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Soundtrack: Nat King Cole, The Christmas Song

Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America series brought a lot of the issues I’ve been discussing (regarding Silver Age Marvels) to a head. I’ve done more than enough alluding to that fact in this space lately. Time to start analyzing!

Issue #1: What’s so special about another “CAP NO MORE” storyline anyway? Englehart did that in 1974.

Yeah. That’s a big one. But I’ll tell ya, anyone who wants to argue that Gruenwald just rehashed an old plot is going to have to contend with one simple fact:

The seventies Cap quit, because he lost faith in the American polity. Why? Because the people in power at that time were, umm, let’s just say, “lacking in virtue”. So he gives up and becomes the “Nomad”–a man without a country. It’s a fine storyline–I’m not saying it’s not. But as a contribution to liberal democratic political thought, well, it’s a complete disaster. Or, to be fair, we can just say that Englehart took a reactionary leap right out of that particular conversation (and into a Machiavellian virtu-based Republican discourse), for the length of this saga. (that didn’t sound fair did it? oh well) Why am I saying these things? Surely, if Jack Kirby thought his predecessor on the title had tarred his patriotic paragon with a pink-hued brush, we oughtn’t argue with him, should we? You can stand with him. Or you can stand against him. But you don’t argue with a “King”.

Er… Yes, you do. And that’s the problem with Englehart’s story. It suffers from exactly the theoretical virus that liberalism was designed to stamp out. It’s none other than that old wish (and that’s all it is folks) for “government by the best”. This problem has been with us, in the West, since (at least) Plato. The argument goes like this–yes, there are corrupt men at the helm right now, and maybe it’s impossible to insure against it, but isn’t that too bad? And let’s try, at least, to get our most “public-spirited” people into positions of power, whenever possible. We can measure our polity by how close we come to the ideal of “The Philosopher King” (or, in the case of a democracy, a “philospher president” chosen as a stand-in by a sovereign “philosophical people”).

Fine. Plato was a smart guy. And anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps isn’t necessarily a moron, but he/she sure as hell isn’t a liberal! Here’s the bedrock of a liberal-democratic polity, in a nutshell: the people form a social contract in order to ensure that everyone’s individual rights are protected, and who are they to be protected from? From the very types of people who run for political office, actually! Plato called them “thumotic souls”, Augustine just called them “Wolves”. Plato’s idea was to, somehow, weld the thumotic soul to the philosophical soul, and come up with a super-motivated person who always makes the right decisions, and can be trusted to do our thinking for us… Well, that’s never worked out now has it? Augustinian thought (which later flowered anew in Calvinism) deals with the dilemma of the “sheep and the wolves” by diverting attention away from the question of “who shall rule the sheep?”, asking, rather, “how shall lupine agression be contained?” The amazing answer: make sure the most intelligent/aggressive/dangerous wolves go into politics, and then design all of your laws so that they can’t do much damage once they get a hold of the reins of power, because they’re going to do that anyway! As a proud sheep, I heartily choose door number two.

In a liberal democracy, the governmental structure is specifically intended to be a vast concentration camp for the scariest motherfuckers in the land. These are the people that, if they couldn’t become senators, would be carving out private fiefdoms for themselves in Iowa somewhere. So we, the sheep, allow them to be senators. It’s that simple. A liberal-democratic politican is, by definition, a crook. And the people ought not to be surprised when they catch one at it red-handed. Certainly, Captain America should know this. And that’s my problem with Englehart’s Cap. Mark Gruenwald is the only writer to have written Cap as a rational liberal-democrat, and in doing so, he corrected a terrible mistake on Englehart’s part, and managed to do a lot of other cool things in the process… I’ll dive into the series itself tomorrow (or possibly the next day, because I’ve got my GREs on Friday morning–at NINE AM–and I may try to go to bed as soon as I get home from work tomorrow night. We’ll see!)

Good night friends
Dave

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2 comments

  1. Yeah.

    Here’s our essential dichotomy in a nutshell, and subjectively, I must view this as a flaw in your approach as a reader and a writer:

    You are all about parables and story structure, from what I can see. I, and the writers I consider to be the best ones working in comics (and elsewhere) are all about characterization. You claim Englehart’s Cap was this huge failure and honestly it just makes me want to bang my head on the wall that you simply don’t get it. Englehart’s Cap, especially the Nomad story, was the most triumphant example of three dimensional characterization ever done with a Marvel superhero.

    Englehart wasn’t trying to create some enormously insightful metafiction commenting deeply on the political diad. He was telling a story of a human being who believed in America and the American system of government, who never saw the flaws, and who was shaken to the core when he was confronted with them… and it didn’t stop there. Cap eventually became Cap again… but as Steve E’.s captions noted, he had not traveled in a circle.

    Good fiction (in my view) is always character driven, it’s always about the character. You want themes and the exploration of conflicting social idealogy and to study how all this evolved from the more God-grounded thinking of less advanced, more superstitious eras. I want interesting and exciting stories about interesting and exciting characters going through interesting and exciting personal arcs and voyages.

  2. Darren,

    There’s room for both of us, I think. I do like the Englehart Caps. I just don’t think that Captain America should have needed to go through the particular anguish about political corruption that Englehart forced upon him. (I think Steve Englehart needed to learn these lessons.) I love what Gruenwald did, precisely because he took a paragon of liberalism (Cap can certainly be read as the greatest incarnation, in the 20th century, of Emerson’s “infinitude of the private man”) and put him through a personal wringer that I could really believe in. Englehart’s Cap is entirely too politically volatile and sensitive to have really lived through the career that had been attributed to him up to that time.

    Dave

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