Some pop culture entities that begin as a response to events happening in the real world at it’s inception can go on to live long past it. Blues and Jazz music have long morphed and evolved past their original context of their creation, food like pizza that started as a way to use leftover ingredients would go on to be one of the most popular dishes in the world and comic book characters that were created in very different points in American History are still having adventures today long after their inception with some being more popular than ever. Captain America is one character that always sticks out because of the context of his creation. Cap is a man named Steve Rogers who grew up in the great depression and was transformed by science in a desperate attempt to join the war effort against the Axis Powers in WWII. The fact that he has survived long enough as a part of popular culture to have been originally featured on the cover of his first issue punching Hitler when Hitler was still alive and is still out there now selling tickets to blockbusters and starring in several comic series across the Marvel line of books says a lot about his prevalence in pop culture. He’s lived to see the generation he came from be called “the greatest” and has remained an icon for that generations children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond. He’s been translated into languages for countries who would have spit on him had he truly existed in the time period of his creation. But to create a compelling Captain America is to dig into the heart of that character. There will always be good or even great comics with Steve Rogers in it. Hell all of the comics he is featured in right now are pretty great for the most part. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is going to open in theatres across the United States today and is already projected to set box office records world wide while heaping praise from film critics. To keep Captain America relevant and move him forward is to define him in a modern context and those opportunities come along usually by mere circumstance. In 2004 we got to witness one of those rare times in comic book history where fate meets fortune and this happened to come in the context of the greatest American tragedy that I’ve ever witnessed. I’m talking about when Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting began working on Captain America framed within the context of post 9/11 America; a run that broke down the Steve Rogers to his essence and showed how that essence had been destroyed by America’s own hubris.
It’s hard to believe now but Captain America himself was a construct of Liberalism or more chiefly Modern Liberalism. Modern Liberalism itself is predicated off of the election of Franklin D Roosevelt and his “New Deal” politics following the great depression. After close to a decade of continued poverty Roosevelt would champion government programs to create work and stabilize the American economy while later boosting it even more so by entering into WWII creating a higher demand for manufacturing and a shortage of a labor force to fill that thus stimulating a market that would explode at the end of the War when veterans came home with money to spend off the GI bill and homes built for them across the country connected by large highways that allowed for work in the cities and homes in spacious suburbs. This would be the de-facto life of what would later be labeled “The Greatest Generation” a generation that faced immeasurable odds and managed to save both America and the World within two decades. Captain America’s origin story has always been centered on the first half of that generations cycle, he was the poor skinny and sickly son of Irish Immigrants from the Lower East Side of New York, NY that sacrificed everything for the love he had of his country and his will to see it become the prosperous nation that we know today. After that Steve Rogers was reintroduced in the early 1960’s and would perpetually be the man out of time as he and his country moved further and further away from the context that he was created. By 2004 America had was far and away from the days of the great depression Roosevelt, the New Deal and WWII. America was a country divided post 9/11 in two polarizing wars and facing a divisive election. Many of the services and agencies that were started with new deal politics had been cut and discontinued while that void for those services had been filled by corporate America. The title Captain America had been languishing as well. The idea of Captain America felt antiquated as the character he had become a one dimensional self styled super patriot without any kind of depth or background. Comic writer Ed Brubaker had grown up on Captain America and had been waiting his whole life for the chance to write the hero. Coming off a stints on Batman, The Authority, creator owned hit Sleeper and the influential Gotham Central Brubaker would team with legendary comic book artist Steve Epting for the relaunch of Captain America and revived the title into a prestige level superhero epic by breaking down Captain America to his core and exposing that to a very different America then the one he fought for decades earlier. The friction between Captain America’s values and modern America would be the central conflict of that series, a conflict that would lead towards two separate unstoppable forces colliding with one another head on by issue 25.
In the beginning of Brubaker and Eptings run on Captain America we are introduced to a Steve Rogers that is stressed and troubled by the world he lives in while his chief villain, former Nazi The Red Skull, is murdered in the first issue. Throughout the arc Skulls conscious remains alive inside the mind of corporate leader and former Soviet agent Alexander Lukin who is consolidating power in hopes of controlling the world through his Kronos Corporation, guiding him to acquire and use the cosmic cube in the hopes of obtaining ultimate power. Meanwhile Captain America is haunted by shifting memories of the war he served in and the ghost of his former teenage partner stalking him in the shadows. For Brubaker Captain America is representing the values of the post great depression “greatest generation” and the new deal, red skulls consciousness in Lukin acts as the corporate mindset that seeks absolute power and Bucky as the mistakes that America made decades prior coming back to haunt us from the cold war and beyond. Throughout the series Captain America is being attacked by various agents including villains like Crossbones, against his memories with the Cosmic Cube, in secret through Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier and through his partner Sharon Carter via the corrupt psychiatrist Dr Foust. It is these idea’s that shape the narrative of Brubaker’s Captain America run and elevate the narrative past a simple superhero narrative to a sweeping epic about the death of our past at the hands of our present.
Lukin and Red Skull are able to operate outside of the code of ethics and rules that Captain America holds himself to and hide behind the anonymity of the Kronos corporation. While Captain America is held back by lessons of his history and the time he comes from Luking, Red Skull and the Kronos corporation are only expected to act in their own self interest. It’s how many of the new deal ideologies had fallen apart as well because whenever those laws or ideologies gotten in the way of corporate interests corporations have destroyed them. What is an even more interesting aspect of that is the way that Red Skull effectively changes and manipulates Steve Rogers memory to his own end. If you go back to the time period of it’s creation it works as an interesting commentary on media in that era and the way that ideological wars between political parties shaped our perception of history to further policy in favor of corporate interests. It’s a strong symbol in how media, political action committees and think tanks worked at manipulating our view of history to strip down New Deal era policy often in appealing to the same group of people that it initially helped by reshaping the perception of that policy as failed. In the comic this confuses Cap much like it confused the public at the time resulting in rash decisions based on misconceptions. The Kronos corporations, Russia and Captain America’s relationship to Bucky can be seen as an even more intriguing symbol for geo politics post cold war and how that relates to corporate interest. You have to consider the broad timeline of Bucky’s life from WWII to being a covert agent for USSR to finally ending up as a pawn for The Red Skull by extension of Lukin and the Krono’s corporation. In the beginning Bucky is the young upstart fighting along side Cap to save the world. Captain America is of the belief that his work as a soldier is altruistic to the end of saving the world and Bucky can be looked as the worlds future he is fighting for. As a Soviet agent he is that same worlds future being manipulated to suit the needs of one superpower against another in the cold war and later by corporations that work outside of the interest on any singular group or nation state. Bucky who fought alongside Cap with no special powers is essentially the everyman in the narrative. While Captain America was fighting with and for him global superpowers and corporations use him for their own end much in the same way that WWII soldiers fought for not just their country but really the world only to have that world manipulated and controlled by larger entities seeking power. It is those entities that ultimately kill the values that the “greatest generation” were fighting for and it’s here that we see Brubaker’s initial 25 issues reach it’s stunning conclusion.
I usually don’t care about spoilers but here I will leave you with a warning that if you haven’t read Brubaker’s run up to issue #25 and you don’t know what happened in said issues this next part will be discussing a major plot point. Just remember it’s the journey not the destination.
In the end Captain America dies which if we are following the logic of Cap being a symbol for the “Greatest Generation” was inevitable from the beginning. The how and the aftermath of the event are what is most interesting. Steve Rogers is killed by Sharon Carter as a mind control trick from Dr. Foust, a psychiatrist hired by the Red Skull. Sharon Carter, the on again off again in perpetuity girl friend of Cap and grand daughter of his initial love interest Peggy Carter, can be read as representing the byproduct of the “Greatest Generation” that has ultimately killed it due to misinformation from outside forces. Ultimately the ideology of the “Greatest Generation” is destroyed by us; their own creation and it puts the responsibility partially at not only their feet but all of ours as well. What’s more important is Bucky. Remember that he is the everyman in the story and that role has elasticity as world events change and shape him. He has little to no knowledge of his past life or the world he is in now. All he has are orders from forces trying to control him for their own gain and the vague memory of Captain America and there time together; his recorded history and his example. What does he do with that when he is given the opportunity of freedom from those that control him? He becomes Captain America. In Matt Fractions immortal response to a suicide question he wrote “I know you see the signs in my work and if you look hard enough you will see they are pointing up” This was Brubaker pointing up. Because Bucky is essentially all of us what that’s saying is that even though things may seemed fucked in the present tense we can always fight to make it better. You have to look to the struggles of the past and the principles of those that persevere whether that’s a fictional Captain America, his creator Jack Kirby who grew up in Lower East Side Slums of New York City and fought in WWII on the beach in Normandy during D-Day or just my regular old grandfather who started out in rural poverty to providing medical care on that same beach that Kirby was on to being a successful Dr. The policy may have died but the ideals and principles don’t have to. They live on in the minds of anybody that believes in them and is willing to stand up for that. That’s what Bucky does and it’s what we can all do everyday. It’s what I love most about Brubaker and Eptings Captain America run. It’s an epic superhero saga, it’s a commentary on American Political history, it’s a story about the relentless quest for power against ideology but most importantly it’s a road map for how to make the future better; a road map that starts with the arrow pointing backwards.