The Real Captain America

Steve Rogers has been my hero since I was a kid in the 70s. His responsibility to the greater good and his belief in doing right regardless of reward or punishment inspired me. Cap led me to believe that we can all make a difference. That’s a tribute to the power of comic books to effect young hearts and minds. I hope these aspects of the character can still inspire kids in today’s world.

When I became a teenager I stopped getting comics, but I kept in touch with Captain America. I still think about how to apply the things I learned from Cap to real life. Cap reminds me to avoid thinking everything was better in my youth. However, he also reminds us all to avoid thinking everything new is good. Because he’s a man-out-of-time, Cap is able to represent a universal understanding of what’s important. Cap is able to see things more clearly than those of us who are trapped in one time and place. And Cap always thinks for himself.

I could be wrong but, as I get older, values unconstrained by time and place become clearer to me. One thing I still value is the Steve Rogers I knew as a kid.

When a character’s been around for a long time, and passed through the hands of many writers, the true version of the character has to be whatever general traits can be traced throughout all those years. Traits that have appeared rarely should be disregarded when discussing what a character is really like.

Cap was always a realistic representation of the old-fashioned hero: the kind, unselfish nice-guy. He promoted both freedom and responsibility. It’s interesting that Marvel comics (who pioneered the realistic, imperfect superhero) resurrected him. The resurrected Cap was an attempt to make the old-fashioned super-hero a realistic character rather than a cardboard cut-out. In spite of his feelings of being an outcast, Cap fit into the 1960s of the Marvel universe quite well.

Some superheroes teach you to do good in spite of your imperfections. Captain America taught us to do good in spite of humanities imperfections. I never wanted Steve Rogers to be more like us. I wanted him to inspire us to be more like him. He let us know goodness was worth celebrating.

Being a hero is not about being “cool”. It’s about doing the right thing regardless of reward or punishment. Cap was always about “not sinking to their level”. Cap had survivor’s guilt over the death of his partner and the loss of the world he knew. He drove himself so hard that he often neglected the personal relationships in his life. However, he never gave in to selfishness, negativity or violence. Being a hero is a burden. It’s a lonely path fighting for people who won’t help, don’t care or don’t get it. In spite of this, Cap still did the right thing and treated people with compassion. Cap never gave up in the face of humanities shortcomings. He never thought he was better than others or had a holier than-thou-attitude. He was an open, honest man of action.

Superhero stories are modern mythology. What they say about humanity and about right & wrong is more important than whether they have a realism that’s impossible with costumed characters possessing fantastic abilities. If realism is really so important people would complain more when heroes outrun explosions, run through hails of bullets unscathed and survive impossible amounts of destruction.

People say stories are more adult when heroes are selfish and violent; but most adults I know aren’t that way. Supposedly some writers do this to satirize our culture. However, when you sensationalize negative human traits without showing how to deal with them appropriately you’re just making the problem worse by glorifying it. I can appreciate anti-heroes, but I still look for my heroes to instruct and inspire me. A sophisticated superhero story requires better and smarter story telling- not graphic violence, selfishness, cynicism and hatred.

In a democracy we believe in a fair trial. Most police men and women spend entire careers preventing and solving crimes without having to kill anyone.  A hero is not a hero if he kills any sentient being unnecessarily- he’s a murderer. Contriving plots where the heroes take the same actions that bad guys do means that the only difference between the good guys and the bad guys is who wins. But this is totally incorrect; villains are villains because they do heinous things. If a hero does heinous things then he or she is not a hero.

To be considered realistic now-a-days a hero must believe that the ends justifies the means. Heroes supposedly have to “make hard choices” and “get their hands dirty”. We are told this so often we think a hero who does good is actually the one who’s being selfish. This is Orwellian. Sometimes I wonder if people now want their heroes to give them permission to be cruel and selfish. Well, I look to be inspired by my hero’s, not validated.

Evil is, above all, a lack of empathy. So a hero must have compassion for all life. After he was thawed from the ice, Cap demonstrated over and over that he was firmly opposed to killing. He never carried a gun. His weapon was his shield.

A hero can still be a realistic, flawed character without having to be a sociopath. Certainly Cap was. He constantly fretted over what was the right thing to do in every situation. Real heroes are honest with themselves and question the world around them. This made him more realistic than any angry, macho tough-guy.

This sort of hero is not unrealistic. They exist all around you. Normal, everyday people aren’t getting into fist fights with the minions of the Red Skull or Doctor Faustus, but they are doing the right thing regardless of reward or punishment. These are people who do what’s right for the greater good instead of what’s easy. People who speak out against injustice, greed, intolerance and cruelty, no matter who it upsets. People who take the time and effort to really research and understand the world around them. People who think for themselves. People who live their beliefs, who live with integrity, who don’t follow the crowd. People who don’t give in to hate and selfishness. These are the Steve Roger’s of the real world.

Steve Rogers grew up in the Great Depression, an era that saw more protests and marches against injustice than the nation has ever seen (including the 60s). He cam from an era that elected the most comparatively liberal federal government in history.

He signed up to fight fascism a whole year before the U.S. entered the war. He signed up because fascism was the opposite of everything he believed in- the ideals of the Great Depression. Ideals of brotherhood and sharing; ideals of looking out for the little guy and giving each other a helping hand. Ideals that promoted cooperation over greed, the greater good before profit and human rights before punishment. Ideals that helped create the prosperity of the 50s and 60s. Ideals that many “radicals” attempted to apply to all races, economic levels and nationalities in the 60s and the early 70s. Ideals that got lost in the backlash to the cultural revolution of the 60s. This made Cap seem more old-fashioned in the cynical 80s and 90s than he did in the swinging 60s and 70s.

The resurrected Cap was a left-winger who sided with the peaceful campus protestors of the 60s. He became best friends with a black social worker when “race-mixing” was still seen by many as a sin. Cap has always shown us (especially when he gave up the uniform and became Nomad and The Captain) that America is not the military or the government. It’s not even the country or the people. America is the dream of justice, freedom and equality. That’s what we can love and fight for.

If Steve Rogers was a real person (and a couple years older maybe) he would have joined the Abraham Lincoln brigade to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. If Steve Rogers really existed in today’s world his patriotism would be questioned because of his fight for social justice and the greater good.

I have to admit, I was happy when they killed off Steve Rogers a few years ago. Ed Brubaker wrote some of the best philosophical discussions about America in the history of Cap comics. But, unlike everybody else, I didn’t much care for his mediocre, historically-muddled tales of Cap as a militarized spy fighting the cold war and W.W. II long after they’ve ended. Brubaker was always more interested in Bucky than Steve Rogers.

Later, when they resurrected Steve I was excited to hear he was going to battle evil as plain-old Steve Rogers; rather than be limited by the “America” in “Captain America”. I was soon saddened to discover Marvel was going to make him even more militarized. His name was now “Super Soldier”? Working for government intelligence? Carrying a gun? Condoning torture? How do you take a character who spent 40 years spouting how he was against killing and turn him into a killer? I agree with Cap’s creator Joe Simon who said Cap shouldn’t be carrying a gun. If you’re going to changes the core traits of who a character is why not just write about a different character?

Cap now became a character that, contrary to 40 years of previous behavior, condoned torture, killing and letting others do his dirty work. Cap was no longer, in the words of Mark White “making sure every other possible option is considered, discovered or developed first”. He was no longer thinking out of the box.

For 40 years everyone always figured that, even in the fantasy world of comics, Cap might have killed during W.W. II. Many also figured it was equally possible that, being a fantasy, Cap didn’t kill during W.W. II. Intelligent people knew that on the rare occasions he was shown firing a gun, to provide cover or drive off enemies, that didn’t guarantee that Cap was killing anyone with it. There have been several occasions when Cap didn’t kill a soul but readers who weren’t paying attention thought that he did.

It was obvious to every intelligent person that killing during a war and killing during peacetime are considered two very different things. It was obvious that Cap was against killing accept when necessary during a just war. It was also obvious that he wasn’t going to fight in any of our unjust wars that had nothing to do with protecting America’s, or anybody else’s, freedom like Vietnam (which is why it was a disservice to the character to ever show him fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan).

I don’t know why Marvel felt it important to show Cap retroactively carrying a gun during W.W. II. Think about it: you’re writing stories about costumed characters who have fantastical abilities and you say “hey this unrealistic character needs to realistically carry a gun.” Kind of like worrying that the woodsman in “Little Red Riding Hood” shouldn’t be able to cut grandma (alive) out of the stomach of the talking wolf that had successfully impersonated her- because boy that would just make the story unrealistic!

You could certainly make a case, within the fantasy world of comics, that art-student Steve Rogers wasn’t comfortable with guns and he found that his shield was as effective as a gun at stopping his enemies. Before he went off to fight in the war Cap shouldn’t have been shooting the fascist spies he was bringing to justice anyways.

The other big change in Steve Rogers in the past decade has been an emphasis on the super-soldier to the detriment of the super-hero. Now he’s a regular army lover. For 64 years the story had been that Steve joined up, not because he wanted to be a soldier, not because his country was attacked, but because he saw Nazi evil devastating Europe a full year before Pearl Harbor and felt compelled to try to stop it. Steve Rogers served something bigger than the military or the government. He served the ideals of liberty, justice, equality and democracy.

In truth, Captain America has no more attachment to the military than the Sub-Mariner or the Human Torch or Wonder Woman. Yes, Cap often took orders from the government (by the way he was created by the FBI in the original comic- not the military), but so did the heroes mentioned above and nobody thinks of them as soldiers. If Dr. Erskine hadn’t been killed and there had been a battalion of super-soldiers then he would have been a soldier. But that’s not what happened, the government turned him into a super-HERO.

Steve Roger’s is Captain America, not Captain Military or Captain Government or Captain Espionage. When he was created in 1940 Captain America was not a real Captain anymore than Captain Underpants. Private Steve Rogers was like the real men who fought World War II; when they returned to civilian life they considered themselves former soldiers, not career soldiers. Cap was created a full year before the war and his purpose was to fight fascists in the U.S. not to become one.

Cap was referred to as a “crime fighter”in his second issue. In his first issue he’s referred to as an “agent”. He’s never referred to as a super-soldier. This term didn’t even exist in Captain America comics until the 1960s when it became the name of the formula used on him. When he was resurrected in Avengers #4 Cap was referred to by Thor as a “crime fighter” not a war hero or soldier. It was obvious his military service was completed when he fell into those frozen waters in 1945. Cap only visited Vietnam twice during the 60s, and both times on rescue missions. You certainly never saw him wearing any “Army” logo t-shirts before the 21st century.

Cap as a tool of the military-industrial complex began to creep in during the late 90s. It really set in after the Iraq war began and Brubaker’s first issue turned him into a militaristic killer. It’s been echoed by many other writers since then. This was probably a marketing ploy to sell more Cap comics by tying into the increased militarism of the US. It also reflected the popularity of the “Ultimate’s” take on superheroes as soldier-types.

Steve Rogers came from an era that had been against a large standing army for 160 years. They were willing to fight when absolutely necessary but they didn’t worship the military like we do now. A militarized Cap no longer represents all of us- as he was intended by Simon & Kirby.

In the late eighties and early nineties Cap’s personality started to get a little uptight, but his morals will still basically the same morals he always had. But by the turn of the century he was beginning to seem like someone else. Someone I didn’t want to keep in touch with anymore so I ended my subscription; but I still kept an eye on what was going on with my childhood hero. There were still a few bright moments to come, like Rieber’s Marvel Knight’s stories and Caps’ stand during the Civil War storyline. These stories show that Cap can still behave with the same morals he’s always had in a more realistic, modern setting. And his ideals and morals still forced their way to the surface in some wonderful speeches by Christopher Preist and, in the midst of his destruction of the character of Steve Rogers, by Ed Brubaker. But Steve Rogers was becoming less of an example of the best of what we all could be and more of an example of what we as a nation had become- violent, self-deluded, selfish, harsh and amoral.

Many have tried to excuse this by saying that the evil Cap must fight now is more powerful and evil than the bad guys of the past. Really? The super-villians now are more powerful than the ones with nukes and death ray sattelites from the past?  Why do we think circumstances are so unique today? This has probably been used as an excuse to behave amorally since mankind began.

Cruelty has always been cruelty, deceit has always been deceit, war has always been war, torture has always been torture, killing has always been killing. If Cap could fight Nazis while without compromising his integrity why can’t he do it now? Is there a more insidious evil than Nazis? Most heroes, and those who write them, have given up being creative enough to find alternates to killing and torture.

Since Steve became Cap again recently he seems to be more like his old self, but I still worry. Cap is in another transitional period. Steve Rogers needs to be more of an example of the American dream and less an example of sullenness, militarism and arrogance.

Thankfully, all the film versions of Steve Rogers had the attitude of that good man I knew. His moral code regarding killing was not all it should be in the recent films, but he was still basically the same guy. The movies also gave Cap a better sense of humor.

Wholesome heroes can have a sense of humor- just look at every issue of Spider-Man and all the golden-age Captain America and Superman comics (or even Jack Kirby’s 1970s Cap stories where he and the Falcon were portrayed, quite appropriately, as two happy-go-lucky jocks). Chris Evan’s Steve could smile more, but he’s still someone you’d enjoy hanging out with as well as someone you admire. Steve Rogers is, as Prof. Erskine said in the film, “a good man”.

Due to their fantastical nature, superheroes are the most useful when they are family entertainment (in other words, entertaining for both kids and adults). Kids today need a compassionate, selfless Cap who’s top priority is the common good. They need to see that heroism is not about militarism. They need to see that heroism is not about being the toughest or the meanest or the sneakiest.

Kids need Steve Rogers. The one who’s against lying and killing. The one who fights for social justice. So this essay is one childhood comic geek’s way of taking a stand for what he believes in- the best of all possible Captain Americas.

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