What Does Captain America Say About America?

Captain America No More!I’ve been watching a lot of Doctor Who lately. It’s one of a handful of shows that a lot of us have: all the smart, interesting people we know watch it and gasp when they hear we haven’t seen it.

“You would love it. You have got to watch it!”

“Ha ha, yeah, I know.”

“No. I mean, you’ve got to watch it right now. This must be corrected. You’re not leaving. Sit down.”

Then they tie you to the chair with a jump rope.

I have a lot of jump rope shows, but Mad Men isn’t on Netflix Instant and time traveling space robots seemed more summer-appropriate than The Wire, so the Doctor won this lottery.

To Americans in our highly fortified culture bubble, Doctor Who is quintessentially British. Anglophiles of a certain age only had PBS to glimpse across the sea, and the Doctor was what we were shown. The Doctor, Monty Python, and Are You Being Served? That sounds like a pretty accurate snapshot of a nation, doesn’t it?

As I ground my way through another mini-marathon this weekend, it occurred to me that the Doctor had been played by at least ten men, and that the other hero I think of as quintessentially British—James Bond—has been played by at least six.

“Does it say something about the British national character that their heroes are interchangeable?” I thought as I watched a grown man fight a trash can with a plunger sticking out of it. “Or am I just trying to make something out of nothing again?”

I probably was. America’s easily on its fifth Batman by now, and we’re on track to go through a Spider-Man a decade. More, if you count the ones dying on Broadway. Still, I’m intrigued by the idea that heroes say something about where they come from, especially when they do it on purpose. Say, by wrapping themselves in the flag and naming themselves after the country.

So: what does Captain America say about America today?

Mostly, he says, “Boy… we still hate those Nazis, right?”

For being a national hero, Cap is not what you would call a topical character these days. You could learn a lot about America from what Cap is not saying. Politics are so fractious and heated these days—our sense of what America even is, or should be, is so hard to agree upon—that even trying to mention it is a minefield. Cap’s chief antagonists for the last few years have been the Red Skull and the Soviets, nice, safe bogeymen we can all root against without having a knife fight at the dinner table. Things are so bad that when Ed Brubaker put Cap on the trail of militia members last year (making me nostalgic for Crystal Pepsi and Hypercolor clothing, but at least it wasn’t Hitler again) there was an uproar that made it all the way to Fox News over the signs background characters were holding.

The signs. I’d stick with Hydra and Hitler, too. Who needs the aggravation?


Captain America has no interest in al Qaeda at all? I know “Cap represents all of America, pro-war and anti-war, vegan and hunter, ‘pop’ sayer and ‘soda’ sayer alike,” but I feel like the guy who socked Adolph in the chops before we were even in the war might be keen to look into that organization. Are we really too divided to touch even in passing on the events of the last decade? By standing for everything about America, Cap runs the risk of standing for nothing. Captain Freedom Is Nice, Or Something. Captain Mmm, Pie.

To be fair, the al Qaeda story might be insurmountably depressing and complicated. I seem to remember an arc about Gitmo years back, and most of what I remember is being glad when it stopped happening. What you’re seeing here is not my burning desire to see Cap rock climbing in Afghanistan, but rather my burning desire to never see another cartoon Nazi again in my life.

I am so tired of Nazis, you guys. They are all over my comics, and I want them to go away. There are white supremacist organizations that are storing fewer pamphlets with swastikas on them than I am right now. Yes, we can all agree that they were awful (which is part of the reason I don’t want to look at them anymore, actually). Yes, they are a safe, universally hateworthy bunch of villains. The thing is, safe is boring. This is what it has come to. Comics have managed to make Hitler bore me.

It wasn’t always like this. Cap has gotten waist-deep in the muck before. He got so fed up over Vietnam, he quit. Imagine that plot point being attempted today. Cap fought the Secret Empire, and the evil mastermind running that organization turned out to be sitting President Richard Nixon, who killed himself upon being discovered. Put George Bush in that story. Bill O’Reilly’s stroke would have a stroke.

I haven’t gotten to Captain America #1 yet, so for all I know Steve Rogers is leading Seal Team Six on a raid against evil Professor Obamacare right now. Even if he’s not, I’d like to think what Captain America says about America isn’t “We hate reality so badly right now that the mere suggestion of it in our comics is infuriating.” I hope he says something more like, “Despite our differences, we have some pretty great ideals in common and can come together to protect them.” I guess we’ll see this weekend, when Cap springs to life at the multiplex, fighting… who?


Come back, Skrulls! All is forgiven!


Jim Mroczkowski could go for one of those star-spangled donuts right about now. What does that tie-in say about America, by the way? (Something something Twitter.)


  1. this was another damn fine column, good stuff sir

  2. There have been touches of reality in Cap over the past few years. The tea bag incident and of course the whole Theater of War run. Its a good article.

  3. Really interesting, thoughtful article, Jim!

  4. oh and by the way i feel the same way about Dr. Who. I just don’t know man… I mean… it sure is a television show.

  5. James Bond is actually a time lord as well.

  6. As a ‘brit’, I can say with certainty that not everyone here thinks Dr Who is worth watching.

    Me, I find it incredibly dull, and packed to the hilt with ridiculous Deus Ex Machina endings – where the Dr ‘magically’ has all the answers.

    I actually think the more recent Dr Who series speaks more to American sensibilities than British ones… 

  7. I hope Evil Professor Obamacare wins.

  8. There have been little references to the economy in Brubaker’s run as far back as Red Skull’s plot to foreclose on everybody’s homes.  There was the teap party incident and in the 616 issue, there was the story about the town in Oklahoma hit so hard by the recession, they let AIM build covert labs there for the revenue.

  9. Very interesting assessment, and entertaining as always.  Personally, I’d like more Nazis and Soviets.

  10. @theronster  That’s probably why I can actually stomach watching it.

  11. Interesting article.

    “Captain America has no interest in al Qaeda at all?”

    Yeah. Heh. Well, Frank Miller tried to do a story in which Batman looked into al Qaeda, and he got branded a racist for even suggesting such a thing. (Not that I agree with Miller on many of his other political points, but still…)

    I kind of feel like our popular art now is just so cowardly, and concomitant with that is the fact that we’re all so damn touchy. A Tea Party person should have no trouble with a Cap story that looks into a faction of right-wing protestors who happen to be corrupt. And an anti-war protestor should have no problem with a Cap story about Muslim extremists. But they do. Oh boy do people get touchy over things.

    In a way, I almost want to say that you can’t really blame any of these groups, because more often than not the writers of these stories do happen to be kinda politically prejudiced themselves. I have no problems with that planned Batman vs. al Qaeda story, but some of the things that Miller said in interviews were definitely kinda offensive. And while I don’t have a problem with the Cap vs. right-wing extremists angle, it’s pretty clear that Marvel is definitely pro-Obama and many of their creators make petty comments on Twitter bashing right-wingers every chance they get.

    So the problem is really endemic, I think. Such a huge percentage of this country are political ideologues one way or the other. They bash Foxnews as if Fox is the only media outlet that indulges in propaganda. Or else they act like the debt crisis is all Obama’s fault. Etc. Etc. It gets tedious to even give an account of how many ideological pitfalls into short-sightedness there are out there. And the end result of all that…is that we can’t get many politically engaging stories anymore. The best we can do as far as real-world relevance goes is to say: “Yeah, the Nazis were bad. And oh yeah the Soviets were too.” We’re like half a century behind the times in what we have the courage or the perspective to say in fiction. It’s really sad.

  12. In all fairness, it’s very, very, very hard to write a politically charged story and it not come off as incredibly reductive and ham-fisted.  Civil War was a testament to that.  Even Secret Empire comes off as hilariously ham-fisted and silly in its premise where Nixon=Blofeld.  The best of them tend to be those where you barely even realize there’s a political undertone to it.  You throw in Captain America, a character who is supposed to be the essence of the American ideal, and it’s a sticky wicket.  It is easier with Iron Man or others because you can disagree with Iron Man if you want to.  You can’t be on the wrong side of the fence with Captain America.  He’s Captain America.  And at this moment in time, I don’t think Marvel wants to alienate readers from either part of the spectrum anymore so they can make a statement that turn out to be ham-fisted and silly.

  13. And at this moment in time, I don’t think Marvel wants to alienate readers from either part of the spectrum anymore so they can make a statement that MIGHT turn out to be ham-fisted and silly.


  14. Maybe alienating some readers would reinvigorate the title and character? The titles been very hit or miss since Reborn and some controversy might bring readers back to the title

  15. As sales of comics plumet, the characters become the valuable property so the publishers want to do as little as possible to taint their image in the public eye. Unfortunately that means creators can’t really take any risks when it comes to storytelling that may comment on current affairs. I rarely see anything that jumps out as real world scenarios anymore, and when i do, the books get shit on by the news media and the publishers run home with thier tails between their legs. I look back to the eighties when we had mainstream comics that actually took a stand and said SOMETHING about the real world we live in and compare it to now and i feel like i’ve been served a watered down drink. Hell, Frank Miller put Ronald Regan in the Dark Knight Returns for god sakes! It was a direct shot against the current administration in America at the time. We NEVER see anything like that in modern comics anymore. God forbid you offend one of the million potential ticket buyers for the upcoming *insert hero name here* movie. It just makes for a boring industry where all the intelligent and deep work can only be found in the independant publishers who aren’t afraid of taking risks 

  16. Honestly, I always thought the Reagan stuff in DKR came off as a little silly.  I actually stopped reading Elektra: Assassin about half way through because I thought the political satire was getting too dopey.  There are stories that do political statements well by being subtle and refrain from hammering the message about people’s heads (The Wild Bunch’s commentary about the Vietnam War comes to mind.) but I’ve rarely if ever seen it pulled off well in a comic.