‘Captain America carries, after all, not a sword but a shield’
We don’t have superheroes in Britain the way they do in the US. John Constantine, the brutal magus anti-hero of DC Comics’ Hellblazer, once observed that Britain is a country where no one would have the nerve to wear a cape in public, even if they did have powers far beyond those of mortal men. We love US imports, but they don’t have the same resonance here as they do in their home country.
That is because America is a narrative nation. Spoken into existence by the founders and sustained by an act of continuous creation ever since, the US represents a collective decision which must be re-envisioned and reinterpreted by each successive generation, and for each part of its extraordinary patchwork. That narrative has been sorely tested over the last decade. September 11th was an appalling moment that was also devastating because an alien hand reached into the great American narrative and reshaped it. The response in the real world was disturbing, and horrified many Americans—the creation of Guantánamo Bay and its even more secretive camps at Bagram and in the Horn of Africa. But in the world of superheroes, the dream became even more nightmarish. In the Marvel Universe storyline over the last decade, Captain America was beset by shapeshifting enemies who could look like his friends, and then by the establishment of a police state. He took a stand—against his own government—and became the leader of the heroic opposition. Eventually, in 2007, he was shot and killed on the steps of a courthouse. In the heart of the justice system, under the eye of the security services and the press, Captain America died.
“It’s a hell of a time for him to go,” co-creator Joe Simon said at the time, “we really need him now.” He wasn’t kidding. It’s hard to overstate how central “Cap” is to some. Captain America is the alter ego of Steve Rogers, a rejected second world war volunteer who was given an experimental supersoldier drug and became a perfect human. Captain America punched out Hitler in his first print appearance in 1941 and was a sort of patron saint to US servicemen from then on. When a recent issue of the comic made unfavourable reference to the Tea Party, series writer Ed Brubaker received death threats: Captain America wears the flag. In a way, he is the flag. But what he stands for—and by extension, what the flag stands for—is different to different people. Brubaker observed in 2007: “What I found is that all the really hard-core left-wing fans want Cap to be standing out on and giving speeches on the street corner against the Bush administration, and all the really right-wing [fans] all want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam.”