"As if Defense Department officials didn't face enough challenges in and around Iraq, they must now prepare for battle without a celebrated component of past victories. Captain America, the patriotic superhero whose comic-book exploits inspired the nation in World War II, now feels uncertain about the nation's cause; in his latest adventures, The Sentinel of Liberty seems disillusioned, embittered, and surprisingly sympathetic to terrorists."
According to film critic and conservative pundit Michael Medved in his April 4, 2003 column "Captain America, Traitor?" on the National Review website (please see link below), Marvel Comics has betrayed the United States by depicting Captain America as a man disillusioned by many of the things he learns about the past actions of his country. However, the opposite is actually true -- by having their character examine his nation's misdeeds and his own feelings about them, Marvel and Captain America are actually upholding the highest traditions and ideals of patriotism.
First, what does Medved get right? He's right when he says that some of the recent Captain America comics should not have been labeled "PG." Marvel has largely stopped using the old Comics Code Authority stamp and is now rating their comics like you would a movie or video game -- "PG" denotes a comic that contains "some potentially problematic material." Some of these comics deal with quite complex political and social issues that not all children are necessarily old enough to handle, and should have been rated at least PG-13, if not "M" (for "Mature").
Also, the issues with terrorist leader Al-Tariq are indeed ham-handed and badly-written, especially from a company that put together some of the best 9/11 tributes out there. It would have diluted little of the effectiveness of the story for Captain America (or some other character) to have either refuted the terrorist's charges (that the American government's policies had caused widespread injury and hardship in Al-Tariq's home nation) or to point out that two wrongs don't make a right.
However, much of the rest of Medved's essay is either misguided or incorrect. First of all, Medved makes a mistake that many commentators make when talking about comics -- they pay little attention to the medium's history. Early in his essay, Medved refers to Marvel's "radical rethinking" of Captain America. In fact, this is far from the first time that Cap has been depicted as disillusioned and conflicted about America -- since the 1970s, Captain America has gone through multiple periods where, usually in response to national crises and periods of unrest, he questioned whether he believed America was still an ideal worth fighting for. In fact, during the 1980s, he became so disillusioned that he actually retired for a while. The fact that the United States and Captain America's comic book have weathered these periods of the character's doubt and uncertainty suggests that Medved's concerns are ill-founded -- both the nation and the comic book have survived a less-than-gung-ho Captain America in the past, and there's little doubt that both will do just fine now.
Medved also takes offense that the comics suggest that "our own intelligence establishment somehow orchestrated bloody terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians." It is, however, fairly well-established that our intelligence establishment has done this in the past. While they haven't actually been bloody, it isn't at all difficult to find evidence that the CIA, NSA, and FBI have been involved in everything from secret chemical tests to harrassment to (rumored, nothing proven) assassinations of American civilians. Even a cursory familiarity with COINTELPRO should drive the fact home that the American government has involved itself with terrorizing its citizens for political purposes.
Medved also objects to another issue of the comic, where Captain America visits Dresden and recounts the story of the Allied bombing of that city during World War II. Now Medved is objecting to the discussion of events that could be found in any decent junior high history textbook? He's objecting that Captain America is not proud of what is considered one of the greatest wartime atrocities in modern history?
The desire to whitewash American history is a major theme of Medved's column. He also objects to an issue of the comic that says that American weapons were used by foreign governments to harm their own people (again, it's true. In fact, during the Iran-Iraq War, the American government provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons that he later used to gas the Kurds. And let's not forget all the "freedom fighters" we've given money to in Latin America).
Medved also complains about Marvel's recent "Truth: Red, White & Black" miniseries, which revises Captain America's origin -- now, says Marvel, the "super-soldier serum" that gave Cap his powers was originally tested on black recruits, who were cast aside after the serum was proven safe enough to use on a white man.
Medved objects to the violence depicted in the comic's testing process of the black soldiers -- and it is way over the top, especially for a comic that's been rated "PG" -- and to the Gestapo-like tactics employed by the scientists, which are also more than a bit extreme, especially since the experiments conducted on the soldiers are evil enough all by themselves!
But the mostly-unspoken thrust of Medved's complaint about the "Red, White and Black" series is its focus on race -- that Marvel and the comic's creators were wrong to write a story in which the American government would mistreat its black citizens on the basis of their perceived "inferiority." But why not? Medved himself cites the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which black men with syphilis were not treated or even told they had the disease in order to study its effects. If the government was actually willing to treat blacks this way clear through the 1960s, who's to say that they wouldn't have done something similar with a super-soldier serum during World War II?
And in what is certainly his silliest argument, Medved says that Marvel has "highlighted totally invented atrocities to underscore the nation's vicious, racist nature." Unfortunately, Captain America, as a fictional character, is himself "totally invented," so what's the harm in creating fictional plots for a fictional character? One must wonder whether Medved would prefer Captain America stories where the superhero only participates in real historical events -- or if he just wanted the fictional plots dealing with racial issues to be kiboshed.
Near the end of his column, Medved sniffs disapprovingly at some of Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada's comments about the recent Captain America stories:
"There are moments in our history that may not have been our shining glory," he told me. "We've done things in our history that aren't right to our own citizens." (...) "The beauty of America is that we can tell these stories and learn from our mistakes and move on." The messages he hopes to convey to children who read the comics include "the need to learn racial tolerance and that peace is the best way to go, wherever possible."
Perhaps what is most offensive about Medved's column is that he seems to find the above quotes offensive. To Medved, it seems that a patriot is someone who loves his country wholeheartedly and never says anything bad about it, while anyone who criticizes any of his nation's policies or actions is a traitor. Quite frankly, this misguided understanding of patriotism drives the entire essay. What Medved seems to be advocating is not patriotism -- it's mindless nationalism at its most delusional.
A patriot does not robotically support his nation, no matter what it does, nor does he pretend that his country has never done anything bad. A patriot recognizes his country's imperfections and loves it anyway. He doesn't make excuses for those imperfections -- he acknowledges his nation's faults, both past and present, he regrets his nation's faults, and he strives to reduce or eliminate his nation's faults. Why? Because a patriot wants his country to be the best it can be, and you don't improve a nation by keeping your eyes closed.
In fact, approaching Captain America solely as a fictional character, it makes good storytelling sense to force him to examine his beliefs about America. After all, fiction is about conflict. In comics (and in lots of other genres of fiction), the conflict usually boils down to good guy vs. bad guy, justice vs. injustice, fist vs. face. But even in comics, conflict isn't only about brawls and slugfests -- man vs. himself is another common theme of fiction. And when you have a character who is as closely associated with the very concept of patriotism as Captain America is... well, a writer would have to be a fool not to take advantage of that built-in story idea.
Where Michael Medved sees Captain America's continuing examination of the faults of his country as a symptom of a "deep cultural malaise," I see it as a company (and, of course, a writer and artist) being true both to the personality of the character and to the ideals of American citizenship.
You can read Medved's full article at http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-medved040403.asp
Many thanks to mat catastrophe, Quizro, and allseeingeye for copious assistance in this essay's composition.