Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing Captain America: White 2, originally released September 30th, 2015.
Taylor: For some reason, when I think about World War II, it doesn’t seem like it happened all that long ago. Maybe this is because the war shares many of the same things we see in warfare today like airplanes and tanks and machine guns. Or perhaps the reason it seems fresh is that WWII was a substantially photographed and filmed war, making it an frequent topic of documentaries. Still more, WWII has been the backdrop for much of the pop-culture that has pervaded the 20th and 21st centuries, and with each new story set between the years 1939 and 1945 the war comes alive once again. But WWII ended 70 years ago and few still live who actually saw or took part in its events. It’s a weird dichotomy, this difference between perceived and actual length of time, and if nothing else, Captain America: White 2 has me considering this subject deeply.
Captain, Bucky, and the rest of their crew have been shot down over the ocean far from shore. Cap, knocked unconscious in the explosion, almost drowns due to the weight of his shield on his back. Bucky manages to save his friend, but loses Cap’s signature shield. With everyone safe, the ragtag crew makes it to land only to find themselves thrown into the thick of things once again.
As we briefly touched upon in our discussion of Captain America: White 1 last week, writer Jeff Loeb and artist Time Sale created this title to reflect their childhood memories that made them fall in love with Captain America. As such, this is a funky title. It doesn’t read exactly like a modern Captain America comic and yet it doesn’t read like and old Captain America comic either — it falls somewhere in between. In some cases, that can lead to confused tone, but for the most part here it leads to straight out homages to a bygone time.
Take for example the case of Bucky and Steve’s hard-ass sergeant, Nick Fury. Throughout this issue (and the last) he’s one dimensional to the point of being comical. He’s a stiff military type who just loves to give people a hard time. Think of any boot-camp sergeant stereotype (like Sgt. Slaughter or Hartman) and you basically know exactly what this version of Nick Fury is. Throughout the issue he’s in rare form, giving grief to Bucky about saving the life of Captain Fucking America but not his shield.
It’s a totally unnecessary jibe and the way it continues throughout the issue makes Fury more caricature than anything else. Normally that would be a bad thing, but here it oddly works. This title isn’t necessarily about creating well-rounded characters so much as creating characters the way long-time fans of Captain America remember them to be. Fury acts the way he does because he fulfills our expectation of what a sergeant is and how a sergeant acts. I’m not sure how I feel about this, honestly. In some way, I appreciate what Loeb has done here because it’s simply fun. However, we’re also dealing with the after-image of a shadow here. When Captain America first met a hard-ass sergeant, he was probably written in to appeal to those who actually had first hand experience with hard-ass sergeants. By coping a copy, we have something they may or may not be anywhere close to its source material. In this way, I feel like I know what World War II was like, but do I, really?
Artist Tim Sale performs a similar feat with his artwork. Throughout the issue, every page and panel is drawn in such a way that it evokes an older form of comic book story telling. Of course this is done in such a way that I only get that feeling even though a lot of what is drawn actually comes from a more modern era. Regardless of that, there are instances where Sale creates a panel that truly invokes the spirit of WWII.
This dazzling two page spread looks as if it was ripped from off a billboard in 1942. The flat colors, the heavy shadows, and the somewhat surrealist design of the characters makes it look almost exactly like a WWII propaganda poster. Heck, take away the speech bubbles and slap a pro-America slogan across the top and it would be propaganda. I love this effect, but it’s weird knowing I like it because it makes me think about old-timey posters before it makes me think about the actual war. In other words, my feelings aren’t stirred by national pride, but by a weird nostalgia for an era I wasn’t alive for. Again, it’s weird having pop-culture alter my viewpoint of history and time so much, but I enjoy that this title has me even thinking of such things in the first place.
Drew, how do you feel about this WWII throwback? Are you totally pulled into this world of the past or are you able to keep yourself grounded in the present?
Drew: Taylor, I’m totally with you on this not being an authentic representation of the past, thought I might argue that this is true of any art set in the past, and perhaps even the study of history, generally. That is, we can only exist in the present, so any appreciation of the past is coming by way of the present. That’s why shows like Mad Men or Downton Abbey, for all of their attention to period-accurate costuming and set design, can’t help but comment on social issues with a kind of wink at the camera. Certain attitudes look backwards to us now, giving those scenes an interesting twist of extra-narrative dramatic irony.
But you’re definitely right that this is even more complicated when it comes to Captain America. The version of the war presented to the American public via newsreels and other propaganda was at best one-sided, and often misleading. This is even more true of the Captain America comics that inspired this series — it was about painting American servicemen as heroes, not about any kind of historical accuracy. That’s the world this series inhabits, which is an understandable, if kind of toothless, choice. In the interview that ran in last week’s issue, Jeph Loeb chose the period setting “because the sides were more clear-cut” than they are now, ignoring that “a man running around in an American flag” during World War II is necessarily representing the internment of over 110,000 people of Japanese descent. I can appreciate why it was left out of Cap comics when the narrative was about America being the best, but ignoring it now feels like a missed opportunity.
I don’t want to hold it against Loeb and Sale that they want to make their story about a simple good vs. evil parable, but if they’re going to ignore the morally questionable, anyway, there’s really no need to justify setting it in the past because “it’s more difficult to tell a Captain America story set in the present day…” Both are hard, we’re just more used to ignoring the difficulties the “America is awesome” narrative of WWII. Loeb and Sale had the opportunity to use their historical perspective to step outside of that narrative and question it, but are instead using the period setting to hide from those kinds of moral questions.
Again, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they could do something interesting with that “pure good vs pure evil” set-up, but robbing Cap of any moral gray-area turns him into the most boring character ever. He exhibits exactly zero personality in this issue. His most heroic act is thanking Bucky for saving his life — something that Loeb has to go out of his way to make look heroic by making Fury such an insufferable dick about it. He also has faith, but it’s hard to distinguish that from the simple will to live in this situation. In order to dramatize that point, Loeb has to make Fury a weird fucking nihilist instead of the survivalist we expect him to be.
What the fuck good does it do to be cynical in this situation? They have exactly zero options other than to kick for their lives, but Fury wants to remind everyone that they might not make it anyway. I get that Fury’s hardboiled attitude might clash with Cap’s optimism, but “kick or die” really feels like a moment where they might agree on “kick.”
Maybe Cap will become more interesting as he’s confronted with the repercussions of taking Bucky into battle, but for the time being, he’s about as interesting as a hat-rack. This issue doesn’t say anything interesting about its characters or its setting, and if there’s any allegorical meaning to any of this, it’s lost on me. That leaves me with a remarkably boring comic, in spite of its gorgeous art.
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