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Steven Attewell: Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero

[ 378 ] October 30, 2013 |

At this point I don’t think Steven needs an introduction — or wouldn’t, were it not for the fact that he’s now Doctor Steven Attewell, and we all know how that title can change a man. — SEK

A while ago, I came across an argument on Tumblr over whether “modern approaches to writing steve rogers are politically correct revisionist history bc people write steve now as being super accepting of all races and sexualities and genders etc.”My initial thought was: ok, I have to chime in on this. There is a mistaken belief that cultural attitudes in the past were monolithic, that everyone and everywhere was “of their time.” This is not true; even in the past, there were people and places who saw past conventional wisdom and social pressure and looked to a better future.

But the real reason I had to chime in was that Steve Rogers is my favorite superhero. Why? Because unlike other patriotism-themed characters, Steve Rogers doesn’t represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and place – 1930’s New York City. We know he was born July 4, 1920 (not kidding about the 4th of July) to a working-class family of Irish Catholic immigrants who lived in New York’s Lower East Side.[1] This biographical detail has political meaning: given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn’t grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall.

Steve Rogers grew up poor in the Great Depression, the son of a single mother who insisted he stayed in school despite the trend of the time (his father died when he was a child; in some versions, his father is a brave WWI veteran, in others an alcoholic, either or both of which would be appropriate given what happened to WWI veterans in the Great Depression) and then orphaned in his late teens when his mother died of TB.[2] And he came of age in New York City at a time when the New Deal was in full swing, Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor, the American Labor Party was a major force in city politics, labor unions were on the move, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was organizing to fight fascism in Spain in the name of the Popular Front, and a militant anti-racist movement was growing that equated segregation at home with Nazism abroad that will eventually feed into the “Double V” campaign.

Then he became a fine arts student. To be an artist in New York City in the 1930s was to be surrounded by the “Cultural Front.” We’re talking the WPA Arts and Theater Projects, Diego Rivera painting socialist murals in Rockefeller Center, Orson Welles turning Julius Caesar into an anti-fascist play and running an all-black Macbeth and “The Cradle Will Rock,” Paul Robeson was a major star, and so on. You couldn’t really be an artist and have escaped left-wing politics. And if a poor kid like Steve Rogers was going to college as a fine arts student, odds are very good that he was going to the City College of New York at a time when an 80% Jewish student body is organizing student trade unions, anti-fascist rallies, and the “New York Intellectuals” were busily debating Trotskyism vs. Stalinism vs. Norman Thomas Socialism vs. the New Deal in the dining halls and study carrels.

And this Steve Rogers, who’s been exposed to all of what New York City has to offer, becomes an explicit anti-fascist. In the fall of 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor, he first volunteers to join the army to fight the Nazis specifically. This isn’t an apolitical patriotism forged out of a sense that the U.S has been attacked; rather, Steve Rogers had come to believe that Nazism posed an existential threat to the America he believed in. New Deal America.

The original Captain American comics are awash with this New Deal/anti-fascist spirit: in his March 1941 premiere issue published by Timely Comics (prominently featuring the eponymous hero socking Hitler in the jaw), FDR comes up with the idea for Captain America as a solution to fascist fifth-columnists interfering with America’s war-readiness program. In a deliberate thumb in the eye to Hitler’s racial science, Steve Rogers is turned from a malnourished working-class intellectual into the very image of the Aryan Superman Hitler fetishized by a Jewish refugee scientist – alternately named Joseph Reinstein or Abraham Erskine – who is then gunned down by a Nazi agent.[3] Captain America takes up the shield presented to him by President Roosevelt, and then spends much of his early issues fighting sabotage and subversion on the home front.

The nature of this subversion is quite pointedly political (in addition to a surprising amount of occult and weird science to leaven the mixture) – it’s Nazi agents (the Red Skull appears in issue #1 as the chief of Hitler’s sabotage programme, despite the handicap of, you know, having a red skull instead of a face; in issue #5, Cap takes on the German-American Bund), and it’s the greedy bosses (in issue #2 where Captain America acquires his more iconic round shield, for example, Captain America fights a pair of corporate income tax evaders who for some reason are using Tibetan golems to cover up their crimes), but it’s not striking workers or Japanese-Americans (although the depictions of Japanese soldiers are up there with the worse of WWII propaganda as far as racism goes, it’s hard to find examples of the fifth-columnist fantasies of internal subversion from Japanese-Americans, which is noteworthy for a comic obsessed with sabotage on the home-front).[4] And of course, when he gets to Europe (occasionally in drag), he promptly goes to working, punching out Hitler, Goering, Himmler, and any number of other Nazis, and blowing up an astonishing amount of tanks.

Indeed, the politics of Captain America became a bit of a problem when the war ended and there weren’t any Nazis left to punch. For a while, there was an attempt to fill the void with weird science (Cap fights Martians more than once) and gangsters, but it didn’t really work. More pertinent, in 1953, there was a failed attempt to re-brand Captain America as the “Commie Smasher” and return to the war-time scripts of sabotage and fifth-columnists but with the swastika replaced with the hammer and sickle.[5] A funny thing happened though; even at the height of the McCarthy era, Americans didn’t want to buy an anti-Communist Captain America. The comic book folded and Captain America wasn’t seen until 1964 when he was suddenly revived from his Arctic prison by the Avengers. The anti-Communist Captain America was ret-conned into being a crazed history graduate student named William Burnside who had himself surgically altered and then dosed with a flawed version of the Super-Serum, which drove him insane to the point where he saw communist sympathizers everywhere.[6] The subtext isn’t particularly thick here: the “Commie-Smasher” was a paranoid wannabe, whereas the real Captain America is the “living legend of WWII” waiting in suspended animation during the Second Red Scare, who emerges back onto the scene with the arrival of the New Frontier and the Great Society.

When Marvel Comics brought Captain America back, they built on the rather crude work of the Timely Comics era to more fully flesh out Steve Rogers’ backstory at the same time that Captain America became one of the mainstays of the Avengers. Far from a mere homefront hero, Steve Rogers is reimagined on the front lines of the Allied war effort. As the leader of the Invaders (an international and multispecies supergroup primarily composed of the Human Torch, Namor, and Britain’s Union Jack and Spitfire), Captain America goes to war in Europe against Nazi super-villains like the Red Skull, Baron Zemo, Colonel War-Hound, Master Man (“the personification of the lurid Nietzschean nightmare”), takes to the skies over London to fend off the Blitzkreig, save Winston Churchill from the U-Man, thwarts the vampiric Baron Blood, raids the Warsaw Ghetto and fight alongside the Jewish superhero the Golem against Colonel Eisen, parachutes into Berchtesgaden, hits the beaches at Normandy and fights in the Battle of the Bulge, culminating with a 1945 storming of Red Skull’s holdout bunker that eventually winds up with Captain America locked in the ice to be discovered when a new generation needs him.[7]

The larger point here is that unlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain America is meant to represent the America of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the Second Bill of Rights – a particular progressive ideal.[8]

Marvel hasn’t always been particularly comfortable with that ideal – it’s political, it’s lefty politics at that, and it’s just generally alien to a generation whose primary exposure to WWII is in the more depoliticized depictions of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers than something like Casablanca. Notably, in Mark Millar’s “gritty reboot” of the Ultimates (which gave us the original Samuel L. Jackson-as-Nick-Fury), Captain America is reconceived as an unthinking nationalist, complete with Iraq War-era anti-French witticisms:[9]

Millar finds this idea so funny he spends a page congratulating himself about thinking up this joke in the following issue.[10] For a character who for decades embodied not a narrow xenophobic nationalism but an internationalist spirit in which New Deal and anti-fascist values went hand-in-hand with pro-Allied internationalism, this suggests a failure to get to grips with the material.

Marvel has done better with recent years, with the Joe Johnson-helmed “Captain America: First Avenger” borrowing directly from the original comic books to recreate Steve Rogers’ origin story and the sock-Hitler-in-the-jaw WWII iconography, and Joss Whedon’s continuation firmly placing Steve Rogers as a thoughtful soldier who looks askance at Nick Fury’s cooption of Hydra/Nazi weaponry and who explicitly compares Loki’s desire for domination to Hitler’s.

However, even in these versions, some of the political edge of the character is left out. Joe Johnson’s Captain America spends a lot of time punching Hitlers for the USO, but not so much hunting down corporate tax evaders or the German-American Bund, because that might raise uncomfortable questions. Likewise, when it came time to bring Steve Rogers into the Avengers, Joss Whedon describes that “One of the best scenes that I wrote [for the Avengers] was the beautiful and poignant scene between Steve and Peggy [Carter] that takes place in the present,” in which Captain America “talks about the loss of the social safety net that existed in his time, including the need for affordable healthcare for everyone.”[11] It’s good to know that Joss Whedon was thinking about “a sense of loss about what’s happening in our culture, loss of the idea of community, loss of health care and welfare and all sorts of things,” but it really is a shame that the element of Steve Rogers that most challenges modern America with the question of whether we’ve lived up to the ideals of the “Greatest Generation” was left on the cutting room floor.

So no, there’s nothing “revisionist” or “politically correct” about portraying Steve Rogers as an explicitly progressive superhero. Without that, he wouldn’t be Captain America.

[1] The digital comic book First Vengeance changes this slightly, shifting his birth to 1918 and moving the family to Brooklyn, but the details are the same. Captain America #283 tried to re-Americanize Steve by inventing a history of other Captain Americas, including a Native-American-magic-empowered Civil War Captain America (who, thank God, fought for the Union) and a Revolutionary War Captain America, but let’s be clear: the real Steve Rogers, the real Captain America, is a second-generation Irish Catholic from New York City.

[2] Captain America #255.

[3] Captain America #1.

[4] Ibid, Captain America #2, 5.

[5] Captain America #77.

[6] Captain America #155.

[7] Invaders, #1-21.

[8] Historically, Marvel writers have been very consistent on this point: When Rogers’ ideals are violated, such as when Nixon commits suicide over Marvel’s version of the Watergate affair, rather than accept a cover-up, Rogers resigns in protest, becoming a 70s-inspired Nomad (complete with open shirt (Captain America #180.) Likewise, when he’s replaced by the right-wing “Super-Patriot” (created explicitly by Mark Gruenwald to “embod[] patriotism in a way that Captain America didn’t – a patriotic villain”) in 1986, Steve Rogers is impelled to take him on (Captain America #323).

[9] Ultimates #11.

[10] Ultimates #12.


Comments (378)

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  1. coby says:

    i love the Progressive Cap just as much as i love the one willing to defend Doom’s diplomatic immunity:

    or maybe they’re the same one? i dunno, i’m not smart enough on political labels…

  2. […] *Historical points owe a lot to Steven Attewell’s incredible article “Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero”. […]

  3. […] big screen, is that Captain America’s secretly a prick. And what kind of a prick? If you read my last piece on Captain America, you might have a sinking feeling you already know the […]

  4. […] magic is feminized (and thus devalued), the link between said magic and technology in the MCU, and Steven Attewell’s long post about Cap’s left-wing politics in the comics and the films. I am an ocean of […]

  5. […] behind the Cold War, which Captain America, crucially, missed entirely. I’m extremely fond of a very good essay about why this is important, and why Steve Rogers is actually the product of the radical and […]

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  12. […] was on the Graphic Policy radio show/podcast last night discussing, among other things, the many excellent points Steve Attewell made about the film’s historical context, as well as many of the sorts of […]

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  14. […] Cap can actually be interpreted as a liberal hero based on his origin and early stories set during W… As political historian Steven Attewell writes; “unlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain America is meant to represent the America of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, and the Second Bill of Rights – a particular progressive ideal … there’s nothing ‘revisionist’ or ‘politically correct’ about portraying Steve Rogers as an explicitly progressive superhero. Without that, he wouldn’t be Captain America.” […]

  15. […] Captain America Isn’t Just Any Hero. “…given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn’t grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall.” […]

  16. […] Steven Attewell argues (successfully, IMO) the case that Captain America isn’t just any hero […]

  17. bdunn91 says:

    I think you’ve got the wrong impression of Mark Millar’s interpretation of Captain America, particularly when compared with the Cap who was thawed out in the 1960s. The Cap of the mainstream Marvel story lines has been filtered through the 1960s Marvel bullpen and they’ve left a pretty strong mark of individual liberty and fairly genteel liberalism. It eventually leaves us with a Cap who, when faced with the genocide of the Kree in a 1992 story, refuses to support the death penalty for the perpetrator, the Supreme Intelligence. I find it a bit hard to believe that a Cap who experienced WWII and probably would have supported the Nuremberg trials, and subsequent punishments, would feel the same way without something else going on. Had the comics dealt directly with those trials, I doubt Simon and Kirby would have had Cap oppose them then – but the social changes the writers witnessed or experienced in the 1960s through 80s caused them to evolve Cap into the character he is – the spirit of a fairly liberal-minded America and a defense against post-Vietnam and Watergate cynicism.
    By contrast, Millar doesn’t filter Cap through the 1960s and subsequent decades but pulls him right out of the triumphal rise of the USA in the closing days of the war. This Cap thinks with his fists and is a man much more out of his time than the traditional timeline Cap – although one who does learn quickly as evidenced by his interactions with Wasp, Iron Man, and Thor. He’s got the instincts of a street fighter (something Rogers was familiar with in the 1930s), mixed with the instincts of a soldier (the role he had played for the few years before being frozen), and coming off a successfully completed war in which the US took on an active international role. He’s a pretty good example of exactly what came out of the war as far as American confidence goes – a confidence that eventually grew into hubris over Vietnam, an event the Ultimates Cap never experienced. To dismiss that vision of Cap as not understanding the material, I think, misses a lot of the material that would create a Captain America had he been a real person.
    And, by the way, the US Army occupying France after the war was circulating pamphlets admonishing GIs from joking about or disparaging the French over their early surrender and subsequent collaboration with the Germans. So the joke Cap uses in the Ultimates isn’t as ahistorical as you might think.

    • CP says:

      I’d go back to this quote from Steve:

      “Captain America wasn’t just any person of his generation, and I think you’d have to have a good deal of evidence to explain why a New York artist who volunteered a year before Pearl Harbor out of anti-fascist principles had them.”

      The context of the original Cap wasn’t 1960s or even World War Two, it was pre-1941, an era in which being that kind of anti-fascist wasn’t something uncontroversial and generically patriotic. It didn’t necessarily make you an International Brigades type, but that was still the leading edge of the movement, and for an “ethnic,” working class, New York art student in the late thirties, definitely the part of it he’s most likely to associate with.

      In other words, Steve was never written as a man who volunteered simply because ‘Merica, and I doubt if a man with his history would’ve come out of the war with the confidence and hubris of ‘Merica Fuck Yeah.

  18. […] US entered the war. At his best, he represents bigger ideas about freedom, democracy, and liberty, fighting fascism in all its forms. Put in Cap’s simpler language: “I don’t like bullies, wherever they’re […]

  19. […] US entered the war. At his best, he represents bigger ideas about freedom, democracy, and liberty, fighting fascism in all its forms. Put in Cap’s simpler language: “I don’t like bullies, wherever they’re […]

  20. […] US entered the war. At his best, he represents bigger ideas about freedom, democracy, and liberty, fighting fascism in all its forms. Put in Cap’s simpler language: “I don’t like bullies, wherever they’re […]

  21. […] rights Why We Need to Break Up Amazon… And How to Do It (excellent) Steven Attewell: Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero (this is really good) The truth about our American schools! And about our non-journalism (one would […]

  22. […] Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero by Steven Attewell for Lawyers, Guns and Money. […]

  23. […] Steven Attewell: Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers,…. […]

  24. […] title of Captain America in 1940, grew up in New York City, the son of Irish immigrants.  As Steven Attwell writes in his fine article on Cap’s politics, based on what we know of the upbringing of the young Steve Rogers, we know he was a fan of […]

  25. […] socialist queers in 1930s New York. Steven Attewell outlines this all quite well in his essay “Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero.” There are numerous examples in the comics of Steve being explicitly critical of his country, […]

  26. […] Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero (Steve and lefty politics, just in case All the Angels and the Saints didn’t do enough to convince you that Steve is likely an actualfax socialist) […]

  27. […] the face.  Rogers did not fight in WWII solely out of blind patriotism, but because he felt that Nazism specifically was a threat to New Deal America.  He was created to fight Nazis and to encourage others to do the […]

  28. […] Cultural critic Steven Attewell wrote the classic essay laying out the argument for Captain America’s liberalism at the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money in 2013. Even Steve Rogers’s biography is one that would signal, to the 60s audience that the character was revived by Marvel to first reach, a sense of progressivism: He was an art student living in Brooklyn during WWII, at the time when progressivism ruled city politics. Attewell writes: […]

  29. […] Conservatives are annoyed by the new Captain America comics, because Cap is a liberal now. But as Amanda Marcotte points out, anybody who has kept track of the character through the years knows that Captain America has been a liberal since his Depression-era childhood in New York City. […]

  30. […] I’ll be talking about the politics of Captain America, something I’ve discussed before. Political nerds and Marvel fans are probably aware that the original Captain America comics from […]

  31. […] I, uh. Can’t stay away from Marvel. The Daily Dot asked all the presidential campaigns if they were #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan. Only Bernie Sanders replied. I’m darned pleased with his answer, but I’m also not entirely surprised. […]

  32. […] However, with Kirby there as the keeper of the sacred flame to ensure that the original spirit of Captain America wasn’t lost, Steve Rogers’ status as a man out of time was never an excuse to position him as a conservative or reactionary figure. Rather, Captain America’s position was that he would embrace these changes and fight for the same progressive change that he had back in the New Deal: […]

  33. […] probably would be more of a liberal-minded fellow, as well as being what Steve Attewell calls “explicitly anti-fascist.” Also, see my earlier point about his liberal arts education. Recently, there has been an effort […]

  34. […] probably would be more of a liberal-minded fellow, as well as being what Steve Attewell calls “explicitly anti-fascist.” Also, see my earlier point about his liberal arts education. Recently, there has been an effort […]

  35. […] details. Here, the important detail is that it’s Steve Rogers who is the character, and his historical grounding makes him interesting. Second and more importantly, he fundamentally doesn’t grok […]

  36. […] critics also ignore some of the original aspects of the character. As Steven Attewell points out, the original Steve Rogers Captain America was almost definitely a Democrat. He was a fine arts […]

  37. […] the character. Ever since 1940 when Jack Kirby and Joe Simon dreamed him up, Steve Rogers has been an anti-fascist, someone who was so convinced that fascism was an existential threat to his ideals that he signed […]

  38. […] Steven Attewell illustrates in his brilliantly researched and passionately written essay “Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero,” we see, “unlike other patriotic superheroes (like Superman, for example), Captain […]

  39. […] essay “Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero” (which, I strongly encourage you to read in its entirety), “Steve Rogers doesn’t represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and […]

  40. […] debate, allow me to clarify for everyone else: Captain America, as a pop culture icon, was designed to punch Nazis. And not merely in a cheeky, subversive symbolic, let’s-make-fun-of-Hitler way; the first […]

  41. […] Reading: Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero by Steven Attewell, On Steve Rogers #1, Antisemitism, and Publicity Stunts by Jessica […]

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