As if Defense Department officials didn’t face enough challenges in and around Iraq, they must now prepare for battle without a celebrated component of past victories. Captain America, the patriotic superhero whose comic-book exploits inspired the nation in World War II, now feels uncertain about the nation’s cause; in his latest adventures, The Sentinel of Liberty seems disillusioned, embittered, and surprisingly sympathetic to terrorists.
This odd, unsettling direction for Marvel Comics comes at a time of maximum cultural influence. The company owns 4,700 characters, including classic figures like “Spider-Man,” “Daredevil,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “X Men,” all celebrated in recent or upcoming movie blockbusters. This mainstream clout makes the radical rethinking of the company’s signature hero, Captain America, all the more unsettling.
In 2002, Marvel responded to the horrors of 9/11 with Captain America: The New Deal
, a series featuring a terrorist named Al-Tariq who’s determined to punish the U.S. for its reckless misdeeds. After taking hostages in a small town with a defense plant, the militant addresses Captain America through loudspeakers, demanding: “Tell our children then, American — Who sowed death in their field — and left it for the innocent to harvest? Who took their hands, their feet?” A horrified hostage mother turns with fury on her own husband and shrills: “This is how you feed our baby? With bombs? You make bombs?”
No one in this comic (#3 of the series), neither Captain America nor any of the hostages, ever offers a word of rebuttal to the pro-terrorist tirade.
In the next installment of the series (#4), Al-Tariq insists: “I am not a terrorist. I am a messenger-here to show you the truth of war. YOU ARE THE TERRORISTS!” Later, Captain America seizes an ID device from around his enemy’s neck — a “CATtag” used by U.S. intelligence. He later confronts the secretary of defense by declaring: “You tried to hang one of these around my neck…The terrorists I fought in Centerville all wore them — these CATtags.” In other words, Marvel Comics thoughtlessly recycles a notion that’s been lovingly nurtured by anti-American conspiracy theorists of all stripes: that our own intelligence establishment somehow orchestrated bloody terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians.
This idea of America the Guilty permeates other additions to the series, including #5 (October, 2002) in which Captain America visits Dresden to receive a history lesson on American war guilt — for World War II! The broad-shouldered hero goes through a searing reverie about America’s controversial fire-bombing of the city in 1945: “You didn’t understand what we’d done here — until September the 11th,” he tells himself. “These people weren’t soldiers. They huddled in the dark. Trapped…And while there was nothing left to breathe there in the dark, they died… History repeats itself like a machine gun.”
Captain America’s post-9/11 understanding of the destruction of Dresden suggests a moral equivalence between the Allied forces in World War II (in the midst of a bloody, all-out global war) and the al Qaeda terrorists who randomly attacked unsuspecting office workers. Especially in a comic book aimed largely at children and teenagers (and rated PG) the comparison (in the hero’s own voice) is both illogical and obscene.
The indictment of the United States becomes even more explicit in issue #6 (December, 2002) in which Captain America listens to yet another sympathetic rant from a terrorist mastermind. “Guerillas gunned my father down while he was at work in the fields — With American bullets,” the militant helpfully explains. “You know your history, Captain America…You played that game in too many places… The sun never set on your political chessboard- your empire of blood.”
To this verbal assault, The Sentinel of Liberty responds meekly, “We’ve changed. We’ve learned…My people never knew. We know now. And those days are over.”
In addition to making one-sided, damning references to controversial elements of American foreign policy, Marvel Comics recently highlighted totally invented atrocities to underscore the nation’s vicious, racist nature.
In January, 2003, the company published Truth — Red, White and Black, a prequel to the original Captain America story. That classic tale from 1941 focused on Steve Rogers, a blond-haired weakling who, after rejection for military service, volunteers for a secret government program. Scientists inject him with “super soldier” serum, producing a muscular fighting machine.
In the new addition to the yarn, we learn that the government first tested the formula on unsuspecting black soldiers, employed as human guinea pigs. The evil Army scientist in the comic baldly declares: “It’s necessary to see if our methods apply to the inferior races.” White commanders separate African-American GI’s into two groups, one of which speeds away on locked trucks (like Nazi train transports) to a secret laboratory, while the remaining soldiers face mass murder from squadrons of machine gunners (like Nazi Einsatzgruppen). The sadistic experimentation on the survivors (in the PG-rated series) includes horrific panels showing bodies exploding, and laboratory walls splattered with blood. The recent comic unequivocally suggests a heavy-handed analogy to the death-camp experiments of Dr. Mengele.
Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, cheerfully acknowledges the holocaust echoes. “There are moments in our history that may not have been our shining glory,” he told me. “We’ve done things in our history that aren’t right to our own citizens.” He specifically cited the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which medical researchers left syphilitic black patients untreated in order to study effects of the disease. “The beauty of America is that we can tell these stories and learn from our mistakes and move on.” The messages he hopes to convey to children who read the comics include “the need to learn racial tolerance and that peace is the best way to go, wherever possible.”
In a special introduction to the hardbound edition of Captain America: The New Deal, Max Allan Collins (author of the acclaimed graphic novel The Road to Perdition) praises Marvel for its edgy content. He cites the determination to “take this classic character of a simpler time into the smoky aftermath of September 11th” and “this story’s courage and ability to examine the complexities of the issues that accompany terrorism… specifically, not to duck the things America has done to feed the attacks.”
We might expect such blame-America logic from Hollywood activists, academic apologists, or the angry protesters who regularly fill the streets of European capitals (and many major American cities). When such sentiments turn up, however, hidden within star-spangled, nostalgic packaging of comic books aimed at kids, we need to confront the deep cultural malaise afflicting the nation on the eve of war.
— Film critic Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show on politics and pop culture. This piece was prepared with the assistance of Michael Lackner as part of a research project for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit, bipartisan think tank on terrorism.