Saturday, June 14, 2008

Captain America: Propaganda Symbol Or Superhero?

This is Part Two of an ongoing series of entries on Captain America. (Read Part One first). In the first entry, I mentioned the two books by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The books were written by Christian theologians and philosophers who examined the iconic Captain America from the perspectives of monomyth (ala Joseph Campbell) and zealous-nationalism (the idea of the "strong man" to save a nation from its many ills - with little or no regard for the nation's leaders who are weak, insipid and corrupt). While I did show my appreciation that Christian thinkers are bothered to consider pop-culture (usually beneath their notice because their heads are stuck inside some handbook-guru's ass) and to come to their own conclusions, I must say that I am not in agreement with their conclusions. Little surprise there. Honestly, I find anyone who approaches comic-books from any other perspectives but that of a devoted fan to be suspicious anyway. Comic-books were first and foremost written to satisfy a very niche-market of readers called "fandom". We understand the inner-workings of this esoteric medium with its cornucopia of corny villains and garishly-garbed heroes - the outsider lurks about outside trying to peek-in while making irrelevant comments after referring to their handbooks. With this entry, I hope to present the whole issue from the perspective of an unrepentant comic-fan who'd grown up on a steady diet of four-colour fantasies and superhero-epics printed on cheap fishwrap paper:

First and foremost, growing up reading "The Avengers" and "Captain America", I have NEVER seen Cap as the jingoistic 'rah-rah-boy' of the United States. I think that's because I grew up with the Stan Lee version of the character that was more "avenging superhero" and less "veteran super-soldier who fought in WWII". What I thought to be jingoistic was the G.I. Joe cartoons and action figures that my cousins loved so much - and which I loathed! I could never sit through an entire episode of the G.I. Joe cartoon on TV and had none of the G.I. Joe figures (though I had a ton of everything else from He-Man, Thundercats, Silverhawks, Marvel, etc.) I didn't know what zealous nationalism meant then (and I grew up in a household that believed in America and hated the Arabs) but I just couldn't get into all the jingoistic crap that G.I. Joe represented. I've just never had any interest in war movies and toy-soldiers like many of my peers. I had little interest in board-games like "Risk" and miniature soldiers. My cousins collected toy-soldiers, I collected policeman toys and those silly trinkets from "Ding-Dang" (packed with those radioactive chocolate-coated balls). Anyway, I grew up watching the "Captain America" cartoon show with that catchy themesong ("When Captain America Throws His Mighty Shield") - see video below:

Watching it again now, I noticed that there was something in there about the "Red, White and Blue" stuff but when I was a kid I thought that was only a reference to his costume rather than the US flag. To me, the cartoon had everything to do with Cap punching the Red Skull. I didn't even know that they were really just cutting-and-pasting original Jack Kirby artwork to create the stilted frames of "animation"! As far as I was concerned, it was another He-Man versus Skeletor reworking: blonde strongman fighting skull-faced baddie!

Coming back to the issue of jingoism, what I did not notice as a kid doesn't mean much if the creators of the character did indeed have intentions to set Cap up as a symbol for zealous nationalism. I did quite a bit of readings yesterday and came to the conclusions that the character was indeed set up for such a purpose by its creators. The stories surrounding the creation of Cap varies depending on who you talk to. Joe Simon recently challenged Marvel for creator-rights to Cap and claimed that he created the character. On the other hand, Jack Kirby have always been viewed as the creator (and in cases like this, it's always a safer bet to believe the artist). What was not in doubt was the story of how Joe and Jack sold the character to publisher Martin Goodman. It was 1941 and America had yet to enter WWII. However, Joe and Jack were avid followers of the news of the war in Europe (and to some extent, the plight of the Jewish people in Germany). They saw the rise of the nationalistic spirit in America and suggested to Goodman to publish something that encapsulated that same spirit. Goodman nodded and decided to take a risk with this character - he gave Cap his own title from the first-appearance! This was a rarity in those days. All comic-characters start out by appearing in anthology titles (e.g. Superman in Action Comics #1 and Batman in Detective Comics #27). In other words, anthology comics was the testing ground for the viability of any character's continued life in publishing. If fans wrote in demanding to see more of a character, the publisher responds by giving the character its own book - otherwise, the character will never be seen again. Goodman was doing something quite unknown then - giving an unknown character its own book at the get-go. The only reason for this business-decision was that he too believed that the character would "sell" based on the nationalistic-spirit alone! To capitalize on that notion, Goodman even had Kirby draw Cap punching Hitler in the face on the cover of the first issue (see pic below):

Next, watch this video of Joe Simon talking about the creation of Captain America:

Anyone reading Captain America in 1941 noticed that this comic-book was different. In truth, it was the first real comic-book! Joe and Jack did not work like other writer-artist teams. The norm at that time was to get work for comic-book publishing firms to showcase your talent and then hopefully get noticed by newspaper-syndicates who'll offer you a job to do comic-strips. The money was in the strips and everyone had ambitions to be the next Hal Forster or Alex Raymond. But Joe and Jack worked differently. They crafted their stories to take advantage of the larger canvas of the comic-book. Kirby's action scenes were far more explosive and in-your-face. He experimented with storytelling tricks that were way beyond his time. Characters burst out of panels and the action could not be contained in neat boxes (as is customary for comic-strips). Fans went crazy for this stuff so the book sold and sold and sold. Early issues were selling by the millions and this proved that Martin Goodman's bet on the talents of Joe and Jack as well as cashing-in on the rising tide of nationalism paid off. [In comparison, even with the string of comic-based movies today, the highest selling comic-books are barely hitting 70,000-80,000 copies per issue!] The Captain America comic was pure wish-fulfilment beginning from the above "punching Hitler" cover-image onwards. That its success was driven by the rise of nationalism was undeniable. Several months after that issue was published, President Roosevelt announced that America was entering the war. The books were selling even better after that! Looking back now, the jingoism in those books were undeniable but then comic-books have always been about wish-fulfilment (refer to Michael Chabon's "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay") and the wishes of every American then were related to nationalism and war. All other characters in other books were equally patriotic (the All-Stars, the All-Winners, the Justice Society, etc.) Superman was used in propaganda-posters to sell War-Bonds, Wonder Woman was shrieking "Slap A Jap" like a deranged Valkyrie and other mystery men like Sandman and Hourman were fighting Nazi-spies. Even the Spectre (the wrath of Yahweh) got in on the game to sink German battleships!

In the post-911 world, Captain America is again employed as the poster-boy of anti-terror nationalism. The Marvel Knights series by John Ney Reiber and John Cassaday is proof of this. Everyone hated Reiber's insipid plots and out-of-character scripts but the book sold on the strength of Cassaday's "propaganda-poster" artwork alone (see pics below):

From the above, see can see that Captain America was indeed used time and again as a symbol to stoke the fires of zealous nationalism. This is unavoidable because he was created primarily to be a symbol. In the fictional stories, he was created to inspire the troops fighting in the war - just as his sidekick James Buchanan Barnes aka "Bucky" was created to encourage youngsters to enlist in the war. They were symbols first and foremost. Even the cynical J. Jonah Jameson remarked in an issue of "Young Avengers" recently when he recalled his younger days: "Every kid wanted to be Bucky!" From this perspective, ALL the observations of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett in their books are 100% spot-on and correct. They were created to be memes, to be symbols, to be monomyths in order to condition the minds of the masses. I have no disagreement there. But that was NOT my Captain America and Bucky.

We live in times when everyone wants to look smart. Everyone wants to appear academic. Every blogger on the blogosphere is busy quoting their handbooks in order to appear as an "authority" on matters of politics, religion and history. Most of the time, they paint in academic broad-strokes and put up the grossest generalizations to streamline alternative ideas into convenient labels and meta-definitions. People who have never so much as step into Roman Catholic Churches are writing their endless condemnations of Catholicism as "Mystery Babylon" or the "Whore/Harlot" in the Book of Revelation. In the same way, we get smart-alecks like John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett who did not grow up as comic-readers but are now writing books to "examine" pop-culture. They know next to nothing about these characters. What they do know can be summarized by what I've written above. They see archetypes. They see symbols. They see monomyths. They apply Jung and Campbell to everything - and pretend to understand it all. People look up to them as "authorities" who intelligently deconstruct popular myths in order to understand the socio-political undertones beneath them. Unfortunately, even comic writers themselves (usually Brit, usually cynical, usually beginning their career by writing for 2000 A.D.) get into the game. Warren Ellis' "Planetary" series is the best (worst?) example of this. It's all about archetypes and poplorica-memes. It's all about the surface and nothing about the romance of the genre. But they have their rabid following of people who have grown up and are looking for a little more sophistication (but have trouble setting aside their attachment to their childhood fantasies). They have their social misfits, goths and Vertigo-subscribers. These readers care little for soap-opera, melodrama, characterizations and humour. They are cynical, pseudo-intelligent and delight in the deconstruction of poplorica down to the minutest detail. Me? I'm an unabashed grown-up fan (geek?) attached to the same fantasies that I grew up with. This extends to the area of religion and beliefs as well. My Moses is the one played by Charlton Heston in Cecil DeMille's "The Ten Commandments". My Noah is the one that I learned about in Sunday School who ran the first floating zoo. My Jesus is the one I was taught to sing about who "Loves Even Me". What use have I for over-analytical and pretentious rubbish like this book below?

This is another book written by pretentious snobs with doctorates in biblical studies who go around boasting about their Greek and Hebrew. In other words, the educated-doctored type caricatured by Pltypus in his postings. You can find this particular abberation by the tens of thousands in this place called "Singapore". It's not difficult to identify them. They are usually seen barking at trains. They take pride in being "specialists" - not knowing that "specialization" is one of the chief weapons of mind-control employed by the Brotherhood. Getting a degree or doctorate simply means that one is a trained-repeater of the official line. He goes on to be a repeater, enslaving himself and others with his "specialization". He knows little else but that doesn't bother him because the sanitized shit that he knows is enough to make him a "specialist" respected by pea-brained idiots around him who suck up to his degrees and Greek grammar!

Back to Cap. What is MY version of Cap? Actually the answer is pretty simple. My version is that written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. The Simon-Kirby Cap was jingoistic (see above) but not so when Stan Lee decided to bring back the character in the 1960s in the justly classic "Avengers #4". Stan got rid of Bucky and focused on the man behind the mask/symbol. Stan was interested primarily in STEVE ROGERS as a character, as a man out of time, as a person who is trying to get over the horrors of a war that killed his closest friend and brother, as a human who struggle with thoughts of revenge, as a lover who weeps for a girl he met and lost in Paris during the war so long ago... Kirby too gained a new energy and inspiration in his art. He filled the pages with Cap fighting, punching, kicking, somersaulting in all sorts of crazy in-your-face, panel-bursting action. The Lee-Kirby team was all about ideas. They brought back the Red Skull and introduced the Cosmic Cube, A.I.M., Hydra, Batroc the Leaper (the coolest French villain ever!) and reteamed Cap with Nick Fury, now a Colonel and head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Stan Lee's Captain America was first and foremost a superhero, an action hero and not so much a 'rah-rah boy'. Later writers and artists took over the book and continued building on this new interpretation of the character. Jim Steranko gave us three issues of psychedelic-fantasies that examined the psyche and nightmares of the "untimely man" Steve Rogers. Pltypus is known to go on endlessly extolling the virtues of movies like "The Deer Hunter". Steranko was there first. He examined the broken psyche of a soldier in three elegant pieces of art in the late 1960s (see pic above - Steranko didn't break the panel-boxes like Kirby, he took out the panelling completely!) In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Steve Englehart took over the book and even had Steve Rogers playing the part of a conspiracy theorist to discover the Secret Empire running America! After discovering the secrets behind the "democratic" nation, Steve Rogers threw away the costume and decided to take on another identity as Nomad, the man without a country, the wanderer. Mark Waid returned to this theme again in the 1990s during the identity-crisis of the Clinton Administration by penning the "Man Without A Country" storyarc. That Captain America will always be a character linked with politics is unavoidable (as seen most recently in Mark Millar's "Civil War"). He is best understood as a normal man who lived as something more than himself, as the personification of the "Spirit of America" - in short, those noble aspirations penned by the Founding Fathers that were seldom adhered to by the nation since the first Fourth of July. It is therefore no surprise that in the 9-11 world of American Imperialism, Captain America is dead again. If the aspirations are no longer there, what use have we for the spirit?

Captain America, to me, is the spirit of defiance in the face of tyranny and pretentious nobility. Scrawny Steve Rogers volunteered to take a drug in order to overcome his physical disability so that he can fight for his dreams (he was the original drug-dependent superhero along with Hourman) but what really fuelled his life was his dreams and not the drugs (unlike some Bible-dependent coke-head out there writing blogs about "Sola Scriptura"). This was the man who dared to stand-up for what was right. This was the man who can say with a straight-face: "I am Captain America and I do not lie!" This was the same man who threw away his costume and shield when he discovered that the nation he represented was all about lies and deception. This was the "untimely" man forever outside of a society that he can never fit in and constantly tormented by the horrors of the time that he came from (I'm going home to rewatch "The Deer Hunter" and listen to the haunting Cavatina tune after this!!!). His finest moment was when he stepped up to Thanos in defiance. There was no chance of winning. Thanos controlled everything. No, I'll not describe the scene in words. Check it out for yourself below:

It doesn't get more romantic than this. It doesn't get more spine-tingling, goose-pimple inducing than this. "As long as one man stands against you, Thanos, you'll never be able to claim victory." Jim Starlin dialogue at his very best in the midst of the "Infinity Gauntlet" epic. Frank Miller wrote Cap in his "Daredevil: Born Again" story as "a soldier with a voice who can command a god... and does!" By confronting Thanos, Cap defied a god.

That is MY Captain America. To view him as merely a jingoistic 'rah-rah-boy' is far too simplistic (and fit only for academicians). He is the spirit of noble-defiance.

Postscript: In the past weeks, La Tey, Pltypus and I exchanged several mails. We discussed everything from Douglas Rushkoff's "Open/Close Systems" paper to the Illuminati Brotherhood having the "cheat codes" to manipulate reality. In the past weeks, we saw the disasters in Myanmar and China as well as the rising price in fuel and basic necessities. We are living in very uncertain terms (about the only thing that is certain is that people are fucking with us). The scale of the manipulation and oppression is gargantuan and overwhelming when we started thinking about it. In the years to come, things will get worse - that, we are sure of. In the years to come, we may even die because of these same fuckers who are fucking up the world. While all these things are happening, coke-head religionists are writing their doctorate theses and making a show of their Greek. While all these things are happening, coke-head handbook-quoters are forcing us to take sides in their pseudo-wars against Bible versions, gays, Purpose-Driven freaks, Emergent blokes, etc. Another German lady was going on and on about taking a stand for Lutheranism or Calvinism (but never Lutheranism AND Calvinism - that's the precision of the German Boolean logic to you!). La Tey discussed the possibilities of creating alternative open-systems to break the oppression. Pltypus countered by saying that we are fucked anyway. I talked about the futility of revolutions - that will eventually devolve into another new form/system of oppression. Perhaps the answer lies not so much with a systematic and connected revolution as it does with unconnected cells/clusters of defiances against the fuckers in power. We are not interested in a coalition. We are not interested in taking any sides but our own (here in Jeremiah Blues). Perhaps Jeremiah Blues itself is simply another tiny cell/cluster made up of people who are trying to turn the tables in middle-finger raising defiance to these same evil fuckers. Are we interested that other people are doing their own little bits of defiance? Sometimes - but generally we don't care much. We are not interested in connected/systematic revolution. We are only interested in our own personal defiance. This is our side. This is our stand. This is our middle-finger to the evil fuckers, their storm-troopers and educated/doctored drones (with university degrees, libraries of handbooks and Greek grammar). One more time: you don't have to like what you read here. You don't have to like what you see here. Nobody asked you to come. Now, fuck off!

But for those who understand our anarchic-defiance, we welcome you. For those who wants to break the programming and discard the doctorates/degrees in the science of repetition, we welcome you. You know who you are. The rest can fuck off!

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool; avoid him.

He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a student; teach him.

He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep; wake him.

He who knows and knows that he knows is a wise man; follow him.

Persian apothegm

Dear Edmund and friends,

It is obvious that you have no clue as to what a PhD entails.

I have learned from your post today that PhD holders are just sanctimonious parrots trying to look smart.

I guess we have only parrots in Harvard, Yale and Duke.

If that is the case, I would rather be a parrot than "Oscar the Grouch" wannabes who look at the world from a trash can in Malaysia.

Yours truly,

One who would shun YOU.

Anonymous said...

I remembered the tv cartoon. That was an early form of mass programming. Using images superimposed with a catchy jingle, so catchy, that no one can forget. Everytime the jingle replays, the red-white-blue of patriotism is futher embedded in the mind.

Pablo

Anonymous said...

The heroes are always tall, handsome and blond. All-american college role model. The baddie is always a hunched up, skullfaced, meanly drawned, dirty painted fellow. Another mass programming. Figures today, the all american archetype are getting away with murder, rape and pillage, while the ugly arabs type are blamed for terrorism. oh, sometimes these all american type even try to quote persian phlegm. Ha ha ha ha!

Mike

Anonymous said...

The use of marvel/dc archetype for propaganda is a given. In a broad general sense, that IS the intention. Sometimes it's the writer, sometimes it's the artist, most times it's the editor, sometimes its all three. So you want to make it as a comic writer -choose a side.

Independent types who like to inflict collateral damage with massive exit wounds would start image/vertigo/dark horse?/2000AD to offer an alternative voice. It was good while it lasted. But the trinity of writer/artist/editor continues the shadow play of mass propaganda that cannot be stopped even if you are a warren ellis.

Read: Nightly News

Pltypus

Pablo

Anonymous said...

In Malaysia even Lat was a program! However, in the kampong days, that was an original! Goes to show certain lack of 'arranged' education can foster independent imagination. Needless to say one datuk-ship title later, Lat is now a carricature of government sponsored voiceover.

Pltypus

Cikgu Screwtape said...

Hey La Tey,

I'm surprised that you haven't posted a reply yet to this bloke who takes pride in being a "parrot" (repeater) for Yale and Harvard. Hahahahahahahaha! If he only knew WHAT Yale and Harvard is all about....

This idiot is a lost cause.

~ Edmund

ACE68 said...

Did you guys know Sesame Street was another mass programming? It was shown in Singapore and other parts of US friendly south east asia for most of the 70s - 80s. The 90s version was a retcon with new characters to give voice to the updated programming of the day. The original series uses Jim Henson muppets to push a massive brainwashing of kids and parents who knows no better, to follow a curriculum of developing the all-american role model vs the others not-so-desirable archetype like Grover, Cookie Monster, Oscar, Count, etc. Does anyone remember the sinister little bird vs the lovable Big Bird? Does anyone remember Big Bird in China segment? Even sesame street was not spared the 'civiel war' treatment. Oscar the grouch? You ain't seen nothing dude!

Today's Elmo? That was the poster boy of today's blank generation who have run out of ideas. While Grover was a a typical negro-model of street fun, to appear less educated than Kermit but to appear dumb enough to be taught, Elmo is the modern day kid programmed to speak only what he knows. Are your kids watching Sesame Street?

Anonymous said...

Aceboy, I had a Grover soft toy!

Pablo

Anonymous said...

Yo Kids,
All American vs Negro-Type:
Check out the scenes of Kermit vs Grover on youtube!

Mike

Cikgu Screwtape said...

I have this Little Golden Book featuring Grover called "The Monster At The End Of This Book". Throughout the book, Grover was scared shitless because everytime you turn the page, he gets closer to the monster at the end of the book. When you finally reach the end of the book, the monster is revealed to be Grover himself!

Make of it what you will. :)

~ Edmund

Dr Danny Teh said...

Maybe because after all the accusations and curses, you finally discover that the monster is yourself, Edmund?

Dear Dr Johnson Lim,

No point engaging in further conversations with these rabid Malaysians. They are only out to tear and destroy.

Danny Teh.

Dr Danny Teh said...

Maybe because after all the accusations and curses, you finally discover that the monster is yourself, Edmund?

Dear Dr Johnson Lim,

No point engaging in further conversations with these rabid Malaysians. They are only out to tear and destroy.

Danny Teh.