Guttergeek Column: WEDNESDAY SHOP TALK

Posted by on February 17th, 2010 at 4:27 PM

Captain America’s Uncomfortable Tea Party

When I picked up Captain America #602 a couple weeks ago, I was impressed and pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t surprised that that it was a good issue. Ed Brubaker has emerged as Marvel Comics’ best writer over the last few years, and his take on Captain America has been clever and relevant since he started writing the character in 2005. Captain America is one of the few Marvel Comics books I still make sure to read every month. What did surprise me, though, was that Marvel was willing to take on such a politically-charged topic—the Tea Party movement—and treat it in a layered and thought-provoking way. As it turns out, my surprise was justified. After a conservative blog associated with the Tea Party movement complained last week, Marvel backed off, apologized, and essentially said they didn’t mean any of it.

Captain America #602 should not be very controversial. It’s certainly no more controversial than the Tea Party movement itself.  The story is set in a small town in Idaho—a place that, like many other small towns in America, has been hit hard by the recent recession. Because the town’s citizens feel they have no immediate recourse for their economic plight, they direct their anger and fear toward the federal government and take to the streets in protest. This is a story that mirrors the growth of the Tea Party movement last spring. Actually, the pages that Tea Party blogger Warner Todd Huston objected to the most were pulled straight from the headlines and the news coverage the Tea Party still seems to be courting. I’m not sure what bothers the Tea Party people about seeing themselves in print, but these images are not much different than the displays they organized last spring and summer:

In fact, the sign most of the activists object to is a sign that was captured on camera at an actual rally last year:

What I gather from the news coverage of this incident is that there are two things about Captain America #602 that the Tea Party people object to most: 1) The implication that there aren’t many black people associated with their cause and 2) The association of the protestors with a right-wing militia movement. Both objections are certainly a part of this story, but there are elements of truth in Brubaker’s handling of both. One panel in particular has been cited repeatedly as the most problematic of the issue:

The caption in the top-left corner of this panel belongs to The Falcon, a black superhero who—along with current Captain America Bucky Barnes—plans to infiltrate the protest movement to find and capture a delusional hero who has “gone rogue.” The rogue character is a copycat Captain America who, raised in the 1950s, still clings to an ideal image of a bygone American age:

It’s an image that many of the Tea Party folks still cling to, as well. It’s Mayberry. As an ardent and unapologetic fan of The Andy Griffith Show, I’m not saying this idealism is bad or objectionable. But there are certain truths about Mayberry that can’t be denied. As charming and quaint as Mayberry was, there weren’t many—well, any—black people there. And while the post-WWII years of the 50s were idealistic for some, those years were not the image of perfection for all. The racial tensions of the 50s gave rise to the civil rights movement of the late 50s and the assassinations of the 60s. This is the subtext of what Falcon is arguing when he says he’s probably not going to be welcomed by the crowd he sees gathered in the street. For many of those people, the pre-civil rights era is the most perfect version of America. And Falcon’s presence is likely to be an intrusion. In fact, Falcon is treated as such later in the issue. When he poses as a black government agent who issues an audit to a bar owner, he is assaulted, thrown through a table, and tossed out the door with an epithet thrown at him for good measure:

The assault is staged. Bucky Barnes (also undercover) attacks Falcon to win the sympathies of the locals in the bar. And he does. But is this scenario really that hard to imagine? Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine that a black government tax collector is pretty much as bad as it gets for the people who hold up signs of Obama dressed as a witch doctor and painted in whiteface as the Joker?

The other major problem the Tea Party people have with Captain America #602 is that the rogue Captain America is recruited by a right-wing militia group called the Watchdogs that seems to be an offshoot of the Tea Party movement. And honestly, this too is not much of a stretch. Several of the people who protested at the rallies last spring and summer came armed. These people claimed just to be demonstrating the importance of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but there was clearly an element of militant intimidation behind what they were doing. Several of these people wore shirts and carried signs bearing slogans and imagery that looked awfully familiar to anyone paying attention during  the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

I’m not saying that everyone who supports the Second Amendment is secretly or inherently a domestic terrorist. That’s obviously not true, and that’s not the argument Brubaker is making in this issue either. Comics often deal in exaggerations and generalizations, but I don’t think that’s the case here. Fear, anxiety, and anger are the motivations most often associated with militias formed for the purpose of violent insurrection. These emotions—along with a similar sense of dispossession—are also associated with the with the Tea Party movement. Every time a protestor is interviewed, these are the sentiments on display. The movement seeks to organize and galvanize these emotions in order to transform the government. Some people seek to limit the reach of the government, and some people would seek to undermine the federal government altogether. Ultimately, there’s a thin line between what some people call patriotism and what others call sedition. And this thin line is what Brubaker is examining in Captain America. Brubaker is making interesting connections, logically extending them in fiction, and layering political drama over a superhero template.

But don’t worry about all that. You don’t have to think too deeply about it, because Marvel didn’t really mean it anyway. After objections were raised by several Tea Party activists (and then, naturally, by Fox News), Marvel quickly backtracked and claimed that this wasn’t what they were doing at all. According to Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, “There was zero discussion to include a group that looked like a Tea Party demonstration. Ed simply wrote in an anti-tax protest into his story to show one of the moods that currently exists in America. There was no thought that it represented a particular group. And yes, what Ed said is absolutely true, he does shy away from labeling things and did exactly that in this instance. In Ed’s story, there was no connection to the Tea Party movement, that’s a screw up that happened after the fact and exactly what some people are getting upset about.”

Setting aside the disingenuousness of Quesada’s claim that the protestors weren’t based on a real-life political movement, it’s ridiculous that Marvel is apologizing at all. There’s nothing to apologize for. It’s absurd to say that Marvel is relying too much on broad, offensive generalizations and exaggerations when the political movement they’re depicting relies on broad, often offensive generalizations and exaggerations to make its point. Furthermore, Marvel’s apology is problematic because it implies that the company doesn’t trust their chosen artistic medium to carry a significant political or social message. They also don’t trust their readership to process and understand complex political issues. Because it’s comics, right? Nobody really has anything serious to say about the issues that dominate everyday political discourse in this country, right? Quesada (and Brubaker, in his interview with Fox News) might as well have said, “No, sorry—we have nothing important to say so don’t bother paying attention to us.” Mark Waid summed up the problem well last week (Feb. 10) when he posted the following to Twitter: “Mark Waid is humiliated and mortified on behalf of my entire industry that Fox News is able to bully us into apologizing to lunatics.”

One of the claims that has been made by the Tea Party members who object to this story is that Captain America—the symbol of American freedom—should not be objecting to the free speech of ordinary, everyday Americans. That much is true. But nobody is objecting to free speech—even the free speech that comes from ordinary, everyday Americans who demonstrate at rallies organized by large-scale corporate money and promulgated by an influential right-wing media outlet. Confused, uninformed, misdirected, and angry speech is protected, as is the free speech of people who criticize that speech. Captain America is a symbol of freedom, but he is also a symbol of tolerance and responsibility. These latter attributes have been lost in the oversimplified noise of this controversy. Tolerance, responsibility, and respect are most certainly not on display at most of the Tea Party demonstrations that have been staged during the last year. And if Brubaker is willing to call attention to that fact, then he (and Quesada and editor Tom Brevoort and letterer Joe Caramagna) should stand by his work. It’s always better to appeal to your audience’s intelligence and rationality than to placate the irrationality and outrage of a loud and unreasonable minority. I just can’t believe the industry’s biggest comic book publisher is still wrestling with this truth in the 21st century.

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13 Responses to “Guttergeek Column: WEDNESDAY SHOP TALK”

  1. Yeah, the backing down from the political extremists does make Marvel look like a bunch of pussies.

    But c’mon, those fuckers are some crazy-assed astroturf.

  2. Uland says:

    What you’re essentially saying is this: The Tea Partiers are in fact racist, and many among them are potentially dangerous. Militias are equated with the OKC bombing. Why can’t the dangerous, ignorant and irrationally angry people just accept this and let us have our fun?

    It’s incredibly condescending. Totally patronizing— as though armchair sociologists like Ed Brubaker ( also a clear pro-Obama ideologue ) are in a position to diagnose huge swaths of the American public, groups they only encounter via Cable News channels who have a vested interest in playing up to your biases.

    You’re being played. The gun rights activists where doing the same thing during the Bush administration. Fox News and the RNC have co-opted what was a Constitutionalist/Libertarian movement meant to protest excessive taxation and government largesse. The first one occured in New Hampshire in 1997.
    Niether you, nor Ed Brubaker, have put any serious thought into the historical place of these movements, or in how they are being presented by Corporate news channels. That’s why Brubaker shouldn’t have written it. It reads like a really lame attempt at comics taking on serious subject matter.

  3. Uland says:

    What research have you done to determine that “many” tea party activists idealize a vision of America that lies in a mythic past? How have you made that determination? Is it because many of them live in small towns? Is it because they aren’t including a pro civil rights message in their platform for limited government?
    Do you see how cloying and disengenous that really is? You are projecting your own biases on to these people.
    You’re suggesting that an Obama figure represents “the future”, while his opposition represent the past, simply for opposing him.

  4. Uland says:

    Where does the “threat” come in with the gun rights advocacy? Is it because you felt threatened? Is it because Chris Matthews told you that it was threatening?

  5. Alex Boney says:

    So in your second response, you ask how I can make a determination about people I’ve lived with and among all my life. And in your third (!) response, you make a broad characterization of where I get my political points of view. (Chris Matthews can be as ridiculous as many of the Fox News prime time crew, by the way. At least I can recognize the absurdity of both when I see it.)

    I’m insulting, condescending, patronizing, and misinformed. But you’re not. It’s precisely these contradictions and irrationally angry outburts that deserve to be played out in (even mainstream) comics, and it’s why Brubaker and Quesada shouldn’t have backed down.

  6. […] | Alex Boney wades into the recent controversy involving Captain America #602. [] Kick-Ass […]

  7. Uland says:

    Clearly, the crack about Chris Matthews is meant to get across how you sound. I can’t know where your points of view derive from, but I know they sound really ill informed. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re hitting the talking points that he spouts.
    That’s the problem—it’s not that I’m a “tea partier” ( I AM NOT), and that’s just how those stupid people behave— it’s that I think you made really poor arguments.

    You’re telling me that because you know people who’re in sympathy with tea partiers, that are also racist, and maybe have a vision of America redolent of small town, regionalist history, THIS IS WHAT TEA PARTIERS ARE LIKE.
    I know staunch democrat/union guys who’re really racist. I know plenty of lefties who are in love with a Wendell Berry vision of a localist America.

    You’re ignorant and don’t deserve to write for a usually great journal.

  8. Uland says:

    Ultimately, it’s just really infuriating to see a media strategy, meant to triangulate ( make sure the populist left and right don’t meet in their anti Wall Street sentiments; You can’t be anti Federal Reserve without supporting Glenn Beck, for example..) be taken on and regurgitated in such a self righteous fashion, as though it isn’t a manufactured set of issues. It’s been really effective; people honestly believe that advocating for limited government, or 2nd amendment rights, or being against the health care scam, etc., means that you’re racist, or that it’s an expression of anxieties that only stupid people experience, and is thereby some kind of mental illness.

  9. Jared Gardner says:

    You know what’s REALLY “infuriating”? Someone who, because he disagrees with a writer’s claims and opinions, resorts to name calling and repeated and increasingly shrill posting. You know what else is infuriating? A pot repeatedly calling the kettle black.

  10. Scyzoryk says:

    Very nice article. It’s nice to see a clearheaded look at what’s got to be the most obfuscated topic in comics right now. Good job. It’s nice to see TCJ taking on a topic from the very mainstream of comics in a serious, analytic way.

    (This comment thread is hilarious, by the way.)

  11. Dirk Deppey says:

    Uland, while I agree with a significant chunk of your arguments, you’re coming across as abusive and asinine. Please conduct yourself like an adult when posting here.

  12. joshfitz says:

    I love how rich white males like Dick Armey, and Dick Chenney, the latter part of the reason we have a deficit; have once again co-opted the no taxation without representation to scare mostly white people to freak out and attack someone who is trying to FIX the country. The republicans can do better? Honestly?

    They scared people into voting for them for six years, and when things are magically fixed in six months it’s “Barry Hussein” or “Barry Obummers” fault. Crack an actual history book folks. We have voted these ass clowns in over and over again. Until we look in the mirror and realize hey, they all suck it will continue over and over and over again. The lobbyists rule no one else does.

  13. […] (*snicker*) don’t really hate Captain America for using one of their own signs in his comic book. I mean, that would just be stupid AND […]