“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”
– The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
In March of 1941, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon unwittingly brought a philosophical question to the forefront of the public imagination that would outlive them both when they published Captain America #1: At what point is it okay to punch a Nazi? To them, it wasn’t even a question, it was a moral imperative at a time when American involvement in the war was barely expanding into material support for the allied forces (enabled by the Lease-Lend Act signed that same month).
As Kirby and Simon surely knew, it’s a poor philosophical question because the possibility of being an instigator of violence against the perpetrators of a genocidal ideology only exists for the most privileged members of society. Even when Kirby rode the elevator down to the lobby with the intention of punching at least one of the nazi aligned agitators lurking there, it was done in retaliation for the promise of violence against him they’d already issued.
It’s a point made sharpest of all in the Captain America mythos by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s 2003 miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black beginning from the premise that Steve Rogers was preceded as Captain America by a testing pool of black soldiers. The first issue opens in 1940, introducing three of the future test subjects navigating the everyday forms of violence they encounter as black men in the northern states.
Isaiah Bradley and his wife Faith, attending Negro Week at the World’s Fair in Queens, are turned away from a peep show by a carnival barker putting on an overwrought performance of being embarrassed by the racist rhetoric he’s using to reject their patronage, as if he’s only being reasonable. In Philadelphia, Maurice Canfield returns home to his parents upper class home, complete with butler, sporting a black eye because the white men he was attempting to convince to unionize weren’t going to take advice from blacks and jews. At a pool hall in Cleveland, Ohio, Sergeant Luke Evans explains that he was busted down from Captain for getting into a fight with a white officer who referred to a black MP being murdered by white civilian cops as “trifling.”
Steve Rogers’ founding myth of being too small to stand up to the bullies he desperately wanted to thwart looms large over these incidents, but unlike Rogers, it isn’t for want of size and strength. Bradley, Canfield, and Evans aren’t disempowered by their inability to retaliate, they’re disempowered by the consequences of retaliation that the condition of white supremacy guaranteed and the super soldier serum they eventually received was no solution.
One of the key ways that Truth shines is in how Morales and Baker wove together the various manifestations of white supremacist violence and the accompanying rhetoric to give their narrative strong enough roots to deflect a reading of the period it occurs in as being exceptional or non-representative of American racial history. The specifics of the program that Bradley, Lucas, and Canfield are inducted into are absolutely fictitious: assembled with hundreds of other black soldiers at a clandestine camp, those chosen as viable test subjects moving on to another facility while the remainder were executed, but they represent a synthesis of centuries of colonialist and state violence into a single mechanized process.
The serum itself and its application by eugenicists on black men deemed disposable before it can be given safely to the white population is drawn from the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and related practices enacted and endorsed by the American government, while the experience of Bradley’s unit from mustering at Camp Cathcart to battling Nazis in Europe is framed as a geographic reversal of their ancestors’ displacement from Africa via the Middle Passage. The emphasis on the continuity of the evolving manifestations of violence as a tool of social control against African-Americans comes to a head in a surreal, liminal moment in an issue aptly titled “The Passage.”
As the unit passes time on their voyage to the European front playing cards, Evans -a career soldier and World War I veteran- is asked about the toughest battle he fought in while another soldier, on the brink of death, begins hallucinating African tribesmen, likely his own ancestors who made the reverse trip in the hold of a slave ship. Instead of describing the horrors of trench warfare, Evans offers an account of The Red Summer, during which he participated in guerrilla warfare fighting back against gangs of white agitators riled up by the evergreen allegation of black men raping a white woman.
Evans’ main purpose throughout the comic is to act as a historical link, to illustrate to the younger men as well as the audience the ways in which racist thought and action codified into America in the days of legalized slavery continue to hold sway in forms that evolve alongside social progress. “Killing white men is a gift you only get from other white men,” he admonishes a rabble rousing subordinate who declares his excitement at being deployed so that he can kill white people.
It’s a principle Evans learned the hard way, having already fought in one war for his country and having to use that training to fight a desperate battle for survival the moment he returned home. He sees through the prospect of unleashing cathartic violence against a state sanctioned enemy as the cynical ploy to distract from the parallel forms of violence and social control both sides employed that it is. As cynical and world weary as Evans is, it’s a manifestation of the genuine care he has for the men under his command and his investment in their survival.
Bradley, the eventual lone survivor, has to confront the raw truth of Evans’ perspective when he’s sent in to destroy the Nazi camp hosting the regime’s attempts to duplicate the serum. “Soldier, at this moment, you might not think there’s much difference between us and the Germans and us, but if we win the war, your family will live,” he’s told by his smirking superior officer.
What Bradley finds in the camp is far more familiar to American audiences than the homegrown terror of his journey to become the shadow Captain America. The camp is host to an example of wartime Nazi medical experimentation that is more recreation than science fiction elaboration, challenging the readers to accept the verisimilitude of Bradley’s pain on equal terms with the reality of the Holocaust. Bradley’s ordeal is fiction, engineered to create empathy and an understanding that two distinct and horrific crimes -chattel slavery and the Holocaust- were the product of the same ideology. It’s a notion expressed by the cover of the issue, the silhouette of Bradley’s face filled in by numbers implied to be the tattoos given to concentration camp victims, but it also goes all the way back to Canfield’s first appearance.
When his mother calls him a fool for his socialist activism he shoots back “Why, Momma? Because I think we should stand up for ourselves? Because if enough people at the bottom
learned to work together, there might be some advancement for Negroes?” It’s no accident that Morales wrote in that Canfield’s partner in trying to get white workers to unionize that night was Jewish, as the solidarity and empathy they shared lies at the core of Truth’s thesis.
It’s a lesson Steve Rogers gets the dark side of when he joins the narrative late in the series, piecing together the details of Bradley’s life. After tracking down the retired Colonel responsible for the program, the same one who lectured Bradley on the thin difference between himself and the Germans, Rogers is given the true story behind the super soldier serum. Before the war, when the United States and Hitler’s Germany were “on the same page,” as the Colonel describes it, the German government sent the doctors behind the serum to meet with privately funded eugenicists in the United States. When the war started, the project split into two with one of the scientists staying to develop the serum that Bradley and Rogers eventually got and the other returning to Germany.
It’s a somewhat obscure plot point, but quite possibly the one most relevant to contemporary readers. It’s easy enough to see the rhetoric of contemporary white supremacist architects like Richard Spencer echoed in the voices of the military and scientist characters in Truth, but what’s more pertinent and urgent is the level of organizing between like minded thinkers.
As writer Flavia Dzodan has been relentlessly tracking for several years, the people hawking white ethno-nationalism from the United States to clear across Europe have been networking intensely amongst themselves while the local left wing establishments express shock and bewilderment at the “rising tide” every time it occurs, blind to the co-ordination. Either directly or indirectly through policy advisors or shared influencers, far right figures from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders are all deeply connected.
Canfield’s exasperation radiates off the page and through the ages to disseminations of how Hillary Clinton fell to Donald Trump for embracing “identity politics” when the reality of the situation is that identity politics are a right wing construct and the game Trump played to the hilt. His words about coalition building towards black empowerment can be felt in the frustration of a black Bernie Sanders supporter outlining the Vermonter’s inability to articulate that “no corrective of American economics can be color-blind while creating equality for people of all races,” as well as the deconstruction of the myth of the black vote as a monolith in the context of the Clinton-Sanders primaries. Failure to organize, and organize around mutual solidarity and empathy in specific, is no less of a critical issue for the left now than it was in 1940s Philadelphia, as evinced not just by the failure to defeat Trump, but the hapless effort to prevent the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.
What absolutely cannot be overlooked about Truth is that beneath the powerful use of allegory and fearless confrontation with the American role in developing the policies and philosophies that the Hitler regime employed is one of the few examples of a superhero comic starring characters whose blackness isn’t geared directly towards a white gaze.
While the entire story is essentially being narrated to Steve Rogers, he doesn’t appear directly until the end of the series or take up any space within it. Bradley, Canfield, nor Evans have to position their actions or motivations against Rogers’ example the way that Sam Wilson seemingly has to in his current series. While it’s unrealistic to expect most mainstream superhero comics to treat social issues like racism with the raw frankness that Truth did, it stands as a testament to the fact that the medium can accommodate a discourse that goes far beyond invoking respectability politics in discussing anti-racist activism.
At a moment when the legacy of World War II and Steve Rogers’ role within it is being toyed with for shock value in a story about a fascist takeover of the United States that doesn’t actually examine the mechanics of fascism or how it’s allowed to manifest, Truth: Red, White, and Black stands as a reminder of the gruesome realities behind Rogers’ empowerment.
What Truth and Secret Empire are seemingly able to agree on is that Steve Rogers as Captain America is the product of white supremacy. Where they diverge is that Secret Empire has wrapped that fact up in several layers of cartoon nonsense in an attempt at disassociation while Truth irrevocably connected it to centuries of institutionalized racism and the pseudo science dedicated to legitimizing it. Despite all the tough talk and posturing, Secret Empire shows all the signs of being dedicated to soothing and coddling the white reader, providing both the power fantasy of authoritarian rule and the necessary plot devices to exculpate Rogers, leaving him ultimately blameless for his crimes.
Truth: Red, White, and Black is a war story. Secret Empire is a very old and terrible lie.