Saturday, April 2, 2011

Captain America

Captain America is a personal favorite as far as comic book heroes go, so I thought that he would make a good test character for this. First, a little history. Captain America, as a character, was created in 1941 for Timely Comics, by Joe Simon and comic legend Jack Kirby. It's somewhat ironic that Captain America, a tall, muscular, blond-haired, blue-eyed ubermensch, was created as a character that fought Nazis - and one of his creators, Jack Kirby, was Jewish. Captain America's kid sidekick, Bucky, was named after a childhood friend of Joe Simon. For a gallery of many people's favorite images of Captain America, you can go here. And now, the character.

Steve Rogers, in the Marvel Universe, was born on July 4th, 1917. He was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and his parents were Irish immigrants; after his father died when Steve was a child, he was raised by his mother. Steve's mother would later die of pneumonia when he was a teen, leaving him basically alone in the world. By the time World War 2 was starting, Steve was in his early 20s, working as an illustrator. He was a tall, skinny, not terribly healthy young man, but he was a patriot, and believed in the United States - so much so that he tried to enlist. He was rejected, though, on grounds of his poor physical fitness - but seeing the degree of commitment in this young man, General Chester Philips offered Steve a chance at a secret project called Operation: Rebirth. Rebirth was tasked with the creation of super-soldiers, and Steve was an ideal test subject - both because of his patriotism, and also because his condition as unfit for regular duty meant there would be no real loss to the military if the project went wrong.

After a rigorous selection process, Steve was chosen as the first test subject for the Super-Soldier serum by Dr. Abraham Erskine. The process involved injections, drinking of some part of the serum, and exposure to something called Vita-Rays, but at the end of the treatment, Steve Rogers had gone from being a scrawny, sickly young man to a man in the absolute peak of physical fitness. Despite the success, though, it was followed immediately by tragedy - a Nazi sleeper agent, seeing the serum's success, shot and killed Dr. Erskine, who had committed key parts of the serum's creation to his memory, meaning it could not be reproduced. Rogers chased the Nazi spy, but the Nazi died in the chase. With only Steve Rogers to show as a success of the project, the military decided to use Steve as a propaganda and counterintelligence agent - and so Steve is given a new uniform (designed from his own sketches), a shield, his new identity as Captain America, and a cover story as a clumsy private at Camp Lehigh in Virginia - which is where he first meets his sidekick, James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes, the camp's teenage mascot.

Bucky discovers Steve's secret identity, and offers to keep it secret if he can work as his sidekick, which Steve agrees to (though, depending on version of the story, Bucky may have been paired with Steve on purpose, to do the dirty work that Steve couldn't). Soon after, Steve meets President Roosevelt, who gives him a different shield, made of a light, nearly indestructible new alloy of steel and vibranium - his iconic circular shield, that he often uses as a thrown weapon. Captain America and Bucky then go overseas to fight the Nazis, teaming up with other superheroes (forming the original Invaders) and fighting a number of Nazi villains such as the Black Talon, Hangman, White Death, Baron Zemo - and his greatest foe, the Red Skull. It is on one such mission to destroy an experimental drone, armed with large amounts of explosives by Baron Zemo, that Captain America and Bucky are lost - as they hung on as the drone lifted off, they tried to defuse the explosives, and they managed to cause it to explode prematurely - blowing both off, and causing the world to assume they were dead.

Captain America, though, was blown into the freezing water, and due to his enhanced systems, survives to be frozen in a block of ice - and remains that way for decades, until he is eventually discovered floating in the North Atlantic by the group that would become the original Avengers. Once he is thawed out, his experience in combat and his leadership skills help him to become the leader of the Avengers, but he feels like a man out of his time - everyone he knew is either dead or decades older than he is, and he is wracked with guilt over the perceived death of his young sidekick. Still, though, he takes it upon himself to act as the leader and the conscience of the Avengers, and is a mentor and friend to many of the heroes of the Marvel Universe. Most recently, he discovered that Bucky didn't die, but had been recovered by Russians - and programmed to become a sleeper assassin, who had only recently begun to break from his programming.

After reuniting with his former sidekick, Captain America faced off against some of his oldest compatriots in the big Marvel event, Civil War - Captain America championed the heroes who felt that they should not be forced by the government to register and give up their secret identities, and had to oppose the leader of the pro-registration forces, his old friend Tony Stark - Iron Man. He fought the good fight, but eventually Captain America surrendered, and was being brought to trial for his actions when he was apparently assassinated. In reality, he was shunted out of step with time, so that his old foe, Red Skull, who had survived in one form or another, could transfer his consciousness into Steve Rogers' body. Steve Rogers was eventually brought back into regular time, his consciousness overpowering the Red Skull's, and he returned - to find out that, inspired by how his former partner had gone to such lengths to save him, Bucky had taken up the mantle of Captain America. After going on to help a coalition of heroes save Asgard - and possibly the world - from destruction at the hands of Norman Osborn, Steve Rogers is appointed to the position once occupied by old companion Nick Fury, and leaves Bucky with the mantle of Captain America.

Much of this is easily found out by looking up a history of Captain America online. So why is Captain America so important? In the Marvel Universe, he was one of the first heroes written, though others are placed earlier in the timeline of the universe. He is a charismatic leader, one who makes friends of virtually every hero he meets - he does, after all, become leader of the Avengers after being frozen for decades. He walks among heroes who can shake the earth, and at least one constant friend - Thor - is a god. Even though Captain America has no truly superhuman powers, though, he is seen as an equal, if not more. Why? Because, I think, he is a symbol. He wears the flag of the US, and champions the ideals of America, but seems called to something higher - as he says at one point, "I'm loyal to nothing, General...except the [American] Dream." He is loyal to his friends, and merciful to his enemies, and always tries to help those around him be better. He rises from essentially nothing - a poor son of immigrants - to become one fo the greatest names in the Marvel universe, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.

One of my personal favorite Captain America stories takes place out of continuity, in a trade called Captain America: The Chosen. In it, it is revealed that, for whatever reason, the Super-Solder serum is failing, and rapidly, and so Captain America is dying. Even without his physical abilities, he wants to help, so he joins a remote-viewing project, using his background as an illustrator to help him visualize and draw targets and locations of terrorists and other villains. While doing so, he finds that he can actually project an image of himself - which at first he uses to try and confuse enemies, but then decides, as his condition progresses more rapidly, to appear to normal Americans - doctors, firefighters, and in particular, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan. It seems that Captain America's simple presence, even as a projection, makes people push themselves harder, and Captain America follows this soldier - and, when the soldier and his unit are trapped inside a cave with no easy way out and several injuries, Cap helps this soldier find a way out, using reserves of strength and will he didn't know he had. Meanwhile, in the lab where Captain America is dying, the President, hearing that one of the nation's greatest heroes is dying, comes to visit him on his deathbed - and is attacked by a terrorist agent lurking in the lab as part of the cleaning staff. With his last strength, Captain America throws his body between the terrorist and the President, and dies - but not before one last push through the project, causing people across the world to see him, inspiring them in a time of need.

Captain America is a man who gives everything for what he believes in. He inspires those around him through his actions, and even though he wears the flag, his sense of right and wrong knows no borders; even those of other nationalities, creeds, and faiths seem to feel the power of his beliefs. As Hercules says in Captain America #444, "On Olympus, we measure wisdom against Athena...speed against Hermes...power against Zeus. But we measure courage...against Captain America." He fights against impossible odds, at times; even as a man with no superpowers, he has fought against universe-threatening foes like Thanos, Kang the Conqueror, and Ultron. In a time where America is often seen as a bully, or worse, Captain America is a symbol of everything that America should be, and should work towards being. In short, Captain America is the ultimate symbol of hope - and the American Dream.

“Doesn't matter what the press says. Doesn't matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn't matter if the whole COUNTRY decides that something WRONG is something RIGHT. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or consequences. When the mob and the press and the WORLD tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole WORLD -- 'No, YOU move."”- Captain America

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