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The Politics of Captain America

My friend/mentor Jack Kirby co-created Captain America and did more stories of the character than anyone else did. From time to time, articles pop up that attempt to define Captain America's position on some real issue of the day…or someone claims that their view on some controversial topic is the view Captain America would hold. And hey, there's a meaningful endorsement: "I have a comic book superhero on my side!"

I don't always know how Jack would have felt about certain issues, and just because he said something to me in 1971 about, say, capital punishment doesn't mean he would have felt that way about it in 2005. I try to be real careful not to put my words and thoughts into his mouth but I feel pretty secure in saying that Jack's response would have been that Captain America was a fictional character; that though he may have embodied a certain kind of patriotism, at least in Jack's stories, trying to extrapolate how the hero would have felt about 9/11 or abortion or nuclear test bans or anything of the sort is grasping at something that simply does not and cannot exist.

Certain things get established about a character — their name, their origin, specific adventures — and these are generally kept consistent as the property is handed from writer to writer, though even this is not always the case. Other aspects are even more prone to variance as different creators take charge of the strip for what may be short or long periods and infuse it with their worldview. Jack rarely looked at what others did with characters he'd started but when he did, it was very rare that he recognized his children. He saw them saying and doing things that he would never have had them say or do…and Jack didn't necessarily think this made the other writer wrong. It was kind of like, "That's his interpretation of the Hulk, not mine." Each reader is free to accept either version or neither or parts of this one and that one.

So when someone asks what Captain America would have felt about some topic, the first question is, "Which Captain America?" If the character's been written by fifty writers, that makes fifty Captain Americas, more or less…some closely in sync with some others, some not. And even a given run of issues by one creator or team is not without its conflicts. When Jack was plotting and pencilling the comic and Stan Lee was scripting it, Stan would sometimes write dialogue that did not reflect what Jack had in mind. The two men occasionally had arguments so vehement that Jack's wife made him promise to refrain. As she told me, "For a long time, whenever he was about to take the train into town and go to Marvel, I told him, 'Remember…don't talk politics with Stan.' Neither one was about to change the other's mind, and Jack would just come home exasperated." (One of Stan's associates made the comment that he was stuck in the middle, vis-a-vis his two main collaborators. He was too liberal for Steve Ditko and too conservative for Kirby.)

Jack's own politics were, like most Jewish men of his age who didn't own a big company, pretty much Liberal Democrat. He didn't like Richard Nixon and he really didn't like the rumblings in the early seventies of what would later be called "The Religious Right." At the same time, he thought Captain America represented a greater good than the advancement of Jack Kirby's worldview.

During the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, Jack was outraged when Ollie North appeared before Congress and it wasn't just because North lied repeatedly or tried to justify illegal actions. Jack thought it was disgraceful that North wore his military uniform while testifying. The uniform, Jack said, belonged to every man and woman who had every worn it (including former Private First Class Jack Kirby) and North had no right to exploit it the way he did. I always thought that comment explained something about the way Kirby saw Captain America. Cap, obviously, should stand for the flag and the republic for which it stands but — like the flag — for all Americans, not merely those who wish to take the nation in some exclusionary direction.

In much the same way, one of the many things Nixon had done that offended Jack was an attempt many decried, on the part of that administration, to usurp the American flag as a symbol of support for Richard Nixon.Jack's 1976-1977 stories of Captain America — the ones where he had near-complete control — show very little evidence of his own political beliefs of the time. He felt strongly about many things happening in the world at that time, especially various battles and hostage situations relating to Israel, but he chose to keep his hero above those frays and to deal more in the abstract. Captain America made his greatest statement by wearing the flag with pride and by triumphing over all forms of adversity.

To Jack, it was the great thing about the American spirit: That it was born of gutsy determination and, as with any good superhero, compassion for all. Some of the storylines he talked about but never had the chance to put into print would have reinforced the idea that Captain America was greater than any one man…including those who created his adventures.