Sunday 15 February 2015

Captain America and Me by Jason Rohan

The first Marvel comic I can remember buying was Captain America #252 from a local newsagent in 1980. Having only read the occasional Beano or Dandy before then, suffice to say the four-colour heroic adventures blew me away and I became an avid comics reader for the next four years.

How it all began for me
One of the villains - the chap in the fetching magenta outfit on the cover - was Batroc the Leaper (or "Batroc ze Leepair" in Marvel French) and the plot involved a hijacked ship. 

Fast forward 34 years and I'm sitting in a cinema watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the opening scenes a mercenary named Batroc has hijacked a ship and a goofy grin spreads across my face as I come full circle.
Batroc - movie and comic version (they kept the suit!)
The funny thing is, prior to the recent Marvel movies, I was never a big fan of Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, even though he's been a key part of my career as a writer. To cut a long story short, I landed a dream job as a teenaged intern at Marvel Comics under the eye of editor Mark Gruenwald and he encouraged me to write an inventory story for Captain America. I came up with a new team of UK heroes, codenamed Coat of Arms, and introduced them in a two-part story, which Mark bought. Hurrah! My first professional sale.

However, I had several problems with the character. For one, I didn't care for the gung-ho, propagandist, America-the-great aspect. Two, the costume seemed silly to me. Three, Steve Rogers was such a goody-goody that I found him dull. In short, I didn't have an "in" to the character; a handle by which I could understand the motivations and complexities, the inner life.

Evolution of a uniform - one of these is silly
I wasn't alone with these reservations as, back in 2007 when the first movie was being planned, anti-US sentiment was running high and Marvel had to address this. Their solution was to go back to Cap's origins in World War II, albeit with an Indiana Jones-vibe. To me, this was an inspired decision as it dealt with the costume and propaganda in one fell swoop. 

As for the key to opening up the character, they went with "sacrifice." That's the one consistent element throughout the narrative: Steve Rogers gives up everything and has to come to terms with the post-war world we have made. It's a fascinating take. What would a Churchill or a Roosevelt make of our modern world in which we surrender our hard-won freedoms in the name of security and wage wars of choice rather than necessity?

There are a lot of lessons here about how to make a character sympathetic, appealing and admirable. MG heroes tend to be less conflicted than their YA counterparts and this can make them seem simpler. I would argue that taking a seemingly vanilla character such as Captain America and transforming him into a pivot point in a culture war is a perfect example of how new life can be breathed into tired old ideas.

The journey from WWII icon to government sceptic continues for Steve Rogers in the next movie and in some ways is the reverse of my own path from being iffy about the character to now having him as a firm favourite. A hero who literally sacrifices everything to save the world, only to find that sacrifice might have been wasted - that's my kind of story.

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