Sunday, May 29, 2016

Burning Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 and my personal adventure into fear

Hmm, so fans are sending videos of their flaming copies of the new Cap #1 over Twitter to Nick Spenser, writer. Anything could come of a twist; I just happened to read a review stating why the issue wasn't particularly well made. The truly offensive idea here is that Captain America- co-created by a Jewish artist who joined the Army to fight the military oppression of the Nazis- would be a deep cover member of an organization founded, fictitiously,by Nazis (Hydra).
Could I ever burn a comic book? I did.
When I was a child, I burned a brittle old copy of FEAR #21 my Dad found tattered in the floorboard of a '56 Chevy. My imagination and Morbius the Living Vampire did not play well, lol- I eventually took my object of morbid fascination to the trash fire in the back yard. I'd never burn another comic book, though. Irony? It was written by Steve Gerber, a writer I now really love! In other synchronicities, the issue went on sale the week I was born- as did the issue of Amazing Spider-Man reprinted in the first comic book I ever got.
I have one insight into why a person would burn a comic book, or any other item of popular art they've purchased. The object at hand represents revulsion and fear, a dread on some level that makes their feelings so strong they don't even want to touch it! I am trying to imagine, that's how people down here in the South took The Beatles in the wake of John Lennon's cheeky comment about their popularity. That was a reaction built on one personal system of belief, taken to a mob level in some cases.
When you burn one of your possessions, that is a rather strong statement. To reach out to people online and share the burning is a type of political statement. What makes this statement a bit unique is that the comic's being burnt because it's apparently intended to undermine a fictional symbol of freedom standing against coercion, fear, and control. Not that Cap's putting on a disguise- there are some possibilities as to what's going on, which we'll find out in a few months- but that tyrant-busting Captain America was somehow a member of an anti-freedom subversive group, all along. Did you know Joe Simon received many negative letters when Cap debuted? Many Americans were NOT anti-Nazi in 1940, but rather, many isolationists believed we should stay out of what became World War II, and others were German sympathizers.
Interestingly, in 1965, the Red Skull- a villain also created by Simon/ Kirby, intended to represent a Nazi-created menace, was clearly depicted taking control of Cap with the Cosmic Cube and forcing a Nazi salute- to Adolf Hitler! This was two decades after the Holocaust ended. Tales of Suspense #67 was a straight-forward story where Cap is the victim of mind control and Bucky, his partner, figures out how to save him. Today's story will apparently be quite different, as writer Nick Spenser wants to engage in a rumination on people who join hate groups, in an attempt to discuss the present political climate. It's clearly brought Marvel a tremendous amount of publicity, more than money could buy. I think the longer the discussion goes on, the better it will go for them, but I don't think they foresaw the massive negativity, as opposed to surprise and wonder, in the initial feedback. This may have hurt their sales, but it has caused a conversation including people who haven't been buying Cap's comic, or possibly any new comic books. That makes this a genuine pop culture moment- right on the heels of a massively successful movie featuring the character, so LOTS of every day people know about him, outside comics fandom.
The destruction of your belief in your favorite characters is a sad concession to make. I would argue nothing can take away your memories. If you don't want your dollars to go towards a company's portrayal of Cap or Spider-Man or My Little Pony, that's a legitimate choice. In this case, I think the rebuttle statement is that portraying a character created by two Jewish artists/writers as a deep cover Nazi is trash. A comic you find made badly is potentially garbage, just like any old magazine you don't want to keep. Your mothers and their mothers did this all the time- leaving us with yard sales of under-valued old comics and of course, the rarity that comes with items going in the garbage. By the time I was a kid, the idea of comics as collectibles took hold.
I haven't found anyone's reaction yet towards this comic book to be particularly positive. And arguably, it's a waste of free speech to make comics about Captain America always being a Nazi, especially in light of how his portrayal has always been of a man trying to do the right thing against the odds, standing up against fascism. It's even worse if you believe, for a sales-driven story beat, the sacrifice of 11 million Jewish lives has been trivialized. Cap may be fictional, but what he stands for is real indeed. He was created in a controversial time, from artistically-inspired desperation, by men who actually served in the Army in hopes of saving their people and the freedom of everyone.
The disappointment of true blue Cap fans to get a new #1 and receive this sort of fictional slap in the face is telling. Apparently, when playing with the possible scrapes you can think up for your heroes, this one was a bridge too far.
My one caveat would be, burning literature is the province of fascist thinking. In fact, the writer of the issue of FEAR my Dad found and gave me wrote a story in MAN-THING about a year later where the paranoid citizens of Citrusville, Florida, gather disagreeable books and, as a mob, throw them into a bonfire, in the name of decency- in the face of their fear that they were losing control of their children to new ideas. Even in their in-story actuality, I can pretty much guarantee, their kids weren't particularly apt to read those books anyway. But it was a great period piece on fear of the changing times.
I didn't burn my copy of ADVENTURES INTO FEAR #21 because I disagreed with the portrayal of a beloved character. I burned it because its yellowed pages and flaking cover- and its story of a contradictory character who was not inherently heroic, because he continued to live at the blood-thirsting expense of his victims-were filled with terrors I could not shake. I didn't even like touching the comic and kept it hidden in the bottom of a drawer- I would wash my hands repeatedly after I'd given in to my terror-filled fascination to look at it. The art was by Gil Kane, one of Morbius' co-creators (in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #102 of course).
I was seven at most when Dad got that old Chevy from his Dad. We'd gone to Atlanta to pick it up, so it was a Sunday evening much like this one when he found the brittle comic crammed into the stale, leaf-covered floor board. The comic bore the same musty smell as the slightly-rusted vehicle. How it got shoveled beneath the floor board after being published seven years earlier, I couldn't know. Dad, being the good guy he was, thought "free comic book!" and gave it to me, because he loved me and knew I loved comic books more than any single material possession in the world of toys. I know he never read it- I can barely imagine what he would have thought of artificial people being grown by the Caretakers, but without anyone to explain otherwise to me, its contradiction to Biblical principles just added to its verboten nature. Morbius, a science-based vampire with a blood condition he's failed to treat, is sent to attack someone in a limo in the previous issue. Steve Gerber picked up Mike Friedrich's story to make the limo's occupant a little girl- genuinely chilling!
Then the girl is mystically replaced by an adult named Tara, drawn by Gil Kane to be every inch the fantasy warrior woman; in any other title, she'd probably be the hero! When Morbius battles then bites her, she begs him not to do so because the action will also harm the child; Tara is apparently the future-self of the little girl. Lots more science-fiction mystery piles up before Morbius, caught between two factions, fights some type of Cat Demon. To a kid going to church three times a week, the demons, the artificial humans, and blood drinking were terrifying and vivid. I slept with my neck covered up for two years, in dread many nights that the blood drinkers in my imagination were coming for me! Everything was unspeakably vivid in my turbulent imagination.
So after we moved out to the country, at some point I took the offending comic book out of its hiding place and tossed its fading visage into the trash fire. I can tell you this: I immediately felt some remorse, because for one, it was a gift, and for another, it was a comic book. My action meant my fear had overwhelmed my senses. The comic book was soon ashes, but I felt a sense of failure- I realized I had let my imagination turn this paper pamphlet into an artifact of evil and dread. I was probably too young for such a tale. I was glad to be rid of it, but disappointed at the same time that I had let fear have such abiding control of my nights and my eventual actions.

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