From about 1994 until about 2004/2005 I did not read one singular comic book. I collected them as a kid but for some reason I stopped giving a damn. I guess other things replaced funny books as one of my go-to distraction. Honestly, I wouldn’t have had any time to read them in college any way. When I stopped reading the ubiquitous X-Man, Wolverine had the metal forcibly removed from his person by Magneto (Nea-to).
From what I can tell the decade was filled with flashy covers and bad story lines. Now that I’m collecting and reading again I go back to try to fill in gaps dealing with the characters that I like. Hulk smashed, Spider-Man had a clone or something, and 9/11 happened in the pages of Marvel, mutants were all but exterminated, Superman had a mullet, and Jean Grey died… again. One of the story arcs that I became aware of was that of Isaiah Bradley, Captain America’s black predecessor.
In my last post I wrote that I don’t write about comics enough so I’ve decided to use some of the books that I’m just getting around to reading as blog fodder. Naturally, when I heard of the “Black Captain America” I went “bleh” because I’m particular about characters and I thought some writer at Marvel went and made Steve Rogers a black dude. After finding out that my thoughts weren’t correct and doing some background work I added “Captain America: The Truth” the graphic novel that chronicles the exploits of the black Captain America to my Good Reads list.
After a light week I decided to buy the book from my local comic shop, Captain’s Comics and Toys and give it a shot. Jeff, a brother who works at the store gave me the “nod” when I went to check out.[i] He told me that The Truth was well worth the read and took a good look at race in both comic books and in the real world.[ii]
Writer Robert Morales and artist Kyle Baker convey the serious and touchy subject matter in the best ways possible. Their styles complemented each other the way the writer/artist dynamic should in comics. However, The Truth is all about the story.
The meat of the story starts in Camp Cathcart Mississippi in 1942 where an all-black unit is covertly inducted into a secret program called Project Super Soldier. Officially the men inducted into the program cease to be. Their loved ones would receive the standard “Mrs. So and So we regret to inform you…” telegrams from the War Department so that they would believe the Army’s new guinea pigs were indeed dead. Isaiah Bradley was one of these men and his wife Faith would be a recipient of one of the telegrams.
Reading comic books involves the reader staring at the panels to suspend certain amounts of disbelief to allow them actually follow a story involving men and women with extra-normal abilities. Due to the Uncle Sam’s sketchy dealings with race, clandestine scientific endeavors like the Tuskegee Experiment, and the Truth being set in 1942 only a small amount of disbelief needed to be suspended. I said to myself that yeah, before they shot a blonde-haired blue-eyed G.I. full of a questionable drug, of course they would test it on black men. Reading along we see Bradley and his cohorts experiencing horrific medical tests that change their physiology making them into muscle-bond freaks that cause some to die from the stress placed on their bodies.
Bradley and a few others survive the horrors only to be used a black-ops troops attacking zie Germans in rear areas, disrupting supply lines and doing other shady bidding of the United States Army.[iii] Terrible morale and frustration abound they soldier on, risking their lives for a nation that would label them dead on the surface and unworthy to fight in the open as their white counterparts. The tension is broken from time to time when the subjects of Project Super Soldier actually have a conversation about the now famous Captain America comic that showed Steve Rogers punching Hitler proving that fiction is sometimes stranger than fiction. Bradley and company discuss the similarities between Rogers and themselves. The comment “If the Army determines they need a Steve Rogers, they’re going to move heaven and hell to get one, the poor bastard.” addresses their ungodly treatment in the Super Soldier Program thus far.
War being what war is Isaiah Bradley is eventually the lone survivor or the original group of black super soldiers. Bradley steals a Captain America costume and goes on a suicide mission to assassinate the head of the Nazi program that was trying to create their own goose-stepping versions of Bradley and Steve Rogers. Located in a concentration camp Bradley finds the scientist and kills him but is taken back by the horrors of the holocaust while he is locked in a gas chamber filled with Jewish women who attack him, thinking he is another German monster sent to terrorize them. The Zyclon-B kills the women but only stuns Bradley who awakens tied to a chair in front of Hitler and Josef Goebbels who go about the usual Nazi propaganda towards blacks. (The “This isn’t your war monkey, why are you fighting it?” thingy.) Fortunately, Bradley is rescued by a group of German freedom fighters, one of whom is black, and smuggled back to allied lines where he is court-martialed and locked away in Leavenworth until Ike pardons him in 1960.
The twist comes when Captain America, Marvel Comic’s consummate good-guy finds out the existence of Isaiah Bradley, the black Captain America. It was one of the most expressive comic panels ever.[iv]
So here we have one of the few comic book characters who has seen it all and done it all shocked, again realizing that while he was fighting for the allied cause overseas along with others heroes like, Nick Fury, Namor and the Invaders, Bucky, and an ill-tempered Canadian named Logan that a black man from New York City, just like him, roughly the same age was being punished and shunned for doing the same thing. Morales and Barker then use and amazing panel to illustrate a point to both Captain America and the reader by having the reader look over Cap’s shoulder while visiting Bradley and his wife faith. Bradley who was then in a child-like mental state, due to the experiments on him with the crude, unperfected version of the Super Soldier Serum was somewhat of a celebrity in the black community. Taking pictures with multiple famous black people from Nelson Mandela to Public Enemy. The reader and Cap learn that there have always been uncanny secrets about black culture that are well-known to us but would blow the minds of others. Steve Rogers gets to have yet another ephiphany.
*Feel free to click on that picture to blow it up.*
Rogers then shakes the hand of his counterpart that he knew nothing of meets his grandson who would years later follow in his grandfather’s heroic footsteps. Steve Rogers then becomes yet another celebrity on a wall of photos of an underground legend.
Years later Isaiah Bradley would become more well-known to other comic book characters when he attended the wedding of Storm and The Black Panther. All of the black heroes stood in awe as Bradley arrived. Wolverine who is old as dirt and knows everyone asks who the man in the wheel chair is. Luke Cage simply replies “The first me.” It sucks that I wasn’t reading comics when this first came out but luckily I got a do-over.
Race and comic books rarely directlycross paths on purpose. Most of the time the X-Men are used as a stand in for the minority. Sometimes it’s done in a ham-fisted manner, insulting the intelligence of the reader but Morales, Barker, and Marvel nails it with the truth. In real life and in fiction different cultures see what would be deemed as a hero differently and as I stated early one group may be totally unaware of the others heroes and history. Using the likes of Isaiah Bradley and Steve Rogers was a great way to illustrate this and many of the shady undertakings of our government during its darker days.
The Truth was just a dope-a** comic book.
Vaya con Dios.
[i] If any of you are asking yourselves “What’s the nod?” you probably aren’t black. Ain’t any shame in that though.
[ii] Marvel Comic’s main universe or the 616 is supposedly an allegory to our reality. The presidents are current, the wars, civil unrest, recession are all included. Well, except for the super-powered hyper-thyroid cases that is.