of his origin placed in ‘rotation’ almost to remind newer readers as to why he ‘was’ the way he ‘was’.
But what really makes me appreciative and appreciate this OG Superhero (I believe he is/was the first for TIME/MARVEL) is the way it allowed/s real world political ideals and actions into the story lines and gives a ‘mythological’ projection at how AMERICA and her ‘ideals’ should view and interact with these trials and tribulations … and the idea that a ‘man out of time’ whose grip on how he views the UNITED STATES and what she is supposed to stand for is unshakeable in what is easily the most unstable quagmire on how the public and our officials view the same … it’s refreshing and a little reassuring …
Now if only the rest of us could figure it out … in the mean time – I’ll pick up the occasional collected graphic novel – and certainly keep up with the television and cinematic Universes of Marvel – since Captain America seems to be the Lynch Pin of them all 🙂 Nice Essay Steve!