When I picked up Captain America #602 a couple weeks ago, I was impressed and pleasantly surprised. I wasnât surprised that that it was a good issue. Ed Brubaker has emerged as Marvel Comicsâ 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 topicâthe Tea Party movementâand 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 didnât mean any of it.
Captain America #602 should not be very controversial. Itâs certainly no more controversial than the Tea Party movement itself. Â The story is set in a small town in Idahoâa place that, like many other small towns in America, has been hit hard by the recent recession. Because the townâs 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. Iâm 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 rallyÂ 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 arenât 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 truthÂ in Brubaker’s handling ofÂ both. One panel in particular has been cited repeatedly as the most problematicÂ of the issue:
The caption in the top-left corner of this panel belongs to The Falcon, a black superhero whoâalong with current Captain America Bucky Barnesâplans to infiltrate the protest movement to find and capture a delusional hero who has âgone rogue.â The rogue character is a copycat Captain America who, raised in the 1950s, still clings to an ideal image of a bygone American age:
Itâs an image that many of the Tea Party folks still cling to, as well. Itâs Mayberry. As an ardent and unapologetic fan of The Andy Griffith Show, Iâm not saying this idealism is bad or objectionable. But there are certain truths about Mayberry that canât be denied. As charming and quaint as Mayberry was, there werenât manyâwell, anyâblack 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 heâs 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 Falconâs 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 Â the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Iâm not saying that everyone who supports the Second Amendment is secretly or inherently a domestic terrorist. Thatâs obviously not true, and thatâs not the argument Brubaker is making in this issue either. Comics often deal in exaggerations and generalizations, but I donât think thatâs the case here. Fear, anxiety, and anger are the motivations most often associated with militias formed for the purpose of violent insurrection. These emotionsâalong with a similar sense of dispossessionâare 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, thereâs 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 donât worry about all that. You donât have to think too deeply about it, because Marvel didnât 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 wasnât what they were doing at all. According to Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, âThere 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 Edâs story, there was no connection to the Tea Party movement, thatâs a screw up that happened after the fact and exactly what some people are getting upset about.â
Setting aside the disingenuousness of Quesadaâs claim that the protestors werenât based on a real-life political movement, itâs ridiculous that Marvel is apologizing at all. Thereâs nothing to apologize for. Itâs absurd to say that Marvel is relying too much on broad, offensive generalizations and exaggerations when the political movement theyâre depicting relies on broad, often offensive generalizations and exaggerations to make its point. Furthermore, Marvelâs apology is problematic because it implies that the company doesnât trust their chosen artistic medium to carry a significant political or social message. They also donât trust their readership to process and understand complex political issues. Because itâs 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, âNo, sorryâwe have nothing important to say so donât bother paying attention to us.â Mark Waid summed up the problem well last week (Feb. 10) when he posted the following to Twitter: âMark Waid is humiliated and mortified on behalf of my entire industry that Fox News is able to bully us into apologizing to lunatics.â
One of the claims that has been made by the Tea Party members who object to this story is that Captain Americaâthe symbol of American freedomâshould not be objecting to the free speech of ordinary, everyday Americans. That much is true. But nobody is objecting to free speechâeven 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. Itâs always better to appeal to your audienceâs 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 publisherÂ is still wrestling with this truth in the 21st century.