Captain Nowhere

Nationalist superheroes aren't what they used to be.

Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics, by Jason Dittmer, Temple University Press, 250 pages, $29.95.

Captain America isn't just another superhero: He embodies a national identity and geopolitical ideology. Or so says Jason Dittmer, co-editor of Aether: The Journal of Media Geography, in his new book, Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero. Cap, according to Dittmer, is the prototype of the "nationalist superhero," a comic-book subgenre that uses superheroics to validate the nation-state and vice versa. His rippling muscles and equally rippling sense of morality reflect and fuel the myth of American exceptionalism and justice.

It's hard to square that thesis with the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger, where American identity ends up meaning something rather different than truth or justice or the nation-state. Specifically, it means nostalgia. Though it is set in World War II, the enemy in the movie is not the Nazis, who Cap never fights. The villain is the international organization known as Hydra. Its leader, the Red Skull, rants about a future with "no flags"—a future that the film strongly suggests is our own world. In the closing scene Cap, who has slept in suspended animation and awoken in the present, stands lost in Times Square bathed in the light of flickering neon signs promoting, as Jason Michelitch puts it, "the multinational corporate network that has birthed this very movie." Here the nationalist superhero is not a validation of the nation-state. He's a hopeless relic, half-heartedly reprising his patriotic schtick at the command of the very forces he would like to believe that he's fighting.

The disconnect between Dittmer's thesis (Captain America, nationalism embodied!) and the most popular recent iteration of the character (Captain America, nationalism obsolete!) points to a general difficulty for scholars writing about superhero comics. Namely: Why are we writing about comics again? There are a couple of ways to assert the relevance of a piece of pop culture. The first is to make a claim for aesthetic value. Thus, Charles Hatfield's recent book Hand of Fire argues that the comic-book illustrator Jack Kirby was a great artist and is therefore worthy of a monograph or 12. Alternately, you can make a claim for sociological value. Tania Modleski's classic Loving With a Vengeance analyzed Harlequin romances not because the novels were worthwhile in themselves but because they were extremely popular and could offer insights into the lives of the many women who read them.

Dittmer's book has neither of these rationales. The nationalist superhero comics he discusses—not only Captain America, but such figures as Captain Britain and Captain Canuck—are for the most part neither aesthetically notable nor particularly popular. Superhero comics have for a long time been in the odd position of being pulp crap that hardly anybody reads. From the '60s to the present—the period on which Dittmer focuses most of his attention—superhero comics have been a more and more marginal, subcultural interest. Today a typical mainstream comic sells around 30,000–60,000 units—comparable to the number of monthly hits I get on my blog.

So if nationalist superhero comics embody the nation-state, they have done so for the most part without the aid of artistic genius and for a shrinking and not especially representational audience. I suppose it's possible, as Dittmer says, that superhero narratives help constitute "American identity and the U.S. government's foreign policy practices," but those constitutive narratives would surely be the films that people actually watch, not the unread comics that Dittmer discusses. Little wonder, then, that his parsing of long-forgotten plotlines and creative decisions comes across as almost comically banal and unnecessary. Captain Britain is linked to Arthurian myths because Arthurian myths go along with Britain; Captain America was kept out of Vietnam because America was conflicted about Vietnam; the Canadian hero Snowbird loses her powers when she flies south of Canada because Canada is conflicted about the United States. Also, crappy genre pulp for guys is often misogynist, racist, and violent. Who knew?

Nationalist superheroes were not always so irrelevant. They may be a marginal subgenre now, but at one point they were basically the only kind of superhero that there was. World War II not only inspired such star-spangled superheroes as Captain America and Wonder Woman, it pushed virtually every betighted hero into patriotic service, fighting the Axis and selling war bonds. The result was dramatic. Comic-book sales jumped from 15 million to more than 25 million copies a month shortly after the U.S. entered the war. The first issue of Captain America itself sold a million copies. For a moment, people were willing and eager to see the nation reflected in super-powered do-gooders.

Dittmer concludes that nationalist superheroes are "a discourse that can be called on by politicians, pundits, and everyday people to make sense of the world around us and our role in it." Maybe. But surely it's significant that politicians, pundits, and everyday people hardly ever bother with the discourse of nationalist superheroes these days unless, as in Captain America: First Avenger, they are trying to be deliberately anachronistic. Superpowered fantasies of recent vintage—Ben 10, say, or Bella Swan—figure the protagonist not as a national icon but as an alien outpost. For these characters, strength comes not from border integrity but from the rush of power across evaporating boundaries and effervescing selves.

And no wonder. Compared to the breathtaking world-crossing flows of information and capital, nation-states can seem almost quaint and more than a little pitiful. They natter feebly about borders while the Internet annihilates distance and difference; they cluck about sovereignty and control while the international banking system casually brings the world to its knees. Patriotic heroes still exist, like Jack Bauer or Harry Potter, but they fight mysterious extranational forces from the shadows rather than donning a flag and duking it out in the eyes of all the world.

Dittmer speaks approvingly of subverting nationalist superhero archetypes, oblivious to the extent to which globalization has subverted sovereignty. Nationalist superheroes aren't what they once were. And that, contra Dittmer, is why more people focus on fantasies and/or nightmares about power without borders.

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  • Mike M.||

    So Block Insane Yomomma denies that anyone in the White House removed any references to terrorism in the Benghazi report, directly contradicting Petraeus.

    One of these guys is lying, and I'm pretty sure I know who it is.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    And only one of them has power guaranteed for four more years.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    So rather than Captain America, the great superhero CAPTAIN ME!

  • ||

    His rippling muscles and equally rippling sense of morality reflect and fuel the myth of American exceptionalism and justice.

    ------------

    Myth? I don't think it's a myth.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    Myth? I don't think it's a myth.

    Myths are a reflection of how people see the world.
    American exceptionalism has been so because we decide to be exceptional.
    American justice has been so because we accepted no less.
    The important part is to keep making sure that our myths are an ideal, not a fiction.

  • ||

    Which, disastrously, is exceptionally difficult to achieve when so many of your neighbors have morphed into slavemakers, apathetic miscreants, or developmentally retarded leeches.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    Which, disastrously, is exceptionally difficult to achieve when so many of your neighbors have morphed into slavemakers, apathetic miscreants, or developmentally retarded leeches.

    My favorite example is the change in my neighbors in the eight years between Isabel and Irene. Two very similar hurricanes with very similar damage and very similar recovery times. The first one, we all rode it out and then had a thriving neighborhood economy. The second one, you'd swear the Rapture happened and we didn't make the cut.

  • Coralskipper@gmail.com||

    Without reading the book I might be being unfair, but Dittmer's thesis makes me wonder if he's read a Captain America comic in the last fifty years. When the most recent version of Captain America was brought back in the 1960s Stan Lee was interested in contrasting this man out of time while the horrors of Vietnam were going on. On multiple occasions he's dropped the America from his name. That includes Steve Englehart stories from the 1970s in which Nixon was the villain (it was never explicitly stated in the comics themselves this was the case, but it was obvious and Englehart readily admits that was the intent). Captain America as rarely been about the state (some post 9/11 comics excluded).

    What he has represented is the ideal of America and where we fail to live up to our expectations of he never does. In that way he's nationalistic, but at the same time Super Heroes are idealized humans anyway. For example Wonder Woman was the idealized version of an independent woman (admittedly in what looks like a hopelessly kinky and dated way looking back at the original comics), and Batman is humanity at its apex. My point is embodying the ideals that the country strives to while acknowledging the failures to live up to it doesn't make the character hopelessly nationalistic.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    My point is embodying the ideals that the country strives to while acknowledging the failures to live up to it doesn't make the character hopelessly nationalistic.

    I seem to remember a Capt. America series that was basically a retelling of the Tuskagee Airmen in that the "first" Capt. America was a Black solider that they tested the super-solider serum on without his knowledge.

  • ||

    Did anyone read Captain America from the mid 70s onward?

    Spiderman, Avengers, Superman, Batman, Xmen, Hulk, even Justice League all have some pretty rememberable story lines along with a bunch of other superhero runs in that time line...

    I can't think of anything Captain America did in that time except for fighting Conan in a "What if?" oneshot.

  • ||

  • AlmightyJB||

    I only read comics in the late sixties and early seventies up to the age of 9 or 10 probably. I found Captain America to be pretty dull and was never interested in him that much. I mainly read the comics you listed along with some Thor and Fantistic Four and some Iron Man as well. This little thesis reminds me of hearing Chompsky talk about the entire purpose of little league football and cheerleaders was to train young men to be soldiers and young woman to cheer on wars. Pretty silly really. Some people eat that stuff up though.

  • CE||

    Yeah, I think the book author never read Cap after about 1950.

  • Jason Dittmer||

    Hello. I am actually the author of the book, and I just want to say that I totally agree with you. I'm afraid that the review does not really do justice to the argument of the book. Please check it out for yourself as I think you will find my arguments more nuanced than portrayed here.

  • ||

    Today a typical mainstream comic sells around 30,000–60,000 units—comparable to the number of monthly hits I get on my blog.

    There is an economic reason for this.

    Comics have risen in price far faster then inflation and a typical kid cannot afford to read them like they did when they were 25 cents.

  • ||

    Snowbird loses her powers when she flies south of Canada because Canada is conflicted about the United States

    Marvel and DC need to make a Mexican nationalist superhero. Actually wait...it should be an indy that does it

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Mexico has a nationalist superhero. His name is Juan Deere. He can't leap tall buildings in a single bound, he can make it over fences.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Speedy Gonzales is a fairly obvious Mexican superhero.

  • Rick Santorum||

    Cap, according to Dittmer, is the prototype of the "nationalist superhero," a comic-book subgenre that uses superheroics to validate the nation-state and vice versa.

    What a nerd.

  • ||

    I think Superman is the most natioanlistic superhero with regard to the US. He fights for "truth, justice, and the American way", but because he cares so much he's paranoid about a lot of things and is a bit of a control freak when it comes to protecting the world. He's also elitist, arrogant, and when he gets really pissed off he can't control himself and his strength (unless Batman comes in and smacks him around).

  • ||

    Superman's classic patriotic image was also subverted heavily. That's what happens when you have a character doing the same thing for 60 years. The only way to keep him from dying is to subvert everything original.

  • ||

    Superheroes are American because they were written in America for an American audience.

    The only comparable would be Japan.

    The only comic i can think of is Akira.....which ultimately is a fight of gifted individuals against the state...and ends with the elimination of both. There is also some themes of "don't fuck with nature" as well in there.

  • ||

    God, I hope Snyder doesn't fuck up Man of Steel.

  • ||

    But at least it'll feature General Zod as the villain. Kneel before Zod!

  • CE||

    Luthor, Zod, Luthor, Zod....

    Can't they ever use some of the other 895 villains?

  • ||

    Is there a Superman movie that is not fucked up?

  • cryptarchy||

    ^^ This. Akira was my frist intoduction in to anime/mange. I loved it ever since. Ghost in the Shell being a second favorite

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    "I think Superman is the most natioanlistic superhero with regard to the US."

    Does Superman have to produce a birth certificate?

    'Cuz if he does, we'll find he was born in Canada.

    I wonder if the reaction would be like when the staff at WNYX (Newsradio) found out Dave was Canadian.

  • CE||

    Superman is an illegal alien, and the conservatives would have him deport himself.

  • ||

    Compared to the breathtaking world-crossing flows of information and capital, nation-states can seem almost quaint and more than a little pitiful. They natter feebly about borders while the Internet annihilates distance and difference; they cluck about sovereignty and control while the international banking system casually brings the world to its knees.

    This.

  • Killazontherun||

    Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis testified before Congress[12] that he had some misgivings about the acquisition of Merrill Lynch, and that federal officials pressured him to proceed with the deal or face losing his job and endangering the bank's relationship with federal regulators.[50]

    Lewis' statement is backed up by internal emails subpoenaed by Republican lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee.[51] In one of the emails, Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker threatened that if the acquisition did not go through, and later Bank of America were forced to request federal assistance, the management of Bank of America would be "gone".

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_of_America

    Who is bringing whom to their knees?

  • ||

    Even with market interventions, the government is largely incapable of swaying the tide of global markets.

  • Killazontherun||

    They did paralyze the markets in '08 with their actions. The Paulson-Bernanke freakout made it impossible for the markets to adjust to the problems in a timely matter.

  • ||

    The Paulson-Bernanke freakout made it impossible for the markets to adjust to the problems in a timely matter.

    hmm

    I am not so sure they are the cause of the lack of recovery...if anything they are building another bubble and their type of actions built up the bubble that burst in 2007. They are crooks, but they are not doing anything different then what people in their positions have done in recessions past....we did recover from them...why is this one different?

    I suspect our debt to GDP ratio is to blame. At 100% it is stopping more then 1% of GDP growth.

    Over a 4 to 5 year period that shit compounds. And if you look at current GPD then add in 1% each year we pretty much have recovery. It would not have been spectacular recovery but we sure as hell would not still be talking about it today.

    I guess they did facilitate the spending binge that exploded our debt to GDP ratio...in that they are guilty as hell.

  • Killazontherun||

    There were many in the industry well positioned to take advantage of their fool brethren who got caught up in debacle for a good ol' fashion market correction, but they backed off due to threats from Treasury and the Fed.

  • Killazontherun||

    BTW, those threats are collaborated by the former CEO of BB&T, John Allison as well. It's a real shame the government is the actor that acts like gangsters from a comic book, and private parties just endure it. I would have liked to have seen Paulson and Bernanke dropped from a thirty storied window on to the streets of Manhattan for the shit they pulled.

  • Killazontherun||

    'They said we couldn't come out of the room until we signed these papers. We were here the entire time.'

  • ||

    the government is largely incapable of swaying the tide of global markets.

    I have to disagree.

    Every recession since the depression has always sprung back into a recovery....it is pretty obvious that government actions over the the last 4 years has harmed global markets preventing a recovery.

    Government can harm global markets...and inversely it can choose not to harm global markets.

    If you tighten that argument up to say government intervention can't improve global markets and will more likely harm them if it does intervene then I can agree with you.

  • Killazontherun||

    And though they operate in a private capacity, I really don't consider an organization whose directors are picked by the executive and legislative branches quite the same thing.

  • ||

    That shit don't fly with the professionals in the federal government. Bank of America is EVIL!!1!!!!

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    World-crossing flows of information are kind of irrelevant compared to the soldier/cop/agent with the power to put a bullet through your skull with impunity.

  • Killazontherun||

    Shit. An entire book on pop culture political metaphors? Someone misses the twentieth century.

  • Xenocles||

    Cap and Superman appearing on the same cover? Is this some sort of crossover?

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    GET A LIFE, NOAH! Either that, or get a real job where you do something else than over-analyze comic books. The trouble with punditry is that opinions are like assholes. Everyone's got one.

    Oh BTW, maybe America isn't as popular as it once was. Maybe that's due to the WoT or perhaps the best and brightest among us can't think of anything nice to say anymore about the country regardless of whether the headlines are good or bad. What that has to do with one of a zillion formulaic comic book characters is kinda tough to say. Still, maybe maybe Reason magazine would spend less time gathering dust on library magazine racks if most of their articles were in comic book form! Pass that on to "leatherman" Nick Gill. and see what he thinks.

  • ||

    "....if most of their articles were in comic book form! "

    I think that is a stellar idea. Trying to imagine how the female staff will be portrayed....

  • Mike M.||

    * Shudder *

  • ||

    Save those shudders for the commenters. Imagine if they are included.

    Ok, the more I think about it, the less stellar this idea seems.

  • ||

    If you follow the comic book standards they will either not be wearing pants or they will be wearing skin tight pants.

    Mangu would have the power to melt steal with her eyes.

  • ||

    Probably, but what about steel?

  • Fluffy||

    If she could melt steal, Obama better look the fuck out.

  • joey89924||

    One of these guys is lying, and I'm pretty sure I know who it is.

    BAV70
    2N2907A
    LM250
    BAT54S
    1N5819
    ATMEGA64
    MMBT3904
    FR107

  • ||

    The links, they are sugarfreed.

  • Fluffy||

    I think he misunderstands Captain America.

    Captain America is a rear area private's fantasy. Instead of being a weakling driving a truck or shuffling papers for the quartermaster while other men fight, you take a magic potion and you're the ultimate warrior.

    The nationalism is almost irrelevant. It merely reflects the fact that pretty much all privates think their side in the war is the good side.

    He was a popular WWII character not for patriotic reasons, but because all of a sudden there will millions of men occupying the lowest rung in uniformed hierarchical organizations who wished they were doing something more glorious. So they bought the comic about a guy just like them who got the chance.

  • Jason Dittmer||

    Hello all,
    I would like to thank Noah Berlatsky for his review, which although critical raises some interesting points. I especially like some of the debate that it has spawned in the comments thread, especially on the relationship between states and markets. However, I do feel like a bit of an injustice has been done to the arguments of my book and I would like the chance to respond.
    First, Berlatsky argues that I have ignored the two main reasons for studying popular culture, both of which revolve around the idea of relevance. Either something is worth studying because it is aesthetically important, or because it is 'sociologically relevant' (meaning vastly popular). The former is, of course, a matter of taste and therefore inserts an elitism into the analysis (we should only study GOOD popular culture) and the latter relies on the notion that audiences will be shaped by the popular culture in question (hence the importance of the audience size). Berlatsky implicitly adopts the latter perspective in his argument that I should be paying attention to the Captain America movie rather than to comics, which have a relatively small audience. I reject both of these arguments. Or rather, I think that to limit ourselves to them is to misunderstand the reasons it is worthwhile to study popular culture...

  • Jason Dittmer||

    ...Rather than relying on relevance, I have studied comic books because of the way in which they come into the world -- month after month, year after year. They provide an archive of insights into how artists and writers try to reconcile past events and (then) present concerns into a continuous narrative (there is, of course, a great concern with 'continuity' in superhero universes). In truth, I am interested in popular culture not as a thing which can be 'relevant' or not, but as a process -- a continual set of interactions between creative teams, editorial staff, fans who write letters in to the creative team, and broader market forces. I am sorry if Berlatsky finds my examples 'comically banal' but I think that is because he doesn't see why they are important. He sees them as 'long-forgotten'(and therefore fundamentally irrelevant) but I see them as negotiations among people trying to assemble a world of collective meaning. Many of the commenters here, based on Berlatsky's review, seem to think that what I am offering is a crude cultural analysis straight out of the Frankfurt School. I contend this is not the case, and that my argument is far different from the synopsis given here.
    Fundamentally, my book is about two different kinds of geography (a word that never appears in Berlatsky's review despite its fundamental importance to the book)...

  • Jason Dittmer||

    ...First, it is about the geography of the nation-state, and the way in which this is reproduced as a fundamental spatial category in our political life. Berlatsky scores rhetorical points in his review by asserting that I am somehow unaware of the politics that occurs outside or beyond the nation-state framework. I think this shows how fundamentally he misunderstands what I am doing in this book.
    The book is, rather, about the way in which the nation-state is continually reproduced as a discourse of the political, and therefore also about the reduction of politics to that which is addressed by the state. My chapters each center on some aspect of this: the narration of a coherent body politic, of territory, of geopolitical orders, and so on. I am not holding up the state as an ideal, rather I am asking why so many people ascribe such meaning to it - a perspective I think Berlatsky would agree with given the conclusion to his review.
    The second geography on tap in this book is found in the way the idea of the nationalist superhero genre is changed as it shifts from the U.S. context (in which it was created) to Canada and the UK. Again, this is about studying process rather than finding out how, for example, Canadian nationalist superheroes are different in the sense of cultural analysis. Berlatsky does not really touch on this aspect of my book...

  • Jason Dittmer||

    ...I have gone on long enough and I do not want to wear out my welcome. I also do not want to come across as angry at Berlatsky -- perhaps his misconceptions about my book are the result of my poor writing, or indeed maybe it is as laughable as he makes it out to be. But I wanted to a chance to make the case for the book, especially as Reason is such an interesting and important venue for the book to be reviewed. Thank you!

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