Friday, June 1, 2012

Truth and Continuity

Captain America: Truth: written by Robert Morales; illustrated by Kyle Baker (2004): A jeremiad turned superhero comic book, Truth reminds me a lot of Spike Lee's Bamboozled in its audaciousness, its fierce satire, and its often distracting flaws. It's not a great graphic novel, but I read it in one sitting and it left me wishing for more both in terms of length and, more pressingly, depth and context.

Basically, everything we know about the origin of Marvel's Captain America is a lie because before there was (white) super-soldier Steve Rogers, there were a number of African-Americans experimented upon so as to perfect the super-soldier formula. Morales bases this idea in part (as he notes in the Appendix) on the Tuskegee Experiments, an infamous U.S. Public Health Service study in which several hundred African-Americans with syphillis were studied for 40 years without ever being treated for the disease. Eugenics programs throughout Europe and North America are also folded into the super-soldier ethos.

In short, the first Captain America ultimately turns out to be an African-American who has been erased from the white history books, though African-Americans all know about him. We follow several African-American men through the horrific program and on to Europe. They're a secret, even as the 'real' Captain America becomes famous.

There's a large-scale problem with the idea of creating African-American super-soldiers that somewhat undercuts the plausibility of the events. Many, many terrible things were done to people in the name of 'science' by Nazis and others, but I don't recall any experiments which could have turned a despised Other into a superhero. It seems awfully counter-intuitive, as there's a qualitative difference between letting someone suffer from untreated syphillis (or, for that matter, injecting gasoline into someone's veins to see what happens) and potentially turning someone who hates you into an unstoppable killing machine. It's really, really Mad Science, even for superhero comics. The satiric point may be that the U.S. government is arrogantly confident that its 'Negroes' would never rebel, but that satire isn't even borne out by moments of African-American civil defiance referenced in the story itself.

Morales keeps things moving at a blistering pace, so much so that character development and historical context often get skimmed over. I'd like more before, during, and after, but as with a lot of Marvel comics, telling detail gets repressed in order to show more battle sequences. I don't know how much editorial interference there was here -- the book did get painfully shoehorned into official Marvel continuity at some point after it had been started.

Still, though, this is a fascinating book. Kyle Baker's art is marvelous, cartoony and exaggerated when it needs to be, realistic and detailed when it seeks to place the reader in a real place and time. It's not 'normal' 21st century Marvel superhero art at all, as Baker's influences are as much cartoonists and animators as they are Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. Well, really moreso. The contrast between the nominally realistic and the outlandishly caricatured can be jarring at times, but it serves the story well, especially with the recurring character of one racist soldier who looks like a debased, flop-sweating Elmer Fudd.

Is this a great book? No, but it's certainly more interesting than most Marvel product and, for all its flaws, possessed of surprising and rewarding strengths. Recommended.

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