Friday, February 12, 2010

Captain America vs. The Tea Party

While the nation slept, Marvel somehow got dragged into one of the more unusual controversies in recent comic book history, as the conservative political group Tea Party has begun lambasting the publisher over this month's issue of Captain America. At issue is a protest rally depicted in #602 which shows average citizens holding signs decrying the government's tax policies -- signs that apparently originated at an actual Tea Party event.

Here's a look at the pages in question (click to enlarge):

In response to this comic, Tea Party blogger Warner Todd Huston posted an editorial on decrying the issue as an attack on the Tea Party.

"Isn’t it wonderful that a decades old American comic book hero is now being used to turn readers against our very political system, being used to slander folks that are standing up for real American principles in real life — and one called “Captain America” at that?"

Huston takes issue with a number of things, including the fact that the protesters are depicted as being all white, and goes on to accuse Marvel of implying that "Tea Party protesters just “hate the government,” they are racists, they are all white folks, they are angry, and they associate with secretive white supremacist groups that want to over throw the U.S. government."

While comics are usually completely ignored by everyone outside of hardcore fans, this particular complaint struck a nerve for some reason. Whether it's because of Cap's recent higher profile following his death and rebirth, which were both heavily covered by the media, or because this sort of thing is catnip for conservative news sources, the story quickly spread through the blogosphere, eventually ending up on mainstream outlets like and The New York Times.

In response to this tempest in a teapot, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada conducted an interview with the folks at Comic Book Resources, where he apologized for the "mistake," saying that an editorial assistant working under deadline filled in the signs on the page in question in order to make the scene more realistic and that there was no intent to specifically identify this group as the Tea Party. Beyond this apology, though, he did call out Huston for his accusations of racism:

"Where I do take exception with Mr. Huston’s article is when he states that we are calling the Tea Party racist...wait I’m sorry, that we’re saying that every white person is a racist along with several other horrible and inflammatory accusations. Nothing can be further from the truth, accidental placement of a Tea Party sign or not, those sentiments are not in the pages of our comics and are a complete and irresponsible misrepresentation."

So what's really going on in Captain America #602? I had a chance to read the issue earlier today and while I agree that it probably wasn't wise to use specific Tea Party images in the story (even ones as juvenile and embarrassing as the ones chosen), I also think that even without those signs the connection to the Tea Party would have been pretty obvious, as they are the main tax protesting group in the country.

That, however, is how it should be, because conservative bloggers lambasting Marvel for politcizing comics are missing the mark entirely given the fact that Captain America has always been an explicitly political character and series. Right form the first issue in 1941, where Cap is shown on the cover punching out Hitler months in advance of America's entry into World War II (a stance that earned creator Jack Kirby death threats from American Bundites at the time), Captain America has been used as an allegory to discuss political and social issues confronting the nation. Political commentary is not only regular within the pages of Captain America, I would argue it is essential to the character and that attempting to remove political elements from the series would essentially destroy the entire point of the series. As anyone who ever read CapWolf knows, writing Cap as just another crime fighter in long johns is a sure way to write a crappy story.

Further, the specific charges leveled against Marvel in this instance are spurious at best. While Quesada's insistence that the protesters in the above scene are separate from the militant right-wing group Watchdogs who Cap and Falcon try to infiltrate may seem like splitting hairs, in the context of the story he is absolutely correct that they are portrayed as two separate entities. Just from these two pages, the scene reads to me as though the crowd of protesters is intended to point out to the liberal Falcon that while the Watchdogs may be going overboard, their concerns are shared by many mainstream, regular Americans. Indeed, this scene can be read not as a denunciation of the Tea Party but rather as a wake-up call to the Falcon that there are real issues his liberal political stance doesn't necessarily address. And in that sense this isn't an attack on the Tea Party so much as a validation of them.

In addition, it's clear that neither Huston nor any of the other mainstream media commentators are familiar with Captain America's continuity, because if they were, they would recognize that this sequence and plotline is a carefully constructed re-working of a classic Captain America story from Mark Grunewald that appeared back in the late 1980's. In the first appearance of the Watchdogs, then-Captain America John Walker and his African-American partner Battlestar were tasked with infiltrating the nascent right-wing organization in order to determine their plans. In order to do this, they staged a fake fight with Battlestar pretending to be a porn director and Walker acting as a righteous citizen defending America's moral values from that kind of filth. This scene is repeated almost verbatim in #602 in the pages that follow the excerpt here, only with Falcon now playing an IRS auditor instead. The entire sequence is an homage to Gruenwald's work, with the hot button "family values" issue of the 80's replaced with the hot button tax issue of today.

I do think that writer Ed Brubaker could have been a little more subtle in his racial commentary here (which is surprising as Brubaker is usually a very solid writer) but Huston's charge that Marvel is portraying the Tea Party as racist overlooks four factors. 1) The racial subtext is in part carried over from the earlier Gruenwald story this is referencing; 2) the Tea Party protest is explicitly not the same group as the Watchdogs; 3) this entire sequence takes place in rural Idaho; for Huston to complain that "the people in these crowds are depicted as being filled with nothing but white folks" is somewhat silly considering that less than one percent of the citizens of Idaho identify themselves as black on the census; and 4) the actual Tea Party has indulged in it's own share of race baiting anyway (as the Comic Book Alliance points out in this excellent essay, Tea Party leader Mark Williams once called President Obama "an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist in chief"), meaning even if Marvel was making this charge they would be justified in doing so.

While some pundits have stated that Captain America has often had a liberal slant (a charge that was certainly true, for instance, during Steve Englehart's notoriously political run in the 1970's, which included a story about Richard Nixon heading a secret society of villains bent on ruling America -- another example of the comic's explicitly political past), it's important to note that villains such as the Watchdogs are an important part of Captain America's mythology and are certainly not limited to conservative groups. These groups act as allegorical substitutes that allow Captain America to confront major issues facing our country in a tangible way. Just as the Wacthdogs represent the dangers of right-wing militarism, Ultimatum, which Captain America has fought a number of times, represents the opposite problem of left-wing militants, while the Sons of the Serpent allow him to battle racism. And those are just a few examples.

Personally, I applaud Brubaker for including political commentary in his work, even if, with just one issue out of a four part storyline out so far, nobody actually knows what kind of statement he may be making with this arc. Comic books, especially Captain America, do not have to be mindless entrainment; they can and should deal with the social forces that shape our world. If that gets someone's knickers in a bunch because their lame "tea bagging" joke is turned against them, well, so be it. Asking Captain America to be apolitical strips the character of meaning and relevance.

And as this debate shows, we have enough irrelevance already without adding more to the mix.

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My god, are those Tea Baggers self-important or what? Art is always informed by the socio-cultural events around it, but jeez, as is often attributed to Freud, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Seems like a case of a marginal group trying to grab headlines any way they can. They were probably happy to see this depiction because it gave them a chance to snatch some publicity AND attack a "liberal media," even if that media is comics. Great essay, Scott.