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.