Home / General / Steven Attewell: Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero

Steven Attewell: Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero


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.

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