Two Americas

Long time friends and readers of this blog know that I have an unabashed love of Captain America and, in particular, Ed Brubaker's vision of the character. Brubaker's ongoing run on that comic is one of the greatest long term runs of any individual on any comic ever, because he knows exactly what makes a Captain America story great.

My, admittedly minimal, academic work on comics has focused, so far, mainly on that run because I think the way it deals with who Captain America is and what Captain America means is fascinating. Therefore, I wanted to spend some time dealing with the recent controversy over some signage in Captain America #602, from a couple of weeks ago.

In case you aren't familiar with what's going on, the sign that caused the controversy was the one on the top of the right hand page, which reads "tea bag the libs before they tea bag you". I would like to note that it's interesting that no one has taken issue with the incredibly common yet unfortunately misinformed sign on the left hand page reading "NO GOVT IN MY MEDICARE" because, if anything, that one would seem to be more pointed than the one that has caused all the ruckus. I guess since there are many people who believe (incorrectly) that government and medicare aren't one and the same, however, that one is being left alone.

The fact that this controversy exists at all is also interesting: Brubaker, for his part, has found that "all the really hard core left-wing fans want Cap to be standing out on and giving speeches on the street corner against the George W. Bush administration and all the really right-wing fans want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam Hussein." This is not to say that I would have expected anyone outside of the comics world to know about Brubaker's remarks or his opinion that Captain America is above such things as "left-wing" or "right-wing", but only that the writer has clearly thought about issues like this in the past.

Which is what makes him such a damn good Captain America writer. Brubaker makes all of his Cap stories not only about Steve Rogers or Bucky Barnes, but also about the thing that they represent: America. Now, it seems to me that he has tapped into a very old and very specific thread of American thought in writing his Sentinels of Liberty- Brubaker writes Captain America as a (notice the small r) republican hero.

Republicanism is a thread of political thinking that stretches all the way back to Aristotle and places an emphasis on virtue and disinterest rather than self-interest. The project of the American republic has been to reconcile notions of republicanism (which place one's duty to flag and country over one's duty to oneself) with notions of liberalism (again, don't confuse my meaning: I'm talking about modern liberalism here, not American Political Liberalism. Think John Locke, not John Kennedy) and Captain America, as a figure, has in many ways struck that balance.

Now, personally, I believe that Steve Rogers (and now Bucky Barnes) have historically represented virtue and the Constitution over political values- a position that, actually, puts them fundamentally in conflict with movements like the Tea Parties. Still, this is what makes Cap so interesting and so important- who he is and what he means are very different things to very different people and, although I see evidence for a very specific kind of meaning, there is not one right answer. Like it or not Captain America belongs to all of us and, because of that collective ownership, Marvel has made the right decision in removing the offending sign from future editions of the comic- in order for the more important points about virtue to be made, simple politics must be kept out of the equation. It is extremely easy to graft our own opinions about what it means to be an American over the top of Cap, but it must be remembered that, because he wears the flag, he represents all of us.