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Captain America: The Truth
posted April 19, 2010


Creators: Robert Morales, Kyle Baker
Publishing Information: Marvel, hardcover, 168 pages, February 2009 (series originally published 2003), $24.99
Ordering Numbers: 9780785136668 (ISBN13), 0785136665 (ISBN10)

Captain America: The Truth came out during a time I wasn't directly involved in comics and certainly not in a way I could afford to buy seven issues of $3.50 comics. I was aware of the series' basic premise, that it was a re-telling of Captain America's origin that folded in a Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment-style chapter involving black men and the super-soldier formula. I had a brief discussion with writer Morales, evidence of whom before and after a run on the Captain America title I can find almost nothing on the Internet, and remember I thought him smart. I'm a great fan of artist Kyle Baker. One of the things that occurred during comics while I stepped aside from daily focus on industry matters was a relative creative playfulness, since mostly locked down, that I've enjoyed when I've read other comics from that period. It made an impression, despite my either not having read it or having read it in cursory fashion.

imageReading it now reveals one very deeply odd comic book series. I mean "Whoa, Nellie" odd. The first thing I have to mention is that I was wrong about the series' concept. Despite major press claiming otherwise before and even reviews after, the story wasn't about the first Captain America but about a scramble to duplicate the super-soldier formula that created Captain America, using black soldiers in that effort. This gets explained in the appendix in that the book was take from outside Marvel continuity into Marvel continuity, which meant that its post-Pearl Harbor story put it after the appearance of Captain America back in that time. Although since the entire story seems directed that way, you couldn't blame a rational reader for suspecting that a more direct protection of the character was worked into the series while it was ongoing.

While this move/development/whatever takes away the juice of creating Captain America himself from the Tuskegee Experiment-style set-up, it also places the spotlight even more directly on the treatment of African-American soldiers during that period, with the American upper-class embrace of eugenics as a minor undercurrent. History tells us the treatment of black soldiers was routinely abominable, and in The Truth those abuses become the relentless, dour drumbeat of the narrative. In other words, Marvel traded an imaginary story that might have made a black man the first Captain America for an in-continuity one that super-sizes some of the worst behavior of the US government in its long history. Captain America is safe, but the government for which he works has a truckload of explaining to do. The better and more observant histories tell us the real-world abuses were horrible, but I don't think they were quite as over-the-top horrifying as the exploding bodies and entire units massacred for the control of minor state secrets we see here. That in no way diminishes the real-world aspects, I hope (I could be wrong), but as presented here it's hard not to see Captain America's moral obligations as something much greater and more self-critical than the character could bear. If I were this Captain America, I might need to dig up FDR and punch his skull.

There are some clumsy aspects to the story throughout, particularly the pacing within and between scenes. I liked Morales' scripting and dialogue work, for the most part, but his cast member remain types in a way that it's hard to afford them the greater sympathy we might with more idiosyncratically realized characters. I'd be surprised if someone out there didn't find the "and this is all this had an effect on the white/real/more important Captain America" take a little bit of a downer after the vivid world that was created around the black characters. That was surprisingly okay with me, especially as it was counter-balanced by this notion that black cultural history is so ignored that everyone except people like Steve Rogers have known this story all along. Baker's work is uneven. In general he nails the scene-setting and the character aspects, and there's something a little bit wicked about a story that is supposed to be a forgotten, buried by history chapter being expressed through a forgotten, buried by history way of making superhero art. Some of the later comics sequences lost me, though, particularly the way that Captain America's body language is expressed. Some of the more wild caricatures had a fizz that took me out of the story, too, and the combat scenes didn't flow the way action has in other Baker works.

In the end, this is a hard story to parse because it's really about the history involved -- and the notion of retroactive continuity as it gets portrayed in the press -- more than it is a tight, well-paced story of its own. It's fun to read something this ruthlessly negative about American history coming out during the Bush years, and some of the ideas are enjoyable to mull over, but it's not something I regret having missed the first time around. It's admirably odd, that's for sure.