Captain America: The Winter Soldier premiered this weekend. This third appearance of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (fourth if you count Loki’s transformation into the character in Thor: The Dark World) is the most satisfying yet. It is also, arguably, Marvel’s most serious film to date, taking on the Bush/Obama surveillance state and transforming Captain America, Black Widow, The Falcon, and Nick Fury into comic book versions of Edward Snowden.
For those who have followed Captain America in the pages of Marvel Comics through the years, this political slant will come as no big surprise. Cap has often confronted highly charged political issues. Indeed, creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby showed Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw in the hero’s very first appearance in Captain America Comics no. 1, a full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war and at a time when political attitudes toward America’s role in the war were still in flux.
Likewise, in the early 1970’s, Captain America briefly surrendered his costume and name because of his disillusionment over the Marvel Universe version of the Watergate scandal. Creators Steve Engelhart and Sal Buscema had Cap take the name “Nomad,” signifying his status as a man without a country.
The transformation was short-lived however. In just a few issues, Captain America was back with a new understanding that he could represent the best ideals of his country without having to support the worst actions of its government. In 2006-2007, in the cross-over series Civil War, Captain America led the resistance movement against the Superhuman Registration Act, something many readers have seen as representing real-world America’s Patriot Act.
My favorite run of Captain America stories also comes with a strong political theme, and even though it was published in the mid-1970’s, I believe that it is particularly pertinent in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. When Jack Kirby returned to Marvel following his brilliant run at DC Comics, it was just in time for the American bicentennial. His assignment to Captain America, a character that he helped to create 35 years before, was a perfect fit. Kirby was at the top of his game, even if this fact wasn’t universally recognized at the time, and Captain America was THE American superhero. (My apologies to Superman.) Kirby’s art leaps off the page. His figures are never static, always moving, a seeming impossibility considering the weight, mass, and solidity Kirby endows them with. The art forces the story along, making the convoluted plots and stiff dialogue work, making them a central part of Kirby’s overall mesmerizing effect.
Right off the bat Kirby tackled political issues, particularly in the first multi-part story of his run. Beginning with issue 193 and running through the magazine’s own landmark 200th issue, Kirby told the tale of “Madbomb,” perhaps not the best story in this series, but a riveting one, nevertheless, characterized by all that makes Kirby’s 70’s work bizarre, challenging, and ultimately transcendent. (I give the honor of best story in the run to the “Night People” saga, beginning in issue no. 201, or, perhaps, “The Swine”, beginning with no. 206, which introduced the bizarre Arnim Zola, a character who makes a memorable appearance in Captain America: The Winter Solider.)
In issue 193, titled, in true Kirby fashion, “The Madbomb: Screamer in the Brain,” Captain America and the Falcon find that a friendly arm-wrestling match at the kitchen table is suddenly turned into an all-out brawl.
Once they calm themselves down, the heroes realize that their entire neighborhood has erupted into violence, the result of a bomb, a Madbomb, that causes all within range to break into violent rage. The bomb is only stopped when Cap smashes it with his shield. After teaming up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and, get this, Henry Kissinger (who tells them “You can call me Henny, if you like”), Captain America and the Falcon learn that the Madbomb that had disrupted their friendly sport was only a miniature version of something much more dangerous: a Madbomb nicknamed “Big Daddy”.
In the next issue, readers learn that Big Daddy is the creation of a secret organization known as the “Elite” who plan to remake America into an oligarchy. The detonation of the Madbomb will transform the masses into mindless, if potentially violent, servants of the Elite. With Kirby’s typical lack of subtlety, the wealthly leader of this organization is named William Taurey. Taurey’s second-in-command, General Heshin (I know, I know), declares that “The declaration of independence did away with the elite! But, we shall change all that once again.” Heshin confesses that he is motivated by the desire to accumulate even more wealth. Taurey, on the other hand, declares, “We Taurey’s have no need for money! We were born rich! We were born to power!” An army of soldiers work for the Elite, hoping to share in the wealth and power. One proclaims his hopes for a post-Madbomb future: “200 million flunkies, to fetch and carry for us and the elite!! We’ll live like kings, pal!”
In Kirby’s hands, the story unfolds in utterly bizarre but typically Kirby fashion. Infiltrating the headquarters of the Royalist Forces of America in an attempt to find and destroy Big Daddy, Cap and Falcon are forced to battle for Cap’s shield in a Kill Derby, a violent roller derby fought to the death and intended to provide entertainment for the Elite’s already enslaved masses.
Former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are transformed into weak-minded brutes who will slave on behalf of the rich and powerful. The enslaved masses adulate before an Orwellian “Big Brother” who proclaims “WE MUST BEWARE OF THE FREEDOM FREAKS!” And, in my favorite chapter of the story, “Captain America’s Love Story,” Kirby revisits his past as creator of romance comics during the superhero drought of the 1950’s in a touching tale of Cap’s encounter with the beautiful, but ailing, daughter of the scientist who designed the dangerous Madbomb (Issue no. 198).
Throughout the story, Falcon serves as Kirby’s, and Cap’s, moral center. His experience as an African- American man living in 1970’s America is a counterpoint to the diabolical plans of the Elite. He understands, in ways that Cap cannot, their true evil. The Falcon knows first-hand the power of the Elite to keep the masses in check, and to centralize power in the hands of the few. Fittingly, in the story’s final installment, issue no. 200, it is the Falcon (despite the cover blurb) who risks life and limb (and wing) to destroy the Madbomb.
If it isn’t clear from the title of this piece (which I think sounds a bit like a 1970’s buddy cop drama starring Lee Majors as “Madbomb” and Dennis Weaver as “McCutcheon”), I think that Kirby’s Madbomb story tells us a little something about where Captain America, or at least Jack Kirby, would stand in regards to the recent Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. For those who don’t follow such things too closely, this decision removes limits on financial contributions to political campaigns that had been put in place by congress and signed into law by the president, all in the name of free speech. What this means in reality is that mythical “self-made” billionaires as well as aristocratic heirs to family fortunes are now free to buy the votes of politicians with even greater impunity. Instead of making speech freer, this decision in essence makes it even more costly and out of reach for most Americans.
I think that Kirby’s Madbomb tale is, in addition to being a great escapist read, a warning against this sort of frivolous selling of political power to the highest bidder, against allowing the elite to take control of democracy. By ruling as they did in McCutcheon v. FEC, the US Supreme Court has, in a sense, allowed the Madbomb to detonate. Not wanting to read Kirby’s text as some prophetic allegory for our times, I will resist the temptation to interpret the Madbomb’s control of the masses as some parable about Fox News’ spreading of irrationality and madness to an increasingly uninformed public. I will also refrain from using Kirby’s story as a way to insist that his politics were identical to my own. I respect him too much for that. However, I do think Kirby’s tale reveals a crucial truth about democracy that was perhaps a bit more appreciated in the post-Watergate era, when many of the campaign finance laws were developed, than in today’s political environment. I also think that the democratic values Captain America and the Falcon fought for way back when are still pretty important today. Perhaps it does a disservice to Kirby’s work to identify the Elite against which Captain America fought with the Koch brothers. It does a greater disservice to it if we fail to heed the warning of the Sentinel of Liberty, and his creator, about the necessity of vigilantly defending democracy against those who would rule from above.
Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.
Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.