Against the Establishment
My Cap was mid-1970s, and I was engaged, at nine to twelve years old, in my first two major political experiences – the Watergate Scandal and the phase of the Vietnam War that has come to be called the Decent Interval. As it happens, so was Steve Englehart, who was writing the comic. The foe is the Secret Empire, which has obviously subverted all manner of media and governmental institutions, and issue by issue is revealed to be responsible for more and more bad stuff. One wicked branch of it all is CRAP which bore a distinct likeness to the real-world CREEP, and only the thickest reader could fail to figure out before Cap who their boss is. It ends with Cap pursuing said boss into the Oval Office and being shocked at unmasking him. His face isn’t shown, and no names are spoken, but he does speak of holding “the highest office in the land” two seconds before he blows his own brains out.
This is happening more or less concurrently with the Avengers vs. Nelson Rockefeller, the Serpent Crown, the Squadron Supreme, and more holy crow nonsense than you can even imagine as I quite inadequately summarized in And the horse you rode in on. Steve Englehart, if by some chance you run across this blog entry some day, this is me, saying, yes, you succeeded, I got it then, a little pre-teen kid, and I got it.
Aside from the primary storyline and its complete taboo content relative to Marvel comics today, two thoughts arose for me in re-reading these issues recently. The first concerned how, in the midst of all this genuinely subversive and audacious rules-breaking, certain things continued to be acceptable targets: the Secret Empire uses “salaam” as their formal greeting for no apparent except that that’s what robed cultists do; the Yellow Claw gloats “Heeee heeee!” (exact quote) – so, yeah, hard-core orientalism in full swing in the midst of otherwise hard-core protester activist writing.
The other concerned how people so often try to write Cap giving up the role. The original Nomad story, just after the Secret Empire finish, might be the first time; check me on that, archivists. I see it or at least as I experienced it as a young reader, it wasn’t a publishing stunt. It’s a pretty good ending to the historical character as he had evolved at Marvel, that is, if you were thinking in terms of “character” and “story” at all. Although the text doesn’t point to a specific outcome directly, the failures of various people to attempt to be Captain America might have developed into either (i) no one ever being able to do it ever again or (ii) the moniker being taken up by Sam Wilson, conceivably very successfully. Neither is the way it went, but you could see both possibilities from where it was, briefly. I think if we made a list of hangin’ up the Cap act events, it’d be surprisingly long. Somehow it makes sense for someone to stop doing this. A lot.
But hold on, back up a little – Cap’s been doing this from the beginning! Well, the mid-60s Marvel beginning anyway, meaning his resurrection into the Avengers, which is as simultaneous with the JFK assassination as makes no difference. It’s not just hippie rad Englehart. There’s always been something “off” about the character’s patriotism, and the Englehart 1970s story about combating the anti-commie reactionary 50s Cap is consistent with it, not counter to it.
I’ll make two comparisons. The first is with the subplot in Miller’s and Mazzuchelli’s famous Daredevil story, “Born Again,” in which Cap turns out to be the necessary co-hero in the entire story. He gets involved when the Kingpin pulls political strings to bring ultra-patriot covert ops death-squad Nuke into the U.S., clearly in a violation of posse comitatus, and the Avengers manage to stop him, briefly.
Daredevil wants to know why Cap cares, the latter responds, “He wears the flag,” and Matt retorts, “I hadn’t noticed.” This is, for my money, the single best exchange of dialogue in Miller’s career. Superficially, it references Matt’s blindness, i.e., he simply can’t see Nuke’s tattoo. More importantly, it means Cap wants to know why and how someone who obviously cares deeply about the U.S. can be the worst kind of crazed destructo-villain, probably with the corollary of who is supplying and backing him. Still more importantly, it shows up the disconnect between the heart-driven, justice-only street hero and the more law-integrated, ideologically-grounded hero without a visible personality disorder. The former speaks worlds of unvoiced dark truths, e.g., So what? E.g., Yeah, that is the flag, the one that shows up and torches neighborhoods, funny how you didn’t mind when it was some other people. And e.g., That flag you’re wearing is a relic – his flag is the real one.
The core issue isn’t trivial. Nuke is absolutely defined by Rambo II and its confounding of (i) its particular perceived betrayal of Vietnam veterans and (ii) the current military and paramilitary operations in Nicaragua. The status and indeed existence of “our boys left behind,” “rotting in Viet Cong prisons,” is a deeply felt and deeply expressed piece of American political identity – people act on their beliefs about it, no compromise, no negotiation, to the point that they don’t even know they do. It’s almost entirely opaque in terms of documented events – how many prisoners if any, their conditions, what happened, where they are or were. One’s position about it is received, integrated, expressed, and extended into every single other issue of American political life on the basis of pure narrative. Nuke explicitly stands for the need to kick ass and kill in these prisoners’ name. Who? Anyone. Everyone. It’s tied especially tightly to the idea that the U.S. military was “betrayed” regarding the Vietnam War, as opposed to being confused, without purpose, outmatched, and, you know, failing to win. (see my links at the end if you feel argumentative about that)
Those two panels above show Cap looking at mid-1980s American military patriotism right in the face. And to his credit, Miller is writing the Englehart Cap and no one else. He lays it down to the brass, “I’m loyal to nothing except the dream,” and typically they don’t really grasp how deadly scary this guy is, and that he does not associate any of them, or the offices they inhabit, or the policies they are committed to, with “America.”
You know the rest of the story. Cap goes full rogue and in a rather amazing final issue, his and Daredevil’s parallel actions weave into an outcome which brings at least some justice into play and actually has you sympathizing with Nuke at least in terms of damn is he miserable and fucked. Remember how I said “Born Again” isn’t really a vigilante story? I lied – or rather, I was telling the truth only insofar that I was talking about Daredevil. Miller’s Cap is a vigilante that leaves every other character Steve Long and I have been writing about in the dust – because he really, really defies the Law to do what’s right. He thumbs it in the eye and breaks it over his knee. You have the flag in your office, asshole, but I am this flag. (If you want to know why I get grumpy about how politically incoherent The Dark Knight Returns is, it’s because I respect this story sto much.)
The second is with Warren Ellis’ and Juan Jose Ryp’s Black Summer, which begins on this high note …
… and I know I’m making zero friends by saying this, but which then descends into eight issues of pusillanimity and betrayal. The guy’s former radical group / former superhero group teams up to stop him, because now he’s gone too far and all, and the hero of the story is the sort of burned-out member of that group, who turns out to be not all that burned-out and is “killed” but isn’t actually
because it’s not a rip-off of the Obi-Wan death scene or anything um and I’m trying to remember just how it turned out …
… wait, full stop. The guy who offs the Bush administration and uses his powers to oversee new uncorrupted elections is the bad guy? Speaking of which, how come we never got a look at this new society or at least political process he instituted with those bezillion creepy eyes powers? Did “the people” actually accomplish anything good – ’cause you know, that kind of matters … You see my point, I hope, that here we had a moment of possible fantastic Captain America means it storytelling here, and then it devolves into 1990s movie scriptwriting again. You’d think I’d have learned this about Ellis by now.
My Cap would have done it. And he would have made it work, too. That’s the story I want to see, in which the American fantasy of utterly grassroots and violent justice cleans house at the top is carried out by the superheroic visual icon of American fantasy.
The one thing that really ties into it all, though … the odd thing, is that unlike every other Marvel character, the whole “the man matters more than the mask” framework doesn’t apply. Steve Rogers as a person never develops the depth and interest of even a beta Marvel character, let alone Peter Parker or Victor von Doom. And yet it seems to me anyway that this is appropriate, that when we’re dealing with a WWII veteran who wears the flag all over his body and finds the 1960s-1970s U.S.A. utterly socially, politically, and morally inadequate (and the 80s too as Miller alone had the guts to show), it is, for once, the icon which matters most. Not who this is, and therefore what he does with the icon as an individual happenstance, but what the icon would demand a person do no matter who that person is.
Next: Going for baroque
Posted on March 20, 2016, in Gnawing entrails, Politics dammit, The 70s me and tagged Black Summer, Captain America, CREEP, David Mazzuchelli, Frank Miller, Juan Jose Ryp, Nomad, Richard Nixon, Secret Empire, Steve Englehart, Vietnam veterans, Warren Ellis, Watergate. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.