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Captain America, apathetic voter?

I know the burning question in your heart: What is new Captain America writer Robert Kirkman going to do with the book? Prepare to find out: [via Fanboy Rampage]

“Focus on him beating up people? I’m not touching on the higher themes of Cap and patriotism. It’s been done before and been done better than I could ever do it. My story is about a guy that dresses up in an American flag and does his part in defending this country from crazy people that dress up in Halloween costumes. I’m trying to keep it simple. In light of where the books been for the last couple years, I’m hoping that will seem like a fresh take.”

Awesome! Who wants patriotism in a book about a guy dressed up in an American flag anyway… Wait. Wait.

Remember a few months ago, Bill Jemas’s proposal for a Thor series with Thor as a political allegory of American foreign policy? The problem with that sort of political allegory is, it doesn’t strengthen the political arguments at all—in fact, it obfuscates them. If you disguise a political argument as a Thor comic, you’re just adding an unnecessary extra comprehension step as readers will have to decode your allegory before they can even consider your argument. If you want to convince people the war in Iraq is a bad idea, just tell them and don’t screw around with allegory! Now does that mean fiction can’t address political topics? Not at all! See David Fiore:

This doesn’t mean that you can’t feature political issues as story elements—Morrison’s Animal Man demonstrates pretty clearly that you can; as do the works of Charles Dickens and Frank Capra (anyone know who Frank Capra voted for back in the thirties? anyone care? I hope not, because his films, even the ones that take place in Washington, don’t really have anything to do with politics)—you just can’t make them the point of the story, otherwise your work will suck.

As anyone who has read this blog at all knows, I’m a psycho when it comes to defending liberal values and the question of animal rights—but even I know enough never to write a novel about these things… If I have something to say about a specific issue, I’ll just say it… When I write fiction, I deal with the kind of stuff that nobody conducts polls on—like epistemological conundrums and the magic of inter-subjectivity.

So let’s just be clear up front: a Captain America story whose sole purpose is to explore what Captain America would think of President Bush or a Captain America story which is a straightforward political allegory of the war in Iraq is bound to suck a lot. Nobody cares what Captain America thinks of American foreign foreign policy. (Or anybody who does care is a weirdo—come on, he’s a fictional character! His political beliefs have no bearing on real-world politics.) A story that uses Cap’s political experiences metaphorically to deal with more interesting things, well, that has more promise.

Back to Kirkman. Kirkman, according to his Newsarama interview, is wisely not going to use Captain America as a platform for expressing his political beliefs. But he is also not going to address “higher themes” like “patriotism.” Nuh uh, hold on there, Kirkman! Cap dresses in an American flag. He’s a walking, talking, fighting symbol of the USA! The USA is a political entity—you can’t take a character who’s a symbol of a political entity and make him apolitical!

But Steven, we’ll just say he’s beyond politics, that he’s a symbol of the American Ideal. No problem.

But the notion that there’s such a thing as an “American Ideal” or an “American Dream” is a matter of nationalistic politics. “American” has no inherent moral value separate from its sociopolitical meaning.

Well, look, he’s just a symbol of a moral ideal. It’s not especially nationalistic. We’re just ignoring patriotism, all right?

No no no, Hypothetical Debater! He’s dressed in a flag, anything he represents is necessarily associated with America.

Look, damn it, we’ll just have him beat up the Serpent Society or something, no political stuff there!

Nope. The political stuff is there. The American flag, as a symbol of America, carries with it tons of political baggage. Kirkman can tell people to ignore it, and some readers will play along (just look at the comments below the Newsarama article), but critical readers will not play along. Kirkman can refuse to address the political themes inherent in a superhero who wears an American flag costume, but that doesn’t mean the political themes go away. It means Kirkman is willfully ignorant of the political themes in his text, which means he can’t control them. Allowing a large chunk of unconscious thematic material to lurk around in your text is generally a dangerous idea. A critical reading will unearth those lurking themes. If the story is something like, “Captain America beats up the Serpent Society,” the most obvious reading would be that Captain America is a simplistic metaphor for the American tradition of heroic violence, or something like that. And because Captain America is the Good Guy and the association of Captain America’s violent heroism with America goes unquestioned, we’re pretty much back at the level of banal political allegory where the Serpent Society represents America’s enemies by implication. It’s even worse than the Thor thing because the allegory isn’t even intentional. And wait, before you reply, remember that we’re talking about unintentional and unconscious elements in the text, so “But Kirkman didn’t intend it to be a political allegory, the Serpent Society isn’t supposed to represent anything” is not much of a counterargument.

And wait, one more thing! The fact that Captain America may not be fit to address political issues is irrelevent. Sure, maybe a superhero dressed as a flag who beats up mental patients in weird drag isn’t much good for commenting on patriotism and nationalism, but that doesn’t make it possible not to address patriotism and nationalism with such a character!


  1. David Fiore says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this Steven! Kirkman’s plan is not satisfactory. As Mark Gruenwald demonstrated (did you ever read those?), back in the eighties, there is a way to deal with Cap as a political symbol without forcing the character to vote on specific policy issues or using his flag-coated body as a paradimensional invasion banner!

    I started blogging about some of this stuff last fall, but I got sidetracked! I certainly plan to get back to Cap over the course of the election summer…


    — 1 April 2004 at 4:06 pm (Permalink)

  2. Steven says:

    I haven’t read any Captain America, actually (except for his appearances is Black Panther and Alias), but I was intrigued by your writing on it last fall.

    — 1 April 2004 at 4:31 pm (Permalink)