‘The Thing That Makes Captain America Great’: On ‘Captain America Comics’ #1 (Part Two Of Two)

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Continued and concluded from yesterday’s piece, which can be found here.

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Worst of all, Robinson’s script displays a fatal misunderstanding of how Steve Rogers needs to be portrayed in the period prior to his transformation into Captain America. There are, after all, limits to how far a reinterpretation can go before it starts to chaff against the original’s most essential virtues. Firstly, What Makes A Man portrays a Rogers who is already, prior to his exposure to the super-soldier serum, a remarkably effective street fighter. For all that the story insists on Rogers’ supposed frailty, he’s still in essence depicted as a man capable of performing an extraordinary sequence of physical tasks while under immense stress and threat. (Even in the best of my younger days, I could never have achieved what Rogers does in these pages.) Here, there’s a fatal tension between what the story insists upon – Rogers fails his army medical because of his unfortunately enfeebled condition – and what its action sequences show us. When fleeing with the secret information from his Nazi pursuers, Rogers not only out-runs and outmanoeuvres them. He also races up flights of stairs, effortlessly uses a rubbish bin lid as a bullet-defying shield, leaps across a series of perilously dangerous breaks between moving subway carriages and, as if all of that isn’t enough, hauls himself up onto the train’s roof where he hangs on for a not-inconsiderable period of time. Finally, he even hurls himself from his alarming moving perch at one of his assailants, quite deliberately causing both of them to fall an entirely perilous distance to the street below. The Nazi is killed, while Rogers, who is supposedly the frailest of human beings, survives by the chance of landing in a truck carrying chickens. At the cost of but a few bruises, he emerges whole from a tumbling collision at great speed with a truck full of wooden boxes, and all because, it’s implied, of a layer of straw. It is simply not to be believed.

This is not a portrayal of Steve Rogers as a man who longs to fight but can’t. Instead, Robinson and Martin give us Rogers as a proto-superhero, an indomitable hero who can’t be stopped by either bullets or perilous falls. So why should we care so much about his physical wellbeing when he’s already capable of so much? Captain America’s origin turns on our ability to cheer the metamorphosis of a man without hope of fighting into one who cannot be defeated in combat. As soon as the Steve Rogers who proceeds Captain America is shown to be a man who can very much fight, no matter how apparently severe his limitations, the most fundamental and winning aspects of his origin are fatally undercut.

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But What Makes The Man compounds such spoke-breaking problems by making Rogers’ character a distinctly humourless, uncharitable and unpleasantly self-obsessed one.  If there’s anything less likely to make us warm to Rogers and his predicament, it’s a lack of charm or perspective. When first approached by the stumbling, dying Federal Agent, Rogers doesn’t show the slightest sign of concern. First, he shouts at the wounded man to back away. Then he accuses him of being drunk. The agent is begging for help and barely able to stand, but Rogers displays no compassion at all. Only when he hears the man’s tale of clandestine policing and brave sacrifice does Rogers start to pay attention. The suggestion is that Rogers, caring as passionately for his chosen causes as he does, lacks compassion for his fellow individual human beings. This is Steve Rogers as a creature of profoundly limited empathy and, frequently, slow wits. In that, he’s anything other than a broad embodiment of America’s best instincts and ideals – whatever they may or may not be.

All this version of Rogers is shown caring about is fighting under the colours. He has no other drives at all beyond his unquestioning patriotism. But since Robinson has failed to detail just what the ‘evil that’s looming‘ and threatening America actually is, Rogers comes across as a man far more obsessed with combat against America’s enemies, whoever they might be, than with any particular moral and political cause. As Robinson has the future Captain America worryingly declare, ‘I’ll do anything for my country’, which places him firmly in the camp of Samuel Johnson’s scoundrels. If we take this Rogers by his words and actions, it’s conceivable that he’d fight alongside the Axis powers were they allied with America. Narrowing Rogers’ drives to a straight-forward desire to fight for his nation when imperiled leaves the character appearing dubiously hollow, blankly driven and, frankly, disturbingly void of ethical depth.

-000000000000At the climatic moment of the tale, Rogers’ makes a suicidal train-top sacrifice, throwing himself into one of his two remaining pursuers and propelling both of them from the roof of a railway carriage. The death of both of them appears a certainty. (See the scan at the top of this page, which looks as if it might be a homage to Miller and Janson’s Daredevil tales from the early 80s.) It should be an act that insists on Roger’s courage and selflessness. But in the script, it’s an act that’s motivated not by principle but ego. In showing Rogers’ final burst of strength coming from rage at the label of ‘coward’ rather than a calculation of duty and necessity, the script makes an over-sensitive and dangerously impulsive man-boy out of a figure who ought to represent far nobler qualities. ‘I’m done running’, Robinson has him declare as Rogers leaps from the train, the purest expression of hurt feelings and wounded machismo. If the central conceit of the script is that Captain America is in essence ‘special’ and ‘great’ because of Steve Rogers’ essential and unchanging nature, then I fear for the causes he serves. After all, how was throwing himself off the train ever going to best preserve the information he was guarding? His dead body would still have the amulet on it, and who in authority was to know that Rogers’ corpse had something so precious attached to it? On the other hand, the surviving Nazi spy would know all of that. So much for Rogers as an innate strategic genius. So much for Rogers as a man who can’t be swept away by hostile circumstances.

Like all superheroes, Captain America can function perfectly well, if dangerously, as an expression of the rage and hopes of powerless children of all ages. But the beauty of the character at its best is that it actually represents a far more decent, restrained and subtle combination of disappointment and aspiration, longing and principle. Sadly, none of that is convincingly depicted here. At the least, Robinson should have had Rogers surviving through his decency, courage and clear thinking alone. Instead, the to-be Captain America, for all his determination and courage, relies far too much in defeating his foes upon dumb luck, impulsive acts, dense thinking and, worst of all, pride.Rather than admiring his patriotic ferver, it’s hard not to wonder why this Steve Rogers is so determined not to take the Army doctor’s advice and find a way to ‘serve your country that (doesn’t) involve military service’. What does this Rogers find so unappealing about that? Why is he so driven specifically to ‘fight’ rather than, in general, to serve? Why isn’t he fulfilling any of these other ways to help the war effort – such as it existed in 1940 – while he tries to enlist? Allowing these questions to rise up off of the page does no favours to the reader’s opinion of Rogers as an individual.

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Two years after the publication of What Makes The Man, in a script credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the movie Captain America: The First Avenger established the admirable ethical harmony between Rogers’ beliefs and actions with the now-famous scene given to Chris Evans’ desperate-to-enlist title character and Stanley Tucci’s Dr Erskine;

Erskine: ‘Do you want to kill Nazis?’

Rogers: ‘Is this a test?’

Erskine: ‘Yes.’

Rogers: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.’

The difference is more than one of emphasis. Robinson’s Rogers is only shown wanting to fight because a war is obviously coming and America has, he believes, many enemies. But the First Avengers’ Rogers expresses compassion and moral clarity along with his fierce ambition to serve. His enemies could conceivably be as much American extremists as foreign opponents. With the same laudable clarity of purpose, the movie also portrays the pre-Cap Rogers as a consistently compassionate and principled man. We want this Rogers to become Cap because he’s clearly, and charmingly, both deserving and trustworthy.

Sadly, Robinson’s struggles to create a Rogers who is winningly caring and unselfish throughout What Makes The Man. With so few panels in the writer’s possession to sketch out his subject’s character, he invests whole pages in presenting Rogers in a profoundly unattractive light. To be brave isn’t necessarily to appear sympathetic, while single-mindedness can be a decidedly unattractive quality. When showing his protagonist being pursued by the fiendish Nazis spies – in Martins’ art, a splendidly Ditkoesque cadre of ne’er-do-wells if ever there was – Robinson attempts to show what quick wits Rogers’ possesses when dropped into dangerous situations. Fearful of being caught, Rogers appropriates a child’s baseball bat and slams it across the backside of a horse whose pulling a cart of barrels. In whatever mix of pain and shock, the horse rears into the air, breaks his harness and causes the barrels to tumble across the street behind Rogers. The result is that his fascist pursuers are delayed. (A scan of this page can be seen immediately below this section.) If ever there were a false character note, it’s here in this sequence. It does nothing but harm to Steve Rogers’ standing as a secular saint if he’s shown thieving from kids and assaulting animals. If ever there was a protagonist who would have at least tried to find some other way of preserving himself, it’s Rogers. Yet here, there’s not a single sign of regret. Not for the child, or the animal, or for the delivery man whose business has been so disastrously interrupted. (It’s easy enough to sneer, but calming a workhorse, reharnessing him and then remounting those barrels would be no little task.)

You and I, were we quick thinking and coordinated enough, might have attempted such a strategy. But not Steve Rogers. Not only should it have been beyond his physical capacity, it should have been outside his moral compass too. Rogers is a hero, as Robinson has his narrator Bucky Barnes declare, and he was one long before he donned his costume. As such, the story has to present him in such a way. And yet, the script actually suggests that Rogers became both a better man and a more admirable leader after his transformation, which is exactly the opposite to the story’s intentions. Either that, or we are being asked to accept that a character that’s portrayed as mono-minded, thoughtless, unbalanced and, frankly, rather dense, is somehow, before and after donning his costume, an admirable heroic lead. It’s a proposition that the evidence on the page contradicts, and it leaves the speech given to Barnes at the story’s conclusion seeming quite out of touch with the events on the tale’s preceding pages:

‘– when he was still frail and slight, inside he was still the man that he is now. That’s the thing  — the thing that makes Captain America great .. is Steve Rogers.’

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6.

These choices not only misunderstand the importance of Rogers’ physical limitations, but also, on a symbolic level, his origin’s political weight. In Simon and Kirby’s 1941 debut tale, and frequently ever since, the pre-transformation Rogers is an expression of the decent, willing citizen who lacks the power to decisively serve the causes he so passionately believes in. Nor are these causes portrayed as anything other than inarguable, fundamental and absolutely vital. As such, the Steve Rogers of the moment depicted here isn’t just a statement of frustrated individual moral ambition. He also expresses the fearful certainty that if evil isn’t immediately and decisively opposed, the future will most certainly be an appalling one. As such, the pre-War myth of Captain America is one grounded in the disappointment that the state, for whatever reasons, is failing to fulfil its responsibilities.

In short, Captain America’s origin is, informed by both principle and fear, profoundly political. Well, of course it is. But in order to work in as powerful a way as possible, the origin benefits greatly from being something more than the pulpishly thrilling liberation of individual potential. It has to also deliver the twin despairs of individual weakness and socio-political inadequacy. This doesn’t in any way need to be explicit, but it has to be there in the underbelly of the narrative. Rogers has to be totally unable to serve on the front line in any capacity at all, while the Government, no matter what the steps are that it’s shown to be taking,  has to be falling way short of its obligations. The frustrations of the two buttress one another. As such, it’s not just Steve Roger’s ascension to demi-godhood that makes the origin so strangely and joyously cathartic. It’s also the sense that the state itself is finally on track, that the ambitions of both the best individuals and those of the nation itself are at last moving in tandem. This, Captain America’s origin insists, is how it has to be. The world has been profoundly out of whack, but hope has been reinjected back into the body politic.

But in What Makes The Man, America is shown to be far more proactive than the origin’s best interests demand. That it’s historically inaccurate in this is far, far less important than the manner in which it undercuts the origin’s meaning. The ‘Feds’ are bravely and determinedly on the case, if admittedly struggling to fulfil their nation-saving mandate. Within that context, the super-soldier programme is underway, no longer a single, last hope but now, a part of a greater and apparently unified strategy. It’s a change of emphasis which, with the story’s other choices, leaves the age seeming less desperate than it needs to. Admittedly, Robinson strives, in the story’s best interest, to balance out the situation. His federal agents are clearly hard-pressed, while, in an impressive double-page spread by Martin, a sketch is provided, all too briefly, of a nation preoccupied with its everyday affairs. But the America of 1940 that we’re shown isn’t one characterised by Isolationism and its fierce brand of apparent self-interest matched to self-defeating denial. Nor is it, as in Simon and Kirby’s first Captain America story, a nation that’s catastrophically crippled by traitors. In What Makes The Man, the only evidence we’re given is of an America that’s tooling up for war with some purpose and success. Even the soldiers in the recruitment office visited by Rogers are fully aware of the treat Fascism poses and convinced that war is inevitable. This undercuts the desperation and dark trepidation that otherwise moves us to cheer even more loudly when Captain America is created. Here, the suggestion is that even if Steve Rogers hadn’t become Cap, somebody else would have. True, Simon and Kirby’s debut tale implied the same, but in a far less tension-deflating fashion. There the situation was absolutely desperate. Here, matters are undeniably serious, and yet, hopelessness is never convincingly evoked.

-00000000000000000Prior to being remade as a costumed crusader, the figure of Steve Rogers has to work as a statement of how of how an iron will and the very best of intentions are, far more often than not, quite useless in the face of formidable and unyielding power. A bleak desperation needs to be at work, even if it can’t be directly portrayed. In Captain America’s first origin, you can feel, or at least believe that you can feel, that Simon and Kirby’s strip was an expression of anger and despair and frustration every bit as much as hope and conviction. In the super-soldier programme, as it’s come to be known, we have a canny expression of the individual citizen’s desperate, and often cruelly denied, reliance upon the government to do the right thing. Without that expression of American determination and technological power, Steve Rogers, and all those who shared his beliefs, could do nothing but attempt to serve and pray for deliverance. In that, Captain America really isn’t just the expression of national self-regard, virtue and power. He’s also a critique of the Republic’s lack of political will and military action. In that, Cap’s origin serves as a fantasy, consoling and inspiring, for the abandoned and vulnerable in times of terrible threat and despair. Not, of course, that we might be transformed into super-soldiers, but rather that someone in power,  recognising our strengths and sympathising with our failings, will support us and defend us and enable us to support and defend others. (*2)

Setting What Makes The Man in 1940 rather than 1941, in which the character’s debut first appeared, only makes the story feel even less probable. If America had in truth been as committed as this story suggests during that year, and if the fascist threat had been generally accepted as being so overwhelmingly obvious, then it’s unlikely that Simon and Kirby would ever have felt motivated to create Captain America in the first place.

As a celebration of 70 years of Captain America, What Makes The Man actually shows a profound lack of understanding of the character’s enduring appeal and fundamental meaning. For all the respect it undoubtedly attempts to express, it only succeeds in undermining the very essence of the character’s origin. In that, it stands as a fascinating example of how not to laud Simon and Kirby’s first great invention.

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*2: In Captain America: The First Avenger, the state is also shown mobilising for the war, and apparently to a far greater degree, but the sense that the nation isn’t appropriately committed to its task is now suggested by the Army’s inability to recognise the worth of many of its best citizens. In relying on brute force, the movie argues, America is casting aside human resources that it’s in desperate need of. The combination of individual frustration and national failings is balanced out in a different way, but the reworking is exquisitely effective.

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