Not Your Father's Captain America
Superheroes battle over civil liberties and the meaning of patriotism
by Jeremy Adam Smith
Hundreds are killed. The president asks for, and gets, expanded powers. Preemptive war is waged in the name of national security. More people die. Only a few voice their dissent. 'War is just a diversion,' writes embedded journalist Sally Floyd. 'We're so busy watching ugly pictures on TV that we lose sight of what's really going on. The hurt doesn't seem real . . . which suits the warmongers just fine.'
Who is this perceptive and opinionated journalist? She's a fictional reporter for the imaginary New York Alternative-and the war she's covering is between two groups of superheroes in the Marvel Comics Civil War mini-series, launched in May. One group embraces a 'Superhuman Registration Act' that forces costumed heroes to reveal their secret identities and register with the government; another, led by Captain America, goes underground and resists the expanding power of the state. Later, Sally is arrested for refusing to reveal a confidential source.
Comic books have always reflected the social and political environment in which they are created, but only recently have superheroes started to address the issues raised by the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. Though writer Mark Millar, a Scotsman, is well known for his leftist sympathies (his 'dream project' is a 21st-century comic book version of Karl Marx's Das Kapital), Civil War consistently refuses to advocate for one side or the other. Its approach is to create an event, the Registration Act, that no superheroes can control and then allow them to respond in ways that are consistent with their characters-and illuminate contemporary political dilemmas.
For example, some readers might assume that Captain America, a superpatriot who already works for the government, would support the Registration Act. Yet it makes perfect, if surprising, sense for Captain America to lead the rebellion. Through many political zigs and zags in the real world, Cap has always represented core American ideals-freedom of conscience, fair play, and commitment to the general welfare-that are today in conflict with the imperatives of the war on terrorism. If Captain America really existed in George W. Bush's America, whose side would he be on? Cap probably would be punching out Abu Ghraib torturers and exposing secret detentions as un-American.
Marvel is the corporate behemoth of comic book publishing. Indie publishers like Image and semi-indies like Vertigo and WildStorm-both imprints of Marvel's nearest competitor, DC Comics-have tackled post-9/11 war and civil liberties issues in series that have been even more politically thoughtful and artistically satisfying than Civil War. In WildStorm's Ex Machina, written by Brian K. Vaughan, a superhero named the Great Machine stops an airplane from crashing into the World Trade Center. In the aftermath he reveals his secret identity and runs for mayor of New York. He wins, but fantasy clashes with the rough-and-tumble reality of New York City politics as the former civil engineer struggles to manage a city split by September 11 and the United States' 21st-century culture wars.
Vertigo's DMZ: On the Ground, by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, literalizes the metaphor of a divided America. The demilitarized zone of the title refers to Manhattan, where the Free States face off in a second civil war against what's left of the U.S. government. Journalist Matty Roth (the journalist is often the true hero of post-9/11 comics) struggles against government censorship to tell the truth about life in the DMZ. 'There's no borders or front lines for this war,' writes Matty. 'The Free States are an idea, not a geographic entity. The same asymmetrical insurgent warfare that bogged down the U.S. military overseas is happening here.'
It's a theme echoed in Douglas Rushkoff's Testament, which depicts an America in which all young people have chips planted in their arms that are used for surveillance and control. Told in parallel with stories from the Bible, Testament follows a group of mystical cyberrevolutionaries as they attempt to 'hack the global economy-and deprogram the greater population.' Testament's concepts, characterization, and images can cross the line into clich?d and puerile, yet its juxtaposition of Bible tales with anarchist propaganda is curiously intoxicating.
Image's Emissary is the only comic to attempt any kind of healing of an America at war. Unfortunately, Emissary is even less successful than Testament. The plot, of a magical alien being who appears in Times Square to show earthlings 'a way to enlightenment,' is overly familiar. Worse, it's politically escapist in a way that Ex Machina and DMZ are not. Do we need an alien messiah in order to reunite as a people, or do we need journalists like Sally Floyd and Matty Roth who can expose the truth? Though it is earnest, Emissary reads like unhealthy wish fulfillment.
So much for fantasy. Do these comic books tell us anything about the real world? They are all portraits of a country at political and cultural war with itself. Twentieth-century heroes like Superman fought for all of us and for an American way that everyone supposedly shared. In the 21st century, comic book heroes are fighting over the very meaning of the American way. The winners will decide who is an American-and who is a criminal. It's not a hopeful message, but it might help readers young and old to understand what's at stake.
The Untold STORY
AMONG THE RIGHTEOUS: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands
By Robert Satloff (PublicAffairs)
In the volumes written on the Holocaust, the stories of those who saved Jews occupy hallowed ground, offering a glimpse of shared humanity during a time that saw too little of it.
It's this power of narrative that Robert Satloff hopes to unleash with Among the Righteous, his quest to find an Arab who saved a Jew during the Holocaust. (Yad Vashem, Israel's institution of Holocaust remembrance, lists not one Arab among its 21,310 documented cases of 'the righteous among the nations.') Satloff focuses on North Africa, where the Axis powers implemented familiar degradations, stripping Jews of their rights, homes, and property. Many were sent to labor camps and tortured, and 4,000 to 5,000 died.
Satloff, who is Jewish and an Arab policy expert (he directs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank), details Arab participation in the persecution before unearthing a handful of moving tales of Arab heroism. Most captivating is the story of Khaled Abdelwahhab, a debonair Arab whose calculated carousing with German officers helped him rescue several Jewish families.
Satloff gathered his evidence from historical documents, witness
accounts, the remains of labor camps in Morocco's desert, even a
New York cocktail party. He calls the result 'part history, part
travelogue, part memoir.' But given his objective-forging dialogue
on the hotly contested territory of Jewish and Arab shared
history-the subject would have benefited from a historian's cool,
trained eye. Too often, Satloff asks the reader to jump to
conclusions with him or veers off course, betraying a pro-Israel
bias. Though Among the Righteous is valuable, it ultimately leaves
the reader wishing for the 'mammoth task' that, Satloff
acknowledges, 'awaits a
team of graduate students.'
HOW TO LIVE WELL WITHOUT OWNING A CAR
by Chris Balish (Ten Speed Press)
CUTTING YOUR CAR USE
by Randall Ghent (New Society Publishers)
Not only is it possible to live well without owning a car, it's
preferable. Sure, you'll need to make a few lifestyle adjustments,
like trading in your keys for a bike or a bus pass, but your body
and budget will thank you for it. To aid the transition, Chris
Balish and Randall Ghent have written cargo pocket-sized books
offering practical advice on coming out of the garage, and staying
out. Both books are speckled with success stories about people who
have kicked the
car habit, from a sixtysomething stockbroker in Missouri to a mother of two disabled teenagers in Florida. If that's not motivation enough to
get your butt into gear, consider the statistics. Balish reports that the average American spends $700 a month to own a set of wheels (and that was in 2004, before oil prices spiked), while Ghent calculates that the typical driver spends 825 hours a year driving, maintaining, and paying for a car in order to travel 12,000 miles. That makes for a mean speed of 14.5 miles an hour-or 'the pace of a brisk bicycle ride.' -Kristen Mueller
WE DON'T NEED ANOTHER WAVE: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists
edited by Melody Berger (Seal)
In this ensemble reader, which features familiar feminist names such as Bitch magazine cofounder Lisa Jervis, poet Alix Olson, and Doris zinester Cindy Crabb, editor Melody Berger has collected 30 essays that artfully articulate visions of what it means to be a feminist-from tracing the formation of individual convictions to setting goals for the movement's future. Intentionally dispensing with divisive semantics, We Don't Need Another Wave is rousing and zippy. Many of the selections pack sass and spunk in place of in-depth academic analysis, but the feisty style is anchored in sincerity, and the intensely personal essays make this collection stand out in a crowded field. -Julie Hanus
SEEKING THE SACRED RAVEN: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island
by Mark Jerome Walters (Island)
The 'alal was just a crow cousin, some might say, a minor branch on the big avian family tree. But to anyone who saw it before it recently vanished from the wild, it was a memorable bird-loud, spirited, and social-and to many native Hawaiians, it was an ancestral spirit guardian, or 'aumakua. Author Mark Jerome Walters traces the last-ditch efforts to save the wild 'alala?, revealing the turf wars, bungled science, and, crucially, habitat loss that hastened its decline. By 'circling the raven' and attempting to write about it 'from every possible perspective,' he contrasts the scientific world with the spirit world of the Hawaiians and posits that the bird might still be cavorting in the koa trees if everyone saw it as a sacred being. It's a lesson that may be learned too late for the 'alala?, but perhaps not for other species on the brink of extinction. -Keith Goetzman