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Captain America

John Moser spoke at an Ashbrook Colloquium on Friday.  The topic, "Captain America and the Dilemma of Liberal Patriotism."  Very good talk (based on a chapter for a book), well received by the students.  You'll just have to imagine the good slides that went with it.  Thanks much, John.

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Discussions - 7 Comments

Fascinating talk. Fun, too. I think that Marvel and Stan Lee have always been firmly in the counterculture's camp, with some liberal internationalism thrown in for good measure. That said, I was always more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy, and Iron Man was my favorite.

Good talk, caught the podcast. Something that I think is sort of interesting is that Wolverine's backstory places him with Captain America during the war as a Canadian counterpart before he had the claws or adamantium skeleton. However, Wolverine took on the sort of man with no name persona based on the transformation instead of direct refrence to the changes in society.
It is interesting that these characters let go of the truth justice and the American way so early on, while that sort of thing is still used politicly with and without sucsess, while I don't think the comics have ever tried to use it again outside of goofy cartoons where they say things like always brush your teeth before going to bed.

Thanks for the comments, Ben and Brutus. My understanding of Stan Lee is that he was basically apolitical except for a general commitment to tolerance. He was mainly interested in selling comics, and was hesitant to risk alienating any segment of his audience. However, by the late 1960s he realized that he either had to offend either those who wanted Cap to fight communists or the apparently larger number who wanted him to embrace liberal causes. A middle course was likely to alienate both. In short, Captain America's transformation from "superpatriot" to "now hero" was a business decision, plain and simple.

I think that the business decision explanation is partly true but of very limited value. Of course any comic book will have to have a certain level of sales (in the context of its times) in order to continue. The Denny O'Neil run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow was cut short despite Neal Adams's terrific art and the kudos it got for being sophisticated because it replaced science fiction adventure stories with simplistic lefty fairy tales. The sales weren't there.

But there are multiple potentially market-viable approaches and it wasn't like the comic book public was begging for Captain America to become an Easy Rider knock off in the form of Nomad. Captain America (who had been depicted as killing lots of Germans during WWII) was shown as agonizing over killing a terrorist in self-defense in the 1980s. It is possible to have a (somewhat) successful comic book with that kind of story, but I see no evidence that this was what was demanded by a public that was, elsewhere in the culture, devouring revenge fantasies against criminals, ect. The relationship of Captain America to patriotism had alot more to do with the prevailing opinions of the book's creative and editorial staff ( a climate of opinion that existed, but was not the majority within the general culture) than with maximizing economic utility. And many of them would have been no more comfortable writing Cap fighting communists in the 1970s than writing stories having Cap help Bull Connor beat up Martin Luther King Jr.

I remember an interview with Steve Englehart (who wrote Cap in the 1970s) who said that if he had been writing Cap in the 2000s he would be going after the neoconservatives. Because after 9/11 people wanted to read about Captain America punching William Kristol - well some did but you get the idea.

A similar dynamic is at work in Hollywood. How many financially unsuccessful Iraq War/War on Terror movies have been produced? Nobody in Hollywood actually want to lose money, but did anyone in the world think that Lions For Lambs was the most productive possible use of studio money? They thought it would do well enough and it was a movie they wanted to make for political reasons. Meanwhile, there is one heck of a movie about battlefield heroism to be made in Bing West's No True Glory (and not a pro-Bush story either). But I guess America wants another "a veteran came home crazy" movie. Well they are going to get one whether they want it or not.

Market demand matters, but the preferences of the people who write, produce, act in, and greenlight the movies also decide what gets made - especially if it is supposed to be "important". The same is true of the people who wrote and edited Captain America.

Pete, I appreciate these comments, and what you're saying is likely true. The problem is finding the evidence. I'd be interested in knowing where you got the Steve Engelhart quote. Ultimately, though, I'd like to know about what the man at the top--Stan Lee--thought about this stuff. Clearly Engelhart had strong opinions--he was a conscientious objector, which says something right there. But I need to know more about what went on behind the scenes at Marvel. I'm planning a visit to the Stan Lee archives in Wyoming, and I'm trying to get an interview with the man himself. However, all the sources I've looked at suggest that Lee was pretty much apolitical. Moreover, the literature on the subject (and there's still not a whole lot of it at this point) treats Cap's transformation as something not really in need of explanation; it was a natural and wholly laudable expression of the zeitgeist.

John, the Englehart comment could have been in Wizard (published monthly) or it could have been the in Comics Buyers Guide (published weekly). I think it was Wizard, but I don't hold on to my old issues of that magazine

That is awsome that you get Wizard, I only know of it through a line in a kevin smith movie. I really wish I was more into thise characters when I was younger because I find them so fascinating today.

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