Having lunch and coffee with a very dear friend of mine recently, she and I had a very interesting conversation about — what else? — superheroes. Now, for the record, I’m a staunch Marvel stan since 1993 and she has loyalties on both sides of the comic book aisle, but we can both heartily agree that our love for Captain America is strong, undying, and probably a little creepy. (You see these stars in my eyes? This crying bald eagle reflected in my single perfect tear? I regret nothing.) Over margaritas and vegetarian enchiladas by way of New Mexico, we discussed all things Cap: From his humble beginnings as a World War II propaganda figure, to his current iteration on-screen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, throwing shade at Robert Downey, Jr. Basically? It was awesome. But more than that, it kind of reminded me why this character is so important to me, not just as an avid comic fan but as a writer. Hell, maybe just as a person.
Before I get into my love for Steve Rogers, I have to preface this by saying that, coming up on comics in the 1990s, I was never a big Cap fan. Yeah, I read a few Avengers issues here and there, and I could appreciate him for all the history, but I was into X-Men. Back then, I liked edgier characters that defied the typical heroic mold. Guys like Deadpool, Pete Wisdom, and Chamber — because you couldn’t get any more alienated than a moody teenager with half of his face blown off. And, let’s be honest: For much of the 90s in X-Men comics, it was like being a party with a bunch of guys trying to see who among them was the grittier asshole. As a kid, I thought that was cool. But growing up a bit, having a calmer head and an ability to better parse out the content I was consuming, I came around to Captain America. And here’s why.
(Let me preface this again by saying that I’m not a comic book historian. I haven’t read every single issue, and I’m well-aware that there have been debates over the years about the various rewrites/retcons of Steve’s backstory. I’m presenting what I know from more recent continuity, so, you know, if you don’t like it I guess you can go find a classic comics blog or something.)
I think that Captain America — when written well — is a fascinating commentary on American culture. For a character that’s often held up on face value to be this All-American, Square-Jawed, White Christian Crusader of All Things Good, he doesn’t do a very good job of it. Steve Rogers is a New Yorker with a liberal arts background, coming up as the frail, sickly child of a poor immigrant family in 1920s and 30s Brooklyn. As a kid he stood by as his physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father beat his mother, and it was by watching her stand up to him that Steve learned to pull himself up by his bootstraps.
His mother was the reason he came to stand against bullies wherever he found them, and to always be vigilant in the face of oppression. Yeah, he joined the military because he wanted to do the right thing, and became the iconic soldier he is today. At his heart, however, he’s still that sick kid from Brooklyn: Hiding under kitchen tables, taking beatings from the neighborhood kids because if he starts running, he knows he’ll never stop. He loves art. He draws comics. By nature he creates things rather than destroys them. Isn’t there something a little romantic in that tragedy?
Steve Rogers fights because he has to. He might not always be the hero we think we want, but he’s the right guy at the right time for the job. Sure, he gives all the cowboy speeches and has all of the superhuman abilities, and he makes it all sound big and bright and idealistic. But at the end of the day, his true power comes from being a good man, not a good soldier. All of that said, he’s also been radically anti-government for many periods over the years, which is distinctly unheroic in and of itself. Despite what lackluster writers would have you believe, watching him wave around American flags and make fun of the French, he doesn’t blindly follow orders. He’s cast off the mantle of Captain America many times, as Nomad and The Captain, when his ideals were compromised and he could no longer carry that shield.
That A on his forehead stands for America, but his love for his country is rooted in his hope for its people. It comes from spending the first 20-someodd years of his life watching Americans starve, struggle and bleed in horrifying wars. Because that’s what Steve Rogers cares about above all else: People. Regardless of their race, gender, or anything else, Steve sees the best in people. Everyone is an equal in his eyes, no matter who they are or where they come from, or what they’ve done in the past.
His friendship with Bucky Barnes? C’mon. Heartbreaking.
His long-standing partnership with Sam Wilson? Worthy of its own series.
His epic bromance with Carol Danvers? Perfection.
His lifelong friendship with Tony Stark?
Don’t even start with me, man, I’m going to cry. Hell, Steve’s even there for Jarvis.
While a lot of other heroes take on the Big Picture, in sweeping, operatic storylines that make them out to be the moral authority, Captain America is all about the little things. Yeah, he’s made huge mistakes (the kind that make me rage and throw books across the room), and he’s not a perfect character. Really, he’s a deeply flawed guy, prone to bouts of brooding and self-imposed misery, sometimes getting so hung-up on the job that he loses himself along the way. And, yeah, his love life isn’t always in the best shape, and Steve has a tendency to avoid his relationship problems rather than face them head-on. But, you know what? He’s still a person. He’s still complex. Steve Rogers bleeds, and sometimes he even falls apart. This is not some mindless, Alpha Male character. This is a guy that thinks and feels and above all else, tries. Tries to do the right thing, to be the best that he can for those around him.
People (Read: Spider-Man, but it still counts) refer to him as “the mother” of the Avengers, he’s dealt with body image and self-esteem issues, and he knows what it’s like to feel like you have no control over your own life. As a woman, that rings very true with me, seeing that many of Steve’s personal problems tend to be reserved for archetypal female characters. Watching his mother stand up to his abusive father, Steve grew up to deeply value the women around him, for their strength and heroism as well as their friendship, and to support their journeys. Growing up poor and sickly, Steve knows what it’s like to live in fear of brutality, at the whims of bigger, stronger men. These are attributes that comic book writers and readers would typically assign to a female character, and seeing these traits in Steve is important to me. Is Captain America a feminist character? Maybe? But that’s another post for another day.
And, by the way? His longest, strongest, and most valued relationship has always been with another man, Tony Stark. A man that, when born in an alternate reality as a woman, Captain America married, so take that as you will.
Also, Captain America has taken a firm stance in support of gay rights. So, you know, another point in the Steve Is A Cool Dude column.
To the casual reader/viewer, Captain America looks like a cardboard cut-out conservative symbol for Good Old-Fashioned White American Justice. In reality, one could argue he struggles to represent (as ham-fisted as the delivery may be, since comic book writers aren’t always the most culturally sensitive bunch) everything liberal American culture tries to incorporate in modern society. He wants the best for his country and his friends, regardless of who they are or where they come from, and stands up to tyranny and oppression wherever he finds it. Whether in an alley in 1939, a French battlefield in 1943, or in his own country in 2013, Captain America stands up for all of us.
For a kid from Brooklyn, that’s a hell of a thing.
Now that I’ve gotten a ton of responses from this, here’s some footnotes!
*I really wanted to source all of these scans with relevant information, but…I didn’t scan these, and most of the scan blogs that posted them originally didn’t provide issue/writer/artist information, and then I lost the links to the blogs in order to try to figure out my sourcing, so. That’s incredibly lazy of me, but, you know, I kinda pulled this whole thing out of my ass and stuff for fun. So, um, sorry. I guess.
**Again, not a comic book historian. I haven’t read every issue of everything throughout time and space. And all of this is my interpretation of various canons/timelines/eras/etc. from over the years, some of which conflict and/or have been retconned, and what I’ve taken out of these readings. So, um, sorry if my interpretation of the character differs from yours? Or something.