Symposium

Captain America and fans' political activity

Forrest Phillips

University of California, Santa Cruz, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—A brief overview is provided of how American fans have used Captain America in their political activity, and the implications of their political appropriation are explored.

[0.2] Keywords—American; Comic book; Marvel Comics; Politics

Phillips, Forrest. 2013. "Captain America and Fandom's Political Activity." In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0441.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, serves as the embodiment of traditional American ideals such as liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness (Dittmer 2005; McDermott 2009; DuBose 2007). Considering this, it is hardly surprising that American fans often use the character to engage with political topics (Johnson 2010; Ostrander 2011). More specifically, Marvel Comics fans of varying political perspectives have used the Star-Spangled Avenger to further their political arguments. This wide range of political engagement is possible in part because Steve Rogers's brand of Americanness is broad enough that it encompasses all but the fringes of the American political spectrum. This essay will look at the ways in which the Tea Party and the Occupy movement have used the Sentinel of Liberty to further their respective ideological goals, and will briefly touch on two groups that have not.

2. Transcendent Americanness

[2.1] Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as an argument against isolationism, and after his revival in the 1960s Marvel has painstakingly ensured that the Star-Spangled Avenger is identified with the highest American ideals rather than any administration, policy, or political party (Calhoun 2011; Dittmer 2005; Johnson 2010; White 2011a; Wright 2001). Captain America writer Richard Stern even went so far as to issue an official statement in the June 1980 issue saying that the Sentinel of Liberty is "about as dead-center in the political spectrum as one can get" (quoted in DuBose 2007, 930). Former Captain America writer Steve Englehart has argued that this transcendent quality is an essential part of the character (Walton 2009). As Cap himself declared in Captain America #332 (August 1987):

[2.2] Those men are not my country. They are only paid bureaucrats of the country's current administration. They represent the political system—while I represent those intangibles upon which our nation was founded…liberty, justice, dignity, the pursuit of happiness…that, really is my major stumbling block with their plan for me. By going back to my wartime role as a glorified agent of America's official policies, I'd be compromising my effectiveness as a symbol that transcends mere politics. (quoted in DuBose 2007, 930–31)

[2.3] He was disillusioned by Richard Nixon, fought Ronald Reagan, and refused an offer from the New Populist Party to run against Jimmy Carter (Captain America and the Falcon #175; Walton 2009; DuBose 2009; Booker 2010). Fans have embraced the character's higher standing and use his iconography as a way to semiotically encode a claim that that their dissent is based on core American ideals rather than a more radical perspective (cjohnson 2011; White 2011a).

3. Captain Red America and Captain Blue America…

Video 1. "The Best Tea Party Movie" by billhenn1.

[3.1] When the Tea Party rose to national prominence in 2010, the movement's cosplay of American icons, including the Founding Fathers, immediately made news (Walsh 2010). One of the most remarkable costumes worn by Tea Party demonstrators was that of the Star-Spangled Avenger. As Nicolle Lamerichs (2011) argues, when fans cosplay they are expressing their fondness for, identifying with, and making statements about the narrative associated with the character whom they are playing. The statement made by political Captain America cosplayers is that Cap would agree with their point of view. For instance, at a 2011 Tea Party rally, a man dressed as Captain America personalized his shield with a bumper sticker that read "Please don't tell Obama what comes after a trillion" as a way to assert that his support of limited government is the sole authentic American perspective (White 2011b). Similarly, the Star-Spangled Avenger waved the star-spangled banner at a March 24, 2011, rally in opposition to the Affordable Care Act (Shelly 2012).

[3.2] While in both these cases Captain America's iconography was used to support right-wing causes, his use in political action transcends partisan boundaries just as the character does in the comics. In October 2010, the Sentinel of Liberty showed his support for "reasonableness" at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (Calhoun 2011). A year later he defended labor unions at a protest in Madison, Wisconsin (Mills 2011). Furthermore, Cap's iconography has been used at multiple Occupy rallies: one protestor wore a makeshift Cap costume and flashed the peace sign while another attached a figurine of the Star-Spangled Avenger to the top of a sign bearing a handwritten anticorporate slogan (Moscamaurer 2012; jamie nyc 2011). Additionally, an activist advocating for homeless veterans addressed Occupy Oakland clad in the costume of the Sentinel of Liberty (addio33 2012).

Video 2. "#F29 Allen Mullins (Captain America) Addresses Occupy Oakland" by addio33.

[3.3] While most appropriations of the Captain's iconography are anchored in a broader political movement such as Occupy or the Tea Party, not all political uses of it occur on behalf of such groups. For example, in a riot following an Occupy Oakland march, Roy Sorvari, a "real-life superhero" called "The Ray," attacked riot police at an Occupy Oakland encampment with a borrowed orange aluminum reproduction of Captain America's mighty shield (Smiley 2011). An SF Weekly article made clear that Sorvari lacked a coherent political motivation and was motivated by a general fear of African Americans. Sorvari's use of a superhero identity to act on this fear is an inherently political statement, as it distorts his prejudice into four-color heroism. However, it is distinct from other fan appropriations of Captain America in two ways. First, Sorvari doesn't belong to a political movement. Second, he made practical use of the shield as a defensive weapon rather than using it to connect his viewpoint to American tradition.

[3.4] Fans' politicized use of Captain America's iconography goes beyond wearing costumes and wielding props at rallies. A post on the Occupy-affiliated Web site Occupyr was titled "Captain America Stand with 99%" and included a panel from Amazing Spider-Man #537 (January 2007) in which Captain America declares,

[3.5] 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 the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole 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." (precipice 2011)

[3.6] However, this passage was also quoted on a conservative Tumblr blog that has declared the 99% movement useless ("Doesn't Matter" 2012; "So Let's Have a Chat" 2012). At first glance, the fact that an Occupier and a Tea Partier both present this quotation as perfectly summarizing their viewpoint seems to support the popular notion that these movements are starting to converge. This is mistaken. Nothing that Captain America says in that passage is specific to Tea Party or Occupy ideology, and it would be wrong to conclude from their joint adoption of it that their ideologies are similar. All that this use of the quotation demonstrates is that members of both movements frame themselves as outsiders who adhere to their vision of true American values, and that Captain America is a broad enough figure to encompass such outsiders regardless of their differences. This shared outsider status is hardly evidence of a convergence. Instead, it is merely evidence of their shared origin as grassroots movements.

[3.7] Steve Rogers's brand of transcendent Americanism has even been embraced by the establishment the character is written as being separate from. This was demonstrated when the Obama reelection campaign's Tumblr reblogged a poster of the president dressed as the Star-Spangled Avenger (Daily Mail 2012). The Obama campaign hasn't reblogged a picture of the president dressed as one of the Founding Fathers, and few if any Occupy protestors have styled themselves so as to evoke them. This difference suggests that Captain America is a more potent symbol of nearly universal, nonpartisan Americanness than any historical figure who has been elevated to the American pantheon.

4. …or Captain America?

[4.1] The use of the Star-Spangled Avenger's image by the Obama campaign and by protest movements across the nation's political spectrum demonstrates Marvel's success in writing the character as a defender of broader American ideals rather than of the American government. That is to say, Captain America's owners have crafted an icon of Americanness whose bipartisan popularity rivals or surpasses that of our nation's founders. The good captain is even treated as though he were a historical figure. Every other member of the American pantheon was a complicated human being who held a wide range of opinions, yet Americans across the political spectrum frequently claim that one or another of them would agree with their policy positions. The same claims are made about Captain America. He was rabidly pro-war in the 1940s and yet has been heralded as an icon of everything that is great about the United States by the generally antiwar Occupy movement (Canfield 2012; Carapezza 2012). He exchanged blows with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, and yet Captain America and the Gipper are both held to be paragons of American virtue by the Tea Party (Gonyea 2011; White 2011b). Marvel has created an icon of Americanness so potent that Americans can't help but turn to political poaching (à la Michel de Certeau), writing their own meaning onto him rather than passively accepting Marvel's assertions of his neutrality (Jenkins 1992; Rimjob 2008; DuBose 2007). Each poacher considers the elements of Cap's character that conform to his or her own perspective to be essential, while casting aside those that conflict.

[4.2] The reason Captain America is so easily poached is simple. Marvel's desire to ground the character in overarching American principles rather than policy or party means that Steve Rogers will never outline whether or not he supports Medicare. He'll never issue an opinion on illegal immigration. Instead, all he will talk about are broad ideals like freedom and justice. When fans read Captain America saying that the United States is built on "the requirement that we stand up for what we believe," they assume those beliefs are their own. His vagueness combines with readers' confirmation biases (Eysenck 2004, 328) to make him a broadly admired American patriotic icon.

[4.3] Such broadly admired icons are rare. This means that fans' decision to use one as a mouthpiece for their political position is inherently divisive. It creates a dichotomy that turns Americans who disagree with them into an Other (Dittmer 2005). If Captain America is a conservative, then liberals oppose not only a specific set of policies, but the very core of America itself. The reverse is true when those on the left use Captain America to support their policies. When a character whose narrative is that he represents all Americans is used to criticize some of them, the de-Americanization of those being criticized is inevitable. This is the reason Marvel faced outrage when it published stories that conservative fans, including film critic Michael Medved, felt were critical of the United States or the Tea Party (Medved 2003; McGuirk 2010). If Captain America stands against certain people, they're not simply Americans with a reasonable policy proposal that he disagrees with. They are against life, liberty, and the other ideals that form the foundation of America's self-image (DuBose 2007).

[4.4] This last point is critical. Groups that fall outside of the American mainstream tend not to embrace Captain America (Docsamson 2010). A likely explanation is that these groups are not primarily focused on arguing that their views are part of the American tradition. As an example, the American Communist Party contextualizes itself as an international movement and prioritizes the hammer and sickle over the stars and stripes. Fittingly, Captain America is nowhere to be found on its Web site (http://cpusa.org). The same is true of fringe groups on the right, like Stormfront, that identify as part of a broader white-supremacist movement and prioritize German– and Teutonic-inspired iconography (Kampfgruppe88 2011; Lady Celtic 2007). Given such groups' international self-image, it isn't surprising that they would abstain from appropriating the Star-Spangled Avenger. It's worth mentioning that while some groups that walk the line between the mainstream and the fringe, such as the John Birch Society, fully embrace American iconography, they find their membership conflicted about whether they can embrace Captain America (Eddlem 2011; Walker 2011). Only the mainstream, including the Occupy and Tea Party movements, has generally embraced Captain America. This is likely because the members of such movements have (at least largely) embraced their Americanness and thus want to draw on the tradition that Captain America so effectively represents.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] While Captain America was first created as a fervent nationalist who wanted American children to "free our country of our traitors" (Yanes 2009, 58), he has developed into a very different character. Fans have embraced the modern incarnation of the Star-Spangled Avenger because he is one of the few embodiments of an Americanness that encompasses a wide swath of the nation's political spectrum, from the most conservative Tea Party member to the most liberal Occupier (Johnson 2010; Mroczkowski 2011). This near-universal American appeal renders any political use of his image inherently divisive and questionable, yet makes his political appropriation irresistible.

6. Acknowledgment

[6.1] Thanks to Suzanne Scott for introducing me to the world of fan studies.

7. Works cited

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