Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Admiration [people, places, ideas, and other culturally relevant topics]:Captain America- rein-visioning the Golden Age through Modern eyes

12/13/2010- An attempt to forage a second segment of the Admiration series, I will be condensing what I had previously tried with Admiration: Tom Waits; but to a much smaller extent- namely, I will be discovering an idea alongside my examination of the individual, in order to create both a dialogue and a concise piece of writing.

All images are the property of Marvel Comics/Marvel Entertainment and have been edited for artistic effect.

Captain America
Rein-visioning the Golden Age through Modern Eyes 
a.k.a- Relevance of an American Symbol in Todays world

In a time of uncertainty in the world, one can guess that the element that holds people together is hope. Looking back over the course of the last 110 years historians note that civilization have been modernized, industrialized, commercialized, and most of all- globalized in almost all aspects. It is in the last element that I want to concentrate this post, as it asks the questions: how does a past symbol stand against the modernizing of society? and how can we better understand a symbols relevance in times of great dismay?

Well, I suggest that the answer might actually lay with the Golden Age of Comic Books. Revolutionary in combining social commentary with epic fantasy, the writers and artists of the what was deemed "the golden age of comics", created the heroic idealism that still persists in todays society. And in this time of great progression, none was quite as famous as Captain America- the First Avenger.

The Captain, or Cap as his fans call him, is an essential part of World War II's iconography. He is a symbol of not only the elements that make America strong (liberty, justice, hope, peace); but as an everyman connecting all peoples regardless of creed, color, religion, or nationality. It was in Captain America's veins that the American Spirit was said to have run, and after he knocked out Hitler (Captain America Comics #1-1940) before our involvement into the war- we knew that this was a man who could do the things that many, most notably the predominantly Jewish Golden Age writers and artists, wished that they had a chance to do. 

But in this article I don't want to simply dwell upon the roots of the hero; but also on his long lasting appeal. You see, World War II ended, and with the end of this era came an end to the romance of that era's war, which would have great consequences for the man who stood as America's symbol during her time in Europe/Asia.

Note: I say romance because if you ask anyone what wartime era garners the most fantasy, the most adventure, and the most pulp- the answer will lay with World War II; hence why Captain America, Sgt. Rock, Band of Brothers, Indiana Jones, John Wayne films, Saving Private Ryan, The Pacific, Inglorious Bastards, and others even exist.

So lets break down the evolution of a symbol like Cap, and see just how this relates to our modern times.

  1. In Popular Culture-Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, is a man who dreamed of defending America out of a hatred for her enemies (the Nazis), and yet could not make the cut into the Armed Forces due to his scrawny size/stature. Due to his persistence, he was granted an opportunity to volunteer in a secret government project destined to make him into the first Super Soldier. It proved to be very successful and he is granted frontline duty in an attempt to show the symbolic strength of America. He responds by annihilating Nazi butt all across Europe, rallies the support of the American/European people and troops, helps turn the tide of the war in the favor of the allies, and comes faces-to-face with a growing slew of new evils, namely his arch nemesis, The Red Skull (see Villains section below). 
  2. In America- The nation was standing strong in the worlds eye, due to the late and yet necessary involvement into the front, and the establishment of popular culture through comic books, films, and newsreels helped to define and popularize the idea of America as a nation of protectors. Captain America became just one of those symbols in American popular culture that was used to show liberty to the oppressed, and inspire readers to fight for truth, justice, and liberty.
POST WWII: Evolution of the Character with the Country
  1. Soon after WWII, Cap began a short campaign against the growing fears of Communism; but after a relatively short succession- he disappeared. Frozen in a block of ice with his sidekick Bucky Barnes (later Winter Soldier, a brainwashed soviet/hydra agent),  it was decades before the Captain was revived- and his absence was felt in the comic world. While in the real world, things were beginning to change with a new slew of villains (communists), and a new set of international threats (the popularization/acquisition of atomic weaponry).
  2. A new sense paranoia could be sensed on the home front, and was starting to become proclaimed by the growing generations whose voice was being overshadowed, due to their newfound positions of civil liberties, and political restructuring. The image of America's involvement in foreign wars had now been tarnished by Vietnam/Korea, which lead many to think that we had stretched ourselves too thin.
  3. Captain America returned to the world during this time, and became involved in this struggle. His views remained solid; but his opinion of world events had changed, as he had been removed from the worlds changing social environment. Over the course of the century he began a crusade, sometimes standing against the government on behalf of his own beliefs centered in American past. This recurring change in the Captain can be seen even today as he battles against civil liberty infringement and the misappropriation of truth in the news media. 
  4. I believe that if one were to compare the Captain America of the 40s to the Captain America of the 2000s- you could easily trace an evolving American image that has been bruised but not broken, and a strength that has been tested, not idealized. As the world has changed, the "man out of time" has changed with it- sometimes standing for, and sometimes against its conclusions. In an ironic twist, he has mirrored a changing American image just as much as he has anchored its past successes. Not a lot of figures can accomplish that, let alone a comic book hero. 

WHY is it important?

Captain America represents a man "out of time", a symbol of Americas past- and yet somehow the ideal American of the future. It is in his protection of those in need, that has lead him away from America just as much as it has made him a globalized figure that represents its strengths. We know who he is because he represents America, in ways that sometimes challenge our current positions. If we were to look at ourselves in the mirror, I believe we might see the reality of what has been forgotten, and in that reflection we can see what it would take to get back to such a position. 

It is very important to note that Steve Rogers is a flawed man, as many heroes are, and in his representation of the American way he is not always in the right. Perhaps then this makes him more relevant to a globalized America than he was in times of American pop-romance. Maybe he represents an America that creates a sanctum of freedom, not without a degree of cynicism, which carries a new found hope for its future based upon its past.

Death and Impact
In an extremely popular mini series by Marvel entitled, "Civil War", we get an inside look at the governments handling of super humans, who are seen as dangerous weapons rather than needed saviors. The distrust leads to establishing a superhero registration act, which Steve Rogers sees as an erosion of personal freedoms, and his civil liberties set forth by the Constitution. In opposition to him is Tony Stark, a.k.a Ironman, who is now director of SHIELD (the Marvels equivalent to a "super NATO"), and feels quite the opposite of Rogers. This eventually lead to a massive "overhaul" of the Marvel universe that, by this writers opinion, was all but necessary in 2005-2007. The Captain's frustration with Stark and the United States government, led him and several others to go into opposition roles against their former allies, in order to stand for their personal freedoms instead. 

This is a great example that the Captain does not always agree with the routes that his country takes, which gives him a very human element that might have been missing in most of the Golden Age's heroes, and creating an even great distance from his former life as a mere symbol. Breaking apart a mindless following with truth has always been his goal, and it actually makes things more complicated more often than not for our hero.

He died by a sniper shot on the steps of a Washington D.C monument, which rocked the pop culture world and set forward a series of events that gave him some time away from the limelight. He eventually came back to life (don't they all?); but not without establishing a new vision of what has changed in a world post 9/11.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/08/books/08capt.html (article on impact of Captain America's death)

The Opposition

Sin + Crossbones (HYDRA agents)
The Zemo Clan

The Red Skull: 
In the comics 70 year run, there has been no greater villain than the Red Skull. He has been the thorn in Captain America's side since Captain America comics #7, and since then we have seen "Hitlers Left Hand" come back from numerous deaths, create duplicates of himself to instill confusion and chaos, infuse himself with the Super Soldier serum, attempt to resurrect Hitler and the third reich, sponsor numerous terrorist organizations (most notably HYDRA), officiate Cap's death sentence, attempt to implant the offspring of Steve Rogers as his own, and even gain immortality from the Cosmic Cube. It is in him that one can describe the opposition that Cap faces on what seems like a daily basis.
  • It is in the Red Skull that we see everything that Captain America could be, if he were to destroy all that America stands for. The Skull is a direct representation of a Nihilistic, power hungry, and violent agenda that seeks to tear apart establishment and create a new world order of chaos- much like other villains in the same egomaniac category. The Red Skull is that which destroys, not which creates- and thus even today we get a sense of what true evil has become upon this earth in obvious and shadowed forms. 
  • In the modern age we better understand what America is up against, and yet at times it seems nearly impossible to understand how to stand up straight. In this way the Red Skull, HYDRA, the Zemo's, and Sin/Crossbones are all powerful contrasts of those who are against liberty. They are symbols in the same way as Captain America, Falcon, and SHIELD are; but with a twist of personal gain, power, wealth, or vengeance. 
RESPONSIBILITY: or what I learned from Captain America in writing this piece
  • The responsibility that we must take on, in the face of such opposition, is in a willingness to be willing to say what we believe, and take on the reality of our strengths AND weaknesses. If we are not willing to accept the bad and the good, then we cannot really understand why there is a sense of good in the first place. That is a powerful and sometimes hard thing to accomplish; but it is one that Captain America would find suitable as his character shows.
  •  Ironically it is the hero who sacrifices everything and becomes consumed by their duty, and the villain who receives notoriety by their obsessions; but ultimately sacrifices little in the process, save for sometimes getting beat up or imprisoned. The Red Skull and Captain America will never die because they will forever embody two visions of power: one based upon freedom and the other based on control. This constant struggle for control will always exist in the real world; but the end result will come about in how one deals with the consequences, that will ultimately make the difference.

    Man Out of Time

    In conclusion, I want to say that Captain America is a fascinating piece of fiction that one can look to in the wake of great turmoil. If you look at the evolution of this country alongside the evolution of his character, you will see that both challenge each other to adapt our foundations to the modern world. Cap is interesting because he is a "man out of time", a symbol of a forgotten age that is clinging on to his duty in the wake of a world that moved forward without him. He reminds us of the values that this country stood upon, while sometimes standing in opposition to where we sometimes wander. Captain America is neither Conservative or Democrat; he is neither activist or politician; he is neither a warrior or a peacemaker- he is a symbol of everything that we have lost, and everything we can be all wrapped up into one character. He doesn't seek to stir up lobbyist idealism or pundit fodder or even support the acts of the news media- he in fact stands as a sometimes emotionless reminder of what sacrifices and common ground can look like. His long term goal is patriotism not governance, and in his crusade we see that such a burden comes at great cost to the man underneath the costume. While not necessarily as deep or fascinating as Batman, Wolverine, or Spiderman- the First Avenger holds a special place in the culture and iconography of America itself.

    Monday, December 13, 2010

    the middle aisle

    Above: a psuedo interesting attempt at creating a background image for my tumblr account; although after uploading it to the background, I realized that you couldn't actually see any of it without screwing up all of the html for my theme... fail

    Check out the latest film related posts @themiddleaisle.tumblr.com
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    Recurring Dreams: Tokyo 2010

    I have a recurring dream, one that only applies itself from time to time- as if from a sense of my own forgetfulness it feels disregarded.

    I awake in a flat in Tokyo. All around are the signs of a minimalist life in which  I spend less and less of my own time doing what I dream of doing, and yet I still have time to sleep all throughout the day. Could this be the lethargy speaking? Perhaps. I arise from my bedside and walk to the window. It is raining, as it almost always is, and I place my hands upon the glass. I can see little from my view; but in a way that seems to suit the rest of my lifestyle- so I give it no second thought. Instead I disembark from my room and enter into the kitchen/living room suite. It reminds me of the same things as I felt in the bedroom- sadness but without motive to change.

    There is a cat beside me, sleeping comfortably in a raised bar stool. Her short black coat is silky and at my hands gaze she purrs. Her eyes gaze into mine, and she seems to feel that I am her owner. I walk into the living room and gaze upon a painting that hangs above the mantleplace. It doesn't seem to make sense at first; but as I glare into it I can slightly make out what I am seeing to be the outside of the window of my bedroom- complete with rain drops.

    I grab my jacket, or one that I assume is mine and exit from my building. I am off to see where I am and what kind of life I live. As I begin down the hallway I notice a strange pulse on the back of my head. It strikes me as odd but as I feel around I can't determine its origin. This hall seems to never end as I pass what looks to be hundreds of apartment doors that go on for miles. The lights overhead, first bright and illuminating, have now started to flicker- which hastens my steps.

    I haven't seen a single person in this building yet- and the thought of it starts to concern me. What if I have never left this place? I mean it barely seems to be familiar; but perhaps it is the rapid succession of lights beginning to fade that is making me find doubt? What if this was the first time I had ever been outside, only to find that I was the only one left? But left from what? I can't be a survivor... I can't.

    Wait, calm down... that sounds crazy, doesn't it? Do crazy people know that they are saying crazy things? I would assume so; but then again I would have assumed that I wouldn't have thought such a thing in the first place. I start to run and with every step I can feel the hallway behind me begin to collapse, in a twisting sheath of shattered realities.

    The light bulbs begins to burst on each side and I can feel myself slowly begin to waver. I can see at the end of the hall a door... which I can only imagine leads me out of this place.

    Why did I leave? What did I think I would find? How could I have known!?

    I reach the door with a lunge and to my surprise it will not budge. I begin to slam my shoulder into it over and over and over again. Each time I hit the door I fear what is behind me. I will not look back. Each time I yell I fear what is no longer below me. I will NOT look back. Each moment I spend trying to get out... it just seems to hurl against me. I WILL NOT LOOK BACK!

    I slink down onto the door holding fast.
    It is quiet now.
    And I release the doors handle.
    I feel the slowly flickering exit lights begin to go out. This is my chance to see what will become of me. This is my chance to see where I have been. This is the end, and I got here too soon- and so I stand.
    With eyes heavy from tears and a heart pulsating within my bones I turn my head.

    I see everything.
    And it is not as it seems.
    A veritable reality unbound, and uncontrolled.
    A vision of sparks and lights- no longer captured by darkness.
    And neither am I.

    I feel a pulsation around my fingertips. It reaches within my core and yanks at my soul in a bursting sensation that this mind and body have ever known. I am carried throughout the energy as carrion of its own creation, a vision of its own design, a marquee of its own palate; but it is more of me than I know.

    I do not feel as I once was; but instead feel strength shattering through the glass walls. Aligned for breaking; destined for reevaluation. What ever could this be that has overtaken me? What could I be, if I am not as I was?

    This transfixiation- this river of undeniable focus… will not be the end, but the beginning.

    All that was now is, and will not always be- and in this breath I take, I feel reborn.

    And my eyes are open.