A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 5: Captain America vs. the 60s
Face front, true believers!
As I mentioned in Week 3, Marvel had a lot of work to do to update Captain America for the 1960s. That was true enough for the early 60s, when the U.S Army was the undisputed good guy in the comics, when Professor X worked with the FBI to track down mutants (more on that in a future issue), and when beatniks were an easy comedy bit. By 1968, when Captain America graduated from Tales of Suspense (where he double-billed with Iron Man) and got his own book, things had changed even more so. The comics industry had to deal with the counter-culture’s influence on visual media (both through hiring a new generation of writers and artists influenced by the counter-culture, but also as older creators like Jack Kirby got interested in surrealism, mixed-media, and other trends), and at the same time the counter-culture started to show an interest in comics.
And what was true for the industry and Marvel as a whole was even more so for Captain America; as the super-soldierly representation of all that’s best in the U.S, Cap had to respond to changes in America’s political culture. So how did Cap face the 60s?
To begin with, by experimenting artistically so that Cap’s image kept pace with the times. Jack Kirby continued to draw giant robots and intricate machines, but he also pushed his art to become ever more elaborate and strange – the Cosmic Cube allowed him to bring in some of the cosmic weirdness that we associate more with his run on Fantastic Four and MODOK (more on that in a future issue as well) continued his interest in giant Olmec heads. In addition, Jim Steranko was brought in as a regular artist and brought with him a new interest in psychedelic art and surrealism, an emphasis on flowing and contorting movement, and experimental paneling:
Counter-cultural art can only get you so far when that art is depicting a man literally dressed as the American flag in the midst of the Vietnam war (more on which in future installments). So Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and Jim Steranko, and so on) had to deal directly with how Captain America was viewed by the new generation:
Between Captain America #120 and #130, Steve Rogers is suddenly made aware of the generation gap, the counter-culture, and that he himself is viewed as a giant square. But where most people opining on Captain America go wrong is that Marvel didn’t have Cap respond to this by becoming a reactionary, lashing out at the damned hippies. Rather, Lee et al. leaned into their already-established trope as Cap as a man out of time in a different way, as Steve Rogers takes the critique seriously:
This is how Captain America engages in political analysis. Rather than writing off the baby boom generation, he draws a direct link between the “injustice, greed, and endless war” that he has observed in this new world and the rise of the “rebel and the dissenter,” taking their complaints seriously. Moreover, as a good ally should, Steve Rogers doesn’t stop at the structural level but also absorbs the counter-cultural critique on a personal level, asking himself why he hasn’t been more of an individualist and a dissenter rather than just a soldier.
On a meta-level, I think we can also see this as a kind of generational reckoning as well, with Steve Rogers standing in for the Marvel staff in their 40s who had spent their youth in the U.S Army in WWII, confronting a new culture that valorized the “anti-hero” rather than Marvel’s more straightforwardly earnest style of protagonist. Without backing down on his insistence that the values he believes in are timeless and that there is important things that his generation has to offer the youth – in #122, Rogers will namedrop Martin Luther King Jr., JRR Tolkien, the Kennedy brothers, and Marshall McLuhan as examples of “establishment” types who have influenced the youth movement – Cap nonetheless starts to experiment with a more counter-cultural way of life, suggesting that the counter-culture might be right about his generation.
Not only will Captain America begin questioning authority (usually in the form of Nick Fury of SHIELD) more, but he’ll also take to the road on a motorcycle to carve out an identity as Steve Rogers apart from the mantle of Captain America, setting up a big part of his Easy Rider-inspired Nomad persona in the 1970s:
When Steve Rogers rides off into his bike, looking for the Real America, he finds not just open road and existential quandary but the radical student movement of the 1960s. And both Rogers himself and his creators interact with the student movement much in the way that mainstream liberals at the time did, sympathizing with student demands but viewing radical direct action as dangerous and illiberal:
Thus, Steve Rogers in his civilian guise goes into action to protect a professor from being kidnapped by dangerous radicals, but also takes the campus administration to task for not listening to their students. Meanwhile, Stan Lee and Gene Colan depict student radicals as unrepresentative of their peers and threatening the destruction of the larger institution. At the same time, however, when it comes down to a clash between campus protesters and the police, we know which side Captain America will come down on, and it’s not the police:
While this might not rise to the level of Denny O’Neill on Green Lantern and Green Arrow, it’s still an important symbolic statement. Despite how wildly unpopular the New Left had made itself by the late 1960s (71% of Americans believed that the “country would be better off if there was less protest and dissatisfaction coming from college campuses” in 1968) here’s Captain America siding with the kids against the cops – as we’ll see, an association that will be enduring across issues.
At the same time though, Marvel also finessed this potential controversy with some rather strange symbolic politics. That long-haired, pink-panted gentlemen standing next to Mart Baker and the megaphone isn’t actually a bona-fide student…he’s an undercover agent of AIM. AIM is secretly infiltrating the student movement and deliberately intensifying conflict in order both to weaken American society, but also as a cover for the abduction of various professors in the sciences whose research AIM wants to steal:
If you strip out the inherent Marvel wackiness of MODOK’s giant baby head and AIM’s beekeeper helmets, this isn’t too different from contemporary conservative arguments that the student movement had been infiltrated by Soviet agents. At the same time, though, Lee and Colan frame the situation as AIM having seized upon “legitimate grievances” and show the students as unwitting tools rather than actively disloyal, and when AIM’s involvement is unmasked, Cap and student radicals team up to take them down:
It’s hard to look at this particular storyline and not see the whole thing as condescending at best, but Marvel Comics didn’t leave it at that. Hot off the heels of his intervention in campus politics, Steve Rogers gets approached to become the TV pitchman for a “law and order” backlash against the New Left that’s hiding sinister motives:
And because he’s Captain America, and Captain America’s secret super-power is weaponized morality, Cap sees right through the slogans of “law and order” to the sinister plot of men wearing white hoods over their faces (not hugely subtle symbolism there, but some anvils needed to be dropped in 1968):
This is what I mean when I say that Captain America is a progressive: he’s reframing patriotism and American national traditions as inherently radical and de-linking the defense of the status quo from the defense of the values that the status quo supposedly embodies, while taking a strong pro-non-violence line with regards to protest.
So in the 1960s, Captain America becomes the defender of youth (in a future issue, I’ll discuss how Captain America saved rock music by fighting the Hells Angels at Altamont). And it’s just in the nick of time too, because as it turns out, the man in the white hood pushing for “law and order” backlash politics is none other than actual, factual Nazi, Baron Strucker of HYDRA:
So there you have it, folks. The political movement behind Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan is secretly being run by a Nazi cabal, MODOK is heightening the contradictions, and Cap says the kids are all right. However, we really can’t talk about Ca in the 1960s without talking about one Sam Wilson, better known as the Falcon, which we will tackle the next time A People’s History of the Marvel Universe covers Captain America…