In recent times, popular culture has not exactly been a bastion of principled thought and philosophy, particularly when viewed from conservative or libertarian perspectives. Television, movies, and music, along with countless novels, have been infiltrated either by big-government leftism or a pervasive nihilism.
Is there a pop-culture genre that might be considered an exception? Well, I fondly remember the superhero comic books from my childhood that emphasized the importance of individualism, protecting the innocent, and standing up against all forms of tyranny.
Of course, so much in the comic-book industry has changed over the past 20 or 30 years. Most striking, few comic books are now written for young children. Specifically for our purposes, superhero comic books grew up a little, with story lines becoming a bit more complex in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. The publication of a few high-profile comics showed the industry moving away from simple pulp fiction just for kids.
For example, Marvel Comics probably broke the mold in the late 1970s with an installment in the X-Men series—“The Dark Phoenix Saga”—that saw a longtime hero, Jean Grey, corrupted by power and eventually dying. In 1986, DC Comics published “The Dark Knight Returns,” which took an older Batman to a grander, but much darker level. In addition, DC’s “The Watchmen” (1986-1987) told a sometimes explicit tale of a set of costumed adventurers who ranged from dysfunctional to psychotic.
By the 1990s, superhero comic books seemed to have given up on the younger market, gearing themselves to older teenagers and younger adults. The stories and, in particular, the artwork took a quantum leap higher. In 1994, Marvel Comics published a rather striking series called “Marvels.” This tale was told from the perspective of a freelance news photographer, who offered the average man’s view—his hopes and fears—while watching the feats of superheroes and supervillains over the years.
Many of these publications still presented a strong pro-individual, anti-tyranny message, except for “The Watchmen,” which offered a far more muddled view of right, wrong, and mankind. For example, while the ultimate message in the X-Men “Dark Phoenix Saga” was taking responsibility for one’s actions, “The Watchmen” arguably went directly against such a notion.
In recent assessments, conservatives seem split on the direction of comic books. In a 1994 National Review article, for example, Anthony Lejeune praised old-time comics, pointing out: “Political themes, as distinct from simple Americanism, were generally eschewed as being likely to divide than to attract readers.” But he saw a drastic change in longer, grander comics known as “graphic novels”: “What almost all of them have in common is that their vision is dark—like the new Batman—rather than bright, ugly rather than beautiful, bitter rather than optimistic, cruel rather than genial.”
In contrast, in the Weekly Standard (1998), Mark Gauvreau Judge wrote that some people creating comics “are trying to explore the big questions. And they’re doing it in books openly hostile to the moral relativism of modern liberalism.” He concluded that “conservative moralists could do a lot worse than to follow the latest round of superheroes flying above the streets of Metropolis and Gotham.”
The True Test
So, who’s right? Well, for me, the true test of the current state of superheroes has to be gauged by my childhood favorite—Captain America. And with this “Sentinel of Liberty” having just reached his 60th anniversary, this is an ideal time to take a look. Captain America, the creation of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, arrived on the comics scene in March 1941, less than a year before the United States entered World War II.
As the story goes, a scrawny kid named Steve Rogers volunteered for a secret experiment, which turned him into America’s “super soldier.” In the 1940s, Rogers—Captain America—appeared in simple, patriotic stories fighting against Nazi spies and saboteurs, along with a few murder mysteries and horror tales tossed in along the way.
Soon, however, the popularity of superhero comic books declined for a period. Captain America remained in suspended animation from the late 1940s until he was thawed out in the early 1960s, except for a brief resurrection in the 1950s carrying the tantalizing Cold War title “Captain America . . . Commie Smasher.”
In the ’60s, Captain America stories remained geared primarily toward youths. The anti-tyranny message was a constant. “Cap” not only battled supervillains bent on world domination, but also fought against communists, bigotry, and various evildoers trying to resurrect the Third Reich. Along the way, lessons like not taking liberty for granted and the importance of protecting human life were emphasized.
Eventually, some of the uncertainty about the United States that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s even caught up with Captain America. At the time of Watergate and its aftermath, for example, Steve Rogers briefly became disillusioned and set aside his identity as Captain America to become a new hero called Nomad. Could the contrast in names be more acute?
By the time the nation’s bicentennial rolled around in 1976, however, Captain America was back and growing more confident. At this time, Cap would foil a conspiracy to overthrow democracy and destroy the Declaration of Independence, and later take on villains whose cause was pure nihilism. As the decade came to a close, Captain America’s link to World War II also would serve as a way to provide a reminder about the atrocities of the Nazi government, with one issue serving up a poignant reminder of the concentration camps.
Captain America in the 1980s touched on a variety of topics, including the question of vigilantism (always a biggie in superhero comic books), prison reform, taking responsibility for one’s actions, pacifism, nationalism versus one-worldism, the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union, and of course, terrorism.
One story line had a hero from an alternate universe asking for help to fight a new tyranny on his Earth. The loss of democracy and individual freedom occurred for interesting reasons: With the idea of creating a Utopia, a superhero team first helps people in distress, then disarms the populace, and finally resorts to mind control to keep presumed undesirables in line. The underlying importance of the Second Amendment could not be missed.
Another ’80s story line carried a distinct antibureaucrat message, as a rogue government commission strips Steve Rogers of his Captain America identity for being too independent. The pursuit of Captain America by this commission, it is worth noting, was triggered by an IRS auditor.
Cap versus the Feminist
Since 1990 Captain America has continued to touch on a variety of social and philosophical topics. One amusing story line had Cap taking on a militant, man-hating super-powered feminist. Others provided sound warnings about abusing individuals in the pursuit of some elusive Utopia. A particularly noteworthy recent story featured Captain America battling a “galactic totalitarianism,” whereby an all-powerful being in the future eliminated worry, hunger, need, crime, and violence, but at a daunting price—the loss of free will and independent thought.
In the end, the critics who say that comic books have become far too dark have an abundance of material to back up their claims. Others who see some great issues and interesting stories being played out have examples to point to as well.
For better or worse, since the writers of Captain America (and other comic books, for that matter) inevitably change over the years, there comes a difference in style and emphasis. Nonetheless, after now having caught up with one of my childhood favorites, I can say that, to the credit of Marvel Comics, while usually being general, there has been a fairly constant, favorable emphasis in the pages of Captain America on individualism and freedom, personal responsibility, protecting human life, the opportunity to chase the American Dream, and the need to fight tyranny.
For good measure, Captain America places great emphasis on hard work. As a superhero without special super powers, he has to be a disciplined, hard worker to keep up with both allies and foes endowed with fantastic abilities. In a recent story, Captain America proclaims that “America is about making your own way. America can give you the chance. But it’s up to you to work hard and do something with the opportunity.”
On the rare occasions when specific economic issues have come into play, however, it must be said that the writers of Captain America seem to suffer from the same lack of knowledge regarding our free enterprise system that permeates the rest of popular culture. While in the early 1960s one tale involving Captain America was distinctly anti-communist and pro-capitalist, in more recent times, a rather silly economic populism seems to pop up now and then. For example, a few odd slaps were taken at the advertising business in the 1980s, and more recently, prison privatization was portrayed in a bad light, with an anti-big-corporation message detected on another occasion.
It certainly would be nice if the Captain America character, who speaks so often about opportunity and the American Dream, would occasionally note the critical role played by free enterprise. After all, freedom and opportunity are mere myths or platitudes if one does not recognize the importance of private property and free markets.
Like the rest of pop culture, comic books are first and foremost escapist fun. However, various philosophical or cultural ideas inevitably are touched on to some limited degree. The positive emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility is enough to classify Captain America as recommended pop-culture reading. All Cap needs is a quick lesson in the wonders of sound economics.