Over two weeks after its release, Captain America issue #602 caused quite a controversy over an overt political message in one of the comic panels. The story broke on 2/8 after Warner Todd Huston took exception to the content of the issue. Fox News picked it up and the comics blogosphere and others followed, becoming a big enough story that even my wife knew about it. Being a 28 year reader of 'Captain America', beginning with issue #274, and a supporter of the Tea Party movement, I feel compelled to weigh in. [SPOILER ALERT - if you don't want to know what happens in #602, read no further!]
A bit of background for the non-comics folks - The current Captain America is Bucky Barnes, Cap's former junior partner. Barnes agreed to become Captain America after the apparent death of the original, Steve Rogers. Though now Rogers is alive and well, he's asked Bucky to stay on as Cap. In this story, entitled 'Two Americas: Part 1', Captain America is joined by his friend the Falcon, also a former crime-fighting partner of Steve Rogers. They've gone to Boise, Idaho to infiltrate the Watchdogs, a violent militia group whose goal is to impose their values of morality and decency by force. They are a high-tech threat, using military gear to carry out their goals. They have fought Captain America on and off since their 1987 debut. Upon arriving in Boise, the pair come across this demonstration - Falcon says, "Some kind of protest rally...looks like some kind of anti-tax thing." Falcon, who is black, then voices concern about their plan of infiltration, because he doesn't think he'll fit in "with a bunch of angry white folks." Bucky tells him that it's all part of the plan, that it's "perfect". That night they go to a bar, where Falcon poses as an IRS agent. Bucky poses as a trucker who beats up the IRS agent, drawing the attention of some Watchdog members who are there and could use a guy like that. The story is then 'to be continued' next issue.
The signs in the above panel are the main source of the controversy. Huston's article accuses Marvel Comics of attacking the Tea Party movement as a bunch of racists who want to overthrow the government. I think Huston connects too many dots. Yes, the protest is clearly a Tea Party rally. Who else is having anti-tax, anti-big government rallies these days? Huston complains that the crowd is all white. Well, it is Boise, Idaho, which as of the 2000 census was 92% white and less than 1% black. It's the people of Boise who should be complaining, as artist Luke Ross makes it seem like they gathered all the Wal-Mart shoppers and carnival workers of southern Idaho into one spot. We also never see any racism on the part of the people at either the rally or in the bar. The only racism really is on the part of Bucky Barnes, who assumes the people of Boise are racist. "And don't forget your briefcase, Obama!" he chides as he throws Falcon out of the bar. Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada has asked readers "to read the whole thing and not just judge a story and its intent on the first issue." This storyline lasts four issues, so I hope they address some of the galling racial assumptions.
Quesada made those remarks to Kiel Phegley in this article on Comic Book Resources.com. He claims that the writer, Ed Brubaker, did not intend for the protest to be a Tea Party protest. Quesada's explanation is that in the original art the signs were blank, so the book's letterer, Joe Carmagna, was asked to put something on these signs. He innocently found these signs on line and put them in the blanks. They never meant to show a political agenda, or offend anybody, or blah blah blah. Nonsense. Marvel wants to have it both ways. They want to be the company whose characters live in the "real world" (e.g. New York and not Metropolis), but then they present a real world situation and it's just some protest group in comic book land. They just don't want to offend half the readership, or by extension the larger audience they want to buy tickets to a 'Captain America' movie in 2011. Then there are the political leanings of the creators. Given that the internet is all-seeing, someone recovered some of Brubaker's tweets, such as "Memo to [Michelle] Bachman and the rest of the tea crowd -- We had a revolution already, it's called an election." I wonder if he would have said the same thing to the war protesters in 1970 - 'Hey, Nixon won. Get over it!' How else do I know that it's intentional? Because the comic works without the protest scene. The page before the protest scene, Bucky and Falcon land in Idaho.
Falcon - "And just how do we go about infiltrating a grassroots anti-government army?"
Bucky - "I've got an idea...but I don't think you're gonna like it."
Falcon - "Oh great..."
Then you can skip the next two pages with the protest, go directly to the bar scene, and it all makes sense. I'll hang with this story because Brubaker's one of the best writers 'Captain America' has ever had. He saved the book after it had been mishandled for years by writers who didn't know how to write a good Captain America story. So, I normally trust him to take me somewhere, it just seems a little sloppy right now.
The "Tea Bag" sign doesn't bother me. That's an example of someone trying to deflect the insult of others. Liberals just feel super-clever every time they refer to Tea Party activists as "tea baggers", adding more vulgar overtone than actually exists for a fairly mundane sex act. No, the sign that bothers me is the most popular - "America not Americant". Shouldn't it be "AmeriCAN not AmeriCAN'T"? It doesn't make sense the other way. Marvel has promised to change the "Tea Bag" sign when they collect the comic book in trade paperback. Even without it, the intent will be clear.