On Captain America and the Spirit of Story

My experience of being a writer is basically like living in a portal fantasy. The Wood Between The Worlds resides somewhere in my cerebellum, and I wander it and occasionally peer into pools. I don’t know how to jump in them, though there are times in my life I have desperately wished I might, but I can watch, get to know some of the people on the other side, and I can take that and bring it back out onto the page. I can get it wrong, for sure, but the feel of the experience is ‘through a glass darkly’, not ‘I made up the wrong thing and now I’ve gotten stuck in a dead-end alley’.

I know not everyone writes like this, of course, but it predisposes me to a certain form of approach as a reader: if this is true, or can be seen to be true, what does it mean? (This is, arguably, a good chunk of why I appreciated Alternity – a seven year transformative performance art group fanfic in a Harry Potter dark AU – as much as I did, because dear gods there is so much fridge horror in the Potterverse.)

An interesting thing about stories that have roots in the real world, of course, is that one can dig into what that implies about those stories, and the people in there. (I’m doing a lot of this with Cracked Pots, which is a steampunk fantasy, and digging into actual things going on in Victorian London for my not-London that I still need to figure out how to name. See also: have not named Oscar Wilde expy.)

Which brings me rather inevitably around to Captain America.

(This is huge so I’m trying to figure out how to put in a cut. Forgive me if I fail.)

There is, of course, the metatextual level: that Captain America was the creation of Joe Simon, a Jewish man from a working-class background in Rochester, New York, and Jack Kirby, the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants who grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, just across the river from Brooklyn. That he was created in 1940, explicitly, to advocate for joining World War II against Hitler and the Nazis, as a consciously political genesis, and that thus he has been political from his origins. (Certainly, the peril to the Jewish population was known: after all, the Sharps started what would become their rescue ministry in 1939.) Steve Rogers was a refutation of large chunks of Nazi ideology – for while he was the muscular blond man of Nazi propaganda, he was from a poor Irish Catholic background rather than German or Scandanavian, and he did not agree with Nazi ideals in the slightest.

So, the sketch from the original comic book canon: Steve Rogers is the poor son of Irish immigrants, born in the 1920s, growing up in New York City (originally the Lower East Side like Kirby; in the MCU, Brooklyn, just across the river). He is orphaned by the time he’s in his teens – poverty and illness take their toll – and is sickly himself, enough so to be denied enlistment. He is an art student, an illustrator, a comic book artist. He gets to enlist through the influence of a Nazi defector, who had been working on an übermensch process, and who uses it on Steve, who, no longer a frail asthmatic, becomes a special operative, set up against the Nazi-expy superman the Red Skull, and punches Hitler out on the cover of his first issue. His iconic weapon becomes his aerodynamic round shield, which he uses for both defense and offense. Eventually he picks up a kid sidekick, Bucky; both are presumed dead in an airplane crash in the North Atlantic.

There was a period of time in which Cap was an anti-Communist superhero, retooled for new politics, but that was later retconned into being a sequence of Cap-admirers taking on the identity, including one who went full-bore paranoia after a flawed supersoldier serum and started embodying the Red Scare and fingering innocents as Communists.

After that, further Cap revivals introduced the Man Out of Time aspect, apparently in recognition that Nazi-punching was a core character trait, and thus there had to be some sort of explanation for why he was active in the present day. The ‘frozen since 1945’ aspect of the character appeared.

In the 1970s, the Marvelverse dealt with Watergate, and Steve lost his faith, starting to identify as a man without a nation; eventually he resumed operation to serve as an embodiment of American ideals and a critique of the United States’s failures to live up to them, rather than as a government agent.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Steve has a similar background: from Brooklyn rather than the Lower East Side; Bucky as a childhood friend rather than kid sidekick and member of the Howling Commandoes, Cap’s special ops team; characterised by “I don’t like bullies” and a tenaciousness that occasionally overwhelms his originally frail body; given the supersoldier serum after proving his worth under the tutelage of the scientist who developed it and Peggy Carter; reflexively uses various items as a shield until he gets his iconic shield; in the end he disappears while saving the world, and is frozen, then revived in the present day. (And perhaps his Watergate equivalent is taking down Hydra!SHIELD in CA:TWS, aka ‘Angry Hufflepuffs: The Movie’.)

So that’s where we are, with Cap. I’ve got an aside, now:

Author Jo Walton gained some notoriety for a while with some of her writing terminology; a number of people were really quite bedevilled by trying to figure out the deeper meaning of “mode”, which I would call something of the animistic spirit of a story. It must’ve been… 2001 or so, I guess, when I was at a panel somewhere, and Steven Brust, one of the panelists, turned to Patrick Nielsen Hayden and said, “What is ‘mode’?” which produced great groaning. I actually had a comment to offer, and I said something like, “I can’t define mode, but I can explain in one word how you can tell someone’s got the mode wrong.” They said I should demonstrate this, and I said, “Midichlorians.”

And the thing is, everyone knew what I meant there. Midichlorians may be true, factual things in that universe, if one could peer through the pool in the Wood Between the Worlds, but they do not belong in that story. Wrong spirit. Wrong mode.

Anyway.

I have seen a lot of people commenting that Cap is boring. And I think Cap gets boring when he’s not political. Steve is fundamentally political, both in his creation, and his nature. People noticed they’d got the mode wrong when he was going around hunting commies and had to explain that away as other people putting on the hat. Steve Rogers, Cap, he started out as political, and as soon as he’s another white superherbro he gets boring. The white man who fights to let America be America again, who submits himself to scientific experimentation run by an ex-Nazi so as to have the chance – if he survives – to go punch Hitler in the face? That’s something notably realer, holding more story to it. There’s the mode of Steve.

And we can get that, get more of that, from looking at the real world that Steve came from. Steve isn’t an alien, isn’t born with some sort of superhuman heritage, he’s a poor Irish-American kid from New York City, in a specific time and place that actually happened, and which was very real to the people who created him.

When Steve Rogers was a kid, the first Irish-American candidate for President, the governor of New York ran – and lost – because of anti-Catholic sentiments; he was strongly opposed by the Ku Klux Klan. While Al Smith opposed the New Deal, large numbers of Irish Catholics were part of the New Deal coalition, and FDR had several prominent Irish-American people working in his administration, including Joseph Kennedy. Steve knew, personally, the effects of prejudice, and witnessed as he was growing up the process by which people of his ethnicity started working to assimilate more effectively.

He also was well aware that that assimilation was not available to everyone. Whether he grew up in the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, he was surrounded by people from immigrant backgrounds, and not just Irish. Brooklyn was heavily black and Puerto Rican; the Lower East Side’s waves of immigration included Germans, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and others. Both Brooklyn and the LES had food riots only a few years before Steve was born, when grocery costs nearly trebled on the cusp of WWI; two years later, race riots swept the nation, including New York, and were widely linked with Bolshevism and unionization sentiments among the black population (I suspect by people who wanted to blow off the whole lynching history thing). The first public housing in New York City was built in the Lower East Side. Steve was raised by a single mother – his father died when he was young – and was quite likely grindingly poor, heavily dependent on charity and the support of his community. He would likely have been keenly aware of how much his life depended upon his neighbors, many of whom would not have been white.

In addition, he was an artist, an art student. He was studying art in an environment heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, and could hardly have been unaware of it. He would also hardly have been unaware of the artists who were producing images of union solidarity, anti-fascist works, anti-racist works, and other politically aware art. He would have likely known about the conflicts between the Communists and the NAACP for anti-lynching actions, though I don’t know which side he’d have agreed with more. He would have been familiar with the art and literary scene’s attendance at Harlem’s famous drag balls, and might well have gone himself, regardless of whether or not he considered himself queer. He was involved in some of the cradle period of Abstract Expressionism, which would erupt in the 1940s, and may have known, at least in passing, some of the Surrealists who came to New York because of political instability in Europe – at the very least he would have been aware of such things.

It is very plausible that he studied with the Art Students’ League of New York, as it has always attempted to be accessible and affordable to both amateurs and professionals; if he did, he very likely knew the Abstract Expressionists before they became a thing. The president of the Art League at that time was John Sloan, a vehement Socialist – never an ally of the Communist Party in the US, but hopeful that the Soviets might manage to produce an egalitarian society. It is less likely that Steve attended the Educational Alliance’s art school, as that was primarily a school for Jewish students – it had rejected Jack Kirby. He might also have attended the school Kirby attended for a week – the Pratt Institute – which was deliberately aimed at working class youth, did not discriminate on race, class, or gender, and which had a fine arts program. The MCU apparently claims him the Auburndale Art School, for which I can find no hits that do not appear to be related to Steve Rogers.

He was a poor kid who might not have been considered disabled but who was not healthy enough to enlist. Access to health care would have been a concern of his – if only to recognise that he wasn’t going to get any, and that his life would probably be shortened by that fact. In the 1930s, the Depression made even charity health care harder to come by, and people stopped going to doctors and hospitals because they had no money. Diptheria and typhoid were on the decline, but polio and tuberculosis were not. Some estimates suggest that 10% of the population had syphilis. Maternal mortality was the highest in the industrialised world, leading to loosening of restrictions on birth control. Attempts to pass national health insurance failed in the House. There were a bit shy of 13 doctors per 10,000 citizens, and they were as a group fairly interested in keeping down competition so their salaries would remain high. (And my scant research here suggests that understanding the vast shitfuckery that is the health care unsystem in the US would need to dig heavily into the attempts at medical reform in the 30s, wow.)

So that’s what we’ve got for Steve, from necessary extrapolations from his explicitly stated background: growing up a poor orphan in a poor multicultural neighborhood, associating with artists and art culture, and likely in need of medical care that he did not get, or could not reliably get. He would have been aware of the debates regarding Socialism, racism, likely sexuality, and even if he was not a participant in those debates, he would know the language in which they were being conducted. This is inescapable as part of the character – the mode, if you will, getting back to that aside from paragraphs ago – because he comes from a specific, real, and knowable time and place, with very specific character traits, which were likely very, very familiar to his creators and chosen with deliberate knowledge.

Reading historical fiction – and Steve Rogers’s background absolutely is a form of historical fiction – is one of those things that can illuminate the world, if only through a glass, darkly. When considering the etiology of Captain America, he is very explicitly rooted in a certain set of conditions, a certain set of awarenesses, and not only do we know what those are, we know from the character how they motivated him: he came out of it wanting to enlist, for patriotic reasons, and because he recognised the Nazi threat as evil.

Was it because he went to the Educational Alliance’s art school and was surrounded by Jewish artists? Canon does not say that. But it could have. Was it because he was heavily involved in the union movement and saw Hitler’s attacks on trade unions as attacks on his philosophical kinsmen? Canon does not say that. But it could have. Did he hear in passing about purges of disabled people and say, “That could be me”? (Or queer people, to extrapolate further from canon?) Canon does not say that. But it could have. Did he stack up models of scientific racism against his experience with the neighbors who looked after him while his mother worked, the hardworking people screwed by the system, the ones who never got a chance, and decide it was all evil bullshit? Canon does not say that. But it could have. Did he compare the propaganda putting forward the superiority of blond men to his experiences as the son of Irish immigrants, seeing some of his ethnicity gaining power (the Kennedys, the people behind the establishment of the Hays code) but remaining poor himself, and think that people trying to seduce him with such thin fare were morally vacuous? Canon does not say that, but….

All canon says is that he came out of his background a patriot and someone who so really, desperately, earnestly wanted to punch Nazis he submitted himself as a guinea pig for experimental mad science that he was likely quite aware had a chance of killing him. (Was he desperate for something, anything, that might get him out of the poorhouse? He wouldn’t have known about the GI Bill, which was still in the future, but… canon does not say that. But it could have.) Not an aggressive man – his symbol, after all, was the shield – but one devoted to doing what he understood as the right thing.

By the way, the patriot thing? There is nothing, in my experience, quite like the patriotism of a naturalised citizen of the United States. I don’t know if it carries on to first generation native-born citizens like Steve would have been, but if you ever want to find someone who really, fervently believes in “the American Dream”, the hope and potential therein, I don’t think you can go wrong with checking out the people who have gone through the naturalisation process. (I’ve got kids who refer to the Stars and Stripes as “the grand old flag” because of being taught patriotic tunes by their preschool teacher, still armed with her British accent. Almost every kata I learned when I studied tae kwon do was set to some form of Americana or other, which means that I have a spine-deep impulse to rhythmically punch things when I hear “Stars and Stripes Forever”.) It’s often devout, from what I’ve seen, and it comes with believing in the sentiment of The New Colossus more than I can, even though I memorised it in sixth grade in a fit of election-year patriotic fervor.

Steve could probably recite it too. Child of immigrants, living in New York? Patriotic spirit? Probably before sixth grade. He probably knew the original Bellamy Pledge of Allegiance, too, and was royally weirded out by ‘under God’ when he first encountered it post-thawing. (“Seriously, you split ‘one nation indivisible’ to stick in ‘under God’? Have you no sense of irony?”)

Anyway, obviously I don’t think Cap is boring. I think Cap is, among other things, a projection of what people think the idea of the United States is, or should be, and obviously my sympathies lie with versions of Cap that align with my own inclinations. Cap gets boring when he’s badly handled, and cut off from his roots, and abstracted, because his roots are why Steve became Cap, and those roots are specific. I think Cap gets boring when he’s treated as a generic white guy in tights, this one with a ~*USA*~ theme, but otherwise not all that different from any of the other white guys in tights. Unlike the aliens, the people from alternate dimensions, and all the other superbeings whose origins are marked out as being from Somewhere Else, Cap is from somewhere very specific, and in a very specific time: the Lower East Side, across the river from Brooklyn. (Or vice versa.) In the years before World War II. Unlike the people whose powers are derived from intrinsic difference, who were aliens among us from the beginning, Steve was one of us: a kid with dreams he had scant hope of attaining, who lucked into something big, and lost his dreams doing it.

(Yes, lost his dreams. You ever wonder if Steve would just like to go write comic books all day? One of the things I love about this amazing fanvid is the bits where Steve sketches. Like he’s trying to draw the difference between the world he grew up in and today. Like he’s looking for something more than being the symbol. More than the good soldier become avatar. A lot of theologies say that the process of apotheosis can be hard on the parts of someone who don’t fit the image of the god, and Steve still sketches.)

There are people who have worked with the logic that I see in Steve’s history, the worldbuilding that comes of peering through that mirror and wondering what he might have known. (Of course, there are also people who prefer other versions of Cap. But those also are rooted in a sense of historicity.)

All of which comes around to the whole Nazi Cap thing. There’s been a whole lot of ink spilled on that. I just spilled a few more thousand pixels on it.

A lot of the back and forth is about how those wicked “SJWs” are objecting to someone exploring a possible story. How dare they be so opposed to the creative process, etc.

But to make that a possible story, they have to literally rewrite history. Steve Rogers as originally written is shaped by an actual historical time about which we know things, and had so many reasons to not be a Nazi because of it. Canon did not spell them out, but it could have. And that means that there is a core intuition, a sense of Who Steve Is, that is rooted in actual reality; ineffable but present: Steve Rogers is a person from this time and place, who had these experiences, and we may not have gone through and tried to figure out what art schools were accessible to poor kids in 1930s New York but we have some sort of sense of what a kid in art school in the 1930s would have been exposed to, familiar with, aware of.

We can’t just plonk a “Hail Hydra” meeting in instead of where actual Socialists were doing their activism; that rings hollow and empty. We can imagine Steve’s mother being politicised by the community that supported her, but the actual community doing that was not fascist. There’s no facsimile of Father Coughlin in the Marvelverse with his actual New York audience; instead, something is being inserted where it actively wasn’t, and this warps the whole shape of things. It feels jarring, implausible, out of place. (Mind, if there is a Father Caughlin equivalent kicking around in this I haven’t heard a peep about it in following the controversy, but there might be! What I’ve seen in the Hydra Women’s Ancillary And Knitting Club.)

The mode is wrong, in other words.

And there’s some acknowledgement of that in the text: this idea that the Cosmic Cube rewrote the “real” history into an Allied victory, and that that has been since reverted. AU has a long-established history in comics fandom, of course, but this one touches on a lot of things that, again, people know about history.

“What if the other side won the war” has, again, a long history, sometimes done well and sometimes poorly, but to succeed it has to have some sort of structure, cause and effect, consequences. Even if we can pretend that history is so delicately balanced that one assassination here or there, or one person choosing a different course, would make a huge difference in the world, there has to be figuring out how that is a pebble that shifts a landslide. For something like WWII, victory is not an arbitrary choice that can be played with lightly, because of all the factors in play.

If that work isn’t done, the resulting alt-hist feels hollow – not because of some arbitrary “this is not an acceptable story to tell” but because it is so much shallower than the story we already know. It’s so much easier to rearrange the backstory of, say, Thor of Asgard, member of a race of superpowered magic-wielding dimension-hopping aliens, because I don’t know about you but I’ve never been to Asgard and I don’t know anyone who has been. (Barring a few people with complicated mystical experiences and all.) Even light and fairly fluffy Steve stories work better with a historical background that makes sense.

But a lot of people are from Brooklyn, or have been to the Lower East Side.

Cap, as much as he is a fantasy, is rooted in reality, and a very specific one. That’s where his tangibility, his substance comes from – not from a what-if about superpowers but from the specificity of his origins. He isn’t a vague generic white guy in tights – and even interpretations of him which differ from the more leftist approach that strikes me as more plausible, like the Ultimates version, at least try to gesture at the actual history that is at the heart of Steve Rogers.

Scooping the history out of Cap isn’t scooping the seeds out of a squash and leaving the flesh behind; it’s scooping the sense of who Cap is out of the character. One can’t make Nazi Cap without completely transforming those corners of New York City from the multicultural hotbeds of union and civil rights agitation that they were, and the echoes of that remain even for people who don’t know that the LES and Brooklyn were major manufacturing centers, were massively multi-ethnic, were as they were because they were full of immigrants of many varieties; there are these notes that are struck when someone writes something in accord with the echoes of history. One can’t write Nazi Cap without turning the entire history of World War II into some sort of clever publicity stunt and ungrounding him from the very real history which is inextricably bound up in his origins, development, and nature, as a man and as a creation.

The story means something because of those resonances. We have a sense of who goes Nazi. The changes the world would require to modify that sense broadly enough to include Steve Rogers are so vast that it makes no sense. This isn’t trying out a new story; it is at best a sort of Dadaist commentary on the concept of story that is removing the story nature and prancing around in a star-spangled bodysuit. The part that makes it work as a story, that ineffable spirit of how stories work, is the part they took out.

And this is why white nationalists are so thrilled to feel like they can get their hands on Steve Rogers. Because erasing the multivalent multicultural immigrant history of the United States, the queer and mixed-race and unionist underbelly of New York City as synecdoche for the rest of the nation – and fucking hell, I don’t like it, but NYC is kind of hugely that in a lot of ways – is necessary to serve their ends. The reality of the place Steve Rogers came from – the shape of his particular vulnerability in that time and place and what it would mean to become powerful from there – cannot be allowed to exist.

That’s why they’re thrilled by Nazi Cap. Especially with recent developments.

Which means I’m left with, well. No. You move.

(For a palate cleanser, have “Leader of the Free World”. Relevant to this post would be:

“Oh man,” Bucky managed, through his mirth. “Oh man, you guys, you guys are gonna try to break Steve Rogers, I been tryin’ to train him just to put on a parachute for ninety years, you all think you can break him — ahahahaha — “

)

2 comments to On Captain America and the Spirit of Story

  • Ethnogenesis for “whiteness” is, basically, “we’re inherently morally superior so when we’re pirates/evil overlords that’s OK”.

    What’s happening now is an attempt to make “white” an actual ethnicity; as has been widely observed, there’s no such thing as a “white folk dance” or “white cuisine”. I don’t think it’s sensical, but I’d say what’s going on right now with Captain America is an attempt to make Captain America political by asserting that there’s such a thing as a white ethnicity.

    Really astonishingly bad insecurity management.

    • kiya

      The descended-from-immigrants-on-roughly-the-same-timescale-as-Steve-Rogers bit of my background is heavily scarred by the loss intrinsic to the whole discarding original ethnicity in order to become acceptably white. I have strong feelings about this that mostly come out in strong language.

      The whole discarding ethnicity in order to become imperial privateers thing is a thing I Do Not Approve.