Flap over comics is sad commentary
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When I was 14 years old, the president of the United States committed suicide. It was 1974. Watergate was the only political story that mattered and the country was still bitterly divided over Vietnam.
At Marvel Comics, writer Steve Englehart wrestled with our growing political disillusionment in the pages of Captain America. His sharp questioning of the perversion of our national values turned a middling comic book series about a man running around dressed in Old Glory into a must read.
The president, whose face is never seen, was the mastermind behind an attempted government coup. Under the code name Number One, he wore a hood and commanded a shadowy group that called itself the Secret Empire.
When Captain America finally cornered and unmasked Number One in the White House, the villain committed suicide rather than submit to the indignity of a trial. Putting a gun to his head was a lot messier than resigning the presidency, but we got the point.
Coming months before President Nixon's actual resignation, Captain America #175 made a very brave statement about the wages of political corruption. The Nixon White House never sought an apology from Marvel about its unflattering portrayal. Chances are it wouldn't have gotten one if it did.
For years, the letters page of a typical issue of Captain America featured lively, but respectful, exchanges of views by readers of every political persuasion, though the dominant sentiment reflected skepticism about the Vietnam War and American institutions that supported it.
I can't remember a single anti-Nixon diatribe per se, because it was always assumed that the readers were smart enough to make the leap from the pages of Marvel Comics to real life without missing a beat.
Nearly four decades later, Captain America is still questioning his place in an America that doesn't always live up to its ideals. But unlike earlier years when fans debated the character's meaning, the respectful tone of the letters page has given way to the 24-hour noise machine of the Internet.
Recently, a conservative blogger took offense at several panels in the latest issue of Captain America portraying an all-white crowd of tax protesters in Idaho.
Most of the signs are generic, but one sign has the message: "Tea bag the Libs before they tea bag you!" Because this is an actual sign seen at Tea Party demonstrations, the blogger complained that Marvel was lampooning the conservative grass-roots movement.
The Falcon, an African-American superhero, and James "Bucky" Barnes, the man who assumed the mantle of Captain America in recent years, watch the demonstrators from a rooftop while plotting to infiltrate a shadowy militia group in the area. The anti-tax demonstrators are incidental to the plot. They aren't the "villains" the heroes are pursuing.
Still, the tea bag sign and the Falcon's comments on the racial complexion of the protesters ignited a minor firestorm at Fox News and the ideological end of the blogosphere that has a direct pipeline to the network.
Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada tried to explain what happened from an editorial standpoint, but nuanced explanations fall flat when TV commentators and conservative blogs are portraying Captain America as "anti-American." Apparently, an inker improvised the offending sign based on a news photograph. It broke with the "unspecific" tax-protest vibe writer Ed Brubaker was striving for and left Marvel vulnerable to charges it was "picking" on the tea-baggers.
Joe Quesada's very reasonable explanation was spun by the mainstream media as a "capitulation" to the Tea Party Movement. It isn't. Still, those who read Marvel Comics regularly are aware that the company routinely rips whole themes and story arcs from real life.
The Marvel comic book universe currently has an unnamed black president who is, frankly, less than presidential while Norman Osborne, the villain formerly known as the Green Goblin, orchestrates a fascist takeover of America. The series is called "Dark Reign," which really isn't a sly comment on Barack Obama's complexion -- honest.
Marvel isn't the idealistic comic book company it was in the 1960s and '70s. Today, it is a corporate behemoth -- a wholly owned subsidiary of Disney and a movie-licensing factory with thousands of characters itching to be born on the big screen. It isn't in the stockholders' interest to get into a screaming match with Fox News or the conservative blogosphere about a sign that accidentally made its way into a panel.
After the tea-bagging kerfuffle, Marvel can probably expect more challenges as conservatives, emboldened by this episode, aim their sights at inevitable offending story lines. Barack Obama and the original Captain America met in a recent issue and pledged to work together on a secret project. That's the kind of "bipartisan" threat that will drive some readers crazy.
First Published February 16, 2010 12:00 am